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Asus' Z97-P motherboard reviewed

Budget Z97, the Asus way

The Pentium G3258 arrived amidst a wave of inexpensive Z97 motherboards aimed at overclockers seeking a suitable home for their unlocked Anniversary Edition silicon. Intel's latest enthusiast chipset could now be found on boards with two-digit asking prices, setting the stage for potent budget pairings.

Although Asus' Z97-P doesn't quite fall under the $100 mark, it's still the firm's cheapest Z97 offering. The board can be had for $110.99 online, or $29 less than the Z97-A Geoff reviewed last year. That's a substantial difference for customers with Anniversary Edition Pentiums, which are regularly priced at $70.

So, what features does one lose when stepping down to the entry-level Z97-P? The swapped letters in the model name provide no hints. Neither does the Z97-P's subtle black-and-gold color scheme, which matches the motif of its pricier sibling. Closer inspection quickly reveals the board's budget pedigree, though.

Compared to its costlier brethren, the Z97-P has gone on a diet in a number of ways. The most obvious difference is the size of the circuit board. At only 8.4" (21.3 cm) wide, the board uses just six of the nine mounting holes that full-sized ATX boards normally occupy. This brings the onboard components closer together, but due to the no-frills nature of the design, we're not left with a terribly cramped layout.

Losing over an inch at the Z97-P's waist forced the designers to position the four DIMM slots so that they butt right up against the restricted zone for the CPU socket. If you're using an oversized CPU cooler, be sure to check for adequate DIMM clearance. Here are some measurements to help you figure out which components can safely fit together on the board:

Clearance issues aren't solely the domain of large, tower-style air coolers. The beefy copper block of the Cooler Master Nepton 240M liquid cooler we use for testing runs afoul of the capacitors closest to the CPU socket. This conflict prevents the block from making sufficient contact with the CPU's heat spreader, removing two of the four possible orientations as workable options. Clearance issues between the VRM heatsink and the hose connections to the block rule out a third orientation.

This particular cooler only works on the Z97-P in one orientation, and even then, the fit isn't perfect. The hose connections encroach on the DIMM slots, blocking the one closest to the CPU socket. Thankfully, this slot is only needed when populating the board with four DIMMs.

A high-end liquid cooler like the Nepton isn't the likeliest accompaniment to a board in this price range, but it's assuredly not the only cooler that could run into clearance issues on the Z97-P.

A small heatsink positioned between the CPU socket and rear port cluster hides the four power phases feeding Haswell's on-die VRM. With modern motherboard heatsinks being about equal parts form and function, this little piece of aluminum not only provides cooling for the MOSFETs, but also serves as one of the Z97-P's pieces of flair. The second and final piece of flair is located farther down the board, atop the Z97 chipset. This slim heatsink is furnished with just a handful of fins, but it only has to contend with the Z97's meager 4.1W TDP.

At first glance, the Z97-P presents a PCIe slot layout that looks ideal for a pair of graphics cards. Alas, closer examination reveals that the x16 slot on the left is the only one with Gen3 lanes from the CPU. The x16 slot on the right is tied to just two Gen2 lanes in the chipset. This second slot lacks sufficient bandwidth to participate in CrossFire configs, let alone more exclusive SLI setups.

Dual PCIe x1 and old-school PCI slots round out the expansion region. The x1s get Gen2 connectivity from the chipset, while the PCI slots are fed by an ASMedia PCIe-to-PCI bridge chip.

Between the CPU socket and top PCIe slot lives the Z97-P's sole entry into the next-generation storage race: an M.2 slot that supports both PCIe and SATA SSDs up to 80 mm long. PCIe drives get dual Gen2 lanes from the chipset, while SATA hardware is limited to a single 6Gbps connection. The low-slung slot shouldn't interfere with CPU coolers or expansion cards, but it does put mini SSDs between two potentially toasty components.

Given the Z97-P's target market and asking price, we shouldn't be surprised by the lack of SATA Express support. The Serial ATA configuration is a little unusual, though. Despite the fact that the chipset supports six SATA devices, there are only four internal ports—two in the bottom right corner and two half-way up the board, near the front-panel USB 3.0 header. The M.2 slot technically provides a fifth SATA connection, but the sixth is nowhere to be found, not even as an eSATA port in the rear cluster. That doesn't help the Z97-P in the feature-checkbox race against budget Z97 boards with a full slate of SATA ports.

Asus has chosen to implement the chipset's 18 flexible I/O lanes without sharing resources between storage and expansion. Statements like, "SATA3 connector is shared with M.2 slot," or the more helpfully spelled out, "when the M.2 slot is being used by PCIe M.2 module, SATA3_U & SATA3_L connectors will be disabled," are nowhere to be found in the manual and spec sheet.

Seeing the rear port cluster's analog audio output handled by only three jacks reinforces the fact that the Z97-P hails from the low-rent district. Users who want eight-channel analog output have to rely on a combination of rear and front-panel ports.

The lack of DisplayPort output won't hinder users with discrete graphics cards. Those looking to build systems for office use or general productivity can tap into Haswell's integrated graphics via VGA, DVI, and HDMI outputs, though.

Rear USB connectivity comes in the form of six ports, four of which are of the SuperSpeed variety. Two additional USB 3.0 ports are available through an on-board header, as are six more USB 2.0. All the USB ports are connected directly to the chipset, without hub chips or third-party controllers. The onboard networking and audio are powered by Realtek GigE and codec chips, which are ubiquitous for boards in this price range.

The Z97-P uses an older ALC891 codec backed by a TI R4580 amplifier. These two sit tucked away in their own corner of the board, isolated from the rest of the signaling, with the left and right output channels split between different PCB layers. This arrangement produces sound my ears are happy to hear, with no unwanted noise under a variety of load and idle conditions. That's a very good thing, because the S/PDIF module for digital output is sold separately, and there's no support for encoding multi-channel digital audio on the fly.

Asus gets a tick of approval for fitting the Z97-P with a socketed firmware chip, but the lack of support for its excellent USB BIOS Flashback feature is a little disappointing. Although not a feature that gets used every day, the ability to update the firmware with nothing more than a USB thumb drive and a power supply can save you from having to beg, borrow, or steal a supported CPU to flash for a newer chip. At least the Anniversary Edition Pentium is supported out of the box.

Also noticeably absent is support for Asus' DirectKey firmware shortcut. The convenience of being able to quickly and easily enter the UEFI without having to resort to furiously mashing the Del key shouldn't be underestimated, especially in the age of fast boot methods.

Although Asus' marketing materials mention the presence of Q-Design features for DIYers, that only extends to larger winged retention tabs on the PCIe x16 slots, which are meant to aid users who compulsively swap graphics cards. Q-Connectors—Asus' name for front-panel wiring blocks—sadly don't make an appearance. To make the already finicky wiring process even more arduous, the onboard header lacks color-coding, and the PCB markings are silk-screened in a font small enough to leave you reaching for a magnifying glass. Be prepared with a flashlight and the user manual when wiring the front panel in a dimly-lit case.

While I have my nit-picking hat on, it would have been nice if the clear CMOS jumper weren't nestled between the front-panel header and one of the internal USB connectors. Once the build is complete and everything is plugged in, it's difficult to reach the jumper with fingers alone. That said, the firmware does an excellent job of recovering from overly ambitious overclocks that fail to POST, so you shouldn't have to clear the CMOS manually.

Since the pricier Z97-A doesn't provide a cushioned I/O shield, don't expect that builder-friendly perk on this more entry-level model. A standard metal I/O shield is tucked in the box, eagerly awaiting its chance to slice your fingers.

Now, on to the more positive topic of the board's firmware...