Introduction, Specifications and Packaging
Intel’s Z97 platform has been around with us for almost a year now, so the marketplace is slightly saturated with motherboards from a huge array of manufacturers. Offering full support for the Haswell Refresh CPU’s, it has really brought new performance levels to the consumer market. While still producing the Z97 platform, Intel are soon to release the newest CPU lineup, named Skylake; with that introducing the new LGA 1151 socket motherboards. Focus has moved from the typical motherboard form factor, ATX and microATX to the ITX size. Tthis motherboard crams in most of the features of it’s bigger brothers, while being a tiny 17cm x 17cm size.
Today we have the Elitegroup (ECS) Z97I-Drone (GANK), under the LEET Gaming sub-division. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so let me explain with a picture.
In this iteration, ECS aim to bring top performance and gaming to the ITX market. In this review, things are going to be a little different; let’s do an ITX showdown with the four ITX motherboards that we’ve had in so far.; the ASUS Z97I-PLUS, Gigabyte Z97N-Gaming-5 and the AsRock Z97E-ITX/ac.
Manufacturers nowadays need to find innovative ways to stand out from the crowd, Elitegroup offer a small amount of custom software with this motherboard which is highly functional.
- eBLU BIOS Live Update
- eDLU Drivers Live Update
- eOC Easy Overclock
For more information on these functions, please visit the ECS Z97I-Drone product page.
Packaging and Accessories
The box comes in two parts, the outer protective cover with all of the information on; then a plain, further protection box where you find the motherboard and accessories.
In the box we find 2x SATA cables, I/O shield and a range of manuals and how-to guides.
A Closer Look & Layout Analysis
Styling is very simple on this tiny board, something about the placement of the CPU socket tells me that a large heatsink would catch on the GPU.
For such a small board, this offers a nice array of connection ports. Left to right, 4x USB 2.0, 1x DVi, 1x DisplayPort, 1x HDMI, 4x USB 3.0, 1x gigabit LAN and HD audio jacks.
Plain and simple along the bottom of the board, just enough room to squeeze the PCIe 3.0 slot.
Towards the top corner of the motherboard, there are a series of SATA ports. In an ITX case with little cable management around the top of the board, the placement here could be a problem.
Coming up the side of the board, just enough room for the 2 DIMM’s between the mounting holes.
A typical LGA 1150 socket, close proximity to the capacitors on the left.
The M.2 port is placed facing towards the 12v ATX power connector. This is a wise use of space, but it limits the lengths of cards possible to use.
Normally I wouldn’t show the back, but it labels what each solder point is and what feature is roughly where; a nice idea for novices.
The Test System and Test Software
Before we delve into any testing we would like to take this opportunity to review our test system.
- Motherboard: varies by review
- CPU: Intel Core i7 4770K processor
- GPU: Sapphire R9 290 Tri-X graphics card
- RAM: Cruicial Ballistix 16GB 1866MHz dual-channel kit
- Cooling: Thermaltake Water 3.0 AIO with Gelid GC-Extreme
- Case: Lian Li T80 Test Bench
- Storage Drives: Main storage: Crucial M550 512GB, Test Devices: SanDisk Extreme Pro 240GB SSD, Plextor 256GB M6e M.2 SSD and Patriot SuperSonic Magnum 256GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive
- PSU: Be Quiet Power Zone 1000W
- Operating System: Windows 8.1 64-bit
- 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
- Latencymon – available here
- Rightmark Audio Analyser – available here
- LAN Speed Test Lite – available here
- Passmark – available here
BIOS and Overclocking
The UEFI BIOS has been offered by motherboard manufacturers for a while now. The idea behind the UEFI BIOS is for the utilisation of the mouse in the BIOS environment. Manufacturers also offer an “EZ” BIOS, which consists of the key motherboard information such as the motherboard and CPU temperature. Normally, they offer an instant overclock function; which boosts the CPU performance to a built in safe level.
ECS offer a nice and simple EZ BIOS, tells you exactly what you want to know with all relevant information.
From there, you can enter the Advanced BIOS; which more closely resembles a legacy BIOS, but with mouse functions. This resembles the general BIOS layout which is all self-explanatory.
Overclocking on this motherboard was straight forward, increase the multiplier and exit. I found that the auto voltage features with this board weren’t up to the task of holding a stable 4.8GHz overclock on its own, so I had to manually fix the voltage to 1.275v.
Manufacturers need to find more innovative ways to stay ahead of the curve. With motherboard components all offering similar performance, the point of difference comes from the bundled software. ECS offer the trio of solid utilities that are dated in terms of appearance, but work as you would expect.
eBLU – BIOS Live Update. A very simple utility that… works. Click the update button and it searches for new BIOS updates; if one is found, you then have the option to install it or leave the utility. If you choose to install, the utility takes control of your computer to ensure you don’t do anything stupid that could potentially corrupt the installation.
eDLU – Driver Live Update Utility. This takes a different approach to the standard driver update. Instead of searching the internet and then presenting you the options of new drivers; it takes you to the webpage. If the option is greyed out, you already have it installed. A little bit long winded, but it avoids any possible hiccups in the utility.
eOC – Easy Overclock Utility. Every motherboard aimed at enthusiasts offer some sort of overclocking feature. As much as everyone ignores it to overclock in the BIOS, it’s nice to see it being offered.
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.Straight away this feisty little board is giving the others a run for their money.
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.
Performance on par with the AsRock Z97E and a definite lead when overclocked.
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.
Performance offered here is on par with the rest of the motherboards.
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.
Consistent scores with the rest of the group. The new AMD driver has given the ECS motherboard an edge in Bioshock, but this is consistent with other scores.
Combined Latency Test
Some average scores here, matching the AsRock Z97E.
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 linear 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 SanDisk Extreme Pro 240GB, for USB 3.0 testing we use the Supersonic Magnum 256 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.
Despite this motherboard offering an M.2 port, the space available isn’t suitable for our M.2 SSD. This would be more suited to that of a WiFi/ Bluetooth card. In the other tests, it performed on par with the rest of the motherboards.
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. For our WiFi tests we do the same except we connect the test system to the ASUS RT-AC68U router via WiFi at a distance of 2 metres from the router.
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.
Nothing really interesting here, the Intel I2I8V network device performing like the others 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.
The I2I8V performing rather well in the Passmark test, but the performance comes at a cost with CPU load; rather high when the Killer LAN is around the same.
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, 44KHz (DVD Quality)
16 Bit, 96KHz (Studio Quality)
24 Bit, 96KHz (Studio Quality)
Some very good audio scores here when using RightMark AudioAnalyser.
Latencymon Audio Latency Analyser
Latencymon 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.
Audio latency here, the best of the ITX bunch; although the difference is negligable.
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.
For an ITX motherboard, the full load power draw it quite high at stock, but otherwise a reasonable power consumption.
This motherboard cannot be found at any of our recommended partners, most likely due to the new series of motherboards that are ready to hit the market very soon with the upcoming Intel Skylake processors. We recommend you check with your prefered retailer to see if they have stock available.
Well, that was a fun one. ITX testing is one of the most entertaining out of the lot; perception leads you to believe that ATX has the best performance, mATX is middle ground and ITX being the slowest. Yet having tested a few ITX boards in, I can safely say that it is simply not the case. ITX motherboards have come a long way, offering near enough full ATX motherboard performance.
Performance of the Z97I-Drone has been exceptional. If you check back through a few of the reviews linked in the opening paragraphs, you will see that they perform very well in their respected reviews; yet when comparing all of the ITX boards together it shows just how powerful this little board is.
The CPU performance is on par with the rest of the range, showing that the CPU bandwidth offered by the socket pins is far more than what’s needed by the CPU. LAN speeds were above average, but they came at a high CPU usage cost. On the GPU side, it offers adequate bandwidth for the leading gaming cards with the PCIe 3.0 slot. It offered more than enough space for our R9 290x to offer everything it had.
I find very few negative things to say about this board, the BIOS is functional and looks decent; albeit taking screenshots proved annoying due to ECS using different hotkey shortcuts. The M.2 port could be placed elsewhere, maybe rear mounted to allow larger cards to fit, but it does seem that ECS want this as a WiFi slot; I would say yes, but what about the extra cables? There are no holes in the I/O shield to accommodate additional wires or antennae.
- High performance overall
- Great audio quality
- Strong networking performance
- M.2 port offered for 2230 SSD or WiFi/Bluetooth card
- Limited availability
“Made with the gamers at heart, using top quality components to truly bring almost 30 years of manufacturing knowledge to the enthusiasts. This motherboard would be a great addition to any system!”
Thank you to Elitegroup for providing this review sample.