With Asus having released BIOS updates for it's cheaper non-Z97 LGA1150 motherboards that give them access to unlocked multipliers on certain Intel CPUs, the goalposts are shifting somewhat for motherboard manufacturers.
You have the premium gear, such as MSI's Gaming and MPower boards, and the cheaper models for around £100 which lack many of the refinements of the premium offerings. The MSI Z97S SLI Plus we're looking at here is one such example. It's fairly spartan in some ways and has to tread a careful line following Asus's recent antics.
Unlike many of the super-cheap offerings around, though, the Z97S SLI Plus does have a number of advantages. For starters, unlike an H81 motherboard, for example, it supports Intel's new CPUs out of the box and doesn't need a BIOS update and as such does not need an older CPU to be able to post and update the BIOS to be compatible with the likes of the Pentium G3258 or Core i5-4690K.
There are more fundamental differences too. Despite its relatively low price tag, the Z97S SLI Plus offers both M.2 and SATA Express, although you won't be able to use a combination of the two. Still, even Asus ROG boards lack SATA Express so at least you have that option in future, although M.2 SSDs are already readily available. Also unlike many cheaper offerings, the Z97S SLI Plus supports both SLI and even 3-way CrossFire, with either a x8/x8 or x8/x4/x4 configuration.
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There are some handily-placed expansion slots too. As well as the three 16x slots, there are two 1x PCI-E slots - one above the top 16x slot and the other covered by it, plus two PCI slots. The latter are still in favour with some currently available sound cards and the like and will be useful for transplanting your old Audigy or X-Fi sound card, but we'd prefered to have seen PCI-E slots here instead for future's sake.
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Speaking of sound cards, there's no isolated audio circuitry here or fancy capacitors, just the standard 8-channel Realtek ALC892 audio codec, although you'd be hard pressed to find anything better elsewhere at this price. Layout is generally very good and there are even right-angled SATA and USB 3 connectors too. This is just as well as long GPUs will hang over the top two SATA ports and the USB 3 header.
One bone of contention we did have is that the M.2 slot was incredibly close to the top 1 x PCI-E slot, which made installing a full-length M.2 SSD quite difficult. Most overclocking-orientated features are absent, though; power and reset buttons, CMOS clear switches (a jumper is present though) and LED readouts fail to make an appearance and power delivery is limited to 8 phases too, while many more premium models offer 8+2 plus uprated chokes and caps. That said, the funky low profile heatsinks and subtle detailing do a good job of making the Z97S SLI Plus an attractive motherboard.
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Chipset Intel Z97
Form factor ATX
CPU support LGA1150 compatible (Haswell, Haswell Refresh, Broadwell)
Memory support Dual-channel, 4 slots, max 32GB
Sound 8-channel Realtek ALC892 Codec
Networking Intel i218 Gigabit LAN
Ports 6 x SATA 6Gbps via Intel Z97, 2 x SATA 6Gbps via ASM1061, 1 x SATA Express, 1 x M.2, 8 x USB 3.0 (6 x via headers), 1 x LAN, audio out, line in, mic, Optical S/PDIF out, HDMI, DisplayPort