The time is finally here for all you enthusiasts that love bleeding edge hardware! That’s right, Intel’s Haswell has finally hit the scene with performance that most expected and a similar jump in per clock performance as was Sandy Bridge to Ivy Bridge. But what is an(y) Intel CPU without a board to support it? Today we will give you a look at one of MSI‘s higher end motherboards built around the Z87 platform (Lynx Point) chipset, the Z87 MPower MAX. The board is made for overclocking with a lot of its features, but looks to please a more broad market than that. Let’s put it through its paces and see how things work out!
Specifications & Features
We will first look at the specifications of the hardware and take a gander at some features that may make this board unique. As we likely know from our release day coverage of Haswell, it is built on Intel’s new Socket 1150 Z87 Lynx Point architecture. I won’t go in to too many details as hokiealumnus covered it more than well in his i7 4770K review. Some of the basics this chipset has over previous Z77 models (Panther Point), are the six native USB 3.0 ports as well as six native SATA 6 GB/s ports. This is up from usually two-four USB 3.0 ports and two SATA 6 GB/s ports.
This particular board has a total of three PCIe 3.0 x16 slots (breaks down to x8/x8 in SLI/CFX). As with previous generation ‘mid-range’ platforms, we are blessed with a total of four DIMM slots. However, this time the MPower MAX supports up to DDR3-3000 MHz (OC) memory speeds, assuming your IMC can make it there. We have a total of eight SATA 6 GB/s ports, six USB 2.0 ports and 10 USB 3.0 ports. Plenty of ports there. Just remember with the C1 stepping there is the issue of using the sleep states and the USB ports dropping. This should be resolved with a C2 stepping.
Next, we can see it comes with the Killer E2205 Ethernet port. What is unique here is Killer claims to keep latency low by allowing one to control and prioritize the traffic. The MSI Z87 board also comes with built in Wireless (b/g/n), Bluetooth 4.0, and Intel WiDi. Last up on the specifications is the built-in eight channel audio with Sound Blaster Cinema. Note that the audio chip is covered (more on this later) and isolated from other parts of the system helping improve overall sound quality.
Packaging & Accessories
On the outside of the retail packaging, the first thing that jumps out to me is the large Yellow “M” on the front and MPower MAX naming. We really do not see much outside of that on the front other than the MSI name and the Intel symbols for the new Haswell based processors. Flipping the box around we can see the ‘full’ name of the board, the Z87 MPower MAX. On this panel, MSI goes into more details about the board. Listed here are the performance and cooling abilities, the Killer NIC card, Command Center software, and Lucid Virtu MVP software. Also on this panel are some specifications and the layout of the I/O area on the back of the board.
There really isn’t anything to see on the sides, so we will move quickly past that.
Flipping open the “M” on the front of the box exposes the board for the first time. Inside that front “M” flap are more features of the board such as the DigitALL power and Military Class 4 nomenclature. Last up in this set, we get our next glimpse of the board and we see that the motherboard and accessories come in separate packaging.
The accessory stack MSI provides is pretty all-inclusive. It comes with a plethora of things really. Several SATA 6 GB/s cables, a USB 3.0 rear panel port, your WiFi antennae and BT module, I/O panel, driver disks, instructions, and even some handy voltage read point connectors that make using a voltage meter even easier.
The MSI Z87 MPower MAX
Ahh ha, here is the board in all its black (really black) and and yellow glory! One of the first things we see on this unit is the large cooling for the power delivery area. It is a heavy cooler. Four DIMM slots, three PCIe x16 slots and three PCIe x1 slots, several fan headers throughout, and the integrated and covered audio chip. For the extreme overclocker, take a look at the clean area around the CPU for easier application of insulation (yay!). There are two 8-pin CPU AUX connections for more power to the CPU, the overclocking (+/-) buttons, and Power/Reset buttons at the bottom.
Nothing too much to see on the back side really outside of some feature stampings. You can also notice the PCIe slots, which electrically are x16/x8/x8.
A Closer Look
Here we will be taking a closer look at some of the parts on the motherboard, and even look at some of the ICs used to make things work. First we look at the CPU area. Among what appears to be a 20-phase CPU power delivery, we can see the area is very clean from other caps and bits that get in the way of insulation for the extreme crowd. For the ‘normal’ enthusiast, there is plenty of room around the socket area for a beefy cooler or water block. Towards the lower left of this picture, we see the alternative voltage read points (the primary will be shown a bit later).
Moving to the bottom left of the motherboard, we see MSI’s audio implementation housed under a Faraday cage. It utilizes 8-channel audio along with Sound Blaster Cinema to bring higher quality sound to your system. To the right of that are the PCIe slots (x16/x1/x1/x16/x1/x16 physical). I have to imagine the breakdown would be x8/x8 with dual cards seeing as how there is no PLX chip and Haswell, just like Ivy Bridge, only has 16 lanes to breakdown. Next up is the PCH cooler and the debug LED for helping to diagnose boot time problems. Right by the debug LED are the two BIOS chips and its switch. In case a bios gets messed up for whatever reason, you can easily swap to the other and restore. Along those lines, one thing I wish this board had was the boot time LEDs that show where in the POST/Boot process things are getting hung up. Not necessary by any means, but good to have even with a debug LED. In the middle of the PCIe slots is spacing for a mSATA port, which can be used for added storage capacity or in conjunction with the Intel Smart Response Technology for speeding up standard HDDs.
Moving to the upper right hand corner of the motherboard to the DIMM area, we see the four DIMM slots able to handle 32 GB worth of RAM (plenty for today and tomorrow’s needs for the vast majority of people). Also pictured here are the ‘formal’ voltage read points, the 24-pin ATX power connector, and two 15-pin USB 3.0 connectors.
The next picture shows the socket area. You can see a hint of the 20 CPU power phases and the clean socket area to help with any extreme cooling insulation one may need. The heatsinks do not stand too tall, so clearance shouldn’t be an issue with most air coolers.
The last picture in this group shows the two 8-pin CPU AUX 12V connectors. You will only need to use one for most overclocking. Once you get into the extreme realm, the second should help things out a bit.
Now we will take a look at some of the inputs and outputs the board offers. We will start with the SATA ports. Here we see a total of eight ports, six of which are controlled natively by the Intel controller, and the other two handled by ASMedia controller.
In viewing the rear I/O, we can see a fairly typical array of options here. From left to right, we see a legacy P/S2 port with two USB 2.0 ports below it, your CMOS reset button, and an empty space where the included WiFi/Bluetooth adapter rests. Next in line are two USB 3.0 ports, and the Killer NIC port on top of two more USB 3.0 ports. Next is the optical out for digital audio, along with a DisplayPort and HDMI connections. Finally, two more USB 3.0 ports and the analog audio jacks round out the I/O area.
Taking a gander at the bottom of the board, MSI has put a lot of their overclocking features and convenience items here. Again from left to right is the OC Genie button for simple one-touch overclocking, power and reset buttons, and the “+ and -” buttons for BCLK overclocking in windows. To the far right is the debug LED, BIOS switch and a neat feature – the Fast BIOS button. Pressing the Fast BIOS button gets you into the BIOS with a touch of the button. No more banging repeatedly on the keyboard to get there, just hit this button and BAM! You’re in the BIOS!
Taking off the heatsink for the power bits, we can see the 20-phase CPU power flexing its FETS (yeah yeah, that was weak). 20-phases people. I haven’t seen that many phases in quite a while. That should be enough to get PLENTY of clean power to the CPU I would think! Next we see the PCH chip exposed on the board. Both coolers made good contact with their respective chips, so we are good there.
Last up in the details of this motherboard is a simple list of some of the chips that support this board…
- Killer NIC E2205-B – Network Controller
- IR 3563B – 8-phase single output PWM Controller
- NuvoTon NCT6779D – Super I/O chip monitors temperature and power among other things
- ASMedia 1061 – PCIe to SATA interface
- ASMedia 1480 – PCIe switching
- ASMedia 1074 – USB3 Hub Controller
UEFI BIOS, Overclocking Software, Killer Network Manager
It has been some time now that UEFI BIOS have been around. At this point I feel that functionality is a given, and now some fine tuning and aesthetic tweaking is in order. I don’t speak of this particularly about MSI as their UEFI BIOS, since I want to say around Click 2, looked solid to begin with and generally worked as described. MSI has come out with their Click BIOS 4 sporting a large yellow “M” with the MPower MAX name in the middle of it, flanked by different BIOS options (OC, Monitoring, etc). Take your first look see below and we will get in to its functionality and ease of use.
We’ll just take a top-down, left-right tour, skipping the Overclocking section as that gets its own section at this site! First up are the settings section. In here we initially see System Status, Advanced, and Boot. In the System Status, it simply shows what is connected to the motherboard as far as drives, CPU, RAM, and BIOS version details. In the Advanced section is where you find options for setting a slew of things including Peripherals, the iGPU, USB configuration, and Power Management among other options. Last up in Settings is the Boot section. Self explanatory here, yes?!
The next part of the BIOS we will look at is the M-Flash. Here of course is where you can flash/update your BIOS as well as save your BIOS to a storage device such as a USB stick. Tried this out, works just fine!
The Hardware Monitor portion is where you can take a look at what’s doing temperature-wise, fan speed, and voltage as well. It seems like an informative panel. But I have to admit I really like having the temperature viewable throughout most of the BIOS like this one is. No switching over needed for that high level, but important piece of information.
Next up is the Board Explorer. What this screen does is show you some information of what you have installed in any of the slots, be it CPU, PCIe, the rear I/O, SATA, and others.
Overclocking in the UEFI BIOS
Ok readers, it’s time to look at what makes some of us tingle inside (bad house wiring?), the overclocking section of the BIOS. Here is where the magic happens of changing your voltage and making the CPU you bought scream.
We will start out on the main screen where you can choose all your selections, and there are plenty of them. You have your BCLK there to play with, but now we see something familiar to those on the X79 platform, a CPU BCLK Strap. This ‘gearing’ like X79, comes in 1.25x/1.67x/2.5x. I can’t imagine the 2.5x ratio works, I didn’t bother to try it. One thing to note that hung me up on Z87’s BCLK was that you cannot just set the strap by itself. Meaning 100 x 1.25 = 125 BCLK. You have to adjust the BCLK itself and the strap will automatically adjust. You can set it manually, but MSI says auto is fine and will adjust the strap as needed to your BCLK. At the time of publishing, I hit 125 BCLK no problems and will continue pushing and report back*. This is mostly a function of the CPU though, so don’t hold it against a board too hard if things come in lower than expected for you.
I have shared a table below with data from MSI and their experiences on using BCLK and the general ranges of straps and BCLK. This should help you out when overclocking using the BCLK.
|1.0||~97 to ~103|
|1.25||~110 to ~140|
* Reporting back in on the BCLK testing, I have managed to bork both BIOS on this board. I was trying to push the BCLK up at the time. Make sure that if you bork a BIOS, you FIX it first in case you mess up the second one. I have one BIOS completely unusable with a 9A debug code no matter what, while the other ‘slow boots’ only with a CMOS reset. It will get to the BIOS and windows, but I was unable to re-flash as it just froze saving anything (be it boot order or otherwise). I struggled a bit with trying to flash from DOS (USB stick), but eventually got that worked out, but to no avail. So again, be careful not to mess up both BIOS’! Note to MSI, please have your windows flashing software be able to read from a file instead of only looking at your website for newer software. Also, having the flexibility to flash to the same version or older BIOS would be helpful/more flexible for the tool.
MSI has their DigitALL Power section here as well. This is where you can make VRM frequency changes, enable and disable OCP/OVP, etc. All your power options are in (sans raising/lowering the voltage) here basically.
The next screen shows the main voltages we will be dealing with when overclocking. Core Voltage, CPU SA voltage, and some new ones, CPU IO Analog and Digital. Adjusting these as the guide mentions helps with memory and BCLK. Check out our guide for further assistance overclocking your Haswell CPU.
The last picture shows the DRAM voltage and where you get into the CPU Features such as enabling/disabling C-states, Hyper Threading, Virtualization, etc.
This next group of shots from the UEFI BIOS are of the DRAM options. Again, there are your typical primary and secondary timings, and on the advanced screen, a ton more to tweak. I’m not sure who goes down that granular, not me personally, but if you have that need or want, it’s there!
These are probably self explanatory at this point considering I mentioned what was in them above, but here are the shots of the CPU Feature section and the DigitALL Power.
Overall, I do like MSI’s Click BIOS 4 and how it is laid out. There is no mouse lag to speak of and responsiveness overall was snappy with no delays. I have always been a fan of how it looks and that won’t stop with this one (ok, so it’s more or less a color change, but still!)
MSI Command Center (Windows)
MSI Command Center is a new utility for controlling voltages, BCLK, fans, and the OC Genie to name a few things. In the first screenshot below, we can see the main screen, or “CPU” section. In this we can see the BCLK and multiplier ratios we can adjust, and some pretty granular control over the CPU fan header. If we slide/swipe the screen over (think tablet style) or click on DRAM, the screen slides over to show more CPU control (the voltage) and DRAM voltage included.
I skipped the GPU section (it wouldn’t read what I had in there at the time), to show the RAMDisk. Not much to see really, but the option is there, and it appears like several configuration choices are available as well.
In the Overclock Genie section is where you can set up the overclock you end up with when pressing the button.
Last up for the large pictures shows the CPU Advanced section, specifically the Voltage and DRAM tabs. Here you have a fine amount of control over a few major voltage options on the CPU, and a lot of options for DRAM timings. This is where most will play I would imagine, especially when going extreme cooling and pushing the limits.
Here are a few more of the screens available in MSI’s Command Center software…
Killer Network Manager
One of the other features on this board is the Killer Network NIC card. More specifically the E2205 is used in the Z87 MPower MAX. It is a bit odd to me to see this on an ‘overclocking’ based board, but hey, people do more things than overclock with this caliber of board, so it’s a good addition none the less. One of the keys to its claims of lower latency/ping has to do with prioritizing network traffic so things that need it, like your games for example, take priority over other items that are active on your network stack.
Does it work? Really, who knows as it is such a tough thing to track down, it’s a moving target. If software can interject packets for your game and make them sneak in before, I suppose it can’t hurt? No idea. Bottom line is the feature is there, and I would say to use it so your game executables get priority over other items.
A few more screens from the Killer Network Manager Software…
Test Setup, Benchmarks, and Overclocking
Listed below is the test system used for benchmarking:
|CPU||Intel i7 4770K @ 3.5 GHz|
|Motherboard||MSI Z87 MPower MAX|
|RAM||2×4 GB Kingston HyperX Predator DDR3-2666 11-13-13-32|
|Graphics Card||MSI GTX 770 OC|
|Solid State Drive||60 GB Vertex 2|
|Power Supply||SeaSonic SS-1000XP (80+ Platinum)|
|Operating System||Windows 7 x64 SP1 (Fresh Install)|
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 differences between motherboards so we are going with simple screenshots of the results. Once I get a couple more Z87 boards, perhaps I will throw them on a graph at that point in time so we can make some comparisons.
Pushing the limits – LN2 Results
I bet the Benchmarking Team is licking their chops at this point waiting for this section. So without any more rambling, from me, take a look and see what is doing…
Not bad ehh?! But I agree, I wanted more too. I managed to pull 6 GHz SuperPi 1M and 32M (not pictured, don’t ask, but I swear it ran… 5:41.xxx!!), as well as WPrime 32M. Voltage was only up to a not horrifically scary 1.64 V needed to get through the benchmarks. I wanted to give it more voltage, and did, but it still didn’t budge. Here is the thing. I had a few issues I ran into that needs mentioning. All this was done with multiplier only. It wasn’t until after I completed these runs that MSI helped teach me how to work the BCLK and strap. So this is ALL multiplier work here. I have a feeling that using some BCLK/strap could get past this limit as I could run all benchmarks at 6 GHz and usually you see a cascade of lesser clocks for more stressful benchmarks. Still, 6 GHz isn’t bad, especially considering its multiplier only and with a high cold bug around -105 °C for this particular CPU.
I don’t have too many tips for you really as again I was handicapped I feel with the multiplier. This was voltage and go with keeping the memory fairly low. Remember to refer to our very own Guide to Overclocking Haswell for some great information and tricks on getting the last bit out of your Haswell setup.
I have always liked MSI’s UEFI Click BIOS and said in previous reviews it’s one of the best looking. The layout is logical and user friendly with all the basics and tons more advanced options to play with. As mentioned above, please be careful with the BIOS in that if you brick one, fix it before you brick both!! I’m not sure why it bricked so easy, but, as always, just be careful and always have a good bios on hand in one of the slots. On the Windows side, MSI now has the Command Center Software to help overclock from within your OS. It works, and offers a lot of flexibility, but does take a few seconds to load. For the extreme overclocker, there is Command Center Lite which uses less resources and has the functionality you need in windows to push that overclock to the limit.
As far as the looks go, as you have no doubt seen, MSI has switched to a yellow and black theme which looks pretty good to me. The audio area on the front has a yellow line when powered on showing its separation, and on the backside of that are a couple of white LED’s lighting up the back of the same separated area. This matches their graphics cards such as the Lightning series as well. So pair those up if you want for matching styles. The MPower MAX has also brought to the table the Killer NIC for the gamers to help prioritize network traffic and keep your ping low for gaming. Along those lines they have taken the ALC1150 audio section and isolated it from the board to get better audio quality. I can’t say it sounded any better or worse than what I currently have, but admittedly I have no numbers on that and wasnt listening critically in the first place. It sounded good regardless in both music and in gaming with accurate sound stage reproduction and range.
Ok, ok… the price. the MSRP on this board will be $259.99 at Newegg.com. That is towards the higher end of things really, but you are getting a full featured motherboard. It is competing with the likes of my armored buddy, the ASUS Sabertooth and the ASRock Z87 Professional (priced slightly above, and below it respectively) to give you an idea of similarly priced boards.
The MSI Z87 MPower MAX has a great mix of features for gamers with its isolated on the PCB Realtek ALC1150 audio section and Killer NIC/included wireless N+ Bluetooth, and for extreme overclockers alike with its robust 20+4 phase power delivery area and overclocking options. If you take care of those people you can probably rest easy knowing you can please a lot of the users out there really and MSI has does so. This board is Overclockers.com approved!
Click the Approved stamp for an explanation of what it means.