Asus’ Z97-A motherboard reviewed

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 Last year’s blingy gold has been replaced by a subtle blend of gold, bronze, and pewter tones that reminds me of vintage hi-fi gear.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…

Revamped firmware and fan controls

Asus has made substantial changes to its firmware for 9-series motherboards. Unfortunately, these tweaks don’t include a high-resolution user interface like the one included with recent Gigabyte boards. Like most mobo firmware, the Z97-A’s UEFI is rendered at ye olde 1024×768. It still looks good, though, in part thanks to the snazzy new EZ Mode screen.

EZ Mode consolidates basic system information and a handful of configuration options in a simplified interface meant for newbies. The presentation is very slick, with smooth animations, a real-time CPU temperature graph, and a drag-and-drop boot priority list, among other functions. The UI wouldn’t look out of place in Windows software, which is a testament to how far motherboard firmware interfaces have come in the past few years.

As part of its mission to simplify tweaking for less experienced users, EZ Mode now has configuration wizards for overclocking and RAID. Again, the presentation is slick:

The overclocking wizard is interactive, asking users about their usage habits and whether the CPU is cooled by a stock heatsink, an aftermarket air tower, or a liquid cooler. The answers to those questions determine how aggressively the CPU frequency is increased. Users also get a preview of the auto-tuned settings before they’re applied.

On the RAID front, array configuration is now handled entirely in the firmware. The wizard is reasonably intuitive, with “easy backup” and “super speed” categories to differentiate between array types. It’s certainly a lot nicer than the old Intel interface that used to be required for RAID configuration.

Savvy enthusiasts will probably spend most of their time in the UEFI’s advanced interface. This UI is loaded with tweaking, overclocking, and general configuration options organized more like a traditional BIOS. The UI is quick to navigate with both the keyboard and mouse, and the fancy tab-switching animation can be disabled to make it even more responsive. Interestingly, Asus told us that UI smoothness is one factor holding back its transition to high-def firmware. The company doesn’t want to sacrifice responsiveness to hit higher resolutions.

Advanced Mode’s layout has been rearranged slightly for 9-series motherboards. Key system information is now shown on the right, while descriptions of individual settings are displayed at the bottom. The vast majority of settings have been pulled from the 8-series generation, so there’s little new on that front. As with last year’s Asus boards, users can roll their own My Favorites tab with options pulled from anywhere in the advanced interface. Cue UI shot:

Asus has also spruced up Quick Note, which lets users save text notes within the firmware, and Last Modified, which lists the changes made during the previous session. Settings changes made during the current session are displayed when the user exits the firmware. As boring as they sound, these change logs are one of my favorite features of recent Asus UEFI.

Since I’ve ranted about other Asus boards sneakily increasing Turbo multipliers, it’s only fair that I laud the Z97-A for playing by the rules. It’s a shame this topic even needs to be discussed, but most motherboard makers engage in covert CPU overclocking to gain an edge in benchmarks. This unseemly behavior has persisted for years, and it’s evident in two of the other Z97 motherboards I’ve been testing. Those offenders will be shamed when their time comes.

I’ve been rambling about the need for better motherboard fans speed controls for even longer than I’ve been complaining about deceptive overclocking. And again, Asus has been listening. The Z97-A’s graphical fan control interface is pretty much what I’ve been asking for.

The new Q-Fan Tuning interface has individual speed profiles for not only the CPU fan, but also all four of the Z97-A’s system fan headers. Users can click and drag up to three points along a manual profile or select one of four pre-baked options. There are separate profiles for four-pin PWM and three-pin DC fans, as well. Temperature-based speed control works with both fan formats across all the onboard headers.

And there’s more.

The firmware features an automated calibration routine that tests the rotational speed range of each connected fan. That information feeds into the speed profiles, presenting a more accurate picture of fan behavior. Each fan has a separate minimum speed threshold that can be set as low as 200 RPM or ignored completely. There’s also an option that allows DC fans to spin down to a full stop.

The individual fan profiles can be linked to different temperature sensors, including those tied to the CPU, chipset, and motherboard. They can also pull temperature data from a separate probe plugged into the Z97-A’s onboard sensor header. While the necessary probe doesn’t ship with the board, it’s nice to have the option of adding one.

Most of these additional fan tweaking options are accessible only via the monitoring section of the advanced UI. They’re a little difficult to find if you don’t know where to look, and I wish Asus would integrate more of them into the Q-Fan Tuning screen. There I go asking for things again. But, hey, it’s working so far.

On the next page, we’ll see what Asus has been up to on the software front.

The next iteration of AI Suite

Asus has the best tweaking software for 8-series motherboards, and the latest version of AI Suite looks poised to retain that title for the 9-series generation. The interface is attractive, the layout is intuitive, and the range of options should be sufficient to satisfy the needs of newbies and seasoned enthusiasts alike.

AI Suite has several modules, including ones that cover overclocking, power delivery, and fan speed control. Adjustments can be made manually or through an optimization wizard that handles everything automatically.

The optimization routine’s auto-overclocker slowly increases CPU clock speeds while testing stability along the way. This iterative auto-tuner is configurable, allowing users to set not only the target CPU frequency and temperature, but also how long the integrated stress test runs before a given configuration is deemed stable. The auto-tuner isn’t limited to the CPU, either. It can also push memory speeds and overclock compatible graphics cards. Don’t expect the Asus software to fiddle with GPU speeds on graphics cards from other vendors, though.

For those who prefer to make changes themselves, AI Suite is a pleasure to use. I’m particularly fond of how the overclocking module depicts the various CPU voltage options. The processor voltage can be set at a static level or configured in an adaptive mode with separate offset and Turbo elements. Changes to those variables are reflected in graphs to the left, providing a handy visual reference that even experienced enthusiasts should appreciate. AI Suite also does the math for you by displaying the effective CPU voltage produced by adaptive mode’s combined inputs.

The tweaking utility doesn’t replicate every tuning option available in the firmware, but it has pretty much all of the important ones, including a full complement of power settings. As one might expect, the fan controls are the business.

In addition to matching the options available in the firmware, the Fan Xpert software adds sliders that dictate how eagerly the spinners speed up and slow down in response to temperature changes. Lengthening these reaction times can minimize the audible fan oscillations that sometimes result from rapid temperature fluctuations. The same software fan controls are available for all the onboard headers, and similar options are provided for our test rig’s Asus-branded GeForce GTX 680.

Turbo App is one of the few completely new components of the AI Suite software. This module allows individual applications to be associated with performance, audio, and networking profiles. The performance profiles are configured within AI Suite’s tuning component, while the others are set in the audio driver and Turbo LAN utility, respectively. Turbo LAN is the Asus app charged with prioritizing local network traffic, by the way.

Asus also bundles the Z97-A with a bunch of homebrewed software that interacts with Android devices. It’s hard to get excited about most of the apps, but Push Notice is kind of neat. This utility transmits alert messages if system temperatures, voltages, or fan speeds deviate from acceptable ranges. The thresholds are set within AI Suite, and the alerts can be pushed to one or more devices. Push Notice can also be configured to send messages when system variables return to normal.

Unfortunately, users are left powerless in the interim. The alerts are great, but they would be much more helpful if they included a prompt to shut down or hibernate the system in the face of a potential meltdown. As it stands, you’ll have to switch to a Remote Desktop app or have physical access to the machine to deal with any problems.

While I’m making suggestions, it would be nice if Push Notice could be configured to send system monitoring details at regular intervals—or at the client’s request. Robust remote monitoring has definite appeal for enthusiasts, especially ones with systems running on the ragged edge.

Speaking of which, let’s move on to overclocking.

Overclocking

Haswell overclocking is a tricky proposition. The chip was designed with mobile applications in mind, so it’s optimized for low power rather than high frequencies. The die is quite small, too, making cooling especially challenging. None of that has anything to do with the motherboard, which serves as more of a facilitator than a bottleneck. Nevertheless, some mobos make the overclocking process much easier than others, even if they don’t increase the peak speed that can be reached with a given chip and cooler combo.

We tested the Z97-A’s overclocking chops on multiple fronts using a Core i7-4770K CPU strapped to a Corsair H80 water cooler. The firmware’s EZ wizard got the first crack at the CPU; it cranked the chip to nearly 4.6GHz using a 45X all-core multiplier, a 101.98MHz base clock, and a 1.224V CPU voltage. The wizard warned that this configuration would require serious cooling, and it suggested reloading the firmware defaults if system instability ensued. That’s good information to communicate to inexperienced overclockers. Unfortunately, the instability warning proved prophetic. The wizard-tuned config produced BSOD errors when we fired up our combined CPU and GPU stress test.

AI Suite’s auto-tuner was less aggressive. It left the base clock at 100MHz and pushed the Turbo multiplier to 45X for 1-2 core loads and 44X with 3-4 cores engaged. The chip was perfectly stable during our stress test, which pegged it at 4.4GHz and 1.311V. CPU temperatures spiked to 86°C, but we didn’t detect any throttling.

Next, we tried manual overclocking via the firmware. The CPU was stable all the way up to 4.5GHz using multiplier tweaking alone. At that speed, the firmware’s “auto” voltage settings ticked up to 1.326V under load. Throttling wasn’t an issue, and the process was entirely painless.

Manual voltage tuning was required at 4.6GHz. The automated setting peaked at 1.35V under load, but BSOD errors appeared again. Dialing back the voltage to 1.3V was all it took to get system stable under load. Again, CPU temperatures hit 86°C with no evidence of throttling.

4.6GHz is pretty typical for this particular CPU and cooler, and getting there on the Z97-A was very easy overall. Pushing past that speed proved more difficult. At 4.7GHz, the CPU was stuck between too much voltage, which induced throttling, and too little voltage, which produced BSOD errors. I spent a while clicking my way around the AI Suite software trying to find a magical recipe that avoided those two outcomes only to run into a third: a hardware error in AIDA64’s CPU stress test. At that point, I gave up.

Even though the Z97-A failed to take our Haswell CPU to new heights, it did a good job of exploiting the chip’s potential, and it smoothed out the overclocking process considerably.

Power consumption

We measured power draw at the wall socket with our test system at idle, then playing a 1080p YouTube video, and finally under a full load combining Cinebench rendering with the Unigine Valley demo. The Z97-A was tested against Z97 boards from Gigabyte and MSI, plus an Asus Z87-PRO from the previous generation. Stay tuned for full reviews of the Gigabyte and MSI offerings.

The Z97-A has impressively low power draw at idle and during our YouTube test. Activating the board’s EPU power-saving feature helps in those scenarios, too, but it doesn’t have much of an impact under full load.

While the Z97-A appears to have a clear advantage over its Z97 peers, we should note that the Gigabyte Z97X-UD5H and MSI Z97 Gaming 7 are higher-end models with additional integrated peripherals and beefier power regulation circuitry. Those differences could explain why the Gigabyte and MSI boards consume more power. In any case, the Z97-A’s power consumption is still very low.

Performance

Power consumption is just one component of the motherboard testing we conduct here at TR. All the boards listed above were also run through a full suite of application and peripheral performance tests. The results are profoundly uninteresting, though. As we’ve stated time and time again, motherboards have little impact on system performance. The CPU and graphics card dictate application and gaming performance, while storage—specifically, the presence of an SSD—plays a role in overall system responsiveness.

As far as we can tell, the Z97-A performs pretty much identically to other Haswell boards. The run-to-run variance for each one is often larger than the differences between them, so the scores aren’t even worth graphing. There are a few outliers that warrant further investigation, but none of them affect the Z97-A.

We even tested the board with LatencyMon, which measures DPC and ISR latency to determine if systems are suitable for real-time audio processing. We haven’t run this utility on the other Z97 mobos just yet, but it gave the Z97-A a passing grade. The highest reported latencies were related to the Nvidia graphics driver rather than anything associated with the motherboard.

The next page is filled with nerdy details about board specifications, system configurations, and test procedures. It doesn’t make for particularly interesting reading, unless you’re into that sort of thing, so we won’t be offended if you skip ahead to the conclusion.

Detailed specifications

We’ve covered most of the Z97-A’s vital details already, but here’s the full spec sheet in case we missed anything:

Platform Intel Z97 Express, socket
LGA1150
DIMM slots 4 DDR3, 32GB max
Expansion slots 2 PCIe
3.0 x16 via CPU (x16/x0 or x8/x8)

1 PCIe 2.0 x16 via Z97 Express (x2)

2 PCIe 2.0 x1 via Z97 Express

2 PCI

Storage I/O 1 SATA
Express
via Z97 Express

4 SATA RAID 6Gbps via Z97 Express

1 M.2 type 2260/2280 via Z97 Express (PCIe only)

Audio 8-channel HD
via Realtek ALC892
Real-time digital encoding via DTS Connect

Surround virtualization via DTS UltraPC II

Ports 1 PS/2
keyboard/mouse

1 DisplayPort 1.2 via CPU

1 HDMI via CPU

1 DVI-D via CPU

1 VGA via CPU

4 USB 3.0 via Z97 Express

2 USB 3.0 via internal header via Z97 Express

2 USB 2.0 via Z97 Express

4 USB 2.0 via internal headers via Z97 Express
1
Gigabit Ethernet via Intel I218-V

1 analog front/headphone out (amplified)

1 analog microphone in

3 configurable analog ports (front, center, rear, side, headphone, line
in)

1 digital S/PDIF output

Overclocking All/per-core
Turbo multiplier: 36-80X

CPU strap: 100, 125, 167, 250MHz

Base clock: 80-300MHz

Min. CPU cache ratio: 8-39X

Max. CPU cache ratio: 8-80X

Base:DRAM ratio: 100:133, 100:100
DRAM
clock: 800-3400MHz

CPU voltage: 0.001-1.92V

CPU cache voltage: 0.001-1.92V

CPU system agent voltage offset: +/- 0.001-0.999V

CPU analog I/O voltage offset: +/-
0.001-0.999V

CPU
digital I/O voltage offset
: +/- 0.001-0.999V

CPU input voltage: 0.8-2.7V

DRAM voltage: 1.2-1.92V

DRAM CTRL ref. voltage: 0.395-0.63X

DRAM DATA ref voltage A, B: 0.395-0.63X

VTTDDR voltage: 0.6-1.0V

PCH core voltage: 0.7-1.4V

PCH VLX voltage: 1.2-2.0V

Clock crossing boot voltage: 0.1-1.9V

Clock crossing reset voltage: 0.1-1.9V

Clock crossing voltage: 0.1-1.9V

Fan control CPU, 4
x SYS fan headers

Predefined silent, standard, turbo profiles

Manual profile with three temp/speed points per fan

And here are those socket clearance measurements I promised earlier in the review:

If you dig these sorts of details, then you might also be interested in a picture of the system we used for testing. My apologies for the mismatched colors.

Our testing methods

We used the following system configurations for testing.

Processor Intel Core i7-4770K
Motherboard Asus Z87-PRO Asus Z97-A Gigabyte Z97X-UD5H MSI Z97 Gaming 7
Firmware revision 1802 0604 F3 1.1B1
Platform hub Z87 Express Z97 Express Z97 Express Z97 Express
Chipset drivers Chipset: 10.0
RST: 13.0
Chipset: 10.0
RST: 13.0
Chipset: 10.0
RST: 13.0
Chipset: 10.0
RST: 13.0
Audio Realtek ALC1180 Realtek ALC892 Realtek ALC1150 Realtek ALC1150
Memory size 16GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair Vengeance Pro DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz
Memory timings 9-9-9-27-1T
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 680 DirectCU II with 335.23 drivers
Storage Corsair Force Series GT 120GB
Samsung 830 Series 256GB
Power supply Corsair AX850 850W
Operating system Microsoft Windows 8.1 Pro x64

Thanks to Intel, Corsair, Samsung, and Asus for providing the hardware used in our test systems. And thanks to the motherboard makers for providing those.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

Some further notes on our test methods:

  • All testing was conducted with motherboard power-saving options enabled. These features can sometimes lead to slightly slower performance, particularly in peripheral tests that don’t cause the CPU to kick into high gear. We’d rather get a sense of motherboard performance with real-world configurations, though; we’re not as interested in comparing contrived setups with popular features disabled.
  • DiRT Showdown was tested with ultra detail settings, 4X MSAA, and a 1920×1200 display resolution. We used Fraps to log a 60-second snippet of gameplay from the demo’s first race. To offset the fact that our gameplay sequence can’t be repeated exactly, we ran this test five times on each system.
  • Power consumption was measured at the wall socket for the complete system, sans monitor and speakers, using a Watts Up Pro power meter. Our video playback load used this 1080p YouTube trailer for the movie Looper. The full-load test combined AIDA64’s CPU stress test with the Unigine Valley DirectX 11 demo running in a 1280×720 window.
  • The Force GT 120GB SSD was used as the system drive for all tests. The Samsung 830 Series 256GB was connected as secondary storage to test Serial ATA and USB performance, the latter through a USAP-compatible Thermaltake BlacX 5G docking station. The Samsung SSD was secure-erased before each test that involved it. The Corsair drive was also wiped before we loaded our system image.
  • Ethernet performance was tested using a remote rig based on an Asus P8P67 Deluxe motherboard with an Intel 82579 Gigabit Ethernet controller. A single Cat 6 Ethernet cable connected that system to each motherboard.
  • Analog audio signal quality was tested using RMAA’s “loopback” test, which pipes front-channel output through the board’s line input. We tested while the system was loaded with Cinebench’s multithreaded rendering test, the Unigine Valley benchmark, and a CrystalDiskMark 4KB random I/O test running on the Samsung SSD attached via USB 3.0.
  • Power consumption was tested using a Watt’s Up Pro power meter. Our idle measurement represents the low over a five-minute period. For YouTube playback, we reported the median power consumption for the length of the video. For our full load test, we reported the peak power consumption during the Cinebench benchmark run.

The tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. All tests except power consumption were run at least three times. Unless otherwise indicated, we reported the median result for each test. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Conclusions

At $149.99 online, the Z97-A sits right in the sweet spot for enthusiast-oriented motherboards. It may not have all the bells and whistles found on pricier offerings, but it covers the essentials, and it does a good job of tapping into all of the goodness the Z97 chipset has to offer.

Like its 8-series predecessor, the Z97 unlocks overclocking support on K-series CPUs and the ability to split the processor’s Gen3 PCIe lanes for CrossFire and SLI configs. The Z97-A takes advantage of both capabilities, and Asus’ excellent firmware and software are particularly well-suited to overclocking. The board also exploits the Z97’s support for M.2 PCIe SSDs and SATA Express devices. Drives built for those interfaces may be rare today, but more are on the way, and the Z97-A is ready for them.

Plenty of other motherboards use the same chipset, so the Z97-A’s appeal largely rests on features that set it apart from the rest of the field. Firmware and software are high on that list. The UEFI includes a sensible mix of configuration wizards for newbies and advanced tweaking options for seasoned users. The whole interface feels polished, and the graphical fan controls are phenomenal. Those sentiments apply to Asus’ AI Suite software, too. It has a slick UI, a good balance between automated and manual options, and even more extensive fan speed controls.

DTS Connect software isn’t unique to the Z97-A or even to Asus motherboards, but it’s still relatively rare, and it makes the digital audio output much more appealing for gamers. And then there are the little touches—the front-panel port blocks, the DirectKey boot-to-firmware feature, and the onboard temperature probe header—that make the Z97-A feel like a motherboard built by PC enthusiasts rather than just for them.

We’re still in the early days of the 9-series generation, and I haven’t spent enough time with the alternatives to have a definitive sense of how they stack up overall. But I have spent enough time with the Z97-A to know that it’s a fantastic motherboard worthy of TR Recommended designation.

Comments closed
    • thierryg61
    • 5 years ago

    Hello,

    I’m buying the mini itx version of this card and, I will put it into the Streacom FC5 which must have at this particular spot 10mm max refer to this page: [url<]http://www.streacom.com/system-build-guide/[/url<] Unfortunately, the heat dissipator close to the CPU socket is 27mm height and I would like to know : 1- is it removable ???? 2- What does it cool ??? 3- If removable, can we put it back after re-machining ??? Please let me know your feedback. Thanks Thierry

    • LoneWolf15
    • 5 years ago

    It looks like a decent mainboard at a great price.

    I just haven’t seen a CPU since my i7-2600k (which runs nicely at 4.2GHz on air at stock voltage and probably could do more) that really makes me interested in an upgrade.

    Maybe when Broadwell comes out I’ll have something to be interested in.

    • MCSiegel
    • 5 years ago

    This is an odd question, but does this board include a COM port header? I need a serial port for some adaptive equipment related to my physical disability. Thanks.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 5 years ago

      Even if it doesn’t, you could always get an add-in board for a COM port.

    • SheridanPC
    • 5 years ago

    Looking at the diagram with layout measurements on p5 of this review, does anyone know if I’d be able to get a screw into the center standoff after installing a Noctua NH-D14 (big-ass) cooler, or would I need to install the cooler after mounting the motherboard in an ATX case like the Define R4?

    • glacius555
    • 5 years ago

    I love progress.

    So MUCH, for measly $150? Look at me now, writing a post from a $250-ish P55 board, back in the day..

    I can’t wait to upgrade cheap! 😀

    • Krogoth
    • 5 years ago

    Decent motherboard, but I would avoid simply because SATA Express is still in its infancy. The only real fault of this board is that it has PCI slots.

    PCI should be dead. There’s no reason to have them in a new system build. There’s a rich array of discrete PCIe cards (yes, even audio cards).

      • hbarnwheeler
      • 5 years ago

      My Xonar DX and PCI graphics card disagree.

        • Krogoth
        • 5 years ago

        Again, you can get the Xonar DGX for the same cost which is the PCIe version. You can also get 1x PCIe video cards (although they are a pricy and are geared towards professionals that need extra outputs). There’s no reason to get PCI devices for a new system build and it has been this way since 2010 (which is when PCIe audio card start to appear en mass).

        PCI now takes floppy drive’s role of refusing to die. ASUS should have put in 1x PCIe slots in their place.

          • JustAnEngineer
          • 5 years ago

          Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium made PCIe the standard for sound cards in mid-2008. There’s been no reason for PCI in a gaming PC since then.

          • hbarnwheeler
          • 5 years ago

          Why would I buy a new sound card and GPU when the ones I have work fine? Board makers provide PCI slots because people have PCI hardware.

            • Krogoth
            • 5 years ago

            The old ISA crowd said the same thing almost 15 years ago when ISA started to get phased out…..

            • hbarnwheeler
            • 5 years ago

            … and they had a good point (though it’s true that there were a lot of significant leaps in technology from the days of ISA to PCI). If people want legacy slots and ASUS doesn’t provide them, people will buy from a different manufacturer. Tossing my DX in favour of a DGX adds $40 to my build price, for no benefit (the DGX is a DX with a PCIe bridge chip).

            • Krogoth
            • 5 years ago

            That crowd is tiny and is becoming smaller. The real reason why put PCI slots in that board is they need filler to make the board ATX compliant (seven slots) and the chipset doesn’t provide enough PCIe lanes to make those PCI slots into PCIe 1x slots. There are already some higher-end X79, Z77 and Z87 motherboards that completely get rid of PCI.

          • Deanjo
          • 5 years ago

          Again, you fail too see the obvious. Sure he can buy PCI-e versions of his cards, it doesn’t however gain him anything other then paying for the same functionality twice to accommodate a bus change. Hell in the case of the sound card, he would be buying the same card that utilizes a plx bridge to bring it back to a PCI bus.

            • Krogoth
            • 5 years ago

            Then why get a new system? If you are getting a new system you might as go all the way. At some point, you are going have to jump the ship.

            PCI has been dead for years and the death of Window XP is the final nail in the coffin. It is time to let it go.

            • Deanjo
            • 5 years ago

            If PCI was “dead” there wouldn’t be a plethora of devices needing to utilize bridge chips. The fact is that you are gaining NOTHING by switching the bus for those devices. As far as going “all the way” then why just stop at the PCI devices? Why not go for a 2011, tri-titanz surround setup with 64 Gigs of RAM and 16 TB of SSD storage on a SAN.

            Not everyone builds a complete system every new generation. A lot of the DIY crowd do incremental upgrades.

            • Krogoth
            • 5 years ago

            PCI is dead as far as newer platforms are concerned. There are hardly any PCI cards that are worth keeping and what little that remains are almost 10 years and are no longer supported by their vendors. I’m kinda surprise that Intel and AMD still throw PCI onto their southbridge. I suspect that their next generation platforms will finally get rid of it.

            IMO, XP is the only reason PCI persisted for so long and since it is gone. Hardware vendors have no reason to support and build hardware for it.

            • Deanjo
            • 5 years ago

            XP is fully capable of using PCIe as well (hell even 2k). There are also many many specialty cards that still only come in PCI flavour. On many boards, adding a PCI slot doesn’t even mean you lose a PCIe slot since the orientation of the cards are a mirror image allowing you to use either. In a case of a sound card, there is also sometimes no PCIe option. My Auzentech X-Meridian for example came only in PCI flavour. I invested in upgrading its opamps and it works flawlessly in both windows, Linux and BSD. Replacing that $200 sound card is not easily done (especially with minuscule offerings of high quality card manufacturers out there). Not every PCI card out there can be replaced for just a few dollars more and can mean several hundreds or thousands of dollars more to find a substitute.

            Take a look at M-Audios offerings for example. Not one card is PCIe.

            • Krogoth
            • 5 years ago

            The same thing could said for people who still run hardware driven by ISA, parallel, AGP and such. At some point, hardware vendors are going to no longer support and made products for PCI. That time has finally come around. Market doesn’t care if you invested in dying and obsolete technologies and interfaces.

            I never said XP didn’t support PCIe. It is just the vast majority of PCI hardware that is out there was developed during 9x-XP era. The said software platforms have been phased out. Hardware vendors no longer have a reason to support XP and hardware developed during that era. The end of 9X is what brought the end to ISA. XP’s death will bring the end to PCI.

            • Deanjo
            • 5 years ago

            PCI will die when ASICs are no longer being designed to utilize it. Thousands of those are still being sold and still designed this is why there is still a large market for manufacturing bridge solutions.

            Trust me, if there wasn’t a need for incorporating additional cost into a motherboard, then the manufacturers wouldn’t do it.

            • chuckula
            • 5 years ago

            [quote<] I'm kinda surprise that Intel and AMD still throw PCI onto their southbridge.[/quote<] I can't speak for AMD, but Intel hasn't had old-school PCI on its southbridge chips in years. Those PCI slots are supported by third-party PCI controllers in any Intel motherboard going back several years.

    • TwoEars
    • 5 years ago

    Hmmm… I’m overdue for a computer update.

    Devil’s Canyon or…. Haswell-E….

    Latest and greatest tried and true DDR3 platform or….. Fancy new unproven DDR4….

    Decisions, decisions….

      • Deanjo
      • 5 years ago

      If you are a gamer, Devil’s Canyon, if you are real power user, Haswell-E.

        • TwoEars
        • 5 years ago

        That’s pretty much what I’m thinking too. I’m mostly a gamer, but I WANT Hawell-E…. I’m sure you understand. 😉

          • JustAnEngineer
          • 5 years ago

          Take the $400+ price premium that you’d spend on the workstation CPU and motherboard and instead spend it on a great GPU and monitor. Your gaming experience will be better.

            • Deanjo
            • 5 years ago

            Unless of course if he wants to go to the extreme gamer of the equation and go for a tri-card / 4k gaming setup.

          • Deanjo
          • 5 years ago

          Ya I understand. I’m impatiently waiting for haswell e and a eatx motherboard with tons of connectability.

    • Chrispy_
    • 5 years ago

    Asus has just taken the lead with fan controls that (for the first time) acknowledge the difference between PWM and DC voltage control.

    Some of the best fans on the market aren’t PWM yet.

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 5 years ago

      All they’ve done here is bring more of the features that were already available in their AI Suite software package into the UEFI BIOS setup.

      If you ran the “Thermal tuning” section of the software, it picked out the limitations of your fan (analog voltage control vs. pulse width modulation) and adapted accordingly.

      At least, that’s the way that it was with the previous-generation TUF (“The Ultimate Force”) series motherboards like the Gryphon Z87.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 5 years ago

        No, I think Chrispy_ has a good point. Many motherboards with fan control, whether in UEFI or software, don’t control both voltage and PWM fans off the same or all headers. Also, the fact that the ranges and settings for the two types of fans can be different is important, as opposed to just having a generic ‘1-10’ setting.

      • Voldenuit
      • 5 years ago

      [quote<]Asus has just taken the lead with fan controls that (for the first time) acknowledge the difference between PWM and DC voltage control.[/quote<] For the first time? My Gigabyte Z87M-UD3 can control both PWM and DC fans from 3 Sysfan headers (the CPU fan header is PWM only). Also, just like the Asus, Gigabyte's Smart Fan app can perform a fan tuning run and report back RPM across the voltage/PWM range. Where the Asus has the edge though is that the more detailed fan curve controls are not available in UEFI - you have to load up the windows app for that. Fan speed controls are always welcome, but let's not give out credit too quickly for solutions that other motherboard makers have had for a while (granted, Asus has always been better than gigabyte at fan controls historically; it's only recently that Gigabyte has started taking it seriously).

        • Chrispy_
        • 5 years ago

        We’re using Gigabyte H87-UD3 boards at work right now and I’ll admit that the current-gen Gigabyte stuff is better than it used to be under S1155. It wasn’t long ago that Gigabyte’s fan speed control was limited to PWM-only.

        The thing that I like about this approach is that you can set the fans up with properly intelligent speed control and then avoid the software. For me Asus AI Suite was rather messy and it ran as a (minimised) application rather that a service, meaning there were a whole bunch of times and scenarios when the fan speed control wasn’t actually active.

    • Ninjitsu
    • 5 years ago

    Hmmm. May end up with a slightly higher end Asus board, after all. Quite interested in the Z97-Pro.

    Now if only Intel would hurry up with Devil’s Canyon…

    (actually, the more time they take, the more money I’ll have to throw at them, but then again I’d rather buy stuff after the bugs have been sorted out).

    • anotherengineer
    • 5 years ago

    HOLY DIP-SWITCHES BATMAN!!!!!

      • Krogoth
      • 5 years ago

      I only see one of them on the board. This isn’t the 1990s where dipswiches and jumpers were commonplace.

        • anotherengineer
        • 5 years ago

        Really??

        I see 1 push button switch and 1 dip switch at the top right corner, 2 dip switches at the bottom right corner and 1 push button bottom center.

        So I see 3 dip switches and 2 button switches.

        Edit – [url<]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9XthnxnLdg[/url<] 😉

    • Chrispy_
    • 5 years ago

    [b<]POP QUIZ![/b<] Which of these heatsinks has the most surface area: [url=http://cdn3.wccftech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ASUS-Z97-Deluxe-2-635x476.jpg<]This[/url<] or [url=http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41ab1FbYzuL._SY300_.jpg<]one of these[/url<]? Dear Asus, [i<]Why?![/i<] Yours Sincerely, [i<]Confused.[/i<]

      • chuckula
      • 5 years ago

      Pshaw… you and your substandard “heatsinks”.

      Riddle me this Batman.. why didn’t Asus incorporate a cryogenic plant to cool the chipset down to 0.000001K???

      WHY ASUS!?!?!?
      WHY???

      • Ninjitsu
      • 5 years ago

      Aren’t there fins under the disc, though?

        • Farting Bob
        • 5 years ago

        Not much use if they get no airflow directly over them. Not that the chip needs any real cooling, its designed like that to provide sufficient cooling while looking good with the rest of the board design, something those blue heatsinks would not do (in any colour).

      • Dissonance
      • 5 years ago

      A better question to ask, perhaps, is how much surface area the tiny little PCH chip actually needs 😉 The Z87 has a max TDP rating of just 4.1W.

        • Chrispy_
        • 5 years ago

        Yeah. If they’re going to make a purely decorative heatsink, I’m sure they can do better than that 😉

    • Ninjitsu
    • 5 years ago

    [quote<]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.[/quote<] Well yeah, a lot of CRTs are still floating around this side of the world, but the real reason is likely to be all those LCDs with VGA ports that I see at college.

      • Krogoth
      • 5 years ago

      There’s are a large number of LCD monitors that have VGA inputs…..

        • Ninjitsu
        • 5 years ago

        That’s…my point! Even mine does, except it has HDMI too.

        But the ones at college don’t (have an alternate digital port), for example, and what i meant was that there are a lot of cheap LCD displays in use with [i<]only[/i<] VGA inputs.

      • TwoEars
      • 5 years ago

      I do still like VGA out. A lot of still pretty recent kvm systems use VGA, and also a lot of projectors.

      DVI-A out connector is fine as well since it’s easy to convert.

      But not to have ANY analogue video out can be a real nuisance. Suddenly you need it…

        • Ninjitsu
        • 5 years ago

        Problem with VGA is that it causes clock and phase issues on LCDs, which behave much better with digital interfaces.

          • TwoEars
          • 5 years ago

          Sure, sure. I fully agree we should use digital when available. It’s just that I have plenty of IT business experience and it’s not always we have the luxury of a digital kvm or projector system.

          I think VGA is a pretty good interface to have for yet another couple of years. As is PS2 believe it or not.

            • JustAnEngineer
            • 5 years ago

            If you wasted money on a VGA monitor or projector in the past ten years, you don’t deserve a premium Z97 motherboard.

            • TwoEars
            • 5 years ago

            You do realize that while working in a corporate environment you can’t control what everyone else is buying right? The only thing I can do is make sure the products that *I* buy are future proof but *also* compatible with what we have.

            • JustAnEngineer
            • 5 years ago

            Controlling what everyone is buying, running, etc. is why we’ve got pages and pages of corporate computer policies. Don’t buy junk. It hurts productivity in the long run.

            • TwoEars
            • 5 years ago

            All well in theory…. all well in theory….

            In practice it never works like that, and don’t get me start on the ordering department ordering something else than what we asked for because what we asked for wasn’t available from the the list of approved vendors etc…

            In the corporate world backwards compatibility is good, and I’ll take all of it thank you very much.

            • Ninjitsu
            • 5 years ago

            Oh please, the entire world doesn’t sync according to the same technological clock.

          • Krogoth
          • 5 years ago

          Actually VGA’s biggest problem is that it is analog is sensitive to EMI. The IQ is highly depended on RAMDACs and video card vendors don’t pay as much attention to RAMDACs like they use to.

            • TwoEars
            • 5 years ago

            Yupp. While not perfect VGA does work and I can get it to give a crystal clear image. Just make sure the monitor has clean power and keep the vga cables away from AC cables! 🙂

            • Krogoth
            • 5 years ago

            That’s assuming the RAMDACs and their related circuitry don’t have any problems (*cough* Geforce 2 GTS *cough*). 😉

    • stdRaichu
    • 5 years ago

    Fairly impressive board all round really… nice new Intel NIC, much improved colour scheme and [i<]really[/i<] impressive power consumption reductions over the Z87. Hopefully there'll be an update to the workstation-centric C22x line in the coming months as well. Can't wait to see what SSD performance is going to be like with a PCIe drive in that M.2 slot...

    • I.S.T.
    • 5 years ago

    The review does not seem to have gone up properly… It seems like pages are missing, and the testing methods page is the second to last, after the OC and power consumption page…

      • I.S.T.
      • 5 years ago

      Okay never mind, I didn’t read the review right. I am dumb, ignore me.

        • spuppy
        • 5 years ago

        Really, I couldn’t find the performance results either.. it seems like they should be between pages 5 and 6…

    • weeeeeeee
    • 5 years ago

    weeeeeeeeeeeeeee

      • chuckula
      • 5 years ago

      When you’re a kid and you wanna go weeeeeeeeeeeeeee
      But you ain’t got drugs yet.

      You hold on to your life.
      You hold on to your little… downthumbs and gripes.

      Downthumbs and gripes.
      Downthumbs and gripes.
      Downthumbs and gripes.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This