Summary: With its $200 price tag, ASUS' latest Republic of Gamers board is designed to appeal to AMD enthusiasts looking for the best without busting your bank account. And thanks its dazzling array of LEDs, good cooling, and SupremeFX X-Fi audio, it's pretty feature-packed. Is it worth the premium ASUS charges though? See how it stacks up against the competition in our latest review!
As most enthusiasts know, ASUSí best boards fall under the Republic of Gamers (ROG) line. ASUS ROG motherboards are known for incorporating all the latest features into one package. The boards ship with the very best cooling and BIOS ASUS offers, flashy LEDs, and are decked out with extras like their LCD Poster, which can be used to diagnose errors during POST.
It has been awhile since ASUS produced an AMD-based ROG board though. While ASUS has steadily released new ROG boards for the Core 2 and Core i7 platforms based on multiple NVIDIA and Intel chipsets, their last AMD-based ROG board was the Crosshair II Formula released back in April 2008. Thatís an awfully long time for ASUS to go between ROG products Ė the Crosshair II Formula doesnít even support the latest Phenom II CPUs like the AMD Phenom II X4 920 and 940, both of which are based on the AM2+ socket.
Clearly itís time for an update right?
Thankfully, ASUS has finally answered in the affirmative with their Crosshair III Formula board. Built on AMDís 790FX chipset, this is actually the first ROG board to utilize core logic from AMD; up to this point their chipsets apparently didnít have the street-cred needed in a product tailored for enthusiasts. As itís their first AMD-based ROG motherboard, this is also the first ROG product from ASUS for the AMD platform that doesnít support SLI. This isnít an indictment against the SLI platform, rather NVIDIAís lack of chipset development for AMD. The fact of the matter is if youíre building yourself a brand new AMD-based PC today, chances are you wonít be looking at a motherboard based on core logic from NVIDIA. Instead the most popular options are AMDís 780G, 790GX, and 790FX chipsets.
The Crosshair III continues ASUSí tradition of providing decked-out ROG boards. Weíll quickly go over some of its most distinguishing features.
The Crosshair III Formula board sports more LEDs per square foot than NYCís Times Square. For instance, the ASUS ROG logo located on the chipsetís North Bridge is lit with four white LEDs. These LEDs pulsate intermittently when the motherboard is off, lighting the motherboard up in a sea of white light. The onboard power/reset/clear CMOS switches are also backlit, so you can easily spot them in the dark.
ASUS also uses several banks of LEDs to indicate current voltages for several system components. LEDs for the North Bridge and South Bridge voltage are present, as are LEDs for the system memory and CPU voltage. If the LED is lit green, you know that your voltage for that particular component is in the normal range, but if the LED is yellow itís in the moderate range. Finally, a red LED indicates a high voltage setting that could potentially damage that particular component. ASUS refers to this feature as the voltiminder LED.
Thereís even an amber HDD activity LED located just behind the IDE connector, and the SupremeFX X-Fi audio module has its own blue LEDs.
The other really neat feature ASUS incorporates on their ROG motherboards is MemOK! Diagnosing memory compatibility issues can be extremely tricky at times because in some cases the motherboard fails to display a video signal, leading some users to suspect they have a faulty graphics card or motherboard, even though itís simply a case of the motherboard not properly recognizing the memory modules. his leads many users to prematurely return their graphics card or motherboard, even though that isnít the culprit.
To help resolve this issue, ASUS has come up with MemOK! ASUS refers to MemOK! as a ďmemory rescue toolĒ. Simply push the MemOK! button on the motherboard and the technology automatically determines the failsafe memory settings needed to boot the motherboard.
Besides the LEDs and MemOK! feature, there are quite a few additional features that set the Crosshair III Formula apart from ASUSí other AM3-based 790FX motherboard, the M4A79T Deluxe. For starters thereís the boardís audio solution, SupremeFX X-Fi.
Whereas the M4A79T Deluxe uses an audio CODEC from Realtek, the Crosshair III Formula uses a chip from Analog Devices. The ADI CODEC supports Creative Labs EAX 4.0 suite, which includes support for features found on Creative X-Fi audio cards like their CMSS-3D positional audio technology that is designed to turn your stereo music and games into full 3D audio. The X-Fi Crystalizer can be used to convert your MP3 files into near DVD-audio quality.
The SupremeFX audio module also contains a bevy of audio outputs. Youíve got optical and SPDIF outputs, as well as line-in and microphone inputs, and all the outputs youíll need to drive a 7.1 speaker system.
Diagnosing problems at bootup can be difficult if you arenít an experienced system builder. As we just mentioned, memory errors can be hard to diagnose, or perhaps you simply didnít install a component correctly.
ASUSí LCD Poster goes one step beyond the traditional diagnostic LED display. Itís an external LCD screen that ships with the motherboard and reports the exact stages during POST -- memory initialization, CPU detection, VGA initialization, etc, so you instantly know what the motherboard was doing before it locked up. As a result, you generally know what caused the error during POST.
The LCD Poster can also be used to monitor CPU voltages and other hardware monitoring functionality. 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.
Another key difference between the M4A79T Deluxe and the Crosshair III Formula is the formerís support for 4-Way CrossFire. With just two PCI Express graphics slots, the Crosshair III Formula is limited to 2-Way CrossFire support. ASUS also pairs the board with one fewer PCI slot, but in exchange you get an x1 PCIe slot; the M4A79T Deluxe doesnít feature any x1 PCIe slots. The Crosshair III Formula on the other hand has two (the uppermost slot is reserved for the SupremeFX audio).
Losing the two PCI Express graphics slots may sound like a big deal at first, but honestly it isnít. When you think about it, all of ATIís best graphics cards now rely on dual-slot cooling, and even most of the Radeon 4850 cards on the market today have phased out the single-slot reference design in favor of dual-slot coolers. The only Radeon GPU that ships in large quantities with single-slot cooling is really the Radeon 4670, and even there youíll find an increasing number of cards shipping with dual-slot coolers.
There are other subtle changes between the M4A79T Deluxe and the Crosshair III Formula Ė the M4A79T Deluxe for instance supports ASUS Express Gate and the Crosshair III Formula doesnít, but keep in mind that the M4A79Tís Express Gate implementation isnít hardware-based; instead of embedding the OS on a memory chip integrated on the board youíll need to install it on your system hard drive. ASUSí hardware-based Express Gate implementation boost significantly faster than this scheme. The Deluxe board also ships with a floppy connector, while the Crosshair III Formula doesnít. The SATA ports are also laid out differently and the boards of course have different cooling.
The general design of both boards is quite similar though, itís quite clear that ASUS didnít start with a blank canvas for the Crosshair III Formula Ė many components are placed in the same location on both boards. They both feature 8+2 phase power solutions too.
As a result, there arenít a lot of areas for potential layout conflicts on the board. Thereís tons of space everywhere it seems.
Everywhere it seems but the area between the AM3 socket and the DIMM slots. Unfortunately there isnít enough room for our Zalman CNPS 9700 heatsink/fan unit and our Corsair Dominator or OCZ Reaper HPC memory modules. Memory modules like these have very tall heatspreaders that bump up against the bottom of our Zalman heatsink.
In order to get both components to fit, you have to bend the first memory module ever so slightly; the memory module functions fine on the board in this orientation, but over time this could potentially damage that first DIMM slot and the memory module itself. The only solution to this problem is to pick up memory modules with shorter, more conventional heatspreaders like the OCZ Platinum line or move the memory modules to the third and fourth DIMM slots.
Keep in mind however that this isnít ASUSí fault. This is a problem thatís present on all AM3 motherboards, not just the Crosshair III Formula. Blame AMD for not defining enough keep away space between the CPU socket and the DIMM slots in the AM3 socket spec.
Thatís the only real issue with the Crosshair III Formula. ASUS nails it everywhere else with the boardís design. Youíve got five total SATA ports, with four of the five ports oriented parallel to the edge of the PCB, so they donít interfere with long dual slot graphics cards like the GeForce GTX 295 and Radeon 4870 X2. The fifth SATA port is mounted just above the four-port SATA cluster, but itís placed where it wont interfere with anything.
You may wonder why the motherboard ships with just five internal SATA ports. This is because the AMD SB750 South Bridge only supports up to six SATA drives. ASUS uses the sixth SATA port to provide eSATA functionality on the back panel of the Crosshair III Formula.
Another item we should note are the two x1 PCIe slots. Technically the board sports three PCIe slots, but the uppermost (black) slot is required in order for the SupremeFX X-Fi audio module to operate. If you try plugging the audio module into one of the white PCIe slots, it wonít work. ASUS says theyíve designed the black slot specifically to work with SupremeFX.
Considering the amount of empty space on the PCB, itís a bit surprising that ASUS didnít just integrate the SupremeFX module on the PCB like they did for the Rampage II Gene. That way you wouldnít have to give up a PCIe slot.
One nice adjustment ASUS has integrated on the Crosshair III Formula versus the M4A79T Deluxe is the fan headers. Not only does the Crosshair III Formula sport more fan headers Ė 6 versus 3 Ė theyíre also more powerful 4-pin headers. This allows you to mount beefier coolers directly to the board if you want.
Like other ROG motherboards, ASUS also mounts three temp headers to the Crosshair III Formula in case youíd like to hook a temp probe to the board and watch component temperatures. When paired with their corresponding fan headers, the two can work in concert with each other to keep your system components as cool as possible.
The cooling ASUS has integrated on the Crosshair III Formula is slightly more powerful than the cooler used on the M4A79T Deluxe. The MOSFET cooler is larger, with considerably more fins. The same applies to the South Bridge heatsink as well. ASUS says that their pin-fin thermal module used on the North Bridge performs better than the traditional stacked-fin cooler, with greater surface area and better airflow. Honestly though the 790FX chipset isnít a large heat generater, so all the fancy heatsinks and heatpipes are more than enough to keep everything cool, even under load during OCíing. Also, as we mentioned on the previous page, the Crosshair III Formula sports an 8+2 phase power design, just like the M4A79T Deluxe.
The BIOS implementation ASUS has integrated on the Crosshair III Formula should appeal to hardcore enthusiasts who are experienced OCíers as well as the less experienced user who knows a little bit about the black art of OCíing and would like to delve further.
Like all ROG motherboards, ASUS provides their Level Up feature for the newbies. Level Up is designed to take all the guesswork out of OCíing for you, automatically overclocking your processor up to higher CPU speed grades with one click in BIOS. Say for instance youíd like to OC your Phenom II X4 920 or 925 processor. Level Up could be used to OC your CPU to 940 speeds with one simple keystroke. In the case of our 3.2GHz Phenom II X4 955 CPU, the Crosshair III Formula provides CPU Level Up options for 3.4GHz, 3.6GHz, and 3.8GHz.
Another feature ASUS provides in the Crosshair III BIOS is Extreme OV, with ďOVĒ being short for overvoltage. This feature is an added safety precaution for newbies who see the plethora of voltage options available inside the Crosshiar III BIOS and have no clue what voltage to select. As any experienced user knows, pick a voltage too high, and you could fry your processor or memory. The Extreme OV setting provides the experienced users with the extreme voltages that they need to really push the Phenom II CPUs to speeds of 5GHz or more. Of course keep in mind that youíll need to run liquid nitrogen or another ultra high-end cooling solution to keep your processor safe at these voltages.
With the OV feature enabled, CPU voltages up to 2.25V are available Ė normally the CPU voltage tops out at 1.75V in increments of 0.0125V. CPU loadline calibration is also available.
Letís take a look at the rest of the BIOS options for tweaking:
Like all ASUS BIOS implementations, all voltage settings are color coded, so you know when youíre pushing things too far. ASUS also provides the current voltage for each of the voltage settings as a point of reference as well.
It should be noted that beginning with the K10 CPU generation the motherboard itself has played less of a role when it comes to OCíing, instead it has become increasingly important that you get a good chip that can scale well to high clock speeds. This continues to be the case for Phenom II; the latest motherboards are rarely the bottleneck. We highly recommend you also pick up a Black Edition processor whenever possible for maximum flexibility when OCíing. The (very) general rule of thumb is to buy the fastest Black Edition you can afford.
AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition
4GB (4x2GB) OCZ Reaper HPC PC31600
ASUS M4A79T Deluxe
ASUS Crosshair III Formula
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 295
150GB Western Digital Raptor
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit w/Service Pack 1
Valve Particle Simulation Benchmark
ROG features: Like all Republic of Gamers products, the Crosshair III Formula is loaded with some really nice features. The bonanza of LEDs are not only attractive, theyíre also informative. Youíll almost want to mount your PC on your desk (complete with case window for your chassis of course), just so you can see all the action on the Crosshair III board.
Whereís the flair? : While we like the over-the-top ROG features that are standard fare on the Crosshair III Formula and other ROG motherboards, ASUSí latest Crosshair board doesnít have that same ghee whiz effect when you look over the specs: only five SATA ports? Two PEG slots? No Express Gate? 8+2 phase power is also pretty standard fare for a 790FX motherboard (although its highly doubtful adding more power phases would improve your chances when OCíing).