As the world gears up for a refresh on Intel’s Haswell processors (the majority of which don’t look that interesting) motherboard manufacturers are lining up their new products in preparation. While Haswell refresh brings nothing new to the table processor-wise, these new motherboards will pack in better hardware along with options to add in a M.2 solid state drive. Unlike m-SATA drives, M.2 uses the PCI-Express bus to speed up things considerably, going way beyond the current capabilities of SATA 3.
Plus, these new motherboards from MSI are dead sexy. I don’t know who’s designing them, but they are taking the “Gaming” range pretty seriously. Geek out on some extremely detailed hardware porn after the jump!
MSI’s new Gaming lineup is waiting in the wings for the Haswell refresh has been completely remodeled for killer looks and it does seem as if more thought has been put into the port layout this time around. The motherboards on show today don’t have any prices or specifications yet, nor are they listed on MSI’s website. The models on show today are the Z97 Gaming 9 AC, the Z97 Gaming 7, the Z97I Gaming, the Z97 Gaming 5 and the Z97 Gaming 3.
All are based on socket LGA1150, all retain DDR3 compatibility (no DDR4 for consumers until the Haswell-E launch) and all support PCI-Express 3.0 along with the required video outputs to support three displays on the built-in Intel HD graphics.
The lineup starts with the Z97 Gaming 9 AC. There are eight rotated SATA 6Gb/s slot here along with three PCI-Express 3.0 slots, three PCI-E 1x slots and the M.2 connector nestled between the bottom two PCI-Express slots. There are two mounting holes and a notch at the end to support the end of the PCB. Because of how M.2 SSDs are laid out, it’s possible to fit 1TB drives in that space as long as they are double-sided. There’s also a 10+2 phase layout, which will stably provide power for highly overclocked K-series processors.
The redesigned heatsinks are really kickass, honestly. Perhaps MSI’s method of making the dragon-shaped heatsinks for the previous Gaming series wasn’t to everyone’s taste and this is a bit more muted, almost business-like. You’ll notice that MSI now uses the same shroud design as found on the ASUS Sabertooth motherboards and their TUF armor kit. It is more than likely made out of brushed plastic, as metal would not be required there for heat dissipation and would possibly interfere with the built-in 802.11ac wireless adapter.
One rung down, the Z97 Gaming 5 and Gaming 7 motherboards look very similar at first glance. The Gaming 5 is pretty basic as far as boards go – it still boasts three PCI-E 3.0 slots, four PCI-E 1x slots, six SATA 6Gb/s ports and MSI’s Audio Boost chip which is coupled with Realtek’s ALC1150 audio codec and a amplifier to improve bass and response on USB headsets. It still has a debug LED but lacks the power and reset buttons found on the Gaming 7 and 9 boards. The V-check points will still work, though, allowing you to measure voltage on various points around the board.
If you’re aiming for high overclocks, the Gaming 7 would be the better choice because of the 10+2 phase layout near the CPU, while the Gaming 5 makes do with a 6+2 layout. Processors switched between these two boards may attain the same frequencies on both, but higher stability under heavy load on the Gaming 7 would make it the better choice.
The Gaming 7 returns the missing power buttons and the voltage check point headers and adds on two SATA 6Gb/s ports for a total of eight. Note that because Intel’s Z97 chipset still tops out at six native SATA 6Gb/s ports, the extra two are running on a Marvell controller. The M.2 connector moves to the same location as the Z97 Gaming 9 AC, while on the Gaming 5 it moves up above the first PCI-E slot. That actually might be the better spot thermally, because dual and triple-GPU configurations will trap heat near the M.2 port lower down on the motherboard.
The Z97 Gaming 3 is the basic pick of the bunch. It packs in a 4+2 phase layout, two PCI-E slots, three PCI slots and two PCI-E 1x slots. Two of the SATA 6Gb/s ports are not rotated and the M.2 connector stays up near the middle of the board. Audio boost is still retained but overall it is not as well-equipped as the Gaming 5.
ITX motherboards are getting more and more interesting as the industry moves into the small-form-factor computing space. The Z97I Gaming has built-in 802.11ac, four SATA 6Gb/s ports, a 4+2 phase arrangement and a single PCI-E 3.0 slot. Its a pity that MSI couldn’t find the space for a M.2 port allowing people to build an entirely self-contained unit.
One issue that many people will have trouble with is heatsink clearance. Because MSI opted to move the socket closer to the RAM and near below the middle of the board, large CPU coolers will have clearance issues on three sides of the socket, especially if the graphics card you use has a backplate. If you’re using water cooling this isn’t a big issue, but it’s something that buyers will have to consider when looking at the Z97I Gaming.