Tick, tock… Tick, tock…Tick, tock… Tick….and tock. Outside of being the monotonous sounds of a ticking clock, it is also a representation of Intel’s manufacturing and design model of their CPUs. The ‘tick’ represents a process shrink, while the ‘tock’ is to introduce a new microarchitecture technology. In that light, we hold in our hands Skylake, Intel’s new CPU, but more specifically the new chipset that goes along with it named, Z170 (code name Sunshine Point – I am not making that up!). Overclockers.com was lucky enough to get a couple of boards and CPUs from our partners. Lvcoyote did a great job on his review of the i7 6700K CPU, and now it’s my turn to show off MSI’s motherboard, the Z170A Gaming M7. This board promises to be excellent for gaming and should be solid for overclocking as well. It’s time to dig in and see what the Gaming M7 is made of!
Specifications and Features
Below is a list of specifications from the MSI Press deck. Out of the gate, we see support for 6th generation Intel processors from the Core, Pentium and Celeron families. These sit in a different socket, LGA 1151, than the Z97 boards which were LGA 1150. This means that these are not compatible with the Z97 chipset. You are required to get another board based off the new 100 series chipsets if you want to run a Skylake CPU.
Regarding specifics on the MSI Z170A Gaming M7, it is ATX form factor and has a total of three PCIe 3.0 x16 (physical) ‘Steel Armor’ slots. The steel armor slots are supported by a piece of metal, steel(?), that slides over the plastic PCIe slot and has a couple more robust solder points as opposed to the normal PCIe bracket. This setup allows for four way (with dual GPU cards of course), three and two way SLI or CrossfireX multi-GPU configurations. It also has a total of four PCIe 1x (physical) slots. The board supports a CPU’s onboard iGPU with one DisplayPort and two HDMI outputs, just in case you are not running a discrete GPU.
As far as storage goes, the Z170A Gaming M7 has a total of six SATA3 (6GB/s) ports which will handle Raid 0, 1, 5, 10 on ports 1-6 as well as two M.2 32GB/s interfaces for the gaining popularity of the newer M.2 interface drives. There are two USB 3.1 ports that are Gen 2, one that is Type-C and the other Type-A. In addition to those, MSI has six other Gen 1 USB 3.1 ports as well as a total of seven Gen 2. Some of these are from onboard headers from the motherboard.
On the network side of the house, MSI has opted to go with the Killer E2400 NIC from Killer Networks. This is deemed a gamer’s NIC and automatically prioritizes network traffic to your games when you are playing them. There is also included software that allows manual prioritization control over applications installed on your PC.
The audio is handled by the 8-channel Audio Boost 3 solution. I asked MSI what was under the hood and they stated it was the Realtek solution, likely the ALC1150, but they didn’t mention. I didn’t pop the lid as it appears soldered at first glance. But it sports a 115db SN/R (same as the ALC1150), has the now common board separation between audio components and the remainder of the board, and dual OPA1652 AMPs for your headphones/speakers.
At a high level, it seems like MSI has really brought some good things to this motherboard. Below the specifications table we will dig a bit deeper on a few of the features.
|MSI Z170A Gaming M7 Specifcations|
Supports 6th Gen Intel® Core™ / Pentium® / Celeron® Processors
LGA 1151 Socket
|Chipset||Intel® Z170A Chipset|
|Graphics Interface||3 * PCI-E 3.0 x16, Steel Armor PCI-E slots, 2-Way NVIDIA® SLI®, 3-Way AMD CrossFire™ support|
|Display Interface||1 * DisplayPort, 2 * HDMI – Requires Processor Graphics|
|Memory Support||4 DIMMs, Dual Channel DDR4-3600+(OC)|
|Expansion Slots||4 * PCI-E x1 slots|
|Multi-Graphics Technology||Support for 4-Way/3-Way/2-Way AMD CrossFire™/NVIDIA® SLI™ technology|
|M.2 / SATA Interface||2 * M.2 32 Gb/s, 6 * SATA 6 Gb/s
(4 ports reserved for SATA Express)
RAID 0, 1, 5, 10 – Available on SATA1 to SATA6
|USB||1 * USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C
1 * USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-A
6* USB 3.1 Gen1
7 * USB 2.0
|LAN||1 * Killer™ E2400 Gigabit LAN|
|Back Panel Connections||PS/2 Gaming Device Port
Killer™ LAN Ports
USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A Port
HD Audio Connectors
Clear CMOS Button
USB 3.1 Gen1 Ports
USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C Port
Optical S/PDIF Out
|Audio||8-channel Audio Boost 3 with Nahimic|
|Form Factor||ATX Form Factor|
Typically with the new chipset comes some new and exciting features. The specifications above tell part of the story, but below we show some of the new things that make this board what it is.
The switch to the Z170A chipset (code named: Sunrise Point), brought with it DDR4 memory support along with its increased bandwidth and power efficiency. MSI takes things to another level with its board architecture by fully isolating the memory traces from the other components on the motherboard. This helps to ensure the memory signal is clean for the best performance and stability. That sounds like a good sign for overclocking.
The Z170A Gaming M7, as its namesake blatantly states, is a motherboard geared towards the enthusiast gamer. And with that, one would (and should) expect a good audio solution and effective NIC. MSI gives that to you with its Audio Boost 3 & Nahimic Audio Enhancer. This along with dual OPA1652 AMPs, Nippon Chemi-Con capacitors, EMI shielding, and isolation from the board, all help bring you a great audio experience with that S/N ratio of 115db.
Having a ‘Killer’ audio section is just one part of the experience when you game, particularly online. MSI chose the Killer LAN E2400 through this series of boards. One of the cool features of this gaming NIC is the ability to automatically shape traffic to prioritize gaming (called AES 2.0). Typically this is a function you manually control via included software, which you can here, but this one puts the games up at the top of the list when active. The connector also has 15Kv anti-surge protection for safety (so you don’t kill the NIC card plugging it in).
MSI introduces their “Gaming Hotkey” on this motherboard. This allows you to do a variety of things such as starting your PC from one button, overclock both the CPU ratio and BCLK while in windows without having any software running in the background, or even a quick go to BIOS button (which overclockers should find really convenient). You can even customize your function keys to launch a game or use it as a macro. It is neat that this is on a hardware level as opposed to software. This kind of solution may be more stable, but at minimum has less overhead, particularly when overclocking with it.
Another cool hardware feature is called Game Boost. What this feature does is overclock from the touch, sorry, twist, of a button on the motherboard. There are a total of eight settings on the board with steps from 4.30 GHz all the way up to 5 GHz (or as MSI says, “this one goes up to 11”). Sorry, but seeing 5 GHz as a top end overclocking target is a teaser. I hope most chips can make it up that high with a simple touch of a button! We will test that out later.
Last up in this list is the armor. Thankfully, it’s not ASUS’ armor (sorry, most know I am not a big fan of it!), but this armor is placed around the PCIe slots to help protect them from breaking off when using heavy GPUs and cool the slots in a multi-GPU configuration. It is more robust with the steel around it as well as having more solder points, so it will hold onto those heavy GPUs without worry.
DDR4 Boost & XMP LED
By fully isolating the memory circuitry from other components, DDR4 Boost ensures the memory signal to stay pure for maximum performance and stability.
Audio Boost 3 & Nahimic
The ultimate audio solution for gamers, powered by Nahimic Audio Enhancer. With dual OPA1652 AMPs and metal EMI Shielding you get breathtaking sound quality.
MSI GAMING LAN & LAN Protect
MSI Gaming LAN is powered by the KillerTM LAN E2400 with intelligent AES 2.0, automatically prioritizes games above other applications. The LAN connector with led features 15KV anti-surge protection for safety.
Use hardware to speed up your gaming experience, start your PC with a keyboard hotkey or let your games run faster without having to start OC software.
Generate more FPS in games! Use the Game Boost dial with automated overclocking settings that goes up to eleven and reach for 5 GHz.
Impregnable Steel Armor
To protect and cool the multi GPU PCI-e slots the motherboard features Steel Armor, additionally Steel Armor also has more solder points on the PCB for more strength.
Below is a list of other features found on the MSI Z170A Gaming M7:
- 2X FASTER USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C & Type-A – Enables lightning fast transfer speeds with reversible Type-C connector.
- OC Engine 2 – Make the sky the limit, overclock per MHz.
- Mouse Master – Gaming Device Port, optimized to deliver the best connectivity, customize with Mouse Master.
- Click BIOS 5 features – Simple/Advanced mode, M-Flash, Favorites, Hardware Monitor 2, Board Explorer, Memory Try It, High-resolution font.
- Twin Turbo M.2 – Turbo M.2 delivers next generation NVMe SSD performance with transfer speeds up to 64 Gb/s.
- BIOS Flashback+ – Easy BIOS flashing without CPU.
- XSplit Gamecaster V2 – Record, stream and share your gaming session. Comes with 1 year premium license for free.
- Software – Command Center, RAMdisk, Gaming APP with FPS counter, Live Update 6, ECO Center.
…and a bit more detail on all of the above. The following slides are from the MSI press deck:
Retail Packaging and Accessories
The retail packaging on the MSI Z170A Gaming M7 looks a bit different from the Z97 version of its gaming motherboards. Gone is the mostly black with a large white dragon on the front. It’s replaced with a more, what I feel is a sophisticated red theme that shows a great close up of the motherboard. The front has the name of the motherboard as well as it showing the CPU that can go inside. The back of the box goes into a lot of features and shows the I/O area. There is never too much to see on the top and sides, and that still holds true with this example.
When we open up the box, we are greeted with the motherboard on top, and the included accessories on the bottom. Necessities like SATA cables (and labels!), the I/O plate, driver disk, instruction manuals/qIuck start guide, and the front panel adapters are included. Enough to get you going!
Meet the MSI Z170 Gaming M7
In taking a look at the motherboard, we can see it is a black PCB with red trim to match MSI’s Gaming series theme. There is a cover plate for the rear I/O area to help give the board a better aesthetic than exposing all of those I/O blocks. The heatsink that covers the VRM area is mostly red with a bit of black in it. It is a beefy heatsink and looks more than ready for the job of cooling the power bits. Just to the right of the socket are some of the red isolated traces from the memory directly to the CPU that were mentioned earlier.
The back of the board shows nothing too exciting, but we see the electrical setup of the PCIe slots (the 16x physical) are 16x, 8x, 8x. What you can’t see are some red LED’s that line the separation between the audio portion and the rest of the motherboard, which gives it a nice red glow emanating from the bottom.
A Closer Look
Zooming in on the board, we will start with the audio and PCIe areas. In looking at the audio section on the far left, bottom up, you can see the Nippon Chemi-Con capacitors. Between them are the OPA1652 amps. The next obvious thing you see is the Audio Boost 3 EMI shield that likely covers up a Realtek ALC1150 CODEC. A bit further up in the shadows of the I/O cover is the Killer NIC E2400 IC hiding under another EMI shield.
The PCIe area, from top to bottom shows us the first x1 slot and to the right of it the m.2 36GB/s slot. Below that is the first x16 PCIe slot with the Steel Armor visible. Further down are two more PCIe x1 slots, the next armor coated x16 slot, x1 (the second turbo M.2) slot and the last non-armored x16 PCIe slot.
Sliding around the board to the DIMM area, from left to right we can see a couple of the SATA3 6GB/s ports, two USB3.1 ports, the 24 pin ATX plug, a system fan header, and the DIP switch to enable the hardware based hot-key functionality. Like the Z97 boards, this is dual channel with four DDR4 DIMM slots supporting up to 32GB of ram.
Next up we take a miniature drone’s eye view of the socket area. This is the first decent shot of the new Military Class 5 components used. The power distribution appears to be pretty robust by sheer count. How it breaks down, I am not completely sure as I am unable to google-foo the controller and get an idea. Looks to be around 10+3. Remember, there isn’t an integrated voltage regulator on Skylake so the motherboard handles all of the voltage coming in and stepping it down/cleaning it up. Whereas with Z97 for example, the FIVR handled things and you didn’t need as robust of a motherboard to push things far, a little bit more may be needed here. There are documents floating around stating that a board with 150A available will easily handle any air/water overclocks. Sending power there is the 8-pin CPU input.
The last shot is a close up of a PCIe slot giving us a closer look at the Steel Armor on the PCIe connector. I personally haven’t had one of these snap off on me, but fortification can’t be bad, can it?
The rear I/O from left to right is as follows: PS/2 port on top of Gaming Hotkey/USB2 ports, clear CMOS button (glows a nice light purple), BIOS flashback/USB2, DisplayPort on top of an HDMI output (another HDMI next to it), Killer LAN port on top of two USB3.1 Gen 1 ports, a USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A port resting on top of the USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C. Last is the audio stack with the optical S/PDIF out.
Zooming in on the SATA ports, we are greeted with a total of six SATA 6 GB/s and two SATA express. Also pictured here on the left is the game boost knob, which you turn it up in increments, up to 11, depending on the CPU installed this can overclock up to 5 GHz (if your CPU can do it!). This is a pretty neat feature for those looking to overclock easily. I like this implementation over the OC Genie button since you have a more granular control over the clocks.
Across the bottom of the board, from left to right, is the front panel output header, debug LED, system fan header, front panel header, two USB2 headers, BIOS flashback button, slow mode DIP switch, power/reset buttons, and the Game Boost knob…that goes to 11!
Below are pictures of several of the IC’s used on the board for USB controllers, the Overclock Engine IC, and the Super I/O chip.
UEFI BIOS, Overclocking Software
Neeeeeeext up, we get take a look at MSI’s new Click BIOS 5. There are two modes for the Click BIOS, EZMode, which you are seeing immediately below, and advanced mode just after that. The EZMode gives one a nice graphical design, black background with red as you would suspect. In this mode things are simplified quite a bit. It’s really more of a display/monitor than it is for editing values, though you can flash your BIOS from here via MFLash, check out your favorites, and also swap boot order.
In order to get into the advanced section, simply press F7 and you will be brought to a much more familiar UEFI BIOS setup. The theme is the same here too, but the appearance is tweaked a bit and, in my opinion improved even further. I can’t help it, I’m a dark theme kind of guy. Anyway, as I said this section will be a bit more familiar to most MSI users, but with a few enhancements. You can set that boost knob in the BIOS from the upper left hand corner, which is one minor change specific to this board. Next to it is a button to enable XMP profiles without digging down into the BIOS.
Outside of that, things should be pretty familiar. The Settings section holds the options for boot, security, USB, SATA, and similar items. The Overclock section has your options to overclock. There are two modes here as well, normal, which you see in this screenshot, and advanced, which gives you many more options on the Overclock main page (details on that section after this one). Next up is the board explorer that will give you some details on what is installed on most of the ports. It will show details on your ram and the CPU and give a high-level view on what is plugged into the PCIe slots among other ports it will detect and display.
Below are screenshots of the majority of the Overclock section in advanced mode. You have plenty of control of all the voltages, and everything else needed to get the most out of your system. For enabling/disabling CPU features, seeing a status of the memory, messing around with the DigitALL Power area, to the many, many ram timings, it’s all here. There is plenty of options here to take a CPU to its limits.
Monitoring/Overclocking/Other Software – MSI Command Center, Gaming App, RAMDisk
Within Windows, MSI has Command Center which monitors the system and allows for overclocking from the application in Windows (worked out of the box!). There is also the MSI Gaming app which gamers (read: anyone) can run and have three options to increase FPS in games- OC, Gaming, and Silent modes. Last up is a solid value add software we are seeing now in RAMDisk. Here you can slice out a chunk of your ram and use it just like a HDD/SSD (but a lot faster!).
Test Setup, Benchmarks, and Overclocking
Listed below is the test system used for benchmarking:
|CPU||Intel 6700K @ Stock (for the motherboard – 4.2 GHz) and 4.7 GHz Overclocked|
|Motherboard||MSI Z170 Gaming M7|
|RAM||2×4 GB DDR4 GSkill Ripjaws 4 @ 2666 14-15-15-39 1.35v|
|Graphics Card||MSI GTX 980 Ti Gaming 6G|
|Solid State Drive||OCZ Vertex 3|
|Power Supply||SeaSonic SS-1000XP (80+ Platinum)|
|Operating System||Windows 7 x64 SP1|
We’ll perform our usual set of benchmarks, which test rendering, memory performance as well as single and multi-threaded CPU performance. For 2D benchmarks, we’ll use SuperPi 1M and 32M, wPrime, Intel XTU and PiFast. For rendering, Cinebench R11.5 and R15. Memory performance is checked against AIDA64 and MaxxMEM. For encoding we use x264 and POV Ray. Stock testing is performed with the BIOS as you get it out of the box, which will vary from motherboard to motherboard. The overclocked testing below was run at 4.7 GHz. Later in the article I used a 4.9 GHz overclock to compare head to head against Haswell (4770K in this case). For this board, the memory was set at 2666 CL14 as the XMP profile didn’t work with the sticks I had to test with, nor could I manually set it. Future reviews will be performed using a set of GSkill DDR4 3000 MHz CL15-15-15-35.
AIDA64 and MaxxMEM – Memory Bandwidth and Throughput
Cinebench R11.5 and R15 – CPU Rendering Benchmark
Super Pi 1M and 32M / Pifast – Single Threaded CPU Benchmark
WPrime 32M and 1024M, x624, PoV Ray R3.73, 7Zip, and Intel XTU – Multi-Threaded CPU benchmarks
x264 Pass 1 and 2
PoV Ray R3.73
7zip – Compression Benchmark
Below are some screenshots of my overclocking adventures. We can see I ended up reaching 4.9 GHz at 1.448v under load and stable enough to run Cinebench R15 and WPrime, both 32M and 1024M, against it. That isn’t so bad. The thing is though, I have an ES that MSI let me borrow for the review so I have no idea if this is what we will see with the retail chips. As far as how I did it. I followed the tried and true method of simply raising the multiplier and adjusting the vCore! One thing you will want to know is that though 1.448V sounds a bit high, and it may be, the stock voltage for this CPU was 1.31V under load. So we raised it about 900MHz with .14V difference. Being 14nm chip, I wouldn’t go much over 1.42v for 24/7, but only time will tell on that one. A .12V increase is nothing, but that was also on a larger process.
We mentioned above that BCLK is not tied to any other bus on Skylake so that should lead to more granular and higher BCLK overclocking instead of working odd straps with a +/- of a few BCLK… and we see that in the first slide below. I was able to boot to 225 BCLK with no changes to secondary voltages and actually ran some benchmarks against it. I was able to boot to 250 BCLK but couldn’t manage to tweak anything enough to even capture a screenshot. Intel spec is said to be somewhere around 170 BCLK. Assuming that is true, anything above that should be considered gravy.
I was able to take the DDR4 3K memory to 3150 MHz at CL 16 with stock voltage. I didn’t raise the voltage up, but these IMCs are said to handle 4 DIMMs at 3600Mhz with a few voltage adjustments. I managed to throw up a Hyper Pi run at those memory clocks as well… so that is stable(ish).
Haswell (4770K) @ 4.9 GHz versus Skylake (6700K) at 4.9 GHz
Below I completed my own small comparison of a 4770K and 6700K at the same clock speeds in order to see the differences between the two CPUs. Due to the change from DDR3 to DDR4, this is about as ‘apples to apples’ as I can get it, but that will show some differences as you will see in the results below.
In Cinebench, where Memory speeds really do not matter too much, we saw a about 6% gains in the older R10, but nearly 10% for R11. I do not have any results at this clock speed for R15. We see BIG differences in the memory in Maxxmem, but that doesn’t translate to performance really at these speeds and timings.
Super Pi 1M and 32M are interesting in their own right. Both of these are actually the same or slower by a very small margin at the same clock speed. This can really be attributed to the memory speeds. I would have to imagine with like memory speeds and timings, that the story there would change a bit. WPrime though, another that doesn’t respond terribly well to memory tweaks (it does of course, but not like Super Pi 32M), is showing about 10% on 32M and 12% on 1024M. Pifast on the other hand showed about 3% difference.
If we take those differences (sans memory results) and average them out, Skylake seems to be almost 6% faster clock for clock in my testing. I have to admit I was looking for more, at least 10% across the board honestly, which if we remove Super Pi, it comes closer to that value.
The MSI Z170A Gaming M7 has brought with it some cool features with the dual turbo M.2 slots, PCIe slot armor to help support those heavy GPUs, hardware Hot-Keys for overclocking, the neat game boost dial and the inclusion of both Type A and C connectors using the USB3.1 protocol. MSI continues to use their Military standards but has upgraded the Z170 series to Military Class 5 which uses new solid Titanium Chokes, along with the Hi-C Caps and other items which give it the certification.
Stability on a brand new platform was very good. Outside of the first set of DDR4 I used not working. MSI confirmed they should work, however because mine are flashed with pre release specs (higher voltage and different timings), they didn’t. I dropped in a pair of the G.Skills mentioned above and all was well. I really didn’t run into any quirks or problems outside of that, which was a breath of fresh air for sure.
Overclocking on this board was pretty easy as it doesn’t change much from what the modern Intel crowd is used to with the ‘change CPU multiplier, change vCore as needed and GO!’ method. The big difference here is the starting voltage (about 1.3v) and how high you can push it (some documents say do not go over 1.42v or expect degradation – no idea how much or how long), but really the ability to be so granular with the BCLK which allowed for a lot more settings at the same speeds is a big change. About the worst thing that happened was while overclocking and finding a few holes where certain settings just simply wouldn’t work. For example (not real values) 4.7 GHz worked with 100×47, but did not at ~200×23. Perhaps with more time I could have worked through such issues, or perhaps there are just holes (does anyone remember the FSB holes back in the day?). Regardless, not too much will change on the overclocking front.
The MSRP on this boards comes in at $229. Pretty fair to me considering what it offers, however I am not sure how that compares to other boards as I do not have any pricing. It will have to stand on its own merit for now. Overall, it is a brand new platform and frankly had the most stability I have run across on a pre-release board in a couple of generations, so there is that. It looks good with its black with red highlights of the MSI gaming series, and the board layout is logical. The Click BIOS 5 remains high on my list of functional, ergonomic, and overall good looking UEFI BIOS making changing settings and overclocking easy. Unless the price of this board is incredibly out of whack with similar boards, this MSI Z170A Gaming M7 should be on the list when looking for mid-range ‘gaming’ based boards as it has most everything a gamer and an ambient overclocker would want.
Joe Shields (Earthdog)