MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon Motherboard Review

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Over the past several months since Skylake CPUs have been released, Overclockers.com has been fortunate enough to review several different Z170 boards from all walks of life. The platform at this time is maturing (in age); boards are more stable, DDR4 memory, and PCIe-based SSD support are constantly improving. To improve upon things before Broadwell-E comes out here soon(ish), a lot of vendors are starting to implement aesthetic improvements such as more controllable RGB LEDs as is the case with the review board, the MSI Z170 Gaming Pro Carbon. Get comfy and let’s take a deeper dive and see how the board performs in our testing and how the board and those LEDs look!

Specifications and Features

As we know, this Z170 based motherboard supports 6th Generation Core i3/i5/i7 processors based on the Skylake architecture. The board has a total of four DIMM slots in a dual channel configuration supporting up to 3600 MHz (OC) speeds.

If you are using the integrated GPU on these chips, the board has an HDMI port as well as a DVI-D port. If you are like most who will use a discrete card, you can use up to three AMD GPUs (x8/x8/x4) in Crossfire or two with NVIDIA cards at x8/x8 (since they will not run with x4 bandwidth).

Storage-wise you are looking at six SATA 6Gbps ports (two reserved for SATA Express ports) and an M.2 slot with full PCIe 3.0 x4 bandwidth of 32Gbps (up to 80mm), all supported by the Z170 chipset. As far as USB storage, there are plenty of those as well. From the ASMedia controller, there are two USB 3.1 Gen2 ports on the back panel along with two USB 3.1 Gen1 with four more on internal connectors. Rounding out the USB ports are a total of eight USB 2.0 with four on the back and the rest from internal I/O.

The audio is handled by the popular and the pretty-good-sounding-for-integrated Realtek ALC1150 Codec with the MSI’s Audio Boost 3/Nahimic software. The LAN duties are managed by the Intel I219-V Gigabit Ethernet Controller; both are a popular choice for this chipset.

Last but not least, it is a standard ATX-sized board. So there shouldn’t be many fitment issues in any case that would accept the form factor.

Below is a list of specifications from the MSI Website for the Z170 Gaming Pro Carbon.

MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon Specifications
CPU Supports 6th Gen Intel® Core™ i3/i5/i7 processors, and Intel® Pentium® and Celeron® processors for Socket LGA1151
Chipset Intel® Z170 Chipset
Main 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
• Supports ECC, un-buffered memory
– ECC UDIMM memory (non-ECC mode)
• Supports Intel® Extreme Memory Profile (XMP)
* Please refer to Compatibility reports for more information of compatible memory.
On Board Graphics • 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
Expansion Slots • 3 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots (support x16/x0/x4 or x8/x8/x4 modes)
• 4 x PCIe 3.0 x1 slots
On-Board SATA

Intel® Z170 Chipset
• 6 x SATA 6Gb/s ports* (2 ports reserved for SATA Express port)
• 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**

– Supports RAID 0, RAID1, RAID 5 and RAID 10 for SATA storage devices

• 1 x SATAe port (PCIe 3.0 x2)*/ ***
• Supports Intel® Smart Response Technology for Intel Core™ processors

* SATA5 and SATA6 ports will be unavailable when installing the M.2 module in M.2 slot.
** The Turbo U.2 Host Card is not included, please purchase separately
*** SATAe port is backward compatible with SATA. SATA and SATAe ports maximum support 6x SATAs or 1x SATAe + 4x SATAs.

USB ASMedia® ASM1142 Chipset
– 2 x USB 3.1 Gen2 (SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps) ports on the back panel
Intel® Z170 Chipset
– 6 x USB 3.1 Gen1 (SuperSpeed USB) ports (2 ports on the back panel, 4 ports available through the internal USB 3.1 Gen1 connectors)
– 8 x USB 2.0 (High-speed USB) ports (4 ports on the back panel, 4 ports available through the internal USB 2.0 connectors)
Audio Realtek® ALC1150 Codec
– 7.1-Channel High Definition Audio
– Supports S/PDIF output
LAN • 1 x Intel® I219-V Gigabit LAN controller
Back Panel I/O Ports – 1 x PS/2 keyboard/ mouse port
– 4 x USB 2.0 ports
– 1 x DVI-D port
– 2 x USB 3.1 Gen1 ports
– 1 x USB 3.1 Gen2 port
– 1 x USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C port
– 1 x HDMI™ port
– 1 x LAN (RJ45) port
– 1 x Optical S/PDIF OUT connector
– 5 x OFC audio jacks
Internal I/O Connectors – 1 x 24-pin ATX main power connector
– 1 x 8-pin ATX 12V power connector
– 6 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors (2 ports reserved for SATA Express port)
– 1 x SATAe connector
– 2 x USB 2.0 connectors (supports additional 4 USB 2.0 ports)
– 2 x USB 3.1 Gen1 connectors (supports additional 4 USB 3.1 Gen1 ports)
– 2 x 4-pin CPU fan connectors
– 3 x 4-pin system fan connectors
– 1 x Front panel audio connector
– 2 x Front panel connectors
– 1 x TPM module connector
– 1 x Chassis Intrusion connector
– 1 x Clear CMOS jumper
– 1 x TBT connector
Dimensions • 12 in. x 9.6 in. (30.5 cm x 24.4 cm)
• ATX Form Factor

The Gaming Pro Carbon differs from the regular Gaming Pro because it utilizes a couple of different aesthetic features, namely the carbon fiber on the heatsinks as well as the Mystic Light RGB LEDs. The overall black theme will match nearly any build. Using the Mystic Light supported RGB LED’s will help match any theme as it has full color palate as well as several different modes to choose from (using MSI Gaming App) such as static, breathing, gradient, and even a gaming and music mode for lighting effects.

MSI implements their DDR4 Boost technology on the Gaming Pro Carbon with its optimized traces and isolated memory circuitry. This is said to help with stability and optimal performance of the system RAM. To make it even easier to know if the XMP Profile is active, there is an LED which will light up on the board to show you.

The Realtek ALC1150 audio CODEC is supported by the Audio Boost 3 and Nahimic software allowing you to tweak the eight channels of sound offered to your ear’s desires. High impedance cans are also not an issue with the dual headphone amplifiers. Along with the software, the Gaming Pro Carbon uses gold audio jacks, EMI shielding on the Realtek chip, a physical separation from the rest of the board, and Chemi-Con capacitors to bring you the best audio experience from an integrated solution.

Intel’s latest NIC, the I219-V, finds its way on this board along with the MSI Gaming LAN Manager software. The combination allows one to shape network traffic for the best experience for whatever activity you are doing at the time. The I219-V has low CPU overhead and high TCP/UDP throughput for better FPS due to less CPU overheard. Typically it isn’t high anyway, however, more is always better, right? The NIC also has the LAN Protect feature to prevent frying the component due to static electricity, 15KV worth where others are typically about half that value.

Although this board does not have a debug LED, at least the full LED which shows post codes, it does have a simplified debugging tool in three LED’s found by the 24 pin power lead. These LED’s light up through the boot process to show you where you are. There are LEDs for CPU, Memory, and VGA. If you get hung up in the POST process, whatever is the culprit will stay lit up. If you get a bit overzealous with the CPU voltage, there is an over-voltage protection LED which will light up as well and let you know. I didn’t see it at 4.7 GHz with 1.40V or more (up to 4.9 GHz 1.50V) so there is plenty of headroom as you will see a bit later.

The Gaming Pro Carbon also meets MSI’s Military Class V certification, which includes titanium chokes which for better efficiency and power stability. The dark caps not only look good, but they have a lower Equivalent Series Resistance (ESR) as well as 10-year+ lifespan.

The last feature I would like to mention here is the Gaming Device Port. This is an optimized USB/Mouse port designed to give “…the best connectivity for high end gaming mice to fully utilize its speed.” That along with the Mouse Master software will give you more control over the device and even smoother gameplay.

For more details and features, please see the MSI page for the Gaming Pro Carbon.

ico-1carbon

BLACK WITH CARBON SKIN

Carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer is used extensively the world of car racing, where each second counts. Besides its strength and futuristic look, carbon-fiber is also very light for ultimate performance to pursue track records. MSI GAMING motherboards are dedicated to ultimate performance and the best gaming experience. The CARBON motherboards black scheme combines flashiness with sophistication that is sure to make your pc stand out in looks and performance.

ico-2mystic

Mystic Light

Customize and set up your own color scheme with Mystic Light. Select any of the colors from the palette to match your systems’ design. Just change it to another one with MSI GAMING APP, and make your PC look & feel brand new !

ico-3ddr4boostled UNMATCHED MEMORY PERFORMANCE AND STABILITY

With traditional memory design the memory signals are often distorted by electromagnetic signals from other components, making the system perform slower or become unstable. MSI introduces DDR4 Boost technology with optimized traces and fully isolated memory circuitry. This design ensures the memory signals stay pure for optimal performance and stability.

An added XMP LED highlights an active Extreme Memory Profile for the best memory speed and stability setting.

ico-4audio

REWARD YOUR EARS WITH STUDIO GRADE SOUND QUALITY

With Audio Boost 3, powered by Nahimic Sound Technology, we’re delivering the highest sound quality through the use of premium quality audio components. That way, you can enjoy breathtaking, crystal clear sound and music through 8-channel HD Audio or high impedance headphones and truly dominate the game.

ico-5intellan

DEDICATED GAMING LAN WITH INTEL®

Experience a more fluid game with Intel® i219 LAN. Intel® i219 LAN is designed to deliver high performance when gaming, delivering more throughput than other solutions.

Intel® i219 LAN is optimized for championship level online and LAN eSports by reducing CPU overhead and offering exceptionally high TCP and UDP throughput. This way, your CPU can be used more effectively and you can enjoy more FPS when gaming.

GAMING OPTIMIZED BANDWITH MANAGEMENT

Dedicated to giving you the best online gaming experience with optimized traffic prioritization and low latency, MSI GAMING LAN Manager automatically classifies and prioritizes the latency-sensitive applications for online games.

MSI GAMING LAN MANAGER

  • Automatically prioritizes games above other applications
  • Allows you to change applications’ traffic priority
  • Allows you to customize bandwidth for each application
ico-6usb

2X FASTER
MSI USB 3.1 GEN2

Transfer your favorite games, music and movies over USB faster than ever. USB 3.1 Gen2 enables lightning-fast transfer speeds up to 10Gb/s!

Benefits

  • 2X faster than USB 3.1 Gen1
  • 20X faster than USB 2.0
  • Up to 10Gbps data transfer bandwidth
  • Boost transfer rate for your PC and peripherals

Type-C with reversible design
Get all the performance benefits from USB 3.1 Gen2 combined with the convenience of the USB Type-C connector. This reversible connector allows for effortless connecting of USB devices.

ico-7ezdiagovp

EASY DIAGNOSTIC

MSI EZ Debug LED is an easy troubleshooting tool using 3 LEDs to indicate CPU / Memory / VGA operation every time you boot up your system. Run into trouble? Use the LEDs to easily identify the source of your problem and get back into operation quickly.

ENHANCED CPU OVERVOLTAGE PROTECTION

Onboard overvoltage protection prevents overvoltage and short-circuit damage of the CPU and other components. A red LED near the 24 pin CPU power connector let you know that overvoltage protection is activated for easier troubleshooting.

ico-8milclss5

MILITARY CLASS 5 COMPONENTS

Military Class 5 is the latest evolution in high quality components. The Titanium Choke and Dark CAP ensure that your PC runs stable under extreme gaming conditions.

Titanium Choke

Titanium Choke uses a Titanium core that has better ability in thermal and higher temperature tolerance. This allows the Titanium Choke to run at a 220 degree Celsius high temperature, have a 40% higher current capacity, a 30% improvement in power efficiency and better overclocking power stability.

DARK CAP

With their aluminum core design, Dark CAPs has been a staple in high-end motherboard designs and provides lower Equivalent Series Resistance (ESR) as well as its over-10-year lifespan.

ico-9gamngport

GAMING DEVICE PORT

MSI Gaming Device Port is optimized to deliver the best connectivity for high end gaming mice to fully utilize its speed. You can customize your mouse’ DPI to change accuracy and program macro combinations using the easy to use Mouse Master software to perform multiple commands with just one click.

Gaming benefits

  • More responsive, faster reactions
  • Customizable mouse settings
  • Customizable mouse accuracy (DPI)
  • Program macros for multiple actions in 1 click
  • Smoother gameplay

Technical benefits

  • 3x more gold than regular connectors
  • 10x longer lifetime when plugging/un-plugging
  • Prevents oxidation

Retail Packaging and Accessories

Below is a quick slideshow of the retail packaging and the included accessory stack. The packaging is black with a futuristic car on the front in red. The board is from the Performance Gaming line and we see the familiar icon as well as the name of the board on the bottom. The MSI Gaming dragon makes an appearance as well in the top left corner. Flipping the board around to the back shows a lot of the features we discussed as well as other items it supports and some I/O information of the back panel.

When you open the box, the motherboard sits on top in an anti-static bag with the accessories below it separated by a cardboard partition. The accessory stack includes your typical fare of manuals, driver disk, back plate, and SATA cables among a couple of other items.

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Meet the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon

Our first shots of the board show its black on black theme and the few pieces of Carbon Fiber MSI designers placed on the heatsinks. I have to admit, I like the look, but just wanted more of that Carbon fiber. They are minor accent pieces on the VRM heatsink while the PCH heatsink has more of it. The RGB LED lighting is on the upper right side of the board by the DIMM area and 24-pin power connector. The board has a total of three full length PCIe slots, two of which are fortified with the Steel Armor (the x16 and x8 slots).

As per usual, there is nothing much to see on the back of the board, though if you look at the upper left hand side, you can see a total of seven LED’s which shine through to the front of the board. These are the RGB LEDs you are able to control both color and animation. The rest of the board LEDs are red only with no control from the Gaming App. Outside of that, the electrical breakdown of the PCIe slots are clearly visible with one full x16 slot and the rest being x8, though again, the last slot is limited to 4x due to the amount of lanes available from the CPU.

MSI Z170 Gaming Pro Carbon

MSI Z170 Gaming Pro Carbon

Back

Back

Alternate 1

Alternate 1

Alternate 2

Alternate 2

Bottom Up

Bottom Up

A Closer Look

Zooming in on the bottom half of the board, from left to right, you see the physically separated audio section and the Faraday cage covering the Realtek chip. Pictured are the Chemi-Con caps and dual headphone amps mentioned earlier.

There are four total PCIe 1x slots, three total PCIe 16x slots. The first slot is x16 (single card), then break down to x8/x8 for dual, and x8/x8/x4 for Crossfire (again NVIDIA will not run on 4x slot). Above the first 16x PCIe slot is where the M.2 device will go, up to 80mm in length. The other thing which jumps out here outside of the PCH heatsink is the vertical facing SATAe/SATA ports on the bottom right hand side of the board.

Sliding up and around to the DIMM area we see the four DIMM slots mentioned earlier supporting up to 64GB of ram at up to 3600 MHz (OC) speeds. Next to the 24 pin power connector is a front panel USB header. Below those and between the two screws are where the RGB lighting (seven LEDs) is located. The LEDs are on the bottom of the board but shine though fairly well. Not as good as the webpage shows, but plenty good enough to accent any theme you are going for. There are also three fan headers here as well. The CPU1 fan is between the VRM heatsink and the first DIMM slot, while CPU2 and SYS1 or on the other side of the DIMM slots. I would prefer these together, but shouldn’t be an issue.

Audio, PCIe, and PCH Area

Audio, PCIe, and PCH Area

DIMM Area

DIMM Area

Next is a picture of the socket area with the white painted traces from MSI’s DDR4 Boost (it would be really cool if those traces were lit up!) and the eight total power phases for the board. Like most boards at this level, an eight pin CPU power lead is required.

CPU Socket Area

CPU Socket Area

8 Pin Power Required

8 Pin Power Required

Below is a closer shot of the lower right hand corner of the board containing the SATAe and SATA ports, as well as a couple of USB headers poking out. You can see the SATAe with its other SATA ports are located at the bottom of the board and oriented vertically.

The next shot shows the back I/O. The gaming port is on the left, DVI-D, USB3.1 Type A and C, HDMI, the Intel NIC, and finally, the gold plated audio. Details of the outputs are on the web site and back of the retail packaging.

SATA and SATA Express Ports

SATA and SATA Express Ports

Back I/O

Back I/O

As usual, we took apart the board to show you how it looks without the heatsinks. The heatsinks made good contact, so we were set there. The next shot shows the Titanium Chokes mentioned earlier and you can more clearly see the dark caps used too.

Heatsink Base (Good Contact!)

Heatsink Base (Good Contact!)

Socket Area No Heatsinks

Socket Area No Heatsinks

Board Without Heatsinks

Board Without Heatsinks

 

UEFI BIOS and Gaming App (Mystic Light LED control)

Next up are some screenshots of the BIOS. You have two modes, EZ and Advanced. The first screen shows the “EZ” version, while the next show all of the high-level options in advanced. Most users here in the forums will likely be using the advanced version. Also, most who read my reviews know I am a fan of the MSI’s Click BIOS 5 from previous MSI reviews, and that sentiment won’t change on this board. The layout is logical to me and most things are found pretty easily. I had no issues with anything BIOS related on this board. As usual, we flash to the latest non-beta BIOS to make sure our experience is your experience.

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Below are detailed screenshots of the Overclocking settings screen. You can selected normal (pictured above) or advanced in the OC section. When selecting advanced, you get several more options available in this section.

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MSI Gaming App

We are all familiar with the MSI Gaming App from previous MSI motherboard reviews, but none had control over/had RGB LEDs. Below is a screenshot of the LED section showing what kind of control you have over the LEDs. There are different animation styles as well as the full RGB gamut at your disposal.

MSI Gaming App (Showing Mystic Light LED control section)

MSI Gaming App (Showing Mystic Light LED control section)

Below are a couple pictures of the different color LEDs. The camera doesn’t do these justice really (as far as the tone of the colors). The yellow looks white, and green looks a bit flat, but not in person. Overall they look good and it gives the board a nice glow no matter what color is used. I just wish you can control the LED’s on the rest of the board to match.

ML5red ML4whtyllw ML3grn ML2blue ML1prpl

 

Test Setup
CPU Intel i7 6770K @ 4.7 GHz, ~1.4 V
CPU Cooler Custom Loop with EK LTZ CPU Block, Swiftech MCP655 Vario,
Swiftech MCR320 + PA 120.2, 3x Yate Loon High @ 1K RPM
Motherboard MSI Z170 Gaming Pro Carbon
RAM GSkill Trident Z 2x8GB DDR4-3.2K 15-16-16-35 @ DDR4 3K MHz 15-15-15-35
Graphics Card AMD R7 260
Hard Drive OCZ Trion 100 480GB
Power Supply SeaSonic Platinum-1000
Operating System Windows 10 Pro x64
Benchmarks AIDA64 Engineer
MaxxMEM2
Cinebench R11.5 and R15
x265 1080p Benchmark (Hwbot)
POV Ray
Intel XTU
Super Pi 1M/32M
WPrime 32M/1024MB
7Zip
Equipment
Digital Multimeter

Motherboard Comparison

Below are the results compared with the ASUS Maximus VIII Extreme, which I reviewed a few months ago. I left out other, more comparable boards, because they were tested with Windows 7, not Windows 10. Moving forward, reviews will be completed on Windows 10 Pro 64-bit so we will add some results as time goes on.

The trend we have seen in past reviews comparing motherboards against each other being remarkably similar, does not change here, even when looking at Windows 10 compared to Windows 7. About the only difference I saw here that was significant was in Super Pi 32M (which could be a result of a ram switch in the secondary/tertiary timings), and in Intel XTU. I know XTU doesn’t respond this well to secondary and tertiary timings, so I am not sure why the anomalous result as typically, it is pretty close. In the end, for most tests, it seems that Windows 7 was negligibly faster/the with the tests we ran/drivers used.

Super Pi 1M/32M, WPrime 32M/1024M, and Pifast

Super Pi 1M/32M, WPrime 32M/1024M, and Pifast

 

Cinebench R11.5/R15, Intel XTU, 7zip, POVRay, and x265(1080p - Hwbot)

Cinebench R11.5/R15, Intel XTU, 7zip, POVRay, and x265(1080p – Hwbot)

 

AIDA64 Extreme, Maxxmem2

AIDA64 Extreme, Maxxmem2

Below are the screenshots for the results above:

47-Spi1m-7782 47-Spi32m-651205 47-WPrm-4367-134947 47-pifst-1355 47-Cine115-1144 47-Cine15-1030
47-xtu-1285 47-7z-29211 47-povr-2220304 47-x265-2526 47-aida 47-maxm

Pushing the Limits

Below I took the time to push on the CPU a bit. I cranked up the voltage (1.50V) and landed at 4.9 GHz. I left the memory where it was at 3000 MHz. The interesting thing about this board, even at the 4.7 GHz test was with Intel XTU. I had to raise the power limits on the board in order for it the clockspeeds to stay stable… otherwise it would throttle a bit, but ONLY during the XTU test. Raising these limits eliminated the issue. I have to say this is the first time I ran across that with XTU. Be sure if you are pushing things to raise those limits!

4.9 GHz

4.9 GHz

Conclusion

Wrapping things up you can see this is a pretty solid board. It has the better audio solution on it with the Realtek ALC1150 CODEC, a great NIC in the Intel I219-V with its Gaming Manager software to prioritize traffic, fully customizable with Mystic Light software RGB LEDs along the right side, and an all black theme with hints of Carbon fiber on the heatsinks. Overclocking was, as usual, a breeze and it held our “higher than average” overclock of 4.7 GHz without any issues. It didn’t have a problem pushing past that either. So while the board is focused on gaming, it will not hold you back with ambient cooled overclocking either.

I really didn’t find much to complain about to be truthful. I wish there was more of the carbon fiber look though. To nitpick on the RGB LED implementation, I would have liked to have seen ALL the LEDs on the board (read the red from the audio separation) were RGB and controllable by the software. As it is now, you can only adjust the six LEDs towards the DIMM slots. That said, it still looks pretty good when she is all lit up.

Pricing on this board comes in at $169.99 at Newegg.com. This price point is really right in the middle of Z170 based boards so there is a lot of competition. If you can do without the RGB bling, there is the MSI Krait for $20 less or the Gaming M3. At this price, I am not sure you will find something with this much control over its RGB’s though. Do remember the ASUS MVIII Formula we reviewed was a monster $400 board. If you are looking for a great gaming-centric board with some LED bling and don’t want to spend an arm and a leg, check out the MSI Z170 Gaming Pro Carbon for sure.

Overclockers_clear_approved

– Joe Shields (Earthdog)

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Discussion
  1. Well done. I checked their website looking for the power phase info and didn't see any. Looking at the board I got confused as it looks like 8-2 to me. Is that correct?:confused: