MSI Z97M GAMING Motherboard Review
Towards the end of production of the Intel Z77 chipset, MSI launched a new line-up to help compete against the likes of ASUS with ROG, Gigabyte and their G1 and ASRock with the Fatal1ty range. Unless you’ve been living under a rock you should already know this line-up to be the MSI GAMING series. Which of course has been a huge success and helped propel MSI above the competition. This was down to good pricing, good performance and of course good looks. The new look of the GAMING clearly needed a new face to which MSI chose the rather cool looking GAMING Dragon, which features heavily on the packaging for every product in their range, even more so within the motherboard range with the Dragon styled north and southbridge heatsinks and they looked fantastic. However a few years down the line (and chipsets), MSI have moved away from the aggressive teenage looks of the past and grown up with a more sophisticated and adult look. We first saw this design with the MSI Z97 GAMING 5 and it not only looked great, but performed so well that pcG James gave it our prestigious Platinum award! So when offered the opportunity to take a look at the smaller MSI Z97M Gaming Motherboard, how could I say no?
The front of the Z97M GAMING box is adorned with a large light grey and white GAMING Dragon, GAMING and MSI logo, shows a few features being Audio Boost 2, Killer E2200 and its support for Intels Z97 chipset along with the motherboard model name. It isn’t hugely busy, but gets the job done.
The back is a lot busier and highlights the Z97M specifications, I/O panel and the following features; Audio Boost 2, Killer E2200, USB Audio Power, Multi-GPU, Sound Blaster Cinema 2, GAMING App and XSPLIT Gamecaster.
Opening up the box reveals an anti-static bag containing the Z97M, under which hides the accessories paperwork and utilities disk.
As you can see, there’s no shortage of extras hidden inside the box. In addition to the motherboard itself we find the following:
courtesy of MSI
|Form Factor||Micro-ATX – 24.4cm x 24.4cm|
|Graphics Interface||PCI-e x16 GEN 3.0|
|Memory Speed (Mhz)||1066/1333/1600/1866/2000/2133/2200/2400/2600*/2666*/2800*/3000*/3100*/3200*/3300* (*Overclocked)|
|Back Panel I/O||1x PS/2 keyboard/ mouse combo port, 4x USB 2.0 ports, 1x Clear CMOS button, 1x LAN (RJ45) port, 6x USB 3.0 ports, 1x Optical S/PDIF OUT connector, 2x eSATA ports, 6x OFC audio jacks, 1x HDMI port, 1x DisplayPort|
|Internal I/O||24-pin ATX main power connector, 1x 8-pin ATX 12V power connector, 6x SATA 6Gb/s connectors, 2x M.2 port, 2x USB 2.0 connectors (supports additional 4 USB 2.0 ports), 1x USB 3.0 connector (supports additional 2 USB 3.0 ports), 2x 4-pin CPU fan connectors, 2x 4-pin system fan connectors, 1x Front panel audio connector, 1x Direct audio panel connector, 2x System panel connectors, 1x TPM connector, 1x Chassis Intrusion connector, 1x Clear CMOS jumper, 1x Power button, 1x Reset button, 1x OC Genie button, 1x Audio power switch, 1x 2-Digit Debug Code LED|
|Expansion||2x PCI-e 3.0 x16 (Bandwidth at x16 single mode, x8/x8 dual mode), 2x PCI-Ex1|
First impressions of the MSI Z97M GAMING are very good. Gone are the aggressive teenage looks and in comes something sleeker, more subtle and wholly more grown up. The most notable visual changes from the previous motherboard being the the all new north and southbridge heat sinks and on closer inspection, a rather lovely looking matte black PCB and of course the M.2 port.
The back of the board doesn’t show us anything particularly exciting, but does show off the matte black PCB and gives us a better idea at how densely packed the top board really is.
So lets take a closer look….
In the top left we have the 1150 CPU socket, rear I/O panel, 8-Pin ATX power connector and the all new Northbridge heat sink.
Whilst in the top left we have CPUFAN1 and CPUFAN2 headers and four DIMM slots. These slots allow support for up to 32GB of DDR3 with a maximum MHz of 3300 when overclocked.
Looking at the busier lower left of the board we can see the second gen Audio Boost 2(controlled via a Realtek ALC1150 chipset) surrounded by EMI shielding. This like its bigger siblings, supports an additional power source by way of the included Audio Power Adapter. Taking a look along the bottom edge and system headers shows us the front panel audio connector, audio switch, direct audio panel connector, system fan header 1, TPM module connector and the PCIe lanes in the following order;
PCI_E1 (PCIe 3.0 x16 slots) is used for PCI Express x16 lane width graphics cards.
PCI_E2 (PCIe 2.0 x1 slots) is used for PCI Express x1 lane width cards.
PCI_E3 (PCIe 3.0 x16 slots) is used for PCI Express x16 lane width graphics cards.
PCI_E4 (PCIe 2.0 x1 slots) is used for PCI Express x1 lane width cards.
Either PCIe slot can be used with a single GPU and use the full x16 lane width, if using SLI or crossfire this will be halved to x8 per slot.
Sandwiched between the PCIe 3.0 slots we find the new M.2 port. For those of you who don’t about this yet its worth checking out our review on the Kingston M.2 120GB SSD, in fact you need to! 😉 Note: that SATA ports 5 and 6 will be disabled while using the M.2 port.
To the lower right we have USB headers 1 & 2, system fan header 2, system panel connectors and chassis intrusion detector header. Above these lives the new southbridge heat sink.
Along the right side of the Z97M GAMING lives the six SATA connectors, as mentioned before SATA ports 5 and 6 will be disabled while the M.2 port is in use (is anyone using an MATX motherboard likely to use all six??). Then beside the SATA headers we have a USB 3.0 header.
Moving up the right is the main ATX 24-pin power connector, debug LED, power, reset and OC Genie buttons. The latta of which allows you an automatic overclock without the need to go into UEFI BIOS or through MSI Command Center. Just like the MSI Z97 GAMING 5 we recently reviewed, the debug LED don’t just come in handy when something goes wrong, but once booted show the CPU temperature. A nice and simple idea which makes you wonder why it’s not been done before?
As mentioned before, the Z97 chipset doesn’t just bring new features with it, but it’s also given MSI the opportunity to give the GAMING motherboard range a refresh. Instead of the Z87-G45 northbridge heatsink and red and black dragon shape, MSI have chosen a chunkier predominately black heatsink with red claws wrapped around them. Looking at the heatsink from the side gives a nod to the previous incarnation by showing a silver dragon.
The southbridge GAMING Dragon has also gone in favour of now standard GAMING series shield logo. It looks more substantial and sleeker than the previous southbridge, but is it nicer? The jury is still out for me…
As we can see and just like the MSI Z87M GAMING before it, the Z97M I/O panel has a lot crammed onto it and offers everything you’d want. Once the shield is in place it looks nice, clean and clearly marked, but red on black isn’t the easiest thing to see whilst hurriedly trying to find the correct ports at the back of your PC.
|As the new Devil’s Canyon CPUs were not available at the time of review (and to be fair there’s very little (in fact almost nothing!) between a Haswell and a Haswell Devil’s Canyon anyway!), our testing was performed with an Intel Core i5-4670K.|
A new build was put together to house the MSI Z97M GAMING motherboard and the Haswell 4670K CPU. The following components were used:
|Case||Cooler Master HAF XB||Power Supply||Corsair AX760i|
|Motherboard||MSI Z97M GAMING||CPU||Intel Core i5-4670K|
|CPU Cooler||Raijintek Themis||RAM||Kingston HyperX Beast 8GB 2400MHz|
|Graphics Card||MSI R9 290X GAMING OC Edition||SSD||HyperX Fury 120GB|
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 Z97M has a drivers and utilities disk in box, we at pcG try to keep up with the latest drivers and software where possible.
* The latest AMI BIOS version (1.3) was downloaded and installed via the MSI M-FLASH utility within the UEFI and was used throughout testing…
- Intel Chipset Driver (INF driver ver: 10.0.17)
- Realtek High Definition Audio Driver (126.96.36.19993)
- Killer LAN Driver (188.8.131.525)
- Intel USB3.0 Driver (184.108.40.206)
- AMD Graphics (Catalyst 14.6)
During testing the following tools/benchmarks & games were used/played:
Installation of the MSI Z97M GAMING was simple enough, the motherboard has a good layout, but only two SYSFAN headers, where as the HAF XB has three case fans, so an additional fan splitter was also used. The board booted first time without a hitch, so it was straight into the UEFI for some basic BIOS checks and to update to the latest BIOS. After confirming the CPU speed 3.4GHz (for our Core i5-4670K) and seeing that our test RAM (Kingston Beast) was running at the default setting of 1333MHz. It was time to install Windows 7 on to the HyperX Fury 120GB SSD.
With stability then proven at stock/default settings (see below) it was time for some overclocking…
The MSI Click BIOS 4 is very simple with everything laid out exactly where you’d expect. Glancing at the front screen tells you pretty much everything you would need to know. Being an MSI GAMING board means that we also have the option of using OC Genie to help with the overclocking. This simple button (top left) within the UEFI overclocked our Intel Core i5-4670K from its stock 3.4GHz to 4.0GHz while dragging our Beast memory from the default 1333MHz up to its XMP setting of 2400MHz. All of this can be done at the touch of one single button in the UEFI. What is nice in the Z97 version on this UEFI, is not only the familiar face of the OC Genie button on the splash page, but right beside it an XMP button! This obviously saves you time trawling through the OC sub-menu, yet more importantly it makes the task in hand both quicker and easier for first time users. MSI have certainly had their thinking hats on here making the UEFI easier to work with, something a few unnamed competitors should really take note of. 😉
Another slight overhaul sees a drastic improvement of the hardware monitor. Previously this was both a little confusing and seemed a little hit and miss whilst trying to alter fan speeds. Now it’s clearer and works 100%!
For manual overclocking I entered the Overclocking Settings (OC) section within the UEFI and pushed up the CPU Ratio to 45 and set the CPU Core Voltage to 1.204v (rather than work for this, I lazily borrowed the OC Genie voltage and despite the bump from 4.0GHZ to 4.5GHz works well). Then to ensure the Kingston Beast memory was running at 2400MHz I hit the XMP button.
With a little work, the Z97M allowed me to get a stable 4.8GHz overclock (with XMP) with a slightly higher 1.295 volts. This is a pretty hefty gain on paper, but the reality is we Gamers just don’t need the extra grunt (yet!), so why push your system harder use more power and gain more heat for such a small performance increase?
For testing purposes the motherboard was at both its Load Optimized Default speeds of 3.4GHz (RAM: 1333MHz) and at 4.5GHz (RAM: 2400MHz), which is more than fine for everyday use with a voltage of 1.204 volts.
- Benchmark Results (CPU @ STOCK: 3.4GHz (1.036v) : RAM @ 1333MHz) with MSI R9 280X GAMING
|Metro Last Light||1920×1080||55.50|
|Unigine Heaven 4.0||1920×1080||929|
- Benchmark Results (CPU @ OC GENIE: 4.0GHz (1.2004v) : RAM @ 2400MHz) with MSI R9 280X GAMING
|Metro Last Light||1920×1080||55.50|
|Unigine Heaven 4.0||1920×1080||930|
As shown in the tables above, there is a small performance gain, let’s see what happens when we push the OC up a bit higher?
- Benchmark Results (CPU @ 4.5GHz (1.2004v) : RAM @ 2400MHz) with MSI R9 280X GAMING
|Metro Last Light||1920×1080||55.50|
|Unigine Heaven 4.0||1920×1080||930|
It would seem that running the CPU and RAM and stock speeds (3.4GHz/1333MHz) performs so similarly to the OC Genie (4.05GHz/2400MHz) and manual OC (4.5GHz/2400MHz) that you have to question yourself as to if it’s really worth it? (certainly for our benchmarks at least).
Hardware (Audio Boost 2)
Here on the new MSI Z97M GAMING motherboard we once again find the Realtek ALC1150 chipset providing on-board audio. Of course we have seen this chipset many times before and it has always impressed, with its low noise and good sound quality. But here on the Z97M we have not only EMI Shielding and dual headphones amps but also a rather unusual addition; a dedicated power lead!? This Audio Power Adapter can be optionally connected to the motherboard’s Direct Audio Power Connector (AUDPWR1) and in turn connects to your PSU by way of a spare molex connector. Activating the on-board Audio Power Switch (AUD_SW1) then allows the rear audio ports to be driven by a dedicated power source.
Both pcG James and myself tested the new Audio Power Adapter with the Z97 Gaming 5 and Z97M respectively. If anything I’d say the Sennheiser G4ME ZERO plugged into the board gained a little volume, but quality wise? I’m not so sure….. On the plus side, the EMI shielding and Audio Boost cover LED are now red and no longer pink! 😉
It’s also still no replacement for a dedicated sound card like the Creative Sound Blaster Zx, that you’ll want to use if your going to be using a high end headset such as the QPAD QH-1339 or the beyerdynamic MMX 300.
Hardware (KILLER™ E2200 Game Networking)
Software (Command Center)
Command Center has come on a long way since it was first introduced a few years back. Personally I believe it to be the best currently available. It is very clear, offers system monitoring, OC Genie (this requires a restart), CPU, DRAM, IGP and RAMDisk tuning (you can happily OC your CPU whilst still in windows and not need to restart!). Perhaps my favorite feature is simply the fan control (I’m a simple bod….). This allows the choice of smart mode (for PWM fans) or manual and allows you to adjust fan speeds by 25% a time. Very handy when you need a little break from Gaming or benchmarking with 100% fan speed to catch up with Netflix with near silent fans.
There are a plethora of additional features that the MSI offers with the Z97M GAMING too. These include: USB Audio Power, X-Split Gamescaster, Gaming Device Support and the Gaming App. For further details follow this link. You certainly can’t doubt this is a GAMING motherboard! 😉
The motherboard itself follows the new MSI GAMING styling with the all black PCB (no longer brown) and toned down heatsinks, gone are the aggressive teenage looks and in comes something sleeker, more subtle, wholly more grown up and it really does look good. The build quality is a notch up from their previous offering, the PCB feels tougher and everything feels more solidly in place. The new GAMING debug LED temperature readings are a great addition as is losing the pink Audio Boost LED and EMI shielding in favour of the red it should have been previously.
There is a lot to like about the MSI Z97M GAMING. It offers SLI and CrossFire support, memory speeds up to 3300MHz (with OC), 6x internal SATA and a total of 10x external USB ports. The only possible issue being a fairly high core voltage of 1.295v when pushing the i5-4670k up to 4.8GHz. This will of course vary from CPU to CPU and to be fair as Gamers we really don’t need to push the CPU this hard (although for perhaps for bragging rights). The MSI Z97M could be at the center of a very powerful Gaming rig.
The revised Click BIOS 4 is every bit as good as it was before, with a few additions like the easier to use (and find) XMP button and a nice and simple Hardware Monitor utility for fan control, but when MSI Command Center offers you the very same features whilst in Windows you may never need it (yep, Command Center is that good!).
Then there’s the price. At the time of review, the Z97M retails at approximately £110. For all the those features tightly squeezed into the form of an MATX motherboard, with looks this good, wouldn’t you want one?
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Many thanks to MSI for providing this sample for review