Today's Hard|Forum Post
Today's Hard|Forum Post

MSI Z170A SLI Plus LGA 1151 Motherboard Review

Sometimes less is more. That’s the approach MSI has taken with the MSI Z170A SLI Plus. Sure, ridiculously overpriced and feature packed motherboards are nice to drool but sometimes you want just the right tool for the job. The MSI Z170A SLI Plus is poised to be everything you need and nothing you don’t.

Introduction

Micro-Star International or MSI as it is most commonly known, was founded in 1986 and has grown into one of the world’s most well-known motherboard manufacturers. MSI is well respected and established in the industry thanks to its high quality and innovative designs. Around the [H] we’ve come to know MSI’s many motherboard offerings, often being quite impressed with them. This last year MSI rebranded most motherboards into its "Gaming" family, adopting a red and black color scheme across the product line. Very few motherboards exist outside this format or outside the gaming oriented marketing strategy. The Z170A SLI Plus is unusual in that it is such a motherboard. It’s free from the red and black color scheme, dragon themes or gaming oriented marketing on the box or product itself. The black and blue webpage for the Z170A SLI Plus is devoid of such juvenile things and sets itself apart while still at its core retaining many of the same features that penetrate every facet of the gaming product line.

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The Z170A SLI Plus is based on Intel’s Z170 Express chipset and is compatible with all current LGA 1151 socket CPUs. There are 11 power phases split between the CPU, integrated GPU and memory. MSI’s Military Class 4 components are comprised of dark chokes and dark capacitors. Humidity, temperature, ESD and EMI protection give the board some durability in varying environments. The dark chokes feature improved power efficiency, stability and long life. The dark capacitors have reduced ESR lower temperatures and a longer life span than traditional capacitors. Despite not officially being part of the gaming line, overclocking is a focus of the Z170A SLI Plus’s design. MSI’s DDR4 Boost technology isolates and optimizes trace paths for memory signaling to promote stability and by extension overclockability. MSI’s OC Genie 4 promises effortless free performance as well. Other features like USB 3.0, SATA 6Gb/s and M.2 provided by the chipset are fully supported here. Some features like SATA Express are left by the wayside which frankly isn’t of any relevance.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The packaging is extremely basic which isn’t unexpected given the Z170A SLI Plus’s price point. The black box with silver text is actually quite elegant in its simplicity. The motherboard arrived intact with all accessories counted for. Speaking of which, you won’t find a whole lot in the box. The included bundle is lean, but again that’s understandable given the price point. Inside the box you’ll find the following accessories: user guide, quick install guide, driver disc, SATA cables, SLI bridge, and an I/O shield,

Board Layout

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The layout of the Z170A SLI Plus is pretty good although there are a couple of things I don’t care for. I do not care for vertically aligned SATA ports or the third PCIe x16 slot not having the same steel reinforcement as the other two slots. The USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 front panel headers also have different alignments. This wouldn’t bother me if I were using one or the other, but using both would create an unsettling asymmetrical cable configuration inside the system that my OCD wouldn’t let me forget.

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The MOSFET cooling hardware is securely fastened with screws. This is a welcome sight on such an inexpensive motherboard. Unfortunately, the MOSFET coolers actually scratch fairly easily. I managed to slightly mar the finish on these without even realizing it. This isn’t a huge problem, but rather something to keep in mind while handling the motherboard. The CPU fan headers are placed thoughtfully, although I’d have appreciated the CPUFAN2 header being placed next to the primary one. The CPU socket area is clear of any significant obstructions so mounting virtually any CPU cooler should be a breeze.

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There are four 288-pin DDR4 memory slots supporting up to 64GB of RAM at speeds up to DDR4 3600MHz through overclocking. MSI’s DDR4 Boost technology implements equidistant trace paths for optimal signal quality on all channels. The memory module slots all use dual locking tabs instead of the more common single tab configurations we normally see these days. Fortunately, the memory slots aren’t close enough to the expansion slot area for this to be problematic. There is no color coding to denote proper dual channel memory mode operation. While veteran enthusiasts will know how to place the RAM, less experienced builders will have to likely consult the manual for direction. Color coding would solve that, but potentially be less aesthetically pleasing.

In front of the memory modules MSI has located it’s EZ Debug LEDs. To be frank these are similar to the idiot lights in more stripped down cars. These aren’t nearly as intuitive or as useful as the traditional debug LED display would be. Again this strikes me as a cost cutting measure more than anything. While I don’t agree with it, I can’t really claim this is a huge failing in the long run. There may be times where the debug LED would be more helpful in troubleshooting problems, but the LEDs should still make that possible, albeit more annoying.

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The chipset is cooled via a large flat, low profile heat sink that is based on a passive design. The machine work is well done for the most part although the finish is somewhat rough. Like the MOSFET coolers, the chipset cooler can be scratched fairly easily if you aren’t careful. Directly in front of the chipset you’ll find 6x SATA 6Gb/s connectors. Unfortunately, MSI placed two of these vertically and the other four at a 90-degree angle. The latter would be preferable for all the connections. Why they’ve chosen to mix and match these I’ll never know. At least the vertical ports are located where they can’t possible hit most video cards, but the decision to use these at all still baffles me. I can’t imagine they’d save a ton of money going this route. Use of all six ports would leave you with some very ugly cabling. I can think of no cases or scenarios in which the vertical ports would be of any benefit over the 90 degree versions we are all accustomed to. Headers, such as the TPM or USB 2.0 headers are clearly marked which is another positive point.

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The expansion slot area is well implemented. There are three PCIe x16 gen 3.0 slots supporting configurations of x16x0, x8x8, or x8x8x4 modes. There are also three PCIe 3.0 x1 slots. Frankly, there isn’t a good place for an M.2 slot on any desktop motherboard. The placement above the primary PEG slot does still allow for the use of PCIe x1 cards but it might be susceptible to the extra heat that comes from the GPU. So while I don’t think there are many if any good places for M.2 slots, this one may be worse than some alternatives. MSI implements what it calls "Steel Armor" on two of the PCIe x16 slots. I dislike the lack of symmetry here and think all three should have this feature. The Steel Armor feature is designed to spread the weight load or stress of a large GPU across a wider area of the PCB effectively allowing it to handle heavier GPUs. This motherboard does allow for 3-Way Crossfire, so I believe all three slots should be built the same way. There is also an aesthetic quality in having all three match. The audio implementation is something we’ll talk about in more detail later, but this motherboard has the same light bracketing the isolated part of the PCB where the audio hardware resides.

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The I/O panel is par for the course on a less expensive motherboard. You have dedicated PS/2 mice and keyboard ports and way too many options for utilizing the onboard video. An ancient D-SUB, DVI-D, and HDMI port are all included. There is also a USB type-A port, 2x USB 3.0 ports, 2x USB 2.0 ports, six mini-stereo jacks for analog audio and 1x RJ-45 LAN port. These days I think the onboard video options for many motherboards are a bit excessive and take up space that could be allocated to USB ports or something else. This is simply one of the concessions for a motherboard designed for both specific US market price points and emerging markets elsewhere in the world. I’ve been told by more than one motherboard manufacturer that the god awful D-SUB or VGA port is a requirement to sell a motherboard in such markets despite how cringe-worthy using such a port is in most cases.