The Kaby Lake CPUs from Intel are out, aimed at main stream consumer bracket these chips are the successor of the 'now' previous gen Sky Lake which happened to have been a very successful SKU for Intel last year! Though not an entirely new processor the Kaby Lake is a slight improvement over Sky Lake offering more performance per watt and this time scratching the overclocker's back with enormous overclocking potential right out of the box.
As new processor means new motherboards this story is no different. Kaby Lake brought in the Z270 PCH motherboards and today thanks to MSI India we have with us their more budget friendly MSI Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon motherboard for review!
One of the biggest upgrades in the Z270 motherboards is not only the support for Intel's Optane Memory but also the fact that the PCH has 24 PCIe Gen3 Lanes to allocate to various I/O ports, SATA ports or even USB 3.1 ports making it a more connectivity rich motherboard especially for those who rely on such options a bit more. The MSI Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon is no exception, coming in with mystic LEDs, Nahamic 2 audio boost, all USB 3 ports and an interesting M.2 shield to which we'll take a look later on.
Packing and Accessories
MSI has a different color scheme for each of its motherboard range and the same goes for the Carbon series motherboards that pretty much like its previous generations is, well mostly black with hues of colors signifying its RGB nature.
The front doesn't have much to divulge in terms of feature set nor has an image of the motherboard instead the entire real estate is occupied by the signature MSI Carbon sports car.
The back unlike the front is printed to the brim with features! A detailed marked diagram of the motherboard is printed in one corner highlighting all the physical features and on the right we see features such as the Mystic LED, Turbo U.2, USB 3.1 briefly explained.
Open the box and you'll find the motherboard in an anti-static bag resting on top of the bottom compartment that houses all the accessories.
On the accessories front the MSI Z270 Gaming Pro is on the humble end with just the basic and necessary accessories included to keep the price tag low. There’s one 2-way SLI bridge connector, four SATA 6Gb/s cables, accessory installation pamphlet, warranty pamphlet, user manual, and installation DVD with software and drivers. Cable labeling stickers, LED lit I/O shield and two Mystic LED strip extension cable is also provided.
Closer Look and Features
MSI went low key with this one over here. Simply placing the motherboard out of the box shows the stark reality that the motherboard is indeed different from what the usual trend is going on in the motherboard market today.
The Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon is one of the few motherboards out there that shout elegance from every corner! Its a full matte black product with highlights of carbon fiber vinyl on the I/O shield, PCH and CPU VRM Heatsink accentuated by metal strips and underlying LEDs that can be used as per one's own whims.
Looking at the CPU area we can see the LGA 1151 socket resting in a remarkably clean area. This is the same socket that you can find on the Sky Lake compatible motherboards hence if you want to use a Kaby Lake CPU on your Z170/H170 motherboard then it might be a possibility after a BIOS upgrade.
DIMM slots on the reinforced by metal shields that not only work as an EMI shielding to the RAM sticks to ensure hindrance free performance but also imparts tensile strength to the slots in case one uses tall or heavy Memory kits like my Kingston HyperX Predator.
These support a maximum of 64GB DDR4 memory kit working at a maximum frequency of 3800Mhz. Also the mounting mechanism is changed and both the locking brackets need to be opened prior to DRAM installation.
Turn your gaze towards the PCIe area and we see three PCIe 3.0x16 slots and three PCIex1 slots for devices of a bygone era! Two M.2 slots is also provided that we'll discuss later on.
Two of the three full sized PCIe slots are armored to support large and heavy graphics card. If you are using a Kaby Lake or Sky Lake CPU then the configuration would be as follows for SLI configurations:
Single Card: 16x/0/0/
Dual SLI: 8x/8x/0/
Tri SLI: 8x/8x/4x/
The PCIe Slots have three LED embedded at the bottom and lit up red when the slot is populated by a graphics card. They turn up white when the graphics card installed is using less than 16xPCIe lane.
A notable fact over here is that in ATX board like this you tend to find seven PCIe slots in total with four full length and three PCIex1 but in the MSI Z270 Gaming Pro there are only six eliminating the top most slot. By doing this MSI cleverly managed to shift the DIMM slots down by half an inch which in-turn cleared out some space in the CPU area and above it giving one the flexibility to choose from a range of beefy CPU air cooler without any compatibility issue.
The board comes with two M.2 slots out of which the top most can accommodate a SSD upto 110mm in length which is the longest SSD dimension possible today. Whereas the lower one has a capacity of 80mm. Both are Intel Turbo Optane standard compliant which is Intel's new NAND solution presented as an intermediate between system memory & storage. These can work simultaneously as they share four PCIe Gen3 lanes from the Z270 PCH itself also meaning that you'll need a Kaby Lake CPU to make use of the Optane technology, a Sky Lake CPU would not work at all.
The M.2 shield on the second M.2 slot is MSI exclusive & helps to keep the SSD cool especailly when you use a dual GPU configuration. Tests show that you can witness as much as 10°C difference in temperatures when using the shield. Its basically a metal shield with pre-applied thermal conductive pad under it.
On the left side of the board we have the Audio Boost 4 technology powered by a Realtek ALC 1220 5-channel CODEC which is an upgrade to the ALC 1150 used previously by most of the manufacturers and protect by an LED illuminated isolation strip to prevent any static distortion. This arrangement is solidified with gold plated Chemi-con capacitors and three Texas Instruments OP1652 op-amps to power headphones and provide a surround sound experience.
For the I/O panel we have one PS/2 keyboard/mouse port, one HDMI port, one DVI-D port, one USB Type C with 3.1 Gen 2 support and one USB 3.1 Type-A port (red) port. A couple of USB 3.0/2.0 ports along with one RJ-45 port & one optical S/PDIF Out connector is provided. Audio jacks are five in number for a 5.1 channel surround sound experience.
The two USB ports above the HDMI port are VR Boost enabled which we'll discuss later on.
The CPU is powered by an 10-phase Military Class-5 power delivery system controlled by a NIKOS PK832BA PWM controller and constituted of 10-years rated Titanium Choke and Black Caps. This is not an all digital power delivery system but a reliable one for sure.
Fan speed, I/O activity and even temperatures of various components on the motherboard are managed and channeled via the Nuvoton’s NCT6795D chip.
Four ASMedia ASM1480 multiplexers are responsible for routing the PCIe lanes between the two silver x16 slots.
An Intel i©14 EAR48U82 chip is responsible for the LAN functions on the MSI Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon.
Some of the USB 3.0 and 3.1 USB ports on the board are controlled by the Asmedia ASM2142 chip to shed load from the CPU.
MSI has added a nifty little chip dubbed as the VR Boost chip that controls the two VR Boost USB ports on the I/O Panel. According to MSI this chip insures a strong and consistent signal to the connected VR headset through the designated ports ensuring a soothing VR experience free from signal jitters.
BIOS and Bundled Software
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 Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon 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 though it comes with a Game Boost Knob on the top left its useless since the Gaming Pro Carbon doesn't support this feature. I personally loved the "Memory Try It!" feature which comes with pre-sets to overclock your memory on the fly & are quite useful for everyone.
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.
Bundles SoftwareThis 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.
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.
Some extra software include the SteelSeries Engine 3 for Steelseries gaming accessories, MSI version of CPUZ, XSplit Gamecaster with one year free subscription etc
Benchmarks and Overclocking
Putting all the components together and booting up into Windows was a breeze with the MSI Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon. Everything worked properly and installed properly without any issue. The motherboard looks elegant and all black when off or when the LEDs are turned down ensuring no hindrance with the glow and appearance of the motherboard LEDs whatsoever.
For the benchmarks we used the following test setup configuration --
CPU: Intel Core i7 7700K 4.2Ghz
Motherboard: MSI Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon
RAM: Adata XPG Dazzle 16GB 2400Mhz Memory Kit
Cooler: Corsair H100i GTX (Push Pull Configuration)
Graphics Card: Asus ROG STRIX GTX 1050Ti OC 4GB GDDR5
Storage: Corsair Neutron GTX 480GB SSD
Power Supply: Corsair AX860i 860W 80+ Platinum
OS: Windows 8.1 Pro 64-bit
GPU Driver: ForceWare 375.70
The Intel i7 7700K comes with 4.2Ghz and 4.5Ghz boost. The system was stable on stock setting so we started our overclocking journey with this Kaby Lake offering and reached a stable 5.1Ghz with 1.45v and the memory was flying at 3000Mhz CL16 with 1.35v. Take note that the Kaby Lake chips tend to run hot and we did hit near 100°C at this frequency even with 15°C ambient temperature!
So we clocked down to 5Ghz to keep the CPU within safe temperature marks. Hence, all our benchmarks would show the CPU at 5Ghz with memory at 3000Mhz CL16
AIDA64 Cache & Memory Benchmark
AIDA64 Extreme Edition is a great tool to bench your CPU and RAM in terms of their read-write-copy abilities. Our i7 7700K showed an impressive score along with the ADATA XPG Dazzle kit.
The reason for including this benchmark was to simply observe the AES and Hash Test which is a determent of how easily your CPU or GPU can crunch complex calculations and higher score is always regarded better.
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.
The Intel XTU utility not only helps one to overclock and test the system stability all in one place but also can be used to benchmark the processor in terms of comparative score.
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.
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.
SuperPi Mod v1.5
SuperPi is a simple program that utilizes the processing power and memory speed of the system to calculate the value of Pi upto 1 Million or 32 Million decimal point depending upon what you choose. The time is calculated in minutes and seconds, we'll take them both in seconds, so lower the score faster is your computer.
Unigine Heaven 4.0 and Unigine Valley 1.0
A compilation of 26 beautiful scenes rendered and run via the raw GPU power of the system. It emulates any game or graphical work that you'll perform on the system scoring it on various parameter. We ran the test on Custom preset and settings at 1920x1080 resolution, quality to ultra and extreme tessellation.
3D Mark Fire Strike
Fire Strike by 3D Mark is a test suit that plays a cinematic scene to determine the FPS, GPU temperature and CPU temperature scaling everything via a cumulative score. It is a great tool to benchmark your GPU since the render is GPU dependent.
3D Mark 11 Professional Edition
Another variant of the Fire Strike by 3D Mark, used mainly for scoring the GPU performance.
I can't start gaming benchmarks without running my all time favorites Crysis 3 but its a game that no system loves! The CryEngine 3 behind this scenic beauty can bring down any system to its knees and I mean any system. I set everything to Ultra at 1920x1080 resolution with MSAA 4X and motion blur high.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
The latest installation of Lara Croft in the spectacular Rise of the Tomb Raider 2016 with stunning graphics and rich location makes it a great game to benchmark with while enjoying in the due course! We used DX12 and settings were at Ultimate on full HD resolution.
Batman Arkham Knight
Since the game is powered by Epic's Unreal Engine 3 and supports DX11 tessellation so playing this game on 1920x1080 resolution with all settings maxed out can be any modern system's 'worst nightmare'!
Finally we've introduced this much awaited titled to our benchmarks! Developed by ID Software Doom or popularly written as DOOM is a reboot of the older Doom series. Its fast and scary with more than enough variety of guns that you can ever imagine or even use!
Its OpenGL and quality is set to Ultra.
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 on the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon.
My VerdictKaby Lake is going to be hard to sell...There I said it! The performance is somewhat the same as Sky Lake with just a tweaked up clock ultimately giving you a quad core processor that is slightly power efficient & can reach into the covered 5Ghz realm quite smoothly. That's about it when it comes to the goodies portion.
On the other hand motherboard manufacturers like MSI have done a splendid job when it came to designing the motherboard. The MSI Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon is a breath of fresh air and is certainly better than the X99 version 2 boards that had nothing new to offer with the Broadwell-E CPU over their predecessor boards.
MSI cleverly ditched the redundant SATA express and U.2 connector to implement dual M.2 connectors along with fully functional tri PCIe slot configuration with a bunch of USB 3.1 ports all working at the same time thanks to the brilliant use of the 24 PCIe lanes that the Z270 PCH has to offer.
The LEDs are yet again meticulously implemented by MSI on a pure black board and nifty features such as Memory Try it! in the BIOS are a welcome move. For a motherboard that costs around Rs. 18000 in India its steal deal for almost anyone out there.
In the end I highly recommend the MSI Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon to anyone looking to build a new Intel gaming or semi-professional system or to someone who's still stuck with Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge based systems.
I give it a 9/10 earning our Gold award.