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In a lot of ways, the Hi-Fi Z97WE looks like a pretty good deal. It offers an affordable path to Intel's high-end Z97 chipset and takes advantage of all the associated perks, including support not only for next-gen storage devices, but also for future Broadwell CPUs. Despite its budget price tag, the board is no slower than its pricier peers. And it's a capable overclocker, at least for the multiplier tuning preferred by most folks.

The Z97WE doesn't have a stripped-down spec, either. You get dual GigE connectors, solid M.2 storage support, beefed up audio, and a smattering of little touches typically missing from motherboards in this price range. Getting all that for only $124.99 looks like the good kind of cheap.

The thing is, motherboards are more than just checkmarks on a feature list and numbers in a benchmark spreadsheet. They're central to the experience of building and tuning a PC, a process that relies heavily on firmware and software. The Z97WE's firmware covers the basics for overclocking, but the fan controls are somewhat limited, and the interface is uninspired.

At least the firmware is better than the software, which is several years old in some cases. Biostar's Windows tweaking utility and parts of its Android app don't work for us. A handful of other bundled applications do, but they add little value to the overall package.

The Hi-Fi Z97WE's competitive hardware is ultimately let down by the accompanying firmware and software. Those rough edges are likely to frustrate less experienced users, and they'll disappoint anyone who has played with Z97 boards from the biggest names in the business. Using the Z97WE is a little like being in a time warp. You get the latest and greatest hardware in a product that feels one or two generations behind.

That combination might be tolerable to folks with specific hardware requirements and strict budgets, but I don't recommend it. You're better off spending a little bit more for a superior overall experience.TR

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