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MSI's Z170A Gaming M5 motherboard reviewed

Z170 gaming with a side of dragons

Gaming PCs are a growing market. This bright spot within the otherwise shrinking world of PC sales has gotten the attention of motherboard makers. MSI has offered its own lineup of gamer-oriented boards for the last couple of chipset generations to target this burgeoning segment, and the company's Z170 Gaming boards continue this tradition.

If you've somehow missed the trend, here are the important points. Gaming-branded boards typically involve subtle tweaks to the tried-and-true enthusiast formula. They usually have over-the-top cosmetic touches, fancy onboard audio and networking components, and bundled software and other extras, but they're otherwise similar to their non-gaming brethren.

MSI's gaming board span a range of price points, CPU sockets, and form factors. For those who want to build with Skylake, MSI's 100-series boards range from the entry level, with the Z170A-G45 GAMING, to the extravagant Z170A GAMING M9 ACK. No, we won't be respecting that all-caps branding from here on out.

The Z170A Gaming M5, which we're looking at today, sits around the middle of the pack with its $180 online retail price. The M5 model gives buyers some nice perks without going overboard. It's equipped with three PCIe x16 slots, two of which hang off the CPU. For next-gen storage, it sports dual M.2 slots with four lanes of PCIe Gen3 each, two SATA Express ports, and USB 3.1 Type A and Type C ports. Of course, it's built on the Z170 chipset, with its bevy of USB 3.0 ports, additional Gen3 PCIe lanes, and support for the NVMe storage control protocol. Feast your eyes upon the M5 now:

This board sticks with the now-familiar red-and-black color scheme on which almost all makers of gaming-focused hardware have standardized. The full-sized ATX board has a mostly blacked-out look, thanks to the matte black PCB. The VRM heatsinks provide some of the red for its red-and-black theme, and the PCH cooler is adorned with MSI Gaming's dragon logo.

The VRM heatsinks conceal the Gaming M5's digitally-controlled power phases, ten of which regulate power for the CPU. Two more power the processor's integrated GPU. These power phases supply each of the input voltage rails the processor requires now that the fully-integrated voltage regulator (FIVR) used by Haswell chips has fallen out of favor.

The chipset heatsink is a low-profile affair, but the VRM heatsinks are closer to the CPU socket than we'd like. Thankfully, at only 23 mm tall, they're unlikely to cause issues for larger CPU coolers. All heatsinks on the motherboard are held firmly in place with screws rather than push-pins. Screws not only ensure better heatsink contact with the components beneath, but 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 Gaming M5 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 right-most 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 compatbility 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:

Four fan headers are situated 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.

The Z170A Gaming M5 serves up three PCIe x16 slots. When one graphics card is installed, all sixteen of Skylake's Gen3 PCIe lanes are routed to the left-most silver slot. Those wanting to partake in some dual-GPU fun should use the two silver slots: with two cards installed, each will get eight Gen3 PCIe lanes from the CPU. Peppered around those three x16 PCIe slots are four x1 slots, the left-most of which is always enabled and always fed with a single Gen3 lane from the chipset. The black x16 slot at right in the picture above operates as an x4 slot when the middle three PCIe x1 slots are unoccupied. Otherwise, it drops down to a single Gen3 lane.

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 isn't just for show. MSI has reinforced the PCIe slots with metal shrouds that are soldered to the board at multiple points. This setup should help to prevent damage to the slots if you're transporting a system that has a massive video card.

That's a lot of words. Here's a diagram of the Gaming M5's expansion slots and the connectivity options for each:

The 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 rightmost PCIe x16 slot.

Now, on to the M5's storage subsystem.