Next in our recent run of lower cost motherboards is the MSI Z97 Guard-Pro, a motherboard that MSI billed to me as one suited for the overclockable Pentium G3258 on a budget. At $110, we see if it differs much from the more expensive options on the market.

MSI Z97 Guard-Pro Overview

Having had the majority of my reviewing time at AnandTech dealing with motherboards equipped to the hilt, the Z97 Guard-Pro feels quite barren in contrast. The design looks lightweight, with only two full length PCIe slots, four power phases and six SATA ports. The traces on the motherboard between the components and slots also look fewer than the higher end models. Perhaps to reduce the price, this motherboard eschews SLI certification by only having one full PCIe 3.0 x16 from the CPU paired with a PCIe 2.0 x4 from the PCH.

One of the positive things to come from a cheaper end motherboard that still retains a high level chipset is the connectivity, meaning that the six SATA 6 Gbps ports is also paired with an M.2 x2 port and six USB 3.0 ports, one of which is a header. For most users this combination works out well, and the limited bandwidth on the second full length PCIe slot means that a couple of the SATA ports are coming out of the motherboard on the right hand side, which we normally see associated with a low cost product. Another feature for low cost is the combined use of Realtek ALC892 audio and a Realtek NIC which are often both bundled together at a lower than individual unit cost.

MSI is still equipping the board with its Military Class 4 designation, meaning that is passes various military standard tests, but the Guard-Pro element to the design is relatively new. The nomenclature is designed to encompass a series of design elements for increased protection, such as PCB coating for humidity protection (a paint rather than superhydrophobic), each IO port is fused for electrostatic discharge protection, the motherboard complies with FCC regulations for electromagnetic interference (though I would assume almost all motherboards would do) and also ECO Power implemented to allow for lower power operation.

We have covered MSI’s software and BIOS implementations for Z97 several times previously, and the ecosystem as a whole is a definite plus, giving an easy XMP button in the BIOS along with ordered overclock options and graphical fan controls. A couple of negative elements still exist however, such as high voltage selection in Control Center being very easily to implement and we experienced issues trying to get into the BIOS with too low a voltage selected during overclocking without a full BIOS reset.

Benchmark results across the board were in the bottom half compared to most of our other Z97 testing, and the ALC892 dynamic range audio results were lower than expected even for the codec used. DPC Latency was under a hundred which is a plus, with POST times around 12-13 seconds. USB performance was average, but power consumption figures were good for Z97: not ultimately surprising due to the lack of additional features here.

One of MSI’s points about the Z97 Guard-Pro when they shipped me the sample was their aim to make it one of their focus models for Pentium G3258 overclocking, and they provided an extra CPU sample for me to test with. That sample, despite some odd voltage jumps while ramping the frequency, hit 4.8 GHz without any issue with peak temperatures barely touching 80ºC. Despite the four power phases, the Z97 Guard-Pro can withstand a dual core overclocking session for a long-term build.

Visual Inspection

As mentioned above, my first look at this motherboard was one of surprise due to the lack of anything. Perhaps this is due to no power delivery heatsink above the socket and no white outline on the PCB showing where the socket should be. The four power phases for the CPU are to the left of the socket, with the heatsink covering the ICs that generate the heat. For a low cost motherboard, the heatsink is of a decent size which is good to see.

The motherboard has four 4-pin fan headers in white around the motherboard, three within the socket area. The CPU fan header is above the socket, and a 4-pin SYS fan header just above the first PCIe slot. Another SYS header is to the right of the DRAM slots, with the final header at the bottom of the motherboard. Having white fan headers does provide a contrast against the black PCB, although it does perhaps disjoint against the black and blue color of the rest of the motherboard, such as the DRAM slots, PCIe slots, heatsinks and USB 3.0 header.

On the right hand side of the motherboard is the USB 3.0 header, followed by two SATA 6 Gbps ports coming out of the board and four SATA 6 Gbps ports at 90º to the PCB. All six are from the PCH and have full RAID 0/1/5/10 capabilities. At the bottom of the board are the front panel headers, two USB 2.0 headers (the one in red supports fast charging), a TPM header, an LPT header, a COM header and the front audio header. In previous MSI motherboards I have leveraged a criticism that the front panel headers do not guide where the case connectors should be for power/reset buttons, but this motherboard has a printed on guide next to the SATA ports.

The PCIe slots are advertised as being ‘perfect for Bitcoin’, suggesting that all six can be used at once. This would mean that the four PCIe 2.0 x1 slots and PCIe 2.0 x4 slot are all available to use simultaneously, which would use up all eight of the chipset PCIe 2.0 lanes. As mentioned in the overview, this motherboard has a PCIe 3.0 x16/PCIe 2.0 x4 arrangement on the full length PCIe slots which means this motherboard does not support SLI with NVIDIA graphics cards. Crossfire is possible but the bandwidth restriction on that PCIe 2.0 x4 slot might not provide the maximum FPS gain desired by adding a second GPU.

The rear panel is slightly shifted compared to most other Z97 motherboards with the network port nearer the top of the motherboard and the D-Sub/DVI-D port lower down. Aside from these, the rear panel also houses a combination PS/2 port, two USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, a DisplayPort and the audio jacks. Having a DisplayPort on the motherboard rather than a HDMI seems odd, though it might save costs based on HDMI licensing.

Board Features

MSI Z97 Guard-Pro
Price US (Newegg)
Size ATX
CPU Interface LGA-1150
Chipset Intel Z97
Memory Slots Four DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 32 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1066-3300 MHz
Video Outputs DisplayPort (4096x2304 at 24 Hz, 3840x2160 at 60 Hz)
VGA (1920x1200 at 60 Hz)
DVI-D (1920x1200 at 60 Hz)
Onboard LAN Realtek RTL8111G
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC892
Expansion Slots 1 x PCIe 3.0 x16
1 x PCIe 2.0 x4
4 x PCIe 2.0 x1
Onboard SATA/RAID 6 x SATA 6 Gbps, RAID 0/1/5/10
USB 3.0 6 x USB 3.0 [4 rear panel, one header]
Onboard 6 x SATA 6 Gbps
1 x USB 3.0 Header
2 x USB 2.0 Headers
4 x Fan Headers
1 x TPM Header
1 x LPT Header
1 x COM Header
Front Panel Headers
Front Audio Header
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX
1 x 4-pin CPU
Fan Headers 1 x CPU 4-pin
3 x SYS 4-pin
IO Panel 1 x Combination PS/2 Port
2 x USB 2.0 Ports
4 x USB 3.0 Ports
VGA
DVI-D
DisplayPort
1 x Reatek NIC
Audio Jacks
Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link

The Z97 Guard-Pro totally makes sense from the point of view of a compute platform that does not rely on PCIe bandwidth. MSI is promoting all of its protection features along with 6-way PCIe device supportand enough horsepower with an overclocked G3258 to organize the data. Note that the decision to use DVI-D, VGA and DisplayPort on the rear means that users can equip three screens from the processor graphics without issue.

BIOS and Software
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  • blackmagnum - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    I don't see how this mainboard deserves the name "Pro"; onboard Realtek chips and all. Reply
  • hojnikb - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    Whats wrong with realtek ? Reply
  • Daniel Egger - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    Their LAN chips are completely outdated, the drivers piece-of-crap (also the audio drivers but the hardware is much better nowadays) and often combined with horrible PHYs causing a sub-par networking experience. For anything but most basic networking (where reliability, performance, latency and jitter don't really matter much) the use of Realtek is simply not acceptable. Reply
  • Samus - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    Got any evidence to back that up? Or just making shit up like half the internet? Realtek stuff works fine. The audio codec is average, but it works and the driver support is excellent. However, the network codec is among the best out there (with active driver development) with a good PXE implementation and cross platform support (every linux distribution.)

    These are software codecs so yes, they use CPU resources (just like the Intel 218) but this isn't 1996 anymore when 56k software modems would slow a PC down. We have more CPU resources available than any program knows what to do with. Complaining about Realtek (or any codec) using CPU resources is like complaining about USB using CPU resources and supporting Firewire over it...it's irrelevant.

    If you demand better audio than this board provides, use one of those six PCIe slots with a $30 sound card that'll be superior to just about any onboard audio available...
    Reply
  • KAlmquist - Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - link

    Four years ago, the Realtek LAN chips had a tendency to switch to 10 Mb/s mode under Linux. At that point, the performance wasn't just a problem if you use a local area network; one of the bug reports was from someone who had a 20 Mb/s connection to his ISP.

    Maybe things have improved since then, but I'm not inspired to find out. The Intel LAN chips have a list price of $1.72. I'm willing to pay that to get something that I know will work, even if Realtek were willing to give away its chips for free.
    Reply
  • Flunk - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    I'd rather have Realtek audio than Via or C-Media. Their codecs tend to be good enough that the quality of sound is determined by the quality of the other audio components on the board.

    For $110 Realtek LAN is ok, sure I'd rather have Intel but it won't matter for home use.
    Reply
  • xenol - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    Audiophiles are even saying that Realtek has caught up in terms of quality (if we use SNR as quality) with at least the ALC889 and ALC1150 chips. Getting anything beyond that is just buying features that flavor the audio. Reply
  • hojnikb - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    Nice board, but a really pointless with pentiumK. Reply
  • spugm1r3 - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    Not really... the Pentium's ability to overclock, and it's single thread performance, put it on par with the 4770K for gaming. Between the processor and the motherboard, you could put a 780ti in this thing and still be under $1000, achieving high end gaming performance for a fraction of the standard price-point for that level of performance, all for eschewing the extra bells and whistles you weren't going to be using anyway. Reply
  • hojnikb - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    And then you wake up in 2014 and realize, that games use more than 2 threads. This thing, even when heavly overclocked, cant touch i5, let alone i7. It could compare to i3 at best.

    But since you can buy i3 + cheap h81 mobo for less than pentiumK + this mobo it really makes very little sense to go pentiumK route, if you're going budget build.
    Reply

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