Despite the overall downturn in the PC industry, all indications suggest the gaming segment of the market is growing. Motherboard makers have been increasingly eager to cash in on that trend, and MSI may be most aggressive among them. The company rolled out a deep lineup of so-called gaming boards last year, democratizing a style that had been largely limited to high-end offerings with premium prices.
If you’re unfamiliar with this particular sub-genre, here’s the lowdown. Gaming-specific boards typically involve subtle tweaks to the tried-and-true enthusiast formula. They usually have different audio and networking components, plus bundled software and other extras, but they’re otherwise similar to ostensibly non-gaming models. Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
MSI’s gaming motherboard family has grown to span multiple price points, CPU sockets, and form factors. It just welcomed a bunch of new members based on Intel’s 9 Series chipset, including eight that use the enthusiast-oriented Z97 variant. One of the most interesting is the Z97 Gaming 7. This $184.99 offering is a little more upscale without going overboard; it’s equipped with three PCIe x16 slots hanging off the CPU, Sound Blaster-infused audio, slick fan speed controls, and a collection of little touches that are sure to please seasoned PC builders. And don’t forget all the trappings associated with the Z97 chipset, like support for future Broadwell CPUs and PCIe SSDs.
The Z97 Gaming 7 also has the requisite black-and-red color scheme that’s become the de facto standard for gaming boards. Behold:
This is really a blacked-out board with subtle hints of red here and there. The matte PCB surface is especially nice, and the landscape is largely free of excessive lettering and other silk-screened graphics. The splashes of color on the heatsinks are the only real deviations from the darkness. Unfortunately, the color matching is a little off. The VRM heatsinks have a bloodier tone, while PCH cooler exudes more of a Ferrari vibe.
And there’s a dragon. Because gaming, or something.
Once the Z97 Gaming 7 is stuffed inside a case, all you’re likely to see is the glow of its LEDs. There aren’t too many of those, which keeps the aesthetic pretty subdued overall.
MSI carries the dragon theme over to the VRM heatsinks, which are designed to resemble claws. As much as I appreciate the continuity, the socket area isn’t the best place for pointy bits of metal. The heatsinks already crowd the area around one of the retention holes, and their little claws represent another obstacle that must be negotiated when installing the CPU cooler.
The VRM heatsinks may threaten to take a chunk out of your knuckles, but they’re only about an inch tall, so they shouldn’t interfere with larger aftermarket coolers. There’s plenty of room between the CPU socket and the top PCIe x16 slot, too. As is usually the case with Intel boards, the most likely source of cooler conflict is the array of DIMM slots next to the socket. Standard-height modules shouldn’t be an issue, but taller DIMMs can bump into some heatsinks. Since we can’t confirm compatibility with every hardware combo, we’ve included some detailed socket-area measurements later in the review.
Gamers are the most likely to multi-card graphics configs, so it’s only fitting that the Z97 Gaming 7 has robust support for such configurations. The board splits the 16 PCI Express 3.0 lanes hanging off the CPU between a trio of x16 slots. Those lanes can be routed only to the first slot, split evenly between the first and second slots, or spread across all three in an x8/x4/x4 setup. The three-way mode works with AMD’s CrossFire tech, but SLI support is limited to dual-card configs.
MSI does a particularly good job with the slot spacing. Dual-double-wide setups have room to breathe, there’s enough space for two triple-wide cards, and three double-wide cards can be stacked in cases with eight expansion slots.
In addition to the x16 slots linked to the CPU, there are four PCIe x1 slots attached to the Gen2 controller in the Z97. PCI expansion didn’t make the cut, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Intel dropped PCI support from its chipsets years ago. Motherboard makers must use third-party chips if they want to provide PCI slots, and I suspect few gamers are clinging to expansion cards compatible with the old-school standard.
An M.2 expansion slot is nestled near the bottom of the stack. The mini SSD slot accepts both PCIe and SATA drives up to 80 mm long. PCIe drives hook into dedicated storage lanes in the chipset, while SATA drives connect via the Z97’s SATA controller.
Despite the chipset’s support for SATA Express, the Z97 Gaming 7 forgoes the nascent standard. MSI argues that SATAe devices are too rare, and it has a point. We probably won’t see more than a trickle of SATAe drives until next year. The company intends to offer an M.2-to-SATAe converter for folks who want to run SATA Express drives. It looks like that adapter will place the SATAe port perpendicular to the board, though. The associated cabling may interfere with double-wide cards installed in the second x16 slot.
On the Serial ATA side, the Z97 Gaming 7 sports six 6Gbps ports tied to the chipset. Two more ports (on the left) are linked to an ASMedia chip, and I would only recommend using them if all the others are occupied. The auxiliary storage controller is slower than its chipset-based counterpart.
Additional peripheral controllers are a staple of higher-end boards, and the Z97 Gaming 7 doesn’t just use them to supply extra SATA ports. It also employs separate hub and controller chips to provide extra USB 3.0 ports. The Gaming 7 offers eight SuperSpeed ports at the rear and two more via a front-panel connector—10 ports in total, and four more than the six integrated into the chipset.
The extra USB ports are nice to have, but MSI should really identify which ones are connected to which chips. Users shouldn’t have to dig into the Windows Device Manager to figure out how the ports are routed. MSI does, however, mark the two USB ports with improved power delivery for external audio DACs. (They’re tucked under the Gigabit Ethernet jack.) The company also singles out the red USB ports on the left side of the cluster. These ports are limited to USB 2.0 speeds, but they support polling rates up to 1000Hz for picky twitch gamers.
All the red-colored ports have a gaming focus. The PS/2 port supports true n-key rollover, while the Gigabit Ethernet jack is backed by a Qualcomm Killer chip that comes with traffic prioritization software. The management software can improve ping times in situations where multiplayer games are competing for bandwidth with other applications running on the same machine, but it won’t alleviate congestion at the router level or higher up the chain.
The red analog audio jack is the Z97 Gaming 7’s amplified stereo out. It’s powered by one of two Texas Instruments OPA1652 chips; the second amp is tied to the front-panel headphone out. These amplifiers support headphone impedances up to 600 O, and they’re not the only upgraded audio components. The Realtek codec is covered by an EMI shield, the traces are isolated from other board circuitry, the capacitors are fancy Nichicon units, and the power supply can be switched to an external feed driven by a four-pin Molex connector.
All those tweaks combine to produce pretty decent sound quality. The output doesn’t sound as rich or detailed as that of our favorite budget sound card, but it’s good for an integrated solution. There’s no obvious hissing or distortion in the line even when the system is slammed with a combined CPU, GPU, and storage load.
The final piece of the audio puzzle is Creative’s Sound Blaster Cinema 2 software. This application provides surround-sound virtualization in addition to a bunch of configurable effects that most folks will probably never use. I’d trade all of those effects for the ability to encode multi-channel audio for digital output. Right now, the only want to get multi-channel game audio out of the S/PDIF port is to fake it with speaker virtualization.
Integrated audio is a big-ticket item, but we’ve been reviewing motherboards long enough to know that it’s often the little things that make the biggest impression. With that in mind, we’d be remiss not to discuss some of the smaller details that make the Z97 Gaming 7 particularly appealing.
Let’s start with the cushioned I/O shield, which lacks the sharp edges and slivers of metal that typically adorn this component. The soft-backed shield makes motherboard installation much easier, and it’s colored black both inside and out.
While the port cluster is in view, note the CMOS reset button on the left side. There are other onboard buttons, as well, including the requisite power and reset switches. Holding the power button for a few seconds boots the board directly into the firmware, which is very convenient. This boot-to-BIOS shortcut works with case switches connected to the front-panel header, too.
The Z97 Gaming 7 comes with wiring blocks for its front-panel connector and one of its USB 2.0 headers. The front-panel block makes case wiring much easier, and every enthusiast board should have one. MSI also gets kudos for including stick-on labels for SATA cables. Some of the other extras, like the probe harness for the onboard voltage monitoring points and the slow-mode switch that caps the CPU multiplier at 8X, are meant for extreme overclockers. These extras have more limited appeal, especially on a gaming-specific product. MSI has a separate family of overclocking boards that cater to the liquid nitrogen crowd.
Now, let’s see what the Z97 Gaming 7 holds on the firmware front.
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.
Tweaking software galore
If you’d rather tweak system settings from Windows, the Z97 Gaming 7 comes with numerous options. The most simplistic is MSI’s Gaming App, which activates the pre-baked CPU overclocking profile accessible via the firmware and onboard OC Genie button. This application should automatically overclock any MSI graphics cards connected to the system, as well.
MSI’s Command Center utility doesn’t support GPU overclocking, but it’s loaded with other accoutrements, including integrated RAM disk software. Allocating a slice of system memory to storage was the cool thing to do back in the day, and I guess some folks are still into it now. Seems like kind of a waste outside of competitive benchmarking and forum pissing matches, though. SSDs offer nearly instantaneous access times at a much lower cost per gigabyte. Outside of 4K video editing, whose storage requirements easily outstrip typical RAM configs, we’ve yet to see desktop applications that require higher speeds than what good SATA SSDs provide.
Command Center’s other functions are more useful. The utility has essential overclocking options in addition to fan speed controls. The fan control software adds a calibration routine that gauges the speed of connected fans, but it’s otherwise similar to the firmware implementation. On the overclocking front, Command Center yields access to individual core multipliers, the base clock speed, and a bunch of system voltages.
The majority of the overclocking options in the main UI use comically oversized knobs and sliders that take up entirely too much room. These widgets are so large that they have to be split between multiple pages, making tweaking more cumbersome than it needs to be. At the very least, the CPU frequency and voltage controls should be on the same page.
Additional options are available through the advanced menu, which pops up more straightforward windows for voltages, DRAM timings, and warning thresholds. Most values can be keyed in directly here and in the main UI, which at least speeds up the tweaking process for power users.
Command Center has separate hardware monitoring and logging windows that keep tabs on voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures. Historical logs can be saved and retrieved via the software, but there’s no provision to export the results in an easily digested format like a CSV file.
The Z97 Gaming 7 can be monitored from afar using the Command Center apps for Android and iOS. The mobile software relies on a remote server utility running on the Windows system, which allows mobile devices to send virtual keyboard and mouse input along with various media-related commands. Users can even trigger a system restart, shutdown, or CMOS reset remotely.
Remote overclocking and system monitoring requires the full-fat Command Center software to be running on the Windows machine. The mobile client can launch Command Center remotely, and it provides access to a decent array of multipliers, clock speeds, and voltages. The remote CPU multiplier controls are limited to a single all-core ratio, though, and the fan options are restricted to static speeds.
I’m not sure why anyone would want to overclock their PC with a smartphone, but the ability to keep tabs on system temperatures, fan speeds, voltages, and frequencies is definitely handy. It would be even better if the mobile app interacted with Command Center’s warning system. The Windows utility pops up alert messages when system variables deviate from acceptable (and configurable) ranges. Those messages are helpful if you’re actually sitting at the machine, but they should also be passed along to the mobile client, which is well-equipped to deal with cooling failures and other problems remotely.
Command Center isn’t the only Windows tweaking software that ships with the Z97 Gaming 7. An MSI-branded version of Intel’s own Extreme Tuning Utility is also included. This tool is loaded with CPU and memory options, but it lacks fan speed controls.
The XTU is a little redundant, but I prefer its streamlined interface to the more cartoonish Command Center UI. The Intel utility has a few other tricks up its sleeve, such as application-specific profiles and integrated stress tests. The monitoring component has a nicer UI than the MSI equivalent, too, and it can track a greater range of system variables.
Haswell overclocking is thermally constrained rather than motherboard limited. Our Core i7-4770K typically hits 4.5-4.6GHz before throttling chips away at the frequency, and that’s with a dual-fan Corsair H80 water cooler bolted to the CPU. We’ve reached those speeds on every LGA1150 motherboard we’ve tested to date.
Even though the processor and cooler are ultimately the gating factors, some mobos make attaining higher speeds easier than others. We sampled the Z97 Gaming 7’s various overclocking interfaces to get a sense of how they affect the overall experience.
Automated overclocking systems are great for newbies, and they can also be a good starting point from which to tackle higher speeds manually, so we started our journey with the OC Genie button on the motherboard. This toggle switch invokes a pre-defined profile that takes the 4770K up to 4GHz, a frequency that’s conservative even for air-cooled Haswell configs. The corresponding Turbo limit is applied across all loads equally, so it doesn’t exploit the CPU’s ability to run at higher speeds when fewer cores are engaged. At least OC Genie loaded the right XMP profile for our Corsair system memory.
After hammering the auto-tuned config with our combined CPU and GPU stress test for a few minutes to confirm stability, we proceeded to the firmware for more aggressive overclocking. The
laziest recommended approach here is to increase the CPU multiplier and leave everything else at its “auto” defaults. In theory, the motherboard should adapt its power and voltage settings automatically. The Gaming 7 did so beautifully up to 4.4GHz, increasing the CPU voltage incrementally with each step along the way. At 4.5GHz, however, the system spit out BSOD errors under load. The CPU needed more than the 1.27V provided by the motherboard, so we started bumping the voltage by hand.
Setting the CPU at 1.3V in the firmware was enough to get the system stable at 4.5GHz. Reaching 4.6GHz required 1.325V, but we didn’t have to touch any other settings. The CPU maintained that speed during our stress test, with no evidence of throttling.
At 4.7GHz, we ran into an all-too-familiar obstacle. The voltage needed to avoid BSOD errors and reboots under load proved too much for our cooler. Although the system ran our stress test for several minutes without crashing, throttling kicked in and cut the frequency. We’ve hit a similar wall on other motherboards, and as with those, fiddling around with the other voltage and power settings didn’t help.
After giving up on 4.7GHz, we spent a little while playing with the Command Center utility in Windows and on an Android smartphone. Both clients applied multiplier and voltage changes without a fuss, contributing to an extremely smooth overall overclocking experience.
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 Gaming 7 was tested against Z97 boards from Asus and Gigabyte, plus an Asus Z87-PRO from the previous generation. Stay tuned for a full review of the Gigabyte board. Our Z97-A review is right here.
The Z97 Gaming 7 is slightly more power-efficient than its Gigabyte counterpart at idle and when streaming 1080p video. It consumes one watt more under load, though—and quite a bit more than the Asus Z97-A in each scenario. The Asus board has fewer onboard peripherals and more restrained power regulation circuitry, which could explain some of its advantage in these tests.
If you’re willing to live without a few amenities, it’s possible to trim about 6W off the Gaming 7’s power consumption using MSI’s Eco Center application. This utility can selectively disable the M.2 slot, the PCIe x1 slots, the auxiliary SATA ports, and all but two of the rear USB ports. Components can be turned off in real time, but restoring them requires a reboot.
The more motherboards I test, the more I believe that filling reviews with benchmark graphs is a largely pointless exercise. There are slight performance differences in some applications and in targeted peripheral tests, but those gaps are rarely consistent, and they’re often greater than the variance from one run to the next. It seems foolish to focus on such inconsequential differences.
These days, the CPU and graphics card are the most important factors for applications and games, while SSDs play a role in overall system responsiveness. Peripheral performance is largely defined by the chipset and a small pool of auxiliary controller chips that all the motherboard makers share.
Exceptions to the general rule do exist, so we still run motherboards through a full range of performance tests to check for problems. The boards are configured with the same CPU, power, and memory settings to ensure a level playing field, and we rarely find anything of note. But we did run into one odd issue on the Z97 Gaming 7. The Samsung 830 Series SSD we use for storage testing performs uncharacteristically poorly in CrystalDiskMark’s random read speed test; it clocks in at around 23MB/s, more than 10 times slower than usual. This poor performance is unaffected by the firmware’s power settings and the Dynamic Storage Accelerator feature built into the chipset. The drive performs as expected when connected to the ASMedia controller, so the issue seems to be specific to MSI’s implementation of the chipset.
We tried to replicate the problem with a newer 840 Pro SSD, but that drive showed no evidence of slower random read performance. MSI hasn’t been able to reproduce the issue on its end, either. We’re still working with the company on the problem, which may be limited to our particular configuration—and perhaps our particular 830 Series drive. MSI tested a similar Samsung SSD and found no issues.
Apart from that outlier, the Gaming 7 is essentially as fast as every other Z97 motherboard we’ve tested. There is one performance characteristic worth highlighting, though. Check out the results from our networking throughput test:
All the boards reach roughly the same speed, but the Gaming 7 has higher CPU utilization than the Asus offerings. The Asus boards use Intel GigE controllers, while the MSI has a Qualcomm Killer NIC. The Gigabyte boasts networking chips from both camps, and its CPU utilization results provide further evidence that the Qualcomm solution is less efficient than the Intel alternatives, at least is this synthetic throughput test.
Our networking tests were performed with the Qualcomm driver’s traffic management mojo disabled, so packet prioritization shouldn’t be responsible for the higher CPU overhead. It’s important to keep the results in perspective, though. The differences amount to only a few percentage points.
The following page is filled with detailed board specifications, clearance diagrams, and nerdy details about our test systems. It doesn’t make for particularly engaging reading, so we won’t be offended if you skip ahead to the conclusion.
We’ve covered the most important elements of the Z97 Gaming 7 already, but here’s the full spec sheet with all the gory details:
|Platform||Intel Z97 Express, socket LGA1150|
|DIMM slots||4 DDR3, 32GB max|
|Expansion slots||3 PCIe 3.0 x16 via CPU (x16/x0/x0, x8/x8/x0, x8/x4/x4)
4 PCIe 2.0 x1 via Z97 Express
|Storage I/O||1 M.2 via Z97 Express (SATA and PCIe)
6 SATA RAID 6Gbps via Z97 Express
4 SATA 6Gbps via ASMedia ASM1061
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC1150
Surround virtualization via Creative software
|Ports||1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
2 HDMI via CPU
1 DisplayPort via CPU
2 USB 3.0 via Z97 Express
2 USB 3.0 via internal headers via Z97 Express
4 USB 3.0 via Z97 and ASMedia ASM1074 hub
2 USB 3.0 via ASMedia ASM1042
2 USB 2.0 via Z97 Express
4 USB 2.0 via internal headers via Z97 Express
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Qualcomm Killer E2205
1 analog front/headphone out (amplified)
5 configurable analog ports
1 digital S/PDIF out
|Overclocking||All/per-core Turbo multiplier: 8-80X
CPU ring ratio: 8-80X
CPU strap: 1, 1.25, 1.66, 2.5X
Base clock: 90-300MHz
DRAM ref clock: 200, 266MHz
VCCIN voltage: 1.2-3.04V
CPU core voltage: 0.8-2.1V
CPU ring voltage: 0.8-2.1V
System agent voltage: 0.8-1.85V
CPU analog I/O voltage: 0.8-2.0V
CPU digital I/O voltage: 0.8-2.0V
Analog/Digital I/O boost: -0.15 – +0.3V
DRAM voltage: 0.24-2.77V
PCH 1.05V voltage: 0.7-2.32V
PCH 1.5V voltage: 0.8-2.77V
|Fan control||2x CPU, 3x SYS fans
Predefined default, full-speed profiles
Manual profile with four temp/speed points per fan
See what I mean about not-so-engaging reading? Yeah. Anyway, here are the socket clearance measurements 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.
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.
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.