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MSI's Z170A SLI Plus motherboard reviewed

A monochrome mainstream mobo
— 12:16 PM on May 6, 2016

Gaming, overclocking, small-form-factor, eco-friendly. MSI's desktop motherboard lineup has you covered, no matter what your needs may be. What about the venerable "all-rounder," though? You know, what the desktop motherboard was before we had all this choice. A board for that build that's going to let you get some work done, play some games, maybe watch some movies, and if you're feeling like it, partake in some overclocking fun.

Enter MSI's Pro series of motherboards. These mainstream offerings come with everything you need for a stable high performance build and none of the superfluous extras that add unnecessary cost to a board. MSI's Z170A SLI Plus is a good manifestation of this ideal. It's a full-sized ATX board that sports an LGA1151 socket for Skylake CPU goodness, backed up with the enthusiast-friendly Z170 chipset. All that can be had for $139.99 online right now.

At a full 9.6" wide (24.4 cm), the Z170A SLI Plus feels quite spacious. This width also lets MSI make use of all nine ATX mounting holes. If builders need to apply pressure to the Z170A SLI Plus, its PCB won't flex like some narrower ATX motherboards might.

MSI kept things simple when it designed this board. The splash of gold from the audio caps aside, not a shred of bright color can be seen anywhere on the board. Just a few silver accents stand out from the matte-black PCB. I like the look. Now, if only I could find an excuse to build a film-noir-themed system...

The Skylake platform puts CPU voltage regulation back in the hands of the motherboard makers. The fully-integrated voltage regulator (FIVR) used by Haswell chips has fallen out of favor at Intel. MSI answers the call with 11 power phases, the chokes of which can be seen just next to the two VRM heatsinks. Like many other MSI boards, the Z170A SLI Plus uses "military spec" components. Fancy MIL-SPEC certifications aside, the caps and chokes continue the blacked-out look.

The VRM heatsinks are closer to the CPU socket than we'd like. Thankfully, at only 27 mm tall at their tallest point, they're unlikely to cause issues for larger CPU coolers. These heatsinks are held in place with screws, a choice that we prefer over flimsy push-pins. Screws not only ensure better heatsink contact with the components beneath, they also give the board a more premium feel.

Since Skylake carries over support for existing LGA1150 cooler mounting mechanisms, we're able to keep using our trusty Nepton 240M from Cooler Master. This closed-loop liquid cooler has a beefy copper block with a tendency to run afoul of capacitor banks located close to the CPU socket.

Unfortunately, the Z170A SLI Plus has just such a row of capacitors to the left of the CPU socket. Those caps prevent the block from making sufficient contact with the CPU's heat spreader, nixing two of the cooler's four possible orientations as workable options. Thankfully, both the DDR4 DIMM slots and the left-most VRM heatsink are far enough away from the socket that the block can be mounted in the remaining two orientations without a hitch. MSI recommends installing DIMMs in the furthest slots of each bank first, so builders will only need to use the slot closest to the CPU socket if they're installing four DIMMs.

We can't check for compatibility with all possible coolers, so we've provided some measurements below to help you figure out which components can safely fit together on the board:

The chipset heatsink is a low-profile affair that does a good job of both staying out of the way and cooling the Z170 silicon below it. Thanks to a 22nm manufacturing process, the chipset only needs to dissipate a mere 6W. Like the VRM heatsinks, the chipset heatsink is secured to the board with screws rather than push pins.

Four fan headers can be found within easy reach of the CPU socket: two CPU fan headers and two system fan headers. There's also a healthy amount of room between the CPU socket and the topmost PCIe x16 slot, thanks to a PCIe x1 slot in the first expansion slot position. Perhaps because of this extra clearance, MSI uses locking mechanisms on both sides of the DIMM slots rather than the one-sided snap-in mechanism that's become more and more common for memory slots these days.

The Z170A SLI Plus gives builders three PCIe x16 slots. When one graphics card is installed in the left-most silver slot, all sixteen of a Skylake CPU's PCIe Gen3 lanes are routed to that slot. Those wanting to partake in some dual-GPU fun should use the two silver slots. With two cards installed, each will get eight PCIe Gen3 lanes from the CPU. The black x16 slot at the far right in the picture above is fed by four Gen3 lanes from the chipset.

This arrangement provides enough PCIe lanes for two-way SLI setups and, thanks to more lenient bandwidth requirements, room for up to three-way CrossFire configs. That said, we usually recommend going for the fastest single graphics card you can afford before stepping up to more exotic multi-GPU setups.

The silver cladding on the two primary PCI Express x16 slots is more than just some bling. Similar to the Z170A Gaming M5 that we looked at a bit back, MSI has once again reinforced the PCIe slots with metal shrouds that are soldered to the board at multiple points. This setup should reduce the chance of damage to the slots if you're transporting a system that has a massive video card, but we'd still recommend removing any expansion cards rather than chancing damage to the board with a bump or jostle.

Peppered around those three x16 PCIe slots are three open-ended PCIe x1 slots. All three connect directly to Gen3 lanes from the Z170 chipset. In theory, open-ended x1 slots like these allow the installation of higher-lane-count PCIe expansion cards—provided the adapter can work with just one lane. In the case of the SLI Plus, however, only two of the x1 slots can realistically accept longer cards. The rightmost x1 slot abuts the CMOS battery, and if you've installed an 80-mm M.2 SSD on the board, all of the space behind the leftmost slot will be occupied.

For easy reference, here's a diagram of the SLI Plus' PCIe lane routing and expansion slots:

This expansion slot layout can handle something as wild as a pair of triple-slot video cards, but in more typical multi-GPU setups, installing a pair of double-slot cards will still allow access to two of the PCIe x1 slots and the four-lane PCIe x16 slot.

Now that we've mapped out the Z170A SLI Plus' expansion slots, it's time to move on to the board's storage subsystem.