Z97 chipset based motherboards have begun to saturate the market as of late, and we’re here to bring you another offering from MSI. We’ve already had a look at MSI’s upper-end Z97 MPower Max AC and Z97 XPower AC, so this time around we’ll explore one of their new Gaming series motherboards in the form of the Z97M. This mATX offering aims to pack a powerful punch and a plethora of features, all in a small form factor size. There is little doubt the popularity of small form factor systems has exploded over the past few years, and MSI is doing their part to give those customers a Z97 offering with little to be compromised because of its size. So, how did MSI do this time around? Let’s dive in and find out!
Specifications and Features
Here are the specifications for the Z97M Gaming as provided by the MSI website. A quick glance reveals support for all current Intel 4th and 5th generation CPUs. Future socket 1150 CPUs should be supported as well (think Broadwell). We also have full support for M.2 SATA SSDs using both the SATA and PCI-E interface. Other highlights include 2-way SLI and Crossfire support, Realtek’s ALC1150 audio CODEC, and the Killer NIC E2205 LAN controller.
|MSI Z97M Gaming Specifications|
|Internal I/O Connectors|
|Back Panel I/O Ports|
The MSI Z97M Gaming certainly doesn’t lack for features, that’s for sure. There’s been a big push in the motherboard industry to offer enhanced onboard audio performance, and MSI is no different in this regard. Audio Boost 2 is MSI’s version of this enhanced audio trend, which includes PCB separation, shielding, and dual headphone amplifiers just to name a few. Other audio enhancements are listed below. All images and descriptions are courtesy of MSI.
Reward your ears with true quality – Get ready for ear-drum shattering sound, with MSI Audio Boost 2! With Audio Boost 2 we’re delivering the highest audio quality with the use of Creative Sound Blaster Cinema 2 so you can enjoy crystal clear sound and music through 8-channel HD Audio.
|Isolated Audio PCB – With traditional onboard audio the signal is distorted by electromagnetic signals from the rest of the PCB. Audio Boost 2 acts like a dedicated soundcard by physically isolating the audio circuitry which is separated by a red LED path. Less interference gives you a more clear audio signal.|
|Direct Audio Power – Enjoy a heavy caliber audio experience with Direct Audio Power. A dedicated power input to Audio Boost 2 allows for a more powerful and stable power delivery, resulting in a more explosive and pure sound experience.|
|Dual Headphone Amplifiers – Prepare for an eargasm. The built-in dual headphone amplifier rewards your high quality headphone with the most amazing studio level sound quality up to 600Ω delivered from your gaming PC. Tired of having to connect your headset in difficult to reach places? MSI GAMING motherboards are designed to be easy to use, featuring front & rear audio outputs fueled by Audio Boost 2.|
|High Quality Audio Capacitors – With the use of professional Nichicon Japanese capacitors, specially designed for audio purposes, MSI GAMING motherboards provide the highest possible audio signal filtering. Delivering high fidelity crystal clear sound with exceptional acoustics and realism. These acoustic series capacitors offer lower tolerance, lower dielectric absorption, lower ESR, lower leakage current, and higher stability.|
|Golden Audio Connectors – With golden audio connectors you get the best possible signal output with less chance of distortion. Up to 600Ω crystal clear sound with exceptional acoustics, dedicated amplified output (red) optimized for studio-grade headgear, and Superb signal conductivity and will not wear over time.|
|EMI Shielding – To shield the audio core from EMI (Electromagnetic Interference) caused by other add-in cards the audio chip is protected by a high-grade EMI cover with backlight illumination.|
|Creative Sound Blaster Cinema 2 – Thanks to Creative Sound Blaster Cinema 2, you’re getting amazing surround sound with just stereo headphones or speakers. Creative Sound Blaster Cinema 2 enables you to clearly hear specific sounds in gaming environments. Hear your enemies perfectly, make your ears a decisive tool to finish on top.|
There are several more high-level features worth mentioning here, such as USB Audio Power, the Killer NIC network prioritization, and M.2 SSD support.
|USB Audio Power – When connecting multiple USB devices, most motherboards will be unable to deliver a strong 5V power signal to all USB ports. This is highly noticeable with high-quality external USB DACs where sound quality degrades as the motherboard is unable to deliver a perfect USB signal. Only MSI USB Audio Power continuously delivers a stable 5V to the USB ports on motherboards, making sure you can continue to enjoy the crystal clear audio standard you expect.|
|Killer E2200 Game Networking – The Killer™ E2200 Intelligent Networking Platform is built for maximum networking performance for online games and high-quality streaming media. Featuring Advanced Stream Detect™, Killer E2200 automatically detects and accelerates game traffic ahead of other network traffic for smoother, stutter-free in-game performance and the competitive edge. With this exclusive, automatic traffic prioritization, games and real-time chat get priority over low-level system chatter, giving you the lowest latency for game data on the most controllable network hardware available.|
|Push Your SSD to the Limit – Enjoy a blazing fast system boot up and insanely fast loading of applications and games with MSI GAMING motherboards. We offer the next generation of high speed storage support through M.2 and SATA Express. M.2 and SATA Express transfer data through a PCI Express 2.0 x2 interface up to 10 Gb/s, making it 67% faster than SATA 3.0 solutions.|
Just as found on most MSI enthusiast-level motherboards, the Z97M Gaming gets the full allotment of MSI’s Military Class 4 Components. MSI uses H-C Capacitors for impressive power efficiency and to save space on the PCB. Super Ferrite Chokes are used that are said to offer greater power stability, better current capacity, and operate at a lower temperature when compared to standard chokes. The Dark Caps MSI uses are an aluminum core design and offer lower ESR and up to a 10-year lifespan.
|Military Class 4 Components – Military Class 4 is the next step in high quality components. The Hi-c Cap, Super Ferrite Choke and Solid CAPs will make sure that your PC runs more stable under extreme gaming conditions.|
|Hi-C Cap – A Hi-c CAP is a very small, but super-efficient capacitor. Besides ensuring enough spacing around a CPU socket to install large coolers, it also allows for 93% energy efficiency. Thanks to Hi-c CAP`s MSI mainboards are the most energy efficient in the market.|
|Super Ferrite Chokes – Super Ferrite Chokes use a Ferrite core that is Super-Permeable. This allows the Super Ferrite Chokes to run at a 35 degree Celsius lower temperature, have a 30% higher current capacity, a 20% improvement in power efficiency and better overclocking power stability.|
|Dark Cap – With their aluminum core design, Dark CAP`s have been a staple in high-end design mainboard designs and provides lower Equivalent Series Resistance (ESR) as well as its over-10-year lifespan.|
In an effort to increase the motherboard’s longevity and prevent premature failure due to other catastrophic events, MSI incorporates their Guard-Pro feature. Protections are offered for humidity, circuitry, and high temperatures.
|Circuit Protection – Carefully selected materials, multiple PCB layers and shielding result in the best circuit protection for our GAMING motherboards.|
|ECO Power – With MSI ECO Center you can physically cut the power to unused chips to save up to 29% power usage.|
|Humidity Protection – 10% Reduction in moisture absorption helps prevent “Conductive Anodic Filament”. Untreated PCB’s can have 10x higher failure rate.|
|High Temperature Protection – All key components used in MSI motherboards have all passed military testing ensuring stable operation in the harshest environments.|
|ESD Protection – Each and every I/O port is protected against the hazards of Electro Static Discharge.|
|EMI Protection – All MSI motherboards comply with stringent American FCC regulations and reduce the impact of Electromagnetic Interference.|
There are many more features included with the Z97M Gaming, but we’ll get to those when we take an up-close tour of the motherboard. For now, let’s get the box on a work bench and have a look around.
The Z97M Gaming packaging is primarily designed with a red/black/white theme with the MSI dragon making an appearance on the front. Around back, there is a detailed list of many of the high-level features we mentioned above. The box sides are home to additional branding and a multilingual list of a few specifications.
Opening the box reveals the motherboard sitting on top with a pamphlet showing factory test results. The motherboard sits in a cardboard insert and is well protected with an anti-static bag. Under the motherboard, you’ll find a pretty nice assortment of accessories. Here is what’s included in the accessory stack.
Before we dive in for an up-close look, here are several pictures from various angles. The Z97M Gaming features a matte black finish that’s highlighted with red on the heatsinks. I think MSI did a great job with the aesthetics, especially if you’re fond of the color scheme.
The MSI Z97M Gaming Up Close
Along the bottom-left edge of the motherboard, we have connections for the front panel audio, audio power cable, and a 4-pin fan header. The audio switch is located here as well, which is used to select how the power is sent to the onboard audio solution. The choices are onboard power or through the included power adapter cable. The TPM connector and the first of two USB 2.0 headers round out this area. Moving over to the bottom-right edge, we see the second USB 2.0 header, another 4-pin fan header, and the headers for a case’s wiring.
Along the lower-right side area, we come to the six SATA 6 GB/s ports and the front panel USB 3.0 connector. All six of the SATA ports are native to the Z97 chipset as is the USB 3.0 header. At the upper-right edge is the 24-pin ATX power connector and the post code LED display. Also located here are the onboard power/reset buttons and the OC Genie button. With the system turned off, you can press the OC Genie button and an overclock will be automatically applied upon booting the system.
There isn’t a whole lot along the top of the motherboard, but we do have two 4-pin CPU fan headers and the 8-pin CPU AUX +12V connector.
The left side of the Z97M Gaming is home to all the I/O connections and everything related to the onboard audio. The I/O area consists of two USB 2.0 and one PS/2 port that are designated for gaming devices and are easily identified by their red color. The ports are said to contain “Triple Gold Plating” to better accommodate high polling rate devices. Another item worth mentioning here is the dedicated amplified output (red) in the group of audio jacks, which is optimized for studio-grade headgear. The rest of the I/O ports are described in the second picture below.
The 7.1 channel onboard Audio Boost 2 features an EMI shield covering the Realtek ALC1150 Codec and high quality Nichicon Japanese capacitors. The dual headphone amplifiers can supply up to 600Ω, which can support studio quality headphones. PCB separation isolates the audio components from the rest of the motherboard thus reducing interference from other components. The separation line also illuminates with a red LED when the system is powered on. In the end, what you have here is an onboard audio solution that’s about as close to a stand-alone sound card as you can get with an onboard solution.
Having a look at the expansion slot area reveals two PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots and a pair of PCI-E 2.0 x1 slots. A single graphics card will run at x16 speed, while two cards in SLI/Crossfire will perform at x8/x8 speeds. Situated between the two PCI-E X16 slots is the M.2 SSD port. The M.2 port can accommodate SSDs that meet this standard and offers performance up to 10 GB/s transfer rates. According to MSI, you can even run SATA Express from this port via an optional M.2 to SATA Express adapter (sold separately).
The four DIMM slots support up 32 GB of system memory at speeds up to DDR3-3300 MHz (OC). The DIMM slots themselves have a lock lever on one side only, which facilitates easier installation and removal of memory modules.
The CPU socket area is clear of any obstructions that would interfere with CPU coolers of almost any design. Memory height is more likely to cause a problem when installing an air cooler than anything around the CPU socket area will. Furthermore, I can’t imagine any water block or AIO cooler that wouldn’t easily fit here as well.
The heatsinks MSI uses are both attractive and functional. A MSI dragon plaque is attached to the PCH heatsink, and the MOSFET heatsink has a silver dragon emblem attached on each end. The heatsinks are attached with spring-loaded screws that are easily removed from the back side of the motherboard. Once off, both heatsink assemblies were found to be making excellent contact with their target points.
With the heatsinks removed, we can see the 8-phase CPU power design, the Super Ferrite Chokes, and the Black Caps scattered about the socket area.
Exploring several of the ICs that perform many functions of the Z97M Gaming, we find that MSI uses ASMedia to provide additional connectivity at the rear I/O panel. The ASM1061 controller is used to provide the two E-SATA ports and the ASM1042 controller is used for two USB 3.0 ports. The Super I/O functions are provided by the nuvoTon NCT6792D controller, which provides system monitoring, fan control, etc. As mentioned in the features section, the Killer E2205 LAN controller is used, which is a popular choice among gamers. There are four P13PCIE ICs located just next to the top PCI-E x16 slot that provide switching capabilities for the PCI-E lanes. And finally, the last picture below is of the Z97 PCH chipset.
MSI’s UEFI Click BIOS 4
MSI’s Click BIOS 4 is extremely well laid out and has a very unique looking interface. From the main screen, there are six tiles you can click to enter their individual options. Across the top, there is a host of system and monitoring information and the ability to set XMP, OC Genie, and boot priorities into action.
Clicking on the Settings tile will present five sub-menus, the first of which is System Status. This is pretty much informational in nature, but you can set the date and time from here. The Advanced sub-menu has 10 sub-menus of its own that deal with onboard devices, power management, graphics configuration, and Intel specific features. The Boot sub-menu is where all your boot and BBS priorities are located. The Security sub-menu has options for setting the UEFI administrator password and controlling the chassis intrusion behavior. The Save & Exit sub-menu is where you can save or discard any changes made during the current UEFI session.
Clicking the OC tile gets you inside the overclocking section where there are a plethora of options at your disposal. Everything you need to overclock the CPU and memory is located here. All the voltage controls and DigitALL power delivery options are found here as well. The overclocking section leaves little to be desired and provides a very robust set of options that will keep even the most demanding overclockers a happy lot.
The rest of the Click BIOS 4 tiles deal with UEFI BIOS flashing, saving profiles, hardware monitoring, and motherboard information through the unique Board Explorer area. The Board Explorer section shows highlighted areas of the motherboard where you have components installed and gives you information on each piece of hardware.
MSI Bundled Software
MSI has been doing a great job recently making useful software and utilities available to their users. MSI’s Command Center software has really evolved into a terrific desktop suite of utilities. Other than offering overclocking from the desktop, Command Center also offers complete fan control, a RAMDisk utility, and detailed system information and monitoring. It’s definitely worth installing and checking out! Here are a few images of the different Command Center pages and the available options.
The MSI Gaming App is their version of one-click system optimization. MSI takes it a step further and combines motherboard and GPU overclocking at the push of a button. Simply choose from three presets – OC Mode, Gaming Mode, or Silent Mode. Based on the installed components, the app will provide an overclock at the click of your mouse.
XSplit Gamecaster allows you to record and stream your gaming sessions live over the internet. You can upload to YouTube, or stream live through Twitch, UStream, and other streaming services.
MSI offers many more useful utilities on the included support DVD. Items like Live Update for updating BIOS and software over the internet, Super Charger for rapid charging of your portable devices, and ECO center for power saving options. Lot’s of stuff worth checking out for sure!
Benchmarks and Overclocking
|Motherboard||MSI Z97M Gaming|
|CPU||Intel i7 4790K Devil’s Canyon|
|Memory||G.SKill TridentX DD3-2400 MHz 2x8GB|
|SSD||Samsung EVO 500 GB SSD|
|Power Supply||Corsair HX1050 Professional Series|
|Video Card||EVGA GTX 780 Ti Classified|
|Cooling||EK-Supreme LTX Water Block – 360 mm Radiator – MCP35X Pump|
I’ll be using an i7 4790K CPU for today’s benchmarking. I locked the stock CPU speed at 4.4 GHz so we can get a consistent performance analysis at the rated Turbo Boost speed. I’ll be using the CPU at 4.8 GHz for the overclocked results. The memory was set to 2400 MHz for both the stock and overclocked testing. Overclocking turned out to be a rather simple affair, and it basically just required some added voltage to the CPU and manipulating a few power delivery options.
I’ll be running my typical set of benchmarks to test compression, rendering, video conversion, and we’ll toss in a set of 2d benchmarks too. We don’t typically see any notable differences when comparing motherboards, especially when the same CPU, memory, and GPU are used. So, we’ll just provide screenshots of the stock and overclocked test results.
Compression, Rendering, and Video Conversion Benchmarks
Cinebench R10 – R11.5 – R15
x264 Pass 1 and 2
PoV Ray R3.73
7-Zip Compression Benchmark
Wprime 32M and 1024M
SuperPi 1M and 32M
Aida64 Cache & Memory
When I did the Intel i7 4790K review back in June of this year, I used the ASUS Maximus VII Gene motherboard. That is the only other Z97/i7 4790K combo I have to draw any comparisons from. I took a minute to compare scores where applicable, and the two boards showed little difference. The MSI Z97M Gaming came out on top in many of the tests and lost out in some as well. All in all, the results were all within the margin of error and performance was on par between both boards, or at least with the benchmarks we ran.
Pushing the Limits
Without getting stupid crazy with voltages, about all I can get a suicide run of SuperPi 1M and wPrime 32M at is 4.9 GHz. It takes 1.5 V to the CPU and a drop in memory speed to 1600 MHz in order to get anything done, so that’s where we topped out at. Here are the screen shots of SuperPi and wPrime at those speeds.
MSI has certainly made a name for itself in the enthusiast motherboard market, so it’s no surprise the Z97M Gaming performed as well as it did. I think MSI did a nice job of proving a lot of motherboard can be packed into a mATX offering and at an affordable price to boot. How affordable you might ask? Well, currently the Z97M Gaming can be had for $165.99 at Newegg, which is an attractive price for a motherboard packed with this many features. You get the latest technologies with the M.2 SATA port, Killer E2205 NIC, and the beefed up Audio Boost 2 onboard audio solution. With support for all current model Haswell CPUs and the promise of support for the next generation of socket 1150 processors, the board has the added benefit of being relevant for quite some time.
The overclockers among us will enjoy the experience, and the Click BIOS 4 UEFI offers everything you need to get the most from your components. Overclocking was a painless operation and can be accomplished with just a few tweaks to get you on your way. The mATX size wont prevent you from building a stout gaming rig around this board either. With support for SLI and Crossfire, building a gamer’s delight is definitely a possibility. Couple that with the Audio Boost 2 features that support high-end headphones, and you should have audio performance to match the graphics performance of your gaming system.
Small form factor system builds are on the rise, and MSI has a very attractive option in the Z97M Gaming. If you find yourself in the market for a mATX motherboard, you’ll want to keep this attractive looking motherboard on your short list for sure. Great performance, good overclocking, and a lot of enthusiast level features all add up to Overclocker’s Approved!