MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon Motherboard Review
The world of Gaming Motherboards is beginning to settle a bit now, dare I even say it’s beginning to stagnate a little! Motherboard manufacturers are doing all they can to differentiate their MBs from the competition’s in an attempt to attract potential buyers. MSI are fully aware of this having (almost) invented the Gaming motherboard around 3 years ago with their Z87 based boards and the ubiquitous Dragon. But even they are beginning to find it more an more difficult to come up with new features that the PC Gamer needs, or is that wants…
Well it’s now 3 years later and every manufacturer has their Gaming range, as do MSI with their new Enthusiast and Performance ranges. But the latest board from their Performance range has something new and it’s something we all like (I think!) and that’s Carbon Fibre and RGB lighting! This then is the new MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon. The Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon is actually an evolution of the (now discontinued) Z170A Gaming Pro, but now with Carbon Fibre effect heatsinks and RGB lighting. In addition to this the Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon is an Intel Z170 based ATX motherboard supporting the latest 6th generation Intel® Core™ i3/i5/i7 processors. This particular motherboard has four DIMM slots supporting Dual Channel Memory/RAM up to 3600MHz OC with a total maximum of 64GB. There’s a total of seven PCIe slots, three of which are x16 slots while the other four are x1 slots. As the second x16 slot supports x8 speed there’s both support for Nvidia’s SLI and AMD’s CrossFire technologies. In addition to this the motherboard sports 6 x SATA 6Gb/s ports as well as a single eSATA port. There are a total of sixteen USB ports (x8 via the back panel & x8 via motherboard headers) supporting eight USB 3.x and eight USB 2.0. The Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon also features a Realtek® ALC1150 7.1 channel sound card, an Intel Gigabit LAN controller and a Turbo M.2 socket supporting speeds up to 32Gb/s.
The MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon arrived at pcG is a smart looking box adorned with a what appears to be the image of a car, a fast car of course! It would appear that the day of the ubiquitous MSI dragon in over… On the front of the box box, other than the brand and product name, MSI have chosen to highlight the RGB lighting and the Intel Z170 chipset and Core brands as well as confirming that this Motherboard is from their Performance range.
The back of the box is a little like information overload as there’s so much to take in! Over on the left we see an image of the Motherboard showing of its RGB credentials. To the right of this MSI have chosen to highlight the Mystic Light, Audio Boost, Gaming LAN, Military Class 5, LAN Protect, USB 3.1 as well as a host of other features. Below this we see the board’s specifications (see Specifications/Features below) and an overview of the rear I/O, which is always nice to see.
On opening the box of the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon we can see that the motherboard (and its associated contents) are adequately packaged, with the motherboard supported by a folded cardboard frame and sealed in an anti-static bag.
Removing the motherboard and its associated packaging allows us access to the section below that houses all of the motherboard’s accessories
There’s not much in the box but the basics are here, although it’s a little disappointing to see only two SATA cables. But it’s nice not to see door hangers and stickers for a change… 😉
At the time of review, the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon is retailing on Overclockers UK for approximately £128 and comes with a 3 year warranty.
courtesy of MSI
|CPU||Supports 6th Gen Intel® Core™ i3/i5/i7 processors, and Intel® Pentium® and Celeron® processors for Socket LGA1151|
|Memory||4 x DDR4 memory slots, support up to 64GB, supports DDR4 3600(OC)/ 3200(OC)/ 3000(OC)/ 2800(OC)/ 2600(OC)/ 2400/ 2133 MHz, Dual channel memory architecture|
|Onboard Graphics Outputs||1 x HDMI™ port, support a maximum resolution of 4096×2160@24Hz, 2560×1600@60Hz
1 x DVI-D port, support a maximum resolution of 1920×1200@60Hz
|Multi-GPU Support||Supports 3-Way AMD® CrossFire™ Technology
Supports 2-Way NVIDIA® SLI™ Technology
|PCI Slots||3 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots (support x16/x0/x4 or x8/x8/x4 modes)
4 x PCIe 3.0 x1 slots
|Storage||Intel® Z170 Chipset
6 x SATA 6Gb/s ports* (2 ports reserved for SATA Express port)
Supports RAID 0, RAID1, RAID 5 and RAID 10 for SATA storage devices
1 x M.2 slot
– Supports PCIe 3.0 x 4 and SATA 6Gb/s standards,4.2cm/ 6cm/ 8cm length M.2 SSD cards
– Supports PCIe 3.0 x 4 NVMe Mini-SAS SSD with Turbo U.2 Host Card
1 x SATAe port (PCIe 3.0 x2)
|USB||ASMedia® ASM1142 Chipset
– 2 x USB 3.1 Gen2 (SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps) ports on the back panel
Intel® Z170 Chipset
|Audio||Realtek® ALC1150 Codec, 7.1-Channel High Definition Audio|
|LAN||1 x Intel® I219-V Gigabit LAN controller|
|Form Factor||12 in. x 9.6 in. (30.5 cm x 24.4 cm), ATX Form Factor|
First impressions of the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon are, well, a little meh to be honest! Don’t get me wrong it’s not a bad looking motherboard by any stretch of the imagination. But it does look a little boring compared to some of the others that we’ve seen. On the other hand due to its stealthy black nature it will go with pretty much any Rig design you can think of and that is a good thing! The other oddity is that the board looks like (take a look at the right side of the board) it’s one of those narrow ATX boards, but at the last minute someone changed their mind… Maybe it was to make room for that RGB lighting perhaps!?
Looking at what I would call the right side of the board and working left to right; in the far left corner we find four of the six SATA 6Gb/s ports, followed by a horizontal USB 3.0 connector. It’s at this point the board begins to look a little sparse and therefore a little odd IMHO! Next up (missing out JSPI1) we have a vertically mounted USB 3.0 port, followed by the main 24-pin power socket. This is then followed by the one of three system fan heaers (SYSFAN3) and one of two CPU fan headers (CPUFAN2) Just above the 24-pin power socket we find the four memory DIMMs supporting up to 64GB of RAM in a Dual Channel configuration, supporting speeds up to 3600MHz OC.
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). Beyond this we find the Realtek® ALC1150 7.1 channel audio circuitry with its isolated audio PCB, Audio Boost technology and Nahimic Audio Enhancer (via software).
Looking at the PCIe 3.0 lanes we see that this ATX Motherboard features seven PCIe lanes. The top one (nearest the CPU) is a x1 slot followed by a x16 slot and then another two x1 slots. Next up we have another x16 slot (note the first two x16 slots feature MSI armor). Next we have another x1 slot followed by the last of the three x16 slots. Note that if one Graphics Card is used the top x16 slot runs at x16 speed, if two Graphics cards are used the top one runs at x8 and the second x16 slot runs at x8, meaning that the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon supports both AMD’s CrossFire™ multi GPU technology and Nvidia’s SLI technology.
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, new for Skylake. Note the carbon effect inserts on the heatsinks! In addition to this over on the right we find the main 8-pin CPU power socket, while on the left of the heatsink we find the second on two CPU fan headers (CPUFAN1).
Looking at the bottom of the board and again working from left to right, in the far corner we find the HD Audio header followed by the second of three system fan headers (SYSFAN2). Next we have one of those weird MSI headers (JTBT1) that’s apparently for something! Next up is the boards TPM module header (still never used one of these!?) and the board’s two Front Panel headers (JFP2 & JFP1). This is then followed by two USB 2.0 headers and finally the last of the six SATA 6GB/s ports with integrated eSATA port. Note that these ports are vertically mounted opposed to the other four horizontally mounted ports on the other side.
I had hoped that when I flipped the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon over I would see a mass of LEDs, but alas no! In fact you’ll be hard pushed to even find them. Note then that they are only positioned on one edge of the board and they don’t even cover the entire length!? There are (as yo can see) seven LEDs that cover approximately 60% of the edge of the board. As you can see the board also feature a matt black PCB which is good to see and we can also see that those heatsinks are all held in place by screws, again good to see (especially for those who like to use them as handles!). We can also see why the top side of the board isn’t cluttered with logos etc. 😉
Taking a more detailed look at some of the more interesting features of the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon let me first draw you attentions to the DIMM slots and of course DDR4 Boost. The four DIMM slots themselves support up to 64GB Memory/RAM while supporting speeds up to 3600MHz OC!? In addition to this we have DDR4 Boost that has optimized traces and fully isolated circuitry, helping to keep those memory signals Pure for optimal performance (MSI’s words not mine!). If nothing else it looks pretty cool; would be even cooler if that lit up! 😉
Apart from the CPU power phase heatsinks, that feature a bit of Carbon, the only other place to find some is on the chipset heatsink in the bottom corner of the board. Although as you can see it’s very much suffering from the ‘simply stuck on’ look! 🙁
Next up let’s have a quick look at those (horizontal and vertical) SATA ports, all of which are powered by the Intel Chipset and support 6Gb/s. I’m unsure about both the placement and the vertical/horizontal split of the ports, not that it bothers me per se, as I and (I’m guessing) most of us don’t use more than a couple of ports, I’m just unsure why MSI have chosen to do this!? NOTE: If using the M.2 port SATA ports 5 & 6 will be disabled, as they effectively provide the channels for the M.2 port itself.
Looking around the board we find a small black/red cover just behind the main I/O panel and above the first PCIe slot. This GAMING LAN cover covers the Intel based LAN chip that hides (one assumes!) beneath. The adapter supports traffic prioritization via MSI’s GAMING LAN app and also the socket itself features LAN Protect, providing 15KV of anti-surge protection. It also illuminates bright red, which is both useful and pretty cool! 😉
Lurking on the edge of the board we find another black/red cover (Audio Boost 3), this time its covering up the Realtek® ALC1150 7.1 channel audio solution with its SNR of 113dB. Note the isolated PCB track that runs around the edge of the audio solution, that also illuminates (red) when the board is powered up! In fact it can also be controlled via MSI Gaming App too.
Next up we have one of James’s favourite techs of today and that’s the M.2 connector. Thankfully MSI have chosen to install one aboard the Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon, with this particular one supporting speeds of up to 32Gb/s. Surely you got to love something that’s faster than any regular 2.5″ SSD and not much bigger than a couple of fifty pence pieces!? 🙂 NOTE: If using the M.2 port SATA ports 5 & 6 will be disabled, as they effectively provide the channels for the M.2 port itself.
There’s very little wrong and very little that concerns me about the new MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon, but; there’s not too much to get excited about either I’m afraid! The main selling points (I’m guessing from the product name and the box) is the Carbon and the RGB, well the carbon is, to be honest almost unnoticeable and we have yet to see the RGB lighting, so fingers crossed… 😉
A new build was put together to house the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon Motherboard with a new Intel Core i5-6600K Skylake CPU and new DDR4 memory in the form of Crucial Ballistix Sport LT 2400MHz 16GB. In addition to this, the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon was (unusually) installed into NZXT’s latest (not the Razer Editioon) H440 Case in an attempt to show it off a little more, especially as the one used has NZXT’s HUE+ (RGB Lighting System) installed. 😉 The following components were also used:
|Case||NZXT H440||Power Supply||Corsair Professional Series AX 760i|
|Motherboard||MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon||CPU||Intel Core I5-6600K Processor|
|CPU Cooler||Noctua NH-U12S||RAM||Crucial Ballistix Sport LT 2400MHz 16GB|
|Graphics Card||EVGA GeForce GTX 980Ti Classified||SSD||Crucial BX200 480GB|
Installation of the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon was easy enough thanks in part to a good layout. The Motherboard assembly was simple enough consisting of the board itself, our test Intel Core i5-6600K Skylake CPU, a Noctua NH-U12S CPU Cooler and 16GB of Crucial Ballistix Sport LT memory. With the motherboard assembly complete it was secured to our test Case (NZXT H440) by way of the nine screws required.
All necessary SATA cables were connected to the motherboard, I actually used one of the horizontal SATA 6Gb/s ports on the right side of the board (SATA4) for the Crucial BX200 SSD. All of the relevant power cables from the Corsair AX760i were then plugged into the Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon along with all of the case fans. Final cables included USB 3.0, with the choice of both Horizontal and vertical (I used vertical) and HD Audio along with the always rather fiddly Front Panel connectors. That just left the installation of our new test GPU an EVGA GeForce GTX 980Ti Classified.
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 Pro Carbon 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 1.1) was downloaded and installed via MSI’s M-Flash utility and this version was used throughout testing. *|
- System & Chipset Drivers – Intel Chipset Driver (10.1.1.9)
- USB Drivers – ASMedia USB3.0/3.1 Drivers (184.108.40.206)
- Audio Driver – Realtek High Definition Audio Driver (220.127.116.1108)
- On-Board LAN Drivers – Intel Network Drivers (20.4)
- Nvidia Driver 361.75 WHQL
During testing the following tools/benchmarks & games were used/played:
I have to admit I rather like MSI’s Click BIOS 5, ok I have to confess I’ve seen a lot of it by now and therefore know some of its intricacies. Overall though I very much like the look, it’s for the most part easy to use, and the definition and the functionality between the EZ Mode and the Advanced Mode is logical. The MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon booted first time and I was greeted with the UEFI EZ Mode above below left. As you can see everything has been detected correctly and the Intel Core i5-6600K is running at 3.5GHz, while our 2400MHz Crucial Ballistix Sport LT RAM has defaulted (which is actually unusual, but good!) to 2400MHz.
One of the plus points of MSI boards from the past was the OC Genie button, sometimes found on the Motherboard itself and sometimes in the UEFI. In the last year this has been replaced with the all new Game Boost button and the XMP button, that really do the same thing as OC Genie did! Enabling the XMP button simply forces your RAM to run at its Profile 1 XMP setting (assuming it has one). This by default is normally the RAM’s maximum speed with the correct Timings and Voltage. Enabling the Game Boost button here on the Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon simply sets our 6600K’s clock speed to 4.1GHz, which is a little disappointing to be honest! The end result is that our Intel Core i5-6600K is now running at 4.1GHz instead of 3.5GHz (3.9GHz Turbo), and the RAM is now running at its XMP (Profile 1) speed of 2400MHz. Result! 🙂
One oddity that I noticed is that the XMP LED on the Motherboard only comes on if you enable the XMP button in the UEFI, if you enable XMP any other way (like via Game Boost or manually) the LED does not illuminate! Go figure!?
What’s nice about this UEFI and others (namely Asus) is that you get to see the settings that are being changed before you save. This is a really handy way of learning what some of these inbuilt overclocking functions do. The screenshot above right shows the changes made to dial in our 4.5GHz overclock with a manual Core voltage of 1.3v. To dial in our normal overclock settings for our Intel Core i5-6600K at 4.5GHz the only settings I changed in the UEFI were, CPU Ratio – 45, Extreme Memory Profile (X.M.P) – Enabled and CPU Core Voltage 1.3V.
- Benchmark Results (CPU @ STOCK: 3.5GHz (1.208v) : RAM @ 2400MHz) with EVGA GeForce GTX 980Ti Classified
|Metro Last Light||1920×1080||106.00|
|Unigine Heaven 4.0||1920×1080||2306|
- Benchmark Results (CPU @ OC: 4.5GHz (1.320v) : RAM @ 2400MHz) with EVGA GeForce GTX 980Ti Classified
|Metro Last Light||1920×1080||112.00|
|Unigine Heaven 4.0||1920×1080||2320|
As is so often the case here at pcG the benchmark results for the stock testing of the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon Motherboard has produced results inline with most of the other Z170 boards tested so far. No surprise there then…
The overclocked performance of the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon is far better! In fact it has produced some of the best results we’ve seen so far 🙂 Although as is also the norm, there’s very little in it to be honest…
Also again we’re actually seeing a difference (on our Skylake platform) in the Stock and Overclocked scores, especially in the Metro Last Light benchmark that seems to be leaning on the motherboard and sub-system more than some of the other Gaming related benchmarks. This is due to the increase in frame rate as now the new GPU is not holding the motherboard back in any way, therefore the motherboard is forced into working that little bit harder! 😉
Sound wise (pretty important on a Gaming motherboard) the Realtek® ALC1150 7.1 channel sound card aboard the Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon performed ok. It’s certainly not as good as some of the other on-board sound setups we’ve heard, as it’s lacking any form of real sparkle and it’s also a little lacking in power. Those who like it loud may want to look at alternatives or invest in a dedicated soundcard.
There are so many features and so much software that comes with (or is downloadable) for the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon, 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 utility and that in itself is a portal to a handful of other options. But I have to admit I do rather like MSI’s one-stop-shop Command Center, as I’ve no doubt said before! 😉 Also as we’ve covered this software numerous times before please take a look at the last MSI Motherboard Review (MSI Z170M Mortar) for more details, especially as there’s some specific software for this board that we do need to take a look at!
Software (MSI GAMING APP)
This is the MSI Gaming App that is used throughout their Motherboard range and their Graphics Cards and it’s slowly becoming another one-stop-shop for overclocking, control, monitoring and information. But this time around we’re looking to control the LED lighting aboard the Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon and this is the software to use (get it here).
As is the norm for MSI the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon is another great Gaming motherboard, that offers great performance at a regular price. But I’m unsure if the carbon aesthetics and the RGB illumination are enough to ensure that this board is at the top of your shopping list…
The MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon arrived at pcG in a smart regular box adorned with what would appear to be a car, a fast one at that! It would seem the day of the ubiquitous MSI Dragon is over, shame! The motherboard and the box contents were adequately packaged and presented, but there’s not much in the box other than the essentials really, not even a door hanger or a sticker, but hey that’s no bad thing IMHO!
Once out of the box the first impressions of the Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon are not as good as other boards that I’ve seen in the past. In fact it bears a heavy resemblance (to look at, but not in size) to the recently reviewed Z170M Mortar. It’s basically an all black board, with some hard to spot Carbon bits! It all looks ok, especially if you like that understated stealthy look, but there’s not much to set it apart form the competition at this point. But having said that we’ve not powered it up yet! 😉
Installation and setup of the Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon was simple and easy, thanks in part to a decent board layout. Strangely I rather like the inclusion of the two USB 3.0 headers (one horizontal and one vertical) but I’m less keen on the split SATA ports again horizontal and vertical!? The board layout is also a little weird, either because the board started life with a shorter PCB or maybe it’s to make way for the RGB LEDs beneath, I’m not too sure but it looks a bit odd…
I also rather like MSI’s Click BIOS 5 that has now matured into a easy to use UEFI with a good distinction between its EZ Mode and its Advanced Mode. Overclocking via the Game Boost button within the UEFI or manually is also nice and simple. Although the Game Boost 4.1GHz overclock on our 3.9GHz Intel 6600K CPU is a little disappointing.
With the board powered up we get a look at the RGB illumination for the first time, and while it is indeed nice, it’s far from spectacular! Maybe that’s because to get some control over those LEDs we need to install MSI’s Gaming App? The app itself is a little clunky and it takes a little time to sort out what’s what. But once up ‘n running you can begin to play with the illumination to your hearts content. And, on the whole it’s good with plenty of effects to choose from, with the highlights being the Rainbow effect and the fact you can link the LEDs to the sound being produced by your PC, which is pretty darn cool. The only downside is that the LEDs struggle to reproduce the colour white…
Performance wise the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon performed as good or better than any Z170 board we’ve tested so far, especially when overclocked. With both SLI and Crossfire support and a M.2 slot the MSI board offers a great deal for us Gamers. The rest of MSI’s software suite (namely Command Center) is also pretty slick, offering a one-stop-shop for overclocking and monitoring etc.
The bottom line here is that the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon is another great Z170 motherboard from MSI, and there’s a lot to like; from the performance to the LED lighting and from the SLI/Crossfire support to the M.2 slot. The only real let down here is potentially the price and the fact that (in my mind) the Carbon/RGB features of this board promised more than it actually delivered, and that’s a bit of a shame I think! But I also think MSI might be onto something here…
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Many thanks to MSI for providing this sample for review