The Board - A Closer Look
Like any good little overclocking board should, the ASRock Z77 OC Formula comes equipped with two BIOS chips, each of which is sitting inside a socket that users can service if needed. I know, I know, you're saying, "but I've never crashed a board and really needed a second BIOS!!!" Well, let me tell you then you haven't really been overclocking memory, as when you do bad things happen. Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad things. There's a jumper nearby that will allow you to choose which one you are using. To make use of the BIOS, ASRock stuck both RESET and POWER switches right next to the BIOS chips, which is good for use when in a testbench, but they are, unfortunately, in a location that would make them useless once three VGAs are installed.
When you do push that POWER switch, there are a series of LEDs along the right side of the board that let you know how that boot process is going, with each of the four LEDs indicating which area of the board is in the process of being booted. Should the boot fail, a LED will remain lit wherever a problem occurred.
SO, the boot fails? What do you do? Change a setting in BIOS, maybe a voltage? Perhaps what you set is not what the board is giving? ASRock understands this can be an issue and has included no less than eleven specific voltage points that, with the use of a digital multimeter, allow you to monitor those voltages in real-time. You can tell if a voltage point drops a bit low when the board crashes, or something of that sort. In control of a lot of those voltages is the above pictures CHiL controller, a CHL8328 that is an 8-phase controller. I was actually expecting another controller or two with so many available voltages, but there wasn't one, at least not one that I could find. That's not an issue, and providing so much with so little shows how much engineering has gone into the ASRock Z77 OC Formula.
Of course, there are a lot of voltage options, which means there are a lot of voltage regulations modules. The CPU VRM is actually fairly basic, using the dual-stack MOSFETs for each phase with multiple phases per input driver. There are FETs and drivers on both sides of the board.
The PCH VRM is overly beefy as well and might even be four phases, while the DIMM VRM is most definitely four phases. The use of so many components allows the load to be spread out, ensuring that each component is operating at peak efficiency. When pushing for world record clocks, the efficiency, and how tight line regulation is, can be the ultimate factor that dictates whether you succeed or fail. Considering Nick Shih's recent record, that thinking has paid off.
To provide all the monitoring functionality, as well as some additional monitoring I haven't mentioned yet, I found a pair of Nuvoton controllers, one normal NCT6776D part with an additional NCT7904D part slaved on to add all the extra monitoring stuff.
Optional outside controllers, like LAN and USB, are important as well because they ride on the PCIe bus, and the stability of those under high clocks affects how far you can push before things get a bit whacky. To optimize this facet, ASRock has outfitted the Z77 OC Formula with a Broadcomm LAN controller and an Etrontech USB 3.0 controller, both utterly common parts on the market, but they are, at the same time, also widely known to behave and perform when things are pushed to the limit.
Additional SATA controllers and the audio CODEC needs to be chosen carefully as well. ASRock chose two Marvell 88SE9172 SATA 6 Gb/s controllers, and a bog-standard Realtek ALC898 controller for the audio, one of Realtek's upper-end audio CODECs that is common to nearly every board maker. ASRock added a PLX PEX8605 bridge, a device that can manage up to four other devices simultaneously on a single PCIe x1 link, to aid in keeping those devices stable while providing optimized bandwidth.
Cooling is important as well, and the coolers on both the PCH and the VRMs are more than adequate. Both are made of large blocks of black-anodized aluminum that feature a slash of gold-anodized aluminum inserted into the top. The VRM cooler also has a backplate and mates to the board using a thermal pad to overcome any problems with different component heights.
As if those fat chunks of metal and the water pipe weren't enough, there is also a little 40mm fan mounted into the VRM cooler that blows both on the cooler itself and down to the board below, where the VRM input drivers sit. Those input drivers don't sit under the VRM cooler itself and can aid cooling when pushing to the max. I also found the XFast logos plastered onto the board's surface, and although these aren't exactly hardware features, but software features, I found it interesting that ASRock decided to highlight them by writing them on the board's surface. But I do understand why they did it since they do add some speed to the product itself. They look pretty delightful, even.