MSI X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM LGA2011-v3 Review

MSI’s X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM is a mouthful, but the XPOWER series has been a favorite of ours here at HardOCP for years now. The latest X99 iteration has much to prove. Is the X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM another pretty face, or is it a fitting addition to the venerable XPOWER line?

MSI is one of the most well-known and successful motherboard manufacturers and PC component designers and manufacturers on the planet. This year, MSI celebrates its 30th anniversary. In 1986 MSI released its first overclocking motherboard and today, MSI has products sold in more than 120 countries world-wide. The company has a rich history of quality and innovation which is how it’s not only survived for 30 years, but flourished in an unforgiving industry that has chewed up and spit out more than its share of brands over the years. The few brands that have stuck around were good at their core business and successfully diversified in a number of areas with success. Even though MSI started making motherboards, and is generally thought of as a motherboard manufacturer first, it has a number of other product offerings. These products range from laptops, servers, all in one PCs, computer peripherals, graphics cards, and tablets.

All the major names in computing these days have spent untold fortunes on marketing research which indicates that traditional DIY PCs are primary gaming machines or content creation workstations. The traditional PC roles are generally filled by mobile devices ranging from smartphones to more traditional laptops. As a result, MSI has shifted its focus toward being the number one brand in PC gaming. As a result of this shift in marketing strategy, virtually everything was rebranded as "gaming" motherboards. Today we are going to examine MSI’s X99A XPower Gaming Titanium. In the past this would have represented MSI’s flagship offering and while this is a higher end offering, the best MSI has to offer is going to be in the X99A GODLIKE Gaming Carbon. At a price tag of $429.99 at the time of this writing, the X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM is no slouch when it comes to a lofty price tag. So while it isn’t MSI’s halo level product, it’s right up there. In the past, MSI’s XPower and MPower series’ offerings weren’t targeted at gamers necessarily, but general PC enthusiasts which could have included those who worked with content creation applications, virtual machines, or hardcore overclockers.

Now the name says it all. The aesthetics of these motherboards has shifted to provide a flashy, case window friendly visual quality that marketing research suggests that gamer’s like. The black and yellow theme was probably not the most popular visual design element out there. I liked it as it gave the XPOWER and MPOWER motherboards an identity of their own and it allowed MSI to stand out in a crowd of purely red and black motherboards that were so prolific until very recently. MSI still retains a unique aesthetic quality to the XPOWER and MPOWER lines, but its far more outrageous than we are used to seeing. This motherboard sports a "titanium" theme which is basically a black and silver appearance. The switch here is that the PCB is silver in color, while slots and ports are black. Traditionally we would see the reverse pattern in such a color scheme. This isn’t necessarily unique as Soyo used to do this back in the day as well. You can probably make a PCB in virtually any color, but it is rare that something like a motherboard deviates from black, brown, or green. Having said that, this trend is changing all the time and whether or not the trend will stick remains to be seen. As I said, we have seen this in the industry before and the trend didn’t seem to stick around that long. Soyo was the company best known for the practice and they aren’t around anymore.

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The X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM is one of the more interesting designs I’ve seen lately. Naturally, it uses Intel’s X99 Express chipset and supports the latest design innovations present on all the refreshed X99 chipset based motherboard which bring them more or less to parity with the newer Z170 Express based motherboards that launched with Skylake. On a purely technical level, the main thing the refreshed motherboards offer is USB 3.1, USB 3.1 type C, and potential access to Thunderbolt 3. Sometimes refreshed motherboards have drastically updated VRD specifications and therefore the VRM design gets updated in order to better support the newer CPUs. In the case of Broadwell-E, that simply didn’t happen. The only real technical change made to better support Broadwell-E is the addition of the AVX offset option in the UEFI BIOS of the refreshed motherboards. Hardware wise, that’s the core of the changes. Some manufacturers have opted to use improved clock generators on X99 refresh boards or do a number of smaller things. There are other trends like reinforced memory and expansion slots that use steel brackets to brace these stress points on the motherboard. This was something we saw carried over from the Z170 Express motherboards to these updated X99 motherboards. The X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM offers these improvements as well. Naturally, this is the year of RGB lighting and the X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM offers this as well. The X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM uses titanium chokes which MSI claims are better. I’m not an electrical engineer, so I won’t debate the merits of these chokes compared to other options on the market. I do know that titanium has a much greater resistance to heat than most materials, so there is that as a benefit to the design.

Given MSI’s gaming focus, the X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM has a number of gaming oriented features. While overclocking itself isn’t limited to gamer’s specifically, they are more likely to engage in the practice than content creators who may be willing to trade some performance for system stability. After all, a super fast computer isn’t worth much to you if it crashes all the time causing potential data loss and reduced productivity. MSI’s Game Boost overclocking knob allows you to turn it up to 11. That really is in the marketing literature. The knob doesn’t have that many settings as it skips numbers so that it can go up to 11. The only way the clichأ© could get worse is if you could actually rip the knob off and reattach it later. The knob itself has never felt like a quality piece of equipment. Frankly I think it detracts from the feel of quality that normally permeates the experience of handling one of these otherwise well-crafted motherboards. While MSI didn’t necessarily originate these options, features like the gaming hot key gaming LAN manager let you know that you are dealing with a product that is purpose built.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The packaging for the X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM is nice and roughly what I expected from MSI’s more premium offerings. The box has the usual flap with a window in the box showing off the motherboard’s silver and black aesthetics. The dragon motif is present as usual. Inside the box there is a rich assortment of accessories: User Guide, product registration card, quick installation guide, door hanger, SATA cable labels, certificate of stability, voltage check cables, M-connectors, SLI bridges, RBG extension cable, SATA cables, wireless antenna, case badge, and an I/O shield.

Board Layout

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The layout of the X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM is nothing short of superb. My only complaint is the placement of the CMOS battery which would require the removal of the video card to access it. The CMOS battery is nearly on the opposite side of the motherboard from the BIOS chips, so I can’t fathom what possessed MSI to place the battery in such an inconvenient location.

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The CPU socket area is about as good as it gets. The integrated memory controller on the CPU necessitates short runs of trace paths from the memory modules to the CPU socket in order to minimize signal degradation. The use of higher profile memory modules can make the installation of larger air coolers difficult at best. If you are actually one of the few who will drop the coin on a high end Broadwell-E CPU, then you will probably end up with an AIO or a custom loop rendering this complaint academic at best. For everyone else, you will want to choose your memory modules and CPU cooler very carefully or lose access to some memory slots. The MOSFET cooling is substantial. The finish work on the heat sinks isn’t anything to write home about. There are no sharp edges or other quality issues, but the rough textured finish it uses is nothing special. If anything it’s somewhat cheap looking given the motherboard’s price point.

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The X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM has a total of eight 288-pin DDR4 DIMM slots supporting up to 128GB of DDR4 memory operating at frequencies up to 3466MHz through overclocking. I have yet to see such speeds out of any of my test kits on any X99 motherboard, but theoretically these speeds are possible. The memory slots are not color coded which would be fine but the PCB color prevents you from reading the markings on the motherboard very easily. Fortunately, the installation arrangement is the same as it is for most X99 motherboards. For the novice, the manual might actually be needed. The memory slots utilize what MSI calls DDR4 "steel armor" that reduce motherboard flex and prevent PCB warping while modules are inserted onto the board. These claims actually seem to hold up on every motherboard I’ve tested that uses them, so I can’t exactly call it a gimmick, although the need for this remains debatable. The memory slots use single sided locking tabs which is necessary given the slots proximity to the PCI-Express expansion slot area.

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The chipset is cooled with a flat and passive heat sink that is adorned with a dragon logo. The logo is back lit, but you won't find any RGB lighting here. It is white in color and that's all. In front of the chipset you will find an array of USB headers, SATA 6GB/s ports and a U.2 port. The SATA Express port is a vertical type port to the left of the chipset’s heat sink. MSI is now officially supporting type 22110 or 110mm M.2 drives which is nice to see.

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The expansion slot area is well thought out. Again I am not a fan of the CMOS battery location. On a regular ATX motherboard, I am uncertain of how this could have been done differently as the motherboard is extremely packed with components given how feature rich it is. There are 5x PCI-Express x16 slots. These operate in configurations of x16/x0/x0/x0/x0, x16/x0/x0/x16/x0, x16/x0/x0/x16/x8, or x8/x8/x0/x16/x8 with a 40-lane CPU. There is also a single PCI-Express 2.0 x1 slot that gets its lanes from the PCH. The spacing for multi-GPU configurations is solid. The third slot gets blocked off doing this however. The M.2 slot could work better placed elsewhere, but again the size constraints of the motherboard are readily apparent with standard ATX being limiting on the X99 platform. Still, the M.2 slot is placed in a good spot as 4-Way SLI is an extreme rarity so you shouldn’t see too much heat soak with an M.2 drive. The M.2 slot has full PCIe generation 3.0 support and 4x lanes. One downside is that the M.2 slot shares bandwidth with the U.2 slot unlike the X99 Designare from GIGABYTE which allows you to RAID the U.2, M.2 and PCIe based SSDs together. To do this, MSI would have probably had to add a PEX PLX8747 chip which increases the motherboard cost substantially. This motherboard is already expensive and people don’t seem to RAID M.2 / U.2 together all that much if at all. You can still combine a PCIe to M.2 adapter, or PCIe based SSDs with M.2 or U.2. You simply can’t do all three or M.2 with U.2.

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MSI made good use of the space on the back of the X99A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM. There is a vast array of ports on the back panel. There is a dedicated "gaming" PS/2 keyboard or mouse port. 3x USB 2.0 ports, 7x USB 3.1 ports, 1x USB 3.1 type-C port, wireless antenna connections, 5x mini-stereo jacks and 1x optical outputs for audio. There is clear CMOS button to clear the BIOS as well.