Introduction, Specifications and Packaging
Biostar aren’t a brand of products we review that often as their main presence is within the Asian market, however, every now and then we do get a motherboard from them which they are targeting towards the Western market. Today is one of those rare days as we are looking at Biostar’s primary Z97 offering, the Biostar Hi-Fi Z97WE. This motherboard is Biostar’s attempt at making a well spec’d motherboard for a very affordable price, as they are well-known for doing. The motherboard comes with an impressive 10 phase VRM, dual Gigabit LAN (a massive rarity at this price point), a range of PCI express connectivity, M.2 and high quality audio. The specifications are certainly nothing to scoff at when you consider the MSRP of just $125 – this makes it only a fraction more expensive than cheaper H97 9 series motherboards. The styling of the motherboard may certainly be an “acquired taste”, however, the motherboard on the whole seems like an extremely feature packed and great value for money option. I have seen a lot of people discuss this motherboard as a “workstation” board, presumably because the “Z97WE” bares striking resemblance to the ASUS “Z97WS” which stands for workstation. However, from what I can tell this is not a workstation motherboard – this is an entry level Z97 motherboard aimed at a broad user which no particular preferences towards anything (aka it is not a gaming, overclocking or workstation motherboard but rather an “all-rounder”).
Packaging and Accessories
The packaging shows us Biostar are really pushing the audio side of things. This is of course something we will examine on our audio tests. The dual GbE is another one of the more unique features and certainly this will attract a lot of people especially as both ethernet controllers are physically identical and thus support teaming.
The rear details more of the features about the motherboard including the unique audio features. More details on all the features can be found at the product page here.
Included with the Hi-Fi Z97WE is a user manual, driver and utility DVD and an audio usage guideline brochure.
The accessory pack is fairly basic with a rear I/O and four SATA cables.
A Closer Look & Layout Analysis
The Biostar Hi-Fi Z97WE has a fairly unique aesthetic with yellow and black PCI lanes, browny-gold heatsinks and a brown PCB as well as blue audio capacitors and a blue audio light on the EMI shielding and PCB separation. Put simply the colour scheme is rather confused and garish so you will most definitely be buying this motherboard because of its features and pricing, not because of its looks. The layout of the motherboard is spot on and Biostar haven’t tried to do anything too fancy. All the power connectors are located in their ideal locations, all the other connectors and fan headers are mainly around the edge of the motherboard to allow for better cable management with the exception of one fan header located near the centre for any rear case fans. This is definitely one of the better motherboard layouts I have seen for Z97, even the onboard buttons and debug/temperature LED are in their ideal locations. I am also pleased to see a reasonable sized PCH heatsink, quite honestly I get annoyed when some motherboard vendors dump huge great big heatsinks on their motherboards and then have to move things (like SATA ports, USB 3.0 headers, etc) into stupid locations because the heatsink takes up all the space.
The CPU socket has a 10 phase VRM although there appear to be another 2 phases hidden behind the main heatsink. I get the feeling this could be a 12 phase VRM but I couldn’t get confirmation on this.
Behind the CPU VRM heatsinks there are two CPU fan headers and the CPU 8 pin power.
A USB 3.0 header, motherboard 24 pin power and system fan header are located near the memory banks.
There are no additional third party SATA controllers on this motherboard to keep the costs down so there are only six SATA III ports all provided by the Z97 chipset.
Near the bottom right we find a clear CMOS jumper, the BIOS chip, front panel connectors, power and reset buttons, a system fan header, a debug LED which turns into a CPU temp reader after the motherboard posts and of course we have the small gold PCH heatsink which is easily removed with a screwdriver.
Other connectors along the bottom include front panel audio, a system fan header, a CIR header for an infrared remote, a COM header, a TPM header and two USB 2.0 headers.
The PCIe config makes use of two full 16X gen 3 slots, two gen 2 1X slots and two legacy PCI slots provided by an ASM1083 conversion chip. There’s also an M.2 port in the middle with various screw down points for M.2 devices of different sizes.
The audio comes on a separated PCB with EMI shielding and audio-grade capacitors. The EMI shielding and the PCB separator line are both lit by blue LEDs.
The rear I/O has the following ports:
- 1 x PS/2 Keyboard
- 4 x USB 3.0 Port
- 2 x USB 2.0 Port
- 1 x HDMI Connector
- 1 x DVI Connector
- 1 x VGA Port
- 2 x RJ-45 Port
- 5 x Audio Connector
- 1 x S/PDIF Out Port
The PCB is a glossy brown colour which is similar to what we’ve seen on other budget Z97 motherboards like the ASUS Z97-A or the Gigabyte GA-Z97X-SLI.
The Test System and Test Software
Before we delve into any testing we would like to take this opportunity to review our test system and thank those sponsors who kindly provided us with test equipment to make our work possible. We offer our thanks to:
- Motherboard: varies by review
- CPU: Intel Core i7 4770K processor
- GPU: Sapphire R9 290 Tri-X graphics card
- RAM: Corsair Vengeance Pro 16GB 2400MHz kit (CL11, 2 x 8GB)
- Cooling: Corsair H100i with Noctua NT-H1 Thermal Compound
- Case: Lian Li PC-T60A test bench
- Storage Drives: Kingston 240GB Hyper X 3K SSD, Patriot 120GB Wildfire SSD, Kingston Hyper X 64GB USB 3.0 flash drive and Plextor 256GB M6e M.2 SSD
- PSU: Be Quiet Straight Power E9 680W
- Operating System: Windows 7 Ultimate 64 Bit SP1
- Networking: ASUS RT-AC68U router
- SiSoft Sandra Engineer – available here.
- WPrime – available here.
- Cinebench – available here.
- 3DMark – available here.
- Bioshock Infinite – available here.
- Tomb Raider – available here.
- AIDA 64 Engineer – available here.
- DPC Latency Analyser – available here.
- Rightmark Audio Analyser – available here.
- LAN Speed Test Lite – available here.
- Passmark – available here.
The Biostar UEFI BIOS is fairly minimalist in design but it is actually intuitive to use and the clean layout makes things quite straight forward. The typical CPU and memory overclocking settings are located in the O.N.E tab while everything else is reasonably self-explanatory: “advanced” contains the advanced options for all the system hardware, “chipset” provides the ability to configure the PCH I/O, “boot” provides boot device selection and post settings and “security” allows you to password protect the BIOS. The BIOS isn’t as visually appealing as rival solutions due to having only a 1024 x 768 resolution but on the whole this doesn’t matter because the BIOS is fairly simple to use and I had absolutely no issues with it. The only thing I would change is have the “O.N.E” CPU/DRAM overclocking tab slot in between main and advanced because I think that’s where most people will want to go first – most people only enter their BIOS to overclock or set XMP profiles. I also think the name “O.N.E” is a bit strange, I’m not sure what it stands for but the name doesn’t seem indicative of overclocking settings.
Smart Speed LAN
Smart Speed LAN is yet another packet prioritisation piece of software for managing your networking parameters. The software is developed by Realtek for Biostar which is probably a result of the tendency for Biostar to nearly-always use Realtek network controllers. The software is actually very basic in terms of its options and the parameters you can tweak, especially if we compare it to something like the ASUS Turbo LAN (CFOS developed), ASUS GameFirst III or ASRock XFast Lan (CFOS developed). However, I think it is definitely better to have something basic than nothing at all.
T Overclocker is the Biostar Windows-based overclocking utility. From within this program you can tweak all aspects of your CPU and save or load overclocking profiles. The app allows you to tune voltages and frequencies as well as monitor and explore your CPU/DRAM hardware.
Smart Ear is an audio utility which allows you to select the appropriate headset impedance for a set of headphones. It is quite similar to the ASUS SoundStage utility although it does not have the ability to auto-detect the correct settings like the ASUS software can.
Green Power Utility (GPU)
The Biostar GPU has a somewhat confusing name because it is totally not related to GPUs in any way. However, it is still useful – it is essentially the power saving software for the motherboard. Again like all the Biostar software it is very basic, the ability to tweak and tune is absolutely no match for rival solutions like the ASUS EPU.
MAGIX Multimedia Suite
Biostar are targeting this motherboard at HTPC users and media users so they include a multimedia suite package to back that up. I honestly didn’t have time to install six different pieces of software and take a look around but from what I can see this software is actually pretty decent and worth quite a bit of money if you were to buy it all standalone. You can find more details about this software at the third party developer’s website here.
The Biostar motherboard overclocks just fine as we managed our chip’s maximum of 4.8GHz with 1.275 volts and the motherboard delivered a fairly constant 1.275 volts throughout our testing, there was no strange under or overvolting causing any problems like I have had on other motherboards. We are sure this motherboard has plenty more overclocking potential that the upcoming Devil’s Canyon CPUs will be able to take better advantage of.
CINEBENCH is a real-world cross platform test suite that evaluates your computer’s CPU performance. Cinebench R15 is a totally free utility and is available for download here.
wPrime is a leading multithreaded benchmark for x86 processors that tests your processor performance by calculating square roots with a recursive call of Newton’s method for estimating functions. wPrime is a free utility that is available for download here.
The SiSoft Sandra Dhrystone and Whetstone benchmarks are widely used measures of compute power and performance for a wide array of real world usage scenarios. You can find out more details on these tests here or download SiSoft Sandra here.
3DMark Firestrike is Futuremark’s latest creation for testing the GPU performance of high end gaming PCs using Direct X 11 graphics. You can download a free basic version of 3DMark here.
Tomb Raider is a popular action-adventure video game published by Square Enix based on the Tomb Raider franchise. The game was released in 2013 and as of March 2014 had sold 6 million copies.
Bioshock Infinite is a first person shooter developed by Irrational Games that is the third instalment of the Bioshock series. The game is the last to be produced by Irrational Games before they announced their closure in February 2014. The game has sold over 4 million copies since its 2013 release.
Combined Latency Test
SATA, M.2 and USB Performance
To test the storage performance in our motherboard reviews we use AIDA’s Disk Benchmark utility built into their AIDA64 Engineer Edition software package and run a variety of read and write tests. We run each of the benchmark tests on a SATA III, USB 3.0 and M.2 device. For SATA III testing we use a Patriot WildFire 120GB SATA III SSD, for USB 3.0 testing we use the Kingston Hyper X 64 GB USB 3.0 flash drive and for M.2 testing we use Plextor’s 256GB M.2 M6e SSD. The drives are always formatted before use.
For our networking tests we connect the test system up to our Intel Gigabit enabled ASUS Rampage IV Extreme X79 motherboard test system through the ASUS RT-AC68U router and run our tests. We opted for this over a direct point-to-point connection because we wanted to simulate real world performance.
LAN Speed Test Lite
LAN Speed Test was designed from the ground up to be a simple but powerful tool for measuring file transfer, hard drive, USB Drive, and Local Area Network (LAN) speeds (wired & wireless). It does this by building a file in memory, then transfers it both ways (without effects of windows file caching) while keeping track of the time. Download the free Lan Speed Test Lite utility from here.
Passmark Performance Test 8
The PassMark Advanced Network Test (which is part of PerformanceTest) is designed to test the data transfer rate between two computers both of which must be running PerformanceTest. One of the computers must act as the server and will sit waiting for a connection. The other computer acts as a client. It connects to the server machine and sends data to it for the duration of the test. You can download a trial version of PerformanceTest from here.
RightMark Audio Analyser (RMAA)
RMAA suite is designed for testing quality of analog and digital paths of any audio device. The results are obtained by playing and recording test signals passed through the tested audio path by means of frequency analysis algorithms. A more common mark is also provided for those unfamiliar with measured technical parameters. Available here. We run the RMAA test using a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable connecting the line out to the line in to test the quality of the motherboard audio codec not any external audio devices. We run the complete playback and recording test at default settings and then get RMAA to interpret the results giving the below outputs. We sync the playback and recording audio devices to the same setting as the test for accurate results.
16 Bit, 48KHz (DVD Quality)
16 Bit, 96KHz (Studio Quality)
16 Bit, 192KHz (Studio Quality)
DPC Latency Analyser
Thesycon’s DPC Latency Checker is a Windows tool that analyses the capabilities of a computer system to handle real-time data streams properly. It may help to find the cause for interruptions in real-time audio and video streams, also known as drop-outs. Available here.
Power Consumption and Thermals
To measure power consumption we use a killawatt meter and measure the total system power draw at the wall. We run three different use-case scenarios for 5 minutes and take the average reading.
To measure the thermal properties of each motherboard we take the temperature of three different locations using a Rosewill infrared thermometer. We measure the hottest point on the PCH (chipset) heatsink, the first VRM heatsink (which is closest to the rear I/O) and the second VRM heatsink (which is closest to the RAM lanes). The graphs are sorted by the first VRM Heatsink temperature as this is normally where most of the CPU VRM phases reside.
The Biostar Hi-Fi Z97WE motherboard retails for an MSRP of $125. We found it at Newegg for $125 while it was on Amazon for well above MSRP at $180. In the UK we were not able to find the motherboard at any retailers as of yet, because this motherboard is very new to the stock channel, however, it should retail for around £85-95 between retailers based on the $125 MSRP. The motherboard comes with a 3 year manufacturer warranty with Biostar.
The Biostar Hi-Fi Z97WE has been put through its paces in our motherboard tests and I think it’s fair to say it performs just as good as any other Z97 motherboard in the vast majority of tests, in fact in a lot of them it beat out many other Z97 motherboards particularly on CPU, memory and power consumption related tests. The noticeable areas where it wasn’t as good as the competition was in the audio department where it was just a slither behind the motherboards using the better (and more expensive) Realtek ALC 1150 codec. Yet it nearly matched those in quality showing how well Biostar have done to enhance and make the most of the fairly old ALC892 codec. The networking was also not as good as Intel and Killer NIC based Z97 motherboards, but the Realtek Gigabit solution is still competent and the fact Biostar offer you two of them with teaming support goes a long way to make up for the fact the Realtek NIC is about 10% slower than the competition.
This motherboard certainly isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. It doesn’t really have much in the way of software features, despite Biostar’s best efforts their software feels incredibly dated, incredibly basic and just a bit poor. The hardware and the value for money is where this motherboard does well, that’s if you can overlook the garish mix of random colours that makes up this motherboard’s design. At $125 this motherboard offers reasonably good value for money, especially if you’re looking for a dual gigabit motherboard – you won’t find another Z97 based one for this price. On that point alone this motherboard is worth considering. However, if you aren’t into dual LAN then there are a lot of motherboards out there in the same $110-130 price bracket that are better, or offer the same broad feature set for less money – just without the second ethernet port. Rival products in this price range offer things like SATA Express, Realtek ALC 1150 audio, Intel GBe LAN, better software packages and better aesthetics. The Biostar Hi-Fi Z97WE is by no means a bad motherboard, it’s fairly good, I just think Biostar lack some of the finesse and quality of execution that is necessary in such a fiercely competitive motherboard market.
- Good value for money
- Dual Gigabit ports with teaming
- Onboard buttons and debug LED
- 10 phase VRM
- 3 year warranty
- Realtek Gigabit LAN doesn’t perform the best
- ALC 892 audio codec cannot match rival products using ALC 1150 that are similarly priced
- Colour scheme and aesthetics are garish and not very tastefully executed
- Software package is dated, basic and uninspiring
“Biostar’s Hi-Fi Z97WE is a good motherboard for anyone interested in building a HTPC or media based system that can take advantage of dual Gigabit LAN. On the whole this motherboard has solid performance and offers good value for money. However, in an increasingly competitive motherboard market this motherboard feels like it could do with some more finesse and sophistication to compete better with rival products.”
Thank you to Biostar for providing this review sample.