MSI Z170A GAMING M5 Motherboard Review
Over the coming weeks we will begin to take a look at the latest Z170 based Gaming motherboards, these are of course the boards that support Intel’s latest Skylake processors. The first board that we will take a look at is the MSI Z170A GAMING M5 a motherboard from MSI’s Enthusiast range. This particular ATX motherboard is equipped with an LGA1151 Socket and therefore supports for Intel’s latest Skylake processors. The board has support for 2-Way NVIDIA SLI Technology or 3-Way AMD CrossFire Technology and is equipped with three x16 PCIe 3.0 lanes. There are four DDR4 RAM slots supporting up to 3600MHz(OC) modules in a Dual Channel configuration. In addition to this there are x2 M.2 ports supporting both PCIe and SATA, x6 SATA 6GB/s ports and x2 SATA Express ports. Finally the board’s rounded off with a Realtek ALC1150 8-channel on-board soundcard with Audio Boost 3 and Nahimic Enhancer and a Killer E2400 Gigabit LAN port.
NOTE: The Intel Z170 Express Chipset supports 6th Gen Intel Core i3/i5/i7 processors, and Intel Pentium and Celeron processors for Socket LGA1151. The new Socket 1151 is not backward compatible with previous Intel Core CPUs and, at the time of writing only Skylake processors are compatible with these motherboards. Also another big change for Skylake is the fact that there’s no support for DDR3. DDR4 is now king, although there’s only support for Dual Channel memory and not Quad Channel; for that you’ll need to look at Intel’s X99 platform. The bottom line here is that a new Skylake based Gaming Rig’s going to comprise of a new Motherboard, CPU and RAM.
The MSI Z170A GAMING M5 arrived at pcG in a striking red box with an oversize image of the motherboard on the front. What was nice to see was that the front of the box wasn’t adorned with logos/stickers etc, MSI have kept it simple. Other than the basic manufacturer name and product name the only other thing we find on the front of the box is an image in the bottom left corner confirming that this board is part of MSI’s Enthusiast Range.
The back of the box is far more informative and is covered with various buzz words, logos and features regarding the motherboard within. At the top left we have the main logo, brand and product name and to the right of this we find a basic specification list followed by a break down of the rear IO panel. In the lower section MSI provides a little more detail on some of the major features of this Z170 Gaming board. These include Audio Boost, Twin Turbo M.2, SLI/Crossfire, Gaming LAN, USB 3.1 (Type A & C), DDR4 Boost and Game Boost.
On opening the box we can see that the MSI Z170A GAMING M5 is sat at the top of the box in a cardboard tray and is covered with antistatic bag. The packaging is probably more than adequate but we have seen better…
So there’s a fair bit in the bag, most of it is pretty useful stuff too, especially that Door Hanger! 😉 But something I did feel was missing was there was no Q Connector, that’s the little plug/socket that helps you connect the Front Panel cables, they’re always handy…
At the time of writing this review, the MSI Z170A GAMING M5 is retailing at Ebuyer for approximately £142 and comes with a 3 year warranty.
courtesy of MSI
Now the MSI Z170A GAMING M5 is a good looking motherboard, thanks in part to the subtle yet cool looking CPU Power Phase heatsinks and that dragon heatsink on what is effectively the South Bridge. But what’s also really apparent is the cleanliness of the board (I don’t mean that it’s clean) I mean that it’s CLEAN; free of components that is! The board itself is not covered with components like other boards and the matte black PCB just shines through. It looks good! Apart from that Z170A GAMING M5 sticker in the middle of the board, now that lets it down… 🙁
Looking at what I would call the right side of the board and working left to right; in the far left corner we find the all important Debug LED, most useful if you run into any unforeseen problems. To the right of this we have the main SATA ports consisting of x2 eSATA, and x6 SATA 6GB/s ports, this is then followed by a single USB 3.0 connector. Slightly right of centre we find the main 24-pin, followed by one of the three System Fan headers (SYSFAN3.) In the far right corner of the board we find one of two CPU fan headers (CPUFAN2). Inboard of the edge of the board on the left we find the main Dragon emblazoned South bridge heatsink and to the right of this we find the four DDR4 DIMMS supporting up to 64GB of 3600MHz (OC) RAM.
Looking at the opposite side of the board (the left) and again working left to right, we first find the main motherboard IO panel (more on this later). Behind this in the bottom left corner we have the main CPU 8-pin power socket (in its regular position) followed by the main CPU Power Phase heastsinks. Just to the right of this we see the GAMING LAN chips (courtesy of Killer and supporting an E2400 Gigabit LAN port), just behind this we find a further System Fan header (SYSFAN1). To the right of the main IO we find the line that isolates the Audio from the rest of the board. This on-board soundcard consists of a Realtek ALC1150 8-channel with Audio Boost 3 and Nahimic, with the main chip hiding beneath that Audio Boost 3 cover.
Looking at the PCIe 3.0 lanes we see that there’s seven in total and these are wired up in the following way; the first slot (PCI_E1) is a x1 slot this is the followed (left to right) by x16 slot, two x1 slots, another x16 slot, a single x1 slot and then a x16 slot. If one Graphics Card is used then the first x16 slot runs at x16, if x2 Graphics Cards are used then the first two x16 slots run at x8, and if three Graphics Cards are used (supports Cossfire only) then the three slots run at x8/x8/x4.
Looking at what is effectively the top of the board we can see that it’s dominated by the CPU Power phase heatsinks and the LGA1151 Socket. To the left and near the edge of the board we find the other CPU Fan header (CPUFAN1), closely followed by the four DDR4 DIMM slots. Note the DDR4 Boost lines, more on this later…
Looking at the bottom of the board and again working from left to right, we have an HD Audio header in the left corner, followed by the last of three System Fan headers (SYSFAN2). Then we have what I consider to be an oddly named component and that is the SLOW_1 switch, I certainly hope it’s off, or maybe it needs to be on!? Again more on this later… JTBT1 is not really known to me, and is described in the manual as being used to connect a specific card!? To the right of this we have a TPM module, followed by a serial port, two USB 2.0 headers and finally the Front Panel headers.
Flipping the board over allows us to further appreciate the matte black PCB, it also gives us an indication of where some of those components have gone. We can also see that most of the logos often found on the front of the board have been moved to the back. Also note that the main heatsinks are screwed to the board, which is also always good to see. Also if we look closely at the isolation line on the right that separates the audio from the rest of the board we can see 13 tiny LEDs that will illuminate this line (Red) when the board is powered up.
Focusing on some of the finer details of the MSI Z170A GAMING M5 our attention is first drawn to the Dragon heatsink, covering what is effectively the South Bridge, good it looks too! Next let’s just look at the other heatsinks that dominate the top of the board, these red on black painted heatsinks help cool the CPU power phases and are actually screwed through the board. Then we have DDR4 BOOST, what’s that I hear you ask; well MSI have created isolated memory circuitry. ‘This design ensures the memory signals stay pure for optimal performance and stability’, ooh and there’s an XMP LED indicator too! 😉
Looking at some of the other main features of the MSI Z170A GAMING M5 motherboard we have MSI’s latest Audio Boost 3 on-board sound card supported by a Realtek ALC1150 codec and a Nahimic Sound Technology. This 8.1 channel HD audio setup is isolated from the rest of the board and should provide Studio Grade quality and supports high impedance headphones by way of its dual headphone amplifiers (that you can see just south and to the left of the main processor). Also nearer the top of the board and behind the main IO we have the stalwart of Gaming LAN ports the Killer Ethernet E2400. This port ‘automatically detects and accelerates game traffic ahead of other network traffic’. Finally in the bottom corner of the board we find a really useful debug LED; very helpful should things go wrong as it will supply you a code during bootup that you can look up in the manual providing further support information.
Other highlights and a particular favourite of mine are the two Twin Turbo M.2 ports. These two ports support both PCIe and SATA M.2 SSDs with transfer speeds up to 64B GB/s! I’m a huge fan of discrete devices such as this, perfect for keeping that all important Rig build clean and tidy, no more wires either, woohoo! 😉
Looking at the SATA ports on offer we have eight in total, x2 eSATA ports and x6 SATA 6GB/s ports all provided courtesy of the Intel Skylake chipset. Note how the ports (and the USB 3.0 port) are horizontal to the board (they’re normally vertical) this may well help with installation and cabling, and should help prevent those big loops that we see as the cable exits a grommet and loops into the vertical socket. Although I fear that this may not work in all cases (haha there’s joke there somewhere!).
Finally we have that oddly named SLOW switch now what’s that all about!? This switch is actually used to slow the boot time down when you’re overclocking, hopefully giving you more chance of getting into Windows with that record-breaking Overclock. The switch is off (to the left) by default as in the image above right.
A new build was put together to house the MSI Z170A GAMING M5 motherboard with a new Intel Core i5-6600K Skylake CPU and new DDR4 memory in the form of G.Skill RipJaws 2400MHz. The following components were used:
|Case||Cooler Master HAF XB||Power Supply||Corsair Professional Series AX 760i|
|Motherboard||MSI Z170A GAMING M5||CPU||Intel Core I5-6600K Processor|
|CPU Cooler||Noctua NH-U12S||RAM||G Skill Ripjaws 4 F4-2400C15Q-16GRR 16GB|
|Graphics Card||XFX AMD Radeon R9 290X DD Black Edition||SSD||HyperX FURY 120GB|
Installation of the MSI Z170A GAMING M5 into the Cooler Master HAF XB was as straightforward as any other motherboard install. After first installing the motherboard’s I/O Shield I set about the motherboard assembly. First I installed our new Intel Core i5-6600K Skylake CPU and then installed our new DDR4 test RAM modules the G.Skill RipJaws 4 2400MHz 16GB kit. To this I then added our new CPU Cooler of choice, the impressive Noctua NH-U12S, made all the more simple thanks to Noctua’s SecuFirm2 mounting system. With this done the motherboard assembly was installed into the base of the HAF XB case and secured using the normal nine screws.
All necessary SATA cables were connected to the motherboard (SATA1 & SATA2), then in turn to both the Seagate 2TB SSHD and HyperX Fury SSD test drives. All of the relevant power cables from the Corsair Professional Series AX760i are then plugged into the MSI Z170A GAMING M5 along with all of the case fans. Final cables included USB 3.0 and HD audio along with the always rather fiddly Front Panel wires. This was made all the more fiddly as there’s no info on the board itself, so the manual had to come out! That just left the installation of our toasty test GPU the XFX Radeon R9 290X DD Black Edition! Now it’s time for some testing…
For all of our Z170 testing we will be using Windows 10 (DirectX 12), therefore a new installation of Windows 10 64Bit was performed and the following Drivers were installed. The latest MSI Drivers were used and can been obtained (here). Although the MSI Z170A GAMING M5 has its Drivers and Utilities available on the supplied DVD, we here at pcG try to keep up with the latest Drivers and software where possible.
|* The latest BIOS version (1.3) was downloaded and installed via MSI’s UEFI based M-Flash utility and this version was used throughout testing *|
- Intel Chipset Driver (Intel Chipset Driver ver: 10.1.1.9)
- Audio Driver (Realtek High Definition Audio Driver ver: 18.104.22.16892)
- Killer LAN (Killer Network Driver ver: 22.214.171.1245)
- Intel USB 3.0 (ASMedia USB3.0/3.1 Drivers ver: 126.96.36.199)
- AMD Catalyst Software Suite (15.20.1062.1004)
During testing the following tools/benchmarks & games were used/played:
I had no problems when booting up my Test Rig and after an initial boot I went into the MSI UEFI to check the Load Optimized Default settings. The new Intel Skylake Core i5-6600K CPU had been detected correctly and was running at its default 3.5GHz. And, as you can see from the first screenshot (below) the four G.Skill RipJaews 4 DDR4 RAM modules were running at out of the box frequency of 2133MHz and not their rated maximum of 2400MHz. What’s was also nice to see is that the Debug still has a readout on it, and no it’s not an Error Number it’s the CPU temperature, clever that! 😉
But in the MSI Click BIOS 5 UEFI there’s a couple of tools to help us, we can either enable the memory’s XMP Profile (2400MHz / 15-15-15-35) via the XMP button top left, or enable GAME BOOST that will not only overclock our 6600K to 4.1GHz but enable XMP as well (although strangely the XMP LED on the MB doesn’t illuminate this way!?). Opting for the latter option and then saving throws up the first of the images below…
As you can see the UEFI throws up a handy BIOS update log showing you all of the settings that are going to be changed, very useful! Once rebooted we can now see that our Intel Core i5-6600K is now running at 4.1GHz. To be honest this is a mild overclock compared to the stock Boost frequency of 3.9GHz, but hey is free right!?
- Benchmark Results (CPU @ STOCK: 3.5GHz (1.176v) : RAM @ 2400MHz) with XFX AMD Radeon R9 290X DD Black Edition
|Metro Last Light||1920×1080||79.00|
|Unigine Heaven 4.0||1920×1080||1424|
- Benchmark Results (CPU @ OC: 4.5GHz (1.3v) : RAM @ 2400MHz) with XFX AMD Radeon R9 290X DD Black Edition
|Metro Last Light||1920×1080||79.33|
|Unigine Heaven 4.0||1920×1080||1421|
As you can see from all of the benchmark scores above (in the Gaming tests: Metro/Unigine) there’s very little between the stock results and the results when running with a 600MHz overclock! Why is this? Well this is nothing to do with the MSI MB that’s for sure and it’s also nothing to do with the Z170 platform either. It’s just a simple fact that modern day Gaming doesn’t rely much on the CPU and its associated sub-system.
But looking back over time and at some of the last Z97 motherboard reviews (Biostar & Asus) we can see that the Skylake/Z170 setup does outperform the Z97 setup, but the margin is so small (only a few percent) you’re really unlikely to notice it in game!
There are so many features and so much software that comes with the MSI Z170A GAMING M5, that to try and cover it would be a review in itself! I’m also not a big fan of software so for me the only software that I’m likely to install is MSI’s Command Center and that in itself is a portal to a plethora of Apps and options. But let’s at least take a look at what I would consider to be the more interesting of the Apps/Software available…
Software (Command Center)
Despite my distaste for software in general (maybe it’s something to do with the fact I’m an ex-programmer), I have to confess that I rather like MSI’s Command Center. It’s a good looking easy to use piece of software and is a good one-stop-shop for most things your regular Gamer/Overclocker needs. Here you can mess with the CPU Core speeds, voltage and memory speeds as well as Enabling the Game Boost Function.
The Sensors option (accessed via Advanced) allows you to look at the various sensors (temp/fan speed) on the board and brings up a rather smart looking Real-time Onboard Temperature Sensors Control, although there’s no real control to speak of other than the fact you can turn all of the fan control from minimal to full. Although this just seems to be a simulation as once it gets to full it drops back to minimal again!?
Also you can take a look at all of the various voltage across the board and adjust them (and apply them) on the fly which is kind of neat. There’s a fair bit here to be honest maybe too much for a Gamer’s board IMHO… I would actually like to see a Gamer’s Command Center with Gaming App (see below) integrated.
Software (Gaming App)
Then there’s MSI’s Gaming App, a little App that really acts like a basic overclock tool for your CPU, there are three settings OC, Gaming Mode and Silent. OC mode overclocks the CPU to 4.1GHz across all cores with no Stepping (so the CPU Core speeds do not fluctuate) and Gaming Mode seems to be Stock with stepping (where the CPU Cores fluctuate between 3.6 & 3.9GHz). Silent Mode (I wont be using that!) seems to adjust the stepping to between 3.9GHz and 800MHz. It’s a useful tool but a little confusing if you ask me, best to just set it to OC Mode, or dial in a manual OC from inside the UEFI.
Software (Live Update)
|The MSI Live Update 6 utility is a simple but useful tool for ensuring that all of your Drivers, Software and even BIOS is up to date. There’s a useful System Information tab too…|
Hardware/Software (Audio Boost 3 & Nahimic)
As some of you know I’m an aspiring Audiophile, so I set about testing the latest on-board Sound setup from MSI with genuine interest. For testing purposes I chose to pair it with my favourite headset of all time the HyperX Cloud (not the Cloud II BTW). So how was the MSI on-board sound (with Nahimic Audio Enhancer) I guess is the question? The sound produced is best described as OK, overall I felt that there was a lack of power (of the delivery) and a lack of volume, yet the quality of the sound itself was actually quite good. It was certainly clear and devoid of audible anomalies, and the high and mid-ranges were good, but the lack of power seems to prevent the soundcard from delivering any real bass!
Luckily the Nahimic software came to the rescue allowing the soundcard to shine a little more, especially when using the Gaming Profile. There are two other Profiles Music and Movie, the enhancer can also be tuned off by selecting the button in the centre. Overall the sound as a little disappointing, but this is effectively a mid-range board, and you’re pretty much getting what you paid for…
The MSI Z170A GAMING M5 is the third iteration of MSI’s mid-range Gaming board that we have seen and now in Z170 form it looks better than ever! If you’re in the market for a new Z170 based Gaming board then this latest version is still a solid choice.
The MSI Z170A GAMING M5 arrived at pcG in a smart predominately red box with the motherboard and accessories within adequately protected. On first inspection I have to admit I was impressed with both the design, layout and cleanliness of this latest offering from MSI’s enthusiast range. Not that the board itself was clean (like free of dirt!), it was the lack of components visible on the board that impressed, you actually get to see that smart matte black PCB hiding beneath. Overall MSI have done a grand job of creating a good looking board packing all of the features a Gamer needs, including most importantly SLI and Crossfire support. One of my favourite features of the board is the two Twin Turbo M.2 ports, we here at pcG are big fans of these diminutive little sticks of wonder, especially when MSI has support for both PCIe and SATA devices.
Installation, as you would expect was easy enough, with all of the usual ports in the right places. The change to horizontal SATA ports, at first I thought could be problematic, but in the end I warmed to the idea as it stops that over arching loop that the vertical type promote. Once in use I found the MSI Click BIOS 5 to be as easy to navigate as any board before it, with its EZ Mode and Advanced Modes. I did find it odd though that if you enable XMP then an XMP LED illuminates on the MB, but if you enable Game Boost (which by default also enables XMP) the LED doesn’t illuminate!? I was also a little disappointed at the 200MHz overclock for our Skylake 6600K (400MHz if it’s a 6700K), but I guess it is free!
Performance wise the MSI Z170A GAMING M5 put in a fine showing in our Gaming benchmarks, pretty much equalling any motherboard/CPU combination we have seen before and that even includes X99. During Gaming and in general testing I saw no crashes or signs of any instability. Only when manually overclocking did I run into trouble (which is to be expected); I managed to get a nice and stable 4.5GHz overclock at 1.3v, I could have pushed further but all of our testing is done with air CPU Coolers and quite frankly as all of our Gaming benchmarks show there’s not much point on pushing the CPU much harder anyway…
One of the important features of any good Gaming motherboard is the on-board audio, that’s actually has come a long way in recent years. Now while the MSI Audio Boost 3 and Nahimic Enhanced soundcard was clear and devoid of anomalies, the overall sound output was lacking oomph! The high and midrange were good, but there was a distinct lack of bass and a overall lack of power, and therefore volume, which is a bit of a shame…
Software wise the MSI comes equipped with a plethora of software should you wish to delve in. I took a look at the Command Center, Gaming App, Live Update and the Nahimic software and all of it was of a high quality and was easy to use. But to be fair I probably wouldn’t use it on a Gaming Rig. In fact another criticism would be that there’s maybe too many avenues for overclocking the MSI Z170A GAMING M5! A nice simple options list in the UEFI with some predefined Profiles would have sufficed IMHO!
Overall the MSI Z170A GAMING M5 is one great looking Gamer centric motherboard that’s a good partner for your Skylake based Gaming Rig. The performance is there as is the stability and we had no issues running our Intel Core i5-6600K at 4.5GHz (@1.3v). The board has just seen a price drop too and can now be picked up for around £140. I would have liked to have seen some OC profiles in the UEFI though and that on-board soundcard isn’t as good as some of the others we’ve seen (or is that heard!) in the past.
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Many thanks to MSI for providing this sample for review