MSI Z170A SLI Plus Motherboard Review

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Today we will have a chance to look at yet another board in MSI’s seemingly already full product stack for Z170 based motherboards. We reviewed their monster overclocking and gaming board (Z170A XPower) and upper mid-range gaming board (Z170A Gaming 7) in the past, so now we get to check out something a bit lower on the cost totem pole. The offering we have today is the MSI Z170A SLI Plus. This board, while it should game and overclock well, is pointed to a more specific market: those which use multiple GPUs. It is geared this way because of the spacing between the main PCIe slots (triple slot spacing). So one can use two of your choice cards, be it AMD or NVIDIA based, and still have some room between the cards for better cooling, particularly for the top card. Let’s see what the board has to offer, shall we?

Specifications

Taking a look at the list below, you will find a typical assortment of expected specifications. Being Z170 based, we know it supports 6th generation Intel Core i3/i5/i7 along with Pentium and Celeron processors for the LGA1151 socket (as always, check the CPU Support list for compatible CPUs).

Regarding system memory, there are a total of four slots supporting up to 64GB of the latest DDR4 memory. This board also supports ECC, un-buffered memory and ECC UDIMM. By default, it handles DDR4 2133 and up to DDR4 3600 MHz when overclocking.

The Z170A SLI Plus has three on board graphics outputs. One HDMI, one VGA, and one DVI-D (for the “Pro” crowd).

I mentioned earlier the board supports both SLI and Crossfire. Its slot configuration is 3x PCIe 3.0 x16 (physical), and 3x PCIe 3.0 x1 (physical) slots. The main PCIe slots break down to x16/x0/x4 or with two cards, x8/x8/x4.

For storage there are a total of six SATA 6Gbps attached to the Z170 chipset which support RAID 0,1,5, and 10. Also native is an M.2 slot (PCIe 3.0 x4) slot delivering up to 32Gbps. The lengths it supports are 4.2cm, 6cm, and 8cm before you run into the PCIe x1 slot. The Z170 SLI Plus also supports mini SAS SSDs also using the PCIe 3.0 x4 slot, but with an adapter (purchased separately).

There are a slew of USB ports of all kinds. Supported by the ASMedia ASM1142 chip, we have a single USB3.1 Type C port. Supported by the native Z170 chipset, there are 6x USB3.1 (Superspeed USB) ports (two ports on the back panel, four ports available through the internal USB 3.1 Gen 1 connectors), and a total of 6x USB2 (High Speed USB) ports (two ports on the back panel, two ports available through the internal USB 2.0 connectors).

The audio is handled by the formidable Realtek ALC1150 CODEC while networking is handled by the new Intel I219-V Gigabyte Ethernet controller.

For more details, see the table below, or the MSI website for the Z170A SLI Plus.

MSI Z170A SLI Plus Specifications
CPU Supports 6th Gen Intel® Core™ i3/i5/i7 processors, and Intel® Pentium® and Celeron® processors for Socket LGA1151
* Please refer to CPU Support for compatible CPU
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 www.msi.com for more information on compatible memory.
On Board Graphics 1 x HDMI™ port, supports a maximum resolution of 4096×2160@24Hz, 2560×1600@60Hz
1 x VGA port, supports a maximum resolution of 2048×1536@50Hz, 2048×1280@60Hz, 1920X1200@60Hz
1 x DVI-D port, supports a maximum resoulution of 1920×1200@60Hz
Multi-GPU Support Supports 3-Way AMD® CrossFire™ Technology
Supports 2-Way NVIDIA® SLI™ Technology
Expansion Slots 3x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots (support x16/x0/x4, x8/x8/x4 modes)
3x PCIe 3.0 x1 slots
On-Board SATA

Intel® Z170 Chipset
6x SATA 6Gb/s ports – Supports RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5 and RAID 10 for SATA storage devices
1x M.2 slot
– Supports PCIe 3.0 x4 standard, 4.2cm/ 6cm/ 8cm length M.2 SSD cards
– Supports PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe Mini-SAS SSD with Turbo U.2 Host Card*
Supports Intel® Smart Response Technology for Intel Core™ processors
* The Turbo U.2 Host Card is not included, please purchase separately.

USB ASMedia® ASM1142 Chipset
– 1 x USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C (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 Gen 1 connectors)
– 6 x USB 2.0 (High-speed USB) ports (2 ports on the back panel, 2 ports available through the internal USB 2.0 connectors)
Audio Realtek® ALC1150 Codec
7.1-Channel High Definition Audio
LAN 1 x Intel® I219-V Gigabit LAN controller
Back Panel I/O Ports 1x PS/2 mouse port
1 x PS/2 keyboard port
1 x VGA port
1 x DVI-D port
1 x USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C port
2 x USB 3.1 Gen1 ports
1 x HDMI™ port
1 x LAN (RJ45) port
2 x USB 2.0 ports
6 x 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 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 Serial port connector
1 x Parallel port connector
1 x Clear CMOS jumper
Dimensions 12 in. x 9.6 in. (30.5 cm x 24.4 cm) ATX Form Factor

Features

Some major features on the board are as follows (also sourced from the MSI website for the SLI Plus):

First is the OC Genie 4. For those who may not know, this is a one-second overclocking button on the motherboard. You press the button and BOOM, more performance! You can also adjust what it overclocks to through the MSI Command Center software.

We talked briefly about the M.2 slot in the specifications, and here is a reiteration of those points. It is using PCIe 3.0 x4 which allows up to 32Gb/s throughput. This should help with reads and writes as well as boot times when using the blazing fast NVMe PCIe based M.2 drives.

The new Click BIOS 5 is MSI’s latest iteration of their UEFI BIOS. If you have read any of my reviews, you know I really like the layout and overall look of it. It seems like everything is in the right pace. There are no ‘slow mouse’ issues or problems I run into in most cases. If there are any issues, a BIOS update remedies the situation. There is an EZ Mode which gives you a high-level look at the system and allows you to change a few things (boot and fans, etc). Going into advanced mode will then display the full gamut of overclocking and other options.

What good is an MSI board without being Military Class 4 certified (Answer: not as good comparatively!)? The Z170A SLI Plus comes with Dark Chokes which are made out of a special material allowing them to run cooler, and with a higher capacity, which allows for better efficiency and stability. Also part of their Military Class 4 are Dark Capacitors. Dark Caps “…provides lower Equivalent Series Resistance (ESR) as well as its over-10-year Lifespan,” which should help with the board living a long life.

MSI also includes a neat feature for troubleshooting issues on the board, its EZ Debug LED. This is not a traditional LED which displays POST codes, but a simple on/off LED which will light up permanently when you run into an issue. The three debug LEDs cover CPU, Memory, and VGA. Those are pretty broad items, but it is still a lot better than nothing. For reference, the debug LEDs are located between the 24 pin power connector for the motherboard and fan header 3.

I mentioned in the introduction the one of the purposes of this board is to run SLI/CFx on it due to the slot spacing between the main PCIe x16 slots. This larger spacing will let more cool air get to the always-runs-warmer (assuming your case is oriented vertically) top video card.

Last but not least in the features is use of USB 3.1 Gen2 Type C port which allows for up to 10Gb/s transfer speeds (over 2x faster than USB3.1 G1)! A lot of boards have this feature, but not sure how many do at this price point.

There are more features at the MSI website.

ico-ocgn4

OC GENIE 4

OC Genie is the world’s first built-in hardware overclocking technology on motherboards. With this one-second overclocking option we’re giving you even more performance. Just hit the button and your PC gets another adrenalin shot.

ico-trbom2

TURBO M.2

Delivering speeds up to 32Gb/s using Gen3 x4, Turbo M.2 is over 5 times faster than a regular SATA III connection! Enjoy a blazing fast system boot up and insanely fast loading of applications and games with MSI motherboards.

ic-clkbio5

CLICK BIOS 5

Explore the greatly improved, award-winning CLICK BIOS 5 and use it to tune your system to maximum performance. MSI CLICK BIOS 5 is the next generation UEFI BIOS with optimizations for Windows 10.

Control your system in two modes: EZ mode, for the most used settings and functions. Advanced mode for more detailed settings and fine-tuning options to boost your system’s performance.

  • Variety of options to boost your game performance
  • Next gen UEFI BIOS with award winning design
  • High-resolution multi language scalable font
  • Easy to use
  • Advanced overclocking
ico-milcls4

MILITARY CLASS IV COMPONENTS

DARK CHOKE

Dark Choke uses the special core design and allows the Dark Choke to run at a lower temperature with higher capacity and better power efficiency and 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-debug

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.

ico-slicfx

OPTIMIZED FOR MULTIPLE GRAPHICS CARDS

SLI /CROSSFIRE SUPPORT

This motherboard supports SLI / CrossFire. Optimal PCI-Express slot placement allows for better fitting and airflow.

That way, you can enjoy the best graphics at the highest framerate jumping from your screen when running an NVIDIA® SLI™ or AMD CrossFire™ setup.

ico-usb31typc

2X FASTER
MSI USB 3.1 GEN2

Transferring your favorite games, music and movies over USB has never been faster. 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.

Retail Packaging and Accessories

The retail packaging for the MSI Z170A SLI Plus reminds me of the Krait lineup being mostly black. On the front, it is all black outside of the name and model of the board, the MSI branding up top, and the Intel branding below the model. The back shows us a lot of the high level features (listed above for the most part) and gives a bit of light blue as well. Never much to see on the sides, but they are pictured anyway.

Opening up the retail packaging gives way to a box in a box setup with the motherboard resting on top in anti-static packaging. Separated by a cardboard partition, rests the accessory stack. Note that this board supports U.2 mini SAS, but only with the U.2 host adapter which is not included with the accessories. You can pick this up at the MSI website.

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A Closer Look

Our first look at the board on a bright sunny day (really, the board is black as midnight, see the next shots!), one of the features which jumped out to me was the large spacing between the top two Steel Armor fortified PCIe slots. The board is pitch black outside of some stenciling with relevant information. There are some smallish heatsinks covering the VRMs as well. What we don’t see are the fancy covers on the IO or the heatpipe attached VRM heatsinks we are used to seeing on more expensive boards. On the back of the board, the only item worth mentioning is the electrical layout of the PCIe slots. The first x16 physical is also x16 electrical. The next x16 slot is a maximum of x8 electrical. The same goes for the bottom slot. It is x16 in size and x8 electrical (though it breaks down to a x4 slot due to the number of PCIe lanes available).

boardfront2

Front

Back

Back

Alternate 1

Alternate 1

Alternate 2

Alternate 2

Taking a closer look and starting off at the bottom of the board, on the left side we see the audio section which uses the Realtek ALC1150 CODEC. We can see here that it is separated from the rest of the board, and uses the better Chemi-con capacitors. One thing I do not see is the shielding which many boards used for the Realtek IC. I doubt this makes much of a difference in audio quality anyone could hear though (with speakers and cans)… unless you have your PC around a device emitting loads of EMI.

The PCIe slots shows the large gap this board advertises. The MSI Steel Armor cladding is around the top two slots which helps with supporting large video cards. Above the top x16 slot is where the M.2 connector is. We know it supports 4.2cm, 6cm, and 8cm drives. To the right of that, under the basic matte black heatsink with the MSI name on it, resides the Z170 PCH.

Around the upper right hand corner of the board and starting on the edge, you can see a front panel USB header and the 24 pin power for the motherboard. If you look closely between the 24 pin and the Sys3 Fan header, this is where you will find the EZ Debug LED. There are two other fan headers in this shot, both CPU fan headers. Oddly enough, one is located on the far side of the DIMM slots, while the other is located in a more familiar location between the DIMM slots and the heatsink. All are 4 pin PWM controlled. Of course, there are the four DIMM slots as well!

Around the socket, we see a total of what looks to be 11 phases to cover the CPU, Memory, and iGPU. To get power to those components, a single 8 pin ATX 12v is required. The socket area is fairly clean without too many caps and chokes to get in the way. The VRM heatsinks are not very tall so large CPU heatsinks shouldn’t have an issue fitting on this board.

Bottom Half

Bottom Half

DIMM area

DIMM area

8 pin required

8 pin required

Socket area

Socket area

Swinging the board around to the I/O on the back panel, you have the following:

  • 1x PS/2 mouse port
  • 1x PS/2 keyboard port
  • 1x VGA port
  • 1x DVI-D port
  • 1x USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C port
  • 2x USB 3.1 Gen1 ports
  • 1x HDMI™ port
  • 1x LAN (RJ45) port
  • 2x USB 2.0 ports
  • 6x audio jacks

As far as your storage/SATA ports. In the next picture you see a total of six. Four facing us, while there are two facing vertically on the board. Pictured next to it is another front panel USB header.

Rear Panel I/O

Rear Panel I/O

SATA

SATA

I removed the heatsinks off the board with just a couple of screws. No fancy heatpipes on these, just some matte black aluminum… perfectly effective, even while overclocked. The heatsinks all made good contact with the parts so we are set there.

Heatsinks removed

Heatsinks removed

Heatsinks (they made good contact!)

Heatsinks (they made good contact!)

Below is a slideshow displaying just a couple of the IC’s used on the board.

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UEFI BIOS / Windows Monitoring and Overclocking Software

Next, we take a quick dive into in the UEFI BIOS. As mentioned earlier, this board uses the Click BIOS 5 in all its high res goodness. Like the board itself, the main color in this BIOS is black with white and grey lettering. You have an EZ Mode which gives you high-level control of a few things like fans and boot order among other items. It is the advanced mode which most people recognize. It is set up just like the other boards with monitoring information up top with a couple of quick overclock and XMP buttons, with other, major options below on each side.

The Settings section is where you can manipulate the boot order, SATA modes, and many other system specific functions. The OC section is just that… where you would change your settings to overclock. MFlash is where one would update your BIOS. Once you select it you will be taken to another area to complete the flash. The OC Profile is where you would store your UEFI BIOS settings for easier loading later. There is also a Hardware Monitor where you are able to see temperatures, adjust fan speeds, and profiles. Last is the Board Explorer which shows you what hardware is plugged into many of the ports on the board.

Just like past experiences with this BIOS, I did not have any issues with it, and is one of my favorites due to how ‘natural’ it feels to find any of the options I need.

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For the overclockers, below is a slideshow of the OC section in a lot more detail. As you you can likely tell, it is thorough! Not sure there is a stone you can’t turn here!

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MSI Command Center is MSI’s Windows-based monitoring and overclocking software. The screenshot below is the main screen which allows you to adjust fan profiles, CPU multiplier, and BCLK; as well as adjusting voltage, fan speeds, memory timings, and to read sensor information. I did not have any issues with the software in my trials with this motherboard.

MSI Command Center

MSI Command Center

Performance and Benchmarking

Test Setup
CPU Intel 6700K @ Stock (4.0 boost to 4.2 GHz) and 4.7 GHz O/C
Motherboard MSI Z170A SLI Plus
RAM 2×4 GB DDR4 G.SKILL Ripjaws 4 @ 3000 MHz 15-15-15-35 2T 1.35 V
Graphics Card Sapphire R9 380x
Solid State Drive OCZ Vertex 3
Power Supply SeaSonic SS-1000XP (80+ Platinum)
Operating System Windows 7 x64 SP3
Graphics Drivers Catalyst 15.11.1 beta
Equipment
Digital Multimeter

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 G.SKILL DDR4 3000 MHz CL15-15-15-35.

AIDA64 and MaxxMEM – Memory Bandwidth and Throughput

stock-aida

AIDA64 – Stock

4.7 GHz

4.7 GHz

MaxxMEM2

stock-maxmm

MaxMemm – Stock

47-maxm

4.7 GHz

Cinebench R11.5 and R15 – CPU Rendering Benchmark

stock-cine115

Cinebench R11.5 – Stock

47-ciner115-1127

4.7 GHz – 11.27

R15

stock-ceinr15

Cinebench R15 – Stock

47-ceinr15-1035

4.7 GHz – 1,035

Super Pi 1M and 32M / Pifast – Single Threaded CPU Benchmark

Super Pi 1M - Stock

Super Pi 1M – Stock

4.7 GHz - 7.785s

4.7 GHz – 7.785s

32M

Super Pi 32M - Stock

Super Pi 32M – Stock

4.7 GHz - 6:45.381s

4.7 GHz – 6:45.381s

PiFast

PiFast - Stock

PiFast – Stock

4.7 GHz - 13.64s

4.7 GHz – 13.64s

WPrime 32M and 1024M, x264, PoV Ray R3.73, 7Zip, and Intel XTU – Multi-Threaded CPU benchmarks

WPrime 32M/1024M - Stock

WPrime 32M/1024M – Stock

4.7 GHz - 4.31s and 135.253s (32M and 1024M)

4.7 GHz – 4.31s and 135.253s (32M and 1024M)

x264 Pass 1 and 2

x264 - Stock

x264 – Stock

4.7 GHz

4.7 GHz

PoV Ray R3.73

POVRay - Stock

POVRay – Stock

4.7 GHz - 2,209.50

4.7 GHz – 2,209.50

7zip – Compression Benchmark

7Zip - Stock

7Zip – Stock

4.7 GHz - 29,360

4.7 GHz – 29,360

Intel XTU

Intel XTU - Stock

Intel XTU – Stock

4.7 GHz - 1,416

4.7 GHz – 1,416

Motherboard Comparison

Does your webwheel finger hurt yet scrolling though all of those results? Below is a simple summary in graph form of the results of all Z170-based boards I have tested so far. I think the graphs are getting really dense and the data points difficult to read. If I get another Z170 based motherboard, we may see more graphs so the information is easier to read.

That aside, the MSI Z170A SLI Plus was running right with the pack not being more than 1% or so off other results, beating them out or chasing. Nothing sticks out here that would be alarming in any way.

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Pushing the Limits

Last I checked, I was still writing for Overclockers.com (looks up…. yep!), and since overclocking is ‘what we do’, I did! This board allowed me to easily get up to 4.8 GHz using similar voltage as the other boards and achieved ‘stability’ (read: enough to run XTU benchmark and a longer Hyper PI) there as well. I pushed the BCLK up to 200 MHz and ran the same exact tests, no problems at all. I have confidence in this board for an ambient cooled overclock. Intel has made things so easy on us, haven’t they?!

4.8 GHz with some stability...

4.8 GHz with some stability…

200 BCLK!

200 BCLK!

Conclusion

So all this brings us to the end… time to wrap things up in a couple of paragraphs, right? Right! To start, I had zero issues with this board throughout all the testing and overclocking I completed. I updated the BIOS to the latest version at the website (a version the public would use) with no issues. Being from their “Pro” series of boards, along with daily computing, it also keeps in mind professional uses and requirements. Productivity (DDR4 boost, OC Genie, etc), Reliability (Military Class 4, EZ Debug LED, Overvoltage protection), and Enhanced Experience (Audio Boost, USB3.1 G2 Type C connectivity, etc). One of the big things for the office is the board having legacy video outputs on board (VGA). So not only will it be fine in your home, it should help out if you decide to build an office machine too. Not that any other board wouldn’t work fine honestly. Got to love marketing!

For the gamer, some of the main features on the board are when you use multiple GPUs. The PCIe slot spacing on the MSI Z170A SLI Plus, allows for a dual slot card to get a lot more fresh air because of the triple slot spacing. Quite helpful if you plan on SLI/CFx and running them on air, that is for sure. Along those lines, MSI used the more than adequate Realtek ALC1150 CODEC along with Audio Boost for its sound. Sure there isn’t an EMI shield, but, I can’t believe it is totally necessary for most people anyway.

Last up is the price. At the end of reviews, I look through the feature sets and try to guess its MSRP. In this case I wasn’t off surprisingly enough! The board is priced at Newegg.com at $139.99. This puts it right around boards like the ASRock Z170 Extreme4 and Gigbabyte GA-Z170XP-SLI which both have similar features. It feels like its pricing fits the market.

Overall the board certainly works as described. The slot spacing and Steel Armor are perfect for running multiple air cooled GPUs. The power delivery will take your Skylake CPU to its ambient cooled limits without stress. It has all the features most would need at a price that will not put a hurting on your wallet. If you are looking for a low to mid-range board, particularly if you are wanting to use multiple GPUs, make sure you look at the MSI Z170A SLI Plus. This board is Overclockers.com approved!

What Does This Mean? Click to Find Out!

What Does This Mean? Click to Find Out!

– Joe Shields (Earthdog)

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