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MSI Z97I AC (Intel Z97) Mini-ITX Motherboard Review

MSI Z97I AC (Intel Z97) Mini-ITX Motherboard Review

We get a chance to look at another Mini-ITX motherboard. This time it's an Intel Z97 based offering from MSI called the Z97I AC. Let's take a look now.

@ShawnBakerTW
Published Mon, Aug 25 2014 5:00 PM CDT   |   Updated Tue, Apr 7 2020 12:33 PM CDT
Rating: 92%Manufacturer: MSI

Introduction and Package

Introduction of the MSI Z97I AC

With the launch of the X99 chipset from Intel just around the corner, we want to try to quickly knock over the last of the Z97 boards we have laying around. This is not because the X99 chipset is replacing the Z97, but because we've got an absolute flood of X99 boards coming in, which will take priority over the next few weeks, if not months.

As we just mentioned, the X99 isn't a replacement to the Z97 chipset, but is instead designed to be its high-end counterpart. The focus on X99 is CPUs with large amounts of threads, and multi GPU Video Card setups that move past the most common two GPU setups. The X99 chipset is going to carry a higher price point for motherboards, and higher price point for CPUs.

For people who are continuing to look for a more serious bang for buck, the Z97 chipset is still going to be the one to buy. In the same way that our focus will move to the X99 architecture for some time, so will the focus of motherboard manufacturers.

With all that said, we should quickly cover what exactly we're dealing with today. The other day we got to check out a Mini-ITX motherboard from GIGABYTE in the form of the Z97N-GAMING 5, and we found ourselves impressed with what the company was offering. Today we get the chance to look at an offering from MSI, the Z97I AC.

We don't know a lot about the Z97I AC from MSI, and we have only had a brief chance to see it during Computex this year. So, with that said, we should move on with haste, and see exactly what MSI is offering in with this tiny motherboard.

Package - What comes inside the box

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Taking a look at the front of the box, we can see that most of the information is in regards to the Military Class 4 components, which bring Humidity, High Temperature ESD, and EMI Protection. You can clearly see the model on the front, and a brief mention of the 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Across the bottom of the box, you can see a couple of the other main features being pushed, including USB 3.0, SATA III, PCIe Gen 3, and Fast Boot.

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Turning the box over, you can see the left side again shows that Military Class 4 logo with the main specifications below it. This side also offers a look at the I/O. On the right side, you can see exactly what Military Class 4 brings to the table; in this case it's Hi-c Cap, SFC, and dark capacitors. We again see what that offers as far as protection, and we get another mention of the 802.11ac Wi-Fi feature.

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Upon opening the box and diving inside, you can see there's not a whole lot going on, as you'd expect. In terms of paperwork, we've got a User Guide and Quick Install Guide. Along with that, we've got two Driver CDs, an I/O back plate, a pair of SATA III cables, and in the bottom right corner, you can see a pair of antennas that are undoubtedly for the 802.11ac Wi-Fi card.

PRICING: You can find the MSI Z97I AC Mini-ITX Motherboard for sale below. The prices listed are valid at the time of writing, but can change at any time. Click the link to see the very latest pricing for the best deal.

United States: The MSI Z97I AC Mini-ITX Motherboard retails for $138.99 at Amazon.

Canada: The MSI Z97I AC Mini-ITX Motherboard retails for CDN$166.45 at Amazon Canada.

Motherboard Details

Close up with the MSI Z97I AC

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Taking a look at the whole board, you get a fairly good idea of what's going on due to the small size that the Mini-ITX form factor brings to the table. Taking the time to look closer and see exactly what's offered, we move in to the bottom part of the board. Being a Mini-ITX board means that we're limited to just a single expansion slot. As usual, we see that MSI has chosen to include a single x16 PCIe slot that supports all of the latest video cards.

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Turning the corner, you can see we're greeted with two DIMM slots, which support up to 16GB of DDR3, at speeds ranging from 1066MHz DDR to 3000MHz DDR via overclocking. If we turn the corner again, we see our main 24-Pin ATX power connector, and about that we see our Intel Dual Band Wireless AC 7260 card, which brings 802.11 ac/a/b/g/b Wi-Fi support, along with Bluetooth 4.0 support.

Moving a little over to the right, we've got a USB 3.0 header, and next to that we finish this area off with four SATA III ports that run off the Intel Z97 chipset.

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Moving to the middle of the board, you can see that we've got a single 4-pin CPU power connector sitting behind a small heat sink. This is different from the 8-pin CPU power connector we normally see; it will be interesting to see if this affects overclocking. Looking at the CPU area, you can see it's pretty tight, as usual, with everything crammed in together.

This design is a little different, and the CPU socket sits towards the bottom right corner of the board. This could create a slight problem for larger coolers, as both the RAM and back of the video card sit quite close; you really couldn't go too big. Fortunately, we didn't run into any problems with our Corsair H100i AIO Cooler.

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Finishing up our look at the motherboard, we head over to the I/O side of things. Starting from the left, we have a pair of USB 2.0 ports, along with a PS/2 combo port. Next to that we have two small buttons; one is for GO2BIOS, and the other is a Clear CMOS button. Next to that we've got an Optical S/PIDF-Out port, which goes along with the six auxiliary ports on the far right, which run off the Realtek ALC892 Codec.

Below the optical port, we have a HDMI and DisplayPort, along with a DVI-I port next to that, and a pair of connectors for the two Wi-Fi antennas that we saw in the box. We finish up our look at the I/O with four USB 3.0 ports, and a pair of Gigabit networking ports that run off the Realtek RTL8111G chip.

BIOS Images and Information

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Heading into the BIOS, you can see we've got Click BIOS 4, which has proved itself to be more than capable since its introduction. As always, if you're going into the BIOS, chances are you're going to be doing some overclocking.

Looking above, you can see you've got all the standard options in the OC section. We'll cover just how we went about overclocking on the next page.

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Moving outside of the overclocking area of the BIOS, you can see all the standard options here, including the ability to flash the BIOS, save profiles, and monitor the temperature. You may also use the Board Explorer option, which shows what's going on with the motherboard.

Test System Setup and Overclocking

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We would like to thank the following companies for supplying and supporting us with our test system hardware and equipment: Intel, ASUS, MSI, Western Digital, MemoRight, and Corsair.

We've got a bunch of boards in our graphs today, and we've finally replaced all of our Z97 showings here with boards that are using our newer i7 4790K processor. Although, we still have the older ASRock Z87 Killer using the i7 4770K. Sitting alongside that, and the MSI Z97I AC, we have the ASRock Z97X Killer, GIGABYTE Z97X Gaming G1 Wi-Fi-BK Black Edition, ASUS Z97-A, and the GIGABYTE Z97N GAMING-5, which is another Mini-ITX board we looked at lately.

Before we get into the performance side of things, we need to quickly cover what is going on with overclocking. Earlier, we headed into the BIOS and thought we would try for the 47x multiplier. With that set, along with an increase in voltages, we headed back into Windows to see if everything worked okay. After running some benchmarks, we saw everything was working great, so we figured we'd head back to the BIOS and test our luck with a 48x multiplier.

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With our CPU at 4.8GHz, we got into Windows with no issue, but as soon as we started to run a benchmark, our machine blue screened straight away. With that failing to work, we headed back into the BIOS, moved to the 47x multiplier, and tried to do something with the BCLK. With a little bit of testing, we could get the 101 BCLK working with the 47x multiplier. Unfortunately, it wasn't 100% stable, and we had to move back to the base 100 BCLK. In the end, we had our system running stable at 4.7GHz.

CPU & System Benchmarks

CPU Test - HyperPi 0.99

Version and / or Patch Used: 0.99

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CPU Test - AIDA64

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.00.1035BETA

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Starting off with CPU performance, you can see the MSI Z97I AC pretty much lines up with everything else here, with no real changes being seen. When we throw overclocking into the mix, you can see that we get a slight improvement in all our tests here. The gain isn't huge, though, as our i7 4790K just isn't the best overclocker.

System Test - PCMark 8

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.04

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System Test - MediaEspresso

Version and / or Patch Used: 6.5

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Out of the box the performance of the MSI Z97I AC lines up with the other boards for the most part. We really don't see much more than a bit of fluctuation. When it comes to overclocking, we see a bit of a performance boost in both areas. However, with the strong base clock on the i7 4790K, and the fact that ours isn't the best overclocker, the increase isn't too much.

USB 2.0, USB 3.0 & SSD Benchmarks

USB Test - AIDA64

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.70.1400

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USB 2.0 performance is pretty standard, while USB 3.0 performances sees our MSI Z97I AC sit in around the middle of the pack when it comes to the average speed.

SSD Test - AIDA64

Version and / or Patch Used: v4.30.2900

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SSD Test - PCMark 8

Version and / or Patch Used: 2.0.191

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SSD Test - HD Tune Pro

Version and / or Patch Used: 5.50

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Taking a look at SSD performance under AIDA64 and PCMark 8, you can see performance is pretty strong.

Taking a look at SSD performance under HD Tune Pro, you can see that the minimum is pretty standard, but the average and maximum do sit lower when compared to our other boards here.

Memory & Gaming Benchmarks

Memory Test - AIDA64

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.00.1035BETA

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Memory performance is pretty standard, as it sits in the middle of the pack. As always, when it comes to overclocking, there's really no impact to performance, as you don't see much movement. It will be interesting to see how DDR4 goes when released this month.

Gaming Test - 3DMark 8

Version and / or Patch Used: 1.0

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Gaming Test - Sleeping Dogs

Version and / or Patch Used: Latest Steam Update

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Looking at gaming performance, you can see the results are very standard. Out of the box, the performance of the setup pretty much lines up with our others here.

When we throw overclocking into the mix, you can see a slight boost at the lower resolution. The higher resolutions don't really show any change, as we're more dependent on the video card than the CPU.

Temperature & Power Testing

Power Consumption Test

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Power draw on the board is good; the idle is the lowest out of the bunch, and overclocking doesn't raise it too high, which helps the setup still sit below all the other boards when running at stock. As for the load numbers, they're also very strong, with the ASRock Z97 board coming in just two watts lower. Apart from that, the MSI Z97I AC comes out ahead of everything else.

Core Temperature Test

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When it comes to the core temperature, you can see that at stock, the MSI Z97I AC finds itself sitting in the middle of the pack with some pretty decent numbers. When overclocked, you see the idle temperature barely moves. Of course, the load one jumps up to just over 80C. This is quite a good number compared to some other boards; especially considering the strong 4.7GHz overclock we received.

Pricing, Availability, and Final Thoughts

Mini-ITX boards always come in at a lower price point for the simple fact they can't hold as much on them, meaning that some of those pricier features just aren't seen here. Coming in at a little under the $150 mark, the Z97I AC from MSI is priced extremely well, and comes in at a more aggressive price point than the GIGABYTE Mini-ITX motherboard we looked at the other day.

The overall look of the board is great, but we can't deny the fact that the placement of the CPU socket might be an issue for people wanting larger coolers. On the other hand, people building systems around a Mini-ITX motherboard normally opt for a smaller case, and larger coolers just aren't an option anyway. Still, it's something that is worth mentioning, as the socket does sit in a slightly different position in comparison to other Mini-ITX motherboards.

As for the features, for the most part, you've got everything you would need. The single PCIe x16 slot can accommodate a nice, fast video card, and we've got a bunch of networking options with dual gigabit ports seen on the back, along with the 802.11 ac card that also offers us Bluetooth 4.0.

When it comes to the bundle, there's not a whole lot going on, but considering the size of the box, you were never going to see too much anyway. When it comes to a board this size, you don't need a lot, and in the end, everything you need is included, with the main stand out feature being the two antennas that are used in conjunction with the 802.11 ac wireless card.

Mini-ITX boards are always interesting when it comes to rating. This is because you can get a board that offers more features at a lower price point at the cost of size. If you're not worried about the size of your motherboard, then a Mini-ITX board just isn't going to hold any value for you at all.

On the other side of the fence, if you're thinking about building a small system that can pack quite a punch, then Mini-ITX might be just what you're after. At this price point, the MSI Z97I AC is a great option. The performance is strong on the board, and we've got all the features that you'd hope for, and expect. Click BIOS 4 is fantastic these days, and looking at the results, you can see that the overclocking ability on this board is quite strong. With that said, we wish we had a i7 4790K that was more capable of overclocking so we could see just how much performance we can get out of this board.

If you're after a Mini-ITX motherboard, and you're trying to not spend too much, this is a fantastic option from MSI. The price point on the model is strong, and you've really got everything that you'd want from a board that comes in at this size. If you're looking for something well priced, yet looks good, and feels great, the MSI Z97I AC is a Mini-ITX option that you should really consider.

PRICING: You can find the MSI Z97I AC Mini-ITX Motherboard for sale below. The prices listed are valid at the time of writing, but can change at any time. Click the link to see the very latest pricing for the best deal.

United States: The MSI Z97I AC Mini-ITX Motherboard retails for $138.99 at Amazon.

Canada: The MSI Z97I AC Mini-ITX Motherboard retails for CDN$166.45 at Amazon Canada.

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Shawn takes care of all of our video card reviews. From 2009, Shawn is also taking care of our memory reviews, and from May 2011, Shawn also takes care of our CPU, chipset and motherboard reviews. As of December 2011, Shawn is based out of Taipei, Taiwan.

We openly invite the companies who provide us with review samples / who are mentioned or discussed to express their opinion. If any company representative wishes to respond, we will publish the response here. Please contact us if you wish to respond.

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