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 Last year’s blingy gold has been replaced by a subtle blend of gold, bronze, and pewter tones that reminds me of vintage hi-fi gear.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.
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.
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.
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.
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
|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
|Storage I/O||1 SATA
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
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
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
1 digital S/PDIF output
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
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: +/-
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|
|Platform hub||Z87 Express||Z97 Express||Z97 Express||Z97 Express|
|Chipset drivers||Chipset: 10.0
|Audio||Realtek ALC1180||Realtek ALC892||Realtek ALC1150||Realtek ALC1150|
|Memory size||16GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Vengeance Pro DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz|
|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:
- 7-Zip 9.20 64-bit
- TrueCrypt 7.1a
- Chrome 34.0.1847.131
- x264 r2431
- DiRT Showdown demo
- CrystalDiskMark 3.0.3b
- FRAPS 3.5.99
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.4.0
- Cinebench R15
- Unigine Valley 1.0
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.
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.