A more powerful firmware interface
At first glance, the Z97 Gaming 7's firmware interface appears to be the same as the one included with last year's 8-series boards:
MSI has packed new enhancements into the familiar UI, though. A series of configurable "favorites" menus is accessible via the heart-shaped icon in the top-right corner. These menus can be loaded with options pulled from elsewhere in the firmware, and I wish they were featured more prominently. Similar functionality is more obvious and easily accessed in other motherboard firmware.
Speaking of familiar features, a summary of changes made during the current session is displayed before the user exits. Asus' 8-series boards introduced an identical capability last year, and MSI apparently liked the idea. The change log is handy enough that I hope to see a version of it on all enthusiast boards.
Overclockers and tweakers will find no shortage of options in the firmware. The standard mix of multiplier, frequency, and timing controls is provided. There are loads of configurable voltages, too, plus manual, offset, and adaptive modes for feeding the CPU. Most values can be keyed in manually, and navigation is a breeze. The mouse tracking sometimes feels a little jumpy, though. The cursor also has a tendency to flicker during movement and when hovering over the main settings menu in the middle of the UI.
Like far too many other motherboard makers, MSI takes liberties with Turbo multipliers. The firmware's default configuration runs our Core i7-4770K at 3.9GHz when all the cores are engaged—200MHz higher than the stock Turbo speed for all-core loads. This boost is enough to convey a performance advantage over stock-clocked configs, but it's basically cheating, and the fact that other motherboard use similarly underhanded tactics doesn't excuse the practice. At least the proper Turbo multipliers can be restored by disabling the "multicore enhancement" option in the firmware.
On a more positive note, the Z97 Gaming 7 has some of the best firmware-based fan controls around. Check out the new graphical interface, which has individual profiles for two CPU fans and three system spinners.
Each profile has four points that can be clicked and dragged to define the response curve. The temperature-based control scheme is limited to four-pin PWM fans attached to the CPU headers, but it works with both three- and four-pin fans connected to the system headers. Pretty sweet.
Don't get too excited about the checkboxes for CPU and system temperatures, though. Those change the input for the real-time tracker displayed on the graph; they can't be used to alter the reference temperature fueling the individual profiles.
The last firmware element worth exploring is the, er, Board Explorer. This handy guide maps out the various onboard elements and provides information about the hardware connected to each socket, slot, and port. That information should be valuable for newbies, and even enthusiasts may find it useful when troubleshooting hardware problems.
So, that's the firmware. On the next page, we'll look at the extensive collection of tweaking software bundled with the board.