The Bottom Line
Introduction, Specifications, and Pricing
One of the initial boards we reviewed for Z490 was the Maximus XII Extreme, and today we have its much lesser priced sibling in the Maximus XII Hero (Wi-Fi).
The Hero board has always been the sweet spot for getting a Maximus level board at a reasonable value. The feature set while a bit watered down form the Formula and Extreme is still stout for the price, so let's see what the new Hero offers.
Memory support for the Hero is up to 4800MHz+, which is stout for a 2DPC board, but I would assume that it is only with two DIMMs.
I/O for the Hero starts with Wi-Fi AX, along with up to 5Gb LAN. An i219V Gigabit LAN from Intel backs the 5Gb Aquantia LAN. The USB tops out at 10Gbps with a single Type-C and three Type-A ports.
The VRM for the Hero is a 14+2 design, which we will look at when we dive into the PCB analysis further in the review. However, I will note that if it is anything like the Extreme, it will be massive overkill.
PCIe slot allocation is a single x16 or dual at x8/x8 to fit SLI cards or AIC SSD's depending upon needs. The third x16 slot is x4 from the same PCH as the three x1 slots.
The Maximus XII Hero (Wi-Fi) is available at $399 at the time of writing, and this is where the mainstream boards start to be considered pricey, so we will have to see if the feature set and performance can support the price the Hero demands.
Motherboard Features and Marketing
Here we give space to the motherboard manufacturer to talk about their marketing points, and we assess them and provide our point of view on the claims.
ASUS touts their new Optimem III memory design, which is targeted to offer better memory trace layouts and other optimizations to ensure excellent memory performance. Here they also show the dual-slot with Safelot metal stiffening integrated into the slots. The pro cool power connectors are externally metal shrouded. They are designed to be more robust and handle higher amperage, which means a CPU can be pushed harder without issues from the connector.
The VRM heat sinks are massive finned blocks meant to sink heat away from the power circuitry while dissipating it into the surrounding air. These are attached by heat pipes and huge, which means the chances of them being heat soaked is relatively low. Another feature worth noting is the "water-cooling zone" that is a series of connectors for radiator fans, water pumps, or flow rate headers, depending on the board model.
Gaming immersion is visualized by the board's RGB aspects and its headers, along with the SupremeFX audio solution. Most of the current SupremeFX audio solutions are ALC1220 codec, but there are many additional parts we will check out when we peek under the hood.
Here we get a peek at the I/O, and you can see the connectivity above. I cannot pretend that the I/O is not quite robust with nine type-A connectors on the rear and a Type-C. ASUS even included a single display connector among the array in the rear, although I do not imagine many will buy the Hero to use the iGPU.
ASUS offers the "DIY Friendly" options next, and the Q-connector I think is the unsung Hero here(pun intended). For anyone who has big hands like me, you have no idea the struggle to hookup the tiny front panel connectors.
Packaging and Accessories
ASUS ROG packaging has become relatively standard at this point as they have a defined design ID, and they stick well to the style guide here. The styling from the $800 Extreme to the most basic ROG board has the same Aesthetic with the red, black, silver, and gray accents showing the ROG style. The name in foil highlights which board you have. There are a few feature icons, but you know what you are getting by just giving a peek to the rear of the packaging, which holds a board overview, spec list, and feature highlights.
The accessory pack has quite a few things for the build as follows:
- Wi-Fi Antennae
- 4x plastic SATA cables
- 2x RGB extension cables
- VRM fan and bracket hardware
- Q-Connect block
- 3x M.2 standoffs and screws
- 3x Rubber pads for M.2
The rubber pads are for single-sided M.2 SSDs; they will be added to the existing rubber pad to ensure contact is made to support the M.2 SSD. This will provide good contact with the M.2 cooling plates.
The non building parts of the accessory pack are as follows:
- User Guide
- Sticker sheet
- ROG keychain
- ROG thank you card
- Driver disc and case badge
Here we see that just like the Extreme board, the Hero comes with the keychain; other materials are standard with the ROG lineup form the sticker set to the thank you for the purchase card.
Now that the accessories are out of the way, let's take a look at the board itself.
ASUS Maximus XII Hero (Wi-Fi) Overview
The Maximus XII Hero is a dark board, and I mean that in an endearing way. The Hero is blacked out until you light up the RGB, and this means if you turn the RGB off, it is a perfect board for a stealth build. The Hero has eight fan headers, which can all be controlled via DC or PWM. Six of the fans are 1A/12W with the W_PUMP+ and the H_AMP headers supporting up to 3A/36W each.
The hero board does not have a backplate, so we get an unencumbered view of the PCB. And the first thing I will note is that ASUS is teaming phases again, as there are no doublers on the VRM section's rear. Also of note is that the second x16 PCIe slot is indeed wired for x8 lanes, which will pull from the top slot.
The I/O on the Hero is quite stuffed as you can see below:
- BIOS Flashback Button
- CMOS Clear Button
- Wi-Fi Antennae Connectors
- HDMI port
- 2x USB 2.0 Type-A ports
- 4x USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-A ports
- 3x USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A ports
- USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C port
- Analog 7.1ch audio with gold connectors
- Optical SPDIF port
- 5Gb RJ45 Aquantia LAN port
- 1Gb RJ45 Intel LAN port
As you can see, there is no shortage of high-speed connectivity on the rear panel of the Hero. While 10Gb LAN or USB 3.2 2x2 would be welcome additions, I cannot fuss too much as the high-speed options are plentiful and reasonable.
The slot arrangement is set up with the primary slot being metal-reinforced design at x16. The second metal-encased slot can support a PCIe SSD or GPU or any other device up to x8 and will drop the top slot to x8 as well direct from the CPU. The bottom x16 slot is x4 electrically from the PCH along with the three x1 slots, which all run through the PCH and the DMI link.
Pulling the lower cladding form the Hero, and we find that the PCH cover is an RGB lit plastic piece covering the PCH heat sink below. There are three total M.2 SSD slots, each with a thermal pad and a heatspreader to help keep the drives cool under load.
The lower edge of the board carries various connectivity as follows:
- Front panel audio header
- Thunderbolt header
- 12V RGB and 5V ARGB headers
- 2x 1A fan headers
- 3A H_AMP header
- Thermal sensor header
- Retry Button
- 2x USB 2.0 headers
- Front panel and speaker header
The bottom of the Hero has various connectivity and controls; one of the coolest and worth note is the retry button. The retry button allows you to force a reboot with the same settings; this can help when pushing things such as memory overclocks, and the platform is having trouble training DIMMs. This is not something you should be using regularly as memory settings that unstable are likely going to be problematic on an everyday configuration.
The 24-pin side of the board hosts various connectivity as follows:
- Water input & output probe leads
- Water flow-meter header
- Fan 1A header
- 6x SATA 6Gb ports
- USB 3.2 Gen 2 header
- USB 3.2 Gen 1 header
- 24-pin main ATX connector
- Power and Reset button
Even though the Hero does not have all of the bells and whistles of the Extreme, such as the dual zones of radiator fan headers, it does have several of the liquid cooling friendly headers that builders can find useful.
As we move up to the top where we find the EPS connectors, we find that the Hero employs an 8+4 arrangement, which should be enough to handle even a highly clocked 10900K easily. The chunky heat sink is in place to keep VRM thermals in check, although with the stout VRM, I question if the massive cooler is necessary.
Moving to the overclockers corner and we have the standard assortments of power and reset button. Well, that is correct in theory, but the reset button is renamed to the flex key as its purpose can be changed to be a retry button, among other features, to best fit your use case. By default, the flex key is set up as a reset button.
Here we get a full look at the socket and surrounding components. As you can see, the VRM sink covers not just the top and left side, but even below the socket where the VCCIO/VCCSA reside. The inductors are massive and familiar designs, with Japanese black 10k rated caps.
The I/O cover, while it looks like part of the heat sink, is plastic and purely aesthetic with the glossy plastic covering the backlit ARGB Hero name.
Stripping away the heat sinks and cladding, and you can see the three-sided VRM sink. All of the thermal pads have solid depressions telling me that they are making good contact. There is an ancillary heat sink that cools the Aquantia 5Gb controller.
Now, I think it's about time we move on to the PCB and circuit analysis of the Maximus XII Hero (Wi-Fi).
PCB and Circuit Analysis
Here we see the stripped-down board, and there are plenty of ICs here to check out, so let's dig in and see what makes the Hero tick.
First up, of course, we take a peek behind the curtain of the VRM and what makes it work. The VRM is powered by the DiGI+ ASP14051, which is a rebranded IR35201 running in 7+1, and the power stages are TDA21462 60A units with 14 for the VCORE. These Power stages are teamed as ASUS does not use doublers, so they feed the same PWM signal to a pair of power stages. This is more than sufficient to provide a 10900K, in my opinion, even on the most extreme cooling; I believe that once again, like many good quality Z490, the Hero is overbuilt and could likely run without a heat sink in most cases.
Moving left of the VRM and we see from the top down, we have the ASMedia ASM1442K, an HDMI level shifter for the rear panel HDMI port. Then moving down, we have the i219V 1Gb LAN port from intel. Below this, we have the Aquantia 5Gb LAN controller model number AQC111C.
Moving lower on the board and we see the ASMedia ASM1074, which is a USB 3.0 hub for the rear ports on the board. We also see moving mid-board another ASP14051, which is used to control the VCCSA/VCCIO, which uses Onsemi power stages along with discrete fets.
The audio solution is a SupremeFX solution, which means it is a variant of the ALC1220 codec. We see a mass of gold Nichicon audio grade caps along with an ESS Sabre ES9023P DAC. The standard PCB isolation layer is seen here as well, which helps isolate the audio portion from other signaling by creating almost an island on the PCB for it.
Down at the bottom right, we have the Z490 PCH chipset. We also have the Aura controller below it, which is an MCU used to control the RGB/ARGB lighting features. In many cases, ASUS can have several controllers that all contribute to the RGB and other ROG features for the board.
Lastly, we look at the memory VRM, which is powered by an ASP1103 and uses discrete fets to power the two phases of memory power.
Moving into the UEFI, and the very user-friendly easy mode interface greets you. Of course, we will be moving directly to the advanced mode. We will show you several screenshots of the UEFI below.
It seemed appropriate to end with the save/exit screen as we move into the OS and get things testing.
Test System and Configuration
My testbench is strictly controlled with a fresh OS for any platform or component change. The system uses all the same components whenever possible to maintain comparable results between platforms. The ambient in the test lab is rigorously controlled at 22C +/- 1C. All tests are run a minimum of three times, and any outliers are discarded, and a replacement test run will be completed to achieve our average results. The use of a TITAN RTX for the testing is to ensure that the GPU is not the bottleneck for performance results, and will best represent the scaling across CPU and platforms.
- Motherboard: ASUS Maximus XII Hero (Wi-Fi) (buy from Amazon)
- CPU: Intel Core i9 10900K
- Thermal Paste: Arctic Cooling MX-4 (buy from Amazon)
- Cooler: Alphacool Eisbaer LT 360mm (buy from Amazon)
- Memory: Corsair Dominator RGB 3600MHz 16GBx2 (buy from Amazon)
- Video Card: NVIDIA TITAN RTX (buy from Amazon)
- Storage - Boot Drive: Corsair MP600 (PCIe 4) 2TB (buy from Amazon)
- Network Switch: Buffalo Multi-Gigabit BS-MP2008 (buy from Amazon)
- Testbench: DimasTech Easy XL (buy from Amazon)
- Power Supply: Thermaltake 1200W (buy from Amazon)
- OS: Microsoft Windows 10 (buy from Amazon)
- Monitor: ASUS XG438 43" 4K (buy from Amazon)
- Video Capture: Elgato 4K 60 Pro (buy from Amazon)
- Keyboard: Logitech G910 Orion Spectrum (buy from Amazon)
- Mouse: Corsair Logitech G502 (buy from Amazon)
WPrime, SuperPi, Cinebench, and AIDA64
WPrime is first up and being a multi-threaded benchmark. We know it will scale with any CPU we throw at it. You can manually set the number of workers or threads you want to allocate to the calculation, which we did the total thread count for each CPU to ensure we measure the maximum performance the CPU can offer.
The WPrime short test shows the Hero jumping to a quick lead as a chart-topper at 2.265 seconds. The longer tests show the Hero dropping to mid-pack, but that's not necessarily a bad thing as all of the boards are within mere seconds of each other.
SuperPi is a much older test, but it's worth including as it is a single-threaded computation workload that really can show in granular detail differences in the computational ability of the silicon being tested. One thing to note is that this is an aging application that tends to favor intel architecture, so don't be surprised when you see much better results by some chips, as those same chips you will see get beaten in other tests.
With SuperPi, it is a single-threaded workload, which can show the base efficiency of a platform. Here we see the Hero fall to the lower edge just ahead of the Supermicro option. Once again, these are fractions of a second in many cases, but from top to bottom, you can see up to a ten-second disparity. Keep in mind, though, this is up to ten seconds on a test that takes almost seven minutes.
Cinebench is a long-standing render benchmark that has been heavily relied upon by both Intel and AMD to showcase their newest platforms during unveils. The benchmark has two tests, a single-core workload that will utilize one thread or 1T. There is also a multi-threaded test which uses all threads or nT of a tested CPU
Starting with the single thread test, we see the Hero comes in mid-pack, but that's only part of the story as the point spread once again is very tight, and the top board on this test is only two points above.
The longer test, we find the Hero still sitting mid-pack.
Moving to Aida64, we start with memory performance. The memory performance all falls within expectations, with nothing falling outside average variance.
The AES encryption test gives a result in MB/s, and all of the boards are virtually equal here.
For FPU testing, we have 32-bit single-precision first. Here, once again, we see that all of the Z490 boards are virtually equal, with only the Supermicro falling off a bit based on its strict adherence to the intel guidelines for TAU and turbo boost settings.
Now with the next level, we have the 64-bit double-precision test. Here we see more of the same.
Lastly, we have 80-bit extended precision, and I'm sure you can guess the result or look at the chart. If you run this sort of workload, all of these boards will do the job similarly.
Handbrake, 7-Zip, and WebXPRT
Handbrake is up next, and we are transcoding a 4K MKV to MP4. Here we see that under this sort of workload, we get a bit more of a spread. The Hero finds itself on the upper side of the mid-pack results.
7-Zip is an open-source and free compression application. It works well with multi-threading and also can see gains from clock speed as well.
Moving to the 7-Zip compression suite, we see the Hero at the lower mid-pack range, but within a second of the top spot.
WebXPRT is a browser-based test, and we like this test as this is one of the areas not many think to test. This also happens to be a real-world usage test that can be impacted by the mitigations which have recently rolled through and were patched.
WebXPRT sees the Hero take a top 4 position, which is not a bad place to be since you can see in the chart that the boards the Hero surround itself with are at minimum 25% more expensive if not 3x the cost.
Unigine and UL Benchmarks
Superposition from Unigine is a DX12 based benchmark. We test with the 720p LOW preset as this removes all but the most basic GPU loading, and all of the FPS performance comes from the CPUs ability to push frames to the GPU. This test is far more efficient and speed based rather than being highly threaded.
Unigine Superposition is one of our 3D gaming loads, and we test it at the 720p low preset to remove the GPU from the equation as much as possible and show the impact of the system on graphical performance. Here we see the Hero falters a bit, showing graphics results toward the lower-end, which tells me there's some more UEFI tuning needed to unlock the full performance of the platform. That being said, the performance would not be a killer here, but you could lose a few FPS with this sort of workload.
PCMark is a benchmark from UL and tests various workload types to represent typical workloads for a PC. Everything from video conferencing, image import, and editing, along with 3D rendering, are tested.
The overall result shows the Hero at the lower mid-pack, which is still well within reason, but several boards have squeezed a bit more efficiency from the platform. ASUS could stand to be a bit more aggressive in the tuning for the Maximus boards to make up the disparity.
3DMark Firestrike is our second graphics or synthetic gaming test. Here we see the Hero move across the board form the total score being in the top midrange, to the combined being a chart-topper. This shows that the performance very much depends on the workload, and I think ASUS could make up some ground here by tightening up some of the underlying presets in the UEFI to get a more substantial showing here.
3DMark Time Spy
Time Spy is another 3DMark test variant, but this one is for DX12 based systems. This test can be quite stressful, and since its an entirely different load, you may be surprised to see how the results shuffle when compared to Firestrike.
Moving to the newest graphical and gaming benchmark in the UL suite, and the Hero finds itself mid-pack across the board, which is not bad at all, but it does speak to the capable nature of the platform. Being out of the box performance.
System I/O Benchmarks
For storage performance, we test the platform using a PCIe 4.0 Corsair MP600 2TB M.2 NVMe drive. It is tested in CrystaldiskMark 7.0.0 x64, and we average the results to ensure a good cross-section of expected performance. Do note that some platforms do not support the new PCIe gen 4, and therefore will cap out around 3400-3500MB/s.
M.2: MP600 2TB
Here, with the MP600, we see that the Hero falls within what would be average variance for the drive and well within the other board's results.
SATA: T-Force 2350GB SSD
SATA performance is standard for the Hero, nothing out of what we would consider normal.
USB: WD P50 1TB
For the external storage, we select the fastest port to test the P50, which is the USB 3.2 Gen 2, and here we see it lines up with all of the other board equipped with a gen 2 port, and well within average variance.
Network testing: Iperf
We use IPerf for network throughput testing; the server is an 8700K based DIY rig with an Aquantia 10Gb interface.
Here we see that the Hero is the one board that bridges the gap between 2.5Gb and 10Gb. I think it's a good compromise for the price point to have 5Gb over 2.5Gb, because while most do not have multi-gig network hardware, it is becoming more prevalent, and those that need it may very well choose the Hero to get the 5Gb over 2.5.
The next part of network testing is a file transfer test. We use the same endpoint, but we are transferring data from the internal SanDisk Extreme Pro 1TB NVMe SSD.
Here we see the file transfer test, which took 102 seconds, which falls in between the 2.5Gb results and the 10Gb.
Here we see the actual throughput from windows reporting at a mostly uninterrupted 558MB/s.
Clocks, Overclocking, Thermals, and Power Consumption
Here we will look at the physical and functional performance metrics for the new Z490 motherboards. This includes out of the box clocks, thermals, power consumption, and of course overclocking.
Out of the Box Clocks
First up is a frequency plot for the 10900K on the Hero, and we see that this board holds 5.3GHz blips for a bit longer and more frequently. Some boards have more stringent tuning on this, and the bursts are super quick and sometimes not even caught on data logging.
For power consumption tests, we use a wall meter to test the full system draw. The reason for this is it will represent what the entire system pulls versus our meter, which shows power draw on each PSU cable. The reason for this is that measuring the power draw from the EPS cable, for example, does not take into account VRM losses and, therefore, can show a much higher power draw for the CPU or other device due to an inefficient VRM design or loading range.
Idle power with the full system and TITAN RTX discrete GPU in place, we see the 10900K platform pulling 65W, which is a bit below several of the competition, but well within average variance and should not make a significant impact on the power bill.
Loading up the CPU with a full FPU load, and the Hero jumps up to 282W at steady-state once full saturation was complete and thermals normalized under stress.
Testing synthetic GPU stress only is an excellent way to show the overhead the CPU adds, as the GPU does not pull more power after it reaches steady state. Here we see once the GPU reaches its peak thermals and flattens out that the system pulls 418W at the AC cable.
Idle temps for the 10900K in each board are within a mere few degrees here, and we see the Hero is at 28C when sitting idle, and all background tasks have completed and settled.
Loading each CPU up with a full burn-in FPU load, and we see the CPU level out at an average package temp of 73.3C, which is within the normal variance of the Z490 platforms.
Here we see the Maximus XII Hero under our thermal imager with a full load on the CPU for over an hour. The Hero VRM cooling is stout as we noted before, and under full FPU load, we see a max heat sink temperature of 44C on the lefthand side while the upper heat sink sees 42C. The PCB near the inductor line is 45C.
Overclocking with Comet Lake has been a lesson in limitations, both thermally and architecturally. As intel squeezes the 14nm node for all it has, the frequency is now under several boosting algorithms, which help enhance single or dual-core performance to the nth degree. However, it does not leave much on the table for overclocking.
The Hero easily completes the 5.2GHz clock on our 10900K, and at a set voltage of 1.32VCore. The actual voltage under load with LLC level 6 is 1.318-1.322 from a direct DMM reading at the inductors.
ASUS has made a robust board in the Hero, and I feel like there are compromises with every board to hit a price point, but the Hero reaches a very good balance.
What we like
High-speed connectivity: The Maximus XII Hero is a solid board with a well-appointed feature set. The connectivity includes many high-speed interfaces both on the rear and on the board headers. While 2x2 is not present, at the price point, we can accept that as there is so much available on the Hero.
PCIe 4.0: While the PCIe 4 is not here, for Intel at least, we know that by the time it is, there will be even more GPUs and SSD's available that can utilize the faster interface.
Value: The Hero, while not the cheapest board, is well equipped, and that makes it a great value contender when you consider the feature set and tuning prowess.
What do we think could be better?
UEFI default tuning: The Hero is a stout board offering, but I feel like ASUS left a bit on the table with tuning to ensure maximum compatibility. I assume as UEFI matures, we will see more performance squeezed from the Z490 based platform.
10Gb Network: This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I would like to see 10Gb as that would almost fill out the entire feature stack for high-speed connectivity options.
The Maximus XII Hero (Wi-Fi) is a great board, and the team at ASUS chose features and layout wisely to make a capable board that would be an excellent choice for a variety of use cases and build types.
ASUS made a robust Z490 option with the Maximus XII Hero (Wi-Fi). Even without a backplate, the board feels solid in the hand and all of the cooling components work well and component choice is well appointed.
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