Asrock Z87 Extreme3
Cheap and slightly shonky, but quirky and intriguing mobos. That used to be Asrock's place in the world. These days, however, the manufacturer has gone a bit mainstream. On the upside, that means a range of more straightforward models, including some high-end clobber. That said, old affinities die hard, and we're a little bit more comfortable with the prospect of this bargain basement board with an Asrock badge than one of its closest competitors, such as the rather disappointing entry from Gigabyte, the lacklustre Z87-D3HP.
Physically, they're two peas in a pod. Both are based on very thin PCBs, with a sludgy colour and flimsy feel that give the unsavoury impression of being mashed up from recycled games cartridges from the 80s, or pressed peanut sweepings from the factory floor. Okay, the latter's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea. Think cheap. Think commodity electronics banged out in big numbers in dingy factories.
Asus Sabertooth Z87
This will have engineers at Asus's competitors either headbutting their workbenches in frustration or pacing up and down their labs like neglected zoo animals, because it's going to really hurt. We're suckers for the new Sabertooth Z87 just as much as we were for its Z77 daddy.
In some ways, the Sabertooth is nothing special. For the cynical, the recipe goes something like this. Take a plain Jane motherboard. Cover it up with some bits of pointless plastic. And then flog it at a bit of a premium price point. Kerching, indeed. And there's a lot of truth in that position.
The board that underpins the Sabertooth isn't a fancy-pants high-end item, and it is clad in frankly fairly cheap plastic panels. Premium features like a debug LED readout, hardware power buttons, V-check points? Fuggedabowdit, you get none of that stuff, but here's the thing: the result is greater than the sum of its parts.
An issue or three ago, this was our first taste of Asus's new 8 Series chipset generation, but now we've got the Z87 Sabertooth in the house too, the Z87-Pro's gaudy gold medallion accessories are much less of a distraction. Actually that's a bit unfair, because this board is actually pretty low key if you look past the dodgy detailing.
That's not something we can say about all the new Haswell-compatible boards we viewed at a recent Asus event. Whether it was pointless RFID kit or bizarre slide-out remote control devices, the air was filled with an air of desperation to come up with something to make each board stand out from the competition. By the end of the show, we'd barely have batted a bag of SATA cables had Asus wheeled out a motherboard with a mini drinks dispenser as a final flourish.
We're not sure why it bothers, because in many ways this rather straightforward mid-ranger and the aforementioned Sabertooth are the most relevant. So anyway, what do you actually get?
There's one in every group. One that has you tearing your hair out. If you have a lot of hair, which at least one August member of the PCF team does not. We'll say no more on that. The hair, that is, rather than this rather infuriating Gigabyte board, which at this stage we're contractually obliged to discuss even if we'd rather forget about it.
From the moment the deboxing began, the boding, er, boded ill. For starters, the PCB is thin, flimsy and generally devoid of proper heft. Gigabyte doesn't quote how many layers the Z87-D3HP's PCB has, but it's still seriously skinny, though.
Anyway, the point is that the general air is of a board that's had dollars shaved of the production cost whenever possible. That includes not only the thickness of the PCB and the number of copper layers, but also its width. It's one of those less-than-full-ATX size boards. Specifically it's 16mm narrower than the full ATX standard.
Gigabyte Z87 G1 Sniper M5
Manufacturing motherboards for a living? No thanks. Mostly it seems to involve jumping up and down, shouting very loudly about how wonderful you are, utilising some kind of weapons-themed nomenclature and plastering yourself in loud colours, and still being ignored. The result is that attention-grabbing gimmicks are often of dubious value when it comes to actually doing anything with your PC.
Enter, therefore, the charmingly-titled Gigabyte Z87 G1 Sniper M5 - because we all know guns are cool. Erm... But hold on - with the Sniper, Gigabyte has been careful to take aim at some things that might actually matter.
First though, let's cover the basics. Although we're actually a bit peeved about Intel forcing yet another new socket on us, we can't blame Gigabyte or this board for that. Instead, we can welcome in the new 8 Series chipsets and appreciate the features you get with pretty much all boards based on the new Z87 in particular.
Give it up for the end of an era. Intel is getting out of the mobo game. The 8 Series boards introduced with its new Haswell CPUs are the last full-sized desktop boards it will make. So is it goodbye and good riddance, or will we miss the things when they're gone?
Credit where it's due, Intel has turned things around a little when it comes to actually listening to what PC enthusiasts want. It used to take the dictatorial attitude that it knew best and anyone who didn't agree could sod off. A delightful example of this was the relatively piffling issue of legacy ports on the back panel. Intel didn't go in for them, so you didn't get any PS2 ports for mice and keyboards, even on its priciest board.
To be fair to Intel, it wasn't a cost issue. Intel just didn't think they were necessary to it's motherboard designs. Except, just occasionally they are. For instance, when you have a USB keyboard that just won't wake up until after the board has passed POST and is well in its way to booting the OS, leaving you a bit stuffed if you want to plunge into the BIOS options.
Mobos based on Intel's new Z87 chipset don't come much cheaper than this. In fact, as this issue of PCF hits the presses, Google tells us the only board that undercuts the MSI Z87-GD43 is its close MicroATX cousin, the Z87M-GD43. If nothing else, that adds some pleasing symmetry to this month's Z87 groupie, with MSI also topping the price table with the £350 XPower monster - which in turn provides a handy reminder that MSI is a pukka outfit that operates across all parts of the motherboard market.
Cut-price the GD43 may be, but it's still a big-brand board. It's also immediately jauntier than its closest competition: the intriguing Asrock Z87 Extreme3 and the flaky Gigabyte Z87-D3HP. That's partly because it's full ATX width, so it doesn't immediately remind you of its budget positioning by virtue of looking a bit of a wrong 'un. But it's also because MSI has made a virtue of the cheap, dark and sludgy PCB, by pairing it with a mix of black and electric blue slots and sockets.
MSI Z87-GD65 Gaming
Welcome to the latest edition of MSI motherboards monthly. Yup, the MSI Z87-GD65 is one of no fewer than three MSI efforts on test this issue. A bit OTT? Perhaps, but all three are very different propositions. In fact, as a trio they handily capture the key choices you must make when buying a mobo.
At one end of the scale there's the apparently poverty-stricken GD43 and its sub-£100 sticker. At the other, the XPower implodes any notions of value for money at £350. Thus at £160 the MSI Z87-GD65 represents the Tony Blair option. No, not a motherboard with an incongruous perma-tan, bizarre mid-Atlantic twang and a faint whiff of war crime. That would be silly, albeit a pretty impressive effort from what is an inanimate object.
No, what we're talking about is a third way. Not ultra cheap, not ultra expensive, but pragmatically somewhere in between and with a gaming focused twist that ought to be right up our collective alley.
MSI Z87 XPower
Make no mistake, this is a seriously fine board of the mothering kind. But for £350, this thing shouldn't just provide a comfortable home for your Intel chip of choice and extract the max in terms of performance. It should probably put up most of your extended family, make the breakfast and have you weeping with gratitude by asking how your day was after you get home from work when nobody else seems to care.
All of which is a round about way of posing the following question: can any motherboard really be worth this much money? Actually, that's easy. It's a no. But that really isn't the point at this end of the market. What matters isn't whether the MSI Z87 XPower can justify its apparently preposterous pricing. No, what matters is that it's seriously hot stuff in performance terms and packed with all the features you could possibly imagine.