MSI Z87I Review

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  • Brand: MSI
  • Model: Z87I
  • RRP: £112 (At time of the review)

Introduction

When Micro Star International, MSI, started out in the computer business long ago in 1986, the mainstream computing industry for the masses was practically non-existent. You either had to be made of money or in one of the few jobs which allowed you to work on them to be able to use one. So a stark contrast to what we see today. MSI was one of the first companies to bring computers to the masses, not just at home but into differing industries such as education and communication, which has revolutionised the was we live our lives today.

In today’s market, MSI are one of the big players, dealing with a vast range of equipment from motherboards to graphics cards, and very recently have added to their standard ranges with Lightning and Gaming variants of popular motherboards and graphics cards. With innovation being a clear goal of MSI, this is reinforced with what we have seen with the Lightning and Gaming focused hardware, which are pushing boundaries whether it be with stability, longevity or overclocking. MSI are clearly making a statement of intent and are going toe to toe with the likes of GIGABYTE and ASUS.

Today, we have the latest offering from MSI’s offering into the ITX realm, the Z87I. Produced on Intel’s latest chipset for the LGA1150 platform, since the inception of Z87, i have been very excited about the ITX offerings and have been waiting for the mainstream solutions to start crossing my desk.  On a tiny PCB, even when compared to the M-ATX format, it can be difficult to have a feature filled product that still packs in all the punch and goodies that consumers expect from the larger format boards.

After reviewing MSI’s Z87 gaming heavyweight, the MSI Z87 GD65 Gaming, moving to something smaller instantly lead me to think how much of that big product can be retained in a scaled down package.  The MSI Z87I comes in at approximately £112, and obviously, there are some notable differences when you compare it to the larger boards in MSI’s range.

Nonetheless, the MSI Z87I is geared up for Ethernet network connectivity, with not one but two Realtek NICs, which is nice to see in such a small board.  We do have WiFi onboard in the form of the 802.11n 2.4 GHz Centrino N-2230 solution, this is the same solution that we see on the larger motherboards in MSI’s range such as the XPower – not the 5 GHz dual band option I would prefer in all WiFi enabled motherboards.  This amount of extra network controllers is due to the Flex IO configuration. As the motherboard has four SATA 6 Gbps and six USB 3.0 from the chipset, this gives the other 8 Flex IO lanes all the PCIe 2.0 for these controllers.  Video outputs come in the form of a HDMI, DisplayPort and combination DVI-I, and the board also sports the Realtek ALC892 audio codec.

Almost all mainstream MSI Z87 motherboards utilise an OC Genie button giving a one press overclock. This functionality on the Z87I however is relegated to BIOS and software with the Z87I, giving only one option to 4.0 GHz. This isn’t as big a let down as you might think, the lack of an OC Genie button is obvious, there just isn’t the real estate on the PCB to allow for it, so it’s good that MSI still decided to implement it on the BIOS. The BIOS is better than the Z77 counterpart, offering a better visual representation of fan speeds and a hardware monitor to detect when hardware is not recognized in the motherboard.  With the motherboard I reached a 4.7 GHz overclock through manually inputting the settings.

The MSI Z87I offers a nice motherboard for users needing multi-LAN functionality, and Live Update 5 will keep it up to date.  The decision to go with the N-2230 solution is the main thing that is a little off with me as i would have thought MSI would have gone with a 5 GHz dual band option.

Specifications

Size Mini-ITX
CPU Interface LGA-1150
Chipset Intel Z87
Memory Slots Two DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 16 GBUp to Dual Channel, 1066-3000 MHz
Video Outputs HDMIDisplayPortDVI-I
Onboard LAN Dual Realtek 8111ECentrino N-2230 802.11 b/g/n 2.4 GHz
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC892
Expansion Slots 1 x PCIe 3.0 x161 x mPCIe 2.0 (for WiFi)
Onboard SATA/RAID 4 x SATA 6 Gbps (Chipset), RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
USB 3.0 6 x USB 3.0 (Chipset) [4 back panel, 1 header”]4 x USB 2.0 (Chipset) [2 back panel, 1 header”]
Flex IOx+y+z = 18
SATA 6 Gbps 6
USB 3.0 4
PCIe 2.0 8
Onboard 4 x SATA 6 Gbps1 x USB 3.0 Header1 x USB 2.0 Header2 x Fan Headers1 x Clear_CMOS jumper1 x Serial Header
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX Power Connector1 x 4-pin CPU Power Connector
Fan Headers 1 x CPU (4-pin)1 x SYS (4-pin)
IO Panel 1 x PS/2 Combination Port1 x Clear_CMOS Button1 x Go2BIOS ButtonHDMIDisplayPortDVI-I

2 x Antenna Mounts

4 x USB 3.0

2 x Realtek NICs

Audio Jacks

Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link

 

Packaging

The front of the packaging has a light and airy appearance to it, displaying  the large, and what we have come to affectionately know as the  MSI ‘Classic’ Logo which we have all come to associate with MSI’s standard ranges. We can also see that MSI have also included a little promotional material on the from in regards to some of the technology used on the board as well, with the main emphasis being driven on Military class 4 and the military class essentials which i will go into more detail on shortly. Also shows us that the motherboard is using the latest Intel z87 chipset and support for all of the latest Intel Core processors, as well as sporting some technology shared amoungst all of the Z87 chipset motherboards such as PCIe 3.0 support, SATA 6gb/s and USB 3.0.

On the rear, there is information regarding numerous features which have been packed into this motherboard. This is primarily showing off two things: military class 4 components and military class essentials. MSI’s new military class 4 components supports you while you are questing, racing, battling and shooting your way to the top. MSI’s military class 4 components deliver record-breaking stability when you need to keep cool in the heat of battle. There are a few diagrams showing the benefits of using MSI’s military class 4 components, such as the capacitors having a 8 times longer lifespan over the standard ones, chokes being able to handle 30% more current and having a 10% higher power efficiency, and the solid capacitors having a 10+ years greater lifespan and lower temperatures over more traditional capacitors.

Secondly there is the military class essentials. These consist of four areas; humidity protection, ESD protection, EMI protection, high temperature protection. Humidity protection utilises the latest gen 4 fabric PCB which in turn helps to protect against moisture caused by some humid conditions and environments. ESD protection is the implementation of Anti-ESD IC’s and fuses on the motherboard which helps to totally protect your motherboard from electrostatic damage. EMI protection is MSI’s optimised EMI protection design which helps to keep users safe during long-time computer operation. Lastly there is high temperature protection which is certificated military class 4 components work stably under extreme conditions.

MSI have also managed to implement OC Genie on this tiny motherboard. OC Genie is the world’s first built-in hardware overclocking technology on motherboards. With this new generation of OC Genie, MSI are giving you even more performance. The OC Genie function within the BIOS works as you expect it to, with one click of the OC Genie button you will achieve a 4GHz overclock with no effort at all.

On the side of the box we get another look at the MSI ‘Classic’ crest as well as ‘TOP QUALITY, STABILITY’ across the side. MSI are really driving the emphasis on the military class four component used throughout the motherboard and are keen to show off all over the packaging how it is going to increase the longevity of the motherboard.

Bundled with the Z87I, is a good amount of accessories and literature.  Included there is:

  • Motherboard User Guide
  • 2 x SATA cables
  • Network Driver & Utilities Disc
  • Software & Application User Guide
  • I/O Shield
  • 2x Wireless Antenna

The wireless antenna are the static rigid kind, which have a 360 degree radius of movement from where they joining the IO panel. As these types of antenna have no way of moving away from the case, you have to make sure that you wireless signal is perfect to make the most out of this solution. It is a shame that MSI did not decide to use a movable antenna system like i have personally used on the Z77 Mpower, I really do feel that they have missed a trick all round with the wireless implementation on this motherboard.

Closer Look

Now to take a look at the Z87I in its full glory. It is an ITX form factor, even though it is the one of the smallest motherboards on the market with very little spare real estate for MSI to pack features, they have managed to do a great job getting everything that the end consumer may want. Moving on to the storage configurations, there are 4 x SATA3 (6GBps) ports, which allow you to run HDDs/SSDs in RAID-0, 1, 5 and 10, which is standard with the Z87 chipset. All 4 of these ports run off of the Intel Z87 chipset. For a small board it is brilliant as it allowed me to use my 60GB OS drive, with my 2x 240GB SSD raid array for games and a 1TB WD caviar black for storage, so there are plenty of option for any user. USB3 header is a nice addition, and its good to see it on here. MSI have also managed to fit a WiFi module onto the motherboard in the form of a Centrino N-2230 802.11 b/g/n 2.4 GHz, as i have already said, it is a shame that a dual band solution was not implemented instead, however for a small form factor office PC this would be perfect.

As we can see from the Heat sink design, there is not a lot of power regulation that needs to be cooled. The heatsink is the same height as the USB connectors behind it and is a matte black which is nice as it keeps the black color scheme of the board going. We can also see the 4pin CPU power connector, again another hint that this board is not a massive overclocker.

The CPU socket is, of course, socket LGA1150, which houses the new Haswell CPUs, the CPU socket area feels rather space, which was a surprise to me with it being such a small form factor. I feel there would be no issues in mounting some of the smaller single tower coolers, however, due to the proximity of the RAM slots to the CPU socket, the heat pipes on my Be Quiet! Dark Rock Pro 2 fouled the top of my Kingston HyperX Beast RAM. There was no issue after I took the heat sinks off of the RAM but if you are looking for aesthetics this is far from ideal. As with any motherboard, I would advise that you check clearance yourself before you put a radiator in the top of your case, as it may foul the heat sink or RAM clips depending on the design, in this case as the RAM will probably be a limiting factor for most people.

Having a closer look around the CPU socket, we have a single 4 pin 12v power socket located at the top of the motherboard.  This is an ample amount for what the motherboard is designed to do,  it should allow CPU voltages to remain stable during overclocking, more so now that Haswell needs less volts to achieve its overclocks.

There are two DIMM slots for the RAM, with a  maximum capacity of 32GB, which is a huge amount of RAM to have, especially for such a small system orientated system, it will even support speeds of upto 3000MHz.  This would be brilliant if you were planning on using a RAM Disk, or just want a general purpose computer for say video rendering, with the ability to be able to game as well in such a tiny form factor. We can also see the 24pin ATX power connection, the USB3.0 front panel header, located just about the CPU power connector. We can also see the PCI slot, which is made up of a single PCIe x 16 3.0 slot, which run at x16.  The southbridge heatsink is very small and of a plain design, being a matte black with the MSI writing on it, however, this in keeps with the general aesthetic and isn’t over-encumbering on the motherboard. Also in view is the BIOS battery, which is very accessible and I had no issues trying to get to it even with a full tower cooler on it.

On the rear of the motherboard, we  have the I/O.  Connectivity wise, there are 4 x USB3.0 ports, which are backwards compatible with all USB devices, 2 x USB2.0 ports, 2x Realtek 8111E ports, which is very nice to see I must say. The outputs for the antenna,  as well as the reset buttons belonging to the Centrino N-2230 802.11 b/g/n 2.4 GHz solution, which have two rigid antenna that screw into them, as shown in the packaging section. 7 audio connections (6 x 3.5mm jack and 1 x SPDIF), , 1 x HDMI and 1x Display Port, which support up to 4K resolutions (which means the motherboard is future proofed for the next gen of monitors/TVs and 1 x display port).  A nice feature to see is the inclusion of  a VGA port for those people using an older monitor or prefer to use DVI instead of HDMI as an output. Lastly, we have the S/PDIF and Optical outputs. We also have a PS2 socket which is a nice addition to see as I have had numerous times where the USB mouse has failed to work but the PS2 was working fine – this will also allow NKRO on some keyboards.

BIOS

This is the 3rd of the Haswell offerings from MSI to grace our labs, after the MPower and the GD65 Gaming, we get a third look at the MSI Click BIOS 4.  Whereas previously we had seen the gaming editions run a red dragon color scheme and the overclocking motherboards run yellow, this BIOS reverts to what we have all lovingly come to know as MSI’s ‘classic’ range, and the color of choice, blue. However, the functionality is pretty much the same as the other motherboards.  The main difference that I found using this BIOS was that when I was manually overclocking the CPU to find the maximum overclock for the tests coming later, the CPU voltage was limited to a maximum of 1.3 volts on the 4770k. Whilst this may have put off some who may be thinking of using this board for their overclocked LAN rigs, I think this is a good move from MSI. When I got a first look at this board an saw that it only had a 4pin CPU power, my overclocking expectation had been set low, and the fact that MSI has limited the voltages show that they are trying to protect the user from pushing too much. Yes, you can get good overclocks from ITX motherboard that rival the larger motherboards, just look at the offerings from ASUS, but that is not what this motherboard was designed to do, so to expect that is just ignorant.

A feature that immediately caught my eye was the banner at the top of the screen which MSI have decided to keep implemented from the Z77 era of motherboards. I find this useful when going between overclocks and settings, as it show what CPU you are running and its clock speed as well as showing your RAM speed and the capacity that you are currently running. Another useful feature, and it has helped me in the past with the GD65 Gaming, is the BIOS information, so you can always find out which BIOS version the motherboard is currently running. As for the rest of the layout, it is the same as the rest of the MSI Z87 range, with the 6 buttons, 3 on each side with the ‘Classic’ series icon in the middle of it.

Next up is the fan controls within the BIOS, which can be found in the ‘Hardware Monitor’ tab. The level of control over the fans on the tab is quite small as it moves two points at a time, so while you can not be overly precise with this tool, the execution of visually showing the fan controls is one of the best we have seen and is done by moving the sliders in the ‘fan control’ section around the graph changes to show what is actually happening. The only thing that I can criticise is that there is a need to have more points on the gradient as well as manual control over the points on the graph, if MSI implement this, then I feel that it would be the best fan control that I have ever seen implemented into a BIOS.

Another new feature of the Z87 BIOS from MSI is the Board Explorer. In this tab we are given a visual of representation the motherboard, and everything on board which has something plugged in comes up blue.  My moving the mouse over an area we get an explanation of the hardware plugged in with the hardware assigned.  Moving to the SATA ports or IO panel and clicking brings up an additional visual showing which ports are in use, for example, if you were to clock onto the IO panel, you would get a representation of it and then it would also show you which USB ports had been populated with a device. I for one am glad this is a feature becoming standard.  I can see that it could possibly help people troubleshoot hardware issues, the main ones that comes to mind is fault RAM slots or PCIe lanes. If hardware is not seen here, then it was not recognized by the motherboard at POST time. The rest of the options on the BIOS is the standard options that we saw from the BIOS on the MSI gaming and overclocking ranges.

 

As on the previous MSI Z77, our OC options are almost a complete jumble. On the Z87 there is some sort of order, but it would be ideal to actually have headings like the Integrated Peripherals menu in standard Settings, such that CPU overclocking features are separate from the DRAM options and then voltage options inserted into the appropriate places.  As it stands the MSI BIOS looks like a puzzle to the new overclocker.  One of the positives on the Z87 generation at least is the addition of the information panel on the right hand side, allowing users to see a small amount of information on each option.  Ideally this side panel should also show the min, max, interval and ‘suggested value’ for each option to assist overclockers.another update.

Overclocking

Mini-ITX motherboards and overclocking can be a bit of a grey area, while the Z87I uses an overclocking based chipset from Intel, the form factor is not necessarily large enough to support proper tower coolers or have the real estate to support the power phases and delivery needed to get the big overclocks that a lot of us desire. Typically on MSI motherboards we see the OC Genie button for a one-touch quick overclock, however dues to the lack of space on the PCB this button has not been included, however, fear not, MSI have kept the feature in the BIOS so you can easily attain the 4GHz overclock with a single button press. We persevered with overclocking, and as noted at the start of the page the motherboard limits CPUs to 1.3 volts.  This is a good thing, because at this voltage is when Haswell CPUs tend to start increasing in temperature fairly rapidly, as well as the board only sporting a 4pin CPU power, we are not risking the CPU or the board by trying to pull silly volts through it.

What would be nice to see MSI implement across all of its ranges is a range of automatic overclocks to use within OC genie. The option of 4GHz is good for those not really knowing what they are doing, however, this is a very minor overclock on our 4770k, maybe having some automatic overclocks that can be selected in increments of 0.2 GHz upto about 4.8GHz on the higher end motherboards would be nice to see. I can see why MSI have not implemented this, mainly due to the silicone lottery and the cooling solutions that the user is using, the last thing that MSI want to be is liable for someone toasting their CPU using OC Genie at 4.8 GHz on a stock cooler. With our 4770k i managed to hit 4.6 GHz at 1.3v.

 

Conclusion

So, now that we have seen what this board is capable of, is it going to be worth its £112 price tag? Does it offer the performance of the full size motherboards? Can it out-perform the larger boards? Well, let’s get to the evaluation then.

Starting with the aesthetics of the board, MSI have gone with the matte black PCB along with black heatsinks. It is good to see MSI going with a neutral color scheme, something that ASRock have been doing more or less over the last few generations. This makes them appeal to a wider audience as more and more people are caring about what components look like and colour schemes when it comes to builds, so going all black will help this board fit into more and more builds. MSI have been known in the past to use the brown PCB’s with their boards, where this a lovely matte black like we see from other manufacturers.

As for the overclocking side of things, this board was never, ever going to challenge the larger boards. for a start it only has a 4pin CPU power as well as minimal power phases and the maximum CPU voltage being locked to 1.3 volts in the BIOS. However, the dual Ethernet, to me, points towards this board being used more as a networking motherboard than an out and out gaming powerhouse.

Having a single band WiFi solution at the stage we are in with Z87 is a big let down for me more so when dual band 802.11ac is starting to get into the higher end of the Z87 spectrum. A sole 2.4 GHz solution has been proven to perform poorly in a modern environment with many APs in the local vicinity.  This is made even worse by MSI’s decision for two antennas ‘fixed’ to the rear IO. The user can move the angle of the antenna in a full 360 degree radius from the IO panel but because they are fixed they do not allow for any movement away from the IO panel, so if you are going to use the wireless solution, you need to make use that you have good coverage in the room that you are planning to use the motherboard in.

The motherboard comes equipped with four SATA 6 Gbps ports and two USB 3.0 ports. The socket area is close to both the DIMMs and the PCIe, limiting options when it comes to CPU coolers, and the 4-pin CPU power connector is located near the center of the motherboard meaning that cables will have to be stretched over the GPU, DIMMs or SATA ports in order to reach. This is disappointing as there are manufacturers who are managing to get the connectors on the edge of the board, where they ought to be.

Performance using on-board graphics in 1080p gaming performed pretty much in line with other Z87 motherboards we have tested. Overclocking on the Z87I was better than expected,  typically a mini-ITX system can be limit when it comes to CPU overclocking, but our CPU sample hit 4.6 GHz easily, as it has done in other motherboards.  The MSI Z87I limits the user to 1.300 volts in the BIOS for the CPU which, as stated previously, is not a bad thing as there is only a 4pin CPU power.

MSI is working on the BIOS and software, featuring a good visual representation of fan controls in the BIOS along with one of the best driver/software update systems in the operating system compared to other manufacturers.

If it was not for the little niggles within the BIOS and a few strange design choices, such as the inclusion of a single band WIFI solution and placement of the 4pin CPU power, this motherboard would have been pushing for an editors choice award. I don’t feel that i can give it a performance award as the CPU voltage is locked in the bios and i couldn’t overclock my RAM as hard as i did in other motherboard tests. However, the performance that you get from the MSI Z87I motherboard in such a small package give it a very good bang for buck, so on that basis it will get our Value Award.

I would like to thank MSI for sending us this sample.

  • Performance
  • Design
  • Value

Summary

MSI have really shown that they are trying to push themselves forward and start to mix it up with the likes of ASUS and Gigabyte. The Z87I is a great little board from MSI, if it was not for a few design flaws such as the single band WIFI and placement of CPU power, as well as a few little BIOS niggles, it would be pushing the 5 stars, however, as it performs well for the pricing, it will get our Value Award.

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