[section_title title=”Introduction & Closer Look”]
Introduction & Closer Look
MSI have done away with their ‘XPOWER’ range of motherboards and they have replaced them with an all-new brand – the ‘GAMING’ series. As it currently stands, the M7 is the one of the highest specced board currently available from MSI for the Intel Z170 platform. It has a multitude of connectivity options which are matched by some pretty striking looks too. For those of you whom are in the loop, and know that there is another motherboard on the way, we will hopefully be taking a look at that one as and when we can get a sample. For now, though, let’s take a look at this this motherboard and find out whether or not it is something you should be considering if you’re building an Intel Skylake system.
There are several features that are incorporated with MSI’s latest motherboards, some of which are more notable than others. They include things such as the DDR4 BOOST technology, which improves signal reliability and provides optimal performance by isolating the memory circuitry. The new Killer E2400 Ethernet chip is on-board the M7, supposedly it is the best gaming Ethernet chip on the market today. Honestly, it’s usually just a gimmick and many tests have proven that the performance is not worth the cost, but that’s a discussion for another day.
As you may have noticed in both the motherboard and GPU sectors, everything from this generation has now taken on the MSI Dragon theme. The inclusion of the IO shield is somewhat a must when the motherboard industry is leaning in that direction. It does cover up the blocky and usually very ugly chunks of metal, so it can only be a good thing. Going with the black and red theme, the PCI-E lanes are slightly different in that they do not carry over the red colouring, and neither do the DIMM slots – but they do have an array of red tracks coming from the CPU socket to the slots. There’s already a lot of red on the board, and I fear that it may have been too much of more slots were red too. The PCI-E lanes are covered in something that looks metallic, and you wouldn’t be wrong, because they are. They are EMI shields, which MSI claim to improve the signal reliability and stability, much like with the DDR4 BOOST technology. Whether or not it makes masses of difference is anyone’s guess at this point. The shields around the PCI-E lanes are also supposed to provide extra support, thus making them more difficult to break when installing and/or removing the GPU(s).
Starting with the top left-hand side of the motherboard, we can see that the motherboard only features one 8 pin EPS connector. This is however not an issue as the additional EPS connector (often found on overclocker orientated motherboards) is for the most part a gimmick until you’re starting to push serious voltages through your CPU. For 99.9% of us, we will never reach those thresholds, so a single EPS is more than sufficient. From this angle and with the heatsink removed, we can see the CPU power delivery system. It consists of a rather strange amount of chokes – thirteen to be exact. This is an odd one as it is typical to have an even amount of phases. What’s the reasoning? Well, I am not 100 per cent sure on that one. By taking a slightly educated guess at this set up, it’s probably a 10+2+1 configuration for the CPU and its various components such as the on-board graphics and the memory controller.
Moving along the top of the board and to the right, we have the DIMM slots which support DDR4 frequencies in excess of 3600 MHz (OC) provided your CPU can handle the frequency too. It is worth noting that anything above JEDEC standard frequencies are rarely guaranteed by Intel, but it is fairly safe to assume that you’ll get at least 3000 to 3200 MHz out of any CPU on the market unless you’re seriously unlucky in the silicone lotto. As you can see from this angle, the DDR4 BOOST traces are in sight too. Whether or not they provide any extra overclocking ability or signal clarity is not something I cannot confirm at this point. You’d typically expect to see the LED poster in this region of the board, but it’s elsewhere on this occasion. On the plus side, however, is that there are two USB 3.0 headers on this motherboard, one of which is located just next to the ATX 24 pin power socket. The other is a little further down on the board and is at a right angle to make cable management that much easier.
Moving southward, we come across the SATA ports and the other USB 3.0 header that was just mentioned. The full ten SATA 6 Gbps ports from the chipset are allocated in various manors on this motherboard. Six of them are provided in your usual SATA connections as four of them are reserved for SATA Express (SATAe), but they are backwards compatible with SATA (as per the specs). Also in view are the on/off, reset and dial buttons. The big red one, like a fighter pilots ‘fire’ button, is what MSI have implemented as their instant overclocking feature. If you need more performance from your CPU but do not know how to overclock it yourself, all you need to do is turn off the system, turn the dial a few notches (to a maximum of 11) and then turn it back on. Your system will automatically be overclocked as soon as it turns back on. The feature allows for a maximum of 5.0 GHz to be achieved, but very few (if any at the moment) CPUs are capable of such a feat. I will be putting this to the test later on in the review. The power buttons – the on/off and reset buttons – do exactly what they say on the tin, so I don’t feel that an explanation is required for you folk.
PCI is a thing of the past, and isn’t even supported anymore, which means that all you will find on the Z170 platform is PCI Express (PCI-E). MSI have gone with a full board of options, as you’d probably expect from a high-end board like this. We have a total of four PCI-E x1 slots and three PCI-E x16 (although two are limited at x8 electronically) slots available to us. Two of the three x16 slots are protected by their shielding system, but it would have been nice to see the colouring carried over to the third slot as well. It’s not essential, far from it, but it would have been nice in my mind. Thankfully MSI did give the dual GPU system a bit of a thought, and left two slots between the primary PCI-E lanes rather than just one which allows for better breathing for the top GPU.
There are of course other goodies near this area of the board, namely the LED debug poster and the sound chip (Realtek® ALC1150) that is isolated from the rest of the board, which makes it produce a cleaner, better, and richer sound. The isolation line is also somewhat a feature on this board, as it is lit up by LEDs on the bottom of the board. It glows a bright red, as do some of the other LEDs on the motherboard. I’ve taken a picture of the board in both the dark and the light, so let’s let the pictures do the talking, and then you can see for yourself what I mean. (By the way, my GTX 980 isn’t what you’d call a ‘stock’ card.)
This brings us on to our final stop of the motherboard tour, and that is the I/O panel. The GAMING M7 hosts a variety of connections, which are essential in today’s market. Here’s the list, which I feel is pretty well furnished.
– 1 x PS/2 keyboard/ mouse port
– 3 x USB 3.0 ports
* 1 x HOTKEY port
* 1 x BIOS FLASHBACK+ port
– 1 x Clear CMOS button
– 2 x HDMI™ ports
– 1 x DisplayPort
– 1 x USB 3.1 Gen2 port
– 1 x USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C port
– 2 x USB 3.1 Gen1 ports
– 1 x LAN (RJ45) port
– 1 x Optical S/PDIF OUT connector
– 5 x OFC audio jacks