Asus’s “The Ultimate Force”, aka TUF, series of motherboards have been around for several years now, and they all share one very unique feature. As you can see from the images, a special “armour” covering is available for the board that covers most of the front of the PCB. This is an optional extra that adds around $$ to the price of the board – the price we’ve used here includes the special covering. The aim of this is to deliver better airflow over the steamier components of the motherboard, but to be honest we’re a little sceptical. An absolutely tiny fan is responsible for pushing air throw the very confined armouring, and we just can’t see how this would be more effective at cooling than leaving the covering off and allowing a couple of 80mm case fans to do the job instead. There’s also the fact that the armour covering is bound to become a dust trap over time, leaving us with the feeling that this expensive armour is nothing more than a gimmick.
However, the TUF moniker means more than just a plastic shroud on the board, as Asus claims that it equips these boards with a range of life-saving features. Asus claims the high quality power components ensure a smooth, reliable energy supply to the board, but they’re not the only ones to make this claim; it seems every motherboard manufacturer has the best capacitors if their motherboard packaging is to be believed. However, what isn’t deniable is the inclusion of special Electro Static Discharge protection around the USB, Audio and LAN connectors. While we can’t really test these claims in the lab, the inclusion of a healthy five year warranty suggests that Asus is ready to put its money where its mouth is.
Along with the front armour, the Gryphon includes a back plate, which will stop the motherboard flexing under pressure. Given the small size of the board, we can’t see this being an issue, as it tends to only plague much larger motherboards. One thing that we can’t deny about the additional armouring is how striking it will look through a Perspex window – this is definitely the kind of motherboard that deserves a view to the outside world.
Asus has stocked this board with the most full-length PCI-E slots we’ve seen on a microATX board. Two of these are of the fastest PCI-E 3.0 x16 speed, but if both are in use they drop to x8 speeds. This makes the board fully compatible with Nvidia’s SLI dual-GPU solution, a feature many of the microATX boards lack. Obviously CrossFire support is also included, which doesn’t require twin x8 lanes.
Six SATA 3.0 connections is par for the course on Z97 motherboards, though it’s not the leader in this regard despite the high price tag. There’s also no sign of SATA Express or M.2 connections, a surprising omission given how popular the latter is with small form factor builders, as it allows the installation of tiny OS drives around half the size of a stick of DDR 3. Speaking of which, four DDR3 slots are included, but the maximum supported speed of only 1866MHz is well below that of other boards. Audio support isn’t quite as flashy as some of the more entertainment-oriented boards, using Realtek’s older ALC892 chipset without any extra frills.
A quick glance at the PC Mark 8 Home result shows that this board came second last, which might seem unacceptable given the high price tag. Yet closer examination reveals that the performance difference was marginal, within a percentage point or two of the fastest boards, which is impossible to notice in day to day use.
As one of the most expensive boards in the roundup, the ASUS TUF Gryphon Z97 Armour Edition lacks some of the additional extras found on similarly priced boards, such as high quality audio or additional SATA and USB ports. We’re also not convinced that the thermal armour is little more than a gimmick, though case modders will love the way it looks. However, the focus here is on longevity, and the five year warranty will go a long way to winning long-term users over.