MSI Z97I Gaming ACK Review

Manufacturer: MSI
UK price (as reviewed): £116.36 (inc VAT)
US price (as reviewed): $183.95 (ex Tax)
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We've had quite a few requests for a review of MSI's enthusiast Z97 mini-ITX motherboard. We actually had hands on with it at one point but then we learned that MSI was actually going to be withdrawing it and releasing a new souped-up model and the Z97I Gaming ACK is what we're looking at today.

It's one of the first refreshed motherboards we've seen since the launch of the Z97 chipset last year but thankfully, the added pizazz and one extra letter after its name hasn't resulted in a significant price bump. In fact the Z97I Gaming ACK retails for a very reasonable £117.

So what are these extras? For starters, the original 'AC' version lacked SATA Express and M.2 and while SATA Express is still absent (not that you can make much use of it at the moment anyway) MSI has copied Asus's M.2 mounting that it employed on its Z97i-Plus and moved it to the underside of the PCB. Sadly, it's only compatible with Type 2260 (60mm) modules so our Plextor PX-G256M6e SSD that we use for M.2 port speed testing, for instance, won't fit.

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It's a nifty way of making more space on the top side, though - while it will mean you'll likely have to remove the board to get at it, chances are once you're up and running this will be very unlikely. MSI has also thrown in what it claims to be the world's first Killer LAN and WiFi combination. This boils down to being able to connect to an Ethernet port and 802.11ac WiFi at the same time, using the WiFi for tasks such as streaming video and leaving the low-latency LAN connection for your games.

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The previous Z97 model, and indeed its Z87 predecessor, the Z87I Gaming AC had a few issues with layout too. The 8-pin EPS 12V connector was located slap bang in the middle of the PCB and the SATA ports were, bizarrely, located at the top of the motherboard along with the 24-pin ATX connector. It didn't stop there either - the CPU socket was pretty close to the PCI-E slot, the USB 3 connector was located behind it and there were not one but two heatsinks as well and both were inset into the PCB. On top of all this, the front panel header was situated behind the rear I/O panel - on the opposite side of the PCB where it's generally needed. Blimey.

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Now, due to the huge variation in mini-ITX case layouts these days, some would have been more awkward to work with here than others but thankfully, MSI has listened to feedback and remedied all of these issues. The CPU socket sits much further away from the all-important PCI-E slot, the 8-pin EPS 12V connector has been relocated right at the edge of the PC behind the I/O panel, and the larger of the two heatsinks now sits at the edge of the PCB.

The USB 3 header has moved there too and it's managed to get two of the four SATA 6Gbps ports to the far reaches of the PCB as well. Even the Asus Maximus VII Impact didn't manage that. The front panel connector has also been moved to sit on the right side of the DIMM slots and the two 3/4-pin fan headers are probably where you'd want them to be too - behind the rear I/O panel to power your CPU fan and a rear or roof fan. Well done MSI.

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The on-board audio is based on the usual Realtek ALC1150 codec, but it does sport an isolated PCB, EMI sheilding, gold audio connectors and Creative's Sound Blaster Cinema software, which provides a surround sound-like audio for stereo headphones as well as adding features probably familiar to Creative product owners such as Crystalizer. If you own a USB sound device then there's a dedicated 5V USB port that MSI claims offers a much more stable 5V supply than your average USB port.

Specifications

  • Chipset Intel Z97
  • Form factor Mini-ITX
  • CPU support LGA1150 compatible (Haswell, Haswell Refresh, Broadwell)
  • Memory support Dual-channel, 2 slots, max 16GB
  • Sound 8-channel Realtek ALC1150 Codec
  • Networking Killer E2205 Gigabit LAN, Killer 1525 802.11ac WiFi + Bluetooth V4.1
  • Ports 4 x SATA 6Gbps via Intel Z97, 1 x M.2 (up to 60mm / Type 2260), 6 x USB 3.0 (2 x via header), 6 x USB 2.0 ( 2 x via header), 1 x LAN, audio out, line in, mic, Optical S/PDIF out, 2x HDMI, DisplayPort
  • Dimensions (mm) 170 x 170
  • Extras Clear CMOS button, isolated audio circuitry, 2 x WiFi antennas

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