For a while, MSI was a bit of a dark horse in the motherboard industry. But the company's gaming boards seem to have thrust it back into the limelight, and the Z97 Gaming 7 nicely illustrates why all the recent attention is well deserved. This is more than just a good gaming product. It's also a solid all-around offering whose appeal should extend to a broader audience.
With a $184.99 asking price, the Gaming 7 can afford to deliver more than just the basics. The upgraded audio sounds better than average, and the surround-sound virtualization nicely fits the gaming theme. So does the robust support for multi-card graphics setups, though three-way CrossFire configs are a tad excessive in the real world.
The extra USB 3.0 ports are probably excessive, too, but it's hard to complain about getting more of them. The same goes for the extra SATA ports, which are pretty much a gimme in this price range. Too bad there's no SATA Express connectivity. MSI's M.2 adapter sounds a bit kludgey, and the Gaming 7's rivals have SATAe onboard. Despite the fact that SATA Express devices will be rare until next year, future compatibility is sort of the point behind the Z97 chipset. At least the board supports Broadwell CPUs and M.2 SSDs.
For seasoned PC builders, the best extras may be the least obvious ones. Little things like front-panel wiring blocks, cushioned I/O shields, and convenient boot-to-firmware options make the assembly and tweaking process much easier. The firmware doesn't have the most refined user interface, but its fan controls are fantastic, and it includes a handful of other useful enhancements.
Overclocking on the Z97 Gaming 7 is easy regardless of whether you're using the firmware or the multiple software tweaking utilities. However, the OC Genie auto-overclocker isn't as intelligent as competing solutions, and it's far too conservative. At the same time, MSI is too aggressive with the motherboard's default configuration, which sneakily juices the CPU's Turbo multipliers. Ugh.
Despite its few flaws, the Gaming 7 has loads of redeeming qualities. It's filled with good ideas for gamers and enthusiasts alike, and you don't need to be a seasoned builder to put together a tuned-up system based on the thing. The overall experience just isn't as refined as with the best Haswell motherboards we've tested.