Pros: High quality components, black PCB, upgraded heatsinks, FULL M.2 and USB3.1 connectors
Cons: Colourscheme could do with some work
Welcome to this review of an exceptional Z97 motherboard: the Supermicro C7Z97-OCE. Some of you might pull a face that discloses a feeling of unfamiliarity. Supermicro…. Can’t remember seeing that one in the local hardware store. You have heard of this brand name before, but you also cannot quite remember where you know it from. Well let me clear it up to you. Supermicro is a well established name in the server industry, but not so much in the consumer / gaming / overclocking segment. They are big in enterprise solutions and server/storage based hardware. They have been designing and producing motherboards (amongst others) for a long time and are very well known for their building quality. These professional solutions are designed to run 24/7 and always perform at their best. Last generation of Intel based motherboards (the first Haswell generation) they entered our familiar motherboard segment with their first shot at this market for gamers and overclockers. The Supermicro C7Z87-OCE. This was a very decent motherboard and reviews were good. But reviews also put the finger on the sore spot. It was very obviously a gaming motherboard created by people that were in the server business; the performance, stability and functionality were there. But the industry was ahead of them in other areas such as the “looks” and especially the use of a UEFI BIOS. One generation later Supermicro says: “we have listened to the customer feedback and users of our last generation motherboard. We did our homework and are now back with a new and improved motherboard”. Let us have an in-depth look to see if we agree.
Unboxing and specifications
I have received sample of this motherboard, minus some of the accessories included in the full retail package for this review (and for some other interesting purposes at the end…keep reading). Let’s start with a couple of unboxing photos.
The retail box with all the information you need about this motherboard. Well almost all information. The box clearly says it supports AMD’s Crossfire, but it says nowhere in the specifications or as a logo that it also supports Nvidia’s SLI technology. Supermicro has confirmed that this motherboard also supports SLI. That is good news, you almost scared me there Supermicro!
Let’s have a look what is inside this box.
Here we can clearly see we do not have a full retail package haha. But it surely is enough to get me started with this motherboard. The full retail package also contains SATA cables amongst others and the IO-shield is not blanc.
There we have the most important content of this package. The motherboard itself.
General overlook and features
Let’s take a closer look at this motherboard and its hardware and features. I would also like to compare it to its predecessor. See where they made improvements.
On the very first close up photo of this motherboard there are two things that instantly grab my attention. First of all that big orange heatsink and second of all the pure black PCB. On the previous model they used a blue PCB and very tiny server-type heatsinks. This is one of the areas where they have truly listened to the reviewers and end-users. They have made their motherboard look much more appealing, much nicer to look at heatsinks, a black PCB and an upgraded colour scheme. This is a great start.
I see 3 PWM fan headers on the top, an 8 pin EPS connector and 6 power phases for the CPU. I also spotted a PWM fan header on the left side of the motherboard and above the first PCI-E x16 slot a true M.2 connector. Why do I say true? On a lot of other motherboards the M.2 connector shares bandwidth with other parts of the motherboard, for example using it will make 2 SATA ports not work or it cuts back the use of PCI-E lanes and some motherboard use the connector but it cannot give the full M.2 speed but only half. This M.2 connector can give the full speed it was meant to give and not cut anything else.
To do a little test of this I bought a Plextor M.2 (true M.2) 256GB SSD and did a few tests to see whether it was going to be bottlenecked or not. Here are the results.
These are the speeds the SSD is supposed to reach. A SATA3 connector would not be able to reach especially those read speeds. I think it is safe to say this motherboard gives you the full performance of a M.2 connector.
Lastly all dressed in black on the top there is a power button. Now I applaud power buttons on a motherboard. Very easy when testing and such. But the location here is a bit …. odd. Usually these are placed in another spot. With good reason, if you use a big air cooler to cool your CPU it means it uses a large heatsink. After you mount it onto the motherboard this power button becomes very hard to access. So YAY power button, but NAY location of it.
From this angle we see another good looking heatsink with the brand logo on it that covers the chipset. Big step up. In bright white we see 6 SATA3 ports. The Z87 version had 8 SATA ports here but two were sacrificed for the M.2 header. In my opinion a smart decision. I think everyone will eventually use a M.2 SSD as a boot disc. Ultrafast, super small, no wires.
On the right of it yet another PWM fan header. On the left of it a BIOS chip and a dual-digit POST display so you can read out error codes and post codes.
On the bottom left we have 5 interesting green buttons. They come with graphics on them you can’t directly recognize. But they’re the kind of buttons you want to push even though you don’t know what they’re for Well I’ll try and keep that from happening by telling you what they’re for. From top to bottom in this particular photo or from left to right when you have the motherboard right in front of you: An M button is first to activate a memory overclock set in the BIOS, which can include Intel XMP settings. Then there are 3 overclock buttons (OC1, OC2, and OC3) for an instant overclock. OC1 runs at a 15% CPU overclock, OC2 operates at a 20% to 25% overclock, and the third OC button can be configured in the BIOS. The final button is a home button which will take your configuration back to the stock BIOS clocks and voltages.
In between these OC buttons there is a clear CMOS and restore BIOS button (small black ones).
Moving our way to the bottom of the motherboard there is a range of the usual USB and audio headers, a bunch of jumpers I will tell you more about in a minute but also a USB3.0 header. Or is it? What appears to be a regular USB3.0 header from the looks of it is actually a USB3.1 header. Technically this port can run at twice the speed of a USB3.0 port. So 10 Gb/s for good measure. And it doesn’t share its bandwidth with another connector or port. So no bottleneck.
Above this we have 6 PCI-E lanes. The black ones are all x1 lanes. The Blue ones are all PCI-E 3.0 lanes. When only the top one is being used it will run at x16 speed. When the top 2 are in use they will both have x8 speed (so x8/x8). When all 3 are in use they go x8/x4/x4. I would have personally liked it better if they would have changed up the positions of the x16 lanes and their performance. Putting 2 videocards in SLI or crossfire with 1 slot in between will mean the top one gets severely obstructed in obtaining cold intake cooling air. Some other motherboards out there have 2 slots in between the top x16 slot and the next x16 slot. I guess it is all about choices. Put what where on your motherboard as you have limited space. But I would personally rather have 2 well places x16 lanes for dual SLI and crossfire than 3 less ideal placed ones.
On the left side we see the audio section of the motherboard. They have been very busy keeping that part of the PCB separated from the rest of the motherboard. The audio chip is very decent, but it doesn’t contain fancy gamer audio features like some other motherboards do. Question is if they really deliver a better sound.
The motherboard gets powered by a 24 pin ATX connector and a single 8 pin EPS connector for juice for the CPU.
Starting from the left, you can see there are two USB 2.0 connectors along with a combo PS/2 port at the top. Next up the video output ports that include a DVI, a VGA, a HDMI and a DisplayPort. There are 4 USB 3.0 connectors. Dual Gigabit networking is provided by Intel chips. Audio connections come via audio jacks for the 7.1 and an optical out that all run off of the Realtek ALC1150 Codec. Nothing really fancy or out of the ordinary with stacked USB ports or Bluetooth and wifi. But all the basics are there.
That covers our travel over the motherboard in general. I have 2 things to add to this. First of all the jumpers. The motherboard is full of them. I have never seen a motherboard with this much jumpers. They are there to disable parts of the motherboard. You can disable a LAN port or a SATA port or whatever you want to. It will channel all of the power only to the sections you want to if you are an extreme overclocker or disable certain things for security reasons. Whatever your reason is; you can decide what gets used and what not.
Secondly I want to talk about the quality of the components. Now I am personally not a biggest walking library or component numbers and codes and what they stand for. If you want to have a more in depth understanding of the components this motherboard is made of I would like to refer you to a video review of Sin822 on Youtube; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJh3VS8JJLQ . All props go to him for this. He is very knowledgeable and this video will give you a lot of information about it. One of the conclusions of him is in line with the server heritage of Supermicro. This motherboard is filled with server grade components. These are made to run 24/7 for a very long time
without a hiccup. They have not tried to cut on costs with the quality of the components. It features some components you would normally see on motherboards twice its price.
BIOS & software support
Here we find one of the biggest points of improvement compared to the Z87 older brother. A main concern in the Z87 reviews was the BIOS. Not that it wasn’t complete or didn’t work, not at all. It worked fine and there was enough there to get you where you wanted to be. BUT it was an oldschool BIOS. While (almost) all other brands had moved on to a UEFI BIOS. The difference being the ease of use. While you had to go through the old type BIOS pages and commands using the keyboard only and everything looked like it came out of DOS5.0 the UEFI BIOS’ are heavily improved in terms of presentation and graphics and can be operated using a mouse as well. It makes it so much easier to navigate and go where you need to be in the BIOS and change what needs to be changed.
Supermicro took this with them and came back with the Z97 OCE and it has a UEFI BIOS. It has a main page that has 9 big thumbnails on it leading to 9 different parts of the settings. There is an option to toggle the advanced settings on and off. This mainly opens up options on the overclocking part of the settings. You can go very deep with this UEFI BIOS. Everything is there and everything works well. Did I say everything? I meant ALMOST everything. Well one always needs to have something to nag about correct? What I miss in the BIOS and later on also in the software that comes with the motherboard is the ability to adjust PWM settings. Make the PWM react more or less aggressive to temperature changes in CPU temp for example. But also the settings to adjust them manually. Why does this matter you might ask? Well a user could be mostly interested in a low noise system and not mind the temperatures going to bit higher because of that, while other users might want the system to run as cool as possible. For users that apply a custom watercooling loop to their system (such as me) it has become more and more “mainstream” to let the PWM of the motherboard control the speed of the pump. All manufacturers are putting 4-pin PWM connectors on their pumps nowadays so you can adjust the RPM with the click of a button. So adding that would be a big thumbs up from me.
The diver CD does not come with a lot of software. It also doesn’t come with a boatload of spammy software like toolbars and internet security software you will have to pay for after the 30 day trial period. Good stuff! If you want to do overclocking inside the Windows environment rather than using the BIOS there is the Intel overclocking utility. It is very similar to the utility other vendors such as Gigabyte use, but it contains only the main overclocking settings. I just mentioned it; no fan control support from the motherboard connectors.
The last thing it comes with is “SuperDoctor III”. It is a web-based management tool allows you to monitor your system. SuperDoctor III displays crucial system information such as CPU temperature, system voltages and fan speeds. Supermicro provides a variety of PC health monitoring tools in the form of it its SuperDoctor software. It also gives you the option to set warnings when certain thresholds are being passed. This software makes you remember you are dealing with Supermicro again. The graphics are just there to make you know what it means, not to look flashy. Other vendors have such software implemented in their Windows overclocking utility so a user has all features in a single tool instead of having to work with multiple pieces of software.
If you want to have a good look how the BIOS looks and works please check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hp6ge4d0r14 . Again this is created and uploaded by Sin0822. All credit goes to him for making this video. He gives a tour around the motherboard.
My personal conclusion is that Supermicro made a huge step towards the competition with this UEFI BIOS. It could add a thing or two with the software, but most of the stuff is there and especially for overclockers all options are available.
Price / performance ratio
This section is not as filled with numbers as it sounds. I am not actually going to calculate some kind of ratio here. But what I am going to look at is “what you get for you money and how is that compared to the competition? “. Motherboards have a lot of features and hardware options. How does this motherboard compare to the competition in the same price range? Let’s start off with the price of the Supermicro C7Z97 OCE. On Amazon it is about $ 230,-, I found it at Newegg for $ 200,-. This is a price range a lot of competition is in. And I mean heavy competition. We are talking the likes of the MSI Z97 MPOWER, the GIGABYTE GA-Z97X-SOC and the ASUS MAXIMUS VII HERO. Not too shabby. Let’s compare the lot. All of the competitors have a solid colour theme. They have been in the game for a while and they all know what a gamer / overclocker wants in terms of looks. Supermicro I think can still improve on this. The Gigabyte says it features quadfire for AMD gfx cards but in reality their main PCI-E slots have the same lanes as the Supermicro. It doesn’t have an M.2 connector but instead features a SATA-Express port (for SSDs that won’t be available until the end of 2014). It has a lot of options on on-board overclocking buttons and very good software addition. The MSI Mpower has 8 SATA3 ports and an M.2 connector. If you want to use the M.2 connector it means you have to give up 2 SATA3 ports for it. Out of the 8 SATA3 ports two are being added by an ASmedia ASM1061 chip that doesn’t seem to cope well with high speed SSDs. A problem the Supermicro will not have. So it comes back to Supermicro level. It features similar PCI-E slot options. It has some fancy audio boost on it. And last it has 12 power phases compared to Supermicros 6. But we all know it is not about the quantity here but about the quality. Last but not least the ASUS. It comes with 8 SATA3 ports and the M.2 connector. On this motherboard the M.2 connector shares lanes with the three open-ended PCI-Express x1 slots and a PCI-Express x16 (x4 electrically). Use either of them and the M.2 connector won’t be of use (or at least not reach its full performance potential). It mainly supports dual SLI and crossfire. It also has a special audio feature and comes with a bunch of software to aid in overclocking and monitoring.
All other 3 motherboards only have a single LAN port whereas the Supermicro has dual LAN connectivity. None of the competitors offer USB3.1. But where all other 3 motherboards have a Limited Warranty period (parts and labor) of 3 years, Supermicro only offers 1 year on the parts and 3 years on the labor.
I need to add this as I think it is important for this comparison. The other 3 motherboards and the brands behind it are featured everywhere. They have a solid fanbase of their products, they are very well known in the gaming and overclocking scene, they have their own colour themes that belong to that range of motherboards and they get featured in every big test there is on enthusiast online communities. You can buy their motherboards all over the world. The C7Z97 is a bit grey compared to them, it is not for sale in Europe (at least I can’t find it in any shop), it doesn’t get featured in the big communities or at least hardly. The marketing machine behind it seems to not be as in your face as the competition is.
Where does this leave us? Where does this leave the Supermicro C7Z97 OCE? I think in terms of features all motherboards are more or less equal, they trade blows on certain features but overall they pretty much offer the same. It is about what you want and need whether what motherboard is the right one for you in this category. In terms of styling the competition still has an edge on Supermicro. As do they have with the bundled software and very important to a lot of users in the offered warranty. But do the other motherboards offer the same quality components? And if not, are consumers aware of this? Or are they blocked by the shine of the competition and their fierce marketing machine?
I think it is fair to conclude from this review that this is a solid motherboard. Whether it is gaming you want or overclocking, this motherboard delivers all the goods and the quality to make this happen. Good features, very high quality components and a strong UEFI BIOS make this a strong contender for your money. It still has a few points where it could do even better, some points of growth. But in no way are they an obstacle to put this motherboard in the “very good” category. Would I advise this motherboard to you? Absolutely. Is this motherboard walking all over its competition? Errr no. With this Z97 motherboard Supermicro has closed the gap to its competition and in some ways it is a better motherboard. Especially the quality of the components makes this the best motherboard in this price range (quality wise). Supermicro has done a jump from a server oriented motherboard to an enthusiast motherboard. But Supermicro “released” it. While all the other brands “push” it. They are in your face to try and make it appeal to you as a buyer in every possible way. There is a final step to make for Supermicro to be on the same level of competition. This involves a solid colour theme, a strong software bundle, industry standard warranty, availability on a much wider scale and in your face marketing that includes all mayor review websites to review it so users know that the components on this motherboard are second to none and all other brands are actually a step behind in quality.
Oh, and One More Thing…
Thought I’d take a crack at giving this board a more relaxing colourscheme to the eyes… let’s call it “Project Orange - out”
For this first part I painted various white and orange parts black so I end up with a full black and blue colourscheme. I also created a cover for the IO silver cubes. I am quite happy with it to be honest. I will make all blue parts black at a later point to create a full “Black Edition”. Here are some photos.