MSI X99S XPower AC LGA 2011-v3 Motherboard Review

MSI’s X99S XPower AC has a bundle heavy enough to crush woodland creatures and about as many features as you could possibly want and then some. MSI’s XPower series represents the pinnacle of what MSI offers and as a result we have high expectations for the X99S XPower AC.

Introduction

MSI was founded in 1986 getting its start in motherboards and graphics cards. Eventually MSI sought opportunities in other areas such as consumer electronics, all in one PCs, servers, workstations, barebones systems, communications devices, and car infotainment equipment. Despite the company’s diversity it is still primarily known as one of the larger motherboard manufacturers. While MSI isn’t as large or quite as popular as GIGABYTE or ASUS, it is definitely a popular brand with a good reputation among the computing enthusiast communities.

When it comes to branding MSI is more of a follower than a leader. As innovative as it may be in terms of product features, its motherboard aesthetics usually copy the competition to an almost copyright-infringing degree. In fact the only aesthetic any MSI motherboards have which could be considered unique is specific to the XPower and MPower lines. These feature a yellow and black industrialized look uncommon in the motherboard market today. Other series’ such as the "GAMING" line are red and black with its latest "Krait" editions being white and black once again copying ASUS’ color themes.

Aside from the aesthetics, MSI’s products definitely are unique however. The hardware itself is nothing like what ASUS And GIGABYTE offers aside from the aspects common to all LGA2011-V3 motherboards.

One thing we’ve admired about MSI’s motherboards is the absolutely stellar build quality. This varies depending on the motherboards specific price point so generally I’m speaking about higher end offerings in the XPower and MPower lines. Budget oriented motherboards aren’t worse than anything anyone else offers but no one is MSI’s equal when it comes to high end motherboards. Literally no other motherboard manufacturer comes close in terms of physical build quality. Solder joints, PCB flatness, machine work on heat sinks, and general assembly are either as good as anything else out there or substantially better. The motherboard we are examining today is the X99S XPower AC which represents the pinnacle of what MSI currently offers in enthusiast motherboards. The X99 platform has been a success with enthusiasts despite the cost of entry to the HEDT (High End Desktop) market being the expense of DDR4 RAM. The Core i7-5820K allows the platform to remain attractive to enthusiasts who would otherwise opt for the Z97 platform in order to save on the CPU cost and still reap the performance and some of the I/O benefits offered by the X99 chipset.

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The X99S XPower AC is based on the X99 Express chipset and is compatible with Core i7 series LGA2011-V3 Intel processors and Xeon E5 V3 series processors. The X99S XPower AC includes a wide array of features in addition to what the chipset itself supports. These include V-check points, Guard-Pro (which means support for humidity protection), high temperature protection, ESD protection and EMI protection, Military Class 4 components, OC Genie 4, 802.11AC support, Delid Die Guard, "CeaseFire" and 4-Way SLI/CrossfireX support. Some of these are obscured through marketing speak, but translate into very useful or at least interesting features. Guard Pro is the ESD guard, CeaseFire allows for enabling or disabling of the PCI-Express slots via switches, and the Delid Die Guard provides protection for delidded CPUs similar to what we saw years ago with AMD Thunderbird protection.

Additionally support for SATA Express, M.2, USB 3.0, 10x SATA 6Gb/s ports, and of course outstanding multi-GPU support. Thanks to a PLX PEX8747 chip the X99S XPower AC supports 4-Way SLI and 4-Way CrossFire. The X99S is constructed with an 8-layer PCB. Naturally it uses an all digital power design MSI calls "DigitALL Power PWM." In addition to features like the Delid Die Guard, the OC Backplate was included for use with LN2 cooling. Other features like the protective I/O cover add a touch of elegance to the motherboard. The OC Fan Stand is a bracket which allows for the attachment of a fan (sold separately) to the motherboard. This is potentially helpful for test bench use and possibly even inside a chassis assuming there is room for it and that it doesn’t go against the airflow design of the existing fan emplacements. Debug LEDs, easy buttons, voltage check points, a "go2BIOS" button, direct OC buttons, clear CMOS button, and the complete discharge feature round out many of the overclocking features found on the hardware itself.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The packaging is similar to that of earlier XPower motherboards. The main aspect which changed this time around is the removal of the "X" flap which is now a standard box flap. As usual a window in the box allows you to see the motherboard inside and offers information on the product. Inside is a very rich bundle. Let’s face it though, much of what comes inside the typical motherboard box you can do without. The MSI X99S XPower AC actually has many things you can use. The M-connectors, OC fan stand, Delid Die Guard, OC plate, LN2 bracket, SLI bridges, WiFi antennas, a tree’s worth of paperwork, driver discs, a USB flash drive with drivers on it, USB/SATA I/O bracket, SATA cables, cable labels, v-check cables, case badge, and an i/O shield. Aside from the library’s worth of manuals and books the bulk of the included offerings are actually useful.

Board Layout

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The layout of the X99S XPower AC is excellent. All the onboard controls reside exactly where I want these to be. The motherboard has a clean black and yellow look with the amount of yellow being sparsely used as to keep the motherboard from being too gaudy. I do have a single complaint concerning the I/O panel area cover which I’ll talk about shortly.

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The CPU socket area isn’t as busy as you might imagine. The MOSFET cooling is rather small surprisingly. The cooling hardware is securely mounted using screws and doesn’t wobble back and forth as it does on some motherboards.

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The chipset itself is covered by a flat heat sink with a heat pipe embedded in it. In front of the heatsink you can see the SATA 6Gb/s ports and SATA Express ports. A vertical USB port is found just to the left of the chipset along with two more vertical SATA ports. Naturally the heat sink is low profile enough to avoid clearance problems with expansion cards.

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The expansion slot area is excellent. It is well optimized for multiple graphics cards. There are five PCI-Express x16 slots which support a variety of possible lane configurations. These include x16/ x0/ x0/ x0/ x0, x16/x0/x0/x16/x0, x16/x0/x0/x8/x0, x16/x0/x0/x16/x8, x8/x8/x0/x8/x0, x8/x8/x0/x16/x8, or x8/x8/x0/x8/x4 depending on which CPU type you have installed.

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The I/O panel is packed with a ton of ports. Mostly USB 3.0 ports, but a clear CMOS button, WiFi antenna connectors, audio and a PS/2 port are available here as well. One thing you’ll notice is the black shroud around the I/O panel. This is largely cosmetic and that’s fine but the mounting hardware replaces one of the screw positions normally used for securing the motherboard to the chassis. So you’ll need to ditch the appropriate standoff or ditch the aluminum cover to make things work.

(Editor’s note: I also had issue with this surround treatment on the IO panel. It looks fine, but honestly seems to be poorly executed in its overall design. In addition to what Dan pointed out, the surround is not well mounted and sort of wobbly. This is not going to affect anything negatively in actual operation, but after being fully wowed by the overall build quality, this stood out as a glaring oversight to me.)