With the release of Intel’s Z97 chipset, we have seen motherboards of nearly all flavors get reviewed here. From budget conscious boards all the way up to the ‘I am made for extreme overclocking as a primary function’ type boards. Today, we get to look at MSI’s flagship motherboard, the Z97 XPower AC. This board is a step above the previously reviewed MPower MAX AC in both physical size (it’s E-ATX) and by way of additional features and accessories. Being their flagship motherboard, overclocking should not be a problem even under extreme conditions such as LN2. According to MSI, this board broke some world records while using LN2 cooling… Exciting! Let’s get down to business…
Specifications and Features
Below is a table with the specifications from MSI’s website, which shows the high level specifications and features. Some things to note here are support for up to DDR3-3300 MHz memory (assuming your IMC and sticks can support such speeds), five PCI- E 3.0 x16 physical slots (see details below for SLI/CFx configurations), the now seemingly standard M.2 port supporting speeds up to 10 GB/s, an Intel NIC, a total of 10 SATA3 6GB/s ports, a slew of USB 3.0 ports, Realtek’s ALC1150 audio Codec, and seven PWM fan headers. And of course, its an E-ATX form factor. Whew, that was a long, sentence! See the table below for more details.
|MSI XPower MAX AC|
|Chipset||Intel Z97 Express Chipset|
|CPU Support||• Supports 5th and 4th Generation Intel® Core™ Processors, and Intel® Pentium® and Celeron® Processors for the Socket LGA1150|
|Memory||• Support four DDR3 DIMMs 1066/1333/1600/1866*/2000*/2133*/2200*/2400*/2600*/2666*/2800*/3000*/3100*/3200*/3300*(OC)DRAM (32GB Max) – Supports Dual-Channel mode – Supports non-ECC, un-buffered memory – Supports Intel® Extreme Memory Profile (XMP)|
|Expansion Slots||• 5 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots (PCI_E1, PCI_E2, PCI_E3, PCI_E5, PCI_E7)* – The operating mode will be x0/x16/x0/x0/x0, x16/x0/x0/x16/x0,x16/x0/x0/x8/x8 or x8/x0/x8/x8/x8.* – Support for installing up to 4 PCIe x16 expansion cards.• 2 x PCIe 2.0 x1 slots * For a single expansion card installation with optimum performance, using the PCI_E2 slot is recommended.|
|On-Board SATA||• Intel Z97 Express Chipset
– 6 x SATA 6Gb/s ports (SATA1~6)
– 1 x M.2 port*
– M.2 port supports M.2 SATA 6Gb/s module
– M.2 port supports M.2 PCIe module up to 10Gb/s speed**
– M.2 port supports 4.2cm/ 6cm/ 8cm length module
– Supports RAID 0, RAID1, RAID 5 and RAID 10*** ‘
– Supports Intel Smart Response Technology, Intel® Rapid Start Technology and Intel Smart Connect Technology****
• ASMedia® ASM1061 chipset
– 4 x SATA 6Gb/s ports (SATA7~10) * The SATA5 and SATA6 ports will be unavailable when installing a module in the M.2 port. ** M.2 PCIe interface only supports UEFI option ROM, NOT support legacy option ROM. *** M.2 PCIe interface does not support RAID 0, RAID1, RAID 5 and RAID 10. **** Supports Intel Core processors on Windows 7 and Windows 8/ 8.1
• Intel Z97 Express Chipset – 4 x USB 3.0 ports available through the internal USB connectors – 6 x USB 2.0 ports (2 ports on the back panel, 4 ports available through the internal USB connectors*)
• ASMedia ASM1074 Chipset – 6 x USB 3.0 ports on the back panel • ASMedia ASM1042 Chipset – 2 x USB 3.0 ports on the back panel * internal JUSB1 connector supports MSI Super Charger
• 1 x Intel I218-V Gigabit LAN controller
• Wi-Fi/Bluetooth expansion module with Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 chip. – Supports Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual band (2.4GHz, 5GHz) up to 867 Mbps speed. – Supports Intel Wireless Display (WiDi)
• Wi-Fi/Bluetooth expansion module with Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 chip. – Supports Bluetooth v4.0 (includes BLE* and Bluetooth 3.0+HS)
|Multi Graphics||• Supports 4-Way AMD® CrossFire™ Technology*• Supports 4-Way NVIDIA® SLI™ Technology *Supports Windows 7 and Windows 8/8.1.|
|Integrated Video||By CPU model Supports DX11.1/ 11/ 10.1/ 10/ 9 Supports HDCP Support DirectX Video Acceleration(DXVA) for accelerating video processing —Full AVC/VC1/MPEG2 HW Decode Support Advanced Scheduler 2.0, 1.0, XPDM Support OpenGL 4.0 Support HDMI, 1.4a specification compliant with 3D Support 3 Displays(HDMI + DVI + VGA)|
|Codec||• Realtek® ALC1150 Codec – 7.1-Channel High Definition Audio – Supports S/PDIF output|
|Rear I/O||– 1 x PS/2 keyboard/mouse combo port
– 1 x Clear CMOS button
– 1 x Optical S/PDIF-out port
– 2 x USB 2.0 ports
– 8 x USB 3.0 ports
– 1 x RJ45 LAN jack
– 1 x 6 in 1 OFC audio jack
– 1 x DisplayPort with max. resolution up to 4096×2304@24Hz, 2560×1600@60Hz, 3840×2160@60Hz,1920×1200@60Hz
– 1 x HDMI ports with max. resolution up to 4096×2304@24Hz, 2560×1600@60Hz, 3840×2160@60Hz,1920×1200@60Hz This platform supports dual-display and triple-display function
|Internal I/O||– 1 x 24-pin ATX power connector
– 1 x 8-pin ATX 12V power connector
– 1 x 6-pin ATX 12V power connector* – 5 x 4-pin System fan connectors
– 2 x 4-pin CPU fan connectors
– 10 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors
– 2 x USB 2.0 connectors (supports additional 4 USB 2.0 ports)
– 2 x USB 3.0 connectors (supports additional 4 USB 3.0 ports)
– 1 x Front Panel Audio connector
– 2 x System panel connectors – 1 x TPM module connector
– 1 x Chassis Intrusion connector
– 9 x V-Check points connectors
– 1 x GO2BIOS button
– 1 x OC Genie button
– 1 x Discharge button
– 1 x Reset button
– 1 x Power button
– 2 x Base Clock control buttons
– 2 x CPU Ratio control buttons
– 1 x Clear CMOS jumper
– 1 x Multi-BIOS switch
– 1 x OC Genie mode switch
– 1 x PCIe CeaseFire Switch
– 1 x Slow mode switch
– 1 x Base Clock step swtich
– 1 x PCIe CeaseFire switch
– 1 x 2-Digit Debug Code LED
– 1 x Wi-Fi/ Bluetooth module connector * Provides additional power to PCIe x16 slots
|Dimension||• 30.5cm(L) x 26.4cm(W) E-ATX Form Factor|
|OS Support||Support Windows 7 / 8 / 8.1|
As far as the feature set the XPower AC has, we cherry picked a few of them (images from the MSI website again) and their descriptions for you. On MSI’s higher end motherboards, they throw around their Military Class 4 components consisting of the DrMOS MOSFETs, which are more efficient than ‘other power saving solutions’ and deliver more power with less components needed. The capacitors on this board are a HI-C cap that MSI describes as being small but ‘super-efficient’. You will find these around the socket area. The Dark CAPs provide lower ESR and the SFCs run cooler with better current capacity and efficiency, which they state will allow for better power stability. MSI uses the MIL-STD-810G for temperature, humidity, and drop height.
Moving on, MSI also has a ‘Focus on quality’. They state their RMA has dropped recently, so that is always a good thing. Supporting, or better described as the potential source of that rate dropping is their use of ESD, Circuit, EMI, High Temperature, Humidty, and ECO power protection. Now, I am not sure how some of these would evolve their way to a better return rate, but I’m on the outside looking in too.
MSI brings over their DigitALL all digital PWM design to this board as well, which helps with more accurate voltage delivery and reduced power consumption. This is always a good thing, but to be fair most motherboards in this price range also use a digital PWM.
Next up, I wanted to show their little Wi-Fi AC, Widi, and Bluetooth unit. This tiny little box (maybe 1″ x 1.5″?) plugs into the motherboard at the rear I/O area. As the name of the piece describes, it is there for Wi-Fi capabilities, Intel WiDi support (must have a WiDi receiver or a device that supports it), and Bluetooth 4.0.
Last but not least, MSI is putting improved audio on their motherboards and calling it Audio Boost. MSI separates their audio components from the rest of the motherboard, and then covers the Realtek ALC1150 IC for EMI protection. Along with that improvement, MSI also includes a 600Ohm integrated headphone amplifier for driving a high-end set of headphones.
(Images from MSI website).
There are a few other neat features on this board I wanted to showcase as well. As was referenced earlier, the Z97 Xpower AC has a lot of space around the socket. This helps with easing your insulating needs for the extreme overclocker. For the average Joe using air, there is plenty of clearance around the power bits and the heatsinks that cool them. MSI also uses an OC Engine that allows you to keep your BCLK and everything attached to it at its 100 MHz rate. It can use straps to reach 125 MHz or even 167 MHz BCLK assuming your CPU can support it of course. You can eek out the last little bit of performance with the added flexibility it gives.
Speaking of pushing the limits, with Intel’s ‘mis-step’ of using an inferior TIM between the IHS and die, a lot of users have been de-lidding their CPUs to improve temperatures. MSI has a socket setup made specifically for those that want to de-lid called the Delid Die Guard. This guard helps protect the CPU die and provides secure mounting pressure, which are both sometimes a trick. They also include a nifty fan stand called OC Fan Stand, which helps get air circulating around the socket area. This will help in an open bench environment. I set it up, and it was pretty sturdy as they describe in that it will hold in specific positions. A nice value add to the board for sure. Note the fan does not come with it.
Keeping on with the overclocking theme, the XPower AC gives you a slew of on-board buttons and switches. Dubbed OC Essentials, these items are intended to help you with overclocking. The on-board button and switches provide a slow mode, disable/enable PCIe slots, +/- buttons to raise BCLK or CPU multiplier, complete power down, and the more common power/reset buttons. Its all there to help increase stability, aide in trouble shooting, and have simple push button overclocking to simplify things in the heat (seems like the wrong word here, heat…haha!) of the extreme overclocking moment. When you are ‘extreme’ overclocking you want to have an accurate idea of the voltages used, and that’s where the V-Check Points 2 feature comes into play. Last up is the addition of the M.2 slot and SATA Express ports, which support speeds of up to 10 GB/s versus the SATA3 limit of 6 GB/s. This board also comes with an M.2 to SATA Express converter.
As we look at the MSI Z97 XPower AC’s retail packaging, we see the familiar black and yellow theme that is MSI’s OC Series. On this box though, instead of an “M” for the MPower MAX AC I reviewed earlier, there is a “X” for XPower. The back of the packaging shows some of the features like the 16 phase power, 4-way SLI/CFx capabilities, OC Essentials, and the Intel Wi-Fi AC unit, among other things. As usual, not too much to see on the sides. When we open up the “X” flap, we see even more features listed on the left, and on the right is a windowed (plastic) pane that shows the board hiding underneath.
Moving on the the accessories, to put it simply there are a holy ton of them. Anything from a door hanger, to the included 8 GB USB stick. Of course, we have the Intel Wi-Fi AC unit, the OC Fan Stand parts (fan not included), Delid Die Guard, a pack of voltage read points, SATA cables and labels, driver disk, instructions… and I will stop there. TONS of stuff in here people.
Next up is a Sharkoon fan you can put on the included brackets. It matches the theme and moves a fair amount of air when pushed. More than adequate.
Below you get your first glimpse of the motherboard.. And you know me, I love this black and yellow theme MSI has going on with their OC line. You can see, like in the MPower MAX AC, the heatsink around the CPU socket also supports water cooling with built in barbs that snake up from the PLX chip through the power bits. Other obvious features are the OC Essentials buttons at upper right corner, five PCIe slots with the ability to run quad SLI/CFx, and the Audio Boost cover over the Realtek ALC1150 Codec.
Not too much to see on the back outside of the electrical setup of the PCI-E slots. Three of them are full x16 electrical and two are x8 electrical allowing the lanes to be divided up like so.
About the only other thing of note here is the doublers sprinkled around the socket area (8 small squares around the outside of the socket from 11 o’clock position to around 4 o’clock) that the IR3563B uses to work with the 16 power phases.
The next picture in this grouping just shows the socket area from a different angle. This shows off the 16 power phases, and the neat looking heatsink with the “X” on the sides. You can also see a better shot of the barbs in that picture.
A Closer Look
Moving around the board to get a closer look, I will start with the top left area, basically the socket. What should be obvious here is the cooler and its water cooling components around the clear and flat socket area. The board requires an 8 pin CPU power while the 4 pin next to it is there for when things get ‘extreme’ when overclocking. It was good to 5 GHz+ on the 8 pin in my testing. Also pictured is the 6 pin PCI-E power lead to give extra power to those slots for multi-GPU setups.
Moving down to the bottom left, we focus on the audio and PCI-E slots. For the audio, MSI has separated its audio solution from the remainder of the board as well as covered the Realtek ALC1150 IC to minimize EMI from other parts of the board. You can also see the different style, higher quality caps used as well. As far as the PCI-E section, we see a total of five slots, which support quad SLI/CFx The additional lanes come from the PLX PEX8747 chip, which is hidden under the heatsink above the first PCI-E slot. For single graphics cards, use the 2nd PCI-E slot from the top as it is direct connected to the CPU and removes the small amount of latency that the PLX solution introduces. There are also two x1 slots between PCI-E slots 3 and 4 and slots 4 and 5.
Around the PCH area there isn’t too terribly much going on. We can see the PCH cooler, the BIOS chips, a BIOS switch, the Boot to BIOS button (so handy!), a better shot of the M.2 slot, as well as a couple of ASMedia SATA controllers.
Last, but not least, is the DIMM area. Here we have the four DIMM slots that support up to 32 GB of system memory, the front panel USB 3.0 headers, and then it gets a bit more interesting. Here is where you will find the OC Essentials. The buttons and switches on the board make overclocking just a bit easier than using a software solution, which of course MSI has too. The +/- are for BCLK and multiplier ratio adjustments. You can choose between 1 MHz or .1 MHz adjustments by using the bottom DIP switch shown in the picture. The top DIP switch is for slow mode, which will drop the CPU multiplier down to 8x for the boot process and back up once windows is loaded. When pushing the limits, this can be a great tool because OS boot up can put stress on the CPU. The middle DIP switch is to switch between OC Genie modes. There is a 4 GHz Gear 1 (standard) or 4.3-4.5 GHz Gear 2 available. The other buttons should be self explanatory outside of the lightning bolt… that little button performs a full power off as opposed to just a bios reset. It erases anything out of the PCH as well. Finally, the voltage read points. There are a bunch! From left to right it is CPU voltage, IMC voltage, Core 0 voltage, iGPU voltage, ring bus voltage, and system agent voltage. The remaining three slots are grounds. There are a couple of grounds in this area so you can run multiple meters from the same source for grounds… nice thinking there.
As far as the IO goes, on the rear we have:
- 1 x PS/2 keyboard/mouse combo port
- 1 x Clear CMOS button
- 1 x Optical S/PDIF-out port
- 2 x USB 2.0 ports
- 8 x USB 3.0 ports
- 1 x RJ45 LAN jack
- 1 x 6 in 1 OFC audio jack
- 1 x DisplayPort with max. resolution up to 4096×2304@24Hz, 2560×1600@60Hz, 3840×2160@60Hz,1920×1200@60Hz
- 1 x HDMI ports with max. resolution up to 4096×2304@24Hz, 2560×1600@60Hz, 3840×2160@60Hz,1920×1200@60Hz. This platform supports dual-display and triple-display function
For the bottom I/O:
- Front panel audio
- System Fan 3 header
- VGA Cease Fire (DIP switches to disable PCI-E slots)
- System Fan 1 header
- USB 2.0 header
- USB 2.0 header
- Dual BIOS switch
- Boot to BIOS button
As for the SATA ports, there are a total of 10. Six of which are mated to the Intel chipset, while the other four are powered by the ASMedia 1061 controller.
In looking at the board without the heatsinks, we see the 16 phases that MSI describes hanging out around the socket area along with its other “Military Class 4” components. Not too much to see underneath the PCH really, but there is the board in its unclothed self! The next picture just shows the base of the heatsinks. We see good contact throughout. I have to mention though, I really don’t like the thermal paste that is used. It has the consistency of slightly hardened bubble gum which made it a bear to get off in order to replace it. Not a huge deal as it cools plenty fine without it, but something I figured I would mention anyway. Last up we see some closeups of the CPU socket without the heatsinks flexing its 16 phase brawn.
Next we look at closeups of some of the ICs on the board. We first start out with the NuvoTon NCT6792D, the Super I/O chip for all your monitoring needs.
Sliding over the right we see the all important buck controller, the IR3563B. This is an 8 phase controller using doublers on the back of the board to manage the 16 power phases.
UEFI BIOS, Overclocking Software
The UEFI BIOS looks just like the MPower MAX AC I looked at with perhaps a few tweaks. The slideshow below shows the main options on the left and right sides starting with Settings, OC (detailed in the next slideshow), M-Flash BIOS flashing utility, OC Profiles, Hardware Monitor, and finally Board Explorer (shows what hardware is in what slots and other board level information). As I have said in the past, this UEFI implementation is one of my favorite. The layout is logical, and there are PLENTY of options to keep even the most seasoned tweaker messing with things for days.
The next slideshow is the Overclocking screens only. After looking through these, I am sure you’ll notice there is everything you need and more to get the CPU to its limits.
MSI Command Center
Last is MSI’s windows based monitoring and overclocking tool, MSI Command Center. You can do things like system monitoring, adjustment of fans, overclocking, setting up the OC Genie speeds, and even setup a RAMdisk.
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 OCZ Vertex 3|
|Power Supply||SeaSonic SS-1000XP (80+ Platinum)|
|Operating System||Windows 7 x64 SP1|
|Graphics Drivers||Catalyst 14.4|
Below are the stock and overclocked results for this setup. Like usual in my motherboard reviews, I used AIDA64 (latest version), MaxxMEM, 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 MaxxMEM – 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 have enough data from my previous motherboard reviews, we can put it all together to show the relative performance between them. The first graph shows SuperPi, WPrime, and PiFast. This type of graph on motherboards is really anti-climactic in that you will not see much of a difference between all of them. Outside of perhaps an outlier, all of these results are within 1-2% of each other. For most tests, this is a margin of error type of difference. One thing to note here is at the time I completed these benchmarks, I was still stuck on 2400 MHz ram, so in some tests the results may change a little for the better.
On the rendering side of things in Cinebench R10 and R11.5, there were little differences there with under a percentage point between the boards for the most part (again 2400 MHz memory used). The same story with the memory, outside of the copy results that was right up towards the top of the group. All in all, not too much difference as we have come to expect!
Pushing the Limits
As always, my favorite part of reviewing motherboards… though at this point, my poor little chip I think has seen better days. Nonetheless, we lit it up again and managed to hit 5.1 GHz on 4 cores, as using hyperthreading just gets the thing too hot. Getting there was a breeze with this motherboard. With me already knowing what voltage to put in being quite helpful, just inputting the voltage, changing the multiplier, and booting was all it took.
The tough part here was the memory. Well, I shouldn’t say tough. To be more accurate, I should say that my XMP profile for the sticks I use (Kingston HyperX Predator 2666 MHz CL11) does not work. MSI has been working closely with me to get my sticks to work with a couple of BIOS revisions. However, it still doesn’t work at this time. That said, setting things manually did work. I had to change (raise) a couple of secondary and tertiary timings to get things where they needed to be. In these discussions, MSI said they have the exact same sticks in house which work fine. Perhaps there is something up on my end, but those same sticks work in a different board with the same processor, so who knows.
Overall, as I have stated already in this review, MSI’s UEFI implementation I really like to work with. The layout, to me is quite logical and things appear to be where I would want them to be. Mouse movement is buttery smooth should you choose to go that route. Otherwise, tabbing through the options and changing them with using the +/- keys or simply inputting a value is a breeze as well. Keep up the good work on the UEFI MSI!
The Z97 chipset really hasn’t changed a lot features wise, outside of M.2/SATA Express implementations and its support for the ‘oh please would you get here already’ Devil’s Canyon processors. If you were expecting major changes, that just didn’t happen. That said, if you want drop in Broadwell support in 2015, Z97 is it (for now). MSI has a long history with their high-end boards and this implementation of the XPower will be no different.
They are using higher end parts and making sure that few, if any, stones are left unturned as far as features go. Being from their overclocking series, it comes with a lot of neat value adds such as the Delid Die Guard for those that have the fortitude to pop the top off their CPU for better temperatures. For the extreme overclocker, they have given brackets that go on the board to hold a fan to get air moving across the heatsinks and pot in an open benching station. Though truth be told, their heatsink really does a great job regardless, and I did not have a need for it at all with ambient overclocking. The socket area is relatively clean of your typical capacitors making for much easier installation of your artist eraser or armaflex to protect from condensation.
About the only complaints I have is simply wishing that my ram’s XMP profile worked out of the box. I am not sure what is going on with it really as MSI is running the same sticks at their office successfully. I was able to set the 2666 MHz speeds manually, as it appeared that it was setting some secondary and tertiary timings too tight (raised a couple of values to get the successful use). At the same time, it works in another board with the same CPU so like I said, not sure what is up. I also managed to somehow blow a bios out of the water by flashing it. Now, that bios is not even flashable/usable. I don’t foresee that being a problem but more of an anomaly and again worth a passing mention.
For the ‘regular user’ the Intel NIC is a solid, and a less gimmicky choice than the Killer NIC found on some boards, so that is a nice addition. It also supports up to quad SLI/CFx as well. Last, but certainly not least, is the Audio Boost/Realtek ALC1150 Codec and integrated headphone amplifier that wrap up some high level features that any user would like to see on their motherboard.
So that brings us to pricing. We know the XPower is MSI’s flaghship , and it will be priced accordingly. Currently at Newegg.com the board comes in at $399.99. Currently, it has two real competitors in that price range for the most part, the ASUS Z97 Deluxe (where oh where are the ROG boards?!), and the always formidable EVGA Z97 Classified coming in at $379.99. So, the pricing may be painful for some, but is spot on for its place in the market and feature set. With the Z97 XPower AC, MSI has really done another great job at bringing out a new motherboard chock full of features for both the gamer, enthusiast, and specifically the extreme overclocker. This board is Overclockers.com approved!
– Joe Shields (Earthdog)