Asus Z97M-Plus Motherboard Review

Another day, another mATX Z97 motherboard review. Today's candidate is the Asus Z97M-Plus, which we're comparing to ASRock's Z97M OC Formula and Z97M Pro4.

The Z97M-Plus is the least expensive Z97 mATX board Asus offers, which might make you think it's low-end. However you'd be wrong, considering the other two are the $170 Gryphon and the $220 Maximus VII Gene. At $135, the Z97M-Plus is toward the top of the mainstream price range. With a near identical price to the previous ASRock Z97M OC Formula, there will of course be many comparisons between the two. Let's see how the Plus stacks up against the competition.

Specifications

Overview

With no flashy colors, the Z97M Plus looks somewhat pedestrian compared to the last few boards that have come through here. The two gold accents on the VRM and chipset heat sinks are the only color on the grey/black board. I gave some meaningless style points to the OCF last time for its sharp colors. I give the same empty points to the Plus by not treating me like a squirrel and thinking stylish anodizing will sway my head. What can I say? I prefer windowless cases, and flamboyant colors don't mean anything behind a steel panel. A board only needs a good feature set at a good price to earn my respect.

The board topology is perfectly straightforward, though Asus does throw in a few extras we haven't seen on the previous ASRock models. The 8-pin EPS power jack is up on top as usual with two 4-pin fan headers. Joining them is a three-position GPU Boost switch that can overclock the CPU and GPU; CPU, GPU, and BCLK; or be left off. With this board and CPU, position one set a tiered CPU multiplier of 46, 45 and 44 based on core usage. Position two set a hard CPU multiplier of 36 and 125 MHz BCLK for a 4.5 GHz overclock. Both positions left VCore on automatic, which peaked at 1.328V and 1.298V, respectively. Neither had any effect on the GPU. However, with the current generation of dynamic GPU clock and fan management technologies (and my test bed has an R9 290X), I'm left to wonder how applicable the GPU portion of this feature is.

The other extra is the MemOK button at the top right. Pressing and holding the button triggers the board to do a series of self-tests on the RAM to find compatible settings. It's a nifty feature for recovering from too-high overclocks and when you want a general idea of your RAM's lower limits. The RAM slots also feature a fixed latch on the bottom side next to the PCIe slots. This should be a requirement on any mATX board as it makes it much easier to remove RAM modules when a GPU is in the top slot (the backplate on the 290X I use touches the RAM latches on most mATX boards). The RAM slots are just a little closer to the CPU socket than on the ASRock boards. I could still use the first slot with my test RAM, but it was touching the CPU cooler fan.

Down the front edge is the 24-pin ATX power plug, six SATA ports and the USB 3.0 header just behind the SATA jacks. The first and second SATA ports are not forward-facing even though ports three through six are. I'm not sure why Asus would do this, especially since port one and two are the most likely to be used. A socketed BIOS chip is in the bottom right corner.

The expansion card area has a second 4-pin fan header and M.2 socket above the first PCIe slot. This is our preferred location as it keeps the SSD away from GPU waste heat. The Plus supports 60mm and 80mm drives and both SATA and PCIe modes. The M.2 slot shares lanes with the bottom PCIe slot and SATA ports five and six, depending on operation mode. Speaking of PCIe, the Plus has two 16x length slots. The top is grey to distinguish it as the 3.0 x16, while the bottom is only 2.0 x4. Two legacy PCI slots are between. The bottom edge of the board has the usual mix of headers. From left to right: HD audio, parallel, TPM, SP/PDIF (requires additional break-out card), serial, three USB 2.0, clear CMOS and front panel.

The back I/O panel is a little sparse compared to the OCF. You still get a PS/2 port for a keyboard, but only two USB 2.0 ports for peripherals. Video is the same with VGA, DVI-D and HDMI. The Plus has four USB 3.0 ports for high-speed storage, but no eSATA. Networking is handled by an Intel I218-V gigabit controller. Instead of a TOSLINK, you get an additional 3.5mm jack for a total of six, though this really isn't a loss. The Plus uses an ALC887 chip for audio, meaning real-time 5.1 encoding with Dolby Digital Live and DTS-Connect aren't supported. That means no 5.1 game audio. The only 5.1 audio you can get over this board are pre-encoded streams, like movies. And while some older HTPCs might still use fiber optic audio cables, I have to think anyone building a new one today will be using HDMI for audio.

Package contents are nearly the same as we've seen in the other mATX boards. You get an installation CD, two SATA cables, a backplate shield and instruction manual. The SATA cables are on the shroter side at 16 inches (40.5 cm). My same complaint applies here as the past boards: a Z board should include four SATA cables. Like the OCF, it's halfway excusable since an M.2 slot doesn't need any cables.

MORE: Best Motherboards
MORE: 
How To Choose A Motherboard
MORE: All Motherboard Content

Create a new thread in the US Reviews comments forum about this subject
This thread is closed for comments
35 comments
Comment from the forums
    Your comment
  • Nossy
    Micro ATX has become that middle child that gets ignored most of the time.
    1
  • Non-Euclidean
    "I gave some meaningless style points to the OCF last time for its sharp colors. I give the same empty points to the Plus by not treating me like a squirrel and thinking stylish anodizing will sway my head."

    So apparently anodizing isn't stylish, and doesnt treat you like a squirrel, but when presented with "sharp colors", you sprint outside looking for acorns!

    We arent looking for a style review and you admit you are a sucker for one style, but then feel insulted when the next board isnt the style you prefer. That's hypocrisy.

    But thanks for the view from Tom's Styleware Guide!
    -3
  • Non-Euclidean
    This board has M2 10Gb/S. That isnt on the specifications and should be. You did imply it, when you said a cable wasnt needed for M2, but it should be on the spec table.

    Why wasnt it tested with an M2 drive as the boot drive?
    0
  • vertexx
    Seriously, I kept hitting "refresh" thinking this was some archive from mid 2015. What's the relevance of running a z97 motherboard review now? That ship has sailed.....
    -2
  • blazorthon
    Quote:
    The first and second SATA ports are not forward-facing even though ports three through six are. I'm not sure why Asus would do this, especially since port one and two are the most likely to be used.


    Two SATA slots are forward facing because not all cases are made in such a way that sideways ports can be used conveniently (if at all).

    Other than if you're using a SATA M.2 SSD, it doesn't matter at all which SATA ports you use, so whether the 1 and 2 slots are forward facing or 3 and 4 or 5 and 6 makes no difference. 1 and 2 aren't any more necessary to be filled first than any other SATA slots.
    1
  • mapesdhs
    Minor typo re "shroter" at the end of the first page:

    "SATA cables are on the shroter side ..."


    Blazorthon's right about the SATA ports, one can boot from any of them.
    0
  • firefoxx04
    4+1 power delivery at over $100? Really?
    0
  • joex444
    Tomorrow: Testing the limits of LGA1366's three-channel RAM.
    3
  • RedJaron
    Anonymous said:
    Micro ATX has become that middle child that gets ignored most of the time.

    I rather like the form factor, one of the reason we're trying to devote some space to it.


    Anonymous said:
    So apparently anodizing isn't stylish, and doesnt treat you like a squirrel, but when presented with "sharp colors", you sprint outside looking for acorns!

    We arent looking for a style review and you admit you are a sucker for one style, but then feel insulted when the next board isnt the style you prefer. That's hypocrisy.

    But thanks for the view from Tom's Styleware Guide!

    Try rereading it with your tongue in your cheek. Notice the points are meaningless and they both got the same amount? If a manufacturer wants to gussy up a board with fancy colors and RGB lighting, I will comment on that. If a mfr keeps things strictly business, I will comment on that as well. Neither impacts my final recommendation on the product.

    I didn't say I'm a sucker for anything except good function and value. It seems today there's a trend to make every computer component as fancy looking as possible. Personally I'd rather not pay extra money for fancy anodizing and RGB lighting. Just give me a product that works for as low a price as possible. I'm telling Asus that it doesn't have to dress up a board to get an award from me.

    Anonymous said:
    This board has M2 10Gb/S. That isnt on the specifications and should be. You did imply it, when you said a cable wasnt needed for M2, but it should be on the spec table.
    It was on the spec table when I turned it in. Looks like it got lost somehow. I'll get that fixed. Thanks.

    Anonymous said:
    Why wasnt it tested with an M2 drive as the boot drive?

    Because the Z97 test bench components need to be kept consistent from one board to another so that the results are properly comparable. Right now we use a 2.5" 840 Pro since not all boards have an M.2 slot.


    Anonymous said:
    Seriously, I kept hitting "refresh" thinking this was some archive from mid 2015. What's the relevance of running a z97 motherboard review now? That ship has sailed.....

    This review was finished a while ago, but we've had so many things in the publication queue, it didn't come out till now. Regardless, just because Skylake is out doesn't mean Haswell is suddenly horrible. Skylake prices are so volatile and inflated right now, global availability still isn't assured, so a cheaper Haswell build is perfectly acceptable for many people right now.


    Anonymous said:
    Two SATA slots are forward facing because not all cases are made in such a way that sideways ports can be used conveniently (if at all).
    How is a forward-facing SATA port less convenient than a perpendicularly mounted one? What mATX case is so incredibly tight around the mboard leading edge that it can't accommodate edge-facing SATA ports? This board is narrower than the mATX spec allows so it actually has more room on the leading edge than a full size mATX board.

    Anonymous said:
    Other than if you're using a SATA M.2 SSD, it doesn't matter at all which SATA ports you use, so whether the 1 and 2 slots are forward facing or 3 and 4 or 5 and 6 makes no difference. 1 and 2 aren't any more necessary to be filled first than any other SATA slots.

    I understand that port number doesn't matter when they're all SATA 6Gbps and that you can set your boot drive priority in the BIOS. However, for people that like to order their drives according to SATA port, it's annoying. Call me OCD if you want.


    Anonymous said:
    4+1 power delivery at over $100? Really?

    With CPUs getting more power efficient, and with Haswell integrating some power control onto the chip itself, massive VRMs aren't as necessary now as they used to be. I understand it feeling like a cut corner given the board's competition. But at the same time, expecting to go for maximum overclock on a mainstream priced board is unrealistic.
    3
  • heinlein
    "I prefer windowless cases, and flamboyant colors don't mean anything behind a steel panel. A board only needs a good feature set at a good price to earn my respect."

    Very refreshing to read that. When I read tech reviews; some things are important to me like is the layout user friendly, performance/power used, thermals, and noise; things like PCBs with a checkered flag motif or extraneous LEDs are useless to me. It is annoying to find a product that fits my needs and know that it is more expensive than it should be because they decided to add cosmetic items like LEDs.
    0
  • dstarr3
    The biggest problem is that there isn't a whole lot of cases that are MicroATX. Most cases that size are MicroATX and full ATX compatible. And since there's no space saving, or even cost saving, in buying the smaller motherboard, you may as well just buy the full-size thing.
    0
  • RedJaron
    I'm not sure where you're getting that. I regularly see mATX versions of boards going for $10 or $20 less than their full-ATX counterparts. I also see plenty of mATX cases available, just search for cases that only have four or five expansion slots. The price difference in cases is usually smaller than mboards ( don't expect more than $5 - $10 less for mATX ) but it's something. If nothing else, a mATX board is more flexible since it can fit more cases than a full-ATX board can.
    1
  • DonkeyOatie
    There are a decent number of mITX, mATX cases for smaller builds. My OCF will SLI 980ti's if I want to and has a M.2 and I got my 4790K to 4.8Ghz and my RAM 2.6Ghz. I'm not sure an ATX would do much more for me.
    0
  • blazorthon
    Anonymous said:

    How is a forward-facing SATA port less convenient than a perpendicularly mounted one? What mATX case is so incredibly tight around the mboard leading edge that it can't accommodate edge-facing SATA ports? This board is narrower than the mATX spec allows so it actually has more room on the leading edge than a full size mATX board.


    Granted you're right in that the lower width of the board could mitigate it, I have seen several MicroATX cases that had no room for sideways SATA ports and I occasionally had someone complain about a build list I gave them and they had this problem because I never even thought to check it. It's rarely a problem except sometimes with people replacing bad boards in some OEM systems or building with some very small cases.

    I should also note that sometimes a very large case might have an issue where the cables you have aren't long enough for the sideways ports, but can better reach a perpendicular port. I have an older full tower that needed to use the one outward facing port I had on my board to reach the DVD drive even in the lowest 5.25" bay because I was reusing cables I had and didn't want to buy more. The board just happened to have the STA slot in just the right position, all of the other four SATA 6Gb/s ports were sideways (the sixth port was on the rear as eSATA) and they reached the hard drives just fine, but not the DVD drive. Of course, having the right size cable would solve this completely, but isn't it more convenient to be able to use more types/sizes of cables should the need arise?

    I wasn't saying that it's a necessary feature and I still don't look for it; I make sure to never choose a case with so little room for the SATA ports. I was just explaining why ASRock did it because confusion was expressed about it. It's an easily avoidable problem since not many retail MicroATX cases are that small.

    Anonymous said:

    I understand that port number doesn't matter when they're all SATA 6Gbps and that you can set your boot drive priority in the BIOS. However, for people that like to order their drives according to SATA port, it's annoying. Call me OCD if you want.


    You're OCD :D
    1
  • RedJaron
    OEM cases I'll grant you can get problematic for building in. I just tried that this last weekend actually and decided it was more worth my time to buy a new case and PSU. I've never seen a case that was small enough that a forward-facing port would be a problem, but I'll take you're word you've seen a few. Extra large cases when your SATA cables are half an inch too short, I can understand that, and that would be an issue with this board with the cables being shorter than others. But as you say, that's more a case/cable issue than port orientation.
    0
  • manitoublack
    Why are you even reviewing old Z97 boards?

    It's 2016 get on the Z170 band wagon and review some modern products. Get some review sample of Z170 mATX boards and then it'll be relevant.

    P.S: I've used 2 mid level h-170 boards for home PC builds for older family members. Great value, no BS, quiet and efficient.
    0
  • turkey3_scratch
    Comparing motherboards via graphs is like torture since the bars are always almost identical, causing you to look at each specific number and compare. It just goes to show how little the motherboard has on performance. Chances are it could be other factors rather than the boards themselves for these minor differences in the benchmark scores, such as background programs running, idle CPU usage, motherboard drivers, etc.
    0
  • RedJaron
    Anonymous said:
    Why are you even reviewing old Z97 boards?

    It's 2016 get on the Z170 band wagon and review some modern products. Get some review sample of Z170 mATX boards and then it'll be relevant.
    If you bothered to read previous comments you'd have your answer. Is this a little delayed? Yes. Does that mean we're not going to review product sent in to us? No. And we've already reviewed some Z170 boards. We've got more Z170 and H170 reviews coming out as well.


    Anonymous said:
    Comparing motherboards via graphs is like torture since the bars are always almost identical, causing you to look at each specific number and compare. It just goes to show how little the motherboard has on performance. Chances are it could be other factors rather than the boards themselves for these minor differences in the benchmark scores, such as background programs running, idle CPU usage, motherboard drivers, etc.

    As I often say, boring benchmarks are good benchmarks when it comes to mboard reviews. If a board's scores are notably different, it means it's trying to employ some kind of hidden cheat or overclock ( faster results ) or it has some kind of problem or conflict ( slower results ). If the bench scores are all level at stock speeds, that means the board is performing as expected so final recommendations and awards come down to extra features and, where applicable, OCing performance.
    1
  • Crashman
    Anonymous said:
    Anonymous said:

    How is a forward-facing SATA port less convenient than a perpendicularly mounted one? What mATX case is so incredibly tight around the mboard leading edge that it can't accommodate edge-facing SATA ports? This board is narrower than the mATX spec allows so it actually has more room on the leading edge than a full size mATX board.


    Granted you're right in that the lower width of the board could mitigate it, I have seen several MicroATX cases that had no room for sideways SATA ports and I occasionally had someone complain about a build list I gave them and they had this problem because I never even thought to check it. It's rarely a problem except sometimes with people replacing bad boards in some OEM systems or building with some very small cases.
    The board specifically is 8.8" deep, where any Micro ATX case is supposed to have at least 9.625" of motherboard space. You should be able to FIT an SATA cable end into that 0.80", but you might have to insert it BEFORE sliding the board into place.
    0
  • rolli59
    Is Tom's going backwards? Used to be the authority on tech! Usually meant the newest and now we are getting a Z97 board review on top of 990FX board review that we recently got.
    Bring on the new stuff!
    0