Page 2:Technical Specifications
Page 3:Z97M Pro4 Overview
Page 4:Firmware And Overclocking
Page 5:How We Tested
Page 8:Application And Productivity Benchmarks
Page 9:Power And Temperature
Page 10:Overall Performance And Efficiency
Page 11:Overclocking Performance
We've been working hard to fill the gaps in our motherboard coverage, and today we continue the trend with a mainstream microATX Z97 board from ASRock.
Today's particular model is the Z97M Pro4. ASRock's Pro line is usually the high-end model for non-Z chipset boards in terms of features. However it's below the Extreme line when it comes to Z boards. Does this mean the Pro4 is stripped down past the point enthusiasts might want it? Let's dig in and find out.
At $100, the Pro4 is a very wallet-friendly Z board. As such, you won't find a few features you might find on pricier boards. There's no M.2 slot, SATA Express port, secondary network jack, DTS-Connect or SLI support. The VRM, at 4+2-phases, is smaller than other boards as well. This may be off-putting to some consumers who remember the limitations experienced on the last boards that came through here with diminished VRMs. However, like the MSI Z97I AC, the Pro4 packs a VRM heatsink which makes a big difference on its overclockability, as you'll see. Other basic amenities include five fan headers (two 4-pin,) and a socketed BIOS chip.
Z97M Pro4 Overview
Now let's look at the layout in more detail.
While larger than the low-budget boards I reviewed, the Z97M Pro4 is still not quite a "full-size" mATX. At approximately 8.5 inches wide, it's about 1 inch shy of the full width allotted in the mATX specification. That means the board's right edge doesn't quite meet the standard stand-offs and hangs free instead. While this doesn't impair case mounting, the board doesn't have any support under the 24-pin power plug or the RAM slots. Take care to support the board from underneath if you connect these things after mounting the board in your case.
Across the top is the usual 8-pin EPS plug and three fan headers. Directly below the VRM heat sink, in ASRock's usual odd corner, is the HD audio header. I don't dislike this placement; I just prefer the cleaner cable management that's possible with the audio jack on the board edge. Just to the right of the audio header is a chassis fan header and the CLR_CMOS jumper. Unlike the H81 boards, this jumper is located to the left of the CPU socket, meaning it's much more accessible. Down the front edge is the 24-pin ATX plug, USB 3.0 header just above the PCIe slots and six forward-facing SATA ports.
The top PCIe slot is 3.0 x16. As is often the case on mATX boards, this slot is almost level, height-wise, to the lower RAM slot release tabs. The backplate on the R9 290X I use for testing was actually abutting the tabs, so swapping out RAM modules sometimes meant removing the GPU entirely. The only other PCIe slot is at the bottom of the board, with two regular PCI slots in between. This second PCIe is wired for four lanes from the chipset, so it runs at slower 2.0 signaling.
This means no SLI support on the Pro4, though CrossFireX is technically supported (even though few people would use it). The 2.0 x4 bandwidth limits performance, and the cooler would block every header on the bottom edge. While most people won't use the serial, parallel or even USB 2.0 headers, the front panel connectors and 4-pin fan header are more than a little important. Other headers along the bottom include a TPM, chassis intrusion, case speaker and Thunderbolt connector. To use the Thunderbolt, you'll need to purchase a separate add-in card.
The rear I/O panel is somewhat meager for a Z board. The Pro4 covers the basics with two USB 2.0 ports and single PS/2 ports for your keyboard, mice and peripherals. Four USB 3.0 ports cover your high-speed external storage needs. Audio is provided by a Realtek ALC892 chipset with ELNA caps and can support up to 7.1 channels while Intel handles the network side with a gigabit I218-V controller. I would've liked to see two more USB 2.0 ports, or maybe an eSATA. Since all six USB 3.0 ports on the chipset are exposed, wishing for any more would require an add-on controller — but that's probably too much to ask for at this price point. In those unlikely cases you use the onboard video on this board, you get a VGA, DVI-D and HDMI connector.
I don't understand why VGA connectors still take up space on so many Z boards. Onboard video has its uses, not least of which is troubleshooting. But how many people regularly use onboard video on an enthusiast board? Of those, how many have VGA-only monitors? VGA ports make great sense on lower-end boards. Those will often be used in offices or homes with older monitors and no discrete GPU. But how many enthusiasts want a VGA connector on a Z board? As usual, I'm sure some naysayers will let me know otherwise in the comments.
Packed with the board are a manual, an installation CD, two 18-inch SATA cables (one angled connector) and an I/O shield. I think four SATA cables is more appropriate on a Z board, since the end user is more likely to have at least three drives (SSD, spindle HDD and optical drive). An M.2 slot would explain only two cables, but the Pro4 doesn't have one. Those omitting the optical drive will fare just fine.
Firmware And Overclocking
The Pro4 uses ASRock's usual UEFI that's immediately familiar to anyone who's recently used the company's boards. Category tabs across the top of the screen group related settings into the same page. It's nearly identical to other recently reviewed ASRock boards, so I'll only provide a quick recap and note a few other features.
The first thing you'll notice is support for FHD resolution in the UEFI. I'm not usually one to complain about the grainy picture when messing with the BIOS, but 1920 x 1080 certainly looks nicer than 1024 x 768 on a modern display. Not only is it a crisper picture, but you can view more settings at once.
Once again you're treated with a My Favorites page. This is becoming almost standard on boards now, and I'm a big fan. Simply hit F5 on any setting and it's copied into a custom page — very handy for gathering your most commonly used settings in a single place. Other typical ASRock features include BIOS update over network, quick select configuration slots, and the ability to import and export BIOS settings to a disk, including hard drives.
Being a Z board, the Pro4 gives the expected controls over CPU multipliers (including core-specific multipliers), BCLK frequency, BCLK ratio straps and cache multiplier. The Pro4 comes with three default overclock settings: 4.5GHz at 1.23V, 4.6GHz at 1.28V, and 4.7GHz at 1.4V VCore. These are also mirrored in A-Tune, ASRock's tuning application within Windows. The last setting seems a little overaggressive, but the other two are perfectly reasonable. Manual voltage control is what you'd expect for CPU, CPU cache and RAM.
BIOS Frequency & Voltage Settings (For Overclocking)
|Base Clock||90-300 MHz (0.1 MHz)|
|CPU Multiplier||8x-120x (1x)|
|DRAM Data Rates||800-4000 (200/266.6 MHz)|
|CPU Vcore||0.80-2.00V (1 mV)|
|VCCIN||1.20-2.30V (10 mV)|
|PCH Voltage||0.80-2.00V (1 mV)|
|DRAM Voltage||1.165-1.800V (5 mV)|
|CAS Latency||4-15 Cycles|
Despite its low price and 4+2 VRM, the Pro4 can push our Test i7-4790K close to its limit. Knowing our i7 sample isn't the best overclocker, and seeing the limits of a smaller VRM on the last boards I visited, I wasn't sure what to expect. But the VRM heatsink does its job well. Even at the chip's 4.4GHz turbo frequency I saw no throttling or stability problems. Our sample tops out between 4.5GHz and 4.6GHz, so hitting that maximum looked promising. Using a 45 multiplier at 101.1 MHz BCLK yielded a perfectly stable 4.550GHz at 1.274V. I ran into problems when bumping it any higher. For those with locked multiplier CPUs looking for some extra performance, the Pro4's BCLK is fairly flexible. Cold booting at 104MHz is no problem, but pushing it to 104.5 causes instability.
I measured a small RAM voltage cheat on the Pro4 of 0.004V. Not big, but if you're a stickler in controlling your voltage, bumping the BIOS setting down by one tick keeps it honest. RAM timings can be set for primary, secondary and tertiary settings, and XMP profiles are properly recognized. However, the XMP profile bus ratio will not automatically correct itself when changing the BCLK strap. So if you use the 1.25 or 1.67 strap, make sure you slow down the RAM frequency accordingly.
The Pro4 also has decent chops with RAM overclocking. Stock 2800 XMP settings proved no problem with two modules. It remained stable after increasing the BCLK to 103MHz through A-Tune. However the board could neither cold boot nor hold up to heavy stress testing when these same settings were applied in the UEFI. I could run benchmarks without problem, but Prime95 in Blend mode using half of the RAM capacity resulted in rounding errors. Some people may be a little lax in their RAM overclocking, but I demand unquestionable stability. A 101.5MHz BCLK for DDR3-2842 at XMP timings was the best the Pro4 could stably hit with two modules.
Four modules would not boot at 2800. Dropping to DDR3-2666 settings engaged the 4:3 ratio with a 10x multiplier, though I kept the 2800 XMP timings. A BCLK of 104MHz successfully booted, but again I encountered rounding errors in Prime 95. The best I could do was a 100.5MHz BCLK for a max speed of DDR3-2680. That's respectable for four modules, but it could be better.
The application suite is exactly the same as previous ASRock boards we've reviewed. The App Shop is a quick place to download all the utilities and firmware updates for the board. XFast LAN and RAM give you network prioritization control and RAM Disk support, respectively. The Restart to UEFI is a simple app that does exactly what it says on the tin, but it's undeniably useful when meticulously tuning the board. A-Tune provides overclocking and tuning settings and system monitoring info from within Windows. The Tools section of A-Tune also has links to the other utilities.
How We Tested
Test Bench Components
The PSU is different on this bench compared to what Thomas used on other Z97 reviews. While he was able to send me the rest of the usual hardware, the PSU wasn't available. I'm using the be quiet! Straight Power 10 I used on the $60 roundup. At 500W it's a lower-capacity unit, but it's still plenty powerful to drive a 4C/8T i7 and 290X. The power readings may be a few watts lower from what they'd be with one of Thomas' larger PSUs, but it won't be enough to affect an award or recommendation.
Software And Drivers
|Graphics||AMD Catalyst 14.4|
|Battlefield 4||Version 18.104.22.168, DirectX 11, 100-sec. Fraps "Tashgar"|
Test Set 1: Medium Quality Preset, No AA, 4X AF, SSAO
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality Preset, 4X MSAA, 16X AF, HBAO
|Grid 2|| Version 22.214.171.12479, Direct X 11, Built-in Benchmark|
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality, 8x MSAA
|Arma 3||Version 1.08.113494, 30-Sec. Fraps "Infantry Showcase"|
Test Set 1: Standard Preset, No AA, Standard AF
Test Set 2: Ultra Preset, 8x FSAA, Ultra AF
|Far Cry 3|| V. 1.04, DirectX 11, 50-sec. Fraps "Amanaki Outpost"|
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA, Standard ATC, SSAO
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality, 4x MSAA, Enhanced ATC, HDAO
|Adobe After Effects CC||Version 126.96.36.1994: Create Video which includes 3 Streams, 210 Frames, Render Multiple Frames Simultaneosly|
|Adobe Photoshop CC||Version 14.0 x64: Filter 15.7MB TIF Image: Radial Blur, Shape Blur, Median, Polar Coordinates|
|Adobe Premeire Pro CC||Version 7.0.0 (342), 6.61 GB MXF Project to H.264 to H.264 Blu-ray, Output 1920x1080, Maximum Quality|
|iTunes||Version 188.8.131.52 x64: Audio CD (Terminator II SE), 53 minutes, default AAC format|
|Lame MP3||Version 3.98.3: Audio CD "Terminator II SE", 53 min, convert WAV to MP3 audio format, Command: -b 160 --nores (160 kb/s)|
|Handbrake CLI||Version: 0.99: Video from Canon Eos 7D (1920x1080, 25 FPS) 1 Minutes 22 Seconds|
Audio: PCM-S16, 48000 Hz, 2-Channel, to Video: AVC1 Audio: AAC (High Profile)
|TotalCodeStudio 2.5||Version: 184.108.40.20677: MPEG-2 to H.264, MainConcept H.264/AVC Codec, 28 sec HDTV 1920x1080 (MPEG-2), Audio: MPEG-2 (44.1 kHz, 2 Channel, 16-Bit, 224 kb/s), Codec: H.264 Pro, Mode: PAL 50i (25 FPS), Profile: H.264 BD HDMV|
|ABBYY FineReader||Version 10.0.102.95: Read PDF save to Doc, Source: Political Economy (J. Broadhurst 1842) 111 Pages|
|Adobe Acrobat 11||Version 220.127.116.119: Print PDF from 115 Page PowerPoint, 128-bit RC4 Encryption|
|Autodesk 3ds Max 2013||Version 15.0 x64: Space Flyby Mentalray, 248 Frames, 1440x1080|
|Blender||Version: 2.68A, Cycles Engine, Syntax blender -b thg.blend -f 1, 1920x1080, 8x Anti-Aliasing, Render THG.blend frame 1|
|Visual Studio 2010||Version 10.0, Compile Google Chrome, Scripted|
|WinZip||Version 18.0 Pro: THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to ZIP, command line switches "-a -ez -p -r"|
|WinRAR||Version 5.0: THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to RAR, command line switches "winrar a -r -m3"|
|7-Zip||Version 9.30 alpha (64-bit): THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to .7z, command line switches "a -t7z -r -m0=LZMA2 -mx=5"|
|3DMark 11||Version: 18.104.22.168, Benchmark Only|
|3DMark Professional||Version: 22.214.171.124 (64-bit), Fire Strike Benchmark|
|PCMark 8||Version: 1.0.0 x64, Full Test|
|SiSoftware Sandra||Version 2014.02.20.10, CPU Test = CPU Arithmetic / Multimedia / Cryptography, Memory Bandwidth Benchmarks|
Each board is set to stock clocks, Speed Step and energy-saving features are enabled, and the CPU fan is set to maximum. I use Windows' default "Balanced" power option preset for idle power consumption and "Performance" during the bench runs.
We're looking for oddities in the bench scores. Boring benchmarks are good benchmarks for motherboards. Dramatic score leads are due to motherboard cheats and hidden clock boosts while a board lagging behind is usually a configuration conflict.
In this particular case, the most current and pertinent comparison data I have is with the ASRock Z97M-ITX/AC and MSI Z97I-AC. Those ITX boards sometimes suffered CPU throttling due to limited VRMs. The MSI board even had internal power limits, degrading performance. This will correct itself as we get more mATX reviews up.
And we start with some boring stuff. The Pro4 is right in line with the others. It takes a very small lead in the PCMark Work score, but again, the Z97M-ITX had throttling even at stock clocks. The lead over the better-fairing MSI is hardly significant.
Again with the flat scores. Nothing to see here; let's move along.
Deviation is minimal, especially considering the limitations of the ITX boards, which is just what we like to see. I did see some fluctuation while benching Grid 2 with some initially low framerates. A few reboots solved the problem and I wasn't able to replicate it. This shows how sensitive Grid 2 is to RAM rather than any fault of the Pro4.
Application And Productivity Benchmarks
Benches like this make my job easy and the writing quick. A second more or less is nothing more than rounding to the nearest second by the bench script.
Power And Temperature
I finally get something to talk about, though maybe not so much. The Pro4 is neither the highest nor the lowest when it comes to power consumption. The temperature charts don't tell us much, considering the vast differences between the Pro4 and the ITX boards. However, remember the H81M-HDS, the last 4-phase VRM ASRock board I tested, had a VRM at 28.6 degrees Celsius over ambient while drawing 55.5W doing its Prime95 run. The Pro4's VRM is 30 percent cooler than the HDS, even though it's running four times as many threads and using 258 percent more power! The HDS also had a down-draft cooler so it had better airflow over the VRM. Take note, motherboard manufacturers: If you want to market a board as an overclocking candidate, even an inexpensive sleeper board, a VRM heatsink goes a long way.
Overall Performance And Efficiency
Everything calculated together shows a little more deviation than normal. Again, we're not using perfectly "clean" data. But even with the ITX oddities, no single board has pulled ahead of any other by more than a fraction of a percentage point.
The Pro4 acts similar to the MSI Z97I in the last roundup. It wasn't always the absolute fastest, but it used less power than its competitors to do the same work, so it wins the efficiency race.
Now it's time to take all that "boring benchmark" talk and toss it out. Boards aren't expected to be made equal once they get in our tweaking hands. However this is hardly a fair fight. Neither ITX board can take four RAM modules, nor can they overclock the CPU as far as the Pro4.
The Pro4 of course takes a commanding lead in most overclocking categories, as expected. The MSI Z97I does nab a nice victory in RAM overclocking, however.
Once again, this graph is fairly misleading. Neither ITX board competes directly with the Pro4. The mATX board enjoys a large price benefit since you're not asked to pay the ITX premium tax. It could have performed notably slower than the other boards and still won the value award. Again, these graphs will correct themselves once more mATX boards are added to the charts.
So let's consider ASRock's Z97M Pro4 on its own merits. At $100, it's the most affordable Z97 board we've reviewed to date. And you actually get a lot of board for the money. It doesn't have all the toys, but most of the limitations are pretty obvious going in. You know it doesn't have M.2 or SLI. The CrossFireX support is a little misleading, but overall the Pro4 doesn't pretend to be something it's not. It's a single-GPU Z board that gives you respectable overclocking capability. It's not the fastest in any respect, but it was able to push our i7 almost to its limits.
So what does that mean for an award? Well, like with the ASRock X99E-ITX/ac, it's a somewhat tricky matter. Unlike its X99 brother, I can't give the Z97M Pro4 the "Choice" award since it certainly is not top in its class. I can't award a "Recommended" award (at least not now) since it does have competition in the microATX Z97 field and we haven't reviewed them yet. That leaves the Approved award. The Pro4 certainly met my expectations; the question is whether it exceeded them. That depends on how it stacks up against the other four mATX boards I've got in queue right now. Each of them costs more than the Pro4, but they also have more features. It's very possible the Pro4 will get an official recommendation, but for now it's in a holding pattern.
I will say I have no reservation about using this board in a machine I'd build for friends or family. As long as you're aware of what it can and can't do, and don't care about the limitations, I don't think you'd be disappointed.