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

ASRock Z97 Extreme4

ASRock gives users interested in the latest drive interface their choice between M.2 or SATA-E though traditional chipset connections, and if you don't have a storage device compatible with either technology, you can get similar performance through a couple of SATA ports via RAID.

An ASM1042AE controller adds two USB 3.0 ports to the rear panel, bringing the total to six without sacrificing the chipset-driven USB 3.0 front-panel connector. Two USB 2.0 ports are also seen here, along with VGA, DVI-D, HDMI, and DisplayPort display outputs for the CPU’s integrated graphics engine.

Fed by Intel’s i218V PHY, the single GbE port provides connectivity without consuming a PCIe lane, thanks to the chipset’s dedicated networking link.

The Z97 Extreme4 also provides two additional SATA ports via a single-lane PCIe-based controller. Unfortunately, that one lane limits those two attached drives to 5 Gb/s combined throughput. And you’ll not likely use the third PCIe x16 slot for a storage device because it steals four of the CPU’s sixteen total lanes from the second slot when it's active.

If you were building a three-way CrossFire rig or simply adding three cards to support a wall of displays, you’d probably prefer that PCIe 3.0 x4 link to the PCIe 2.0 x4 interface that would have otherwise been available from the chipset. On the other hand, SLI users will find that they need the middle slot to keep all eight of its available pathways.

One of the Z97 Extreme4’s smarter features is a switch allows you to manually select one of two firmware ROMs, rather than relying on the often-unreliable “smart” switching certain competitors use. Better still, the use of socketed ROMs provides cheap insurance against dead ICs.

ASRock is particularly proud of the Z97 Extreme4’s “Purity Sound” audio solution with enhanced headphone amplification and DTS Connect support as well.

The Z97 Extreme4 includes only four SATA cables to serve its eight internal headers, but one potentially-nice added feature is its HDD-Saver cable. Using a bundled application, users can switch power on and off to their storage drives to increase drive longevity, save energy, or reduce noise when the devices aren’t being used.

A rigid SLI bridge is also provided.

Thomas Soderstrom is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware US. He tests and reviews cases, cooling, memory and motherboards.