ASUS have shown off their Z490 boards for Intel Comet Lake processors. With 17 models, ASUS are keeping it relatively simple while still offering lots of choice. Overclockers and extreme gamers will be paying close attention, as ASUS’s APEX board for Comet Lake is part of the announcements.
ASUS, PCIe 4.0 and You
ASUS have been by far the quietest about PCIe 4.0 on Z490, and are giving little away. German tech site hardwareluxx managed to get the most out of them, with a comment that “many” ASUS Z490 models are designed for PCIe 4.0. Nothing has been fully promised though. ASUS also noted that they (and by extension their competitors) can’t validate a PCIe 4.0 design without PCIe 4.0 CPUs. This is the most conservative approach of the big four.
Notably, ASUS are still promoting a 6-layer PCB even on the bottom-end PRIME Z490M-PLUS. An increase in layer count to 6 seems to be one of the things going into PCIe 4.0 readiness from other brands. This kind of change doesn’t come cheap and could be a sign of planning for PCIe 4.0.
Memory Layout: ASUS Go Daisy for Comet Lake?
ASUS haven’t been as forthcoming as GIGABYTE about their memory layout. However, just as GIGABYTE moved to daisy-chain for their Comet Lake boards, it seems ASUS have as well. When a manufacturer doesn’t directly disclose memory layout, there are a couple of ways to tell. The first is by examining visible traces, but that won’t help us here. The second is with memory QVLs. If a vendor qualifies 4-DIMM configurations for top speeds, it’s a strong sign of T-topology. If a significant drop in speed is needed to support 4-DIMM configurations, a daisy-chain is more likely.
Looking at the ROG Maximus XII Extreme as an example, ASUS have qualified kits up to DDR4-4800 in 2-DIMM configurations. With 4 DIMMs, the highest qualified speed is DDR4-4000. We can infer from this that ASUS are most likely using a daisy-chain layout. That’s the last domino fallen – everyone on Z490 is using daisy-chain. Nonetheless, ASUS are promoting the ability of their “Optimem III” technology to reach reasonably high speeds of DDR4-3600 even in the hardest configuration of 4x32GB. Optimem III appears on Maximus models, with most of the Z490 lineup designated “Optimem II” and the bottom-end PRIME Z490M-PLUS merely “Optimem”.
The exact nature of Optimem is secret, and Optimem III models shield memory traces behind outer layers of ground fill so there are no clues looking at the board. This isn’t just for secrecy – it also improves signal quality. Still, it leaves us somewhat in the dark. Given that MSI are introducing interdigital tabbed routing, it’s possible this also forms part of the Optimem III secret sauce.
ASUS’s Z490 VRMs: Go Team
ASUS are sticking with their “teamed” power stage design for Z490. This is a design that’s attracted flak from some corners, with others defending it. What “teamed” power stages means is that two sets of power stages and accompanying inductors are controlled as one. Some past boards have even extended this to three sets.
When ASUS talk about their VRM having 16 phases, such as on the ROG Maximus XII Extreme, that means there are 16 inductors and 16 power stages. From a control perspective, it’s an 8-phase. This has irked some users, who feel lied to, but ASUS are very open about building their boards this way. The argument from ASUS is that this way of doing things is actually better than using conventional doubler chips. Doublers slow down response, but the entire “teamed” VRM can respond immediately to a load change to push voltage up or down.
Phase count aside, ASUS are providing plenty of power for Comet Lake. Even the lightest boards have 8 “phases”, such as they are. Strix boards start at 12 plus 2 for the iGPU (except the mini ITX model, which is 8+2). Maximus boards are all equipped with 16 total “phases”, either in a 14+2 setup or 16+0 with no iGPU power.
ASUS’s heatsinks this generation are characterised by large lumps of aluminium with broad fins cut into them. The result is a lot chunkier than Gigabyte’s fins, and it’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out in testing.
Now, we’ve mentioned how MSI and ASRock have VRM fans to help support watercooled configurations. ASRock in particular have a total of three fans on their top-end Z490 boards. ASUS have a more direct approach to supporting a watercooled i9-10900K. The ROG MAXIMUS XII FORMULA equips the VRM with a water block, co-developed with EK. It’s still a big lump of metal on top of a big VRM so it should run ok on air (or LN2) as well, in a pinch.
ASUS Take Comet Lake Extreme: The Z490 APEX
Back in 2017, the Maximus IX Apex came out for the Z270 platform. An astonishingly capable overclocking board, it gathered high praise including a Platinum Award here at Play3r. Since then, the Apex series has had a reputation for reliably being among the best when it comes to overclocking.
ASUS are coming out of the gate hard on Z490, with the ROG MAXIMUS XII APEX announced right away. Like all APEX boards, there’s only 1 DIMM slot per memory channel. This minimises both trace length and reflections from the empty slot, giving the best possible memory overclocks.
Like other APEX boards, the MAXIMUS XII APEX has an extensive overclocker’s toolkit. This includes LN2 mode, slow mode, a pause switch, a retry button, a safe boot button and ProbeIt voltage measurement points.
Overclockers at ambient temperatures will be particularly interested in retry and safe boot. Retry gives the memory training another go, and can often help with booting hard settings. Safe boot forces a reboot using default settings, allowing instant recovery from a bad overclock. Plus, legacy PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports will be welcome for some.
ASUS are also looking to make the APEX attractive to “extreme gamers”, with good-looking heatsinks and plenty of RGB. A deep cutout for the SATA ports is certainly striking. The needs of gamers are also served with extensive IO and built-in WiFi 6.
Pricing and Availability
ASUS LGA1200 motherboards for Comet Lake have started showing up for pre-orders, including on Newegg in the US and Overclockers UK in the UK. According to Newegg, the availability date is the 20th of May. That means they should be available as this story goes live, all being well.
Key prices are as follows:
- ROG MAXIMUS XII FORMULA: £499.99/$499.99
- ROG MAXIMUS XII APEX: £459.95/$399.99
- ProART Z490-Creator 10G: £369.95/$299.99
- ROG STRIX Z490-I GAMING (Mini ITX): £289.99/$299.99
- ROG STRIX Z490-G GAMING Wi-Fi (Micro ATX): £239.99/$239.99
- PRIME Z490-P: £175.99/$159.99
- PRIME Z490-M PLUS (Micro ATX): £157.99/$149.99
Note: UK pricing includes VAT. US pricing excludes sales tax.