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MSI X299 Gaming M7 ACK Review

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Category: Motherboards
Price: $389
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MSI X299 Gaming M7 ACK Introduction:

A new platform is getting to be the norm here lately when you start seeing CPU launches. AMD just dropped its Ryzen product stack, including the Threadripper processors, with a pair of new sockets/platforms. Intel just dropped the X299 platform back towards the end of July with a new socket and processors that gives the end user the best of both worlds. The ability to start with a mid-range processor and then, once finances allow, jump up to an 8-core or higher core count CPU makes the X299 platform quite an interesting option. As I saw in my review on the Core i9 7900X and Core i7 7740X, the new platform was not quite mature enough, with a load of BIOS updates right before and after launch to address issues. This issue was not limited to one board partner, but all of those involved if you read the reviews.

This gets us to the piece of hardware that I will be looking at today: MSI's X299 Gaming M7 ACK. Over the past couple of years, MSI has really grabbed the bull by the horns and put together really solid offerings for both the AMD and Intel side of the fence. The MSI X299 Gaming M7 ACK is part of the company's Enthusiast Gaming-based boards and sits pretty high up in the X299 product stack. These boards are packed full of useful features that set the brand apart, such as PWM controlled fan headers, a 2-amp header for use with a water cooling pump, DDR4 Boost, Steel Armor on the PCIe and DIMM slots, Mystic Lighting support, Killer Network hardware, and so very much more.

Priced at $369 currently, this motherboard is going to come in at the higher end of the spectrum, but has a tone to offer the user who is planning for a long-term usage scenario. Let's see where the performance takes us when paired with Intel's Core i9 7900X.

MSI X299 Gaming M7 ACK Closer Look:

MSI's Gaming series packaging has been a shade of red for quite some time now. Visually, it stands out on store shelves and paints a vivid picture of what you can expect from this board via that same bright packaging. The front panel of the package shows off a portion of the PCB and components. The name of the board is drawn across the middle of the box, while in the bottom left corner is a graphic that shows that this is part of the Enthusiast Gaming product stack. At the upper right is a list of supported hardware and shows that this package is VR ready, is designed with the X299 Intel chipset for use with Intel Core i9 processors, and supports the use of Intel Optane memory. The back side of the package takes a deeper dive into what makes the DNA of this particular motherboard from MSI. You get a full view of the board and I/O panel, a list of features, and software components that this platform works with. All in all, it's pretty impressive from the start.

 

 

The MSI X299 Gaming M7 ACK comes complete with a pretty expansive set of accessories, including both the documentation and the hardware needed to enjoy each of the options on this board. You get a set of labels to identify the hard drive cables, manuals, warranty card, and a sheet that identifies in detail which DIMM slots to use depending on the type of CPU installed in the board, be it Kaby Lake X or Skylake X. Next up you have a bag that contains a sizable part of the bundle with the three SATA data cables, case badge, high bandwidth SLI bridge connection, and mounting kit for 3D printed accessories. Inside the velour bag, you get a pair of RGB LED cables for use with Mystic Sync supported LED strips, a pair of antennas for the Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac dual-band (2.4GHz /5GHz) controller, and the rear IO panel. 

 

 

MSI's X299 Gaming M7 ACK is an ATX form factor motherboard designed for use with the latest SkylakeX and Kaby Lake X processors using the X299 PCH. While the theme of the board looks just a basic black with argent highlights, the visuals start to pop once you power on the system. LED accents abound all over the board. The eight Steel Armor-equipped DDR4 DIMM slots and four Steel Armor clad 16X PCIe slots let you know that MSI is serious about the Military Class-equipped hardware. Keeping your M.2 drives cool is the job of the M.2 Shield that doubles as the cooler for the  X299 PCH, with the ultimate goal of reducing heat-induced throttling.

The back side of the PCB is basic black, but includes some supported hardware mentions where the PCIe slot connections are, including the locking lugs for the PCIe Steel Armor.  At the right side, you can see the clear dividing line between the motherboard PCB and the divorced Audio Boost 4 Pro sound solution. Basic black gives you a great canvas to start your build, especially with all the RGB LEDs on board.   

 

 

The I/O panel has a lot going on. To start, there are the Clear CMOS button and BIOS Flashback button to allow you to flash the BIOS. Next is an old school PS/2 port for use with either a keyboard or mouse that sits over a pair of USB 2.0 ports. The vertical USB 2.0 port is for use with the BIOS Flashback feature. The wireless connections feed into the Killer Networks Wireless-AC 1535 module pre-installed into the M.2 E-key slot behind the I/O panel. This setup supports Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac dual-band (2.4GHz /5GHz) and Bluetooth 4.1 connectivity. A quartet of USB 3.1 Gen 1 type A slots are in red. Three of these ports are managed by an ASMedia ASM1074 chipset, while one port is managed via the X299 chipset. The Gigabit LAN connection is managed by a Killer Networks E2500 controller and sits over the ASM 3142-controlled Type A and Type-C USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports.

For this board, MSI uses an HD 7.1  sound solution using Dual Realtek® ALC1220 codecs. Gold plated connections create the optimal connectivity with reduced opportunities for corrosion. There are five gold-plated analog outputs, as well as an optical output. Most, if not all, of the audio hardware is hidden below the LED lit shroud that sits in front of the Steel Armor-equipped PCIe slots. There are four 16x PCIe 3.0 slots equipped with Steel Armor to make sure you get a solid mount for your video card without flexing the slot.

The amount of PCIe lanes available from the CPU (44, 28, or 16 lanes) decide the configuration of the available resources. You can run 16 x 4 x 16 x 8 with a 44 lane processor, 16 x 4 x 8 x 0 or 8 x 4 x 8 x 8 with a 28 lane CPU, and 8 x 0 x 8 x 0 with a 16 lane chip. A 3-way Multi GPU solution from both AMD and NVIDIA are supported with this configuration. Two PCIe 3.0 1x slots sit between the PCIe 16x slots.

Cooling down two M.2 solid state drives is the job of the M.2 Shield Frozr. The idea here is to keep the drives from throttling. As you might expect, this assembly covers the X299 PCH and is covered with LEDs controlled by MSI's Mystic Lighting tool.

 

 

The hardware for the Audio Boost 4 Pro audio solution is well-hidden, but consists of a pair of ALC1220 audio processors coupled with an isolated PCB that separates the left and right channels from the rest of the PCB for a clearer sound signature. Nippon Chemi-Con audio capacitors and de-pop circuitry help improve the experience.

Again, as you might expect, the bottom of this high-end board from MSI has a full load of connectivity across the bottom edge of the PCB. First up is the front panel audio connection, an RGB LED connection point, three system fan headers, the front panel connections, a pair of USB 2.0 headers, and a virtual RAID connection. The power and reset buttons are next, followed by the OC Genie Game Boost dial that allows you to set an overclock at the turn of it, once you enable the hardware level control in the BIOS. Last up is a pair of SATA 6Gbps ports. 

 

 

Drive connectivity from the X299 chipset starts with a total of eight SATA 6Gbps ports, including the pair on the bottom edge of the PCB. A U.2 drive connection port, supporting PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe storage drives, is next, as are a pair of M.2 M-key slots that support Optane Memory and, in the second slot, 2242 / 2260 / 2280 / 22110 storage devices. This combination of storage options support Intel® Smart Response Technologies and RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, and RAID 10 for SATA storage configurations and can support  RAID 0 and RAID 1 for M.2 storage devices. The flexibility of the package should allow you to get a very nice drive configuration.

The M.2 slots and X299 PCH are covered by the M.2 Shield Frozr cooling package that is used to keep your M.2 devices from throttling by reducing the operating temperature of the devices.  The hinged heat sink is attached to the PCB on the left with a pair of screws, and on the right, it is hinged against the PCH heat sink.

Moving past the SATA drive connections are the front panel USB 3.1 Gen 1 and Gen 2 connections that allow for up to four front panel USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports, as well as a single USB 3.1 Gen 2 port. Older chassis may not be able to use these options, but newer chassis certainly can take advantage of the options.

 

 

Working up the board is the 24-pin ATX power connection, voltage measuring points, EZ Debug diagnostic LEDs, and the Diagnostic LED in the top right-hand corner of the board. From this view, you get a look at how the Steel Armor is shrouding the DDR4 Boost-equipped DIMM slots. 

 

 

The top side of the PCB is sparsely populated, but has some important parts here. After the debug LED are a pair of auto-detecting fan connectors. One of these is designed for use with an all-in-one water cooling pump power supply supporting a current draw of up to two amps. These two fan connections can be configured in the BIOS to be either DC mode or PWM mode, depending on which scenario you want to use.  A small power supply cable comes off the PCB to power the LEDs in the cooling package for the 12-phase DrMOS VRM.  An 8-pin EATX power supply and auxiliary 4-pin 12v power connection provide the power for the CPU circuit. Last up is another PWM fan header for the CPU cooling fan. Halfway down the back of the I/O panel cover you can see the VR Boost accelerator chip that improves the VR experience. It accomplishes this with a pair of USB ports that are optimized for use with VR hardware by driving a cleaner signal to the ports and then again to the hardware.

 

 

The layout on Intel-based HEDT boards has not really changed much since the X79 days, with eight DDR4 Boost optimized and Steel Armor-equipped DIMM slots flanking the CPU socket.Nott that this is a bad thing, as it just works and allows the motherboard companies to optimize trace layout for better memory overclocking and increased bandwidth. MSI uses an all-digital DigitALL power circuit for the memory layout to lower voltage requirements and improve voltage control.

On the X299 platform, the socket moves up from an LGA 2011 pin count to an LGA 2066 pin count to support the latest Intel Core i7 and Core i9 SKUs. To handle the power consumption load from 10+ core processors, MSI is using an all-digital 12-phase DrMOS power circuit using Military Class 5 components. These include Dark Caps that have a higher ESR rating and lifespan of 10 years; Titanium Choke II that are smaller in size, but operate up to 30% more efficiently than previous designs; and Dark Chokes that are designed to run at lower operating temperatures for increased stability and power efficiency.   

 

 

We have all heard the rumblings about the current draw of the Core i9 processors under load and how the VRM gets smoking hot. After the initial shock and fear, there has been a ton of in-depth looks at what drives the concern and found that as long as you are working methodically with your overclocking, you can stay out of trouble. MSI has a pretty hefty heat sink package on this board, with a large heat sink over the 12-phase DrMOS VRM and the X299 PCH. While the VRM heat sink does not get a flashy name, the heat sink over the PCH gets the M.2 Shield Frozr name. The Frozr naming convention has been around on MSI's video cards for a while, but the implication is that this cooling solution does an effective job keeping the M.2 devices cool to delay drive throttling and give an overall improvement to the feel of the storage solution.

 

 

So, we have a high-end board with all the technology that MSI can throw at it. That's all well and good, but the key really is how it performs when you run it through its daily grind. Let's see if it earns its price point.




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