Today's Hard|Forum Post
Today's Hard|Forum Post

ASUS Z97-A LGA 1150 Motherboard Review

While ASUS is usually known for motherboards like the Maximus and Rampage Extreme series’ or even feature rich solutions like the Z97-Deluxe it is motherboards like the Z97-A that are ASUS’ bread and butter. Shopping for an inexpensive motherboard doesn’t have to mean accepting poor quality feature stripped solutions.

Introduction

ASUS was founded in 1989 by four former Acer Inc. employees. Today it has grown to an astounding 21,000 employees worldwide and is now a multi-billion dollar corporation and is the fifth largest PC vendor as of 2013. ASUS began by designing and building Intel i486 compatible motherboards and today builds graphics cards, monitors, notebook computers, optical storage, multimedia products, tablet PC’s, workstations and networking hardware. While ASUS seemingly makes everything computer related it is still motherboards that it is primarily known for.

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The ASUS Z97-A is effectively the most stripped down model you’ll find in the North American market. This is the follow up motherboard to the very successful Z87-A which was not only the benchmark standard for almost all of our benchmarks in our review articles but the standard by which all other motherboards in virtually any category could be judged. While simple, the original Z87-A was a fantastic overclocker and a sturdy workhorse of a thing that just took any abuse you threw at it and asked for more.

While the previously reviewed ASUS Z97-Deluxe motherboard has every feature you could ever want and then some, and ASUS ROG branded motherboards are the bleeding edge of performance, its motherboards like the Z97-A that are the bread and butter of ASUS motherboard business. These are highly attractive in an OEM type capacity as the costs are low and the feature set strong enough for most OEM type builds. For the DIY market the Z97-A is a solid choice when extra features like multiple USB controllers, secondary and tertiary raid controllers may not be in the budget or may not be desirable. From a certain standpoint the minimalist motherboards like these inspire confidence and have a low learning curve because these don’t have special features, quirks, tons of integrated hardware, extensive and bloated drivers and a nice low risk price point. These are a definite no brainer for anyone who is frugal by necessity or by choice. The Z97-A is like a truck with no carpet and a manual transmission sporting a plain white paintjob and that’s OK with us.

While the Z97-A can certainly be classified as "no-frills," we wouldn’t truly call it stripped as the feature set is both compelling and solid for the money. Features not commonly found in other designs of this nature include an onboard power button and power indicator LEDs. An Intel i218v network controller is also included which is something many manufacturers won’t pay for in this market space. Granted this does make the Z97-A slightly more cost heavy than similar products from MSI, GIGABYTE and ASRock, but Its’ still within the same ballpark.

The Z97-A is based on the Intel Z97 Express chipset and uses an 8-phase digital VRM power design, ESD guards, 5k capacitors, enhanced DRAM overcurrent protection, stainless steel I/O ports. When it comes to features there isn’t much that isn’t provided by the chipset directly. You’ll only find 6x SATA 6Gb/s ports, 6x USB 3.0 ports, 1x SATA Express port and of course M.2 support.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The box is standard ASUS fare. The box art is tasteful and non-offensive with accessories packed nicely in cardboard. Our sample arrived with no damage and all accessories accounted for. When it comes to accessories you don’t get much in this price point. Included in the box is a user guide, exclusive features manual, driver disc, a bag of Q-connectors, SLI bridge, SATA cables, and an I/O shield.

Board Layout

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The motherboard layout is exceptionally good with no major flaws. About the only complaint I can make is with regard to the location of the onboard power button. It is both difficult to locate and quite small. The location isn’t the most convenient place it could be. Otherwise all the connectors, plugs, and slots are well placed with a great deal of forethought given to the actual usage. The first thing I noticed when I pulled this motherboard out of the box was that it didn’t look nor feel like a budget offering. It feels like a premium part with fewer SATA ports on it. The motherboard feels well made with nice machine work on the heat sinks.

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The CPU socket area contains the 8-2 digital power phases with some of the 5K solid electrolytic capacitors placed there. The back MOSFET cooler was a little loose and thus I was disappointed by the quality of the mounting hardware. PCB flatness and solder work isn’t the best I’ve ever seen either but it’s at least as good as just about everyone else’s save for MSI’s highest end offerings which are just flat out beautiful physically. All in all I just had the one complaint concerning the MOSFET cooling hardware’s mounts when it came to the build quality.

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The Z97-A has four 240-pin DDR3 DIMM slots which support a combined total of 32GB of RAM using 4x 8GB modules. These slots use the single locking tab for retention and are color coded black and gray to denote proper dual channel memory mode operation. Modules placed in these slots snapped into place firmly with a satisfying and confident click. There was no excessive or jarring wobble or cracking noises which would make me soil myself and have to power on the system with any sense of apprehension.

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The chipset is housed in the lower left hand corner of the motherboard and is covered by a medallion style black and gold heatsink adorned with the ASUS logo. The heatsink is relatively secure with very little but some slop in the mounting. The heatsink itself is well made and the styling is something I was very impressed with the first time I saw it. In front of the chipset are the SATA and SATA Express ports. For the most part these are arranged in single height formation with the lower two ports being mounted on top of each other which is what we normally see on most motherboards. These are all locking SATA ports which is standard these days, and was once a luxury item. The USB front panel header is near here and shouldn’t bother anything. The TPU and EPU switches flank the last SATA port stack. LEDs let you know if these features are active or not. When we shift the orientation of the motherboard we can see the chassis fan headers, TPU chip and clearly marked USB headers. The direct BIOS button is also found in this region just above the front panel connection headers.

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The expansion slot area is well designed with no annoying flaws or signs of bad decision making. The PCI-Express lane configuration allows for a 16x0x2 configuration or an 8x8x2 configuration using the PCI-Express x16 slots. Two PCI-Express 2.0 x1 slots are also provided along with two legacy PCI slots. The PCI to PCI-Express bridge chip (ASM1083) can be seen just behind the expansion slots alongside the Nuvoton NCT67910 hardware monitoring chip. The audio subsystem is largely visible here, though the Realtek ALC892 is concealed beneath an EMI shield with the Crystal Sound 2 logo on it. The PCB features isolation of channels in separate layers to maximize sound quality.

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The I/O panel has the standard array of connectivity options ranging from DVI-I and DSUB connectors to HDMI and DisplayPort for video, RJ-45 for LAN and several USB 3.0 ports. A dedicated PS/2 keyboard / mouse port is provided along with analog audio connectors and an optical output.