I’ve been taking apart, tinkering inside of, and building PCs since the Commodore-64 days. In the transition to the x86, I started building them bit by bit, and that meant learning a great deal about motherboards. While you’ll still need to check out the propellerhead sites like Anandtech and Tom’s Hardware for the incredible breadth of their cross-sectional reviews they provide, I’ll give you the benefit of my more amateur experience and observation.
The MSI Z170A Gaming M7 offers up six SATA 6Gbps, and twenty PCIe 3.0 connection options. If that sounds like a tremendous amount, realize that those are divided up by all of the various ways that data may need to traverse the board. For instance, your USB header takes up a lane, as does your network card, hard drives, your Blu-ray player, and just about every other feature. Still — it’s a tremendous amount, and it’s fairly unlikely you’ll be running out of lanes any time soon.
Speaking of USB, there are two dedicated USB 3.1 ports in the back of the board. These ports are capable of 10Gbps transfer rates, with one being a standard USB jack, and the other one being USB-C — a casual nod to the new standard. This puts a smile on my face as I can use the native cable for my Google Nexus 6P with all of its speed and high-speed charging capabilities.
Completing the tour of the ports: in the back are two SATA Express ports, a E2400 gigabit NIC (courtesy of Killer Networking), a DisplayPort, and two HDMI-out ports. All of the various ports in support of the 7.1 surround sound from the Realtek chipset ALC1150 are also present and accounted for. In support of that sound setup is the Nahimic audio application, but we’ll get to that when we talk about the included software.
One of the big features that caught my eye is a direct response to the ever-larger video cards you’ll be hanging off them in a vertical fashion — armored PCIe slots. The MSI Z170 Gaming M7 has wrapped the SLI slots with metal, and has reinforced them from the rear. Even the behemoth NVidia GeForce GTX 980 sits straight and doesn’t flex the board in any way. It’s a welcome feature, and one I’ve not seen on any other board on the market.
Clearly this board is built around overclocking, and nowhere is that more clear than when you find the hardware Game BOOST system. This simple 11-position knob allows you to overclock the processor and memory so easily that any amateur can do it. I warn you though, not every processor and stick of ram is built the same, and what works for one rig may not work for another. All of that said, I typically don’t overclock my systems — it shortens the lifespan, and I typically overbuild enough where it’s a non-issue. In the interest of testing the board, I gave it a whirl.
While you can see and easily access the Game BOOST knob, it’s meant to be used when the system is turned off. Powering down, you can set the BOOST anywhere between 0 and 11, with 0 being stock speeds. Typically, overclocking meant manually adjusting the voltage on processors and memory manually, one volt at a time, until you reached the desired state, or the whole thing crashed and burned. This system automatically adjusts the matched pair at each pre-built stage, cranking up in increments. I gave it a whirl at each setting and powered the system. The BIOS reconfigured the voltages during boot and zipped directly into Windows. You can see the results, and the heat associated with each here:
I was shocked when the last three states completely failed to boot. Windows crashed with a fresh error message each time. Still — seeing the processor operate at 4.7Ghz in a stable state was impressive. I checked with LiveUpdate and found that a motherboard firmware update was available, but installing it made no difference. I’m absolutely certain that I could tinker with the voltages and figure out the magic tipping point for my hardware, but that defeats the purpose of the simple single-click overclock system.
The test wouldn’t be complete without running a few games to tax the CPU, so I did exactly that. Booting up Far Cry Primal and cranking everything to the maximum I saw an average of 105fps. With the knowledge that my system could comfortably run at 4.7Ghz, I cranked it up and was shocked to see that the framerate…didn’t move at all. I re-ran the test three more times and saw very little variation. I spun up Batman: Arkham Knight and Shadow of Mordor and saw the exact same results. I’ve always heard that most games aren’t bottlenecked by the CPU, and this test seems to confirm that wisdom.
While the stock speeds are more than sufficient to run anything under the sun, a little extra speed could come in handy down the road, but I just didn’t see any impact. At some point that might change as this processor gets longer in the tooth, that could perhaps change. All of that said, overclocking may not be for everyone, but when it’s this easy, it’s hard to resist. Just remember that you’ll need a K-designated processor and some decent cooling to pull off this little trick.
Since the board supports it, I also put those DDR4 slots to work. I put together a full review of the Kingston HyperX FURY DDR4 modules I selected. You can scope out that review right here, as there is far more detail than you probably need to select the board. Similarly, I did a very deep dive into the storage options on this motherboard, including the M.2 slot — something I found to be a revolutionary new feature. Check out my full look at the HyperX Predator M.2 and what it’s capable of delivering in the real world.
Warranty and Software
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention just how slick the UEFI BIOS in the Z170 Gaming M7 is. Sure, it’s red and black, and that’s awesome, and yes, there’s a dragon on the boot screen, but the sleek UI is far more substance than style.
If you are a BIOS rookie, you can’t do a great deal of harm in the Basic mode — all the best toys hide behind the “Advanced” toggle. You’ll find the XMP button (which enables memory speeds beyond stock, if your RAM supports it), fan controls and graphs, and generally everything you’d expect here. All in all, it’s a far more visual method of discovering the health of your system, leaving little to the imagination. Having had a lot of motherboards from more than a few manufacturers, they haven’t always been this easy or straightforward.
I do like the fan heat maps — they show the temperature cross-graphed, as well as the current temp and fan rotation speed. On the left corner of the board is also a LED readout that lets you check the temperature of the board at a glance.
Also present here is a software analog of the physical Game BOOST knob. This allows you to adjust the overclock levels without opening the case — handy if you want to keep your system sewn up. The nice part is that it also shows you the speeds you should expect running at each level, with the i7-6700 pushing up to 5Ghz at 11 — at least in theory. No more multiplier-math to figure out voltages.
Included on the motherboard install disc is a product called LiveUpdate. LiveUpdate is almost self-explanatory, monitoring the versioning of your various drivers and software, updating them as needed. You can set these to automatic, having them check in on a periodic basis, or take more direct control of them as you see fit. In practice, it was nice to not have to chase them down on MSI’s cluttered support page. The program will self-download and self-install, should you choose this option, though I personally prefer to have more control over this process. Being the first person to download a BIOS update is a dangerous position, and not one I like to take with my primary gaming box.
If you are running this board, you are unlikely to be worried about turning off things when “not in use” — saving slivers of a watt of power wasn’t likely your motivation. I was happy to uninstall this as fast as it installed.
There are a lot of fairly standard broadcasting software packages on the Internet for free, but MSI has included a software package called XSplit. This limited license grants twelve months of free use, requiring registration and payment thereafter. If you don’t have a solution, this may be one to start with to see if it works for you. It would have been nice if it was a perpetual license, but it’s a nice extended demo nonetheless.
MSI Gaming APP
This piece of software might be interesting for the overclocking crowd as it allows users to push specific values from their GPU to the screen for monitoring. Clock speeds, temperature, memory utilization, FPS, and much more are just a few clicks away. It also allows some easy clock adjustments, making it fairly simple to overclock your video card. It’s a lot better than plinking away at voltages and trying to discover the right values to hit for optimum results.
RAMDisk, CPU-Z, Intel XTU, and MCloud
I lump all of these together as they are of limited use to the average user. RAMDisk is capable of carving out a bit of physical memory and using it as a very high speed virtual storage space. With this board’s high-speed M.2 drives, it seems a very wasteful use of precious RAM unless you’ve vastly overbuilt on memory. CPU-Z is a MSI-branded version of the classic CPU-Z software that’s been used for years by anyone wanting to perform a quick check of their CPU’s speeds. Intel XTU has a similar function, additionally providing controls over your processor instead of just statistics. Benchmarking and adjustments are possible here, but it’s best use is a very detailed look at the motherboard and everything plugged into it. MCloud offers up a simple frontend to a few gigs of cloud-based storage — handy for safely storing your BIOS backups and any other board-related backups. .
Killer Network Manager
There’s a lot of opinion in both directions regarding Killer and their network cards. That aside, they are offering up a Gigabit connection on the rear of the Z170 Gaming M7. Their claim to fame is high-speed connections with less lag. Those who have read my reviews of routers and switches are well aware that I have a heavy Network Engineering background, making me extremely skeptical of anything making claims to affect lag or connectivity — both of which are, for the most part, controlled well out of a user’s reach. It’s also very difficult to test.
This motherboard comes with Killer Network Manager software aimed at controlling the ingress and egress of data. If you aren’t managing this at your router level, you might do a bit of traffic shaping on a per-application basis, but in the end the adjustments are likely most ineffectual as it’s essentially trying to control the flow of water after it’s already left the faucet.
Paired up with the Realtek chipset is a software package called Nahimic Audio. This software suite is aimed at boosting the audio quality heading out to your speakers. In practice it seemed more like a fancy overlay for the Realtek equalizer software that existed on my older motherboard. I also didn’t detect any real improvement in the overall quality of sound. That isn’t to say that it’s bad, quite the opposite in fact, but I don’t feel like Nahimic added anything. Understanding that my partial deafness may have been to blame for my inability to hear the difference, I asked my wife to go ears-on as well. I had her close her eyes and played an audio file with and without the software installed, leading her to conclude that they were exactly the same. I guess every feature can’t be a hit.
Unscientific Testing — let’s play some games
There isn’t a way to test a motherboard in isolation of all of the components plugged into it without a massive array of competing boards for cross-reference. With that in mind, I turned to the best analog that likely would serve to prove the point better than any synthetic testing could — games.
To put the system through its paces I tested it with XCOM 2, Far Cry Primal, Tom Clancy’s The Division, and Hitman. All of these games would push the limits of any system, and these tests were conducted with no ‘tweaks’ to maximize framerate — I simply selected the maximum settings at 1080p using a stock EVGA GeForce 980 video card and the components mentioned above. I also wanted to test the load time differences between a mechanical drive, a single SSD, a RAID 0 set of SSDs, and the M.2 Predator plugged directly into the board. While I will be spending some time on the SSDs and M.2 Predator in a separate review (You can read that here), I’ll include the results in the format below:
It’s pretty plain to see that the capabilities of this board have a marked and significant effect on the real-world performance of games. The M.2 drive support on the MSI Z170 Gaming M7 cuts load times to nearly zero. It also nicely shows that mechanical drives are reaching their inevitable end of life. By leveraging the full width of the PCI-e lane, we see our first significant jump forward in a very long time.