Intel P55 Motherboard Shootout - The New Mainstream

ASUS Maximus III Formula

ASUS Maximus III Formula

Arguably one of the premier names in the motherboard business, ASUS' Republic of Gamers (ROG) series is its best of the best, with pro-enthusiast features that can be either hit or miss, depending on your needs. For the P55 chipset, ASUS offers the Maximus III Formula, which has the usual litany of ROG features, which are too many to mention (we advise a trip to ASUS' website to get educated on all of them if you're so inclined). This time, there is however a new feature called ROG Connect that we shall take a short look later.

ASUS has always favored red and black for its high-end enthusiast boards, especially when it's got the Republic of Gamers stamp on it. What's worth noting is that the board is generally 'low-profile' with no tall heatsinks that may interfere with other installed components.

Removing the audio I/O to its add-on audio module, the rear of the ASUS appears a bit barren. There's space however for eight USB ports, not counting a reserved port for the ROG Connect feature. Surprisingly for its class, there's only one Gigabit LAN connector, though we didn't miss having two at all. A Clear CMOS, FireWire and eSATA complete the connectors.

First though, what struck us about this polished motherboard is how ASUS has gone heavy on the storage front, which is quite unlike its X58-based ROG board, the ASUS Rampage II Extreme, which had comparatively fewer SATA ports than its peers. For the Maximus, there are now ten SATA ports, with ASUS adding more JMicron controllers for the extra ports. Two of these extra ports even come with RAID 0 and 1 capability. Unfortunately, the Maximus does not come with support for the newer SATA 6 Gbit/s standard though ASUS has previously voiced the option of an expansion chip to enable this feature on all its new motherboards. ASUS' P7P55D Premium however comes with this feature for those looking to jump to the faster standard.

These are the six SATA 3.0Gbps ports provided by the Intel P55 Express chipset, aligned outwards at the edge of the board.

These are two additional SATA ports for hard drives, with RAID 0 and 1 support, thanks to a separate JMicron controller.

Here's one of the two JMicron JMB363 controllers on the ASUS positioned beside two SATA ports meant for your SATA optical drives (since these two do not have RAID support) or even for hard drives if you do not need RAID.

Besides the improvements in storage options, other familiar ASUS touches like having only a single retaining clip for its DIMM slots such that it's easier for users to remove the memory modules (especially on a packed motherboard), or the retaining clip for the PCIe graphics slots get the thumbs up from us.

ASUS has favored DIMM slots with only a single retaining clip for some of its motherboards and it's no different on the Maximus.

The design of the retaining clip for the PCIe graphics slots should again be familiar with ASUS users. We have previously given our stamp of approval as it allows easy removal of the installed card. The low profile heatsink on the extreme left also means that there is sufficient space for the PCIe x1 slot beside it.

While the Maximus comes with three PCIe slots for graphics, only the two red ones are appropriate for modern graphics cards. With a single graphics card, you can install at either red slots and get the full 16 lanes. With two graphics cards on the two red PCIe slots, you'll get x8/x8 in either CrossFireX or SLI, which is the compromise made by the mainstream P55 chipset. The last white PCIe slot is actually a version 1.0 slot that is limited to four lanes.

Lots of chokes and capacitors surrounding the CPU socket. ASUS claims a 16-phase power scheme for the CPU, with 3 additional for CPU VTT. Hence the total of 19 chokes. The heatsinks are quite understated, linked by a heat pipe and should not pose any interference with the CPU cooler.

When it comes to the CPU phase power race that the major vendors appear to be in, the ASUS Maximus III Formula is anything but shabby with its 16-phase design. High quality chokes and capacitors are used and they are all quite low profile and unlikely to interfere with your CPU cooler. As expected from an enthusiast board, there are various LED indicators, onboard switches and buttons to monitor or trigger the ROG features.

Onboard power and reset buttons are but some of the features found on boards of this class. The Maximus III Formula also has a button for its MemoryOK feature that checks and adjusts your memory settings such that the system will boot up with no issues.

ASUS has this ProbeIt feature on other ROG motherboards, allowing the hardcore enthusiasts to check voltages through this interface with a multimeter.

The SupremeFX audio module supports features from audio chip maker, Creative, like EAX and X-Fi Crystalizer but the internal HD audio CODEC is from ADI and not actual Creative hardware.

HD audio is provided by the add-on SupremeFX module, something that we have seen on other ASUS motherboards. There's nothing new here on this front.

We finally get to one of the newer ROG features that's on the Maximus III Formula. This is none other than ROG Connect, which in the words of ASUS, allows users to monitor and tweak the motherboard settings in real time via a separate PC or notebook, just like how race car engineers do it! This is done via USB cable through a special reserved USB port at the rear of the ASUS board, hooked up to another system's USB port.

To enable the ROG Connect feature, you have to click on this button at the rear of the board and connect the included USB cable from this reserved USB port to the other system's USB port. After that (and installing the software), you can access the ASUS' BIOS settings through the other system.

Well, it sounds much better than it really is, since the novelty wears off really fast. Although it worked as intended, we aren't too sure of its actual utility. If we needed to tweak the motherboard outside the BIOS, we could have installed the same software on the motherboard system and done the same.

The ROG Connect in action. Our netbook here had the ASUS tweaking utility installed and it was able to access the frequency, voltage and other BIOS settings on the Maximus III Formula in real time through the ROG Connect feature.

The only application we could think of, is when the user is running an application, like a benchmarking suite. One could conceivably tweak or monitor the motherboard settings in real time without having to exit the benchmark to check. See, we can't even convince ourselves that this tool is useful for even enthusiasts, at least not as useful as it's 'cool'.

Overall though, the ASUS Maximus III Formula continues with the company's ROG formula of stacking as many pro-enthusiast features as it can, even if some might end up being ignored by users. Besides these attempts at innovation, this board is well-made, with quality components to justify its US$250 price tag. The layout too is impeccable, with many fan connectors that should appeal to enthusiasts. Most importantly, we didn't encounter any usability issues.