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MSI Z97 XPOWER AC Review

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MSI Z97 XPOWER AC Closer Look:

MSI's Z97 XPOWER AC is built for the extreme enthusiast and has a feature set to support that usage scenario. To start with, MSI went with an E-ATX form factor measuring 30.5cm(L) x 26.4cm(W). An 8-layer PCB with a tighter fiber weave is used to ensure that the trace layout can carry the loads on both the power and ground layers more efficiently, provide better ESD protection, and improve resistance to the effects of higher humidity environments. The layout of the Z97 XPOWER AC looks fairly standard, but there is so much packed onto the PCB around the edges. A yellow and black theme is used to signify that this board is part of the Overclocking series of motherboards from MSI. Flipping it over, we see that all the hybrid cooling solutions are held in with spring loaded screws, keeping them in place.

 

 

 

 

 

I/O connectivity starts out with a pair of USB 2.0 ports and a mouse/keyboard capable PS/2 port. Next up would be the Intel-based Wi-Fi/Bluetooth 4.0 module, clear CMOS button, a total of eight USB 3.0 ports supplied by ASmedia 1074(6) and 1042(2)chips, the RJ-45 Gigabit LAN port run by an Intel I218-V controller, an Optical SPDI/F output atop the HDMI 1.4 port and DisplayPort 1.2 port, and finally the analog connections for the Realtek ALC 1150 codec based 7.1 sound solution. Expansion capabilities on the Z97 XPOWER AC are pretty broad. There are a total of seven expansion slots: two PCIe 2.0 1x slots and five PCIe 3.0 16x ports. With this many slots, you have to think that there are enough PCIe lanes available to support 4-way SLI or CrossFireX, and you would be right. By using a PLX8747 gen3 switch, the Z97 XPOWER AC is capable of delivering the PCIe lanes to support up to 4-way configurations. PCIe 16x slot 2 is for use when running a single card due to the latency imparted by the bridge chip. Slot configuration is as follows: x0/x16/x0/x0/x0; x16/x0/x0/x16/x0; x16/x0/x0/x8/x8; or x8/x0/x8/x8/x8. In front of the expansion slots is the Realtek ALC 1150 codec in an EMI shielded cover. An isolated PCB is used to minimize any interference with the audio signalling. A studio-level integrated 600 headphone amplifier and Nippon Chemicon high end audio capacitors are used to provide crystal clear sound.

 

 

 

Along the bottom edge of the 8-layer PCB, we start with the front audio connection, a system fan header, front panel connectivity, TPM Module header, MSI's PCIe Cesefire switch to turn off individual PCIe slots while benchmarking rather than removing the graphics card, another system fan header, additional front panel connectivity, a pair of Z97-managed USB 2.0 ports with USB port 1 supporting the MSI Super charger functionality, a two-position BIOS selector switch, and the chassis intrusion header. Just above the chassis intrusion header is the Fast Boot button that speeds up boot sequence. Just above the bottom PCIe slot is the M.2 header, which can be populated with a SATA Express daughter board as an added accessory when available. This M.2 port supports drives of 42mm, 60mm, and 80mm in length.

 

 

Up the right hand side of the PCB, we start with the drive connectivity. A total of ten SATA 6Gb/s ports are available; six are controlled by the Z97 PCH and support RAID 0, RAID1, RAID 5 and RAID 10, Intel Smart Response Technology, Intel® Rapid Start Technology, and Intel Smart Connect Technologies; while the bottom four SATA 6Gb/s ports are controlled via an ASMedia® ASM1061 chipset and do not support Intel Smart Drive technologies. When the M.2 slot is populated, SATA slots five and six are not available for use. Next up are a pair of USB 3.0 headers that support up to four ports and are controlled by the Z97 PCH. One lays horizontal and the other vertical, although both could have been horizontal. Further up is the 24-pin ATX power connection and the quartet of DIMM slots, which support up to 32GB of DDR3 in a dual-channel configuration with speeds up to 3000*/3100*/3200*/3300*(OC) supported. MSI's OC Essentials zone occupies a good chunk of the top right side of the PCB.

 

 

MSI's OC Essentials include V-Checkpoints 2, which is imporved over previous revisions to include an additional set of ground pins so that you can use up to three multi-meters at a time to get real-time voltage readings in lieu of software interpretations. From left to right, the measured voltages are CPU Input Voltage, IMC Voltage, Core0 Voltage, iGPU Voltage, Ring Bus Voltage, System Agent Voltage, Ground, Ground, and Ground. The debug LED sits between the 24-pin ATX power connection and the V-Checkpoints 2 connections. Taking a deeper dive into this OC Essentials, there is a trio of switches that include a slow mode for use with extreme cold cooling, the OC genie gear selection that allows overclocks to scale from a mild 4.0 GHz to gear 2 where the OC will be set by the OC Genie button to between 4.5 and 4.6GHz. The last slider is to enable or disable Direct OC functionality. The Direct OC functions consist of using the paired plus/minus buttons to increase the bclock in 0.1MHz steps and the second set is for increasing or decreasing the multiplier. The power and reset buttons are self explanatory. The button with the lightning bolt on it completely erases all the settings in the BIOS, including the PCH. The OC Genie is used for one button overclocking; a feature MSI has been known for over the past few years.

 

Across the top of the PCB are a pair of CPU fan headers, the top section of the Hybrid VRM cooling solution, and both a 6-pin and 8-pin power supply for the CPU.

 

 

The CPU socket area is covered in low profile components, but for the most part is left clear so that large cooling solutions can be employed without hitting any parts of the VRM. The socket retention mechanism is made by LOTES. This part of the CPU retention mechanism is removed when using the Delid Die Guard after taking the time to pop the lid or integrated heat spreader off your Haswell-based CPU. MSI is using its 16-Phase DigitALL PWM controller to manage the power delivery to the CPU and DRAM. For this purpose, MSI uses Military Class 4 components including DRMos II, Hi-C Tantalum based caps, Super Ferrite Chokes, and Dark CAP solid aluminum capacitors, which all meet Mil-Spec 810G. With these components, you get a cooler running, more energy efficient, and higher power handling solution.

 

MSI is using a large hybrid cooling solution to manage the thermals of its 16-Phase DigitALL PWM solution on the Z97 XPOWER AC. The heat sink covers the VRM circuit around the CPU socket as well as the PLX8647 bridge chip used to drive 4-way graphics cards capabilities. MSI made the heat sink robust enough that air cooling should handle the load, but added a 3/8-inch barbed fitting and tubing to add that next layer up of cooling if one chooses to use it. The heat sink covering the Z97 PCH is large by any standard, but still is low profile enough to fit under large graphics cards. If you decide to use this board as your primary benching board hooked up to an open bench, then using MSI's OC Fan stand will allow you to park a fan above the DIMMs and angle it to meet the cooling or airflow needs of the system. Inside a chassis, this mount is going to present some challenges.

 

 

 

MSI has built this board from the ground up as a way to get the most out of the installed hardware. There is no doubt it is a fully capable board in that respect. Let's see how it compares when run against its peers to see if it can hold its own.




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