Next-gen Intel motherboards are finally upon us. Actually, they arrived early this year. Although Intel has yet to unveil its latest chipsets, motherboards based on them are already selling online. Mobo makers and vendors alike seem to be eager to get these new products onto store shelves—and into the hands of consumers.
At first blush, it's hard to see what all the fuss is about. Fresh Intel chipsets usually come alongside updated processors, but that hasn't really happened this time around. The recent Haswell refresh is a speed bump rather than a next-gen CPU. Even Intel's upcoming Devil's Canyon chip, which features an upgraded thermal interface optimized for overclocking, is just another spin on existing Haswell silicon.
The new Intel motherboards aren't just for Haswell, though. Intel revealed at this year's Game Developers Conference that its 9-series chipset will also support unlocked Broadwell CPUs. The chipset has provisions for SATA Express and M.2 storage devices, too. It straddles multiple generations on two important fronts, providing a measure of future-proofing unavailable with 8-series products. And I haven't even mentioned the separate innovations cooked up by the individual motherboard makers.
Given all that, it's clear why there's so much interest in the new Intel boards. We'll be reviewing a bunch of them in the coming weeks, and we're kicking off our coverage with Asus' Z97-A, which is the first Z97 offering to complete our battery of motherboard tests. This mid-range model is selling online for $149.99, and it's loaded with enthusiast-friendly goodness. Let's take a closer look.
Mercifully, Asus has refined its black-and-gold aesthetic for 9-series motherboards. The Z97-A is predominantly black, with a handful of dark gray highlights and only a hint of color on the heatsinks. Last year's blingy gold has been replaced by a subtle blend of gold, bronze, and pewter tones that reminds me of vintage hi-fi gear. The metallic hue reflects my ghetto studio lighting differently depending on the angle, which is why the VRM and chipset heatsinks appear to be slightly different shades. Trust me, the curtains match the carpet.
Zooming in on the socket provides a better view of the chiseled metal covering the voltage regulation circuitry that feeds the CPU. The heatsinks are only about an inch tall, so they shouldn't interfere with larger CPU coolers. Their close proximity to the retention holes can make cooler installation a little cumbersome, though.
There's plenty of room between the socket and the top PCIe x16 slot, leaving the DIMM slots as the only impediment to running a larger cooler—and then only if they're filled with modules sporting taller heat spreaders. If you're worried about clearances, detailed measurements of the socket area are included later in the review.
While the LGA1150 socket is in view, we should note that the Z97-A doesn't explicitly support upcoming Broadwell CPUs. The next-gen chips aren't ready yet, and Asus won't guarantee support until it has a chance to validate them. We're told Broadwell-based CPUs should work without issue, though.
The Z97-A is lined with a full suite of expansion slots, including dual PCIe x16 connectors linked to the CPU. The processor's 16 Gen3 PCIe lanes can be devoted solely to the first slot or split evenly between the first and second for CrossFire and SLI duos. Running double-wide graphics cards in those slots will obscure access to the PCI slots, but the old-school relics probably won't be missed.
On the right, the Z97-A serves up a third PCIe x16 slot tied to the chipset. This slot is limited to two Gen2 lanes, which is insufficient for multi-GPU setups but just fine for other expansion cards. The PCIe x1 slots are also connected to the chipset. They share bandwidth with the M.2 slot in the top left corner, and they can't be used alongside a mini SSD.
The Z97-A's M.2 slot is limited to PCIe drives; it won't work with SATA-based M.2 SSDs. (The M.2 specification supports drives based on PCIe and SATA interfaces, but specific implementations are often limited to one or the other.) The slot also shares bandwidth with the SATA Express port pictured below.
SATA Express combines PCIe and SATA on a single physical interface. Says so right there in the name. The connector is linked to the same dual Gen2 lanes used by the M.2 slot. It also hooks into the chipset's Serial ATA controller, providing backward compatibility for two 6Gbps SATA drives. SATA Express devices aren't ready for prime time just yet, but this early look at a prototype drive provides more details on the nascent standard.
Like the Z87 chipset before it, the Z97 supports up to six 6Gbps SATA devices. Two ports are shared with the SATAe connector, while the rest sit to the left. All the usual RAID flavors are supported, and TRIM works for SSDs configured in RAID 0 arrays.
The front-panel USB 3.0 header lies to the right of the SATA Express port. It's joined by four USB 3.0 ports in the rear cluster, all of which connect directly to the chipset. The Z97-A also serves up two USB 2.0 ports at the rear along with internal headers for six more.
The rear cluster is a little light on USB connectivity, but it otherwise ticks all the right boxes. You get a trio of digital display outputs, an Intel-powered Gigabit Ethernet jack, and a little legacy flavor. The PS/2 port is good for Model M devotees and n-key rollover purists. That's more than can be said for the VGA out, which seems pretty useless for the sorts of systems the Z97-A is likely to power. Maybe CRT monitors are still big in China, or something.
To the right, the cluster houses five analog audio jacks and an S/PDIF digital output. They're all backed by a Realtek ALC892 codec chip that isn't quite as fancy as the ALC1150 found on some pricier boards. Asus augments the onboard audio in several ways, though. Shielding is applied to both the codec and the analog traces. The front-channel output is connected to a separate amplifier chip, and there's a special circuit designed to minimize popping noise during startup.
The Z97-A's analog audio output sounds decent to my ears. It's nothing special—even for integrated motherboard audio—but it'll do for games and if you have cheap speakers or headphones. There's no audible hissing or interference at idle or when the system is slammed with a combined CPU, GPU, and storage load.
Asus adds an extra software layer on top of the audio hardware and its associated drivers. DTS Connect supports real-time encoding for multi-channel audio, enabling pristine digital output for pretty much any kind of content (provided you have a compatible receiver or speakers, obviously). DTS UltraPC II delivers surround-sound virtualization for stereo devices, which can add a measure of depth and immersion for folks who lack true multi-channel setups.
The Z97-A comes with loads of other software, plus a firmware interface that increasingly resembles a full-blown Windows UI. We'll get to those elements in a moment. First, I need to address a few of the little things.
Wiring front-panel connectors is one of the most frustrating parts of any new build, so Asus gets kudos for including a couple of port blocks that make the process much easier. The board also has a two-pin DirectKey header that boots the system directly into the firmware interface. This header is meant to be paired with Asus' own front-panel hardware, but it works just fine with a standard switch mechanism I yanked from an old case.
Speaking of onboard goodies, the Z97-A has a button for MemOK!, a feature that cycles through different memory profiles for finicky DIMMs. The board also includes onboard switches for system power, XMP profiles, automatic overclocking, and intelligent power-saving measures.
Despite these thoughtful little touches, the Z97-A ships with a standard I/O shield that's littered with sharp edges and pokey bits of metal. Cushioned shields won't slice your fingers or get caught up in the I/O ports during motherboard installation, but Asus only makes them available on pricier members of its 9-series lineup.
Now, about that new firmware interface...