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…
Motherboard firmware has evolved considerably since the transition from old-school BIOSes to the latest UEFIs, but the Z97WE feels a little behind the times. Although it has a lot of the basic elements found in other motherboard firmware, the delivery is short on style, polish, and extra perks.
The frequency, multiplier, and voltage options should be sufficient to satisfy most overclockers. Some of the voltage options are less granular than what’s available on the other enthusiast boards, but there’s still plenty of room for fine-tuning.
Mouse and keyboard navigation works well enough, especially since popular values can be keyed in directly. The interface is pretty ugly, though, and there isn’t a whole lot of contextual help. The manual is also light on firmware-related information, which is fine for seasoned enthusiasts but less ideal for uninitiated tweakers.
On the surface, the firmware seems to have a decent array of fan control options. Unfortunately, the reality is more complicated. The “off” temperature doesn’t actually shut off fans completely; instead, it spins them down to their lowest default speed, which can’t be reduced to zero. The built-in calibrator at least measures that minimum speed, but it displays maximum and minimum speed and PWM values in lieu of a complete profile. Also, the PWM scales are out of 256 levels instead of something intuitive, like 100%, and the sensitivity settings use vague, unit-less numbers. “The numeral is bigger the fan speed is higher,” the firmware not-so-helpfully explains. Ugh.
None of this matters if you have three-pin DC fans, which maintain a steady speed regardless of which settings are used. The temperature-based speed controls require four-pin PWM spinners.
Overall, the Z97WE’s UEFI feels kind of awkward and half-baked compared to the more refined implementations on other Z97 boards. The Windows tweaking software may be better, but I can’t say for sure. Biostar’s T-Overclocker utility won’t load at all for me in Windows 8.1. The software installs without complaint, but nothing happens when the program is launched. Biostar says it has discovered the culprit, but “it will take a while” to fix the problem.
Biostar’s power-saving utility runs, at least, but that’s little consolation. Just look at the thing:
The GUI looks more like a mockup than a finished product. Maybe it’s an ironic reference to the hideous software interfaces that plagued motherboard tuning software years ago, but I kind of doubt it.
More importantly, the utility appears to have little effect on system power consumption. The needle on our watt meter barely budged when we engaged the power-saving measures, regardless of whether the system was idling or under load.
The traffic management software for the onboard networking seems to be more useful, but it has issues, too. I’ve gotten “not support this platform” errors a few times after booting the system, possibly because the Smart Speed software tries to launch before the networking driver finishes initializing. Once loaded, the utility feels fairly basic, with limited options and no way to add applications manually to the priority list.
Biostar’s Bio Remote 2 software enables remote overclocking, media control, and keyboard/mouse input via Android and iOS apps. The software is hosted on a separate page, so don’t confuse it with the first-gen Bio Remote utility included with the Z97WE. That application is for IR remotes, and it’s a whole other thing.
The overclocking component of the Android app doesn’t work with our test system, probably due to issues with the T-Overclocker Windows utility. Remote keyboard and mouse input is functional, though, and so is the Windows Media Player remote. Except it looks like this:
The remote interface is marred by off-center playback buttons and obscured volume controls. Fixing those issues should be easy, but maintaining the app apparently hasn’t been a priority for Biostar. The latest version on the Google Play store is almost two years old, and the most recent iOS release dates back to April 2011.
The Z97WE clearly falls short on the software front. On the next page, we’ll see how well it overclocks and performs.
Unlike most enthusiast boards, the Z97WE lacks a hands-off tuning mechanism that overclocks the CPU automatically. Overclocking is a strictly manual affair… except when the board does it on the sly. The firmware defaults set the base frequency to 100.5MHz, a smidgen above Intel’s 100MHz spec. This bump has a minimal impact on CPU clock speeds—and certainly less of one than the illicit Turbo manipulation favored by some mobo makers—but it’s still a lame attempt to gain an unfair advantage. Motherboards should adhere to the processor’s stock specifications unless explicitly told to do otherwise.
There’s nothing wrong with intentional overclocking, of course. We do it all the time. The Core i7-4770K used in our motherboard reviews is usually good for 4.5-4.7GHz before it starts bouncing between thermal throttling and BSOD errors. Applying too little CPU voltage compromises stability under load, while using too much overwhelms our Corsair H80 water cooler, which can’t dissipate heat fast enough for the chip to maintain its peak Turbo speed.
The same CPU behaved similarly on the Z97WE, which was stable at 4.5GHz but typically troublesome at 4.6GHz. More importantly, little effort was required to push the chip to its limit. We made it to 4.3GHz with multiplier tweaking alone. The firmware increased the CPU voltage automatically, but it didn’t go past 1.229V, which proved insufficient for our usual stress test.
Feeding the CPU 1.255V got it to 4.5GHz without further tweaking. The system was perfectly stable at that speed, which it maintained for several minutes under a combined CPU and GPU load. 4.6GHz produced BSOD errors until we dialed the CPU up to 1.325V, though. That voltage sent CPU temperatures past the throttling threshold, resulting in momentary dips in the frequency. No amount of fiddling with the other voltage and power settings got the rig stable at 4.6GHz.
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 Hi-Fi Z97WE was tested against Z97 boards from Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI, plus an Asus Z87-PRO from the previous generation. You can find our detailed reviews of all those boards right here.
The Z97WE has slightly lower power consumption than most of its peers at idle and with our lighter load. Only Asus’ excellent Z97-A draws less juice under those conditions.
When the CPU and GPU are fully utilized, the Biostar board ties for the highest power consumption of the bunch. The deltas are too small to affect a typical utility bill, but they are a good indicator of motherboard power efficiency. Less power also translates to less heat, which can allow temperature-controlled fans to spin slower and quieter.
We’re known for going a little overboard with benchmarks here at TR, but that seems increasingly pointless for motherboard reviews. As long as they’re running the system components clocked at the same speeds, mobos have little influence on application and gaming performance. Boards based on the same chipset tend to have identical peripheral performance, too, since most of the I/O is handled by that chip.
There are occasional exceptions to the norm, which is why we still run motherboards through a suite of application, gaming, and peripheral tests. As expected, the Z97WE scores just as well as the other Z97 contenders we’ve tested. The differences between it and the competition are often smaller than the run-to-run variance, making graphs pretty pointless.
That said, we did run into an odd quirk in one of our SATA tests. The Z97WE posted a much slower random read speed than its peers, but only hooked up to the Samsung 830 Series SSD we’ve been using for motherboard benching. The board was just as fast as the competition our other storage tests, and its random read performance was competitive with a couple of other SSDs.
MSI’s Z97 Gaming 7 exhibited the same behavior, so the quirk isn’t limited to the Z97WE. The SSD’s dated firmware may be a contributing factor. Motherboard power-saving measures could play a role, as well. For what it’s worth, we test with Intel’s Dynamic Storage Accelerator enabled. This feature is supposed to prevent the CPU’s lower-power states from hindering I/O throughput.
The following page is filled with detailed board specifications 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 all of the essential deals about the Hi-Fi Z97WE already, but here’s the full spec sheet in case we missed anything:
|Platform||Intel Z97 Express, socket LGA1150|
|DIMM slots||4 DDR3, 32GB max|
|Expansion slots||2 PCIe 3.0 x16 via CPU (x16/x0, x8/x8)
2 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
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC892
Surround virtualization via Realtek drivers
|Ports||1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
1 VGA via CPU
1 DVI-D via CPU
1 HDMI 1.4a via CPU
2 USB 3.0 via Z97 Express
2 USB 3.0 via internal headers via Z97 Express
2 USB 2.0 via Z97 Express
4 USB 2.0 via internal headers Z97 Express
2 Gigabit Ethernet via 2 x Realtek RTL8111G
1 analog front/headphone out (amplified)
4 configurable analog ports
1 digital S/PDIF out
|Overclocking||All/per-core Turbo multiplier: 35-80X
CPU strap: 1, 1.25, 1.66, 2.5X
Base clock: 50-540MHz
Ring frequency: 1000-8000MHz
CPU voltage: 0.001-2V
Ring voltage: 0.001-2V
System agent voltage: 1.5-2.65V
IOA offset voltage: 0.001-0.998V
IOD offset voltage: 0.001-0.998V
DRAM voltage: 1.3-2.295V
PCH voltage: 0.625-1.365V
PCH PLL voltage: 1.25-1.815V
DDR channel A,B DQ offset: -0.2-+0.025V
DDR channel A,B CA offset: -0.2-+0.025V
|Fan control||2x CPU fans:
Predefined quiet, aggressive profiles
Manual profile with on/off temp, start PWM value, sensitivity
4x system fans (shared):
Manual profile with on/off/active PWM values, on/off temp
Our testing methods
We used the following system configurations for testing.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-4770K|
|Motherboard||Asus Z87-PRO||Asus Z97-A||Biostar Hi-Fi Z97WE||Gigabyte Z97X-UD5H||MSI Z97 Gaming 7|
|Platform hub||Z87 Express||Z97 Express||Z97 Express||Z97 Express||Z97 Express|
|Chipset drivers||Chipset: 10.0
|Audio||Realtek ALC1180||Realtek ALC892||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 Cinebench’s multithreaded CPU rendering 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.
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.