Introduction & Closer Look
Intel and their Haswell/Devil’s Canyon CPUs proved very popular among many, many people, including extreme power users who need a motherboard to push to breaking point under liquid nitrogen (LN2). MSI catered to this demand with their most powerful Z97 motherboard which is dubbed as the MSI Z97 XPOWER AC. There are four main principles incorporated with all overclocking boards which come from MSI. They are as follows:
- Continuous implementation of professional overclockers’ feedback,
- Continue MSI’s leading position in power efficiency and stability,
- The best overclocking tools, and;
- Infuse the DNA of MSI’s LIGHTNING graphics cards
With the above four points in mind; does that mean that MSI have produced something truly extraordinary with their Z97 XPOWER AC? That’s something that we will be putting to the test. So, without any further introduction, let’s take a look at what the XPOWER offers in the flesh before we put it through its paces.
So, here we have it; the MSI Z97 XPOWER AC in all of its ‘LIGHTNING’ styled glory. The black and yellow theme which MSI have become known for with their graphics cards has also been implemented on their motherboard series too. They have subtly applied the colour scheme rather than going completely over the top by colouring each and every other part with a lick of yellow paint. Naturally, the ICH (Input/Output Controller Hub) has a decently sized heatsink with a yellow cross, you know, the ‘X’ from XPOWER. The ‘X’ can also be seen on the bottom (and top, you’ll see later) of the VRM heatsink.
The heatsink which covers the PLX PEX8747 chip (which offers 8x/8x/8x/8x/ in four-way GPU configurations) and the voltage regulation circuitry that comprises of a 16 phase ‘DigitALL’ power design comes with a black and yellow livery too. Of course there is a large surface area too, so what better place than that to put the ‘XPOWER’ name? That’s right, there is no better place! The heatsink also has a built-in hybrid solution where you can choose to use either air or water cooling, which is why there are two barbs located on the heatsink assembly.
It would appear as if the standard 8 pin EPS connector is no longer sufficient for us overclockers, so the inclusion of a four pin (and often another 8 pin too on other boards) is a welcome sight. Also, while we are at this angle, you’ll notice how the heatsink has another yellow ‘X’ which further promotes the branding. Some of you may be thinking that they’re just going over the top with the whole idea, while others may be thinking that they’re just paying attention to the details on their board.
As this motherboard does support four-way SLI and CrossFireX, you’d hope that the slots are spaced in the appropriate manner. Luckily they are, with thanks to the E-ATX design of the motherboard. When you are using multiple graphics cards, it does drain a large amount of power, which is why there is a 6 pin PCI-E power connector above the slots. This is in place to provide a more stable supply of power to the PCI-E lanes which draw up to 75 watts each. As four of the ports are linked to the PLX PEX8747 chip, you may be asking what the lane in between slot 1 and 3 is doing there. Those lanes are actually wired directly to the CPUs PCI-E bus which bypasses the PLX chip to give you less latency and better performance when using a single GPU. I personally find it hard to see anyone bar an overclocker using this feature as you would not drop £280 on a motherboard to use a single GPU; or would you?
Around the PCI-E lanes, we have various fan headers dotted around the place, the sound processor (Realtek ALC1150), as well as a few USB 2.0 headers in case you needed more. At the bottom of the board, near the centre of the final PCI-E lane lays the four dip switches which allow you to disable or enable PCI-E lanes at any time. It’s a handy feature for an overclocker, but it is in the wrong place for it to be of any use when you’ve got a fourth card installed as it’ll be blocked off anyway. A far better placement would have been near the OC buttons, or at least somewhere that is accessible once all lanes are populated.
Given that this is an overclocking motherboard, it comes as no surprise that the ‘OC Essentials’ are found on this motherboard. For those of you whom do not know what they are, they’re a set of buttons and switches to make extreme overclocking easier (that’s the theory!) by allowing us to change things such as the BCLK and multiplier on-the-fly. I do however have a slight grudge with the placement of the buttons. If you freeze your memory, which you do as a competitive overclocker, the buttons are going to be covered in ice and won’t be pleasant to touch, nor will they be easy to get to with the amount of insulation around the area.
There are a number of switches and buttons which you can use to squeeze out every last drop of performance from your system. The switches allow you to control things such as the BCLK adjustment ratio (so either 1 MHz or 0.1 MHz) and MSI have also included a ‘Slow Mode’ button which drops the CPU multiplier to 8x. That allows you to maintain stability while you’re getting ready to take that world record breaking screenshot. The adjustments with the ‘+’ and ‘-‘ buttons speak for themselves, one means more and the other means less speed. One extremely useful button is the one with a lightning bolt on it which drains the motherboard of all power and wipes the board to a completely new (factory) state. Finally, we have the power and reset buttons, which do just that – start and/or reset the system. Other notable features in this area would be the dual USB 3.0 headers, the LED debug between the 24 pin power and the voltage read points which allow you to monitor various voltages with a digital multimeter (DMM) rather than being reliant upon software (which isn’t reliable enough).
SATA expansion ports appear to be growing with each new chipset which is hardly a bad thing. On the MSI Z97 XPOWER AC, you will be able to connect up to ten SATA 6 Gbps devices simultaneously. Six of them are powered by the Intel Z97 chipset, and the remainder of the ports are powered by an ASMedia ASM1061 chip. The controller also supports RAID 0, 1, 5 and 10. On top of that, you have an M.2 available between the PCI-E lanes too. When you’re using an M.2 drive, you will lose the functionality of SATA port 5 and 6 as those lanes get redirected to the M.2 slot instead. In order to attain the 10 Gbps throughput, the controller needs to assign two 6 Gbps lanes to the slot.
Switching to the back of the board, we have an array of connections available to us. There’s the now very old PS/2 port which is an essential port for an overclocker (USB can sometimes let us down!) and beneath that are two USB 2.0 ports. Although it is not currently present in our picture, you do get a Wi-Fi card which offers the support of 802.11 AC/B/G/N that is powered by an Intel 7260AC 2T2R chipset, Bluetooth 4.0 and Intel Wireless Display (you may have seen it as Wi-Di before) which allows you to watch things through a receiver without any need for cables. Pretty neat, isn’t it? Surrounded by eight USB 3.0 ports, which are driven by an ASMedia ASM1074, is an Intel I218-V LAN Ethernet port, a HDMI port which supports 4K (4096×2304 @24hz max), a DisplayPort which supports the same max resolution as the HDMI port and an Optical S/PDIF-out port as well. Last of all, we have the six audio ports which are powered by the Realtek ALC1150 for all of your audio needs.
Now that we have taken a good look at the motherboard, let us take a quick glance at the specs before entering the testing arena.