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

MSI X299 XPower Gaming AC Motherboard Review

The X299 XPower Gaming AC is MSI’s flagship HEDT motherboard for Intel CPU’s. This monster motherboard has an enormous feature set and an fairly large price tag as we have come to expect with HEDT boards. However, there is definite value here if you are looking to put together an Intel based High End DeskTop system.

Introduction

MSI is well known in the computing industry for its vast product portfolio. MSI produces a wide range of products including laptops, desktops, monitors, graphics cards, and motherboards. Despite the vast array of products, MSI sells it remains known primarily for its motherboards.

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X299 XPower Gaming AC represents the pinnacle of what MSI has to offer in an HEDT motherboard for Intel’s X299 platform. As part of the enthusiast gaming line, it’s one of only two SKU’s in the HEDT product stack for MSI. This trend seems to be fairly consistent with most manufacturers in that they all currently have a limited amount of HEDT motherboards for either Intel or AMD platforms. I believe this is due to two primary reasons. The fact is, motherboard manufacturers haven’t had a lot of time to design, develop, and test a wide range of offerings due to the rush jobs both Intel and AMD have had on their respective platforms as of late. X299’s release date was moved up in response to Ryzen, and AMD’s X399 chipset based motherboards and socket TR4 were somewhat hastily thrown out by its own admission. Based on Ryzen 7’s success, AMD quickly developed and produced Threadripper CPUs and X399 chipsets for motherboard partners. Each platform has had a few issues as a result of this and I think all the motherboard manufacturers not only had little time due to all the other releases I haven’t talked about here, but that they might be waiting to see how the wind blows regarding the HEDT segment.

With Intel’s insane pricing structure for its CPU’s and limited desirability due to price gating the CPU’s more advanced features, the HEDT market share is ripe for AMD. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it will sell in large numbers, and Intel’s done other things that are either brilliant or nutty depending on who you ask. Things like creating Kaby Lake-X processors is nutty if you ask me. While this is a lower cost of entry into the HEDT platform segment for anyone who wants to be in it, everything that makes the segment appealing is lost when using a processor that disables the platforms features, effectively rendering an X299 into an expensive Z270 based motherboard. Of course, this is now being supplanted by Z370, which is another topic I won’t get into. I think X299 and many motherboards based on it, are fantastic pieces of hardware. However, Intel’s processor pricing structure and it’s VROC licensing model make X299 a less appealing option than it could be on a technical level. However, for the first time in the HEDT market we’ve got choices. That’s never a bad thing. So, here we go.

The ($449 / $429 after MIR) X299 XPower Gaming AC is based on the X299 Express chipset. It supports the latest Intel LGA 2066 socket processors, which currently includes Skylake-X and Kaby Lake-X processors. As of today, CPUs are available with as few as 4c/8t and as many as 18c/36t. The X299 XPower Gaming AC is a feature rich solution supporting the latest connectivity standards. This includes PCI-Express 3.0, SATA III 6Gb/s, M.2, U.2, Intel Optane, dual Gigabit LAN, VROC, USB 3.1, and DDR4. For gamers, the X299 XPower Gaming AC features 4-Way SLI and Crossfire support. Of course, most of those features are part of the X299 Express chipset, or rather, are enabled due to the chipset or CPU’s properties. However, some functions are specifically part of the MSI X299 XPower Gaming AC’s design. Features like Easy Button 3, Military Class-6 components, VR Boost, Steel Armor, and the M.2 shield Frozr are either specific to the MSI X299 XPower Gaming AC or are MSI’s take on features employed by others in the industry.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The packaging for the X299 XPower Gaming AC is simple. It’s black with silver lettering. Inside you’ll find the type of packing and accessories common with any high end motherboard offering. Our sample arrived intact, with all accessories accounted for. Inside the box you will find the following accessories: User guide, memory installation notice, registration card, driver disc, SATA cable labels, SATA cables, I/O shield, case badge, wireless antennas, HB SLI bridge, RGB extension cable, 3D printed accessory mount, and an M.2 Xpander-Z card.

Board Layout

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MSI’s X299 XPower Gaming AC is a descendent of MSI’s XPower line before it became part of the gaming family like everything else. Motherboards in this family used to sport a black and yellow aesthetic, but look very different today. The X299 XPower Gaming AC has a black and silver aesthetic which seems a little more elegant, but thanks to the RGB lighting, would be at home in any rig. The layout of the MSI’s X299 XPower Gaming AC is excellent, but still has to make concessions due to the limitations of the ATX form factor. These concessions are largely with regard to M.2 slot placement. Due to having three of them, these slots are placed in between the PCI-Express x16 slots. There are 10x fan headers, one of which is a dedicated water pump header. There are 9 onboard temperature sensors for thermal monitoring. 1x thermal sensor header is also available along with 1x RGB LED header. A VROC port is provided to enable the use of the license dongle to go beyond pass through mode, which is automatically included with the PCH.

Port and header locations, as well as most aspects of the layout are well thought out aside from the aforementioned M.2 slots. There I am not a fan of the old school 4-pin MOLEX connector used for auxiliary PCI-Express power. I’d prefer the newer SATA plugs which are more ubiquitous on modern power supplies.

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The CPU socket area is as clear as one can expect on a motherboard like this. Modern designs use integrated memory controllers which creates problems with signaling when traces are too long, and RAM too remote from the CPU. The MOSFET heatsink uses a heatpipe and has a plastic shroud with backlit MSI logo on it. The motherboard features a 12+1+1 phase digital power design with DrMOS MOSFETs, premium power phases and solid electrolytic capacitors. The power phases are actually a 6-phase design that employs phase doubling to increase the phase count to 12. The additional phases are for the system agent voltage and VCCIO. The VRMs are International Rectifier IR3555M parts which provide up to 60A.

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The X299 XPower Gaming AC has 8x 288-pin DDR4 DIMM slots, supporting a total of 128GB of RAM. MSI uses single sided locking tabs for module retention. Speeds up to DDR4 4133MHz through overclocking are supported in quad channel mode. In dual channel mode, speeds up to DDR4 4500MHz are supported using Kaby Lake-X CPU’s. MSI’s steel armor prevents the PCB from warping when installing RAM. In front of the RAM slots, you will find several fan headers, the VROC dongle port and the onboard controls and LED debug display. MSI has updated it’s overclocking knob to look a little less cheesy, but it still feels about as cheap as the earlier versions do.

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The chipset features one of the most interesting heatsink designs I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of Iron Man or some science fiction technology. I rather like the look of it. Of course, it lights up like anything else these days. In front of the chipset, you’ll find several SATA 6Gb/s ports. 10 to be exact. These share PCIe lanes with the M.2 slots, so all of them aren’t necessarily available unless you aren’t using M.2 slots. You will also find a U.2 port next to the SATA ports.

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The expansion slot area is well thought out, aside from having M.2 slots in between each PCI-Express x16 slot. This is largely unavoidable, without using a vertical implementation like ASUS does, or relying entirely on an add-in card to adapt M.2 slots to PCI-Express x4 or x8 slots. The X299 XPower Gaming AC does include such a card, but it doesn’t rely on it alone. Using a 44 lane CPU, the X299 XPower Gaming AC supports PCI-Express lane configurations of x16/x0/x16/x8 or x8/x8/x16/x8. The four PCIe x16 slots use MSI’s "Steel Armor" for structural reinforcement. This reinforcement prevents PCB warping when inserting a controller, and resists shearing from chassis and motherboard flex while large graphics cards are installed and the system is moved. The steel armor also provides a nice aesthetic quality which looks perfectly in line with the black and gray theme MSI employed here.

The three M.2 slots support PCIe and SATA type devices. The top most slots support devices up to 110mm in length, while the bottom is limited to 80mm devices. MSI incorporates their Frozr shields into these slots. Thermal pads are fixed to the bottom of these heat shields. One thing I didn’t like about this was that MSI places the mounting post and screw at the outermost position. Most of the drives I’ve dealt with or seen are 80mm long, which means you’ll have to move the mounting post for any 80mm device, since it’s always in the 110mm position. It’s a minor issue, but annoying if you have to install M.2 drives after the system is built.

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The I/O shield is packed with connectivity. You will also find clear CMOS and BIOS flashback buttons on the back plane. On the back panel you will find two USB 2.0 ports, 6x USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports and two USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports. The Gen 2 ports are divided between Type-A and Type-C ports. You will also find dual RJ-45 GbE LAN ports, twin antenna connections for WiFi, 1x TOSLINK port and 5x mini-stereo jacks for analog audio. The analog audio ports are gold plated, and clad in plastic. Unfortunately, only the microphone port is color coded. The rest are all black. I prefer these to be color coded in some way, although the one red port denoting the microphone is better than nothing.