M SI’s Z97I-Gaming AC costs just £102, putting it in direct competition with Gigabyte’s similarly named Z97N-Gaming 5. It shares the Gigabyte’s colour scheme too, with a black PCB that’s accented by red heatsinks – one has MSI’s gaming logo, and another has slick red fins. One area where the MSI differs is the odd layout. Unlike every other board on test, the MSI’s LGA1150 socket is in the bottom-right corner, between the PCI-E and RAM slots. It’s an odd choice; we’re happy that MSI has pushed the SATA ports and main power socket to the top of the PCB for easy to access, but large CPU coolers could conflict with your graphics cards or memory, with the latter installed on the right edge. That’s not the only odd layout choice either. The USB 3 header sits behind the main power connector, and the 8-pin power socket is awkwardly positioned next to the larger heatsink and behind the I/O ports.
Odd layout aside, MSI has kitted out this board with some tempting kit. Its 16GB RAM limit is fine and the maximum RAM speed of 3,300MHz is higher than most boards, plus it features Qualcomm’s Killer Ethernet and, unlike the Gigabyte, it also has a clear-CMOS header. Meanwhile, the Realtek audio chip is helped by isolated circuitry, as well as a questionably useful dedicated USB port for external DACs.
There’s no sign of M.2, though, and we’re also disheartened by the lowly pair of fan connectors – other boards have three, and in better positions .The EFI is simple to use, though, and it’s possible to apply huge voltages of 2.1V and 2.77V respectively to the CPU and RAM. The I/O panel is the busiest on test too, with four USB 3 ports, four slower USB 2 connections, six audio jacks, PS/2 and optical S/PDIF sockets, and the only pair of eSATA ports in the Labs. There are two HDMI outputs and a DisplayPort output too.
MSI’s board may have gaming ambitions, but its benchmark results settled into midtable. Its application benchmark result of 112,708 was behind the expensive Asus and table-topping Gigabyte PCBs, and its gaming results saw it occupy similar positions in our rankings. The MSI didn’t blow us away in storage tests either; its sequential read and write speeds of 547MB/sec and 508MB/sec were among the slowest in the Labs. We then used a modest 1.315V vcore to overclock the our CPU to 4.8GHz, and the Gaming AC’s performance significantly improved. Its revised application benchmark score of 122,681 was the second best on test, behind only the ASRock, and the MSI remained in second place behind the ASRock in Skyrim too. Significantly, it also overtook the Gigabyte in both those benchmarks, as that board couldn’t overclock to a stable 4.8GHz.
The MSI remained impressively frugal throughout all our tests too. At stock speeds, its peak power draw was 126W, which rose to a top draw of 180W when overclocked, both of which are the best results in this Labs.
Conclusion The MSI’s odd layout could help or hinder your build depending on your chosen case, but it has a generally decent feature set, including better I/O options than most of the competition, although it’s missing an M.2 port. The MSI’s performance is good too, with pace that matches the Gigabyte in many tests, and beats it when overclocked. The Asus Z97I-Plus is a better mid-range alternative if you don’t need the MSI’s slick looks or gaming features, such as Killer networking, and the black and red colour scheme, but if you’re specifically looking for those gamer features, the MSI is a superior buy (but only just) to the power-hungry Gigabyte.