MSI Z97 Gaming 7 LGA 1150 Motherboard Review

We’ve been fans of MSI’s "Gaming" series for some time now. The Z97 Gaming 7 has big shoes to fill and competition is heating up as competitors take a page from MSI’s book and bring some of respective offerings into parity with MSI’s price points. Does MSI still have what it takes to rule this particular market? We are about to find out.

Introduction

We’ve been fans of MSI’s "Gaming" series for some time now. These boards have had a gaming focused feature set and didn’t break the bank. Given that the feature set has been so focused these have managed to avoid ending up in the stratospheric price range of some competitor’s offerings with a gaming slant creating a nice little niche for MSI.

I always wondered why MSI never bothered to bring the Gaming series into the crosshairs of ASUS’ ROG line or GIGABYTE’s G1 boards. However I believe I understand now as that’s not really where the money is. Additionally MSI did a good job offering low-mid range gaming motherboards to fill the niche that GIGABYTE and ASUS just flat out didn’t bother with. MSI still has its XPower and MPower lines to compete in that arena even though the focus isn’t explicitly targeted at gamers.

This generation dispatches with the standard naming convention used in the regular product line. No more will we see motherboards with GD-65 type suffixes in the model numbers. This is no doubt an attempt to combat the misconception that these motherboards are just red and black variants of the standard Z97-GDxx boards. In last generation we’d have both a Z87-GD65 and a Z87-GD65 Gaming which was largely responsible for that thinking. In truth these motherboards have never used the same designs as their counterparts in the normal retail channel lineup. There have always been differences in audio implementation and networking controllers even if other components were shared.

Article Image

The MSI Z97 Gaming 7 is based on Intel’s Z97 Express chipset which pretty much goes without saying. That’s your only real choice for enthusiast class motherboards which will be compatible with Haswell and Devil’s Canyon CPUs. The motherboard isn’t entirely limited to what the chipset supports as MSI has ratcheted the features up a bit. The motherboard itself supports up to 32GB of DDR3 DRAM up to 3300MHz speeds. Gigabit Ethernet is supported via a Killer NIC E2201 and up to 10 USB 3.0 ports are provided. For Multi-GPU support the Z97 Gaming 7 offers the necessary infrastructure to allow for Quad-SLI and 3-Way CrossFire, 8 SATA ports are available along with M.2 support. There is no SATA Express support beyond M.2, and I’m not sure if this is a move done for the same reasons as ASUS chose not to add it on their ROG line, but it’s possible.

Main Specifications Overview:

Article Image

Detailed Specifications Overview:

Article Image

Packaging

Article Image Article Image Article Image Article Image

The packaging is nothing new for this generation. The box type, color schemes and styling are identical to the past generation. The bundle is relatively lean but not anemic. Included in the package are: software application guide, user guide, driver disc, cable labels, door hanger, and a quick installation guide, I/O shield, case badge, V-check leads, SLi bridge, SATA cables, and a power adapter for the audio system.

Board Layout

Article Image

The layout of the Z97 Gaming 7 is excellent. There really isn’t much to complain about here.

Article Image Article Image

The CPU socket area is clear of any major obstructions. As is the case with all socket LGA 1150 motherboards the MOSFET cooling and DIMM slots could pose a problem for some cooling solutions so some care in your selection should be given.

Article Image

The 4x 240-pin DIMM slots support up to 32GB of DDR3 memory at speeds up to 3300MHz through overclocking. These are not color coded and use single sided retention tabs to hold memory in place due to space constraints.

Article Image Article Image

The chipset itself has modest cooling. No heat pipes, or active cooling are used here. In fairness, such things aren’t really necessary with Z97 Express as it just doesn’t normally run that hot. The motherboard’s many SATA ports are found directly in front of the chipset. The CMOS battery is seen directly behind it and is somewhat inconveniently located.

Article Image

The expansion slot area has three PCI-Express x16 gen 3.0 slots operating in 16x0, 8x8, or 8x4x4 configurations. 4 PCI-Express 2.0 x1 slots are also provided. About my only real issue revolves around the PCI-Express x16 slot arrangement. I’d have preferred the slots to be shifted to where the top most PCI-Express x16 slot is at the top and the last slot wouldn’t have to have the card dangle off the PCB limiting the chassis choices for running a 3-Way graphics card configuration.

Article Image

The I/O panel offers a ton of USB 3.0 and display connectivity. Red USB 3.0 ports are marked to denote which ones are dedicated to keyboard and mouse inputs. These are set to a higher polling rate for better responsiveness. Audio jacks are both color coded and gold plated. Usually you get an either or type of solution so this shows a definite attention to detail.