Summary: With the Rampage II Gene, ASUS sets to prove that good things can come in small packages. Built around the micro-ATX form factor, the board sports 6 DIMM slots, SLI and CrossFire support, and DDR3 speeds up to 2.0GHz. How does this tiny X58 motherboard compare to others? Find out in this review!
But thanks to ASUS, the days of enthusiasts settling on a compromised micro-ATX motherboard are now over for those of you interested in the Core i7 platform. Their Rampage II Gene micro-ATX motherboard boasts features not found on many full-sized ATX X58 motherboards.
Not only does the motherboard sport six DIMMs, SupremeFX X-Fi audio, SLI and CrossFire support, and all the BIOS settings for tweaking you could possibly imagine, it does so while running cool and a price that’s a little easier to stomach than ASUS’ other high-end Republic of Gamers X58 motherboards like the Rampage II Extreme. Priced at $250, the Rampage II Gene is actually ASUS’ least expensive ROG motherboard! Let’s go over the board’s key features shall we?
Republic of Gamers
As anyone’s who’s followed ASUS’ motherboard line can tell you, the ASUS Republic of Gamers family of motherboards are considered to be the best of the best. These boards are loaded to the gills with features, many of which can’t be found on any other motherboard in the world, and boast extremely high build quality with exquisite attention to detail. As soon as you pull a Republic of Gamers motherboard outside its box, you know that you’ve just purchased a high-end product. Think of them as the Ferrari of motherboards.
ASUS outfits all of their Republic of Gamers boards with many custom features. For instance, the Rampage II Gene is equipped with an array of LEDs. Each LED is used to indicate various aspects of the motherboard. There’s your typical power LED, which is used to indicate when the motherboard receives power, but ASUS also goes one step beyond that, including LEDs for system voltages. ASUS provides individual LEDs for voltages for the CPU, memory, north bridge, and south bridge. If the LED is green, the user knows his voltage for that particular component is in the normal range, but if the LED is yellow it’s in the high range. Finally, a red LED indicates a “crazy” voltage setting.
These voltage ranges vary depending on the component, so what may be a safe voltage setting for the memory may be unsafe for the north bridge or south bridge, so you’ll have to watch each LED closely and look up the voltage ranges for safe, high, and crazy in the motherboard manual.
As any enthusiast can tell you, memory compatibility can be a minefield at times. What’s really annoying is that these issues can be very hard to diagnose, as you usually won’t get a video signal. This leads many users to prematurely return their graphics card or motherboard, even though that isn’t the culprit.
With their LCD Poster, ASUS provides a very simple way to diagnose issues during POST. LCD Poster is an external LCD screen that ships with the motherboard and reports the various stages during POST (memory initialization, CPU, VGA, etc). LCD Poster isn’t like the diagnostic LEDs that ship with some motherboards either. These devices require you to lookup number codes in your motherboard’s manual so you can figure out what went wrong during POST.
With LCD Poster, the diagnostic codes are translated for you, so you instantly know which device caused the POST failure, as the readout on the LCD Poster will list the device that caused the malfunction. As you can imagine, LCD Poster is a godsend when you’re trying to determine what went wrong during POST.
The LCD Poster can also be used to monitor CPU voltages and make some BIOS adjustments. ASUS includes a generous amount of cable, so you can hook the module up to your motherboard, and then run the cable to your desk for easy monitoring.
Tired of micro-ATX motherboards that compromise on integrated audio? If so, you’ll love the Rampage II Gene. ASUS equips the board with the exact same 8-channel SupremeFX X-Fi audio found on their flagship X58 motherboard, the Rampage II Extreme. Here we should note that the audio is actually driven via a CODEC from Analog Devices, only with Creative’s software solution backing it up.
One feature ASUS has added to their motherboards is EPU-6, their energy saving technology that detects system load and adjusts the motherboard’s power phases, CPU voltage/clock speed and other power functions accordingly.
A GUI is provided that allows you to tweak settings for your motherboard’s chipset, CPU, memory, drives, VGA card (you’ll need an ASUS video card with Smart Doctor), and fan so you can run these devices as efficiently as possible when it comes to power consumption. The utility provides four modes that you can choose from to enhance performance (Turbo, High Performance modes), or to save power (Medium Power Saving mode, Max Power Saving mode), you can then customize the settings for each mode if you’d like to drill down even further.
As we mentioned earlier, the Rampage II Gene supports 2-Way SLI and CrossFire, so those of you who would like to run dual GPUs can run cards from either ATI or NVIDIA without any problems. An SLI ribbon cable is included in the box, although like all X58 motherboards keep in mind that the two PCI Express graphics slots are close to one another so dual-slot cards won’t have a whole lot of room between each other for optimal airflow. Fortunately we haven’t run into any problems as a result of this on any of the X58 platforms we tested (this was also an issue on previous Intel chipsets).
Now obviously with just one PCI slot and one x4 PCIe slot, those of you running two dual-slot graphics cards like GeForce GTX 260 SLI or Radeon 4870s in CrossFire will lose access to both of these expansion slots on the Rampage II Gene. There just isn’t enough PCB real estate in the micro-ATX form factor to separate the PCI Express graphics slots away from each other.
That’s the only real caveat with the Rampage II Gene, and it isn’t ASUS’ fault. It’s simply one of the limitations of having such a small footprint as your foundation. Fortunately the built-in components ASUS has used on the Gene are so good you likely won’t need either of the board’s expansion slots, but it is something to consider if you needed one of the expansion slots for something like WiFi, but that’s what USB-based wireless network adapters are there for.
The Rampage II Gene utilizes an 8-phase power design for powering the CPU, and two dedicated power phases for the other components (north bridge, QPI, and memory). This puts it on par with other X58 motherboards in its price range. The board’s cooling is also roughly on par with other motherboards in the $250 price range, with the Rampage II Gene sporting heatpipe cooling for the X58 north bridge and the board’s MOSFETs. The heatpipe and heatsinks used to cool all the motherboards components are made from aluminum rather than copper, which is the metal of choice on higher-end X58 mobos. The motherboard cooling gets the job done well enough, although the hardcore crowd may end up opting to swap out the stock cooler with a nice copper waterblock or another aftermarket solution.
Moving more specifically to the area surrounding the CPU socket, we ran into our first board layout issue. Normally we use Core i7-certified OCZ Reaper HPC PC3-15000 DDR3 memory modules (more specifically, OCZ’s 6GB DDR3 kit) alongside a socket 1366 cooler from Thermalright, the Ultra 120 eXtreme. The Ultra 120 eXtreme is a cooler with a massive heatsink, while OCZ’s Reaper modules have a heatpipe that rests above the memory module’s heatspreader.
Unfortunately the fins on the Thermalright heatsink are so long, they rest over the first two DIMM slots on the Rampage II Gene. As a result they were bumping up against the heatpipe cooling on the Reaper memory modules. We simply couldn’t get the two components to fit together. The solution? We switched to more conventional OCZ Platinum DDR3 memory. The Platinum memory modules don’t have the fancy heatpipe cooling, relying simply on their heatspreader instead.
Another solution to the problem would be to go from triple-channel memory down to dual-channel using just two memory slots, or we could’ve used a smaller CPU cooler.
Other than this issue, the rest of the area around the CPU socket is clear. The motherboard cooling didn’t interfere with our Thermalright cooler, and we had no problems getting everything mounted and installed. Like other ASUS X58 motherboards we’ve tested, the Rampage II Gene includes mounting holes for both LGA775 and 1366, so if you’d like to reuse your old LGA775 cooler on the board, you can.
The Rampage II Gene is filled with numerous design touches that are designed to make the board easier to work with. The memory slots have tabs on the top, but not on the bottom. By removing the tabs you can install your graphics card and RAM whenever you’d like, as the tabs would’ve interfered with the GPU. Don’t worry, even without the tabs the memory modules still lock into place nicely. The built-in power/reset buttons are not only present, they’re also backlit, so you can see them under any lighting conditions. A button for clearing CMOS is also present on the backplate of the motherboard.
All these nice touches make the Rampage II Gene easy to work with.
Unlike traditional micro-ATX motherboards on the market, ASUS has outfitted the Rampage II Gene with a very powerful BIOS that doesn’t compromise when it comes to tweaking for maximum performance. At the same time however, the motherboard’s BIOS is quite accessible for newbies who may not be well versed in tuning BIOS settings.
One example of this is the Rampage II Gene’s CPU Level Up feature. With this BIOS setting, the BIOS will automatically make all the adjustments for you to “level up” to the next highest Core i7 clock speed. Say for instance you bought a Core i7-920 but want 940 or even 965 speeds. With the level up feature, both Core i7 chips are offered as options in BIOS, simply select the processor you want to emulate, and Level Up does the rest of the work for you. And by the way, if you already own a Core i7-965 EE processor, you can use Level Up to overclock your processor to 3.6GHz or 4.0GHz.
ASUS also provides a Memory Level Up setting so you can run your memory at DDR3 speeds of 1333MHz or 1600MHz (remember technically the X58 chipset is designed to run at speeds of 1066MHz, anything beyond that is considered overclocking by Intel even though many motherboard and memory manufacturers support it).
Traditional enthusiasts don’t care for the wizards and tools that automatically do all the work for you when it comes to OC’ing, and would rather do it all manually by hand. For this type of user, the Rampage II Gene won’t disappoint, with base clock speeds ranging from 100-500MHz in 1MHz increments, PCIe speeds from 100-200MHz, and DDR3 speeds up to 2.0GHz.
Voltages offered are also pretty flexible. For instance, CPU voltages range from 0.85V-2.50V in increments of 0.00625V. You can also adjust CPU PLL voltage from 1.81592V-2.50492V in increments of 0.01325V while DRAM voltages range from 1.51106V-2.50481V at increments as fine as 0.01325V. If you’d like to dive even deeper, you can add up to 200mV on each individual memory channel.
Chipset voltage settings are also offered, with IOH voltage for the north bridge ranging from 1.11341V-2.19991V (0.01325V increments), PCIe IOH voltage from 1.51106V-2.78306V (0.01325V increments), ICH voltage from 1.11341V-2.0116V (0.01325V increments), and ICH PCIe south bridge voltage from 1.51106V-2.05431V (0.01325V increments).
Finally, QPI/DRAM voltages range from 1.2-2.5V in increments of 0.00625V.
Obviously with such high voltage ranges, inexperienced users could easily accidentally up the voltage too high, potentially frying system components like the CPU and RAM. To protect newbies from doing this, ASUS has implemented an Extreme OV (Overvoltage) setting into the board’s BIOS. By default this setting is disabled, so you can’t select the crazy high overvoltage settings. When toggled to the enabled setting though, the full gamut of voltages is available within the board’s BIOS. Some other X58 motherboards accomplish this via jumpers, so its nice to see the Rampage provides it via BIOS, which is much easier for users to toggle.
From within the board’s BIOS you can also toggle features such as the board’s LEDs and the LCD Poster module. Like other ASUS motherboards, you can also setup your own custom profiles (up to 8 are supported) and Q-Fan is provided as well.
Overall we’re quite pleased with the Rampage II Gene’s BIOS and don’t think you’ll be disappointed either.
This was the one area we were a little disappointed with the Rampage II Gene – our OC results weren’t as high as we would’ve liked. While we could boot the board at base clock speeds as high as 191MHz, we couldn’t get everything to run completely stable until we lowered the base clock frequency down to 180MHz. That’s considerably lower than the 200MHz+ OCs we’ve hit with other X58 motherboards, including ASUS’ own P6T.
Obviously this is just one sample, so it’s hard to know if our results are indicative of all Rampage II Gene boards, or ours is just an isolated case. As always with OC’ing, your mileage can, and will often vary. It’s also possible that BIOS updates could unleash higher clocks in the future, ASUS has only released three additional BIOS updates since the first release. (We used ASUS’ 0601 BIOS for our testing, an 0705 BIOS was just released within the last week.)
Intel Core i7-920
6GB (3x2GB) OCZ DDR3-1600 Platinum
ASUS Rampage II Gene
EVGA X58 SLI
Intel X58 Smackover
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 280
150GB Western Digital Raptor
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit w/Service Pack 1
Valve Particle Simulation Benchmark
World In Conflict – Direct3D
Company of Heroes – Direct3D
Crysis – Direct3D
Lost Planet – Direct3D
ROG features: The Rampage II Gene is loaded with features that enthusiasts will appreciate. More specifically, the board supports two categories of features: those provided by the X58 chipset, and those unique to the Republic Of Gamers and ASUS in general. We’ll start with the chipset features first.
Lack of integrated wireless: The only feature missing we think ASUS may have overlooked for the Rampage II Gene is integrated 802.11b/g/n wireless networking built in to the motherboard. Just think, with its extensive feature set, this motherboard is primed for use in a home theater PC located in your living room or den in a dedicated A/V enclosure. Sure, you may not mind running yet another cable for networking, but if you’ve got a high-end home theater setup, you’ve probably got enough cables back there as it is; therefore it would be nice if you could cut down on the cable clutter.