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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.

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