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MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Review


MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Closer Look:

The Gaming 7 uses a matte black, six-layer PCB as the base for which all the components are mounted. Measuring 12x9.6 inches in size, it is an ATX form factor board built around Intel's Z97 PCH to support Intel Fourth and Fifth Generation Core series processors, including Core i7, Core i5, Core i3, Pentium, and Celeron LGA socket 1150 processors. On top of using Military Class IV build components, the Gaming 7 board is built using MSI's Guard Pro protection system. This system provides added protection from humidity to improve failure rates related to humidity by a factor of 10x, ensures operation is not hampered in high temperature environments, offers ESD protection on every incoming I/O port, and provides the ability of using Eco Power to reduce power consumption to unused devices. Overall, the layout is nice with plenty of room where it counts most, including around the socket and between the PCIe slots. An M.2 slot is hidden between the bottom pair of PCIe ports for added functionality with this new offering, but does not intrude into the space above the PCIe 16x ports. On the back side of the board there are no additional cooling plates, but all the cooling devices on the board are held in with spring-loaded screws.



I/O connectivity is pretty standard with a few exceptions. Starting out are three red Gaming device ports that are said to be more responsive in gaming situations. These ports come with a 3x greater layer of gold plating to reduce oxidation and reduce damage from plugging and unplugging any devices. Next up is a Clear CMOS button, four ASMedia ASM1074-controlled USB 3.0 ports, a pair of HDMI ports supporting up to 4K resolutions, a single DisplayPort with 4K support at 24Hz, an Optical S/PDIF port, two Z97-controlled USB 3.0 ports, two ASMedia ASM1042-controlled USB 3.0 ports, the Killer Networks E2205 LAN port, and the gold-plated audio jacks for the Realtek ALC1150 codec HD audio. Expansion card capabilities come in the form of three PCIe 3.0 16x slots that support 3-Way SLI or CrossFireX at x16 with a single card, x8 / x8 with a pair of GPUs, or x8 / x4 / x4 with a trio of cards. Additionally, you get four PCIe 2.0 1x slots. In between the bottom pair of PCIe slots is an M.2 form factor port for use with M.2 drives in multiple lengths, supporting bandwidth of up to 10GB/s. In the future, an M.2 to SATA Express adapter will be made available.

On the left side of the expansion ports is the majority of the hardware associated with the Audio Boost 2 sound solution. Taking a cue from brand A, MSI now isolates the Realtek ALC1150-based sound solution electrically from the rest of the PCB to minimize audio distortion caused by electronic interference. In essence, this makes it an independent sound card on the board. MSI uses dual-OPA1652 headphone amplifiers to feed both the front and rear connection points. All the connectivity is gold-plated for the best connection possible. The ALC1150 codec is covered with a backlit EMI shield, again to reduce distortion. Special Nichicon Acoustic series audio capacitors are used and feature lower tolerances, lower dielectric absorption, lower ESR, lower leakage current, and higher stability, all with the aim of delivering crystal clear sound.




Starting on the far left of the PCB is the layer indicator that counts down the layers of the PCB. Next comes the Audio Boost 2-supported front panel audio header, Audio Boost power connection, and the switch used to choose whether to use on board power for the sound solution or to use an external power source. An on-board power and reset switch are used and are almost standard fare for a gaming centric motherboard. The OC Genie 4 button rounds out the Easy Button 3 package and is used to allow the system to run a series of algorithms to deliver a solid one-touch overclock for the end user looking for some added clock speed, but does not quite have overclocking down. Once you get past the OC Genie 4 button, there is an unused header labeled turbo, TPM header, Serial port header, a pair of USB 2.0 ports with one (red) supporting the USB Charger function, the two front panel headers, a PWM-controlled fan header, and just above the JFP2 header is the dual-BIOS switch. In the odd chance that you hose up a BIOS, you can switch to another to get out of a jam.



Up the right hand side of the PCB, we get to the SATA drive ports. There are a total of eight SATA 6Gbps ports with six coming straight from the Z97 PCH, supporting RAID 0,1,5,10, Intel Smart Response, Rapid Start, and Smart Connect technologies. The left pair of 6Gbps ports are controlled by an ASMedia ASM1061 chipset. Just north of the SATA ports is a USB 3.0 header that supports up to two more USB 3.0 ports. The angled connection means that it will not cause any interference when using larger dedicated discrete GPUs. Right next to the USB 3.0 header is the Slow Mode switch that comes in handy while running the board and CPU at sub zero temperatures. A digital debug LED is situated close to the USB 3.0 header in a spot not normally used for the debug LED. This feature lets the user diagnose issues during the POST sequence, and once the system is fully booted up, it displays the CPU temperature.



The upper right section of the PCB houses the 24-pin ATX power connection to supply power to the board and installed components. Beside it is one of the cooler features on an MSI enthusiast level board, the V-Checkpoint header. You use this header to measure specific voltages using a multimeter rather than relying on a software interpretation. CPU input voltage, Vcore, Ring voltage, DRAM voltage, IGP, and VCCSA can all be measured. A nice improvement to this feature set is the addition of two more ground points for a total of three, improving the voltages you can monitor outside the software package. Up to 32GB of DDR3 memory at speeds up to 3300MHz(OC) are supported out of the box. Most likely this means the 3000MHz or 2933MHz ratios will be the highest you can set and then bump the bclk from that point.



Around the top section of the PCB are a pair of PWM-controlled fan headers that can be controlled via MSI's fan tuning utility on the Command Center console. Moving past the dragon claw-inspired heat sink package, to the right is the 8-pin EATX auxiliary power connection to feed power to the CPU.



MSI's Z97 Gaming 7 is built using the Z97 PCH and LGA socket 1150. In this configuration, it is able to support current Fourth and upcoming Fifth Generation Core series processors, including Core i7, i5, i3, Pentium, and Celeron variants. The new Devil's Canyon Haswell refresh and upcoming Broadwell processors are supported. MSI's Military Class IV technology is used throughout the board, but is most evident around the CPU socket. Visually, you can see the Super Ferrite Chokes that use a "Ferrite core that is Super-Permeable. This allows the Super Ferrite Choke to run at a 35 degree Celsius lower temperature, have a 30% higher current capacity, a 20% improvement in power efficiency and better overclocking power stability." Dark Capacitors "with their aluminum core design, Dark CAPs has been a staple in high-end design mainboard designs and provides lower Equivalent Series Resistance (ESR) as well as its over-10-year lifespan." Underneath the heat pipe connected heat sink package are the Hi-c CAPs "a very small, but super-efficient capacitor. Besides ensuring enough spacing around a CPU socket to install large coolers, it also allows for 93% energy efficiency." A Lotes black chrome socket retention bracket is used to hold the CPU in place. The black chrome integrates well with the look of the board.


The heat sink package around the CPU is inspired by a dragon claw. Each heat sink has three bright red inserts meant to resemble claws. The package is interconnected with a 6mm heat pipe to carry most of the thermal load to the rear I/O area to be carried away by a rear chassis fan. The Z97 PCH heat sink is large and effectively cools the components underneath. MSI's Gaming Series logo is prominently displayed on the top to compliment the red and black design. Each end of the VRM heat sink has the MSI Gaming tribal dragon in silver as an added accent.



For all intents and purposes, MSI's Z97 Gaming 7 should rock and deliver all the functionality it is capable of delivering. MSI's quality control and the end user experience have improved exponentially over the past few years. I'm curious to see how the sound solution works with the new additions, as well as seeing if the board has the overclocking cajones of its predecessor. A ton of new software is also added to the package to further enhance the end user experience. Let's dig into the added programs and the BIOS to see what new features we can find.

  1. MSI Z97 Gaming 7: Introduction & Closer Look
  2. MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Closer Look: Continued
  3. MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Closer Look: Applications & Tools
  4. MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Closer Look: The BIOS
  5. MSI Z97 Gaming 7: Specifications & Features
  6. MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Testing: Setup & Overclocking
  7. MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Testing: PCMark 7, SiSoft Sandra 2014
  8. MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Testing: Cinebench 11.5, X,264 5.01, AIDA64
  9. MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Testing: CrystalDiskMark, ATTO 2.47
  10. MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Testing: iPerf, RMAA
  11. MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Testing: Gaming
  12. MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Conclusion
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