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Reviewed: Gigabyte Z97N-Gaming 5 Mini ITX Featured

Gigabyte provided us with the Z97N Gaming 5 motherboard so that we could do a legit build in our Core V1 review... now we explain why this board is such an attractive option for gamers fond of a smaller form factor.

I've had the pleasure of building with a lot of motherboards ranging from standard ATX through the micro ATX to the mini ITX form factors and I'll admit that I'm pretty taken by the smaller boards. Gigabyte's latest G1 Gaming series Z97 offering is no exception, in fact it's a stand out. The Z97N-Gaming 5 is obviously aimed at PC gamers and although not marketed specifically as an overclocking board it's more than capable in that regard as well. The feature list is extensive and the Z97N-Gaming 5 challenges the compromises that builders traditionally have to make with high end mini ITX in terms of cost and capacity to expand.

When you look at the cost of motherboards, smaller doesn't always mean cheaper and the gaming/performance Mini-ITX boards generally are not "wallet friendly". This is one of the less expensive performance mini ITX boards and it has 5 internal SATA3 ports to capitalise on storage potential. 5 onboard SATA ports is great for life after gaming in a few years' time when it would serve well as a small form factor NAS in a case like the Node 304 which can hold up to 6 3.5" hard drives. 

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As is the trend with 'Gaming grade' boards hitting the market, Gigabyte has loaded the Z97N-Gaming 5 with everything except the proverbial kitchen sink - in this case, that kitchen sink being an NGFF/M.2 SSD slot. It isn't a big omission and is only likely be an issue for a very small group of the target 'gamer' demographic. The key inclusions are listed at a high level below:

  • Killer E2200 Networking
  • Upgraded ALC1150 115dB SNR HD Audio with built in rear Audio Amplifier
    • Gold Plated Audio Jacks
    • High End Audio Capacitors
    • SoundBlaster X-Fi3 Audio solution
    • Dedicated Audio hardware zone and Audio Noise Guard with trace path lighting
  • DVI-I, Gold plated HMDI and gold plated Display Port
  • PS/2 Port
  • Integrated 2x2 802.11ac 867Mbps Dual Band WIFI + Bluetooth 4.0 module
  • Intel WIFI / Intel WiDi support
  • Durable Black Solid Capacitors
  • 5 SATA 3 Connectors

Initially we tested the board as part of our Core V1 build but we have since used it for almost 2 months and we haven't encountered any issues at all with drivers, utilities or performance - the Z97N-Gaming 5 has been absolutely rock solid with a legitimate overclock of 4.6GHz on our Intel i5-4670K.


Z97N-Gaming 5 Motherboard

As usual we applied the standard 'gaming' checklist to Gigabyte's Z97N-Gaming 5 and it ticked all the boxes

tickboxGaming LAN (Killer)
tickboxGaming Grade Audio (Realtek ALC1150 implementation with amplifier and software bundle)
tickboxOverclocker Friendly 
tickboxEnthusiast Software bundle 

Gigabyte has also implemented a new heat sink design and used Black Solid Caps and a MOFSET design for high efficiency. The inclusion of WIFI and Bluetooth on board without the need to attach any modules to the board was a bonus as well. 

The Z97N-Gaming 5 overclocked our i5-4670K on par with every other Z87 or Z97 motherboard we have tested, hitting our known limit of 4.6GHz with at 1.29v. Although this board is not necessarily designed to guarantee a serious overclock, we consider the capability an important factor for gaming boards as gamers like to squeeze every last bit of performance out the their chips - especially in the months prior to a platform upgrade. 

Specifications

Here are the manufacturer specs below.

 

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Gigabyte Z97N-Gaming 5

CPU Support

  • Support for Intel® Core™ i7 processors/Intel® Core™ i5 processors/ Intel® Core™ i3 processors/Intel® Pentium® processors/Intel® Celeron® processors in the LGA1150 package
  • L3 cache varies with CPU

Chipset

  • Intel® Z97 Express Chipset

Memory

  • 2 x DDR3 DIMM sockets supporting up to 16 GB of system memory
  • Support for DDR3 3200(O.C.) / 3100(O.C.) / 3000(O.C.) / 2933(O.C.) / 2800(O.C.) / 2666(O.C.) / 2600(O.C.) / 2500(O.C.) / 2400(O.C.) / 2200(O.C.) / 2133(O.C.) / 2000(O.C.) / 1866(O.C.) / 1800(O.C.) / 1600 / 1333 MHz memory modules
  • Support for non-ECC memory modules
  • Support for Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) memory modules

Memory Channel

  • Dual channel memory architecture

Slots

  • 1 x PCI Express x16 slot, running at x16 
    (The PCIEX16 slot conforms to PCI Express 3.0 standard.)
  • 1 x mini-PCI Express slot for the wireless communication module

On-Board SATA

Chipset:

  • 5 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors (SATA3 0/1/2/3/4)
  • 1 x eSATA 6Gb/s connector on the back panel
    * Actual transfer rate is dependent on the device being connected.
  • Support for RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, and RAID 10

On-Board Graphics

Integrated Graphics Processor - Intel® HD Graphics support:
  1. 1 x DVI-I port, supporting a maximum resolution of 1920x1200@60Hz
  2. 1 x HDMI port, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096x2160@24Hz or 2560x1600@60Hz
    * Support for HDMI 1.4a version.
  3. 1 x DisplayPort, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096x2160@24Hz or 3840x2160@60Hz
    * Support for DisplayPort 1.2 version.
  4. Support for up to 3 displays at the same time
  5. Maximum shared memory of 512MB

USB

Chipset:

  • 4 x USB 2.0/1.1 ports (2 ports on the back panel, 2 ports available through the internal USB header)
  • 6 x USB 3.0/2.0 ports (4 ports on the back panel, 2 ports available through the internal USB header)
Audio
  • Realtek® ALC1150 codec
  • Support for Sound Blaster X-Fi MB3
  • High Definition Audio
  • 2/4/5.1/7.1-channel
  • Support for S/PDIF Out

LAN

  • Qualcomm® Atheros Killer E2201 LAN chip (10/100/1000 Mbit)
Wireless Communication Module
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, supporting 2.4/5 GHz Dual-Band
  • Bluetooth 4.0, 3.0+HS, 2.1+EDR
  • Support for 11ac wireless standard and up to 867 Mbps data rate
* Actual data rate may vary depending on environment and equipment.
Internal I/O Connections
  • 1 x 24-pin ATX main power connector
  • 1 x 8-pin ATX 12V power connector
  • 5 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors
  • 1 x CPU fan header
  • 1 x system fan header
  • 1 x front panel header
  • 1 x front panel audio header
  • 1 x USB 3.0/2.0 header
  • 1 x USB 2.0/1.1 header
  • 1 x S/PDIF Out header
  • 1 x Clear CMOS jumper
  • 1 x chassis intrusion header
Back Panel I/O Ports
  • 1 x PS/2 keyboard/mouse port
  • 2 x SMA antenna connectors (2T2R)
  • 1 x DVI-I port
  • 1 x optical S/PDIF Out connector
  • 1 x HDMI port
  • 1 x DisplayPort
  • 1 x eSATA 6Gb/s connector
  • 4 x USB 3.0/2.0 ports
  • 2 x USB 2.0/1.1 ports
  • 1 x RJ-45 port6 x audio jacks (Center/Subwoofer Speaker Out, Rear Speaker Out, Side Speaker Out, Line In, Line Out, Mic In)
I/O Controller
  • iTE® I/O Controller Chip
H/W Monitoring
  • System voltage detection
  • CPU/System temperature detection
  • CPU/System fan speed detection
  • CPU/System fan speed control
    * Whether the fan speed control function is supported will depend on the cooler you install.
BIOS
  • 2 x 64 Mbit flash
  • Use of licensed AMI UEFI BIOS
  • Support for DualBIOS™
  • PnP 1.0a, DMI 2.7, WfM 2.0, SM BIOS 2.7, ACPI 5.0
Dimensions 17 cm x 17 cm Mini-ITX Form Factor
Unique Features

Support for APP Center

  • @BIOS
  • EasyTune
  • EZ Setup
  • Fast Boot
  • Cloud Station
  • ON/OFF Charge
  • Smart TimeLock
  • Smart Recovery 2
  • System Information Viewer
  • USB Blocker

Support for Q-Flash

Support for Smart Switch

Support for Xpress Install

Software Bundle
  • Norton® Internet Security (OEM version)
  • Intel® Rapid Start Technology
  • Intel® Smart Connect Technology
  • Intel® Smart Response Technology
  • Intel® Wireless Display
Operating System
  • Support for Windows 8.1/8/7
Mounting
  • 4 Mounting Holes
Warranty
  • 3 Years

The box and packaging is standard quality and has the Gigabyte "G1 Gaming" theme with the red eye on the front of the box. The motherboard is packed inside an anti-static bag and all of the accessories are individually wrapped.

The accessories include:

  • 2 SATA 3 Cables
  • Rear IO Shield 
  • G1 Gaming case badge
  • WIFI Antenna (dual) with a magnetic base
  • User Manual

As stated earlier, Gigabyte has covered off everything that the average gamer would want in a LAN or dedicated gaming build within the Z97N-Gaming 5 package - the features will be covered in more detail below but there are no obvious corners that have been cut in order to reduce the cost.  

General Board Layout

The layout is really generally well thought out works for compact building. I installed the Gigabyte Z97N-Gaming 5 in a Thermaltake Core V1 and Fractal Design Node 304 case without any issues at all. When I first saw the battery it looked like an afterthought, just stuck on the back of the Audio jacks but it's actually a good use of space and tucked well out of the way of anything else.

Gigabyte are making a big deal out of the 15μ gold plated CPU socket that is rated 5 times stronger than the standard 3μ socket design highlighting that it should improve reliability and longevity. We always like to see improved build quality and this feature will be judged over the life of the board, not a 2 month review period.

The front panel HD audio header is on the dedicated audio section of the motherboard near the audio jacks at the rear of the board near the PCIE slot. In some cases this will mean running the cable across the motherboard along the back of the graphics card - but in our Node 304 build, the MSI GTX760 HAWK had enough clearance around the PCIE insert to route the cable neatly in from the bottom edge, under the graphics card so if you use this board, keep that in mind. 

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Memory DIMMs and the PCI-e slot placement is pretty standard, running along the bottom and right edges of the board, set in a bit from the edge. It would have been nice to see another System Fan header on the board but that's probably being a bit greedy considering how much Gigabyte has already managed to fit on a  17cmx17cm motherboard.

Although there is a PS/2 Gaming Device Port on the rear I/O, we didn't have any P/S2 devices anywhere to check it out but the feature is there for the hardcore gamers who want it.

Socket placement is great. I managed to fit the 140mm wide Noctua NH-U14S on this board in the Node 304 case without blocking the PCIE slot. With a cooler like that, your overclock is safe and the noise profile is still very low. I was pleased to see that there was no sacrifice required in this area. There was room to spare between the back plate on the graphics card and the oversized Noctua NH-U14S which is convenient when using the PCIE slot lever if you need to remove the card.

PA180042

LAN and WIFI

Unlike the MSI Z97I Gaming board, the WIFI module was already installed and ready to go. The module works well and we saw performance that was on par if not better than other boards that we've tested in the same physical location.

For gaming, the WIFI was fine and my ping stayed within a few ms of the LAN experience. I tested this by playing Battlefield 4, DayZ and Titanfall online with nothing else using our internet connection. In a blind test, it was difficult to tell the difference between LAN and WIFI when gaming but pretty obvious in file transfers as expected.

The onboard gigabit LAN was solid, the Killer software seemed to prioritise correctly and performed as expected when it came to transfer speed (write) tests hitting 735Mbps writing/874Mbps reading to another PC's SSD share. The 5GHZ WIFI gave us almost 100Mbps with 88Mbps writing and 82Mbps reading. To make this a realistic test, the WIFI tests were conducted through 2 interior stud walls so depending on your setup at home, your mileage may vary in this regard. The board boasts Intel WIDI capability but we didn't have a receiver/display to test this with.

The Gigabit LAN testing result

z97N-Gaming5-LANTEST 

The 5GHz WIFI result

z97N-Gaming5-WIFI5GTEST 

G1 Audio

We have seen a number of boards with implementations of the ALC1150 audio chipset from Realtek and the results have been consistently good overall. The Gigabyte Z97N Gaming 5 is no exception with Gigabyte also including the Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi MB3 software package. The audio solution offers 115dB Signal to Noise Ratio, 7.1 channel playback plus 2 independent stereo channels via the front panel header. 

It doesn't end there - Gigabyte has also included gold plated audio jacks, high end Nichicon audio capacitors and Audio Noise Guard EMI isolation technology with the trendy red LED path lighting to make sure you don't miss it. There is also a built in rear audio amplifier capable of driving 600Ω loads. There were absolutely no complaints from anyone who listened to the audio

Software Package

Gigabytes software suite is easy to use and we received regular updates over our 2 month testing period which shows an ongoing commitment from Gigabyte to maintain the software. It's also worth noting that we didn't have any application errors or utility stability problems during regular use and heavy gaming.

App Centre

App Centre is an overall consolidation of the Gigabyte system utility software mush like the ASUS AI Suite (For those who are familiar) where it provides a menu system and tray agent that you can access to open any of the included programs from one place. It also keep them updated and allows you to change the skin to 4 colours - essentially themed blue, green, and 2 shades of red. The screen shots for the review are from the brightest red. There are a couple of minor apps worth a mention too, USB Blocker that uses a password to block certain devices on USB like mass storage or communication devices and Fast Boot that will reboot your PC straight into BIOS without the need to constantly mash the 'Del' key.

EasyTune

The EasyTune tweaking and monitoring software is very similar to the equivalent offerings of MSI and ASUS with the main exception being a lack of RAMDISK functionality. The software allows for Fan control profiles, basic and intermediate overclocking, temperature and voltage monitoring/logging and finally alerts. EasyTune should satisfy most enthusiasts let alone gamers. See the screen shots below to get an idea of what you can see and do with Gigabyte's latest version of it's front line widows based monitoring and tweaking engine.

Game Controller

The Game Controller application is a good concept for mapping keys and macros so you don't have to use a "gaming" keyboard with macro keys and it also takes over the management of your mouse sensitivity. You can even map a 'Sniper' button to adjust the mouse sensitivity when zooming in for that long range head-shot. I don't tend to use the macros that are available with my keyboard and mouse software but for those that like their macros and perhaps use older peripherals this software could be really handy.

Smart Lock

This software is going to be really handy for people with either no will power or who want to limit the use of their rig to certain hours. Smart Lock provides a way to disable internet access or even shut down the PC during certain designated time periods and is controlled by a password. The application gives the option of defining a week as Monday to Friday as per a business week or Sunday - Thursday to cover 'school nights'. The slider allows for duration and the non use time blocks out time ranges for weekdays and weekends. I liked the user interface for this and can see how if could be really handy to enforce rest in modern day times. Check out the screen shots below to see the configuration options of a working week and 'school nights'.

Sound Blaster X-Fi3

As with every implementation of the Realtek ALC1150 chip, there has been a serious software component to balance out the hardware design. Gigabyte has gone with Sound Blaster X-Fi3 and the feature set is extensive. You still get the basic Realtek tray agent with auto sensing jacks etc like other ALC1150 motherboards - it's in the driver but there were a few features in X-Fi3 that caught our attention during testing. In the series of screen shots below, we've captured each configuration panel in the Sound Blaster Application.

  • Everything is easy to identify and initially you can select a pre-set for Gaming, music etc.
  • The microphone volume won't light up and the voiceFX feature is unavailable unless there is a device plugged into either the rear or front mic jack so it's a quick way to identify that you've forgotten to connect your headset properly.
  • SBX PRO Studio provides some tweaking of the surround, bass, voice/dialog and smart volume like many home entertainment amplifiers
  • Scout Mode changes the way footsteps, gunshots and other tactical sounds are represented. Most of the gamers I've spoken to like to listen to the audio as the developers intended but it's there if you want it.
  • VoiceFX is bound to cause some fun and confusion in online games no matter if you're using the in-game VOIP engine or something else like teamspeak. For those serious online RPG players, your character can now have a different voice to add to the experience.
  • EAX and Equilizer effects are available as expected
  • Advanced settings control the speaker setup

The options are pretty comprehensive for bundled software and there are some screenshots below to see it in action.

BIOS/UEFI

Gigabyte has provided a dual interface with their UEFI DualBIOS where you can use the high resolution ST (Smart Tweak mode) interface or the more traditional Gigabyte interface. Both allow extensive tweaking and tuning of the system and both are very intuitive. See the youtube videos embedded below - note that this is a straight capture via an Avermedia Live Gamer Portable and there is no audio.

Smart Tweak Mode

Traditional Mode

I don't really have a stand out preference between the two but think I'd consider the newer Smart Tweak mode a faster way to setup boot priority, date and time and some quick known overclocks for the first time. It seems to flow better as you move through it. The traditional interface is great if you need to change something specific and have a few years of experience working with other BIOS implementations. 


Testing Setup

We tested the Gigabyte Z97N Gaming 5 in 2 different cases, the Thermaltake Core V1 and the Fractal Design Node 304. The Core V1 build was done primarily for the case review but the layout was different to the single chambered Node 304 and the Node also allows for larger 140mm CPU coolers so in the interest of being thorough, we did both. Building in both cases was really easy and there were no layout issues with the board or fitting the components.

Practical build parts list

 

Core V1 System

Node 304 System

 

P9140008

PA180042

CPU

i5-4670K

CPU Cooler Noctua NH-U12S, Noctua NH-L12 Noctua NH-U14S
Memory 8GB Corsair Vengeance Low Profile - Black (2x4GB)
Case Core V1 Node 304
Hard Drive

Seagate Barracuda 750GB & Samsung EVO 250GB SSD

Power Supply

Fractal Design Newton 1000W

Fractal Design Integra M 750W 

Graphics Cards

Gigabyte GTX670 OC 2GB Windforce3

MSI GTX760 HAWK

Audio

Mionix Nash 20 Gaming Headset

Network

Direct connection to the cable modem &
Shared Gigabit connection via Netgear WNDR3700

Optical Samsung USB DVD drive
OS Windows 8.1

Below are some shots of the build from our Core V1 review. We were able to keep the cabling neat and our flat 120mm low profile Noctua NH-L12 didn't have any issues at all with the motherboard layout, header locations or power connectors. Everything was easy to reach and as expected, the IO back plate and mounting screws all lined up perfectly.

CPU socket placement is something that we focus on because it can make or break a build in that poor placement can limit the choice of cooler. The Z97N-Gaming 5 has great CPU placement - this is a fact. The board was able to handle a 120mm horizontal low profile cooler without issue but it was also able to take both 120mm and 140mm vertical tower coolers without blocking the PCIE slot for a discrete graphics card. Sure, you could always install an All in One water cooler but it gives the system builder the choice to use something large like a Noctua NH-U14S that will fit in a Fractal Design Node 304 Mini-ITX case. That combination of cooler and case gives a very quiet result - even with an overclock like ours where we had the i5-4670K running at 4.6GHz/1.29v at very reasonable temperatures. If you add in a double slot graphics card with a quiet aftermarket cooler then you can smash out some impressive frame rates with a minimal noise profile. Photos of the Node 304 build are below.

Both builds were very quiet and quick to assemble, taking a little over an hour each. The Z97N-Gaming 5 board layout worked well for both mini-ITX cases all connectors were easy to access as the build progressed.


Pricing

For a board that overclocks, comes with WIFI/WIDI/Bluetooth, Killer LAN and SoundBlaster Audio it's hard to beat at $179. There are other enthusiast boards that are more expensive and you would need to look at the key features to see if there were any deal breakers but the vast majority of gamers should be well satisfied with the Z97N-Gaming 5 and the money saved could be the difference between a good graphics card an even better one. We've included a list of Z79 Mini ITX boards below for comparison - please note that these boards all use the Z79 overclocking capable chipset but have various differences in 'bells and whistles' so these are not all equal in features but it is a surprise to see the Gigabyte Gaming board as the least expensive Z97 option in the Mini ITX form factor.

  • ASRock Z97M-ITX/ac         $155
  • Gigabyte Z97N Gaming 5    $179
  • ASUS Z97I-PLUS               $189
  • MSI Z97I Gaming AC         $249
  • ASUS Maximus VII Impact  $319

If you are building a 'cheap' mini ITX rig and not overclocking, the Z97N-Gaming 5 might be overkill. Intel 'H' and 'B'series mini-ITX boards that don't allow overclocking can be found between $75 and $139 but I haven't seen any of these boards in the lower chipset range that feature an improved audio or Killer LAN solution.

Final Thoughts

Working with the Gigabyte Z97N-Gaming 5 has been a lot of fun and it is great value. After 2 months, I haven't found myself wanting any feature that isn't included nor have I identified any shortcuts taken to keep the price down. This is a great LAN gaming board without any compromises. 

If you are considering a mini-ITX gaming build with room to overclock then this should be on your short list - if you are on a budget then the Z97N-Gaming 5 should be at the top of that short list. The layout works well and the UEFI is intuitive so installation and setup are covered. We didn't have any issues or complaints with drivers or utilities and our gaming experience was great. 

This is a board that I could afford to use in a second build for LANs and my lounge room or bite the bullet and downsize to it for my main rig.

 

Gigabyte Z97N-Gaming 5
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PROS

Very competitive price
Great Audio implementation
Intuitive BIOS/UEFI
Connectivity Galore with Killer LAN & built-in WIFI/WIDI/Bluetooth
Overclocks well
Improved CPU Cooler compatibility due to ideal CPU Socket placement

CONS

None 

Awards

EditorsChoiceAward 

TheValueAward

Last modified onFriday, 31 October 2014 00:11

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