MSI Z170A Gaming M7 LGA 1151 Motherboard Review

MSI has changed gears as of late vowing to be the number one motherboard manufacturer in the "gaming" segment. While a "gaming" motherboard MSI is still focused on overclocking with this model. We look at the Z170A Gaming M7 to see if it brings MSI one step closer or a step away from that very goal.

Introduction

MSI has changed gears as of late vowing to be the number one motherboard manufacturer in gaming. MSI’s switch to red and black motherboards and its change of some products into that market has proved incredibly successful for MSI. Because of that success all of the motherboards MSI makes are now branded as "gaming" products. MSI’s red and black color scheme has now been adopted across almost the entire product realm as has the dragon logos. There isn’t a "regular" motherboard in the lineup anymore.

A gaming focus means gaming features. MSI has made sure to include plenty of those. These include but are not limited to: MSI’s Gaming Hotkey which allows you to set macros on any keyboard or mouse, Nahamic audio enhancer software, the Killer NIC E2400, and the XSplit Gamecaster streaming software that comes with a 1 year premium license. MSI’s Gaming lineup is "Steel Series" certified ensuring compatibility with Steel Series peripherals which are naturally targeted at gamers as well. The PCI-Express slots have what MSI terms as "Steel Armor" to prevent damage to the PCI-Express slots with heavy graphics cards. Naturally there is also a focus on overclocking as this seems to go hand in hand with gaming. The GameBoost overclocking feature enables the end user to overclock via profiles presets controlled by a knob on the motherboard’s PCB.

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The Z170A Gaming M7 is based on Intel’s Z170 Express chipset. This chipset is the latest from Intel, supporting Intel’s 6th generation Core i5/i7 series CPUs. The Z170A Gaming M7 features support for all the standard features offered by the chipset. SATA Express, M.2, PCI-Express 3.0, and more. The Z170A Gaming M7 also offers audio built around the Realtek ALC1150 with Audio Boost 3, USB 3.1, and an integrated gigabit capable Killer NIC E2400. MSI now breaks down its motherboards into three market segments. Enthusiast Gaming, Performance Gaming and Arsenal Gaming. While the Z170A Gaming M7 is part of the Enthusiast Gaming line, it’s basically midrange in that family.

As usual MSI brings quality to the design by using its Military Class 5 components. Dark CAPS feature an aluminum core providing low ESR and a 10-year lifespan. Titanium chokes are used in the design as well. Humidity protection, ESD, circuit, and EMI protection are all there to ensure long life and outstanding durability.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The MSI Z170A Gaming M7 comes in the standard red and black box. There is about a tree’s worth of paper inside the box. Also inside are a driver disc, SATA cable labels, case badge, door placard, SLI bridge, M-Connectors, SATA cables and an I/O shield. Our sample was packaged in an anti-static bag inside a cardboard box within the box. The sample arrived in tact and with everything accounted for.

Board Layout

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The layout of the Z170A Gaming M7 is spectacular. I usually have one or two minor gripes with any motherboards layout but this one is an exceptional example of how to do things right. Ports are logically placed, controls are where these should be accessible and all slots are where you’d generally want them to be. The CMOS battery can even be changed without taking anything other than the side panel off your desktop.

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The CPU socket area is generally free of obstructions. You shouldn’t have any trouble mounting larger air coolers to the Z170A Gaming M7. The MOSFETs are cooled by very large, high quality heat sinks. These have a nice overall fit and finish with an anodized aluminum look. The heat sinks have an embedded heat pipe as well. If I had to make a complaint at all concerning this area it would have to be about the fan headers on the outer edge of the motherboard. The markings on the PCB are slightly confusing. It is difficult to tell which one is the water pump header and which one is the main CPU fan or the OPT_CPU fan header.

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The Z170A Gaming M7 has four 288-pin DDR4 DIMMs supporting memory speeds up to DDR4 3600MHz and a total of 64GB of RAM. MSI has a feature in the online literature for this called "DDR4 Boost" which claims to use optimized trace paths and isolated voltage circuitry. The "optimized" paths I can only assume mean equidistant trace path lengths. An XMP LED feature shows you when XMP is enabled.

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The chipset is cooled using a low profile heat sink with a dragon logo emblazoned on it. In front of that you will find several SATA ports and the Game Boost knob / button. The power and reset buttons are located next to the chipset as well.

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The expansion slot area is fantastic. I always like to see a PCIe x1 slot above the primary PCIe x16 slot provided we aren’t talking about a motherboard marketed as a quad-GPU solution. There is ample spacing between the primary and secondary PEG (PCI-Express Graphics) slots. This leaves yet another PCIe x1 slot available or open space. The last PCI-Express x16 slot is actually only 4x capable electrically speaking, but it does allow for AMD 3-Way Crossfire to be used. The chassis has to support letting the last card hang off the motherboard’s outer edge. In a multi-GPU configuration the PCIe x16 slots support 16x0x0, 8x8x0 or 8x8x4 configurations. There are dual M.2 slots on the Z170A Gaming M7. One is situated above the primary PEG slot which is an excellent move on MSI’s part. The second is placed underneath the secondary PEG slot which isn’t so good. There really isn’t another place for it but M.2 drives will get baked by power hungry GPUs. This can possibly lead to controller throttling and lost performance.

With regard to M.2 performance both slots can operate at x4 speeds, but due to DMI bandwidth limitations a maximum of 40Gbps can be achieved. Thus it isn’t possible to get a massive increase in read performance using two M.2 drives in RAID0. Conversely, write performance will see huge benefits as the write performance of SSD’s isn’t as good as the read performance is.

The two silver colored slots feature MSI’s Steel Armor. This is a bracket that covers the PCIe x16 slots and is secured on the back of the PCB. These add strength to the slot ensuring that large, heavy GPUs don’t cause damage to the motherboard. This isn’t generally cause for concern but as self-contained liquid cooling for GPUs becomes more popular this may very well turn into a problem. This is a very forward thinking move and MSI isn’t alone here. GIGABYTE and ASUS are doing this as well.

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The I/O panel has several connectivity options. I must say though I am disappointed in the lack of USB 3.0 / 3.1 ports on the back panel. Hell USB ports in general are lacking here. You have 3x USB 2.0 ports, 2x USB 3.0 ports and 2x USB 3.1 ports. The USB 3.1 ports are split between type A and type C. There is a clear CMOS button, 1x PS/2 mouse and keyboard combination port, 2x HDMI ports, 1x DisplayPort, 1x RJ-45 port, 5x mini-stereo jacks and 1x optical output.