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Intel Z97 Express: Five Enthusiast Motherboards, $120 To $160

Intel Z97 Express: Five Enthusiast Motherboards, $120 To $160
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Tom’s Hardware readers set a higher bar for enthusiast-class motherboards, demanding overclocking capabilities and more robust feature sets. Priced from $120 to $160, we welcome the first five Z97 motherboards to our enhanced definition of mainstream!

Tom’s Hardware readers are a savvy bunch. Simply visiting this site means that you’re either a knowledgeable technologist or eager to learn more. We keep it real for you. When a motherboard manufacturer uses the term mainstream, we know they're talking about budget-oriented. A couple of weeks ago, we sent out the invitations for our first round-up of boards based on Intel's brand new "mainstream" chipset, Z97 Express. In the invite, we had to tell vendors we were looking for enthusiast-class products, even though, to most of us, that range between $120 to $160 really is mainstream.

In the quest to differentiate, motherboard companies are getting more aggressive about segmentation. Simply requesting a batch of enthusiast-oriented submissions between those price posts isn't specific enough. Did we want overclocking-focused boards? Gaming-oriented? Is there really such a thing as a motherboard optimized for gaming? We're certainly excited that the explosion of high-profile games is pushing the boundaries of product design, at the very least.

Here's exactly what we're looking for, though: boards that support a couple of PCI Express graphics cards, high-end audio output, a high level of configurability, and enough stability to push a top overclock. However that combination of capabilities is classified, sure, gaming is in there. We just don't like limiting our performance pursuits to a single type of task.

And how about that new, mainstream chipset? It’s a good one. We know this because it’s been on the market for a year, more or less. I've confirmed with several motherboard manufacturers that Z97 Express is—at least functionally—a new stepping of the Z87. See that ME 9.1 firmware box in the above diagram? That’s Intel’s big achievement.

But before you dodge off to buy a motherboard we’ve already reviewed, you’ll want to look at the new crop anyway. These boards have new features that you’ll probably want, and are more likely to support your next-generation CPU upgrade out-of-the box. That’s because the new beta firmware that companies are releasing to support next-generation processors on Z87 products…preceded the launch of Z97. Of course, we won’t be able to make any promises until someone passes along a sample of Intel’s next-generation Core architecture.

Z97 Mainstream Motherboard Features
 ASRock Z97
Extreme4
Asus
Z97-A
Gigabyte Z97X
Gaming 5
L337 Gaming
Z97-Machine
MSI Z97
Gaming 5
PCB Revision1.021.031.01.01.1
ChipsetIntel Z97 ExpressIntel Z97 ExpressIntel Z97 ExpressIntel Z97 ExpressIntel Z97 Express
Voltage Regulator12 PhasesEight PhasesEight PhasesSix PhasesEight Phases
BIOSP1.03 (05/20/2014)0604 (04/15/2014)F2 (03/26/2014)5.6.5 (04/16/2014)V1.1B1 (04/24/2014)
100.0 MHz BCLK99.94 (-0.06%)99.98 (-0.02%)99.98 (-0.02%)100.12 (+0.12%)100.01 (+0.01%)
I/O Panel Connectors
P/S 211211
USB 3.064444
USB 2.022424
Network11111
CLR_CMOS ButtonNoneNoneNoneNoneNone
Digital Audio OutOpticalOpticalOpticalOpticalNone
Digital Audio InNoneNoneNoneNoneNone
Analog Audio55556
Video OutVGA, DVI-D, HDMI, DisplayPortDisplayPort, HDMI, VGA, DVI-DVGA, DVI-D, HDMIVGA, DVI-D, HDMIVGA, DVI-D, HDMI
Other DevicesNoneNoneNoneNoneNone
Internal Interfaces
PCIe 3.0 x163 (x16/x0/x0, x8/x8/x0, x8/x4/x4)2 (x16/x0 or x8/x8)2 (x16/x0 or x8/x8)2 (x16/x0 or x8/x8)3 (x16/x0/x0, x8/x8/x0, x8/x4/x4)
PCIe 2.0 x16None1 (2-pathways)1 (4-pathways)NoneNone
PCIe 2.0 x1323 (shared w/slot above)34
USB 3.01 (2-ports)1 (2-ports)1 (2-ports)1 (2-ports)1 (2-ports)
USB 2.02 (4-ports)3 (6-ports)2 (4-ports)1 (2-ports)2 (4-ports)
SATA 6.0 Gb/s8 (Shares: M.2, SATA-E)6 (Shares SATA-E)6 (Shares: M.2, SATA-E)46 (Shares M.2)
SATA Express1 (Uses 2x SATA)1 (Uses 2x SATA)1 (Uses 2x SATA)NoneNone
4-Pin Fan25545
3-Pin Fan4NoneNone2None
FP-Audio11111
S/PDIF I/ONoneOutput OnlyOutput OnlyOutput OnlyNone
Internal ButtonsCLR_CMOSMemOK, PowerNonePower, ResetNone
Internal SwitchDual ROM SelectorEPU, TPU, EZ XMPNoneNoneAudio Power Source
Diagnostics PanelNumericNoneNoneNumericNumeric
Other DevicesM.2 (Sub 1x SATA, SATA-E), Serial COM portM.2 (Sub 2x PCIe x1), 2x PCI, TB_Header, Serial COMM.2 (Sub 1x SATA, SATA-E), PCI, Serial COM portM.2 (Didicated SATA)Serial COM port
Mass Storage Controllers
Chipset SATA6x SATA 6Gb/s
(Includes M.2, SATA-E)
6x SATA 6Gb/s
(Includes SATA-E)
6x SATA 6Gb/s
(Includes M.2, SATA-E)
4x SATA 6Gb/s
1x M.2
6x SATA 6Gb/s
(Includes M.2)
Chipset RAID Modes0, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 10
Add-In SATAASM1061 PCIe
2x SATA 6Gb/s
NoneNoneNoneNone
USB 3.0ASM1042AE PCIeZ97 Integrated OnlyZ97 Integrated OnlyZ97 Integrated OnlyZ97 Integrated Only
Networking
Primary LANWGI218V PHYWGI218V PHYKiller E2201 PCIeWGI218V PHYKiller E2205 PCIe
Secondary LANNoneNoneNoneNoneNone
WiFiNoneNoneNoneNoneNone
BluetoothNoneNoneNoneNoneNone
Audio
HD Audio CodecALC1150ALC892ALC1150ALC1150ALC1150
DDL/DTS ConnectDTS ConnectDTS ConnectNoneNoneNone
WarrantyThree YearsThree YearsThree YearsThree YearsThree Years

SATA Express (SATA-E) is one of the anticipated features accompanying many of today’s new gaming-mainstream motherboards, but turns out to be a bit of a letdown. Pairing two standard SATA ports with a dual-lane PCIe link, it’s the cable-interface version of Intel’s M.2. Problems abound though, including the fact that it can’t be enabled simultaneously with M.2, that both M.2 and SATA-E eat PCIe lanes on a chipset that only offers eight, that both technologies also gobble up to SATA ports on a chipset that has six, and that the total bandwidth between the chipset and CPU is a scant 2 GB/s.

None less than our own Christopher Ryan opines that the popularity of M.2 in notebook PCs can be better-addressed in a desktop by using standard cables with RAID, that PCIe-based SSDs are already accomplishing what SATA-E hopes to add, and that the even greater flexibility of external devices really doesn’t mean much when the chipset’s DMI link is so restrictive. Add to that the likelihood that next-year’s SATA-E devices will more-than-likely have compatibility issues with third-party controllers, and the entire move appears little more than a marketing gimmick (for now).

With the “new technology” conversation now on the back burner, let’s turn our attention to these new motherboard designs and see what they bring to the table.

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  • 5 Hide
    onover , May 12, 2014 11:23 PM
    The table detailing the motherboard features on page 1 ... Is it just me, or is the text a bit small?
  • 3 Hide
    makishima , May 12, 2014 11:36 PM
    Quote:
    The table detailing the motherboard features on page 1 ... Is it just me, or is the text a bit small?

    I find it small
  • 3 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , May 13, 2014 12:01 AM
    I'd like to see a review on the significance of the 'killer' NICs... I highly doubt they have any difference besides branding.
  • 0 Hide
    SteelCity1981 , May 13, 2014 12:43 AM
    so intel it seems doesn't have much faith in their own thunderbolt considering there is no thunderbolt ports on this new chipset!
  • 0 Hide
    H4X3R , May 13, 2014 12:52 AM
    The Asrock one is better. Not everyone will be using XSplit, and as tradesman1 (a moderator on this site) said "I myself won't touch MSI mobos due to the poor QC".
  • 0 Hide
    Crashman , May 13, 2014 12:53 AM
    Quote:
    so intel it seems doesn't have much faith in their own thunderbolt considering there is no thunderbolt ports on this new chipset!
    READ PAGE ONE to find out why this chipset has the same features as the previous chipset.

  • 0 Hide
    H4X3R , May 13, 2014 1:04 AM
    Good review :)  I am looking forward to the best price:features motherboard review though (extreme6). I have a quick question crashman: Do asrock still use Capxxon caps (or just crappy caps in general). I would like to know the company of the caps if possible, once again, thank you :) 
  • 0 Hide
    Crashman , May 13, 2014 1:17 AM
    Quote:
    Good review :)  I am looking forward to the best price:features motherboard review though (extreme6). I have a quick question crashman: Do asrock still use Capxxon caps (or just crappy caps in general). I would like to know the company of the caps if possible, once again, thank you :) 
    I wish I knew. It appears that they get their caps custom-wrapped to get the gold color, and that the custom wrapping only has specifications (no branding).

  • 0 Hide
    tarkhein , May 13, 2014 4:20 AM
    Quote:
    I'd like to see a review on the significance of the 'killer' NICs... I highly doubt they have any difference besides branding.


    Not exactly the most comprehensive review, but here is Asus' take on NICs: http://rog.asus.com/312772014/labels/guides/tried-and-tested-why-intel-ethernet-is-still-better-for-gaming/
  • 0 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , May 13, 2014 4:31 AM
    Of course, they're testing throughput, and latency is what is generally considered to matter.
  • 0 Hide
    tarkhein , May 13, 2014 4:33 AM
    Quote:
    Of course, they're testing throughput, and latency is what is generally considered to matter.

    Latency is down the bottom of the page if you didn't realise.
  • 0 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , May 13, 2014 4:42 AM
    Hmm, I missed that.

    It looks like they're testing at 10Mb/s though, which sort of invalidates all the latency results.
  • 0 Hide
    ubercake , May 13, 2014 4:45 AM
    Z97-Z in the last paragraph on page 5 (should be Z97-A).
  • -1 Hide
    airborn824 , May 13, 2014 4:59 AM
    I am upgrading my 965BE this week to a 4770k. Looking at the MSI Gaming 3 what does evryone think? i am keeping my SSD HDD and Saphire HD6950 for now. Any suggestions for a Z97 board under $180
  • 1 Hide
    Amdlova , May 13, 2014 6:43 AM
    dooooooo the itx test :)  everyone want small cages now. asrocks have better value better power and better desing!
  • 0 Hide
    sincreator , May 13, 2014 6:53 AM
    Usually when games are tested on motherboards the results are virtually identical. Strange that the MSI board came up as far ahead as it did in this case. Any ideas on why this happened Crash?
  • -1 Hide
    H4X3R , May 13, 2014 7:08 AM
    [/quotemsg]I wish I knew. It appears that they get their caps custom-wrapped to get the gold color, and that the custom wrapping only has specifications (no branding).
    [/quotemsg]

    Well, then i guess i'll have to hunt that info down because i do not like investing in mobos with cheap components, no matter how many features it has.



  • 1 Hide
    Onus , May 13, 2014 7:59 AM
    I had to replace a cap on a cheap ASRock mobo that I knocked off myself with too-aggressive cable management. What appeared to be an exact replacement was a Nichycon, which is a good Japanese brand.
    As to MSI, I wouldn't touch their cheap boards, but their Z77A-GD65 Gaming board really surprised me over how nice it is, and how cool the VRMs stay under load. If my primary were full ATX, I'd be using it there.
  • 0 Hide
    geok1ng , May 13, 2014 8:06 AM
    After reading about the total mess that is adding SATA Xpress and M2 to a chipset starving for PCIe lanes, my upgraditis will wait for Haswell-E and X99. X97 feels like a notebook chipset.
  • 0 Hide
    palitusa , May 13, 2014 10:33 AM
    Great Review! MSI should be better than Asrock but then again Asrock price is pretty damn good!
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