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Saturday, 31 October 2015

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MSI Z170A Gaming M7 Intel LGA 1151 Motherboard Review and Specifications


Boy oh Boy! The newest offering from the processing giant Intel has hit the shelves and it already seems to be a real success amongst the gamers taking the entire market by storm! Today both finally and fortunately we have our first ever Intel Skylake LGA 1151 socket based motherboard on the table for review and to make me all the way more excited its our first MSI product ever, we have the MSI Z170A Gaming M7 motherboard.
MSI has always been in the good books of all the gamers around the globe, their gaming lineup has never disappointed be it a high end VGA, a laptop or a mere SLI bridge! Although MSI hasn't been so rampant in India with their motherboard launches but the advent of the newest Skylake architecture made them break the ice and come up with an impressive lineup of Z170 chipset motherboards rubbing shoulders with brands like Gigabyte and Asus. The M in the M7 doesn't stand for MSi or microATX but rather it means Master! This might make you think that its their top of the line board and raise your expectations but hold on to those horses since its second to the M9 ACK from MSI itself so the Gaming M7 stands in a premium high end spot rather than top notch.
Let's jump in the spec sheet quickly and see what's on paper for the MSI Gaming M7 and then we'll come to other things later on:

As you can see its loaded with conventional features of the Z170 chipset like support for dual channel DDR4 memory and upto 10 SATA ports but it also ocmes with exclusive features like Game Boost button and Audio Boost 3 solutions. We will cover all these and many more later on in this review.

Packing and Closer Look

Packing & Contents


The MSI Gaming M7 comes in a sleek red box with the photograph of the motherboard occupying most of the real estate and even wrapping around the edges. The name of the product along with the fact that it'll support the new Skylake processors is also mentioned and makes it a nice red and black box with vital details clearly stated.

The back is full of details about the board and its features along with a brief diagrammatic layout of the rear I/O panel. This not only makes the box informative but also keeps it subtle.

Open the box and you'll find the board itself resting in the usual non static bag under which all the accessories are resting. Under the motherboard compartment, you’ll find the usual assortment of Gaming accessories, installation guide, cable labels, an unusually large MSI case badge, driver disk and manual. All this is accompanied by one U.2 connector for connecting your NVMe SSD through the M.2 connector, four non braided SATA 6Gb/s cables, 1x SLI bridge, 2x header extensions and a well marked red and black Gaming I/O shield.

Layout & Closer Look


Looking at the motherboard itself you'll either jump with joy if you are a fan of red and black combinations or fall off shocked! The entire motherboard is a red and black extravaganza accentuated with crazy shields and detailing which I'll cover later on. In short the board is beautiful and the heatsinks are striking and substantial around the CPU socket and the I/O cover is a great addition.

Coming over to the I/O panel we see a mixed bag of standard & new features, we have 1x PS/2 port, 2x USB 2.0 ports, 1x Clear CMOS button, 1x USB 2.0 (verticle), 1x DisplayPort, 2x HDMI ports, 1x Gigabit LAN port, 2x USB 3.0 ports, 2x USB 3.1 (1x Type A, 1x Type C), 1x S/PDIF out and 5x HD audio jacks. The two HDMI ports are used when you enable the iGPU on your processor.


Moving on to the center of the board, the processor area is quite full with capacitors surrounding it red paint highlighting the circuit patterns that lead to the adjacent DIMM slots. MSI has done it not only to add a visual appeal to the board but also to show that the RAM kits will have direct ultra fast connection to the CPU to ensure clearer and stronger signals enabling you to reach optimum overclocking potential. Also the circuitry glows up red when XMP profile is enabled on the RAM to add on to the aesthetics and visuals!

The board comes with the usual four DIMM slots providing support for a maximum capacity of 64GB dual channel memory & can even support RAM operating at frequencies higher than 3600Mhz.

The board comes equipped with 3x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots, 4x PCIe x1 slots and 2x Turbo M.2 ports. The M.2 ports are RAID compatible working at 32Gb/Sec bandwidth, but only one of them will work with a NVMe drive via U.2 adapter.

The PCIe 3.0 x16 slots support dual SLI configuration and tri CrossFireX configuration & can be arranged in the following manner:

  •     1-way mode - x16 / x0 / x0
  •     2-way mode - x8 / x8 / x0
  •     3-way mode - x8 / x8 / x4
The two PCIe 3.0 x16 slots are metal enforced or as MSI calls it armor protected. This armor is placed around the PCIe slots to help protect them from breaking off when using heavy GPUs and cool the slots in a multi-GPU configuration. It is more robust with the steel around it as well as having more solder points, so it will hold onto those heavy GPUs without worry. This arrangement will also avoid any electrical distortion to the slots from nearby components increasing signal strength and clarity.

Just next to the I/O panel we spot two prime features of the board. One is the Audio Boost Technology by MSI and this time its the Audio Boost 3 under which rests a Realtec ALC 1150 chip to drive the audio on the Gaming M7. The lid on top is soldered nicely and and LED path provides isolation to the audio components from electrical distortions. Dual OPA1652 AMPs, Nippon Chemi-Con capacitors, EMI shielding, and isolation from the board, all help bring you a great audio experience with that S/N ratio of 115db.

The other one is a LAN chip, MSI chose the Killer LAN E2400 through this series of boards. One of the cool features of this gaming NIC is the ability to automatically shape traffic to prioritize gaming (called AES 2.0). Typically this is a function you manually control via included software, which you can here, but this one puts the games up at the top of the list when active. The connector also has 15Kv anti-surge protection for safety.


The board sports 2x SATA express ports and 6x SATA 6Gb/s ports for SATA SSD or HDD connectivity. On on end of the board you have slow boot switch, flash BIOS button, Power and Reset buttons and Game Boost dial. And on the other side we have the Gaming Hot Key dip switch along with a couple of physical voltage read points.

The board comes with a Game Boost dial that appears like a big red button/knob, you can turn this knob at get an instant over clock on your chip! Eight setting are provided which can be applied stepped up with every turn of this knob, over clocking your processor from as low as 4.3Ghz to as massive as 5Ghz or as MSI call its in the ad "This one goes upto 11"! What's more the voltage is adjusted aswell accordingly, how true is the 5Ghz mark we'll test that later on.

On removing the headsink you'll notice that MSI has equipped the Gaming M7 with a 13+1 phase all digital power delivery system that ensures a stable supply of power to the processor and also removes any bottleneck in terms of power during an over clocking session. Remember that Skylake doesn't come with a voltage regulator built into the processor so the motherboard is responsible for regulating and cleaning the voltage to be fed to the chip.

Overall a terrific design really, aesthetically pleasing to the eyes as well. MSI has applied their Military Class V components on the motherboard with updated DrMOS MosFETs and aluminum colored dark caps which help in increasing the lifespan of the board along with giving it a distinguished look!

BIOS and Bundled Software

BIOS Overview

UEFI BIOS is getting more and more common with each manufacturer opting for it due to its simple and flexible interface along with the option to navigate via a mouse rather than a keyboard exclusive BIOS. MSI is no different and has offered not one but two versions of BIOS, EZ and Advanced versions, with the MSI Z170 Gaming M7 so as to suit every customer's needs.
On boot up by default you'll be greeted with a more comprehensive and detailed EZ BIOS screen. This is a crammed up screen that has the details about all the components installed on the board along with options laid out neatly under clear tabs on the left side. If you want to change fan speeds, maybe boot devices, or use its automated overclocking function or XMP, you can do so quickly and easily.




This is a much preferred version for the beginners and it even comes with a Game Boost knob on the top left corner, the same 8 setting for over clocking the processor are laid out ranging from 0-11. You can either use this or the one physically present on the board since the changes will only take place after a reboot.
On pressing the F7 key you'll be teleported into the Advanced BIOS version or the traditional MSI UEFI BIOS version. This is a version that all the over clockers will love since the settings are broadly laid out with tab heading like Over Clocking Settings itself. A plethora of features are there out of which I'm showing you a selective few.




Bundled Software

This is the era when manufacturers provide customers with not just a motherboard and utility softwares that act more like blotwares if nothing else. Gigabyte App center is already what I've reviewed a lot of time & it has never failed to impress but MSI is no less rather  a bit more refined in their approach.
The heart of the software set is the MSI command set which gives you general features and information regarding the CPU, GPU, Fan Speed, IGP and the Game Boost knob...again!

Also one beautiful graphical window is there that provides you with temperature readings of each component & even tell you where they are located on the board.

The gaming app section is something that you'll  be familiar to if you are a MSI graphic card owner. It give you all the information and tweaking options related to your GPU and you can select which vital stat you want to see on your screen. Also you can adjust mouse sensitivity and assign hot keys to your gaming mouse from here making it a one stop solution for gaming.

The MSI RAM disk is a nifty little tool to help you create an ultra fast cache by taking some memory off of your RAM disk and increase the read/write speed of your storage devices. Its a great feature if you have unused or really high amount of memory installed.

Another added feature is the Nahimic settings. Yes its the same Nahimic I talked about in the beginning. The Nahimic audio software boosts the audio performance by supplying a high definition sound technology which leads to clearer audio performance whether that be during music, video or gaming.

Have a lot of USB devices connected to your system or extra fans that you might want to turn off to save power or even reduce noise levels since its not required at the moment? MSi provides a solution to this in the form of the MSI Eco Center from where you can turn off the power supply to unused components.

Some extra software include the SteelSeries Engine 3 for Steelseries gaming accessories, MSI version of CPUZ, XSplit Gamecaster with one year free subscription etc

Load Tests and Benchmarks

Testing and Benchmarking the MSI Z170A Gaming M7 was one hell of an experience since I was both excited about the new architecture and board but at the same time a tad bit nervous since....well it was a new architecture and board!

The test rig was configured with the following:
Processor: Intel i7 6700K quad core 4.2Ghz
Motherboard: MSI Z170A Gaming M7
RAM: 16 GB DDR4 (4x 4 GB) G.Skill Ripjaws 4 3000 MHz C15
Cooler: Corsair H110 280mm CPU Liquid Cooler
Storage: Corsair Neutron GTX 480GB 
Graphic Card: Gigabyte R9 290X 4GB DDR5 Windforce 3X OC
PSU: Corsair AX860i 860W 80+ Platinum


With all the power saving option turned off and ambient temperature at 29°C I managed to get the Intel i7 6700K to a stable 4.8Ghz for core 1.3v without any thermal throttling and within safe temperature range and Intel XTU score 1420.

A worth noticing feature is that the Game Boost switch on turning to 11 took the same chip at 5Ghz but at a dangerously high 1.44v which upon Windows boot up gave me an over voltage warning and the chip was getting too hot for any sort of benchmarking process hence I don't recommend anyone to turn that knob to 11, until and unless you have a very low ambient temperature or a massive liquid/air cooling setup, though anything below it is fine for some instant over clocked juice if required.

CineBench R15 & CineBench R11.5


Cinebench uses Maxon's Cinema 4D engine to render a photo-realistic scene of some shiny balls and weird things (we miss the motorbike). The scene is highly complex, with reflections, ambient occlusion and procedural shaders so it gives a CPU a tough workout.
As Cinema 4D is a real-world application - used on films such as Spider-Man and Star Wars - Cinebench can be viewed as a real-world benchmark.

7zip - Compression Benchmark


7zip is a compression and decompression program that utilizes the processing power of the CPU alone. It is a synthetic benchmark that gives results very close to real life scores

AIDA64 Memory Benchmark


AIDA64 Engineer Edition is an exhaustive benchmarking tool, over here I've used its memory benchmark to determine the performance of the G.Skill 16GB DDR4 RAM installed on the MSI Z170A Gaming 7

wPrime


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.

SiSoft Sandra


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.

CrystalDiskMark 5.0.2


CrystalDiskMark is a disk benchmark software that analyses different types of hard drive. Giving sequential benchmark write and read statistics in MB/s. A simple program that is very useful. As seen the Corsair Neutron GTX performs very well.

DPC Audio Latency Analyser


DPC 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.

Assassin's Creed Unity


Due to its poor PC port optimization the AC Unity puts heavy load on both the CPU aswell as the GPU of any configuration so we used it to see what FPS range our system could produce on the MSI Z170A Gaming M7. The results were great and we obtained good FPS on Ultra Settings at 1080p resolution.

Tomb Raider 2013


Being a graphic intensive game with beautiful textures to render we put Tomb Raider at Ultra settings & 1080p resolution on the system to see what kind of performance we can obtain.

Crysis 3


Every PC enthusiast knows that the Crysis 3 is very punishing game for any configuration especially when you set all the settings to maximum. We did the same and the results were more than impressive!

My Verdict

The MSI Z170A Gaming M7 is my first MSI product review but that doesn't mean I'm a naive to MSI product range! MSI has made progress in every aspect of motherboard and its not just any progress but a massive one hence the Gaming M7 delivers everything that the brand promises and sometimes even more, burning down everything in its path to cinders! 
Enforced PCIe slots, Military Grade 5 chokes and dual RAID compatible M.2 connectors are a welcome move without a doubt both in terms of performance and looks. The BIOS has been refined and the introduction of the EZ mode is a great addition for beginners since the Z170 platform aims to bridge the gap between the older Z97 and the much expensive X99 division. MSI Command center and Gaming App are a nice little addition and perform as expected not too much nor too low. I personally love the Nahimic sound software since it does improve the audio experience manifold without much to think about.
Some gimmick like the Gaming imprinted circuitry or the Game Boost knob, since its physically unreachable once the board is in the case but is an asset to reviewers make this a sweet deal at $229 or Rs 23000 in India.
If you are looking for a new Skylake Z170 board, want no fuss and sheer performance and are a fan of the red and black finish (like me!) then the MSI Z170A Gaming M7 is the board to buy.
I give it a 9/10

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