MSI Z170A Tomahawk Motherboard Review
We’ve seen a few MSI Motherboards of late and there seems to be a new MSI Motherboard released every month! This month it’s the turn of the latest board from MSI’s Arsenal range, this is the MSI Z170A Tomahawk. In fact what’s important here is that the Tomahawk is one of the cheapest full ATX Z170 Gaming Motherboards that MSI produce with a SRP of just £99…
The MSI Z170A Tomahawk 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 five PCIe slots, two of which are x16 slots while the other 3 are x1 slots. In addition to this (and rather bizarrely!) there are also two PCI slots!? As the second x16 slot does not support x8 speed there’s support for AMD’s CrossFire technology but not Nvidia’s SLI technology. In addition to this the motherboard sports 6 x SATA 6Gb/s ports and no eSATA ports. There are a total of twelve USB ports (x6 via the back panel & x6 via motherboard headers) supporting eight USB 3.x and four USB 2.0. The Z170A Tomahawk also features a Realtek® ALC892 Codec 7.1 channel sound card, an Realtek® RTL8111H Gigabit LAN controller, a Turbo M.2 socket supporting speeds up to 32Gb/s and a M.2 Wi-Fi/Bluetooth connector supporting an (optional) Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module sold separately.
The MSI Z170X Tomahawk arrived at pcG in a rather unusual green coloured box, that’s now the norm for all of MSI’s Arsenal range. On the front there’s imagery of what appears to be a missile along with some straps completing the military theme. In addition to this, other than branding and product name we also find the Intel Z170 Chipset logo along withe the Intel Core Inside logo.
The back of the box is awash with information describing some of the features aboard the Tomahawk, see below. In addition to this there’s an overview of the rear I/O and also a brief specifications section (see Specifications/Features below).
On opening the MSI Z170X Tomahawk box we see that the motherboard itself sits atop in a cardboard surround and also protected by an anti-static bag. Below this we find all of the motherboard’s bundled accessories. It’s all pretty adequate when it comes to packaging and presentation here…
Other than some parer work and those SATA cable labels there’s very little in the box, but that’s a good thing in my mind as really all we need is the manual, some SATA cables and that I/O shield! 😉
At the time of review, the MSI Z170A Tomahawk is retailing on Amazon for approximately £108 and comes with a 3 year warranty.
courtesy of MSI
• Supports 6th Gen Intel® Core™ i3/i5/i7 processors, and Intel® Pentium® and Celeron® processors for Socket LGA1151
• Intel® Z170 Chipset
• 4 x DDR4 memory slots, support up to 64GB
• 2 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots (support x16, x16/ x4 modes)
* No support PCI wake-up on S3, S4 & S5
• 1 x HDMI™ ports, support a maximum resolution of 4096×2160@24Hz,2560×1600@60Hz
• Supports 2-Way AMD® CrossFire™ Technology
• Intel® Z170 Chipset
* SATA5~6 ports will be unavailable when installing the M.2 module in M.2 (M2_1) slot.
• ASMedia® ASM1142 Chipset
• Intel® Z170 Chipset
• Realtek® ALC892 Codec
First impressions of the MSI Z170A Tomahawk are really pretty good, the Tomahawk is a good looking board and is likely to appeal to many with its black ‘n red colour scheme. But make no mistake this is a budget conscious ATX Motherboard and a lot of the bell and whistles are missing, but will that make a difference, I guess we shall see…
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 six SATA ports (see detail below). Next up we find two USB 3.0 headers (nice to see two!), one horizontal and one vertical. Further to the right we find the main 24-pin power connector followed by the first of three system fan headers (SYSFAN3). Between the 24-pin power socket and the system fan header sit MSI’s EZ Debug LED with indicators for both CPU, DRAM and VGA. This is then followed by the first of two CPU fan headers CPUFAN2, found in the far right corner. 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 and featuring MSI’s DDR4 Boost technology. This technology isolates the memory circuit from other components and ensures the memory signal stays pure for optimal performance and stability.
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® ALC892 Codec 7.1 channel audio solution with its isolated audio PCB, with its white highlighting.
Looking at the PCIe lanes, and rather bizarrely the PCI lanes we see that this ATX Motherboard features seven lanes that are split into five PCIe lanes and two PCI 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. Also 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 x4, meaning that the MSI Z170A Tomahawk supports AMD’s CrossFire™ multi GPU technology but not Nvidia’s SLI technology. Why there are two PCI lanes on this motherboard I have absolutely no idea! 😮
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. What’s nice to see here is that all of those heatsinks are held in place with screws, and not clips. This is important as these heatsinks are often used as handles! In the far right corner we find the CPU 8-pin power socket (in its normal place) and then to the left of the upper heatsink we find the second of 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, well something! Next up is the boards TPM module header (still never used one of these!?), Comm header and a parallel port connector (not likely to ever use these either!). This is then followed by a single USB 2.0 header and the two Front Panel headers. In the far corner we find another odd header (JSPI1) no idea what this is for and cant see it in the manual either!
Looking at the back of the MSI Z170A Tomahawk we can clearly see the matt black PCB and the screws that are holding all of those heatsinks in place, which is always good to see! Also note that many of the logos are on this side of the board keeping the other side clear, thus delivering a better overall aesthetic. In did feel that the PCB itself felt a little thin, but this is likely down to the budget nature of this motherboard.
Taking a tour around the board and looking at things in more detail, let’s first take a look at the (new for Skylake) LGA 1151 socket that dominates the top of the board. In addition to the socket we also have the detailing for MSI’s DDR4 Boost technology. This technology isolates the memory circuit from other components and ensures the memory signal stays pure for optimal performance and stability. Also note it is here we find the last of the three system fan headers (SYSFAN1) just up and left of the socket.
The chipset heatsink found at the bottom right of the MSI Z170A Tomahawk is nothing more than a black heatsink with an aluminium sticker effectively! But it does actually look quite good to be honest…
The Tomahawk features a Realtek® ALC892 Codec 7.1 channel on-board sound card, that’s further enhanced by MSI’s Audio Boost technology. This comprises of an isolated PCB that on this board does not illuminate unfortunately and also the use of high quality audio capacitors. Although I’m personally unsure about the white line detailing as I think it cheapens the board…
The MSI Z170A Tomahawk features just six SATA 3 6Gb/s all found in the corner on the right side of the motherboard. Note that all of these SATA ports are controlled courtesy of the Intel chipset.
The MSI Z170A Tomahawk doesn’t just have one M.2 slot it actually has two!? The first (above left) is your regular M.2 supporting SSDs with speeds up to 32Gb/s. The second, found just above the top PCIe slot is actually designed for a Wi-Fi module, often found on smaller MATX and ITX boards. I’m unsure then why it’s here on this board, especially given its budget nature!?
At this point I’m pretty impressed with the MSI Z170A Tomahawk, it’s a good looking board and has a decent array of features. It’s obviously (due to price point) missing some of the other features that higher-end boards have such as SLI, USB 3.1 Type C, Debug LEDs etc; but that is to be expected to be fair. The only oddity so far that I can see is the odd choice of components on the board, for example PCI slots, parallel port and M.2 Wi-Fi connector!? It’s almost as though MSI went to their parts bin and found a lot of old components that weren’t being used anymore!? And guess where they put them… 😉
A new build was put together to house the MSI Z170A Tomahawk Motherboard with a new Intel Core i5-6600K Skylake CPU and and new DDR4 memory in the form of G.Skill RipJaws 2400MHz. The following components were also used:
|Case||Cooler Master HAF XB||Power Supply||Corsair Professional Series AX 760i|
|Motherboard||MSI Z170A Tomahawk||CPU||Intel Core I5-6600K Processor|
|CPU Cooler||Noctua NH-U12S||RAM||G Skill Ripjaws 4 16GB|
|Graphics Card||EVGA GeForce GTX 980Ti Classified||SSD||HyperX FURY 120GB|
Installation of the MSI Z170A Tomahawk was simple enough thanks in part to a decent layout, with the only oddity being the placement of some of the fan headers (namely SYSFAN3). The Motherboard assembly was also simple enough consisting of the board itself, our test Intel Core i5-6600K Skylake CPU, a Noctua NH-U12S CPU Cooler and 8GB of G.Skill Ripjaws 4 memory. With the motherboard assembly complete it was secured into our test Case (Cooler Master HAF XB) by way of the nine screws required.
All necessary SATA cables were connected to the motherboard and for our test HyperX Fury SSD I actually used SATA6 port. Although this was a little foolish of me as if you install an M.2 SSD also, SATA ports 5/6 become disabled, as they are reflectively used by the M.2 socket. All of the relevant power cables from the Corsair AX760i were then plugged into the Tomahawk along with all of the case fans. Final cables included USB 3.0, with the choice of two, which is good to see! And of course the fiddly Front Panel connectors, nice to see the connection detail is printed on the board (just above the headers). 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 Tomahawk 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 1.4) 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)
- Audio Driver – Realtek High Definition Audio Driver (184.108.40.20630)
- USB 3.0/3.1 Driver – ASMedia USB3.0/3.1 Drivers (220.127.116.11)
- On-Board LAN Drivers – Realtek PCI-E Ethernet Drivers (10.6.1001.2015)
- Nvidia Driver 362.00 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 (above left) and the Advanced (above centre) Mode is logical. The MSI Z170A Tomahawk booted first time and I was greeted with the UEFI EZ Mode above. As you can see everything has been detected correctly and the Intel Core i5-6600K is running at 3.5GHz, while our 2400MHz G.Skill Ripjaws 4 RAM has defaulted correctly to 2133MHz.
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 Tomahawk 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.
One oddity that I noticed (again!) is that the XMP LED on the Motherboard only comes on if you enable the XMP button in the OC section of the UEFI, if you enable XMP any other way (like via Game Boost or the XMP button) the LED does not illuminate! Go figure!?
Dialing in our overclocked profile of 4.5GHz @ 1.3v with XMP on was simple enough. I adjusted the CPU Ratio to 45, the Extreme Memory Profile (X.M.P.) to Enabled and changed the CPU Core Voltage from Auto to 1.300V.
AS you can see (above centre) the settings that you’ve changed are shown to you before you exit the UEFI, which personally I think is a great idea. Not only does it give you a heads up of what’s changed but also its a good way of learning… 😉
The final UEFI screenshot above shows the result of the Overclocking; now the CPU is at 4.5Ghz with the RAM now running at its XMP speed of 2400MHz. Result!
- Benchmark Results (CPU @ STOCK: 3.5GHz (1.208v) : RAM @ 2400MHz) with EVGA GeForce GTX 980Ti Classified
|Metro Last Light||1920×1080||100.33|
|Unigine Heaven 4.0||1920×1080||2349|
- Benchmark Results (CPU @ OC: 4.5GHz (1.288v) : RAM @ 2400MHz) with EVGA GeForce GTX 980Ti Classified
|Metro Last Light||1920×1080||112.00|
|Unigine Heaven 4.0||1920×1080||2358|
Now while the MSI Z170A Tomahawk is a budget conscious Motherboard, there’s nothing budget about its performance. As we’ve seen in the past here at pcG there’s very little difference between one motherboard and another, to be honest. Here again the Tomahawk proves this by putting in some very respectable benchmark scores, easily as good as the ones we’ve seen in the past. Performance? Check!
Again here 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 (GTX 980Ti) is not holding the motherboard back in any way, therefore the motherboard is forced into working that little bit harder! 😉
The Realtek® ALC892 Codec 7.1 channel sound card aboard the Tomahawk is best described as adequate, in other words it’s good enough when considering (again) the budget nature of this board. Bass reproduction is actually quite good, but the overall sound is lacking any form of real sparkle and there’s not much volume on offer either.
There are so many features and so much software that comes with (or is downloadable) for the MSI Z170A Tomahawk, 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! 😉
Software (Command Center)
On launching MSI’s Command Center you’re greeted with a smart screen that depicts the current state of your CPU and its physical Cores, while on the right there’s a dial and various other options for controlling the motherboard’s attached fans. What’s particularly nice are the bars that represent the Core speeds and the way that these can now be overclocked through the software.
The impressive screenshot above just goes to show what’s available through the Command Center software, it basically shows almost every additional screen that can be called up via the software. As I said there’s certainly plenty of it.
Software (Live Update 6)
The MSI Z170A Tomahawk has caught me a little by surprise, as not only is a good looking motherboard but it’s also got a decent array of features and all of this at budget price. It’s also a competent Overclocker too! What more do you want…
The MSI Z170A Tomahawk arrived at pcG in MSI’s new green coloured military themed box, as is the norm for Gaming motherboards from their new Arsenal range. Packaging and presentation was adequate and in keeping with a board in this price range.
Once out of the box I was surprised to find the Tomahawk to be quite the looker, it’s black ‘n red colour scheme is sure to win a few over. General layout is also good, with only some oddly position faned headers giving a little cause for concern. What’s also odd is the component choice aboard the motherboard as there are components here that are at odds with the target audience and even at odd with the budget price. What on earth we want two PCI slots for I don’t know, add to this a M.2 based Wi-Fi connector and a parallel port and you’ll begin to see what I mean. None of these are issues, as you’re unlikely to use them anyway, as to why there on the board, well…
Installation and setup was a breeze and the board booted first time. As you may know I’m quite the fan of MSI’s Click BIOS 5 and using the Tomahawk has only reaffirmed this. There’s the simple option of overclocking via MSI’s Game Boost that pushed our Intel 6600K to 4.1GHz, but overclocking to our test 4.5GHz was almost as easy with just three options needing changing (see main review).
Performance wise the MSI Z170A Tomahawk also proved that even a budget motherboard can hold its own, with the Tomahawk putting in an excellent performance that matches many Z170 based boards before it.
Audio wise the board disappoints a little, which while a shame, we must bear in mind the boards budget credentials. Audio is adequate but it lacks sparkle and if you like it loud this may not be the board for you. But again we need to bear in mind the price point with a SRP of just £99.
Overall there’s a lot to like about the MSI Z170A Tomahawk, the simplicity of the board is actually welcome and it in now way holds it back. Yes there’s a strange mix of components and yes there’s no SLI support but pretty much everything else that you’ll need is here and it all works rather well… 🙂
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Many thanks to MSI for providing this sample for review