MSI Z97i GAMING AC Motherboard Review
With the ever growing popularity of small form factor Gaming PC’s for the living room and easier transportation to LAN parties, we decided we really ought to take a look at some MITX cases, which also clearly meant the need for an MITX motherboard of the Gaming variety. The obvious answer? Well that would clearly be the MSI Z97I GAMING AC. It’s been a while since we last looked at a product from MSI (and that would’ve been the rather good MSI GTX 980 GAMING 4G back in October), but they have always managed to impress us in almost every area. So what of their latest little number? We best have a closer look to find out!
|‘MSI GAMING motherboards are designed to provide gamers with best-in-class features and technology. Backed by the imposing looks of MSI’s Dragon, each motherboard is an engineering masterpiece tailored to gaming perfection.’|
The MSI Z97i GAMING AC follows in the footsteps of its bigger GAMING brethren, with a predominately satin black box with the dark grey circuit detail in the background, atop of which we have the infamous silver grey MSI GAMING Dragon. From the top left corner we have the MSI logo, followed by the logos for Audio Boost 2, Killer E2200 Game Networking, Intel – inside CORE support, Intel – inside CHIPSET Z97 and the MSI GAMING Series logo. Below this we then of course have the model name, beneath which details the Ultra Fast Wi-Fi and its 867Mbps IEEE 802.11ac (5GHz) speed.
On the back is a brief description about MSI GAMING Motherboards, specifications and I/O panel overview (see Specifications/Features below), then a pretty thorough and detailed breakdown of all the MSI Z97i GAMING AC key features as follows:
- AUDIO BOOST 2
Reward your ears with true quality and get ready for ear-drum shattering Gaming with MSI Audio Boost 2! Less noise, crystal clear sound and the best audio components for truly sensational sound quality.
Golden Audio Jacks – High Quality Audio Amplifier Audio Isolation Line.
High Quality Audio Capacitors – Direct Audio Power.
- KILLER™ E2200 GAME NETWORKING
The Killer™ E2200 Intelligent Networking Platform is built for maximum performance for online games and high-quality audio and videos streaming. Featuring Advanced Stream Detect™, Killer E2200 automatically detects and accelerates game traffic, giving priority over other programs to provide lag-free in-game performance and a competitive edge through faster network response.
- USB AUDIO POWER
Only MSI USB Audio Power continuously delivers a stable 5V when connecting multiple USB devices, where traditional USB solutions fall short. This is highly noticeable with high-quality external USB DACs, making sure you can continue to enjoy the crystal clear audio standard you expect.
- SOUND BLASTER CINEMA 2
- MSI GAMING App
- XSplit Gamecaster
- Gaming Device Port
- Ultra Fast Wi-Fi
Unboxing the MSI Z97i GAMING AC is a rather familiar experience. As it’s the same as other MSI GAMING motherboards the inner section is comprised of two trays. The top tray contains the MSI Z97i GAMING AC, well protected within an anti-static bag and hidden beneath this is the secondary tray which is sectioned into two sections and contains all of the other accessories.
courtesy of MSI GAMING
|CHIPSET||Intel® Z97 Express Chipset|
|CPU SUPPORT||Supports 4th and 5th Generation Intel® Core™ Processors, and Intel® Pentium® and Celeron® Processors for Socket LGA1150|
|Main Memory|| Support two DDR3 1066/1333/1600/1866*/2000*/2133*/2200*/2400*/2600*/2666*/2800*/3000*/3100*/3200*/3300*(*OC) MHz DRAM, 16GB Max
– Dual channel memory architecture
– Supports Intel® Extreme Memory Profile (XMP)
– Supports non-ECC, un-buffered memory
|SLOTS||1 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots|
|On-Board SATA||Intel Z97 Express Chipset
– 4 x SATA 6Gb/s ports (SATA1~4)
– 2 x eSATA 6Gb/s ports
– Supports RAID 0, RAID1, RAID 5 and RAID 10
– Supports Intel® Smart Response Technology, Intel® Rapid Start Technology and Intel® Smart Connect Technology*
|USB||Intel Z97 Express Chipset
– 6 x USB 3.0 ports (4 ports on the back panel, 2 ports available through the internal USB 3.0 connectors)
– 6 x USB 2.0 ports (4 ports on the back panel, 4 ports available through the internal USB 2.0 connectors*)
|Audio||Realtek® ALC1150 Codec
– 7.1-Channel High Definition Audio
– Supports S/PDIF output
|LAN||1x Killer E2205 Gigabit LAN controller*
* The Killer Network Manager is only available for Windows 7 and Windows 8/8.1 currently. The supported drivers for other operating systems would be available on the website if provided by vendor.
|Wireless LAN||Wi-Fi/Bluetooth expansion module with Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 chip.
– Supports Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual band (2.4GHz, 5GHz) up to 867 Mbps speed.
– Supports Intel Wireless Display (WiDi)
|Bluetooth|| – Wi-Fi/Bluetooth expansion module with Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 chip.
– Supports Bluetooth v4.0 (includes BLE* and Bluetooth 3.0+HS)
* BLE: Bluetooth Low Energy
|Internal I/O Connectors|| – 1 x 24-pin ATX main power connector
– 1 x 8-pin ATX 12V power connector
– 4 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors
– 1 x USB 2.0 connectors (supports additional 2 USB 2.0 ports)
– 1 x USB 3.0 connector (supports additional 2 USB 3.0 ports)
– 1 x 4-pin CPU fan connectors
– 1 x 4-pin system fan connectors
– 1 x Front panel audio connector
– 2 x System panel connectors
– 1 x Chassis Intrusion connector
– 1 x Clear CMOS jumper
– 1 x Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module connector
|Back Panel I/O Ports|| – 1 x PS/2 keyboard/ mouse port
– 1 x LAN (RJ45) port
– 4 x USB 2.0 ports
– 4 x USB 3.0 ports
– 2 x eSATA ports
– 1 x Optical S/PDIF OUT connector
– 6 x OFC audio jacks
– 2 x HDMI port, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096X2304@24Hz/ 2560X1600@60Hz/ 3840X2160@60Hz/1920X1200@60Hz
– 1 x DisplayPort, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096X2304@24Hz/ 2560X1600@60Hz/ 3840X2160@60Hz/1920X1200@60Hz
|BIOS|| – The motherboard BIOS provides “Plug & Play” BIOS which detects the peripheral devices and expansion cards of the board automatically.
– The motherboard provides a Desktop Management Interface(DMI) function which records your motherboard specifications.
|Dimension||6.7 in. x 6.7 in. (17 cm x 17 cm) Mini-ITX Form Factor|
|Mounting||9 mounting holes.|
First impressions of the MSI Z97i GAMING AC are initially of shock! Not just because at 170mm(W) x 170mm(L) it measures considerably less than the typical 305mm(L) x 244mm(W) dimensions of an ATX Motherboard, but also at the amount of features crammed onto its miniature PCB. It even does this while looking good too! The familiar colour scheme of all MSI GAMING Z97 motherboards is present, being a satin black PCB with anodized red and matte black heatsinks. Then over on the largely featureless back, a rather dominate CPU retention plate.
The MSI Z97i GAMING AC offers a very different layout to your typical ATX motherboard (or MATX and EATX for that matter!). In the upper left quadrant we have an 8pin CPU power socket, to the left of this is a vertically mounted CMOS battery (great idea for space saving!) and beneath this a Clear CMOS Jumper switch. Then above the two System Panel connectors (JFP 1 & 2), USB 2.0 socket and then the audio circuitry. As mentioned before, the MSI Z97i GAMING AC features MSI Audio Boost 2, which uses the Realtek ALC1150 Codec and is shielded by a high-grade EMI cover with back-light illumination (at least according to the website, the Audio Boost cover is certainly there, but not an LED in sight), to its left we have a total of seven professional Nichicon high quality audio capacitors, above which lies a headphone amplifier and the front panel audio header. While finally rounding off this incredibly busy corner of the motherboard, we also have four SATA 3.0 sockets, all of which are controlled by the Intel Z97 Express Chipset.
In the lower left quadrant we have the JW_JB1 socket for the MSI AC Wi-Fi/Bluetooth Module, a 4pin system fan header, JWLED1 (yep, another Google moment. This one is for a dual-colour LED, one colour will illuminate when your PC is on, then the other for when it’s in sleep mode), then finally a JTPM1 header (Trusted Module Connector).
The upper right quadrant is decidedly less busy. From the top we have the 24pin motherboard power socket, then the USB 3.0 connector, to the left of this a chassis intrusion detection header, then nearer the LGA 1150 socket we have a single 4pin CPU fan header and beside this a JTURBO1 header (yep, I’ve never actually found a use for this either, but apparently it’s here for use with the MSI Multiconnect Panel or MSI Voice Genie).
Now we’ve covered the busy areas of the MSI Z97i GAMING AC, here are the simpler ones. Obviously because of the tiny nature of the MITX form factor, certain sacrifices need to be made. One of which is in the area of PCIe expansion slots. So no SLI or CrossFireX here, not even an off-board soundcard, because we have just the one slot!
- PCIe Expansion Slot (PCIe 3.0 x16 slot) is used for PCI Express x16 lane width cards.
The second key area of sacrifice is DIMM slots, of which there are just the two. These can accept a maximum 16GB (x2 8GB) of DDR3 running up to 3300MHz. Personally I don’t find the reduction down to two DIMM slots an issue, we use 2x 4GB DDR3 sticks for testing purposes, you don’t need any more than this for Gaming and the MITX format has now done away with two dust traps!
Finally we have the top of the MSI Z97i GAMING AC. We’ve already discovered everything along the top side, so this photograph is pretty pointless, but still pretty nonetheless… 😉
Something that hasn’t been lost in the miniaturisation of the MSI GAMING motherboard series, is the lovely new heatsinks. The Northbridge still retains the powder coated black with anodized red Dragon claw heatsink, it even still has the silver Dragon on the side. The heatsink itself is slightly smaller with three claws instead of four, but personally I think it looks better for it. Adjoining this by a nickel plated copper heatpipe is the Southbridge (yes, I know the north is in the west and south is in the north, but that’s MITX motherboards for you). This like the ones featured on the larger motherboards has anodized red sides with a black brushed metal effect fascia, topped off with the MSI GAMING shield logo.
The I/O panel features a phenomenal array of ports considering the size of the MSI Z97i GAMING AC, in fact I’ve seen full ATX motherboards with less! It does feel a little strange having the audio jacks on the left instead of the right side of the panel and it is always nice to see a Clear CMOS button to save faffing around with jumpers or batteries. It’s also nice to have done away with DSUB and DVI-D in favour of the more popular (to me at least!) and universal HDMI and DisplayPort. Although there is one slight oddity, which you may have spotted if you’ve been paying close attention (if not go back to go, you may not collect £200! Actually I nearly missed this too…). This being the red MSI GAMING Device ports, which are clearly stated as being USB 3.0 ports in one place, then USB 2.0 in another?! A little bit of conflicting information methinks, but to the best of my knowledge these are in fact USB 2.0, just like those of the other MSI GAMING motherboards.
I have to admit, from what I’ve seen so far I’m very, no VERY impressed with the MSI Z97i GAMING AC and what it has to offer. Sure it may lack multi-GPU compatibility and a second pair of DIMM slots, but it is tiny and crammed with most of the other features you would find on a much larger ATX Gaming motherboard. My only real concerns are the single system fan header (perhaps one or two more, maybe MSI could have even thrown in a fan splitter cable?) and possibly the locations of some of the headers (I’m not convinced having the front panel headers sandwiched between the I/O panel and CPU socket is that great an idea, surely you’d want them nearer the front of the motherboard ergo nearer the case front panel?!). Oh, there is one other thing too, being the Southbridge or more so the MSI logo above it. I’d have kinda liked it if you had the choice of rotating in so that it would be the right way up when vertically installed (of course that’s just me being fussy 😉 ).
A new build was put together to house the MSI Z97i GAMING AC motherboard and the Intel i5-4690K CPU. The following components were used:
|Case||Cooler Master HAF XB||Power Supply||Corsair Professional Series AX 760i|
|Motherboard||MSI Z97I GAMING||CPU||Intel Core i5-4690K|
|CPU Cooler||Noctua NH-U9S||RAM||HyperX Savage 2400MHz 8GB Kit|
|Graphics Card||XFX AMD Radeon R9 290X DD Black Edition||SSD||HyperX FURY 120GB|
*The MSI Z97i GAMING AC is an MITX motherboard, therefore our regular Raijintek Themis CPU cooler will not fit without conflicting with either the PCIe or DIMM slots. So for the purpose of this review we shall be using the Noctua NH-U9S instead. All other Test Rig components are however the same.
Installing the MSI Z97i GAMING into the Cooler Master HAF XB was both straightforward and a little odd. Initially I had decided to put the motherboard assembly together prior to installing into the case, but despite the small stature of the Noctua NH-U9S, the MSI Z97i GAMING AC MITX seemed even smaller still! Before installing into the case, I first installed the small MSI Wi-Fi/Bluetooth AC Module, which simply slots onto its header and then fixed by a small screw on the underside of the motherboard.
The I/O shield is then slotted into place and to save a little time I decided to build the motherboard assembly (CPU, CPU Cooler, RAM & MB) before installing into the case. The MSI Z97i GAMING AC was then installed onto the HAF XB motherboard tray via four screws (one in each corner) and the tray installed to the case. Normally this is where I go about slotting in the XFX R9 290X DD Black Edition test Graphics Card at this point, but doing so would make the single system fan header very awkward to get to, so before doing so I plugged in a basic three way fan splitter and the trio of HAF XB case fans were then plugged into that. The GPU was then installed and I set about plugging in relevant case and power cables. This is where I came across a number of potential issues (one I’ve already mentioned). The first being the single system fan header, one I can live with as I’ve usually got a fan splitter of some sort to hand anyway, its location on the other hand is pretty daft as it’s sandwiched in a 20mm gap between the AC module and GPU. The second potential issue for me is the location of the front panel header and 8pin CPU power socket between the I/O panel and CPU socket. I understand an MITX motherboard is tiny, but do we really need or even want cables trailing across the motherboard when they could’ve surely been placed around the edge!? Now the third possible issue involves the 8pin ATX socket itself, which is very close to the vertically mounted CMOS battery with the release clip on the battery side, surely it would make sense for the socket to be the opposite way round to make the cable easier to unplug? The final oddity is just me nit picking, but again down to sockets, this time for SATA. The inside and outside sockets run in opposite directions (the L bit on the left on the top two and on the right on the lower two!). This means that although you’ll have no problems with flat SATA cable plugs, right angled ones will obscure its opposite socket? No biggie, but certainly odd…
Yet despite these little oddities, the MSI Z97i GAMING AC once installed allows for both a tidy build and looks pretty good too, one thing I clearly overlooked during the wiring up, is that despite having headers in awkward places, many of them cause the cables to overlap, therefore hiding others beneath it, then with a little careful planning you can easily hide any others between components. In fact if I’m honest, all of these seem pretty trivial considering I’m still in shock over its size and the amount of features crammed onto this tiny MITX Gaming motherboard.
A new installation of Windows Home Premium 64bit (Service Pack 1) was performed and the following Drivers were then installed. The latest MSI Drivers were used and can been obtained (here). Although the MSI Z97i GAMING AC has a Drivers and Utilities disc in the box, we here at pcG try to keep up with the latest Drivers and software where possible.
* The latest AMI BIOS version (1.6) was downloaded and installed via the MSI M-FLASH Update Utility within the UEFI and was used throughout testing *
- Intel Chipset Driver (INF driver version: 10.0.20)
- Realtek High Definition Audio Driver (184.108.40.20693)
- Killer Network Driver (220.127.116.118)
- Intel USB 3.0 Driver (18.104.22.168)
- AMD Catalyst Software Suite (Omega 14.12)
During testing the following tools/benchmarks & games were used/played:
Once installed the MSI Z97i GAMING AC booted first time, so the first order of the day was to update to the latest BIOS (1.6). A nice and simple job using a USB stick with the relevant BIOS file on and the M-FLASH tool within the UEFI. Admittedly it isn’t as quick and easy as the Internet Flash Utility implemented on the ASRock Fatal1ty motherboards, but it does the job and does so quickly.
The MSI Click BIOS 4 looks great with its MSI GAMING skin and is very easy to use courtesy of its sensibly organised layout. We also have the auto-overclocking facility, which is separated into two this time, XMP and OC GENIE. By clicking the XMP button (top left) your RAM will automatically be overclocked to its XMP Profile 1 (in the case of our HyperX Savage – 2400MHz), then clicking on OC GENIE we get both the RAM overclock and a small CPU overclock, pushing the i5-4690K from its stock speed of 3.5GHz (1.022v), up to 4.0GHz (1.201v). Which, as is the case of many auto-overclocking software, the voltage is a little over aggressive on the power front (on this particular i5-4690K, we can get the same results with 1.0381v), but certainly nothing to worry about (plus there is a little side benefit for new overclockers and lazy people like myself that I’ll explain in a bit 😉 ). Of course you could always take the reigns for yourself and push for a higher overclock by upping the CPU Ratio and CPU Core Voltage, to which I managed to attain a stable 4.5GHz with 1.24v.
Another important aspect of many UEFI setups that is always there, but often overlooked is the Hardware Monitor section, or more importantly Fan Control. The implementation withinthe MSI Click BIOS 4 for this is personally my favourite due to being clearly laid out, offering all the information you’re likely to need and because it looks good (yep, I’m shallow!). Normally I would not include a screenshot of any UEFI Board Explorer pictures, but I’ve done so this time around to try and reiterate how many features have been crammed onto the MSI Z97i GAMING AC. With this clear image of the MITX motherboard and its highlighted areas, I find it really hits home.
- Benchmark Results (CPU @ STOCK: 3.5GHz (1.012v) : RAM @ 2400MHz) with XFX AMD Radeon R9 290X DD Black Edition
|Metro Last Light||1920×1080||75.67|
|Unigine Heaven 4.0||1920×1080||1412|
- Benchmark Results (CPU @ OC GENIE: 4.0GHz (1.2014v) : RAM @ 2400MHz) with XFX AMD Radeon R9 290X DD Black Edition
|Metro Last Light||1920×1080||79.00|
|Unigine Heaven 4.0||1920×1080||1413|
- Benchmark Results (CPU @ OC: 4.5GHz (1.2014v) : RAM @ 2400MHz) with XFX AMD Radeon R9 290X DD Black Edition
|Metro Last Light||1920×1080||80.33|
|Unigine Heaven 4.0||1920×1080||1418|
Running through the tables of results gave me somewhat of a surprise. Given the small form factor of the MSI Z97i GAMING AC MITX motherboard, I expected there to be a bit of a sacrifice in the area of performance (even if only small), but MSI’s tiny board gives its bigger competition a bloody good run for their money. To the point where only the Fire Strike benchmarks fall behind. Another area of surprise is the amount of overclocking headroom for the i5-4690K test CPU, allowing for a 4.5GHz overclock where some full ATX Z97 motherboards I’ve used struggle past 4.0GHz! Of course what does this translate to for us Gamers? Well, we do get a slight performance boost in-Game, but is it really worthwhile!? I’ll let you decide that…
Hardware (Audio Boost 2)
Hardware (KILLER™ E2200 Game Networking)
Software (Command Center)
I’ll admit out of all the motherboards I’ve tested in recent years and all their variant Windows based control panels, MSI Command Center is easily my favourite and in my eyes the best! Why? Well it sets off a pretty good first impression by looking good, it is very clear and sensibly laid out and has a plethora of features such as system monitoring, OC Genie, CPU, DRAM, IGP and RAMDisk tuning and fan control. You can even comfortably overclock your CPU within Windows or if feeling a little lazy, opt for the OC GENIE route (although this does require a reboot). You may recall that in order to attain a stable 4.5GHz overclock through Click BIOS 4, I had to push the CPU Core Voltage up to 1.24v. However by running off the back of the OC GENIE 4.0GHz (1.2014v) overclock, I was able to select all cores and push the ratio up to 45.0 within MSI Command Center, giving me the same stable 4.5GHz overclock, but this time with 1.2014v. Which ultimately also leads to less heat being produced by the CPU and an even easier way of overclocking your CPU. Certainly a win/win situation if you ask me.
As ever shrinking Gaming rigs become more and more popular, pcG decided we should really take a look at some MITX cases. So what to put in them? The MSI Z97i GAMING AC of course! But does a shrink in size mean shrinking performance?
The MSI Z97I GAMING AC arrived at pcG in the familiar style of an MSI GAMING product. That being a predominantly black box, whith red highlights and a bloody great big silver dragon! Yet that was all that was big about it, as the box itself was tiny!
With the box open, the MSI Z97i GAMING AC was found to be safely packaged within an anti-static bag, beneath which a plethora of accessories were hidden. A closer look of the motherboard itself left me in stunned silence… Measuring just 170mm(L) x 170mm(W), the MSI Z97i GAMING AC MITX can literally be held in the palm of your hand and is easily the smallest motherboard I’ve ever seen.
It follows the MSI GAMING styling of its bigger Z97 siblings and still retains those good looks. With the satin black PCB, black and red dragon claw Northbridge and MSI GAMING logo Southbridge heatsinks, it just does it in a smaller fashion (a hell of a lot smaller!).
So given its miniaturized size, you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘less mobo, less features’, yet you’d be wrong to a degree. By taking an ever closer look, we can see the two most obvious sacrifices by way of reduced DIMM slots and just the one PCIe expansion slot, which doesn’t mean you can’t have a damn good Gaming rig build around it of course. Yet the Killer E2205 Game Networking, Audio Boost 2 (with dedicated amps and EMI shielding) both remain, we now have the additional WiFi/Bluetooth AC module and I was able to give our i5-4690K a stable 4.5GHz overclock with 1.2014v too! Something I really wasn’t expecting.
They say all good things come in small packages (ha!) and the MSI Z97i GAMING AC is a very good MITX motherboard, in fact it is very nearly a fantastic one. So what lets it down? Not a lot if I’m honest, it certainly has the looks and all the features you could possibly want from both an MITX and a Gaming motherboard (ok, so you won’t be using SLI or CrossFireX and you’re limited to a maximum of 16GB of RAM, but look at how big it is!), but some of the header locations are a little bit of an oddity. I’d certainly have preferred to have the front panel header around the edge of the motherboard and nearer to where the case front panel will actually be, the single system fan header could again be moved to an area away from the PCIe slot (in fact why not add one or two more!?), the 8-pin power socket would be easier to release if the locking clip faced any other direction other than towards the CPU socket as it does, then the SATA cables would be better if they all faced the same direction so that you could use a right angled SATA cable without blocking another SATA header.
In the grander scheme of things, these are all fairly small niggles and for a small package that costs approximately £105.00, your getting a hell of a lot for your money (sorry pcG James, but your going to have to find your own MITX test motherboard now, I seem to have accidentally lost this one 😉 ).
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Many thanks to MSI for providing this sample for review