MSI Z170I Gaming Pro AC mITX Motherboard Review

The Z170I GAMING PRO AC motherboard is poised to be a tiny powerhouse for SFF builds or for those of you looking to focus on "less is more." If you are looking to make the jump to an Small Form Factor build, or you want to update an existing build you won’t want to miss this feature rich Mini-ITX motherboard.

Introduction

MSI is one of the largest and most popular motherboard manufacturers in the world. The company was founded in 1986 and has grown into one of the most respected and trusted brands in the DIY computing market today. MSI has a diverse product range which includes motherboards, graphics cards, all in one PCs, tablets, laptops, servers, peripherals and more. A couple of years back during the Z87 days, MSI launched its "Gaming" line of motherboards which all sported the familiar red and black theme that dominates the market place today. While not the originator of this color scheme, MSI has made it their own and embraced it and the gaming market with everything they’ve got. This is almost literal as MSI has only one or two motherboard models that aren’t branded as gaming motherboards.

MSI’s motherboards are in no way limited in scope to a feature set that only a gamer would appreciate. Indeed, there is a lot of overlap in different markets. In many ways, full sized desktop PCs, or traditional desktops of any kind are becoming more and more obsolete for simple web oriented and office based tasks. Even the laptop market has felt the pressure of falling sales due to these cheaper and constantly evolving mobile devices. Still, there are a few tasks to which only a traditional desktop are suited for. Gaming is one of the niche markets that will not be taken over by simple throw away consumer devices anytime soon. I believe this is in large part the reason for MSI’s marketing shift to the gaming market.

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The MSI Z170I Gaming Pro AC is based on Intel’s Z170 Express chipset and has few features beyond what the chipset provides natively. This is due in part to cost savings and in part due to the physical size limitations of a mini-ITX motherboard’s PCB real estate. Fortunately, any motherboard that utilizes the Z170 Express chipset still has a solid feature set regardless of whether or not they have additional features tacked on. Also, in many cases less is more as motherboards frequently have features added to them that next to no one ends up using. Often times people purchase motherboards for specific features because only a high end board has what they want. In those cases, consumers end up paying for things they don’t want.

The Z170I Gaming Pro AC features everything that you’d expect from MSI in addition to what’s built into the chipset. SATA Express, SATA 6GB/s ports, PCIe gen 3.0 support, and USB 3.1 support are all found on the tiny MSI motherboard. The Z170I Gaming Pro AC features MSI’s Military Class 4 components which include humidity protection, high temperature protection, circuit protection, ESD protection, and EMI protection. MSI’s DDR4 boost feature offers equilateral memory traces for improved signal quality and stability. The audio subsystem offers dual, dedicated headphone amplifiers, and EMI shielding. The gaming hotkey feature allows you to turn any keyboard into a gaming keyboard with full macro and hot key support.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The packaging is very small, not exceeding the overall motherboards dimensions by more than is necessary. The simple black and red box contains few accessories inside. In addition to the MSI Z170I Gaming Pro AC itself you will find the following items: Certificate of stability, SATA cable labels, manual, driver discs, WiFi antennas, SATA cables and an I/O shield.

Board Layout

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While I am normally very critical in terms of the motherboard layout, mini-ITX motherboards often get a pass from me in a number of areas. On full sized desktops, vertical SATA ports are cringe worthy, but they do take up less overall room. On a mini-ITX motherboard the space used by 90-degree ports is at a premium. There are a few things I don’t like here but I’m not sure how avoidable these are.

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The CPU socket area is generally clear of major obstructions despite the tiny form factor. The MOSFET cooling hardware isn’t all that large, but works adequately. During stock testing I rarely saw temperatures in excess of 101-103F which is pretty standard. Aside from possible chassis limitations, you shouldn’t have any trouble fitting virtually any cooler you’d like to the CPU. MSI managed to keep things pretty clean here despite the size constraints.

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There are two 288-pin DDR4 DIMM slots, so support is limited to 32GB of RAM. No color coding was necessary to denote proper dual channel memory mode operation. Additionally, theoretical support for memory speeds up to DDR4 3600MHz are possible on the Z170I Gaming Pro AC.

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The chipset is cooled via a small black and red heat sink. This is a passive cooler which is very nicely done in terms of fit and finish. Cooling on this was more than adequate with temperatures during normal operation never exceeded 85F degrees. In front of and behind the chipset are the SATA and SATA Express ports.

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There isn’t much to say about the expansion slot area of the motherboard given the single PCI-Express x16 slot. There is however an M.2 slot on the bottom of the motherboard. I am not a huge fan of the placement of this given that you’d have to do a nearly complete teardown of the system to change out the drive for any reason. Additionally, the slot only supports 60mm drives. The is a Nuvoton NCT55630-M ASIC at the end of the slot which an 80mm drive would lay on top of. Additionally, a lack of airflow to this slot could be problematic regardless of the drive used. I’d like to have seen a U.2 port on here as well as an M.2 port.

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MSI leveraged the available space on the I/O panel very well. There are two USB 2.0 ports, 1x USB 2.0 port with dedicated / isolated power for external audio DACs, a dedicated keyboard / mouse port, 4x USB 3.1 Type-A ports, 1x RJ-45 port, , a clear CMOS button, 1x HDMI port, 1x DisplayPort, 2x WiFi antenna ports, 1x optical output, and 5x mini-stereo jacks for analog audio.