Since the release of Intel’s Z170 chipset, MSI has unveiled a fantastic, feature-rich motherboard range which caters to contrasting user demands. For example, the Z170A GAMING PRO CARBON is an excellent choice for consumers wanting a stylish black colour scheme and great reliability at an affordable price point. In contrast to this, the MSI Z170A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM Edition‘s gorgeous aesthetic design makes it one of the most innovative LGA1151 motherboards on the market. Of course, the iconic dragon styling on many MSI products have become a popular choice among the core gaming demographic. This red and black theme compliments mainstream hardware and retails at very competitive prices across various performance tiers.
The MSI Z170A GAMING M5 is a mid-range motherboard sporting an attractive design and impressive specification. More specifically, the product is capable of housing two PCI-E M.2 storage devices and has support for USB 3.1 Gen2 connectivity. Not only that, the motherboard includes a one year premium XSplit license and Nahimic audio enhancements. As you might expect, many of MSI’s leading technologies are incorporated such as DDR4 Boost, Game Boost and much more. Given this particular model’s astonishing software suite and military class components, I expect to see it rival higher priced offerings rather well. Could this be the best value Z170 motherboard thus far for high-end users? Let’s find out!
Packing and Accessories
MSI always does a phenomenal job when it comes to packaging design and the Z170 GAMING M5 is no different. The bold colours and stunning product snapshot contrasts extremely well. This is one of the most eye-catching motherboard boxes I’ve seen and showcases the motherboard’s beautiful appearance.
On the opposite side, there’s a brief synopsis of the motherboard’s key selling points such as support for 3-way crossfire, 2-way SLI and Audio Boost 3.0. This is presented in a slick manner and doesn’t alienate the end-user with technical jargon.
In terms of accessories, the motherboard comes with a user’s guide, driver’s disk, metal case badge, I/O shield, SLI bridge, registration details, basic installation guide and four SATA cables. Please note, the press sample I received was previously used by another media so there’s only 3 SATA cables displayed in the photograph. Rest assured, the retail version will include four and be packaged without the need for an elastic band.
A Closer Look
The Z170A GAMING M5’s black PCB and two-tone colour on the heatsinks makes for an absolutely breathtaking finish. Furthermore, the visually striking accents near the DIMM slots adds something special to the motherboard’s styling. The fan layout accompanies high-end cooling hardware in a seamless way and allows for extremely clean cable management. MSI’s Steel Armor has a greater number of solder points on the PCB to protect against electromagnetic interference. Furthermore, the metal shielding reduces GPU droop and helps stabilize heavy GPUs.
MSI have deployed Military Class 5 components to aid stability and prolong the product’s lifespan throughout extreme usage scenarios. This model opts for a 12 phase power design and titanium chokes with a higher thermal tolerance compared to industry standard alternatives. This allows the titanium chokes to run at 220 degrees Celsius and feature a 40 percent higher current capacity. Furthermore, there’s a 30 percent reduction in power consumption. MSI’s 10K rated dark capacitors provides a low Equivalent Series Resistance and should last well beyond the estimated 10 year life cycle. Overclocking potential is also enhanced by the DIGITALL Power processor and overvoltage protection.
As previously mentioned, the motherboard is capable of powering up to 64GB of memory and access huge speeds via MSI’s DDR4 Boost technology. DDR4 Boost fully isolates the memory circuitry and uses optimized traces to create a pure signal while reducing electromagnetic interference. Theoretically, this provides additional headroom to attain higher overclocks on the memory. Another exemplary choice revolves around the USB 3.0 header which opts for a right-angled orientation. Thankfully, MSI has taken the correct approach because this makes cable management much cleaner and obscures the unwieldy USB 3.0 chassis cable.
The motherboard contains a number of voltage checkpoints to accurately monitor incremental changes during the overclocking procedure. This is a wonderful addition for professional overclockers because they can use a multimeter to observe the PCH, VCCIO, VCCSA, DDR, GPU and CPU voltages at any time.
MSI have taken every possible step to protect the PCB against environmental damage and electro static discharge. For example, the multiple layers and impressive shielding results in excellent circuit protection. On another note, the PCB is designed to cope with high temperatures and varying humidities.
Here we can see the huge connectivity options in the form of 6 SATA ports, 2 SATA Express and 2 M.2 connectors. The PCI-E layout is designed to house either 2-way SLI or 3-way Crossfire configurations. Enthusiast overclockers will definitely find the Slow Mode switch a valuable tool when benchmarking extreme frequencies. Simply flicking the switch will temporarily reduce the core ratio below stock settings and allow your system to boot. The LED post is essential when diagnosing booting problems and trying to fix instability errors. I absolutely adore MSI’s LED post because it displays the CPU temperature after a successful boot. I cannot fathom at all why other manufacturers have not implemented this on their entire product range.
The audio segment is positioned on an isolated section of the PCB to reduce electromagnetic interference. The HD processor is protected by an EMI shielded cover. MSI have deployed premium Nippon Chemi-Con audio capacitors and dual headphone amplifiers. These can drive high-end audio equipment up to 600 Ohms. The gold-plated audio jacks offer the best possible signal over time and adds a premium touch.
Connectivity-wise, the rear I/O includes a PS/2 port, two USB 2.0, DVI-D, USB 3.1 Type-A, USB 3.1 Type-C, four USB 3.0, HDMI, RJ45, S/PDIF out and 5 audio jacks.
Testing & Methodology
Before we delve into any testing we would like to take this opportunity to review our test system. All tests are conducted three times and the average taken to use in our charts.
- Motherboard varies by review
- CPU: Intel Core i7 6700k
- GPU: NVIDIA GTX 980Ti
- RAM: Crucial Elite 16GB (2x8GB) 2666MHz
- Cooling: Thermaltake Water 3.0 AIO with Gelid GC-Extreme
- Case: Lian Li T80 Test Bench
- Storage Drives: Main storage: Crucial MX200 250GB, Test Devices: SanDisk Extreme Pro 240GB SSD, Plextor 256GB M6e M.2 SSD and Patriot SuperSonic Magnum 256GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive
- PSU: be quiet! Dark Power Pro 11 850W
- Operating System: Windows 8.1 64-bit
- Networking: ASUS RT-AC68U router
- SiSoft Sandra Engineer – available here
- WPrime – available here
- Cinebench – available here
- 3DMark – available here
- Bioshock Infinite – available here
- Tomb Raider – available here
- AIDA 64 Engineer – available here
- Latencymon – available here
- Rightmark Audio Analyser – available here
- LAN Speed Test Lite – available here
- Passmark – available here
To test the storage performance in our motherboard reviews we use AIDA’s Disk Benchmark utility built into their AIDA64 Engineer Edition software package and run linear read and write tests. We run each of the benchmark tests on a SATA III, USB 3.0 and M.2 device. For SATA III testing we use a SanDisk Extreme Pro 240GB, for USB 3.0 testing we use the Supersonic Magnum 256 GB USB 3.0 flash drive and for M.2 testing we use Plextor’s 256GB M.2 M6e SSD. The drives are always formatted before use.
For our networking tests we connect the test system up to our Intel Gigabit-enabled ASUS Rampage IV Extreme X79 motherboard test system through the ASUS RT-AC68U router and run our tests. We opted for this over a direct point-to-point connection because we wanted to simulate real-world performance. For our WiFi tests we do the same except we connect the test system to the ASUS RT-AC68U router via WiFi at a distance of 2 metres from the router. The testing software we use for these are LAN Speed Test Lite and Passmark, available here and here respectively.
Lan Speed Test
LAN Speed Test was designed from the ground up to be a simple but powerful tool for measuring file transfer, hard drive, USB Drive, and Local Area Network (LAN) speeds (wired & wireless). It does this by building a file in memory, then transfers it both ways (without effects of windows file caching) while keeping track of the time. Download the free Lan Speed Test Lite utility from here.
The PassMark Advanced Network Test (which is part of PerformanceTest) is designed to test the data transfer rate between two computers both of which must be running PerformanceTest. One of the computers must act as the server and will sit waiting for a connection. The other computer acts as a client. It connects to the server machine and sends data to it for the duration of the test. You can download a trial version of PerformanceTest from here.
To measure power consumption we, use a “killawatt” meter and measure the total system power draw at the wall. We run three different use-case scenarios for 5 minutes and take the average reading.
RightMark Audio Analyser (RMAA)
RMAA suite is designed for testing quality of analog and digital paths of any audio device. The results are obtained by playing and recording test signals passed through the tested audio path by means of frequency analysis algorithms. A more common mark is also provided for those unfamiliar with measured technical parameters. Available here. We run the RMAA test using a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable connecting the line out to the line in to test the quality of the motherboard audio codec not any external audio devices. We run the complete playback and recording test at default settings and then get RMAA to interpret the results giving the below outputs. We sync the playback and recording audio devices to the same setting as the test for accurate results.
DPC is a Windows tool that analyses the capabilities of a computer system to handle real-time data streams properly. It may help to find the cause for interruptions in real-time audio and video streams, also known as drop-outs. This software is available for download free here.
wPrime is a leading multithreaded benchmark for x86 processors that tests your processor performance by calculating square roots with a recursive call of Newton’s method for estimating functions. wPrime is a free utility that is available for download here.
Cinebench is a widely respected benchmark for testing the performance of x86 CPUs. The program allows you to test single and multi-threaded performance as well as GPU performance by rendering with Open GL. Download here.
The new 3DMark includes everything you need to benchmark your hardware. With three all new tests you can bench everything from smartphones and tablets, to notebooks and home PCs, to the latest high-end, multi-GPU gaming desktops. Download here.
In Tomb Raider, the player is confronted with a much younger Lara Croft who is shipwrecked and finds herself stranded on a mysterious island rife with danger, both natural and human. Tomb Raider is a demanding game offering up ultra quality textures, full DirectX 11 support, SSAA, FXAA, MSAA and AMD TressFX technology.
BioShock Infinite is the third and last game in the BioShock series. It is a first-person shooter video game developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games. BioShock Infinite supports dynamic shadows, post-processing, light shafts, ambient occlusion, object level of detail, Diffusion Depth of Detail, FOV adjustment controls and other advanced DirectX 11 features.
BIOS and Overclocking
MSI’s Click BIOS 5 is beautifully presented to help novices navigate between tabs without any hassle and displays key system statistics on the front page. The BIOS is divided into two modes, a basic skin to alter common settings including XMP and an advanced mode designed for extreme overclocking.
You can use the Hardware Monitor to analyse fan speed values, temperatures, and system voltages. The graph provides a fantastic visual indication of the current fan curve, and outlines the RPM percentage at different thermal thresholds.
Even with the basic mode, it’s possible to monitor fan RPM values, create a custom curve and allow the BIOS to optimize your cooling apparatus.
Here we can see the advanced interface which separates various options into thematic categories. As a result, finding a specific setting only takes a matter of seconds and you adjust to the BIOS layout within a short period.
Navigating to the Settings area displays everything you need to access to customize system parameters.
The System Status page outlines the BIOS version, connected SATA devices, RAM capacity and other essential information.
Here we can see the Advanced section which allows you to alter power management options, ACPI settings and more. Unless you’re an experienced tweaker, I wouldn’t change any of the default values.
It’s also possible to tweak the boot order and choose between LEGACY, UEFI, or a combination of both.
The Overclocking menu is really simple and lists key settings in an easy-to-understand manner. To perform a basic overclock, simply insert the CPU Ratio, and adjust the Core Voltage. You can also set the XMP profile and manually enter the DRAM frequency.
Users with a high level of technical expertise might want to disable certain CPU features. However, I doubt this applies to many purchasers as the default setup is perfect for mainstream overclocking.
The BIOS’s SPD section is incredibly detailed and provides a huge array of information about your memory kit.
The BIOS also has six overclocking profiles to store your custom settings, and it’s remarkably easy to switch between each configuration.
One of the my favourite inclusions is the Board Explorer which informs the user when certain slots are populated and even provides a description of its running speed.
The M-Flash software is used to update the BIOS from a USB stick. This is relatively straight-forward and only takes a matter of seconds. Once the BIOS update is complete, your system will reboot back into the newly refreshed BIOS.
Overclocking on this particular motherboard was ridiculously easy due to the simple BIOS layout. As a result, I managed to insert a 48 Core Ratio and maximize the lowest possible voltage without any issues. Interestingly, our bench CPU required 1.504V during the last few reviews. However, the CPU remained completely stable with 1.475V which surprised me somewhat. Whether this is down to the motherboard or evolution of the CPU is unknown. Whatever the case, this is a fantastic result and worthy of praise.
MSI’s software suite includes a fantastic selection of useful utilities to help monitor system temperatures, and optimize your hardware. The Command Center allows you to adjust the CPU’s core multiplier, system voltage, and BCLK. It’s also possible to tweak the CPU in a similar fashion to the BIOS and adjust each core’s multiplier. The program has the option to monitor fan speeds and automatically tune the system based on thermal loads.
In the software, it’s really easy to adjust the fan RPM values to your personal requirements.
The temperature sensors provides valuable information and gives you an insight into the current cooling setup.
It’s even possible to adjust a huge array of voltage values to maximize the overclocking potential of your CPU.
MSI’s Fast Boot is handy to launch Windows and ignore the traditional post initiation sequences. On another note, the Go2BIOS button reboots the PC and allows you to access the BIOS without having to frantically press the keyboard.
The Gaming App features three modes and adjusts the CPU’s frequency based on your selection. For example, the Gaming Mode sets the CPU to its maximum turbo frequency while the Silent Mode prioritizes low noise over a higher CPU clock. In this compact interface, there’s a number of applications to help customise the user experience.
MSI’s Live Update 6 tool is brilliant and outlines the required driver updates without having to search on the motherboard’s website. This makes it incredibly easy to update to the latest version and ensure your system has the correct software installed.
MSI’s RAMDisk is incredibly useful to utilize spare memory and create an ultra-fast RAMDisk. This makes applications run very quickly, and ensures no aspect of your system is going to waste.
CPU & GPU Performance
At stock values, the motherboard reports a highly impressive Multi CPU score, although the Single result could be improved slightly. Saying that, the difference is within a margin of error.
Once overclocked, the CPU performance remains pretty competitive and isn’t too far away from moving up the rankings.
The motherboard achieves a good compute time but there’s a noticeable margin to the SuperMicro C7Z170-SQ and above.
Unfortunately, the overclocked performance is a considerable amount off the higher end results. On the other hand, a slight increase on another benchmark run could move the motherboard up to a mid-table standing.
In SiSoft Sandra, the Z170A GAMING M5 managed to attain a good Whestone Aggregate score and defeated many rival offerings. However, it did fall behind during the Dhrystone benchmark.
When it comes to overclocking performance, the motherboard scored passable results. As you can see, there’s room for improvement and I was surprised by the deficit compared to the GAMING M7. However, it’s not a cause for concern and shouldn’t impair on the average user’s experience.
On a more positive note, the motherboard’s 3DMark scores are impressive and showcases its gaming credentials.
The motherboard once paired with a GTX 980Ti offers astonishing numbers during gaming scenarios and surpasses many competing models. Granted, a large proportion of the performance variation relies on driver enhancements from NVIDIA.
Rather surprising, the frame-rate wasn’t as competitive in Bioshock Infinite at a 2560×1440 resolution. Despite this, it’s still better than various competitors and provides a stellar gaming experience.
In terms of memory bandwidth, the stock numbers are fairly good but it’s towards the lower end spectrum of Z170 offerings. Nevertheless, the gap is small compared to higher options and any Z170 motherboard with XMP enabled should be able to attain respectable performance.
Overlocking the CPU allows the motherboard to fare much better and help defeat the ASUS Sabertooth Z170 S.
The pattern in SiSoft Sandra is relatively similar and the memory performance continues to be very solid.
Similarly, the overclocked results are pretty decent and there’s very little to choose between various motherboards near the mid range. Saying that, there’s room for improvement compared to the top marks.
Combined Latency Test
In terms of latency, the motherboard reports extremely low figures and defeats the overwhelming majority of its rivals.
Once overclocked, the motherboard retains its excellent latency numbers and sits in joint second position.
The Z170A GAMING M5 excelled during linear read benchmarks and reported impeccable results during M.2, SATA and USB testing.
Sadly, M.2 write performance is lacking but the gap isn’t substantial enough to warrant any concerns. This also applies to SATA and USB numbers which can only be described as average.
Passmark Performance Test 8 – Ethernet
The motherboard’s Killer E2400 network interface managed to throw up some intriguing results. For example, TCP numbers had a huge range between 820 Mbps and 1060 Mbps. This showcases the potential in terms of maximum speed. Annoyingly, its ranking was hindered by the minimum figures which suggests there needs to be greater consistency. The UDP throughout was another highlight and exceeded my expectations.
Passmark Performance Test 8 – CPU Work Load
As expected, the Killer E2400 reported higher CPU utilization than the Intel I219V in the majority of cases. This is a major drawback of Killer networking solutions due to the use of software traffic prioritization.
The motherboard’s Realtek ALC1150 codec is capable of delivering a superb audio experience across commonly used bit rates. As you can see from the analysis below, the general picture is very promising. While there could be some improvements to the dynamic range and noise output at 16 bit 44KHz, this is fairly common on the ALC1150 chipset. Overall, these are some of the best results I’ve seen and showcases the product’s exceptional audio hardware.
16 Bit, 44KHz (DVD Quality)
16 Bit, 96KHz (Studio Quality)
24 Bit, 96KHz (Studio Quality)
DPC Audio Latency Analyser
In terms of audio latency, the Z170A GAMING M5 recorded a relatively low figure although it’s some way off previously tested MSI motherboards. Despite this, it’s far from being problematic and still above many competing products.
Under extreme load, the system wattage demands remain relatively low while using the CPU’s stock frequency.
Amazingly, the 4.8GHz overclock doesn’t have a monumental impact on system loads and only increases the wattage by a small amount.
The MSI Z170A GAMING M5 is available from Overclockers UK for £142.99 plus shipping. Around the £100 mark, there’s a huge selection of motherboards offering impeccable value. However, you have to take into account the Z170A GAMING M5’s dual M.2 connectivity, one year XSplit license and superb overclocking functionality. This makes it a great choice for users with high demands who don’t want to spend an absolute fortune.
Even though motherboard companies tend to fixate on black and red colour schemes which can become stale, this never entered my mind when analysing the Z170A GAMING M5’s aesthetic design. This is because the gorgeous dragon logo on the PCH and stunning contrast of colours creates a unique appearance. Furthermore, the stylish accents towards the memory slots greatly enhances the motherboard’s visual appeal. Honestly, I’m astounded by the sophisticated appearance and believe it’s one of the best looking Z170 options on the market today!
MSI have adopted a no-comprise approach to the motherboard’s specification and utilized premium grade components including 10K capacitors, high thermal tolerance titanium chokes, and a 12-phase power design. Additionally, the DIGITALL delivery, overvoltage protection, and DDR4 Boost offers exceptional headroom when overclocking your hardware. Not only that, there’s hefty electrostatic discharge protection on the rear I/O and the multi-layer PCB is designed to cope with extreme climates. MSI decided to incorporate a huge array of overclocking features to please hardware enthusiasts. For example, the LED post readout switches to a temperature indicator in Windows and it’s such a wonderful idea that works perfectly. The ability to quickly glance at the CPU’s current temperature in real-time without relying on software is superb and useful during impromptu stress testing. Another important inclusion revolves around the voltage readout points. This enables professional overclockers to monitor voltage points across the VCCIO, Vcore, DRAM and more on-the-fly.
The BIOS is an absolutely joy to use and makes tweaking various aspects of your system extremely easy. The default mode allows you to quickly enable the memory’s XMP profile, monitor cooling RPM values and complete other essential tweaks. The Game Boost feature automatically increases the i7-6700K’s frequency to 4.40GHz from 4.2GHz. This is handy if you feel intimidated by the overclocking process. The advanced mode is laid out in a conventional manner and I didn’t encounter any problems finding the required settings to achieve a substantial overclock. The user-interface is easy to learn and contains complex variables in sub categories.
In terms of performance, the motherboard didn’t manage anything revolutionary during CPU tasks and struggled to match the best results we’ve encountered. This applies in both stock and overclocked testing scenarios. Despite this, you’re unlikely to notice these differences outside of synthetic benchmarking software. In normal usage scenarios, the motherboard will provide an exemplary experience and utilizes your hardware to its full potential. On a more positive note, the linear read numbers were excellent and outclassed many other products. The audio clarity especially at higher bit rates was superb and greatly improved on other ALC1150 solutions. Rather surprisingly, the Killer E2400 network chip set a new maximum speed record and became the first instance of numbers beyond 1000Mbps.
- Admirable approach to reducing electo static discharge
- Attractive BIOS with intuitive layout
- Excellent linear read performance
- Great software package
- Loads of overclocking features such as Slow Mode, Debug LED and Voltage points
- Military Class 5 components
- Staggering maximum network speeds
- Stunning aesthetic design
- Superb audio
- Supports 64Gb/s MSI Twin Turbo Dual M.2/U.2 PCI-E storage
- USB 3.1 Type-A and Type-C connectivity
- Falls behind competing products in synthetic CPU testing
“The MSI Z170A GAMING M5 might not be the best performer in synthetic tasks, but its exceptional feature list and gorgeous styling makes it a marvellous accompaniment to any Skylake build. Furthermore, the staggering connectivity options offers a great deal of flexibility and caters to users with ultra fast storage devices.”
MSI Z170A GAMING M5 (LGA1151) Motherboard Review
Thank you MSI for providing us with this sample.