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MSI Z170A Gaming M7 Review

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MSI Z170A Gaming M7 Closer Look:

MSI's Z170A Gaming M7 is an ATX form factor motherboard built around the Intel Z170 PCH for use with Intel "Skylake" 14nm LGA Socket 1151 6th Generation processors, including the Core i7 6700K and Core i5 6600K. MSI uses a six layer shielded PCB that uses MS's own Guard Pro technology to improve moisture resistance and minimize the impact of an ESD at every externally accessible port, including the front panel connections. Again, MSI uses its Military Class 5 build strategy coupled with the Digital OC Engine 2 to provide a cool running, efficient, and stable power circuit to enhance overclocking potential. The layout of the PCB is almost standard for the form factor, with some interesting additions to the mix. A red and black theme is used on this Gaming series board and is the most common color scheme in use right now for a Gaming series motherboard. The PCB is a rich dark black that highlights the dividing line between the Audio Boost 3 audio solution on the left side of the PCB. Each of the screws holding the heat sinks on is spring loaded and provides a better contact patch on the PCH and VRM for improved cooling efficiency. Splashed on the back side of the PCB are some highlighted features.

 

 

The I/O panel contains most of the external connectivity for the board. One of the specific pieces of MSI's Guard Pro technology is to provide ESD protection for each external connection by way of special circuitry in each circuit. From the left is the MSI Gaming device port for use with a mouse or keyboard that features a side benefit of being managed through MSI's Mouse Master in the Gaming App. Underneath are a pair of USB 2.0 ports. The top one is tasked with managing the Gaming Hot Key functionality. Next up is the USB 2.0 port that is used when working through the USB BIOS Flashback+ process. A Clear CMOS button is used in lieu of a jumper or button on the custom OC PCB. It is lit and easy to access.

A pair of HDMI 1.4 ports and a single DisplayPort 1.2 port support resolutions up to 4096x2160/24Hz. The E2400 Killer LAN port is equipped with 15KV anti-surge protection to prevent lightning strikes and power surges from ending your gaming fun. Below the Gigabit LAN port are two Z170A chipset controlled Gen 1 USB 3.1 ports while sitting right next to them are a pair of ASMedia controlled Gen 2 USB 3.1 ports: one each of Type C and Type A. On this board MSI has plated the analog audio ports of the Realtek-based Audio Boost 3 audio solution in gold for improved contact over time. A metal cover sits over the I/O panel and is held on with a pair of screws that need to be removed to mount the PCB in a chassis.

Expansion needs are met with a trio of 16x PCIe slots and four PCIe 3.0 1x slots. Multi-GPU solutions are supported as a 3-Way CrossFireX solution from AMD and only a 2-Way solution for NVIDIA-based graphics cards. When populated, the 16x slots run in 16x with a single slot occupied, 8x by 8x with a pair of graphics cards, or 8x by 8x by 4x or 8x by 8x by 2x modes with more than two cards. Around each of the top two PCIe 3.0 16x slots are metal shields that offer support to the PCIe sockets. Something needed with some of the hefty cards on the market now, no doubt. Between the PCIe slots are a pair of M.2 drive connections that can be managed with MSI's Turbo M.2 functionality to deliver drive speeds up to 32Gb/s using Gen3 4x. A pretty sweet option when modding and can eliminate any attached drives. Also supported in the M.2 position is a Turbo U.2 adapter card to support upcoming U.2 connected drives.

 

 

MSI's Audio Boost 3 8-channel high definition sound solution is based around a shielded Realtek 1150 codec. Essentially, the audio PCB is isolated from the main section of the OC PCB to improve sound characteristics and reduce any signal interference through common paths through the PCB. MSI has used premium quality Chemicon audio capacitors, dual headphone amplifiers, and gold plated jacks along with the isolated PCB to deliver a solid sound solution.

 

 

Along the bottom edge of the OC PCB you get the majority of the internal connectivity, starting with the front panel connection for the Audio Boost 3 sound solution. Next up is the diagnostic display that serves dual roles. While starting the computer, it displays the post codes until the OS loads. At that point it transforms into a digital temperature display for the processor. An easy-to-use feature when you use a chassis with a side window. A TPM 4-pin fan header and the front panel connections are up next. Following up the front panel connectivity are a pair of USB 2.0 sockets that support up to four ports controlled by the Intel PCH.

The USB BIOS Flashback+ button is used to flash the BIOS in the absence of the CPU, GPU, and memory as long as you have power to the board and a flash drive placed in the right I/O port. The Slow Mode switch is used when running under liquid nitrogen and are pushing for the most extreme clock speed. Next up are the power and reset switches that are nice to have and come in handy when working on the test bench. The true gem of this part of the board, or possibly the whole board, is the 11 position Game Boost control.

 

 

Crawling up the right side of the OC PCB are the drive connectivity options, including SATA Express 10Gb/s and SATA 6Gb/s connectivity options supporting RAID 0, 1, 5, 10; Intel Smart Response; Rapid Start; and Smart Connect technologies. Connectivity between the many drive functions is dependent on how you use the attached storage and is incredibly flexible with support across the PCIe bus. A pair of USB 3.0 ports for the front panel connectivity, one flat and the other upright, ensure you get enough USB 3.0 connectivity. The 24-pin ATX power supply connector handles the power input for the board. Just north of the 24-pin plug is the Hot Key button to enable the feature and a pair of 4-pin fan headers. Official memory support is up to 64GB of DDR4 memory in a dual channel configuration running at speeds of up to 3600MHz OCed.

 

 

Across the top of the PCB you get limited connectivity or features outside of the EATX 12V auxiliary CPU power header and possibly the CPU fan headers. In this case we are limited to the top side of the VRM cooling solution and power supply for the CPU. At the back side of the I/O panel, if you look close enough, you can see the circuits used to prevent ESD damage.

 

 

At the heart of the board is the LGA 1151 socket that houses the latest Skylake processors for the desktop platform. Around the CPU socket area we get a glimpse of the Military Class 5 components that make this board tick when accompanied by MSI's OC Engine 2 controller. Components from MSI's Military Class 5 include Hi-C caps, Lower ESR Dark capacitors, Titanium chokes, six layer OC PCB, and so much more. The VRM circuit sits low around the CPU socket to prevent any clearance issues.

A new technology for MSI is DDR4 boost, a build process that straightens out the trace layout for improved signalling and memory overclocking. You get this area highlighted in red on the PCB. The cooling solution for the VRM circuit is a heat pipe-interconnected series of heat sinks that feature an all-new look. This cooling solution proved much more than adequate when overclocking the Core i7 6700K. Behind the PCH heat sink are a few LEDS that be controlled through MSI's Gaming application for a different series of looks, from a pulse to fully on or off.

 

 

You can have a great looking product, but until it proves its worth, it's just a shiny bit of hardware. Before we dig into the performance and feature set testing, let's take a look at the software package MSI includes to add value to the board, followed by a look at MSI's new Click BIOS 5 implementation.




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