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
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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  • spugm1r3 - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    That shows a pretty robust selection of recent AAA titles faring as well on a Pentium as they do on an i7. Not all 2014 games are multithreaded. In fact, a vast majority aren't utilizing the resources offered by higher end processors. My point is, as long as Crysis or RTS games like Civ5 aren't your mainstays, invest the extra dollars where it counts.
  • Flunk - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    Some of the benchmarks you linked to are as much as 40% slower on the overclocked Pentium, that's not what most people would call "on par". You're also discounting the fact that the 4770K overclocked would perform significantly better (Apples to apples here, if we've otherclocking we need to do it to both chips).

    The Pentium AE is a good low-end deal that will do for a lot of games, add in a mid-range GPU like a Radeon 270x or 280x and you've got a lot of performance for the buck. But it isn't comparable to even an overclocked i5 performance wise.
  • hojnikb - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    If you want price/performance for games, then you either get athlon 750/760K, fx6300, i3 or i5.
    Everything else makes little sense and its a waste of money.
    PentiumK and a z97 only makes sense if you're buying a stopgap system, that will soon get a better CPU. Buying pentiumK for longterm and expection to perform great is just crazy. FFS, its a lowend 2 core cpu.
  • DanNeely - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    None of the benches they showed that actually matter are. No one uses a high end GPU to play at low quality settings and >200 FPS. That sort of BOGO benching to try and show CPU differences has been as stupid as it is common for a number of years. The ones at realistic GPU settings (1080p/max) were all within a few FPS of each other.

    If they wanted to try and show situations where the CPU mattered, min FPS or frame rate pacing data might work since both would capture any times where the CPU briefly did become a bottleneck. Alternately benches for games like CIV5 that do have major multi-threaded CPUbound functions would give the 4790 the ability to crush the pentium.

    Medium term, I'm less confident that most games will only need 1 or 2 CPU threads will remain a valid assumption. The current generation of consoles have 8 slow CPUs vs prior generations having a few fast ones (and the PS3's secondary cores limitations making them harder to use). That's going to put more multi-threading pressure on the game engine developers; and makes commonly used engines being able to effectively use more than a handful of threads more likely in the future.
  • zero2dash - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    ^^^ This.
    G3258 is a good basic CPU, but there are plenty of reviews that show that it is nowhere near "on par" with an i5 (let alone an i7) in games. In some reviews, even an i3 does better than the G3258.

    Intel needs to release an i3-K chip; that's all that the G3258 has demonstrated. It's a decent chip, especially when bundled with the MSI board for $100 at Microcenter, but, it's not "on par" with anything higher in Intel's product line on games (or anything, really).
  • austinsguitar - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    umm... cheepo xeon ftw....
  • Samus - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    With AMD making quad core CPU's for $50, multithreaded software is becoming increasingly commonplace. Clock speed means little to modern software; specialized instructions and multithreaded performance mean everything, not to just AAA games. If you're playing 5 year old games, sure, but then why are you building a new PC for them in the first place?

    I've upgraded Pentium and Celeron PC's to i3's in offices and people even mention how much faster their Outlook and web browsing is, with the only real difference being hyper threading and cache.
  • xenol - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    Games have always used more than two threads. I fired up Rainbow Six 3 the other day and found it had 12 threads going.
  • Samus - Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - link

    A Pentium K at 4.7GHz is comparable to an i3 at 3.4GHz (stock) in multithreaded tasks, which in 2014, is everything. The i3 costs $30 more and doesn't need to be overclocked. Or you could just get an i5 with an H-series motherboard and have more performance than the Pentium K could every achieve for a few dollars more.
  • just4U - Thursday, August 21, 2014 - link

    I use a 4790K for my main system. I also use a A10-5800 and a Non OC Pentium G3258. All systems have comparable specs (ram/ssd) When it comes to browsing the web, opening emails and using office programs I typically use.. I haven't noticed a difference.

    I actually don't really notice a difference until I head down to Dual Cores in the C2D 6x lineup below 3GHZ. I think their finally showing their age.

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