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MSI Z97 Gaming 7 Motherboard Review

Subject: Motherboards
Manufacturer: MSI

Features and Motherboard Layout

Features

Courtesy of MSI

  • Supports 4th and 5th Gen Intel® Core™ / Pentium® / Celeron® processors for LGA 1150 socket
  • Supports DDR3-3300(OC) Memory
  • M.2 + USB 3.0 + SATA 6Gb/s
  • Audio Boost 2: Reward Your Ears with True Quality
  • Killer Ethernet: Kill Your Lag
  • USB Audio Power: Surve Stable 5V Power & Better Signal Transmission over USB
  • XSplit Gamecaster: Show off Your Skills and Achievements
  • Guard-Pro: Improved Protection and Power Efficiency
  • OC Genie 4: Overclock in 1 Second
  • Gaming App: Boost Your Frame Rate
  • Click BIOS 4: Easily Fine-tune Your System
  • Multi-GPU: NVIDIA SLI & AMD CrossFire Support
  • Sound Blaster Cinema 2: Realistic Surround Sound Experience
  • Gaming Device Port: Optimized with Triple Gold-plating for High Polling Rate Gaming Devices

Motherboard Layout

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The MSI Z97 Gaming 7 is designed with a matte black PCB with red highlights on the on-board heat sinks, keeping in line with the Gaming series scheme. Even though the audio PCB audio capacitors do not blend with their yellow exterior, MSI designed the audio PCB's interface line as well as the audio chipset cap to glow red with the board powered. The component placement was well thought out with no really tight areas on the board.

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Aside from some circuits directly under the CPU VRMs, the board back is mostly clear of components. The area directly behind the CPU socket is completely free of any chips or components, minimizing the risk of damaging the board from crushing a critical power component with the cooler back plate.

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MSI included the following ports into the Z97 Gaming 7's rear panel: a keyboard / mouse PS/2 port, 2 USB 2.0 ports (red colored), 2 USB 3.0 ports controlled by the Intel Z97 chipset (located to the right of the DisplayPort video port), 6 USB 3.0 ports controlled by ASMedia controllers (located below the GigE NIC port and to the right of the CMOS reset button), a Qualcomm Atheros Killer NIC port (outside RJ-45 port), two HDMI video ports, a DisplayPort video port, a CMOS reset button, an optical audio port, and 6 analogue audio ports. Note that the red-colored analogue audio port is wired through the integrated OP-AMPs for use with audio headphones.

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The Z97 Gaming 7 motherboard has a total of seven PCI-Express device ports - three PCI-Express x16 slots and four PCI-Express x1 slots. For the PCI-Express x16 slots, the board supports full x16 bandwidth with a single card, x8 bandwidth with cards in the primary and secondary slots with two cards populated, and x8 / x4 / x4 with cards populated in all three slots. There is sufficient space in between all PCI-Express x16 slots to accommodate up to dual slot coolers with space for a three slot cooler between the primary and secondary port.

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In an odd placement decision, MSI plated the CMOS battery, and the chassis intrusion and CMOS reset headers in between the primary and secondary PCI-Express x16 slots. Installing a larger single card or dual cards into the board would make any of those components hard to get to. In between the upper right of the primary PCI-Express x1 slot and the VRM cooler is a 4-pin system fan header.

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Like many of the Z97 boards, MSI integrated the on-board audio subsystem into an isolated PCB to minimize board components-related distortion and ensure audio clarity and fidelity. The PCB separator line and the audio chipset cap glow red with the board powered, making for a nice effect in line with the board's color scheme. The Realtek ALC1150 audio codec is surrounded on both sides by Nichicon audio capacitors. The headphone port OP-AMPs are located to the left of the audio codec chip with the front panel audio header located to their left along the board's left edge.

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Along the upper left edge of the board are the front panel audio header, the Direct Audio Power connector and switch, and the power, reset, and OC Genie buttons. The Direct Audio Power connector provides additional power to drive the OP-AMP circuits tied to the dedicated headphone audio port. You simply plug in the provided adapter to the port on the board and into a MOLEX connector from the PSU. The additional power is provided to the audio circuits when the Direct Audio Power switch is enabled (switch toggled to the left).

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Along the lower left of the tertiary PCI-Express x16 slot are the trusted module port header, a serial port header, and the on-board USB 2.0 headers. The on-board M.2 port is located in between the secondary and tertiary PCI-Express x16 slots. The slot supports both 6 Gb/s and 10 Gb/s style M.2 devices. The M.2 port shares PCIe lanes and bandwidth with the Intel Z97 SATA ports 5 and 6. If a device is placed in the M.2 slot, SATA ports 5 and 6 are automatically disabled.

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The two on-board USB 2.0 headers, the front panel audio headers, a system fan header, and the Multi-BIOS switch are located in the lower left corner of the motherboard. The Multi-BIOS switch determines which BIOS chip is active at boot time. This feature is useful if your primary BIOS chip becomes corrupted. You simply power down the system, switch to the secondary BIOS chip, and reboot into system setup.

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The Intel Z97 Express chipset is covered by a large, low profile heat sink just below the PCI-Express x16 slots. The heat sink is black colored with red highlights, featuring a glowing MSI logo and the Gaming Series shield on it surface.

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There are a total of eight SATA 6 Gb/s ports integrated into the board's SATA block. The six right most ports are controlled by the Intel Z97 chipset controller with the two on the left controlled by the on-board ASMedia controller. To the right of the SATA port block is the Intel Z97 chipset controlled USB 3.0 port header and the Slow Mode Booting switch. The Slow Mode Booting switch is used in conjunction with LN2-based cooling to force the board to boot at a slower and more stable CPU speed for testing.

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MSI included a total of four DDR3 memory slots just below the CPU socket. Dual Channel memory mode is enabled by seating memory modules in alternating memory slots (slots 1 and 3 or slots 2 and 4). The board supports up to 32GB of memory running at a maximum speed of 3200MHz. Note that memory speeds above 1600MHz are considered overclocked speeds and are outside of the official Intel stock memory speed specifications. To the lower right of the DIMM slots is a system fan header.

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To the lower left of the DIMMM slots are the 2-digit diagnostic LED display, V-Check voltage measurement points, and the 24-pin ATX power connector. The diagnostic LED display can be used in conjunction with the table provided in the user manual to identify and troubleshoot board boot-related issues. The C-Check voltage measurement points allow for direct board voltage measurement using a volt meter using the included connector cables.

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To the upper right of the DIMM slots are the CPU fan header and several undocumented debug headers, most likely used for board internal testing and LN2-related operation.

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The CPU socket is clear of obstructions with the power circuitry and VRM heat sink surrounding the top and right sides of the socket. The board contains a total of 12 digital power phases to ensure board stability under all operating conditions.

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A single 8-pin ATX12V power connector was provided to power the CPU, located in the upper right corner of the board.

May 19, 2014 | 05:00 PM - Posted by btdog

Nice write up, Morry. I may have missed it, but I have a question:

Can you enter and view the UEFI settings if you just plug an HDMI monitor into the motherboard? In the past, I've never gotten it to work so I don't know if that's possible now.

Thanks!

May 19, 2014 | 05:37 PM - Posted by Morry Teitelman

I did not try with this motherboard, but have had varying success with other boards.

The trick I've found for HDMI output of the UEFI BIOS is that the HDMI cable must be the only cable plugged into the card.  If any other cables are plugged in, I've never had success getting an HDMI signal.  You could also try from the onboard graphics HDMI port, but you would have to remove the secondary video card for it to work...

May 20, 2014 | 04:47 AM - Posted by stryk187

Thanks for dedicating more than half of an entire section to aftermarket CPU cooler fitting (with good pictures to boot!). I don't often see that in motherboard reviews. +5 cool points for Morry!

May 24, 2014 | 11:03 AM - Posted by Rick (not verified)

Interesting that you oced with the 166 strap. Any reason for using that strap over the 100 strap?

May 24, 2014 | 09:51 PM - Posted by Morry Teitelman

you get a slight performance bump using bc overclocking combined with ratio overclocking over pure ratio overclocking.  And t also proves that the board is stable at the higher strap speed...

June 13, 2014 | 12:53 PM - Posted by elgrandeburro

Hi Morry. I see this MSI board has an optical/spdif out for audio. However a number of other MSI Z97 boards do not provide this header.

Do you know, in cases like the above, how do I get optical out?

Do I get it by getting a splitter cable for the HDMI port that I can tap the optical audio from, or am I simply out of luck?

Thanks much.

July 11, 2014 | 09:34 AM - Posted by Andrew (not verified)

Hi Morry,

I have just purchased this motherboard and built my machine with all the parts.

Unfortunately I've encountered a problem which I have narrowed down to the RAM slots.

With both 8GB RAM in slots 1 and 2 the machine will power itself on and off repeatedly, providing the LED Status code C0.

Once I remove the RAM from slot 2 and try again it will work perfectly. Similarly, if I switch the RAM sticks it will also work. The problem is only when both are applied.

I got the RAM as a packaged deal(Kingston 2x8GB 2400Hz) with the motherboard so I am sure it had been tested beforehand.

I am just wondering if you had encountered this error and can suggest a cause/solution or if not, please advise, could placing the RAM in slots 3 and 4 (leaving 1 and 2 blank) cause any damage or should it work?

Thanks and kind regards,
Andrew

July 15, 2014 | 11:48 AM - Posted by Kevin (not verified)

Looking at the manual if you are using 2 sticks of ram they need to be in slots 2 and 4. Have you tried that? Mine works just fine with slots 2 and 4 filled.

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