Motherboard Memory Lane: Intel Z97, MSI Z97 Gaming 5 and Intel Core i7 4970K

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Motherboard Memory Lane: Intel Z97, MSI Z97 Gaming 5 and Intel Core i7 4970K

It’s that time of the week once again when we take a nostalgic look back at an Intel platform of note. This week we wind back the clock just a few years to revisit the Intel Z97 platform that arrived around the middle of 2014. Paired with the Haswell refresh that was Devil’s Canyon, it remains an important time in motherboard history and one that many will associate with the rise of the MSI Gaming brand. Let’s focus on the new features that the Z97 platform heralded, the boards that were popular at that time, plus a few of the record scores that were made by overclockers here on HWBOT.

Intel Z97: Overview

If we compare the Intel Z97 PCH with its predecessor the Z87 PCH you may well have to look hard to find any tangible differences. Both chips belong to the same platform family – Lynx Point, which also included the non-overclockable H97 PCH. All Lynx Point chipsets supported Intel 1150 LGA Socket processors with DDR3 memory at stock speeds of 1,600MHz and above. Multiple GPUs were connected via 16 lanes of PCIe Gen 3.0, divisible in the same 1x 16, 2x 8 and 1x 8 + 2x 4 configurations.

In terms of connectivity both Z97 and Z87 offered the same fourteen USB 2.0, six 3.0 ports plus six 6GBs SATA ports.One new technology did in fact emerge to give motherboard vendors something new to promote, the arrival of the now ubiquitous M.2 port slots. Z97 based motherboards supported up to three digital display outputs with support for HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI and VGA options. The Intel Z97 PCH was manufactured using the same 65nm process technology, had a TDP of 4.1 watts, used a package size of 23mm x 22mm and supported all Haswell, Devil’s Canyon and (relatively rare) Broadwell processors.

Most Popular Intel Z97 Motherboards

In almost all Motherboard Memory Lane articles in this series we have found that ASUS was the brand to beat in terms of enthusiast motherboard design. In the Z97 era we find that MSI and their ‘MSI Gaming’ brand have really come of age, taking advantage of a rare opportunity to actually beat ASUS who on this occasion, really seem to have dropped the proverbial ball.

  • -MSI Z97 Gaming 5 – 10.52%
  • -GIGABYTE Z97-SOC Force – 6.22%
  • -ASUS Maximus VII Hero – 6.13%
  • -MSI Z97 Gaming 7 – 5.78%
  • -MSI PC Mate – 3.60%
  • -ASRock Z97 OC Formula – 3.55%
  • -ASUS Maximus VII Gene – 3.47%
  • -MSI Z97 Gaming 3 – 3.08%
  • -MSI Z97 MPower Max AC – 2.93%
  • -ASUS Maximus VII Ranger – 2.82%

It’s clear from the list above that MSI enjoyed its largest ever share of the enthusiast motherboard segment in the Z97 era, claiming half of the top ten and more than 25% of all Z97 platform submissions on HWBOT. ASUS and its ROG brand are reduced to having three boards on the list and only 12.42% of total submissions.

GIGABYTE is also under represented with just one board, the Z97-SOC Force (SOC meaning Super Overclock) which was a firm favorite with many overclockers despite not being available in many regions of the world. Few users owned an SOC Force, but the ones that did were usually pretty prolific. Likewise the ASRock Z97 OC Formula board retained a loyal fanbase with overlockers and makes sixth place in the top ten.

ASUS failed to capture the hearts and minds of enthusiasts with their Z97 offerings largely due to a very unpopular ‘Gold’ heatsink theme across the range which many reviewers argued looked more like a cheap yellow. The designs were so unpopular with US and European consumers that it amounted to a veritable PR disaster for the company.

The ASUS Z97-Deluxe motherboard (above), featuring the deeply unpopular Gold heatsink design

The MSI Gaming brand used (ROG inspired?) red and black aesthetics which no doubt appealed to many users who were unimpressed by ASUS’ mainstream gold themed offerings. In terms of BIOS maturity and performance, MSI also proved they could compete with the best. Arguably these circumstances conspired to propel MSI to a very strong position in the enthusiast PC segment. MSI’s mature and attractive product designs dovetailed well with their increasingly popular ‘MSI Gaming’ branded graphics cards and Notebook PCs.

The MSI Z97 Gaming 5 is arguably the company’s biggest ever success in motherboard terms. Regarding aesthetics, storage, audio, heatsink design, BIOS implementation and of course overall performance, it really delivered. At around $160 USD it’s easy to see why it was the most popular motherboard of this era.

Most Popular Intel Z97 Compatible Processor: Intel Core i7 4790K

In the era of K model unlocked processors, it can be fairly easy to predict the most popular model on HWBOT. For the Z97 launch Intel essentially refreshed its Haswell lineup with two new models; the Intel Core i7 4790K and the i5 4690K, both marketed as Devil’s Canyon products. In practice however, Devil’s Canyon was actually more of a marketing term, as the processors were essentially refreshed Haswell processors that were capable of higher clock speeds.

The i7 4790K is by far the most popular chip with 49.99% of all submissions. At launch it retailed for $340 USD. The Core i5 4690K, which represents 21.77% of all Z97 submissions, could be had for $100 less. The Haswell-based Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition, a fully unlocked dual core processor retailing for $75 USD, takes third place with 8.53% of all submissions.

The two previous-gen Haswell K SKU processors combined represent around 10% of Z97 submissions. Interestingly, the two Broadwell processors that actually made it to the desktop platform, the Core i7 5775C and the Core i5 5675C, were used in less than 0.5% of all submissions, a fact that really underlines just how truly invisible Broadwell was for most enthusiasts.

The Intel Core i7 4790K was a quad core, 8 thread chip with a base clock of 4GHz – 500MHz higher than its predecessor, the Core I7 4700K. The higher clock frequency however resulted in a TDP bump to 88 watts compared to 84 watts for Haswell. In terms of overclocking, Intel promised that Devil’s Canyon would not only be clocked higher, but that it would offer improved thermal scaling due the use of next generation TIM (thermal paste) between the die and the cap.

The reality however didn’t quite validate the marketing as most users found little extra headroom. Mostly due to the fact that as with Haswell, Devil’s Canyon also used a Fully Integrated Voltage Regulator (FIVR) which made voltage increases and performance scaling in general somewhat limited. Some Devil’s Canyon processors did indeed prove to be exceptional, offering higher clocks and better scaling, but for most users the issues that plagued Haswell remained.

Here’s what Joel Hruska had to say, writing for ExtremeTech in July 2014:

“I don’t doubt that there are 5GHz-on-air chips in the market and the changes Intel made to the TIM will increase the likelihood of buying one of those cores — but there’s simply no evidence that such chips will ever be common in the pipeline. If the old Core i7-4770K had a 0.1% chance of hitting 5GHz and the new Core i7-4790K has a 5% chance of doing the same, Intel can accurately claim that it has drastically boosted overclocking potential — but unless you’re prepared to buy 10-40 CPUs to experiment with, you’ll never know it.”

ExtremeTech – Overclocking Intel’s Core i7-4790K: Can Devil’s Canyon fix Haswell’s low clock speeds?

Intel Z97: Record Scores

We now take a look at some of the highest scores posted using the Z97 platform including the highest reference clock for the MSI Z97 Gaming 5.

Reference Clock

Reference clock overclocking was not the most important benchmark in the Z97 era, but it remains a reliable way to determine a motherboard’s ability to clock highly. The highest reference clock submitted on HWBOT using a MSI Z97 Gaming 5 motherboard came from British overclocker Noxinite. He managed a reference clock of 104.02MHz using an Intel Core i5 4670K processor configured at 832.17MHz (8 x 104.02MHz).

You can find the submission from Behzad Tak here on HWBOT:

CPU Frequency

Even though raw CPU frequencies are not really treated as true benchmarks, they remain an important performance metric for most overclockers. The highest CPU frequency ever submitted to HWBOT using the Intel Z97 platform came from Japan’s NAMEGT pushing an Intel Core i7 4790K to a 7007.82MHz, a massive +75.2% beyond stock settings.

You can find the submission from NAMEGT here on HWBOT:

SuperPi 32M

Finally we come to the classic SuperPi 32M benchmark, an important benchmark in terms of historical relevance. The fastest SuperPi 32M run submitted on HWBOT using the Intel Z97 platform was submitted by 2ShEp from France who completed a run in just 4min 42sec 15ms using an Intel Core i5 4690K ramped up to 6,503MHz (+62.57%)

Here’s a great shot of the LN2 cooled rig from 2ShEp:

Check out the submission from 2ShEp here:

Thanks for joining us for today’s trip down Motherboard Memory Lane. Return next week when we will take a look at the Intel X99 platform.

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