Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/8276/z97-miniitx-review-at-140-asrock-z97e-itx-msi-z97i-ac-and-gigabyte-z97n-wifi



With every new chipset release, a large part of the community is always interested in the smaller form factor builds. Building a small yet powerful system seems to be an expanding niche, and for Intel’s Z97 platform we took three of the cheaper mini-ITX motherboards to see how they compare. The ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC, the MSI Z97I AC and the GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI are all between $130 and $140, all feature 802.11ac support but vary in other connectivity, ease of use and their packages. We compared all three.

Z97 Mini-ITX Overview

What does the average user want from a mini-ITX system?  Is there such a thing as an average user, or are all mini-ITX builds aimed at niche categories?  Even these questions can be difficult to pin down, so we have to look at the basics for a 17cm square focal point.

Mini-ITX builds are typically not the center for overclocking, although they should be designed to house the most powerful processors (at least at stock). Two memory slots limits the memory capacity to 16 GB, which for VM use limits anything other than a simple virtualization environment with a handful of instances. The PCIe 3.0 x16 slot is usually a big plus, allowing gamers to equip the best single GPU card into a small system, or for home NAS builds to implement a RAID card, or for TV Tuner/HTPC applications. To date, I have built four mini-ITX systems for friends and family. My father uses one on the integrated graphics for a home/email/basic photo and video editing machine, while my brother has a nice discrete GPU for gaming on a single monitor. I own the other two, one on basic HTPC/streaming duty and the other as part of a makeshift NAS. Each of these four systems uses a different motherboard for requirements: the basic home-use machine uses an mSATA drive, the NAS has dual NICs, the HTPC has 2T2R 802.11ac WiFi and the gaming system has pretty lights for the see-through panel.

With the $130-$140 motherboards we are testing today, we could try and fit them into these four categories based on their hardware, functionality and performance. Being very close in price means that one motherboard will swap in a feature at the expense of another, so one would expect a lot of tit-for-tat between the manufacturers. Of course, anything in the box or on the software side could sweeten the deal, but it all depends if they end up being focused on one niche or a jack-of-all-trades.

ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC Visual Inspection

The first motherboard on the test bed was the ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC. In the past couple of generations, ASRock has done something slightly different to the others and it appears again on the Z97 model: a storage option on the rear of the motherboard. Usually when I mention this to people, the answer comes back ‘does this not touch the case?’ My answer comes back as ‘depends how big your stand-offs are’. The Z77 model with an mSATA equipped has no problems in a Bitfenix Prodigy, for example. Where the Z97E-ITX/AC differs for this generation is the switch from mSATA to M.2 on the rear.

The M.2 on the rear is only applicable for 30mm and 42mm, which is actually rather short, due to the orientation. As this is a PCIe and SATA capable M.2, this opens up the drive potential, however I feel the migration of the majority of motherboards to 80+mm drives might make the lower dimension models harder to find (as well as in lower capacities), making ASRock’s solution niche in more ways than one.

The primary design route of the Z97E-ITX/AC is similar to that of the predecessors. We get a top oriented socket to allow for larger coolers north to south, although the left to right spacing of the socket might obstruct the combination of large CPU heatsink and large DRAM heatsinks. The 6-phase power delivery has the ASRock styled heatsink, and the two fan headers are found at opposite ends of the socket – one top left and the other bottom right.

My first two issues with this board related to the number of fan headers (premium motherboards are getting three, even if two are connected together), and the second is with the 8-pin CPU power connector placement. One of the more prominent issues I have echoed with mini-ITX design is this placement, which (in my opinion) should be anywhere BUT the middle of the motherboard near the rear-IO. This is one of the worst places, because the cable to put in that port has to either navigate around a CPU heatsink, come across the DRAM and around a CPU heatsink or navigate over a PCIe device. Other motherboard manufacturers have recognized this, and oriented their power connectors nearer the edges of the board, but ASRock is still behind. I will not accept ‘ease of routing’ as an excuse here, especially if the engineers are putting M.2 slots on the rear of the motherboard.

The DRAM slots use a single sided latch mechanism on the bottom of the board so as to not interfere with any GPU, although users should ensure that all the memory is fitted properly. On the top right of the board is the motherboard battery, set up in this location and standing up on the motherboard in order to save space. The 24-pin power connector is underneath, followed by the USB 3.0 header, front panel header and TPM header.

The location of the SATA ports between the DRAM and the mini-PCIe module is such that we get four SATA 6 Gbps in grey, two SATA 6 Gbps in black, and these last two ports form part of a SATA Express connector. One of the issues with this arrangement is the removal of devices with locking cables, requiring the user to disconnect other cables, or due to the location also requiring the DRAM or the GPU to be moved in order to get a hand in.

It should be noted that the SATAe connector, the two SATA 6 Gbps ports in black and the M.2 slot on the rear are all on a switch, thus using one will disable the other two. Unfortunately this is a limitation of the Intel chipset, and the lack of drives on the market for either of the PCIe storage options does not make the selection easier.

The mini-PCIe connector holds the included 802.11ac 2T2R WiFi module, and the two antenna points on the module are connected to the rear IO via internal wires. This is next to the chipset with a small heatsink, two USB 2.0 ports and the front panel audio port. The ASRock mini-ITX motherboard is a little different to the other two as the audio codec used is the better rated Realtek ALC1150 rather than the ALC892.

The rear panel gives a combination PS/2 port, two USB 2.0 ports, the combination DVI-I port, two antenna mounting points, both a HDMI-In and a HDMI-Out (for pass-through), DisplayPort 1.2, a ClearCMOS button, four USB 3.0 ports, the Intel I218-V gigabit Ethernet port and the audio jacks.

MSI Z97I AC Visual Inspection

The first thing that immediately jumps out at me on the MSI Z97I AC is the position of the 4-pin CPU power connector. We find it just behind the rear panel, in the middle of the motherboard and slightly to the left. I have rallied for several generations now that this is perhaps the worst place to have this power connector. Any cable coming into this connector has to either jump over the SATA ports and front panel ports, jump over the DRAM then around the CPU heatsink, or jump over the graphics card. All three of these possibilities cause nightmares for cable management, and I would like this position to stop – now.

So the argument for having this power connector here is because the CPU socket is lower down on the motherboard, allowing the connectors related to the chipset space at the top. The second reason is one of cost – moving the DRAM inwards and placing connectors on the outside requires more PCB layers, and moving from a four layer to a six layer adds 30-50% cost to the PCB, depending on the quality of PCB used. At some point we are going to have to reach a happy medium: I believe there is a solution to a $130 motherboard having the connectors in decent places and the motherboard still retaining on the functionality.

Ranting aside, the CPU socket is up against the DRAM slots and near the PCIe connector, which might limit the size of the heatsink if tall memory or a large GPU is used. The power delivery uses a four phase solution with a heatsink, with the CR2032 battery at right angles underneath. The two DRAM slots are on the right hand side and use a single sided latch mechanism.

All the main headers and connectors are at the top of the motherboard, starting with the mini-PCIe on the right hand side with the Intel 802.11ac AC7260 2T2R solution. The antennas are connected to the rear panel with a wire, which might get in the way of some of the other headers if the user is not careful. Between the WiFi module and the chipset are the COM header and the CPU 4-pin header. The other fan header is just above the power delivery heatsink.

At the top left of the motherboard are four SATA 6 Gbps ports, next to the USB 3.0 header. Below this are a USB header and the front panel headers. It is worth noting that the front panel header has no indication or color coordination letting the user know which cable goes where, which I feel is a missed opportunity to improve user experience. The audio codec and filter caps are at the bottom left of the motherboard, next to the PCIe 3.0 x16 slot.

The rear panel makes room for the antennas and dual Realtek NICs, but also the addition of two buttons on the left. One of them is for ClearCMOS and the other for Go2BIOS. The rear panel also has four of the chipset USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, a combination PS/2 port, three video outputs and audio jacks.

Unlike the ASRock motherboard, it is worth noting that there are no PCIe storage options on the MSI.

GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI Visual Inspection

The immediate visual cues that separate the GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI from the other two motherboards in this review is firstly the lack of a power delivery heatsink, and then the position of almost all the motherboard connectors around the outside of the PCB, including the 4-pin CPU power delivery.

In the past, I criticized GIGABYTE for their component placement, but it would seem that the Z97N-WIFI gets a near perfect score. Along the top are the 4-pin CPU power connector, the COM header and the two fan headers, while on the right hand side (note, on the edge of the PCB) is the 24-pin ATX power connector, two of the SATA ports, the front panel header, a USB 2.0 header and a USB 3.0 header. Actually the only ports slightly away from the edge are the other four SATA ports, but given that two are on the outside that makes building a PC a lot easier.

The lack of a power delivery heatsink might give cause for concern for overclocking, however GIGABYTE is claiming to use high efficiency power delivery ICs and our overclock testing differs little from the other two motherboards. 

The mini-PCIe slot for the wireless module is near the rear panel which keeps the wires for the antenna very short and does not block any other headers on the motherboard. The two fan headers at the top of the motherboard might be a little localized, and perhaps another header on the right, or lower down the motherboard, might be well received.

The socket area is above the chipset for the GIGABYTE board, with the only barrier to large CPU coolers being tall DRAM modules, although with some regular or low profile modules it looks like this motherboard could cope with almost any large air cooler. To save space, GIGABYTE has stuck the motherboard battery to the rear panel, something we have seen in previous iterations.

The rear panel of the GIGABYTE motherboard affords another difference to the other motherboards – two HDMI-out ports. This is backed up with a DVI-I, but no DisplayPort here. The panel also includes a combination PS/2 port, two USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, an Intel I217-V NIC, an Atheros AR81 NIC and the audio jacks (Realtek ALC892).

Similarly to the MSI, there are no PCIe storage options here, and the audio codec matches that of the MSI.

Unlike other manufacturers, GIGABYTE puts a block diagram of each motherboard in their manuals. Here we can see where all the PCIe lanes end up being distributed. Due to the limited size of mini-ITX, only a few are used.



ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC BIOS

The Z97 BIOS from ASRock is reskinned from a black and starry background to a blue outlook coupled with a crystalline figure in the background. Back in my review of the Z97 Extreme6, I mentioned that I preferred the black background as it was easier to see the options at a quick glance, and the options at the top had high definition icon images to help distinguish them. On the Z97E-ITX/AC, these icons have been reduced in size and the tabs at the top use a fixed-width font, which is something other motherboard manufacturers are moving away from. For users with 1080p monitors, the BIOS offers a ‘Full HD UEFI’ mode which will improve the resolution.

One of the newer features in the ASRock BIOS will be the My Favorites option, shown on the screenshot above. Similar to the implementation of the other manufacturers, users can select options from the BIOS to place into the My Favorites menu for ease of use.

Here are a few options I quickly put in to show it working as it should, along with an Active Page on Entry point that allows enthusiasts to bypass any entry screens and go straight to the options that matter. Using this in conjunction with the My Favorites menu should be a no-brainer for extreme overclockers.

When it comes to the overclocking menu, motherboard manufacturers split into two groups. Some will partition off groups of options into separate menus, whereas others will spam a list of everything, hopefully with a sense of order. ASRock offers for the latter, as it took several screenshots to cover the CPU configuration, DRAM Timing, FIVR configuration, and the Voltage configuration.

Even for me, that is a little excessive. ASRock might consider putting each of these options into submenus and having copies of the more vital ones (CPU Ratio, BCLK Frequency, XMP, CPU voltage, CPU load line calibration, DRAM voltage) out on the main OC Tweaker page.

At the top of the OC Tweaker page are the Optimized CPU OC Settings, or in plain English ‘the automatic overclock options’. Here we get 4.0 GHz to 4.8 GHz offered in 200 MHz jumps:

The options use an internal look-up-table that ASRock would have configured, based on its own testing. These should be the best voltage combinations for each setting in order to ensure that most processors are catered for at each step. Our analysis of these is in the overclocking section of this review.

Almost all of the options in the BIOS has an associated description listed on the right hand side. While the motherboard officially supports fast memory, the memory options provided by ASRock go all the way up to DDR3-4000:

There is also a new option for the memory called ‘DRAM Performance Mode’, which states that it gives higher performance for memory but does not say how. The DRAM sub-timings are found in the DRAM configuration menu.

Users interested in disabling the onboard controllers should head to the Advanced -> Chipset Configuration menu, where the Audio/LAN ports can be adjusted:

In order to confirm if the M.2 x2 is in use or the SATA Express, the Storage Configuration has the option to force one or the other:

Most of the interesting extra options are found in the Tools menu.

System Browser is now a staple across most of the motherboard manufacturers as it allows users to see what is installed and detected at POST. Because of the M.2 port on the rear of the motherboard, we also get to see this as part of the diagram:

The Online Management Guard (or OMG) is a tool to disable the network ports during certain times of the day, although it does not stop someone changing the rules or the BIOS clock in order to get around it.

The Tech Support function allows users to submit bug reports when things go wrong, although the system has to be set up via the network configuration option. This means that any system that issues an IP address from a DHCP server should work, rather than via connection sharing. Having the network options enabled also allows users to download updates for the BIOS via the BIOS.

The dehumidifier function sets up a time interval for the system to enable the fans after shutdown. This is used in environments with high humidity whereby the air in the case can be a lot warmer than the air in the room and as the room cools for an evening water will condense on the inside of the case. With this function, the system will keep the fans running after shutdown so the air inside and outside the case can equilibrate.

The H/W Monitor tab lists the temperatures, fan speeds and voltages of the system, as well as the fan options from the BIOS:

While I appreciate the multi-point gradient system, there is something fundamentally wrong with the wording here. Without testing the fan to find the RPM to power applied profile, you cannot control the fan speed accurately. What ASRock means when they say fan speed here is fan power, which is a different word with a different meaning. It would seem that the software team, which do test the fans to provide fan profiles, and the BIOS team are not talking to each other on this front.

Elsewhere in the BIOS are the boot options, the fast boot options and the security settings. There is no Boot Override function unfortunately.

ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC Software

Similar to the BIOS, there is little difference between the software used on the Z97E-ITX/AC and the Z97 Extreme6 we reviewed just after the launch of Z97. The newest part of the package is ASRock’s own application interface, the App Shop. This is essentially a Google Play Store / App Store for ASRock to put in their own choice software, updates to their software, or perhaps a few sponsored items. As shown in the screenshot below, we get several of the standard ASRock software installations as well as Chrome and a few APAC based FTP games:

This sets a somewhat worrying precedent in case other manufacturers might do the same. It might not be all bad, given that these are simply PC game installation files to be downloaded, as if you went to the website of the company that made them. There does not seem to be any mechanism for buying applications, so at the minute everything posted on the ASRock App Shop is free.

The App Shop does also offer a system update feature for BIOS and drivers, although it offered none when I attempted to use it:

A-Tuning

However everything else from ASRock is tunneled through their A-Tuning interface. This is relatively similar to our previous ASRock Z87 reviews where the first screen we come to is the Operation Mode:

The default position is Standard Mode that will run the CPU as per normal. The Power Saving mode will reduce the CPU to 800 MHz and will slowly ramp the speed up as more performance is needed. It will require a good 10 seconds of full throttle to get to full speed. Performance mode disables any idle states, but also opens up another menu for more options.

The EZ OC options are similar to those in the BIOS, and Auto Tuning at the bottom will perform a series of overclocking tests to determine an overclock for the system. 

The next tab along is the Tools tab, which similarly to the Tools tab in the BIOS is the main hub for all the extra ASRock options.

XFast RAM

A common theme with almost all motherboard manufacturers is to include some form of RAMDisk software with the motherboard, often negating any pay software currently on the market. The ASRock tool allows users to recover a RAMDisk on boot and allow the RAMDisk to act as a temporary file store, or a regular file store as needed.

XFast LAN

Another theme in motherboard software is to implement some form of network packet prioritization, allowing users to select which programs have network priority (e.g. VOIP over games, games over downloads). Most of these solutions use a custom front end to a cFos back end, as is the case with ASRock:

Fast Boot

With the new UEFI system implementation, a motherboard can bypass some initialization procedures for devices that conform to UEFI specifications. This also requires a UEFI aware OS, such as Windows 8, to ‘instant’ boot, but other Windows operating systems can take advantage of some optimizations. For Instant Boot users, there is an option here to reboot the system straight into BIOS as well.

Online Management Guard (OMG)

The OMG tool from the BIOS is also available in the software, allowing users to restrict the times when the user can access online functions. In this implementation we also have a password protection system to prevent access.

FAN-Tastic Tuning

The fan controls for the ASRock motherboards use a fan test to provide the user with a power to speed look-up table to help design their fan response profiles. Like the BIOS ASRock has confused the FAN Speed (%) in the graph with Fan Power in the look-up table. There needs to be some basic mathematics done here to do the conversion and make it physically accurate.

Dehumidifier

As with the BIOS, the Dehumidifier option in the software allows users to keep fans running after a shutdown for a fixed length of time.

USB Key

In some environments, logging into a machine requires a USB key to identify the user. ASRock’s USB Key does the same thing, allowing the user to assign their profile to a specific USB device such that when it is plugged into the machine, it automatically logs the user in. Just remember to take the USB stick with you when not in use, or make sure that pesky housemate does not get hold of it.

DISK Health Report

I know my early generation Samsung PB22-J 64GB in my netbook is throwing up errors at boot time about SSD life. In order to help diagnose these issues, I need to download and obtain software that reports the flags in the device. ASRock has now added this to the software bundle to bypass the online hunt.

OC Tweaker

For manual OS overclocking we have the OC Tweaker tool which emulates the OC Tweaker menu in the BIOS. All the options are in one big long line; however there is now a pullout section on the right hand side regarding CPU frequencies to show the current state of the system.

System Browser

Similar to the BIOS tool, the System Browser lets the user see what is installed into the system. Should a stick of memory, for whatever reason, stop working users can see it with this software.

Live Update

Alongside the updating tool in the App Shop, ASRock has added a tool in A-Tuning to do the same thing. Here we can select which server to go for as well to get the best connection speed. One feature I want to ASRock add is to display the size of the update before downloading, in case the software is large and my bandwidth limit is small.

ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC Board Features

ASRock Z97E-ITX
Price US (Newegg)
Size mITX
CPU Interface LGA-1150
Chipset Intel Z97
Memory Slots Two DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 32 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1066-3200 MHz
Video Outputs HDMI (max. 4096x2304 at 24 Hz)
DVI-I (max 1920x1200 at 60 Hz)
DisplayPort 1.2 (4096x2304 at 24Hz or 3840x2160 at 60 Hz)
Onboard LAN Intel I218-V
2T2R 802.11ac
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC1150
Expansion Slots 1 x PCIe 3.0 x16
1 x mini-PCIe for WiFi/BT module
Onboard SATA/RAID 6 x SATA 6 Gbps (PCH)
1 x SATAe
1 x M.2 x2
USB 3.0 6 x USB 3.0 (PCH) [4 rear panel, 1 header]
Onboard 6 x SATA 6 Gbps
1 x SATAe
1 x M.2 x2
2 x Fan Headers
1 x TPM Header
2 x USB 2.0 Headers
1 x USB 3.0 Header
1 x Front Panel Audio
1 x Front Panel Header
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX
1 x 8-pin CPU
Fan Headers 1 x CPU (4-pin)
1 x CHA (4-pin)
IO Panel 1 x PS/2 Combination Port
1 x HDMI-In
1 x HDMI-Out
1 x DVI-I
1 x DisplayPort 1.2
2 x USB 2.0 Ports
4 x USB 3.0 Ports
1 x Intel I218-V Gigabit Ethernet
1 x ClearCMOS Switch
Audio Jacks
Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link

Points in favor of the ASRock board are the Realtek ALC1150 codec (vs. ALC892 on the others), the rear M.2 slot and the HDMI pass through. Negative points include the positioning of that 8-pin CPU power connector and the number of fan headers.



MSI Z97I AC BIOS

One of the major positives from our first MSI Z97 review, the MSI Z97 MPower Max, was that MSI had taken a large number of our comments about the BIOS from Z87 and Z77 reviews and actually placed most of them in. The Z97 MPower Max retails for twice the amount of the MSI Z97I AC, so it was interesting to find those additions have carried down from the overclocking motherboard to the mini-ITX model. One of the additions is the easier application of XMP, which now has its own button on the front page of the BIOS:

At the top left, along with the OC Genie, is an XMP button. In the past I had noted that enabling XMP on MSI motherboards, especially for users with no BIOS experience, was a minefield due to the (then) disorganized way of accessing memory settings. MSI’s solution is to move it out to this button on the top left, which simplifies things nicely.

The basic layout (as in previous generations) is a top bar featuring the Motherboard name, BIOS version, CPU installed, CPU frequency, DRAM frequency, DRAM size and CPU temperatures. The only real data missing here is voltages and fan speeds, which MSI has moved to a different part of the BIOS. To the left and the right are the main tabs which produce the list of options in the central screen.

The screen above shows the settings menu, which has not changed, but the information to the right of the screen has. Users have two options here, ‘Help’ or ‘Info’.

We praised MSI’s FM2 BIOS on the A88XM-E35 as MSI had decided to finally put the path of the options into each page, and here we see the ‘Settings -> Advanced -> PCI Subsystem Settings’ listed above, telling us where in the BIOS we are. I am still glad this is here, because due to MSI’s layout (compared to the other three major motherboard manufacturers), it is not always obvious which menu we are in. Now we can be sure.

Most of the Settings tab in the BIOS is similar to previous reviews, but the Boot option is slightly different. Aside from the options we can select, the new one is GO2BIOS. The GO2BIOS option enables and disables the button on the rear panel – useful if users who might have small animals/children that have access to the rear of the machine

Now onto one of the things that I am most proud of MSI for: after several generations of bemoaning the overclock menu for being a hodge-podge of options with no discernable order, it finally has order!

The layout starts with a selection between Simple and Advanced, which enables more options in the menu when Advanced is selected. This is followed by CPU settings, BCLK settings, DRAM settings, Voltage Settings and the ‘Other’ Settings. It could be construed that MSI could hide each of these options behind another menu for each (i.e. selecting ‘CPU Setting’ gives the CPU Setting options), but it all comes down to user preference. Some manufacturers have told me that users prefer long lists of options, whereas others prefer succinct menus.

One interesting feature that I did not expect from MSI is actually the top one in the OC menu. The Simple/Advanced option helps remove/add options that might add an extra element of confusion/expertise to overclocking. Switching over to the Simple option cuts out some of the more harder-to-understand options:

Here we are reduced down to the simple overclock options, such as CPU ratios, Base Clock and DRAM frequency.

With the help section on the right hand side, we get a set of words pertaining to the option selected. The next stage would be the help section to also include the min/max of the voltage range selected, as well as the granularity.

Highlighting a voltage option says almost nothing about the capabilities of the voltage, or how it might pertain to overclocking or stability. Users have to know the intricacies of each option on the fundamental level to understand what difference adjusting a voltage would make. This would perhaps be why extreme overclockers pour hours into studying specification sheets, or hours into trying settings.

Options such as DRAM timing, DRAM Training and Digital Power have not changed from previous generations. The last option is a shame because a lot of the digital power options do not make sense:

Overclockers might often user the CPU Load Line Calibration (e.g. VDroop Control) in order to maintain voltages under heavy loading. The option here in the MSI BIOS is obfuscated because the VDroop Offset is given as either ‘Auto, +0%, +12.5% to +100%’, with no indication if +0% is needed or +100% is needed. Other motherboard manufacturers have implemented a graph to show the effect of each setting, which I think MSI need to do here to get this option used and help 24/7 overclocks.

The next feature I want to get to grips with is the Hardware Monitor:

Back with Z87 MSI introduced their first version of the fan selection tool which showed a graph with two points of a gradient. Each of the gradient points was adjusted by sliders next to the graph but not on the graph. My main criticism of this, aside from only having two gradient points, was that the graph itself needs to be interactive. It was good having a graph, giving direct feedback to the user in real time, but the user needed to interact with the graph directly. The new Hardware Monitor is the result of suggestions like this.

Aside from the increase to four gradient points, each of the points is selectable directly on the graph. The color coordination helps the user to read off the values on the right hand side, and also when selecting to move the points the BIOS shows the valid selections. One could argue about having a negative gradient on a fan (MSI does not seem to allow it), but I like the implementation and style of the fan gradient selection. This is a big step up for MSI in bringing readability and user experience to the BIOS from previous generations.

One issue worth noting is that fan power is not directly proportional to fan RPM. Most fans have a dead-zone <20% power where the fan speed does not change, and above 20% power, more power is more fan speed. ASUS (in BIOS and software), GIGABYTE (in software) and ASRock (in software) are now getting this issue and are implementing the testing routines to do so. Getting them to then adjust the graph to show RPM vs. temperature rather than power vs. temperature is a little harder (it requires some interpolation mathematics which is really easy to do), but this needs to be the next stage in MSI’s fan control development for sure.

MSI still retains the Board Explorer feature, this time it expands into showing which headers are populated.

Another new feature to the BIOS is the Favorites menu. This echoes other manufacturers’ efforts in developing Favorites menus, however the MSI implementation was somewhat hidden from view, selectable only by clicking the heart symbol at the top of the BIOS. I would suggest that MSI move it to the Settings menu, which might make it used more.

The Settings Menu allows users to select which screen they want to start on when entering the BIOS:

It might actually be worth MSI using their in house overclockers to create their own Favorite menus, and letting them be selectable from the selection of other menus. Although with the fact that MSI has now ordered the overclocking menu such that the options have some form of order, we might not see the Favorites menu being used that often because the BIOS is now easier to follow.

The final new feature in MSI’s BIOS is one that we find in other BIOSes – the Change Settings info (known as Last Modified with ASUS). This lets the users know what has changed since the last BIOS, although in order to select this menu the user has to select Save and Quit then navigate to ‘Change Settings Info’. It might seem like a direct copy of ASUS, but having this data listed as soon as I hit ‘Save and Exit’ really is the best idea.

MSI Z97I AC Software

In previous generations, MSI’s software has centered on many different central software themes, the most noticeable being MSI Suite that formed a list of icons at the top of the screen for each element of the software package. Unlike other motherboard manufacturers, each of those software elements was also a separate icon on the desktop, rather than under a central unified interface. With Z97, as with the Z97 MPower Max, while each element is still individual, we lose MSI Suite, Click BIOS and Control Center, and Command Center is firmly the lynchpin in MSI’s software implementation.

Most of the individual software elements for Z97 remain unchanged from Z87; however the installation procedure is different. The driver CD uses a new interface to allow users to select what they want to install:

I noticed that if GPU drivers are not installed, the software will automatically adjust the screen resolution (if it can) to make sure the installer will fit on the screen. Other manufacturers do not do this. One of the downsides of the installer is that Norton Antivirus is automatically selected for install, and it also reappears in Live Update discussed below.

As mentioned, the main element of software is the Command Center, which due to the motherboard being in the ‘standard’ channel line is black and blue.

Here is a basic interface for overclocking frequencies of the CPU and the fan controls, with options to adjust each of the fan gradient points as well as the system fans. The Fan Tune option adjusts the fan gradient points to MSI’s suggested points, however the interface is lacking a set of presets (Silent, Default, Turbo, Full Speed) so users can one click adjust all their fans in one go.

For voltage tuning, the ugly issue with Command Center raises its head again. Here is a CPU voltage adjustment option that goes from Auto to 2.1 volts, making it all too easy to select 2.1 volts!  The option stares at you in the face, suggesting it is OK to put that much voltage in a CPU. I have mentioned this to MSI before – this is not on. Extreme overclockers do not need 2.1 volts, let alone regular users, and as such MSI should limit this voltage to 1.40 volts maximum. The only way MSI would open up more extreme voltage selection is if the ExtremeOC option is selected in the BIOS. That is all. Having such a large voltage on display here is a bit crazy.

MSI also has a RAMDisk as part of their software, which on our 8GB DRAM installation offered up to 6GB in size. Unfortunately you have to enable the RAMDisk before selecting the size of it (and thus requiring a double allocation), but MSI does offer some quick options (such as temp files) for implementation as well as restoration options.

MSI does offer basic text options to avoid the graphics:

The Mobile Control tool is somewhat hidden away as part of Control Center, the idea being that with an iOS/Android app, the overclocking and monitoring can be performed via a smartphone or tablet.

If MSI want overclockers to use this, I would suggest offering it as a standalone application rather than part of the Control Center package, that way users would not have to install bulky software that might affect the efficiency of their operating system installation.

Fast Boot

Now that Windows 8 gives options to boot into the operating system without a chance to enter the BIOS, manufacturers have developed their methods to allow BIOS entry on reboot. Fast Boot encompasses that option, along with Fast Boot options to help the overall boot time of the system to be quicker.

Live Update 6

One of MSI’s best tools in their software package, for a couple of years, has been the Live Update tool. MSI was the first motherboard manufacturer to make and deploy an auto-update tool that worked and was easy to use. Now that the other manufacturers have these tools as well, MSI do not have that unique advantage, however they seem to be taking some suggestions on board.

Users of MSI motherboards might notice that for this new Live Update 6 we can actually see some of the motherboard information, but also the size of downloads. One of my critical points of LU5 was the inability to see how big the audio drivers were before downloading in the event of a restricted bandwidth connection. MSI has now solved this issue.

While downloading, the system will also indicate a level of completion while still retaining all the size and version information.

There is still one more issue to solve. Let me turn off Norton Antivirus as a suggested update. Please.

MSI Z97I AC Board Features

MSI Z97I AC
Price US (Newegg)
Size Mini-ITX
CPU Interface LGA-1150
Chipset Intel Z97
Memory Slots Two DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 16 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1333-3000 MHz
Video Outputs DVI-I (1920x1200 at 60 Hz)
HDMI (4096x2160 at 24 Hz / 2560x1600 at 60 Hz)
DisplayPort (4096x2160 atr 24Hz / 3840x2160 at 60 Hz)
Onboard LAN 2 x Realtelk 8111G
Intel AC7260 802.11ac
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC892
Expansion Slots 1 x PCIe 3.0 x16
1 x mini-PCIe for WiFi
Onboard SATA/RAID 4 x SATA 6 Gbps (Chipset), RAID 0.1.5.10
USB 3.0 6 x USB 3.0 (Chipset) [4 back panel, 1 header]
Onboard 4 x SATA 6 Gbps
1 x USB 3.0 Header
1 x USB 2.0 Header
2 x Fan Headers
1 x Clear_CMOS Jumper
1 x COM Header
1 x Front Panel Audio Header
1 x Front Panel Header
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX
1 x 4-pin CPU
Fan Headers 1 x CPU (4-pin)
1 x SYS (4-pin)
IO Panel 1 x PS/2 Combination Port
1 x ClearCMOS Button
1 x Go2BIOS Button
2 x USB 2.0 Ports
4 x USB 3.0 Ports
2 x Network Ports (Realtek)
DVI-I
HDMI
DisplayPort
Audio Jacks (Realtek)
Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link

MSI uses a four-layer PCB, which limits routing of some features and limits the 4-pin CPU power connector to that awful position in the center left of the motherboard. On the upside, there are two NICs and a WiFi module for network connectivity, but the ASRock beats the MSI in terms of NIC quality, and the ALC892 of the MSI is also bettered. SATA ports are limited to four, whereas other motherboards have six. It makes me wonder how much margin MSI has on this motherboard compared to the other two.



GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI BIOS

Because of the distinct similarities between the BIOS of the Z97N-WIFI and the UD5H we previously reviewed, the BIOS and software overviews are to be almost identical. Rather than refer back to the UD5H, this has been updated with options specific to this motherboard.

For Z97, the graphical BIOS ecosystem (either UEFI or EFI) has the opportunity for incremental updates. This might be fully fledged adjustments graphically, the addition of new features or the results of the engineers internally flexing some talent. For GIGABYTE, the Z97 BIOS in general uses the same topology from Z87 – a high definition mode on top of the classic mode from Z77. The main difference is the use of a ‘Startup Guide’ akin to an easy mode when you first enter the BIOS:

The options in the startup guide include Fast Boot options, Boot Sequence adjustment, SATA adjustment, security, start-up options (which mode to start in) and basic time adjustment. Unfortunately I have to become highly critical to this easy mode: if I had no idea what system I was dealing with and I moved into this BIOS, the only thing I now know about the system is that it is a GIGABYTE system. There is nothing on the front page about the CPU, the Motherboard, the speed settings, the temperatures or the BIOS revision. It is only because I have used GIGABYTE BIOSes before that I understand that pressing F2 will adjust to one of the other modes that will tell me this information. This menu uses a discordant amount of blank space for not very detailed icons and is not particularly that helpful as a startup guide beyond boot sequencing. 

When a user clicks one of the icons the other options fade away and others take its place relating to the option chosen. Here the Integrated SATA Controller offers two options, enabling and the other is SATA Mode selection. Aside from the image above having text clipped, the information on the help description on the left does not correlate with the options on the right. This menu, similar to others is slightly unreadable due to the grey text on grey/black background. The use of the fancy background image is having a direct effect on user experience.

The Start-up Options tab gives the four modes which a user can set for future booting: the Startup Guide, Smart Tweak Mode/HD and Classic Mode. Note that when a BIOS is flashed to a later version, this option has to be reset. Unfortunately there is nothing GIGABYTE can do about this. However, the Smart Tweak and Classic modes are those that we saw on Z87, the first being a full 1920x1080 HD platform that shows all the information we need:

The information at the bottom and around the sides is just what we need in a BIOS – model names, frequencies, CPU installed, memory installed, memory speeds, temperatures, voltages, fan speeds, the whole lot. While I still have a mild dislike of the color scheme (I find it hard to focus on relevant data when quick glancing), the menus themselves are slightly rearranged better than on Z87.

Shown above we have the Frequency Tab, which splits into the frequencies for overclocking and the Advanced CPU Core Settings. In this menu users can apply frequency overclocks on the CPU, the IGP and enable XMP. The Advanced CPU Core Settings menu opens up the options into more detail including turbo rations, power limits and C-states:

Similarly moving to the Memory main tab gives the advanced memory options, with a further tab for sub-timings and memory overclocking profiles, should a user have one of the super-unique kits that extreme overclockers like to play with:

The third tab relates to the advanced voltage options. Users of the Classic Mode in previous GIGABYTE BIOSes will notice that these three main tabs in Smart Mode mimic the main OC options from Classic Mode. This is an important level of integration, allowing users that are more accustomed to the older design to get up to speed on the new design because the two are laid out the same.

The voltage tabs are split into CPU core voltages (VCore, VRIN, RING voltage, VCCSA), Chipset voltages and DRAM voltages. Unlike the other GIGABYTE Z97 motherboards we have tested, there are no power settings options, such as load line calibrations and thermal protections. 

The Miscellaneous tab offers a couple of the more obscure settings as well as PC Health, including the fan controls. For another generation GIGABYTE is giving BIOS fan controls as a function of PWM value/ºC. This is an unexplained metric in the BIOS (making it harder to understand from a user experience perspective), but I will try here.

Each fan header on the motherboard can apply a power from 0 to 255 to a fan. The fan will speed up according to the power profile of the fan (e.g. nothing until 10% power, then linear increase – this is determined by the fan design, not the motherboard). The fan power is not a direct linear correlation relationship to the fan speed; however the gradient of the power increase can be controlled in the BIOS. Thus a choice of 0.75 PWM value/ºC will increase the power of the fan by 0.75 units every degree Celsius that the CPU increases.

Given the leaps and bounds that other motherboard manufacturers have made on the fan front in the BIOS, as well as GIGABYTE’s own efforts on fan controls in the OS, I was hoping that the BIOS fan control would have been improved for Z97; however it is the same method as previous generations.

The Home screen is what GIGABYTE wants the HD BIOS to actually jump in to, which it did back with Z87. Here we have a group of overclock options such as BCLK, Clock Ratio, DRAM Multiplier and voltages. The next tab along the line is labeled ‘Standard’ and offers options such as display output and SATA options. The ‘Your Name 1/2/3/4’ menus are the custom menus that allow users to pull options from other menus and place them into a custom menu. This was also introduced with Z87; however I think the menus GIGABYTE offers here will cater for almost everyone.

Updating the BIOS while in the BIOS uses GIGABYTE’s Q-Flash interface. Attach a drive to the USB 2.0 port with the BIOS file in the root drive to ensure compatibility and ease of use.

The other mode in the BIOS is classic mode.

We have gone through Classic mode in many reviews before [1,2,3,4,5] so I will not dwell on it here, but Classic mode tends to be the go-to option for many enthusiast overclockers. I feel this is because (a) it has been part of the GIGABYTE ecosystem for a number of years and they are used to it, and (b) due to the differing contrast it is a lot easier to read. It also happens to have a lot of the peripheral options:

For a full visual outlook of the BIOS we tested, see the gallery below.

With the new graphical BIOS there are many different ways a motherboard company can adjust the BIOS to be more interactive, but sometimes the graphically simpler interfaces are the easiest to use. There has to be the right leap from old to new for everyone to change.

GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI Software

In the last generation, GIGABYTE upgraded its software package to a new version of EasyTune. The number denoting the version was gone and the interface got an overhaul onto a black background and colored text. Rather than having all the tools associated with the motherboard as different applications, the layout was homogenized from a single interface called the ‘APP Center’, with different ‘APPs’ for each software function. Back at Z87 launch it was an excellent direction to take the software, although for a first public release it was a little rough around the edges. For Z97 we get the next iteration of APP Center and the APPs, and suffice to say it comes across as a lot easier to use and a lot of the sharp pointy corners that might have affected user experience are smoothed rather nicely.

There can still be an argument made for a color-on-black livery. Typically this high-contrast layout is more suited for low power environments and to reduce eye-strain; however after a while the effect of reading color-on-black can affect a user more than the usual black-on-white (which also tends to offer better readability).

That aside, the above image shows the APP Center and the preferences. The user can change the skin color to one of four colors (to match each of the GIGABYTE product lines), as well as adjust update schedules. The APP Center list is scrollable; however the Live Update application remains fixed. If there are no updates, then Live Update will not offer a window to show no updates, but a dialog box. When updates are available, the following shows:

Here we see two updates, although my main criticism at this point is that it does not say how big these updates are. If I were on a limited bandwidth connection, or pay per data, I do not want to download a 400 MB update if one exists. GIGABYTE needs to implement listing the download size next to the update as soon as possible.

@BIOS

The tool to update the BIOS in the OS is @BIOS (‘at-BIOS’), and this version seems identical to that shown with Z87. Users can update from a global server or a file:

We also have the option to adjust the boot-up POST image in the Face Wizard tab:

USB Blocker

The USB Blocker tool allows businesses to reject certain types of USB device inserted in the machine. As such, if you have a touch interface system or one that is to be controlled remotely, with this software you should be able to disable any other USB Input devices (mouse/keyboard) from being inserted, along with storage devices.

Cloud Station

One of the new features in APP Center is the Cloud Station. As more motherboard manufacturers move to tools that influence other devices other than the PC, Cloud Station is GIGABYTE’s solution. It offers several different options:

Home Cloud: Build a storage cloud for home use to synchronize data, music and photographs.
Remote OC: Use the Apple/Android apps to remotely overclock from a smartphone or tablet.
GIGABYTE Remote: Use a smartphone or tablet as a keyboard and/or touchpad.
Auto Green: Pairs with a Bluetooth smartphone and will auto-lock Windows when out of range.
HotSpot: Turn the PC into a WiFi hotspot.

EasyTune

The overclocking software paired with a GIGABYTE motherboard has historically been named EasyTune, and with Z97 it further lives up to its name by improving the controls for advanced overclocking. The main screen shows the quick overclock options:

Loading up EasyTune also gives the Hardware Monitor shown on the right, useful for cross checking values. Each of the options in the Smart Quick Boost tab offers a setting from Default, Light, Medium, Extreme, Energy Saving to Auto Tuning. The results of these settings will be later in the review during our overclocking segment.

By reducing the size of the screen for EasyTune advanced overclocking options, and separating them into several different menus, EasyTune is easier to use than the Z87 version. Unfortunately, in the current version of EasyTune with the Z97N-WiFi, the Advanced tab shows no options. GIGABYTE is aware of this and should be pushing out an update to rectify the issue.

As DRAM tweaking can be a magician’s game, users can either use XMP directly, or play with all the sub-timings. I would have preferred the DRAM voltage to be in this menu as well, but GIGABYTE has typically located that option back in the CPU OC menu.

EZ Setup

While ‘EZ’ does not translate to my part of the Atlantic (‘ee-zed’ makes no sense here), for those that derive their alphabet via the North American vernacular, the Easy Setup menu allows users to adjust their storage options. The first Disk Mode Switch tab selects AHCI/ RAID:

The Rapid Start tab helps implement Intel RST by pairing an SSD with the boot drive as a caching device:

Fast Boot

Due to the new UEFI/EFI topology, users of Windows 7/8 systems can decrease their POST/booting times by using faster modes. In the case of Windows 8, this often means disabling options to allow users to re-enter the BIOS during POST. The Fast Boot APP from GIGABYTE helps deal with which booting mode the user would prefer, along with an option to reboot via the BIOS.

Game Controller

Another new tool in the APP stack is Game Controller which allows users to implement macros (via user-specified hotkeys) that follow cursor movements and button presses. The other part to Game Controller allows users to enter a ‘sniper-mode’, which reduces mouse movement speed to increase sniping accuracy.

Having played with Game Controller since our UD5H review, there are several annoying issues when using it. Firstly, if a user makes a mistake on a macro, then the macro has to be deleted and restarted.   When saved, a macro cannot be reloaded and edited, but it can be added to. If a user designs a macro but wants to change the hotkey, the macro is lost. When recording the mouse location, there is no information on how to use this feature – the user has to hold down the mouse button and navigate it to the part of the screen they want to click. There is no option to select a right click, or to record the position of the mouse with reference to the base location of the window being clicked (in case the window itself is in a new position). Any user with a macro enabled keyboard could perform better for keypresses, or an hour learning AutoHotKey for any coder would be a vastly better tool. GIGABYTE should be commended for attempting this software, although this is still very basic in its implementation.

System Information and Fans

As part of the reshuffle of the GIGABYTE software, fan controls have moved into the System Information section.

The System Information tab is self-explanatory, and the Smart Fan controls are split between Auto and Advanced. Auto offers four modes: Full Speed, Performance, Standard and Silent. The Advanced mode allows users to calibrate fans:

The calibration shows the voltage applied (as a % of maximum) against the fan speed. Users then have to do the mental calculations for the gradient of the fan speed. Ideally the mathematics should be dealt with on the software side (and the mathematics is really, really simple) and the graph axes updated appropriately, but at present few motherboard manufacturers are making that leap.

The software also allows for a recording option, with users to see some of the data as it adjusts in real time.

GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI Board Features

GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI
Price US (Newegg)
Size Mini-ITX
CPU Interface LGA-1150
Chipset Intel Z97
Memory Slots Two DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 16 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1333-3100 MHz
Video Outputs DVI-I (1920x1200 at 60 Hz)
2 x HDMI (4096x2160 at 24 Hz / 2560x1600 at 60 Hz)
Onboard LAN Intel I217-V
Atheros AR81
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC892
Expansion Slots 1 x PCIe 3.0 x16
1 x mini-PCIe
Onboard SATA/RAID 6 x SATA 6 Gbps (Chipset), RAID 0,1,5,10
USB 3.0 6 x USB 3.0 (Chipset) [4 rear panel, 1 header]
Onboard 6 x SATA 6 Gbps
1 x USB 3.0 Header
1 x USB 2.0 Header
2 x Fan Headers
Front Panel Header
Front Audio Header
1 x COM Header
1 x ClearCMOS Jumper
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX
1 x 4-pin CPU
Fan Headers 1 x CPU (4-pin)
1 x SYS (4-pin)
IO Panel 1 x PS/2 Combination Port
2 x HDMI Port
1 x DVI-I
4 x USB 3.0
2 x USB 2.0
2 x Network (Intel + Atheros)
Audio Jacks (Realtek ALC892)
Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link

Hardware wise, the unique point about the GIGABYTE board is the dual HDMI as well as the Intel/Atheros network port combination. The rest of the GIGABYTE benefits are in the layout.



In The Box

The old adage ‘good things come in small packages’ should apply to mini-ITX motherboards. However, with a price range such as $130-$140, there is not much room to manoeuver. A manufacturer has a few options, namely to either spec out the motherboard with extra NICs, controllers or a beefier power delivery, or it could go down to the bare PCB and add a bunch of extras. From experience, it would seem that the former policy of pimping out the motherboard wins out when every cent counts, and these three motherboards in this review are no different. Expect to see SATA cables, WiFi antennas, and not a lot else.

For the ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC, two SATA cables and a WiFi antenna is the lot. We get a single device housing both antenna, with the antenna box using a hole to make it easier to hang at a height.

The MSI’s contents also go as far as two SATA cables and antennas, although these ones are simple attachments to the rear panel. Due to using an Intel WiFi module, the drivers come on an extra CD.

The GIGABYTE box is similarly equipped – two SATA cables and a WiFi antenna. This antenna is a relatively new design, using a ring and directional component to increase coverage.

Z97 Mini-ITX Overclocking

Methodology:

Our standard overclocking methodology is as follows. We select the automatic overclock options and test for stability with PovRay and OCCT to simulate high-end workloads. These stability tests aim to catch any immediate causes for memory or CPU errors.

For manual overclocks, based on the information gathered from previous testing, starts off at a nominal voltage and CPU multiplier, and the multiplier is increased until the stability tests are failed. The CPU voltage is increased gradually until the stability tests are passed, and the process repeated until the motherboard reduces the multiplier automatically (due to safety protocol) or the CPU temperature reaches a stupidly high level (100ºC+). Our test bed is not in a case, which should push overclocks higher with fresher (cooler) air.

ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC Performance

The ASRock board offers a good number of automatic overclock options, although it gets aggressive very early on. At 4.6 GHz, the ASRock actually performs the best by requiring the least voltage and a ‘reasonable’ temperature.

MSI Z97I AC Performance

MSI plays it safe with the OC Genie settings, only pushing our processor to 4.0 GHz on all cores. This has a minor bump in performance, although the peak temperature and voltage for this setting is high for our CPU. Absolute overclocks actually put the MSI slightly behind on performance (1871 in POV-Ray vs. ~1900) but the peak temperature is the lowest (94C vs 95-100C).

GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI Performance

The CPU Upgrade options from GIGABYTE allow users to slowly move up the frequency until a temperature limit is reached, although the high voltage these options use give very high temperatures from the start. Anything over 85ºC on our open test bed might be 100ºC in a case without appropriate cooling, which might nullify the GIGABYTE options. The manual overclock seemed to require the most voltage to reach 4.6 GHz on this board, but around 4.4 GHz the voltage and temperatures were quite reasonable.

The Winner

For automatic overclock options, both the ASRock and the GIGABYTE have plenty to choose from, although the ASRock Turbo mode from 4.0 GHz to 4.8 GHz is easier to follow which settings are adjusted, giving this motherboard the nod. In terms of manual overclock performance, the ASRock gave us the lowest voltage to reach 4.6 GHz, although all three motherboards are moving into the mid 90ºC+ at peak loading. If we take 4.5 GHz instead, the MSI actually wins at that level.



Many thanks to...

We must thank the following companies for kindly providing hardware for our test bed:

Test Setup

Test Setup
Processor Intel Core i7-4770K ES
4 Cores, 8 Threads, 3.5 GHz (3.9 GHz Turbo)
Motherboard ASRock Z97E-ITX
MSI Z97I AC
GIGABYTE Z97N-WiFi
Cooling Corsair H80i
Thermalright TRUE Copper
Power Supply OCZ 1250W Gold ZX Series
Corsair AX1200i Platinum PSU
Memory G.Skill RipjawsZ 4x4 GB DDR3-1600 9-11-9 Kit
Memory Settings 1600 9-11-9-27 1T tRFC 240
Video Cards MSI GTX 770 Lightning 2GB (1150/1202 Boost)
ASUS HD7970 3GB (Reference)
Video Drivers Catalyst 13.12
NVIDIA Drivers 335.23
Hard Drive OCZ Vertex 3 256GB
Optical Drive LG GH22NS50
Case Open Test Bed
Operating System Windows 7 64-bit SP1
USB 2/3 Testing OCZ Vertex 3 240GB with SATA->USB Adaptor

Power Consumption

Power consumption was tested on the system as a whole with a wall meter connected to the OCZ 1250W power supply, while in a single MSI GTX 770 Lightning GPU configuration. This power supply is Gold rated, and as I am in the UK on a 230-240 V supply, leads to ~75% efficiency > 50W, and 90%+ efficiency at 250W, which is suitable for both idle and multi-GPU loading. This method of power reading allows us to compare the power management of the UEFI and the board to supply components with power under load, and includes typical PSU losses due to efficiency. These are the real world values that consumers may expect from a typical system (minus the monitor) using this motherboard.

While this method for power measurement may not be ideal, and you feel these numbers are not representative due to the high wattage power supply being used (we use the same PSU to remain consistent over a series of reviews, and the fact that some boards on our test bed get tested with three or four high powered GPUs), the important point to take away is the relationship between the numbers. These boards are all under the same conditions, and thus the differences between them should be easy to spot.

Power Consumption - Long Idle

Power Consumption - Idle

Power Consumption - OCCT

The ASRock motherboard scores the lowest in our power tests with impressive idle numbers. However, the GIGABYTE has the smalled power delta between idle and loaded conditions.

Windows 7 POST Time

Different motherboards have different POST sequences before an operating system is initialized. A lot of this is dependent on the board itself, and POST boot time is determined by the controllers on board (and the sequence of how those extras are organized). As part of our testing, we are now going to look at the POST Boot Time - this is the time from pressing the ON button on the computer to when Windows 7 starts loading. (We discount Windows loading as it is highly variable given Windows specific features.)  These results are subject to human error, so please allow +/- 1 second in these results.

POST (Power-On Self-Test) Time - Single MSI GTX 770

Smaller systems should boot quickly (in an ideal scenario), and in this case the ASRock takes both the default and stripped top places. For the default scenario, this may be indicative of having one less NIC than the other two, saving some time. In fact, the 5.65 seconds of the ASRock board when stripped down is mightily impressive.

Rightmark Audio Analyzer 6.2.5

The premise behind Rightmark:AA is to test the input and output of the audio system to determine noise levels, range, harmonic distortion, stereo crosstalk and so forth. Rightmark:AA should indicate how well the sound system is built and isolated from electrical interference (either internally or externally). For this test we connect the Line Out to the Line In using a short six inch 3.5mm to 3.5mm high-quality jack, turn the OS speaker volume to 100%, and run the Rightmark default test suite at 192 kHz, 24-bit. The OS is tuned to 192 kHz/24-bit input and output, and the Line-In volume is adjusted until we have the best RMAA value in the mini-pretest. We look specifically at the Dynamic Range of the audio codec used on board, as well as the Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise.

Rightmark: AA, Dynamic Range, 24-bit / 192 kHz

Rightmark: AA, THD+N, 24-bit / 192 kHz

The use of a Realtek ALC1150 pushes the ASRock ahead of the other two quite easily in terms of dynamic range and distortion.

USB Backup

For this benchmark, we run CrystalDiskMark to determine the ideal sequential read and write speeds for the USB port using our 240 GB OCZ Vertex3 SSD with a SATA 6 Gbps to USB 3.0 converter. Then we transfer a set size of files from the SSD to the USB drive using DiskBench, which monitors the time taken to transfer. The files transferred are a 1.52 GB set of 2867 files across 320 folders – 95% of these files are small typical website files, and the rest (90% of the size) are the videos used in the WinRAR test. In an update to pre-Z87 testing, we also run MaxCPU to load up one of the threads during the test which improves general performance up to 15% by causing all the internal pathways to run at full speed.

USB 2.0 Copy Times

USB 3.0 Copy Times

Nothing much separates the three boards in USB speed.

DPC Latency

Deferred Procedure Call latency is a way in which Windows handles interrupt servicing. In order to wait for a processor to acknowledge the request, the system will queue all interrupt requests by priority. Critical interrupts will be handled as soon as possible, whereas lesser priority requests, such as audio, will be further down the line. So if the audio device requires data, it will have to wait until the request is processed before the buffer is filled. If the device drivers of higher priority components in a system are poorly implemented, this can cause delays in request scheduling and process time, resulting in an empty audio buffer – this leads to characteristic audible pauses, pops and clicks. Having a bigger buffer and correctly implemented system drivers obviously helps in this regard. The DPC latency checker measures how much time is processing DPCs from driver invocation – the lower the value will result in better audio transfer at smaller buffer sizes. Results are measured in microseconds and taken as the peak latency while cycling through a series of short HD videos - less than 500 microseconds usually gets the green light, but the lower the better.

DPC Latency Maximum

Intel’s 9-series motherboards are all scoring well in DPC Latency. Out of the three motherboards tested here, the MSI takes the crown with a sub 50 score. The ASRock is almost triple, slightly outside our new byline of 100, at 107.



CPU Benchmarks

Readers of our motherboard review section will have noted the trend in modern motherboards to implement a form of MultiCore Enhancement / Acceleration / Turbo (read our report here) on their motherboards. This does several things – better benchmark results at stock settings (not entirely needed if overclocking is an end-user goal), at the expense of heat and temperature, but also gives in essence an automatic overclock which may be against what the user wants. Our testing methodology is ‘out-of-the-box’, with the latest public BIOS installed and XMP enabled, and thus subject to the whims of this feature. It is ultimately up to the motherboard manufacturer to take this risk – and manufacturers taking risks in the setup is something they do on every product (think C-state settings, USB priority, DPC Latency / monitoring priority, memory subtimings at JEDEC). Processor speed change is part of that risk which is clearly visible, and ultimately if no overclocking is planned, some motherboards will affect how fast that shiny new processor goes and can be an important factor in the purchase.

From our results it would seem that the MSI and GIGABYTE both enabled MCT by default, whereas the ASRock does not.

Point Calculations – 3D Movement Algorithm Test: link

3DPM is a self-penned benchmark, taking basic 3D movement algorithms used in Brownian Motion simulations and testing them for speed. High floating point performance, MHz and IPC wins in the single thread version, whereas the multithread version has to handle the threads and loves more cores.

3D Particle Movement: Single Threaded

3D Particle Movement: MultiThreaded

Due to the speed difference at a full multithreaded load, the ASRock takes a back seat compared to our other Z97 results.

Compression – WinRAR 5.0.1: link

Our WinRAR test from 2013 is updated to the latest version of WinRAR at the start of 2014. We compress a set of 2867 files across 320 folders totaling 1.52 GB in size – 95% of these files are small typical website files, and the rest (90% of the size) are small 30 second 720p videos.

WinRAR 5.01

Nothing much separates the three mini-ITX motherboards in WinRAR

Image Manipulation – FastStone Image Viewer 4.9: link

Similarly to WinRAR, the FastStone test us updated for 2014 to the latest version. FastStone is the program I use to perform quick or bulk actions on images, such as resizing, adjusting for color and cropping. In our test we take a series of 170 images in various sizes and formats and convert them all into 640x480 .gif files, maintaining the aspect ratio. FastStone does not use multithreading for this test, and thus single threaded performance is often the winner.

FastStone Image Viewer 4.9

While the MSI and GIGABYTE match their fast Z97 brethren, the ASRock seems to be slightly down here.

Rendering – PovRay 3.7: link

The Persistence of Vision RayTracer, or PovRay, is a freeware package for as the name suggests, ray tracing. It is a pure renderer, rather than modeling software, but the latest beta version contains a handy benchmark for stressing all processing threads on a platform. We have been using this test in motherboard reviews to test memory stability at various CPU speeds to good effect – if it passes the test, the IMC in the CPU is stable for a given CPU speed. As a CPU test, it runs for approximately 2-3 minutes on high end platforms.

PovRay 3.7 beta

While the ASRock had the lowest power consumption of the three, that translates into slightly lower performance as shown in POV-Ray.

Video Conversion – Handbrake v0.9.9: link

Handbrake is a media conversion tool that was initially designed to help DVD ISOs and Video CDs into more common video formats. The principle today is still the same, primarily as an output for H.264 + AAC/MP3 audio within an MKV container. In our test we use the same videos as in the Xilisoft test, and results are given in frames per second.

HandBrake v0.9.9 Film CPU Only

HandBrake v0.9.9 2x4K CPU Only

The difference in MCT makes the ASRock fall behind in low-quality conversion, but for 4K60 video, all three perform similarly.

Synthetic – 7-Zip 9.2: link

As an open source compression tool, 7-Zip is a popular tool for making sets of files easier to handle and transfer. The software offers up its own benchmark, to which we report the result.

7-Zip MIPS



Gaming Benchmarks

F1 2013

First up is F1 2013 by Codemasters. I am a big Formula 1 fan in my spare time, and nothing makes me happier than carving up the field in a Caterham, waving to the Red Bulls as I drive by (because I play on easy and take shortcuts). F1 2013 uses the EGO Engine, and like other Codemasters games ends up being very playable on old hardware quite easily. In order to beef up the benchmark a bit, we devised the following scenario for the benchmark mode: one lap of Spa-Francorchamps in the heavy wet, the benchmark follows Jenson Button in the McLaren who starts on the grid in 22nd place, with the field made up of 11 Williams cars, 5 Marussia and 5 Caterham in that order. This puts emphasis on the CPU to handle the AI in the wet, and allows for a good amount of overtaking during the automated benchmark. We test at 1920x1080 on Ultra graphical settings.

F1 2013: 1080p Max, 1x GTX 770

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite was Zero Punctuation’s Game of the Year for 2013, uses the Unreal Engine 3, and is designed to scale with both cores and graphical prowess. We test the benchmark using the Adrenaline benchmark tool and the Xtreme (1920x1080, Maximum) performance setting, noting down the average frame rates and the minimum frame rates.

Bioshock Infinite: 1080p Max, 1x GTX 770

Tomb Raider

The next benchmark in our test is Tomb Raider. Tomb Raider is an AMD optimized game, lauded for its use of TressFX creating dynamic hair to increase the immersion in game. Tomb Raider uses a modified version of the Crystal Engine, and enjoys raw horsepower. We test the benchmark using the Adrenaline benchmark tool and the Xtreme (1920x1080, Maximum) performance setting, noting down the average frame rates and the minimum frame rates.

Tomb Raider: 1080p Max, 1x GTX 770

Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping Dogs is a benchmarking wet dream – a highly complex benchmark that can bring the toughest setup and high resolutions down into single figures. Having an extreme SSAO setting can do that, but at the right settings Sleeping Dogs is highly playable and enjoyable. We run the basic benchmark program laid out in the Adrenaline benchmark tool, and the Xtreme (1920x1080, Maximum) performance setting, noting down the average frame rates and the minimum frame rates.

Sleeping Dogs: 1080p Max, 1x GTX 770

Battlefield 4

The EA/DICE series that has taken countless hours of my life away is back for another iteration, using the Frostbite 3 engine. AMD is also piling its resources into BF4 with the new Mantle API for developers, designed to cut the time required for the CPU to dispatch commands to the graphical sub-system. For our test we use the in-game benchmarking tools and record the frame time for the first ~70 seconds of the Tashgar single player mission, which is an on-rails generation of and rendering of objects and textures. We test at 1920x1080 at Ultra settings.

Battlefield 4: 1080p Max, 1x GTX 770



Z97 Mini-ITX Roundup Conclusion

ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC

The big plus in the bucket for ASRock’s system is the support for both types of PCIe storage that Z97 brings. The M.2 on the rear is suitable for 30 and 42 mm drives, and shares lanes with the SATA Express port on the top of the board. Unfortunately therein lies several issues – the availability of PCIe storage drives, and whether they will be available in the desired sizes. Until we have had M.2 in the market, either using the PCIe or SATA protocols, for a good 12 months will we be able to understand what length of drive is most favored. If ASRock could have placed the connector at right angles, and thus offered more size options, then perhaps this would not be an issue:

Also, with respect to the zero SATA Express drives currently on the market, the large SATAe connector does no favors by being in between the PCIe slot and the DRAM slots for cable routing:

For those not interested in PCIe storage, at least the motherboard has six SATA ports, but these are all facing the same way such that locking SATA cables could be frustrating to remove.

Also on the components front, while the other two motherboards use two NICs and an ALC892 audio codec, the ASRock swaps a NIC for a higher level codec – the ALC1150. This shows through in our audio tests quite considerably, and given the addition to 802.11ac to all three motherboards, one might argue if two NICs are technically needed and it would be worth upgrading other features. At least the NIC used is the I218-V, the highest model of any motherboard tested today.

One of the downsides of the Z97E-ITX/AC in terms of out-of-the-box is the performance, due to the lack of MultiCore Enhancement by default. Despite it being enabled in our BIOS, it is obvious through some of our multithreaded benchmarks (HandBrake, POV-Ray) that the system does not implement that 39x multiplier across all loading. This might be easily avoided by doing some simple adjustments in the BIOS, but it is not an out-of-the-box benefit like the other motherboards.

The DPC Latency of the Z97E-ITX/AC comes 3rd, but the audio range and distortion numbers are significantly better. Boot timings also come out on top, and I also enjoyed the large range of automatic overclock options.

The BIOS and Software work well together, though the BIOS lacks the proper interactive fan control system that the software has. I find navigating the BIOS easy (a trait shared with the MSI board) and the software is easy on the eye.

Unlike the other two motherboards, I did not need to write any extra notes when testing the ASRock. This typically reflects a very easy-to-use package that works out of the box - a feature that is sometimes lacking with this very mature product segment.

MSI Z97I AC

One of the main issues with lower cost mini-ITX motherboards is routing through the PCB. Due to the low cost nature, most of these PCBs are four layers, or six layers maximum, meaning that care has to be taken for port and feature routing. The ideal mini-ITX motherboard has space for power connectors and ports to the right of the DRAM slots, and the opportunity to place cables cleanly and evenly. Perhaps four layers is not enough for this, because when I saw the MSI Z97I AC in the flesh, the positioning of the 4-pin CPU connector gave me cause for concern. Unless the power supply is mounted above the motherboard, there is going to be issues with wires climbing across the motherboard. MSI’s decision to place the CPU socket lower down on the motherboard limits the locations for the 4-pin power connector, and it might have been in this place at the request of a customer or a tradeoff with the other ports.  The same can be said of the ASRock as well, with its 8-pin CPU power connector.

That aside, MSI comes hard in with the networking options, offering two Realtek NICs and the 2T2R 802.11ac Intel AC7260 WiFi. The Realtek ALC892 audio codec is not the best out of this three-motherboard review, but some users might be pleased with the removal of the VGA connector from the rear of the motherboard. The Z97I AC comes with four SATA 6 Gbps ports (note, the chipset and other motherboards offer six), a USB 3.0 header and four USB 3.0 ports but no PCIe storage options. The ClearCMOS and Go2BIOS buttons on the rear panel are a nice touch for users who need to adjust overclocks.

The BIOS and Software packages from MSI are growing in usability and efficiency, with the fan controls in the BIOS being a big plus along with the XMP button. The software gives fan controls as well as a RAMDisk option, although the ease at which 2.1 volts could be applied to the CPU is a cause for concern.

For performance, the MSI matches the GIGABYTE in beating the ASRock, especially in multithreaded benchmarks and also very slightly (<2%) in gaming benchmarks. The audio codec puts the MSI behind the ASRock though, and boot times are the worst of the three. The DPC Latency comes out on top at 43 microseconds, but for this we had to disable the WiFi module. Overclocking the MSI Z97I AC was normal, although it is worth noting that OC Genie did not push much (4.0 GHz) and the stock voltage on the platform seemed higher than the others (1.169 volts compared to 1.064-1.117).

In isolation, the MSI Z97I AC might come across as a nice motherboard that is fairly easy to use. But when placed against the competition, there seems to be other products out on the market, for a similar price, that might offer that better experience. Choosing Realtek for both the NICs and mid-range audio codec is cost saving measure, along with fewer SATA ports or no extra controllers. I will certainly offer kudos to the MSI BIOS team, who are making changes in the right direction for sure.

GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI

A motherboard that is easy to set up, in terms of cabling, is always good to have on the test bed. The Z97N-WIFI is one such example, and this becomes one of its major selling points. By placing more of the important headers around the edges of the motherboard PCB, adding in the power cables, fan cables, SATA cables and any other cables makes building and repairing an easier job. The position of the socket, alongside the lack of a power delivery heatsink, would suggest that any size air cooler would fit with appropriate memory.

That lack of a power delivery heatsink might initially cause concern, however our testing was not in any way affected by the lack of one being there. GIGABYTE is claiming to use high efficiency components (over the standard) in this area, and our overclocking did not suffer as a result.

The combination of an Intel and an Atheros NIC seems like a strange choice here. Atheros also makes the Killer NIC, which GIGABYTE uses on a few motherboard models, but typically a Realtek NIC is used with a Realtek audio codec because Realtek offers a deal when used together. I might postulate that either GIGABYTE has spare stock of the Atheros AR81 NIC or there is a cost beneficial deal in place.

Like the ASRock, this Z97N-WIFI uses six SATA ports, but we have two on the edge of the PCB which should cover most HDD+SSD / SSD+ODD setups. Using a third or fourth drive requires a cable over some DRAM, and that would cover most users. Unfortunately one part that the GIGABYTE board gets marked down on is the ALC892 audio codec, which does not perform as well as the ASRock’s ALC1150.

For the BIOS, GIGABYTE’s mash of Startup Guide, HD mode and Classic mode is starting to become a bubbling cauldron of everything. GIGABYTE needs to decide if they are going to continue to support both modes or focus in perfecting one. A lack of focus means a split of resources, which is not always a good thing.

In terms of performance, because the GIGABYTE uses MultiCore Turbo, it joins the MSI in beating the ASRock, particularly in multi-threaded loads and a few frames in gaming. It sits in the middle of the three for DPC latency, audio results and boot time, but wins on power delta between long idle and CPU load. Automatic overclocking seemed overly aggressive, hitting 87ºC peak temperature with the lowest 4.3 GHz option, but the manual overclock performed well up to 4.5 GHz, hitting 4.6 GHz with high temperatures.

The GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI layout should make a first-time builder’s job easier than the other two, and the use of dual HDMI might encourage users with middle-of-the-road monitors to go dual screen when using the IGP. Performance out of the box at stock is better than expected, although if you want PCIe storage or better onboard audio, there are boards that focus on those qualities.

More Than Spot The Difference

For each of these three motherboards, being very similar on price, there are several major areas I would consider for a regular under-the-desk/next-to-the-monitor home system. We rank the best from each area:

Feature Set: ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC

The Z97E-ITX/AC gets this one for its choice of an Intel NIC over Realtek, the upgraded audio codec and six SATA ports. The addition of PCIe storage options is an extra, even though the storage market still has to adjust to these new connectors which will come in time. 

Motherboard Layout: GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI

Hands down, the GIGABYTE wins this category for placing nearly all of its onboard headers around the edge of the PCB. Both the 24-pin ATX and the 4-pin CPU power connectors are here, along with the two fan headers and USB 2.0/3.0 headers. For first time builders, or those focusing on cable management, the Z97N-WIFI has the edge.

Out-of-the-Box Performance: MSI Z97I AC and GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI

All three motherboards play tit-for-tat in the system benchmarks (MSI gets the best DPC Latency, GIGABYTE gets the best power draw delta, ASRock gets the best audio), but both the MSI and GIGABYTE boards win here due to their implementation of MultiCore Turbo, which allows the CPU to run at maximum turbo for any load. This gives both of these boards an extra element of performance (2-5%) in heavy CPU workloads, with the odd frame per second or two in the gaming benchmarks as well.

BIOS and Software: ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC and MSI Z97I AC

Both ASRock and MSI have got the visuals of their packages on a good direction, particularly ASRock in the software and MSI in the BIOS. Both use the Board Explorer feature to allow users to see what is installed as well. MSI has the better BIOS from a visual perspective, while ASRock’s layout might be more welcome. In the software, I enjoy the ASRock’s green on white more than the blue on black of the MSI or GIGABYTE, as well as the software package that ASRock is spending a lot of time on. MSI still has the best update software of the three, although that CPU OC option to hit 2.1 volts has to go.

Conclusion

If I were to assign a point to each of the four categories above, the ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC and GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI would be joint first with 1.5 points each. Neither has the ideal package, and in fact some amalgam of the two would be great if it could fit into this price point. $140 is a tight squeeze for an Intel platform aimed at both at new features and ease-of-use, rather than something that should just get up and go. My recommendations are as follows:

ASRock Z97E-ITX/AC: For a user looking for feature set and better onboard audio, also to invest into PCIe storage in the future.

MSI Z97I AC: Better CPU performance and nice BIOS to learn, but potential cable management issues and fewer features.

GIGABYTE Z97N-WIFI: For a new builder or user wanting easy placement, with better CPU performance.

For mini-ITX Z97 motherboards two other tiers also exist, with four motherboards split between $160 and $200 from ASUS, GIGABYTE, MSI and EVGA. With any luck, our next mini-ITX roundups will have several of these. Stay tuned for those reviews.

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