Overall and Final Verdict
So at the end of the day, after taking a close look at all four boards and running them through our benchmark suite, how do they all compare? Well as a whole they all did very well with only a few downsides.
I expected the Z97i to be my favorite because of my love for Mini-ITX builds but it ended up being the motherboard I had the biggest issues with. That’s not to say that it wasn’t still a great board, but the rotated design did make me consider what heatsink I would be using even more, luckily our 120mm Noctua was able to fit by turning it sideways. Even then you have to consider that the weird locations of a lot of its connections will make doing clean wiring on most cases even harder, assuming all of the cords are long enough to reach. I would also love to see the board have a third fan header for cases like the In Win 901 that have two case fans and the heatsink. Even with those issues I love how much MSI was able to pack into the small form factor. You get Wireless AC and Bluetooth as well as an impressive sound card for such a small board. Without a doubt I expect to see the Z97i Gaming AC in a few LAN rigs over the next year.
Moving up to the Micro ATX B85M I was especially impressed with everything you get at well under $100 bucks. The only downsides were the old heatsink design that went a little dragon crazy and the lower quality audio card. Frankly at this price I don’t expect high end audio and the dragon heatsinks aren’t bad at all, just not as cool as the new styling. You are basically getting a gaming focused motherboard at the price of a budget motherboard. You can use the money you save on the B85M Gaming and put that money into a higher end Devils Canyon CPU or a second GPU, it supports both!
The Z97M shared a lot of features with the cheaper B85M, but you do get more features across the board and a better looking board with the completely blacked out PCB and the new heatsink styling. It’s a great board, but its only downside frankly is its price point when you compare it to the B85M. You have to decide if spending nearly double is worth getting upgraded audio, more USB 3.0 ports, and better styling. The fact that I have to look to its price to find its only downside means the Z97M Gaming is a great board!
Lastly we have the Z97 Gaming 9 AC. Being the only full ATX board tested today (I tested the Gaming 5 at the Z97 launch) it was worlds above the other boards when it comes to features. Just like the Z97i you get wireless AC and Bluetooth 4.0, but it was the built in audio quality that impressed me the most. The shields covering the entire audio card and rear I/O panel really helped give the best possible onboard audio and those same shields give the board a great look. Those looking to add a little style could even paint them to match the rest of your PC. For downsides I wouldn’t mind seeing one more fan header, for being a full ATX board 5 seemed a little low. My other concern is just the overall need for three x16 slots on a Z97 motherboard. The chipset/CPU limits how many PCIe lanes you have as a whole, running two cards is fun because you will get 8x8, but adding a third card drops you down to 8x4x4 and will really put a hurt on performance.