Asus proves performance and features aren’t reserved for the top-end; the Z170-A is the best value Skylake motherboard we’ve seen
Processor socket: LGA 1151, Dimensions: 302x244mm, Chipset: Z170, Memory slots: 4, PCI-E x16 slots: 3, PCI-E x1 slots: 3, PCI slots: 1, USB ports: 2x USB, 2x USB3, 2x USB 3.1, Video outputs: DVI, VGA, HDMI, DisplayPort
Asus had a comprehensive range of Z170 motherboards ready in time for Intel’s official Skylake launch, with gamers and overclockers equally catered for. The Z170-A reviewed here is arguably the most mainstream board we’ve seen, but it’s still fully featured, with an appealing white and gunmetal grey colour scheme that should complement almost any PC build.
It might not have the flashing LEDs, bright colours, or even a POST code display for troubleshooting, but the Z170-A has everything you’ll need to get a Skylake computer up and running, including support for four sticks of DDR4 RAM running at up to 3,400MHz. The dedicated water pump fan header is a welcome addition to the two CPU fan headers, with four chassis fan headers bringing the total up to seven. Unless you have an absolutely gargantuan case, you won’t need to buy an external fan controller or add extension cables to your power supply. The I/O shield won’t obscure big tower coolers either, leaving plenty of room around the LGA1151 socket for us to fit our BeQuiet! Dark Rock Pro 3 twin fan cooler without any trouble.
The Z170-A is also well-equipped for modern storage devices, with a PCI-express ready M.2 slot and SATA Express for 2.5in SSDs. If you don’t have any SATA express devices, the interface can be used as two SATA3 ports instead, raiding the total number to six. This isn’t the most we’ve seen, but it’s more than enough for a PC with multiple hard disks, SSDs and optical drives.
Only the top PCI-Express x16 slot operates at full speed, with the second and third slots dropping to x8 speeds if you try to install two graphics cards. Three PCI-E x1 slots are a welcome addition to add wireless or other expansion cards, and this is also one of the only Z170 motherboards we’ve seen with a legacy PCI slot, meaning you can continue to use any older cards that you might have.
Compared to other Z170 boards we’ve seen, the Z170-A is a little stingy when it comes to USB ports: you only get two regular USBs, two USB3 ports and two USB 3.1 ports on the back of the board. One of the latter pair uses the reversible Type-C connector. If your case has the right ports, however, you can more than make up for this, as there are two USB3 headers on the bottom and right edges.
The rear I/O panel also has a full complement of DVI, VGA, HDMI and DisplayPort video outputs in case you want to use your processor’s integrated graphics, although only three displays are supported simultaneously. You also get a legacy PS/2 keyboard port, Gigabit Ethernet, five 3.5mm audio jacks for analogue 7.1 and a digital optical output.
Testing the Z170-A with an Intel Core i5-6600K processor running at its stock 3.9GHz Turbo speed, 8GB of Corsair DDR4 RAM and an AMD Radeon R7 260x graphics card, the Z170-A managed to score 114 overall in our 4K multimedia benchmarks. This puts it roughly in line with the other Skylake motherboards we’ve tested so far, and around 10% faster than last year’s Devil’s Canyon Haswell refresh processors.
While we wouldn’t expect many people upgrading to Skylake to stick with integrated graphics, the Z170-A still managed to produce a stable 41.2fps frame rate in Dirt Showdown when using the i5-6600K’s HD Graphics 530 iGPU.
The Core i5-6600K was made with overclocking in mind, and thankfully the Z170-A is well-equipped to get the best from it. The BIOS is overflowing with settings, but most are hidden within the Advanced menu. The Asus EZ overclocking utility, which is available on the main screen, errs on the side of caution, only boosting our CPU by 20% because we were using a tower cooler rather than a water-cooling system. It doesn’t actually check what hardware you have, so if you’re confident in the cooling abilities of your heatsink, you could select water cooling for the biggest performance boost.
Instead, we did things manually, bumping the multiplier up to 47 and adding a slight boost to CPU voltage to get a stable 4.7GHz (up from 3.9GHz), which helped the multimedia benchmark score jump to 130 overall. This wasn’t quite as high as we’ve managed on other motherboards using the same components, but with a multitude of BCLK (Base Clock), voltage settings and other variables to tweak, there’s still plenty of scope for getting the most out of your components if you’re prepared to move beyond the CPU multiplier.
It’s clear that Asus knows exactly how to get everything power users want onto a motherboard, without going overboard on flashy extra or unnecessary features that would discourage anyone working to a budget. The Z170-A is the cheapest Skylake motherboard we’ve seen so far by around £30, but it has almost all the connectivity of its more expensive rivals and overclocks almost as well – as long as you’re prepared to adjust settings manually, rather than rely on the play-it-safe automatic pre-sets. If you want all-out performance or lots of extras, the MSI Z170A Gaming M5 is probably a better buy at around £35 more, but for everyone else this is the Skylake board to buy.
|6th Generation Core processors (Skylake)
|Processor external bus
|Supported memory type
|Maximum memory speed
|2,133MHz / 3,400MHz (OC)
|Motherboard power connectors
|1x 24-pin ATX, 1x 8-pin 12V
|PCI-E x16 slots
|PCI-E x4 slots
|PCI-E x1 slots
|Motherboard fan headers
|SATA II ports
|SATA III ports
|1, 0, 5, 10
|Wired network ports
|Motherboard sound (ports)
|Realtek HD Audio (5x analgue, optical S/PDIF)
|2x USB, 2x USB3, 2x USB 3.1
|2x USB, 2x USB3
|DVI, VGA, HDMI, DisplayPort
|PS/2, M.2, SATA Express
|3x SATA, 1x SLI bridge, Q connector
|Motherboard clock adjustment
|CPU, RAM, GPU
|Motherboard voltage adjustment
|CPU, RAM, GPU, chipset