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Biostar's Hi-Fi Z97WE motherboard reviewed

Cheap and cheerful?

Biostar isn't the first name that comes to mind when thinking about motherboards. For most PC enthusiasts, it's probably not the second, the third, or even the fourth. The company has been cranking out mobos for almost three decades, though, and its offerings are consistently among the most affordable.

Take the new Hi-Fi Z97WE, for example. Despite its $124.99 asking price, this Haswell board employs Intel's high-end Z97 Express chipset. Overclocking is fully endorsed for K-series CPUs and the Anniversary Edition Pentium that's been making the rounds lately. There's no need to worry about microcode updates nixing the unofficial overclocking support found in some other budget Haswell boards.

Those lower-end candidates typically lack support for multi-GPU configurations, but the Z97WE can split the CPU's PCIe lanes for dual-card configs. It has an M.2 slot ready for next-gen SSDs, too, plus a handful of little touches. Though hardly unique, these attributes are rarely found together on a board so cheap.

The word "cheap" has multiple connotations. The first description in the Oxford dictionary refers to something that is "low in price, especially in relation to similar items." That sounds like a bargain. But the term can also describe something that is "inexpensive because of inferior quality," which is considerably less appealing.

So, which is the Hi-Fi Z97WE? We've been testing the board to find out, and you might be surprised by what we've learned.

At first glance, the Z97WE looks much like any other enthusiast board. All the usual ingredients are sprinkled on, right down to the blingy heatsinks on the chipset and voltage regulation circuitry. This thing may not win any beauty contests, but the layout is reasonably good, with evenly distributed fan headers and sensibly arranged slots and ports.

The socket region is mostly free of obstructions, but the DIMM slots are a couple millimeters closer than on some of the other Z97 boards we've tested. They're still outside the restricted zone, so standard-height DIMMs shouldn't bump into typical CPU coolers. However, taller modules may interfere with aftermarket coolers that spill outside that area.

The VRM heatsinks are short enough to stay out of the way, and there's a reasonable amount of room between the CPU socket and the top expansion slots. Clearances shouldn't be an issue for most builds.

Widely spaced PCIe x16 slots provide plenty of breathing room for duallie graphics configs. Solitary cards installed in the first slot have access to all 16 lanes in the CPU, while two-way setups shift the board into a dual-x8 mode that supports Crossfire configs. The split lanes should have sufficient bandwidth for dual GeForce cards, but the Z97WE lacks SLI certification, so it's blacklisted by Nvidia's GPU teaming scheme.

Even with two double-wide graphics cards installed, the Z97WE has room for a trio of additional expansion cards. It's hard to imagine anyone needing two PCI slots, though. PCIe peripherals are pretty ubiquitous these days.

At least the M.2 slot looks toward the future. The notebook-style interface supports PCIe and SATA drives, which have access to 1GB/s of bandwidth via the Z97.

Instead of mixing in SATA Express, Biostar opts for a standard array of 6Gbps ports. No complaints here. SATA Express devices aren't expected to arrive en masse until next year, and M.2 drives are likely to be more attractive for most builds.

Biostar gets a tip of the hat for including a POST code display, socketed firmware chip, and onboard power and reset buttons. But it also gets a wag of the finger for leaving out wiring blocks for the front-panel headers and a cushioned EMI shield for the rear I/O panel. Those extras make system assembly much easier, and they should add only pennies to the mobo's bill of materials.

The Z97WE's "Hi-Fi" component combines an older Realtek ALC892 audio codec with an EMI shield, audio-specific capacitors, isolated traces, and a headphone amplifier. Those enhancements are common for modern enthusiast boards, and they look great on paper. However, there appears to be an issue with the headphone amp on our unit. The analog audio quality is decent enough with the stereo out configured for speakers, but setting that output to headphone mode introduces audible interference when there's a heavy graphics load.

There are no problems when the CPU is fully engaged, just when the graphics card is revved up. The card's power draw seems to be related, as well. The interference is very noticeable with our test rig's GeForce GTX 680 but only faintly audible with a low-end Radeon R7 250.

We encountered a similar issue on an ultra-high-end Z87 board not long ago, so I'm not inclined to blame the Z97WE's budget status. We've notified Biostar about the interference, but the firm hasn't been able to reproduce it.

All the usual ports appear in the rear I/O cluster. The twin GigE connectors are powered by Realtek chips, which isn't surprising at this end of the market. Intel and Qualcomm networking solutions are typically restricted to more premium boards. Even so, the Z97WE's networking performance is similar to that of pricier alternatives, at least in our tests.

Digital S/PDIF audio outs are a relative rarity on low-end fare, so it's nice to see one on the Z97WE. Too bad it doesn't support on-the-fly encoding for multichannel audio, which rules out surround-sound gaming. The Realtek drivers can fake the effect with speaker virtualization, but it's just not the same.

Now, let's see how the Z97WE's firmware and software stack up...