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When Picking A Winner Is Almost Impossible

Fast And Cheap? Five Sub-$160 Z87 Motherboards For Enthusiasts

Four out of five motherboards in today’s review were top CPU overclockers. Though it means less to overall system performance, two of those boards were also top DRAM overclockers. That tie goes to Asus' Z87-Plus and Biostar's Hi-Fi Z87X 3D.

In this day in age, performance differences directly attributable to the motherboard are tiny. Often, we see vendors juicing their BCLK frequencies by a touch here in there for the slightest advantage. We've called this cheating in the past. However, when we compared relative performance to relative price on August 5th, the above chart is what we end up with.

Biostar's Hi-Fi Z87X 3D is at the top. On the 5th, it was also the cheapest board in our round-up. And yet it hung in there with the rest of the pack in terms of overclocking. This platform is light on value-added extras; however, it handles the basics well. As such, it rose to the surface as the original pick for our Smart Buy award. This is a Tom's Hardware recognition that explicitly calls out bang for your buck, and it's well-deserved.

Comparison shoppers might point out that for $5 more, MSI’s Z87-G45 Gaming offers an improved audio codec, a high-end network controller, and an mSATA slot. We did see a few very tiny performance deficits, though. More important, the board came up a little short in overclocking, where we expected it to stretch 100 MHz higher. In a story where several platforms win something, coming up short in overclocking is what stopped us short from adding the Z87-G45 to our list. Instead, we had to consider what another $5 might buy.

Back on the 5th, three motherboards were in the $160 range, all equipped with high-end features, adding a third-party controller for additional SATA connectivity and hubs for USB 3.0 ports. Of the trio, ASRock's Z87 Extreme4 has the best audio implementation, while Asus' Z87-Plus achieves top honors in DRAM overclocking. ASRock also has the ability to split three PCI Express x16 slots into x8-x4-x4 if you really want to run a trio of Radeon cards in CrossFire. Just be aware that any other card you drop into the third slot will take bandwidth away from the graphics subsystem.

The Asus and Gigabyte boards also have third x16 slots, but they take their lanes from Intel's Z87 Express Platform Controller Hub. The Z87-Plus only wires up two second-gen lanes to its third slot, while Gigabyte connects four. To get there, Gigabyte disables two of its x1 slots. Both sacrifices are a little tough for me to accept, but we can only look to Intel for designing yet another PCH with eight PCI Express 2.0-capable lanes for expansion. Asus adds USB BIOS Flashback, a feature that proves most valuable on long-life platforms like Socket AM3. Gigabyte adds a Port 80 diagnostics display that comes in useful when you're setting up an overclock (though it might also help diagnose a failed component). The two companies have exceptional reputations in the industry, and they've spent many years developing compelling supporting software.

Those considerations opened us up to a three-way tie at the top of this round-up's price range. However, as it tends to do, ASRock cut a $20 discount with Newegg, dropping the price of its Z87 Extreme4 to $140. Whereas we were hesitant to recognize all three boards selling at $160, the Z87 Extreme4's discount was the tie breaker. Here's how our value chart appears today:

We don't like giving out awards based on temporary discounts since our logo shows up on packaging long after prices go back up, and moving forward, we're taking steps that should prevent any vendor from playing pricing games. Until the next round-up, though, it'd be impossible for us to deny that ASRock's Z87 Extreme4 is an impressive buy for the amount of hardware you get at $140. In this case, you, the reader, win. ASRock earns recognition parallel to Biostar as a result.

This isn't to take away anything from the two boards still selling around $160: Asus' Z87-Plus and Gigabyte's Z87X-UD3H. We suspect both are truly worth more than the price at which they're selling, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend either to an enthusiast able to put their feature sets to good use. So, in an unprecedented move for us, we're acknowledging both platforms with Tom's Hardware Approved recognition.

One thing we will add: ASRock's Z87 Extreme4 is worth its more prestigious award as long as it's notably cheaper than the Z87-Plus and Z87X-UD3H. We're holding ASRock responsible for maintaining the lower price it just set into place, and we're asking you to help. The free market is dynamic, and prices do fluctuate. But if you can't find the Z87 Extreme4 in stock within 10% of $140, let us know before our next round-up. We're here to be your advocates, after all.

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