Three Z97 Express Motherboards, $220 To $280, Reviewed

MSI Z97 MPower Max AC Hardware

Unlike its namesake, you can really heat things up when you choose Max AC from MSI. And that feeling of performance? Talk about MPowerment! Other than a name that might have been created by a carnival barker, MSI tries to distinguish its Z97 MPower Max AC with features like an Intel “WiDi” 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac BT4.0 combo card, liquid cooling connections on its voltage regulator heat sinks and MSI-exclusive on-board overclocking buttons.

Those liquid cooling connectors are part of what makes this a member of MSI’s “Overclocking” motherboard family, though that feature was missing from a previously-reviewed member of the line-up. Conversely, the cheaper board’s fourth, crippled x16-length expansion slot is missing from this higher-priced version.

MSI also adds a couple of USB 3.0 ports to the Z97 MPower Max AC’s I/O panel, while cutting the number of USB 2.0 ports by the same number. And that means the MPower Max AC gets an extra USB 3.0 controller to help justify its higher price, in addition to the Wi-Fi controller.

The Z97 MPower Max AC has only standard M.2, but that at least beats the one board that doesn’t have any M.2 in this round-up. Its SATA interface is shared with a couple of cable connectors though, reducing available ports from eight to six when that interface is used.

The Z97 MPower Max AC has two USB 3.0 front-panel headers, one that points forward to slide its cable under the top graphics card, and one that faces outward, being located above the top graphics slot. That means both can be used regardless of graphics configuration, and that’s a rarity for this less-flexible connector standard.

Our only possible layout complaint—and it’s a small one—is that the front-panel audio connector is located very close to the Z97 MPower Max AC’s bottom-rear corner. Some cases still come with cables too short to reach there. Even though that’s technically a case problem, we still like to see motherboard designers compensate by moving this header slightly forward.

Otherwise, gamers who’d criticize MSI for not supporting four-way SLI need to remember that the switch everyone else used to get there is about as valuable as the included wireless controller. None of MSI’s competitors implement that, though MSI doesn't support three-way SLI either, since three cards would be split into x8-x4-x4 links. Nvidia doesn’t allow SLI on cards connected with fewer than eight lanes.

Radeon lovers will point out that three-way CrossFire is still viable, and that x4 bandwidth is still sufficient when connected at four-lane PCIe 3.0 transfer rates.

The Z97 MPower Max AC beats most other competitors by including six SATA cables in its installation kit, and three of those have a right-angle end. Graphics bridges are a different matter though, since the Z97 MPower Max AC lacks three- or four-way SLI support. A single SLI bridge serves its two-way SLI limit. MSI excludes the CrossFire bridge, though some cards include their own and a few others don’t need it.

Intel’s Wi-Fi card is front and center above, mounted on a riser board that fits within the Z97 MPower Max AC’s I/O section.

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  • Nuckles_56
    Damn, nice boards but really expensive. A pity about the i7 4790k not performing well, as I really wanted to see which board was best at OC'ing
  • InvalidError
    Seems like somewhat of a shame to test boards with a PCIE switch using only a single GPU. How many enthusiasts who spend in the neighborhood of $300 on a motherboard would settle for a single-GPU setup?

    This needs a follow-up with x16x16 PEX vs x8x8 native vs x16x16 LGA2011 and, hopefully, x8x8x8x8 PEX vs x16x8x8x8 native on LGA2011.
  • jtd871
    On-board wifi is simply a waste of space and power (and probably available pcie bandwidth) - even for mITX mobos. Wireless specifications change too frequently to get locked in to whatever is on your mobo. USB dongles are easier to upgrade/replace and allow more flexibility with respect to antenna placement.

    If you really can afford 3 GPUs, you should really be starting with X99. For Z97, full-size ATX boards are kind of a waste due to the limit on available PCIe lanes, unless you want just 1 GPU and a bunch of other 1-2-lane expansion boards. I would have preferred seeing what you can get in a uATX (or possibly mITX) solution for the same budget in a package that's arguably a better fit to cater to the SLI/CF crowd and easier to fit in a case.
  • envy14tpe
    Love to see things at their full potential, but can we include a i5-4690k for comparison? Many people don't need what the i7 offers and would love to see how the i5 overclocks and performs on these motherboards.
  • SessouXFX
    How do they measure up to the Asus Z97 Deluxe?
  • rolli59
    Really when it comes down to that class of boards and money is no issue, the question is; is your color theme, red, yellow or blue?
  • SessouXFX
    Anodized Gold. :P

    That one MSI board...I hope that price isn't accurate, that they're currently out of stock or something else is going on, as in, it's being shipped from S. Korea...
  • fl-gators-fan
    Very nice to see the Gigabyte Gaming GT coming out ahead, as that's the board I'm using. I've had it for about 2 months with the I7-4790K and haven't even tried overclocking yet. The 4.0 GHz is plenty fast for all I do :)
  • Gurg
    So this indicates that for what it costs to try to dress a 4790k up, you will spend at least as much as a higher performing 5820k.
  • InvalidError
    1279836 said:
    So this indicates that for what it costs to try to dress a 4790k up, you will spend at least as much as a higher performing 5820k.

    While the motherboard and CPU may cost about the same, you also need to throw in an extra $100 for DDR4.
  • Lutfij
    Good article and read there Thomas! In person the MSI board does feel solid but you've gotta admit and wonder, do I need a full sized mobo merely for the add on widi card and sacrifice multi GPU loadout? Answer is no.

    Keep up the good work mate!
  • Crashman
    1279836 said:
    So this indicates that for what it costs to try to dress a 4790k up, you will spend at least as much as a higher performing 5820k.
    5820k is clocked slower than 4790k and doesn't usually O/C to the same max frequency. So this is primarily a gamer's option. And it uses cheaper RAM.
  • polyformist
    I too would be interested in the Difference between these and the ASUS z97.
  • Crashman
    66533 said:
    I too would be interested in the Difference between these and the ASUS z97.
    I thought so too. Asus chose not to participate this time because it didn't believe its cheapest 3-way/4-way SLI board would stay within the price range, and it didn't want to put a board lacking this feature against samples such as Gigabyte's and ASRock's.

    BTW, I have to be VERY CAREFUL about what I reveal of these conversations. So, you're welcome :)

    BTW 2, new forum member and freelance technician Gordon_Foster89 assisted in the testing of these boards. Don't be afraid to hit him up with testing questions :)
  • Nuckles_56
    8708 said:
    66533 said:
    I too would be interested in the Difference between these and the ASUS z97.
    I thought so too. Asus chose not to participate this time because it didn't believe its cheapest 3-way/4-way SLI board would stay within the price range, and it didn't want to put a board lacking this feature against samples such as Gigabyte's and ASRock's. BTW, I have to be VERY CAREFUL about what I reveal of these conversations. So, you're welcome :) BTW 2, new forum member and freelance technician Gordon_Foster89 assisted in the testing of these boards. Don't be afraid to hit him up with testing questions :)


    Thanks for that information and we understand that you can't talk too much about that
  • rush21hit
    I'd say the difference is negligible at best. It all goes back to the feature people want for their money. Depend on what you need, none is better than the other as far as I can see.

    That said, I for one, would choose whichever the cheapest and also has the longest replacement warranty, ignoring their feature altogether. Though they seem to be standardized nowadays, by 1 year 1:1 replace for faulty product and 2 years free service AFAIK. Regardless which you choose.

    I really want to upgrade to one of these and an i7 4930K, I really do. And the money is available also. But my wife would kill me first...
  • Zach_Tom
    I would rather see the Gigabyte GA-Z97X-Gaming-G1 Wifi Black edition or the standard edition
  • TechTanium
    i really want to see the MSI Z97- MPower Max AC performance as it is my dream board ;-) and msi normaly outperforms outher brands in stability and OCing
  • Prplxt
    "Since the hose side of the bridge only operates in x16 or x8 mode, total bandwidth drops to x8. Those eight lanes are still repeated to four slots, but “x16” mode for two or fewer cards only exists on the device side of the bridge whenever Ultra M.2 is utilized in PCIe mode."

    What does this mean? On the Asrock mobo if I run a x4 m.2 ssd in the ultra slot how many lanes will my 2 GPUs run 'at'? 16/16, 16/8, 8/8, or other? And if I only run one gpu will it run at 16 or 8?
  • Danra
    It is too bad that the LAN uses so many CPU cycles, I would prefer they use a Intel, that would make the Gigabyte nearly a perfect motherboard, even if the price were a little higher. I know manufacturers try to give customers the most bang for the buck, however, I think getting those wasted CPU cycles back is worth paying for.

    Awesome, you get your $700+ video card, plug it in and install a single PCIe x1 device and your video card slot drops to PCIe x8... I believe this is the first time that a socket 1150 or 1155 motherboard has 48 PCIe lanes available [thanks to the ExpressLane PLX PEX8747 chip].

    You can actually spend $1400 on two Nvidia GTX 980s and have full PCIe x16 bandwidth on both. I am a single video card user because I cannot afford to pay more than the price of a good computer build for the price of two GTX 980s, however, the PLX PEX8747 chip permits me to plug in some other PCIe x1 device.
  • Crashman
    1837469 said:
    "Since the hose side of the bridge only operates in x16 or x8 mode, total bandwidth drops to x8. Those eight lanes are still repeated to four slots, but “x16” mode for two or fewer cards only exists on the device side of the bridge whenever Ultra M.2 is utilized in PCIe mode." What does this mean? On the Asrock mobo if I run a x4 m.2 ssd in the ultra slot how many lanes will my 2 GPUs run 'at'? 16/16, 16/8, 8/8, or other? And if I only run one gpu will it run at 16 or 8?
    Should be "host" side.

    Anyway, if you install an x4 SSD the slots will get x8 bandwidth, x8/x8 bandwidth, and x8/x8/x8 bandwidth because the bridge is a repeater. That's the short story.

    The long story is that two of your cards will be detected as having x16 connections because that's how they'd connect to the bridge.Its as if you lived on a 2-lane street that opened up to two more turning lanes where it crossed a main road, then the google van drove by and took a snapshot of those four lanes and registered it as a 4-lane road.
  • Lutfij
    Quote:
    then the Google van drove by and took a snapshot of those four lanes and registered it as a 4-lane road.
    :lol:

    I had to correct a few of the locations in my neighborhood on Google Maps and more so on their van footage
  • HKILLER
    so if i have like 2xGTX 970 and a M.2 SSD,in the Asrock board my VGA bandwidth will be reduced to 8x8 plus a 4x lane for the M.2 SSD but in the Gigabyte Board that doesn't happen it will be 16x16 because Gigabyte has a regular M.2 slot right?and what if i added i added a sound card (Creative sound Blaster ZXR)aside form the M.2 in the Gigabyte?will that also decrease my VGA lanes to 8x8?
  • Crashman
    1036116 said:
    so if i have like 2xGTX 970 and a M.2 SSD,in the Asrock board my VGA bandwidth will be reduced to 8x8 plus a 4x lane for the M.2 SSD but in the Gigabyte Board that doesn't happen it will be 16x16 because Gigabyte has a regular M.2 slot right?and what if i added i added a sound card (Creative sound Blaster ZXR)aside form the M.2 in the Gigabyte?will that also decrease my VGA lanes to 8x8?
    The Gigabyte board has no M.2 slot, and you can use the middle PCIe 2.0 x1 slot for a PCIe sound card without worrying about the PCIe 3.0 lanes.