Asus have blinked first on the new 9-series motherboard launch, and their Z97-A is the first of the new boards to arrive in the labs. These new mobos are appearing in preparation for the launch of a slew of updated Intel processors, offering some key new features. The Asus Z97-A is one of their mid-range offerings, and should offer decent price/performance numbers.
It's not as garish as the previous generation of Haswell-compatible motherboards, with a more understated look than the shouty gold-coloured Asus boards. But this isn't a board designed for showing off through your Perspex side-panel, with fancy cold cathode lighting—Asus have always got the pricey RoG mobos for that—this board's all about functionality.
To that end Asus have packaged it with a new EZ mode in their always-impressive BIOS. It packs a whole lot of information into one screen, allowing you to set up memory profiles, boot drives and fan profiles quickly and simply.
The big news though is the inclusion of a pair of new storage interfaces. First is the M.2 interface, which is similar to mSATA in that it provide a slot on the board itself for small form factor PCIe-based SSDs. There is also a SATA Express slot on the side of the board too. Like M.2 it's an interface that incorporates both PCI Express and SATA into one, providing both the compatibility of SATA and the speed of PCIe. The difference is that SATA Express is designed to connect to external devices like the 2.5” SSDs we're using right now.
This means we'll actually start seeing drives pushing past the speed limits the current iteration of the SATA interface have in place right now. Once manufacturers start making SATA Express drives, anyway.
Asus have also updated their optimisation suite to help you get the most out of your machine without having to go elbow deep into the mire of the traditional BIOS. You can theoretically leave the board to dynamically manage fans, power and clockspeeds to get you an effective setup.
Aside from the new storage options the 9-series isn't going to convince any gamers to upgrade from their 8-series boards just yet. That might change when the new Devil's Canyon processors arrive with their promise of increased overclocking potential, but I've yet to be convinced that they're going to really offer us that much.
The Z97 is meant to be compatible with the upcoming Broadwell CPU launch next year as well. Intel sticking with the same socket for more than 5 minutes? It's almost unheard of.