With the release of a new chipset, Intel’s Z97 this time around, board partners have their inevitable releases to go along with it. At a high-level, the big changes are the future Haswell refresh and Broadwell support and new, faster, storage abilities. We’ve had a review published already with a bit more detail on the chipset. MSI is one of those partners and has released a series of Z97 based boards from their Gamer Series to the Overclock Series. Today, we are lucky enough to take a look at a board from the Overclock Series, the MSI Z97 MPwer MAX AC. The board is geared towards overclocking, but has plenty of other features that should make it a well-rounded offering.
Specifications & Features
Looking at the specifications below, one of the first things I noticed was the higher memory speed of up to 3200 MHz and support for up to 32 GB in Dual Channel. The board has a total of three PCIe 3.0 x16 slots (in SLI/CFx x8/x8, or x8/x4/x4), so no PLX chip on here. There are also four PCIe 3.0 x1 slots.
As far as the storage goes, the board sports eight SATA III ports running off the Intel chipset (IRST13 on Z97). The new feature is the addition of an M.2 slot supporting up to 10 GB/s speeds. There are four front panel USB 3.0 ports, eight USB 3.0 on the back, four front panel USB 2.0 slots, and two USB 2.0 in the back.
|MSI Z97 Mpower MAX AC|
|Chipset||Intel Z97 Express Chipset|
|Memory||Support four DDR3 1333/1600/1866/2133*/2200*/2400*/2600*/2666*/2800*/3000*/3100*/3200* (OC) MHz. up to 32GB Max
– Supports Dual-Channel mode
|Slots||3 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots @ (16,0,0), (8,8,0), (8,4,4)
4 x PCIe 3.0 x1 slots
|Graphics||1 x HDMI port, supporting the maximum resolutions of 4096×2160@24Hz, 36bpp/ 3840×2160@30Hz, 36bpp/1920×1200@120Hz, 36bpp and 1920×1200@60Hz, 36bpp
1 x DisplayPort, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096×2160@24HZ, 24bpp
|On-Board SATA / M2||
8 x SATA III
– Supports 10GBps speeds
|Audio||6 + Optical SPDIF|
|LAN||1x Intel LAN port 10/100/1000|
|Multi-GPU||– Supports 3-Way AMD® CrossFireTM Technology and NVIDIA SLI|
|Form Factor||– 12 in. x 9.6 in. (30.5 cm x 24.4 cm) ATX|
Here is a list of the high level features the MPower MAX AC offers. All images and descriptions provided by MSI.
The retail packaging should look pretty familiar to anyone that has previously seen the MSI OC series. The black base is complemented by the yellow lettering of the board purchased. In this case, the MSI Z97 MPower Max AC, so we see the large yellow “M” with the name inside of it. That “M” opens up and shows a few of the features, such as the Military Class 4 parts. On the back side of the box, it shows a few of the features the MPower MAX AC offers, as well as the I/O layout on the rear.
The accessory stack has a full array of items ranging from a door hanger, SATA cables (and labels), to the Intel WiDi adapter. Everything one would need to get started from scratch, and more.
The MSI Z97 MPower MAX AC
In our first shots of the board, we can see the quite familiar black, eight layer PCB with yellow highlights. The Z97 MPower MAX AC adds a few improved aesthetics such as the metal “M” on the chipset and VRM heatsinks. On those same VRM heatsinks you can also use water cooling as MSI has integrated a couple of 3/8″ ports. The Audio Boost section is still there with its ‘separated from the rest of the board’ audio and shielding over the Realtek 1150 chip. Being part of the Overclock Series, we see the voltage read points and manual buttons for live adjustments.
Nothing too exciting on the back side of the board, though we can see the heatsinks are held on by screws instead of pushpins like you may see on lesser boards. Otherwise, about the only other thing worth mentioning is the electrical layout of the x16 PCIe slots at x16/x8/x8 maximums, which is expected if you remember the layout listed for SLI/CFx.
A Closer Look
Focusing in on the key parts of the board, we start out with the audio. As I just mentioned above, MSI has continued to ride the ‘let’s separate the audio section from the other part of the board’ theme, along with shielding the audio chip in an effort to achieve higher quality signal and better overall audio. When powered on, this separation has white LEDs on the bottom which shine through the yellow top giving the board a really nice glow in a case, or even on my benching station. Above that is the nuvoTon chip giving you information from the board’s sensors.
Next up is the PCIe area showing you the physical layout. We can see triple slot spacing between the first and second slot with double spacing between slot two and three. In between and around those slots are the four x1 slots. Again, there is not a PLX chip on the board, so you are limited to a x8/x8 situation for two cards and x8/x4/x4 for three cards. In order to support the extra PCI-e power needs when using multiple graphic cards, there is also a supplemental 6 pin PCIe power connector above the topmost x1 slot. And we cannot forget about the M.2 port nestled between PCIe slot 2 and 3 giving 10 Gb/s throughout via PCIe 2 x2 interface.
Sliding around to the DIMM area, we see four DIMM slots capable of using up to 32 GB maximum. This board has memory options up to 3200 MHz, assuming the memory sticks, and the CPU’s IMC can handle it. You can also see a couple of fan headers around the top of the board as well as the front panel USB ports and 24 pin power input.
The next picture shows the socket area. Something to note here, outside of the 10+2 phase setup, is the pretty open and clean area around the socket. This is keeping the extreme overclocker in mind as it allows for easier insulation around the socket. You also get a better look at the water cooling ports and heatsink in general. One thing to note about the water cooling is that both ports are a permanent fixture. So, if you are not using the same size, again 3/8″, you will have to add some fittings to step the size down and back up again to integrate into your loop. For much better compatibility, a bare G1/4 threaded hole probably would have been better here, thus allowing the user to provide their own fittings and such.
Swinging on over to the SATA ports shows what we mentioned earlier is true… eight SATA III ports. This time though, it uses IRST13 on the Z97 chipset. Moving just to the right are two front panel USB ports.
The last picture is of the voltage read points and easy overclock buttons. The voltage read points have everything you need. Something they added this time around was more ground points so you can run three different probes at the same time. The overclocking buttons are there to manually add/lower BCLK or multiplier, have a complete power down button bringing you to a factory reset, the OC Genie button, and last the power and reset buttons.
Overall I do like the layout of this board. There are plenty of fan headers, clean socket area for easy insulating, water cooling integrated into the VRM heatsinks, as well as just being a good looking board.
UEFI BIOS, Overclocking Software
Next up we will take a look at the UEFI BIOS. Out of the gate, I am going to tell you that MSI’s UEFI implementation is one of my personal favorites. I like the logical layout, ability to change everything you need, and its overall look.
Your main settings such as, system status, boot, and advanced (control iGPU, SATA ports, power management, etc.) can all be found in the Settings box.
Inside the overclocking box is where all the overclocking magic happens. You can run this in two modes, normal and advanced. With advanced bringing the end user a lot more granular control over the system. Everything you need from voltage controls, multiplier controls, advanced CPU functions, everything. For the extreme overclockers there is even a LN2 option which disables/raises the power limits. I swear I saw a ‘kitchen sink’ option buried in there too.
The next section is the MFlash where one can save and flash the BIOS of the MPower MAX AC, followed by the OC Profiles where you can save your overclocks of varying speeds. The Hardware Monitor is just that… something to monitor temperatures and fan speeds, as well as adjust them by temperature. MSI puts a top down view of the board in their Board Explorer, which when moused over, identifies the hardware that is in the slot. Anything from PCIe slots, memory, USB ports, to the CPU are are listed in this section.
MSI Command Center
On the windows side of things, MSI has their Command Center software. This utility is a complete suite of monitoring and overclocking, which even has a RAMDisk section! It is easy to use and seems pretty stable with my limited experience using it on the Z97 platform.
Test Setup, Benchmarks, and Overclocking
Listed below is the test system used for benchmarking:
|CPU||Intel i7 4770K @ 3.5 GHz (Stock) and 4.9Ghz Overclocked|
|Motherboard||MSI Z97 Mpower MAX AC|
|RAM||2×4 GB Kingston HyperX Predator DDR3-2666 11-13-13-32|
|Graphics Card||MSI R9 290x Lightning|
|Solid State Drive||256 GB Vertex 3|
|Power Supply||SeaSonic SS-1000XP (80+ Platinum)|
|Operating System||Windows 7 x64 SP1|
|Graphics Drivers||Catalyst 13.12|
Below are the stock and overclocked results for this setup. Like usual in my motherboard reviews, I have used AIDA64 (latest version), Maxmemm, SuperPi 1M/32M, Wprime 32M/1024M, Cinebench R10/R11.5, and Pifast. In most cases there are very few performance differences between motherboards, so we are going with simple screenshots of the results. We have a few boards to compare against the Z97, all Z87 based note, so we have some of that data as well.
AIDA64 and MaxMemm2 – Memory Bandwidth and Throughput
Cinebench R10 and R15 – CPU Rendering benchmark
Super Pi 1M and 32M / Pifast – Single threaded CPU benchmark
WPrime 32M and 1024M – Multi threaded CPU benchmark
Overall Performance (Compared to other boards)
Since we had enough data from my previous motherboard reviews, we can put it all together to show the relative performance between them. The first graph shows Super Pi, WPrime, and PiFast. This type of graph on motherboards is really anti climactic in that you will not see much of a difference between them at all. The greatest difference here is around 3% with the average being around 1% between them.
Next up in the comparisons are Cinebench (R10 and R11.5) and MaxMemm. Nothing to report in Cinebench 10/11.5 really. When we get to the memory side of the house, we start to see some differences in that you can see the EVGA Z87 Classified had some memory issues (later corrected), and the Z87 MPower had a heck of a copy run. Otherwise, everything lands where it should.
Pushing the Limits
I had a chance to push things a bit further than my normal, already high, 4.9 GHz clocks and see what was shaking there. I ended up on 5.1 GHz which is as high as any other board has gotten it. At this speed, it is really temperature limited and not a board limit. The board/BIOS was nice and stable here… just set it and viola, my 5.1 GHz overclock! When trying the BCLK straps I didn’t have quite the instant set, but we still managed to get her up to some decent results. The good thing about that is the board responded well to the bad clocks and brought me back safely to the BIOS to try again.
I had a chance to play with the BCLK on my CPU. While hitting 167 MHz isn’t much for some (most?) CPU’s this managed to beat my previous best at least. Not sure this thing ever saw over 155 MHz before in thinking about it…
In the end, Intel has come up with more of a compatibility and incremental type upgrade for the Haswell refresh. With technologies like the M.2 socket being 10 Gb/s (over 66%) faster than SATA III. The Intel IRST13 is also new for the storage platform. Of course the biggest thing to note is Haswell refresh and Broadwell CPU compatibility.
So lets get the bad out of the way. There is not much to speak of I have to admit. It is worth mentioning of course the odd sized and permanent barbs in the VRM heatsinks. There is just no option with this setup but to use that size and a lot of loops are not 3/8″. So keep that in mind if you plan on using the water cooling on this board.
Getting on to the good stuff, I have to admit that out of the box, this is has been the most stable board I have had in a while. While I know this is more or less an incremental refresh, usually there are some stability issues. Not this time around. Since I had the board in my hands, MSI came out with two different BIOS to fix whatever issues I didn’t happen to run into. Lucky me! But out of the box, this thing should get you where you need to go for overclocking. The audio side of the house is covered with their Boost Audio software solution, while the network is handled by the always solid Intel NICs. The Miltitary Class 4, DigitALL power, WiDi/WiFi/BT adapter, and Guard Pro help close out a very well rounded solution (that seems to lean towards the overclocking side of things).
As far as pricing goes, the MSI Z97 MPower MAX AC comes in at $259.99 at Newegg. That puts it in between the Sabertooth Z97 Mark 1 on the low side, and a couple of gaming based motherboards on the high side, so the pricing seems to be in the ballpark with similar offerings.
So where do we rate this board? Let’s see… stable out of the box? Check. All the latest features from the new chipset? Check. The ability to both overclock to the moon and have a great gaming experience? Checkmate. If you are looking for a high end, great for overclocking, and overall a well balanced board, MSI’s Z97 MPower MAX AC needs to be checked out in this price range. This board has been Overclockers.com approved!
Click the stamp for an explanation of what this means.
– Joe Shields (Earthdog)