MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon Broadwell-E Motherboard

MSI’s X99 refresh is here in time for Intel’s new Broadwell-E processors! We put the new processor through its paces and our MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon was the lucky winner that we chose to torture in order to determine it’s "Broadwell-E readiness." Our time with the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon was filled with many surprises.


Motherboard Overclocking Software

MSI’s Command Center software is a tool provided for overclocking and performance tuning within the Windows operating system environment. It’s no secret that I’ve never liked this software and its continued use is another missed opportunity by MSI. MSI as a brand I think is overly concerned with aesthetics over functionality. The Command Center software is rather spiffy looking and is arguably the most visually attractive of the bundled utilities out there. MSI also does recognize either its limitations or the fact that people don’t always like the software. MSI does include the Intel Extreme Tuning Utility with the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon, and many other motherboards as well. While this is my preferred software to use with the MSI motherboards, this is really about MSI’s software which is why I concentrate on the Command Center software.

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Tossing a shiny new Broadwell-E based processor like the 6950X on the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon doesn’t change anything with the software. It’s essentially unchanged from the last nearly two dozen MSI motherboards we’ve probably reviewed since this utility was first bundled with an MSI motherboard. I do give props to MSI for some aspects of the design so I’ll start there. I do like how the software defaults to the CPU frequency tuning and CPU fan tuning options first. This is in all likelihood where enthusiasts would spend the bulk of their time. The software is generally capable of all the things that other software packages are capable of, so it’s not generally deficient except in the automatic overclocking department. MSI offers nothing in the software to do that at all. Given how badly everyone else fairs in this area, especially on X99 I can’t fault MSI for not bothering with it in the first place. So that’s a good move. I do like the way the CPU frequency tuning works for the most part despite how much physical space is eaten up by the options within the software’s interface. Lastly on the positive side of the application design there is the fact that just about every setting you could want or need is in the application albeit often times difficult to find at best.

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Unfortunately, aside from the software’s aesthetics, what I like about the Command Center software ends there. At a glance it doesn’t seem like there would be any real learning curve to what appears to be a simple utility. That is sadly not the case. The problem with the Command Center software is a complete lack of direction with regard to design. While the appearance of the application seems to share a unified form at first, it doesn’t. This becomes readily apparent the more you dive into the application. Some parts of it resemble a home stereo receiver while others are closer to the transporter controls of the Enterprise. The black and red color scheme is the only unifying design aspect of the software. Even worse, the software has duplicate categories that are accessed in totally separate areas. For example, there are two DRAM menus which can be seen in the first screenshot. The categories at the top of the application window and the ones at the bottom share zero commonality. They don’t so much as duplicate options as much as splitting them. The more advanced stuff is found in the categories at the bottom with the exception of the CPU frequency adjustments which are only found at the top.

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The application wastes huge amounts of screen real estate on splitting elements into two separate areas that should be related. Things like the CPU frequency adjustment menu are pretty to look at but take up enormous amounts of the screen for little reason. The sliders could be half that size and would still be just as cool looking and just as readable. You have to hit the show all button to see the full menu, so even more space and extra clicking are required to utilize this if you are tuning by individual cores. Other design elements assume that the user has an inability to count. I realize businesses tend to cater to the lowest common denominator but some things just come off as ridiculous. The CPU ratio buttons at the bottom of the frequency menu illustrate what I mean. You have a plus and a minus button for setting the value. These are spread farther apart than they should be. In between them is the current value as if this couldn’t be discerned from the two other places where this value is shown. Similar treatment is given to the base clock frequency. The voltage menus are configured entirely this way as well. There is also a bizarre left slanting pencil icon that sets the default values. I have no idea why MSI chose that as it’s incongruent within the given menu context. This is also found nowhere else in the application that I can recall. The lower case "I" icons make more sense as these provide informational context.

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Other elements of the design are made almost as if the intent is to confuse you. There is an arrow that slants upwards and to the right in the top right hand corner. From the default menu, this doesn’t increase the size of the window, and isn’t to be confused with the underscore and x buttons. This actually minimizes the application window into a smaller more compact version. It’s quite a head-scratcher to use. It makes zero sense. There are plenty of informational menus which are actually logically found under the "information" button at the bottom. A great amount of detail can be extracted from these which I assume can be used for reporting to tech support or to jog your memory when discussing your system specs with people on the forums, or even looking at your current or stock settings.

While I am not fond of the utility, I have used it a lot over the last couple of years. It usually works reliably which is a good thing although it does get flaky at times. Some things like checking the memory settings sometimes results in the application crashing to desktop. What’s interesting about that is that this is something that Command Center’s predecessor did as well. This tells me that there is either code from that ancient software retained in the Command Center or that the development team has the same programmers working on this software, and the same mistake was made again. Even more disturbing is that this bug hasn’t been addressed despite being present for the entire time Command Center and its predecessor have existed. None of these scenarios inspire confidence. In fact, I think MSI expects the hardcore enthusiasts won’t bother with Command Center at all, and that its development was so that MSI could check off an overclocking application in the list of features when comparing their products, to the rest of the market’s offerings. If MSI cared enough to truly make a quality tuning application, they would put effort into it and make it brand agnostic the way they have done with Afterburner.

Mystic Lighting

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There is a "gaming" application that comes with the software bundle. It’s called "Gaming App" and it’s got a few interesting features. It can toggle between overclocking presets, set the monitor to different modes, and set macros for the keyboard and mouse. More importantly though it controls the onboard "Mystic Lighting" feature. It allows for control of individual LED zones on the motherboard and allows for the application of effects. Unfortunately, this software has to be running or the motherboard always defaults to its red color scheme. So if you accidentally shut it off or restart the system it changes back to the hardware defaults. I believe that some other alternatives on the market set this in hardware and their settings are persistent. LED lighting is relatively new on motherboards and I haven’t worked with everything that’s out there yet, so I don’t know off hand how every brand behaves. Still I think the point stands that the software needs to toggle a flag in UEFI or via hardware in some way so that the settings always remain persistent. At least with regard to color if nothing else. Strobing or pulsing effects may be best left to startup based and memory resident software.

A final note on this subject is that MSI offers the most colors at this time with a total of 16.8 million. You can basically set them to anything you want and do so per zone. The Mystic Lighting feature also makes use of industry standard 5050 RGB LED strips that plug into the common interface for control. These strips have a maximum length of 2 meters which is impressive and probably more than sufficient for your system chassis. I’ve seen these strips at my local hardware store so they are readily available. Other than being specifically tied to the gaming application, I think that the MSI lighting feature is probably the best one out there right now, followed closely by ASUS and dead last by GIGABYTE. ASUS uses the same hardware interface, but they don’t have the same color palette, nor the same degree of individual zone control.