Asus Z97 Pro(Wi-Fi ac)
The (Wi-Fi ac) suffix adds Broadcom’s dual-band 802.11ac controller to the already-likeable features of Asus' Z97 Pro. That controller also features integrated Bluetooth connectivity, and stands in contrast to the secondary wired controller offered by competing products in today’s round-up. We'd certainly call this board's networking suite most-practical.
The wired controller, Intel’s WGI218V, leverages PCH features over a custom link to save a PCIe lane. That means the only “waste” we see on the I/O panel is a VGA port, which we saw ASRock smartly do away with.
Other I/O panel features include four USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports, HDMI, and DisplayPort. A bit legacy for most enthusiasts, those “slow” USB 2.0 ports are still fast enough for a keyboard and mouse. And, users of ancient keyboards or mice will also find a PS/2 port that can serve either purpose.
Asus TPU (auto overclocking), EPU (lower-energy mode), and EZ XMP switches stand in stark contrast to a black PCB. That last switch lets you invoke an Intel XMP memory profile without forcing you into the firmware; it could be useful for boutique builders who worry about enthusiastic customers getting lost after resetting the UEFI.
Three buttons make this platform easier for overclockers to use. The Z97 Pro(Wi-Fi ac)'s power button lets you test the board outside of a case without shorting the power pins manually. MemOK allows users of poorly-programmed memory to boot once at lower clock rates and/or higher latencies. At that point, you can enter the UEFI and manually dial-in voltage. And USB BIOS Flashback employs its own logic controller to re-flash firmware, even if you don’t have a CPU or memory installed.
Barely cheaper than more purpose-built three-way SLI boards, the Z97 Pro(Wi-Fi ac) can deliver 16 PCIe 3.0 lanes to the primary slot or split them between the first and second x16 slots in x8/x8 mode. The third x16-length slot gets a maximum of four lanes from the Z97’s eight-lane PCIe 2.0 controller, though two of those lanes are also wired to x1 slots and one more is wired to the ASM1042AE USB 3.0 controller. An ASM1184e PCIe x1 to x4 switch gives the Z97 Pro(Wi-Fi ac) enough connectivity to feed other on-board devices, but still doesn’t have enough lanes to fix that specific pathway sharing issue. If you want to use any of those aforementioned features, the bottom slot shifts into x1 mode. Visual tricks like this might attract customers, but I would have settled for an open-ended x1 (or x4) slot in that location instead.
Two of the Z97 PCH’s six SATA ports are found within a SATA Express connector, so they can be used either way. Those same ports are, however, also connected to the M.2 interface, forcing some builders to choose between connector technologies. Asus retains six traditional SATA-only ports by adding a two-port ASM1061 SATA 6Gb/s controller (though both ports share a single 5 Gb/s PCIe 2.0 link).
The Z97 Pro(Wi-Fi ac) front-panel audio jack is found about an inch forward from the traditional rear corner location. The significance of this layout change depends on case selection, since some cases still have FP-Audio cables around half-an-inch too short to reach that corner. It’s hard to believe that certain case manufacturers still haven’t addressed the issue (a carryover from AC'97 days), but Asus has.
Four SATA cables in the Z97 Pro(Wi-Fi ac) installation kit appear a little basic, especially given the unit's $212 price. Then again, Asus appears to be targeting a gaming and overclocking market that often isn’t very reliant on complex drive configurations.