Storage, audio and the niceties
The Gaming M5's storage connectors are all clustered on the right hand side of the board, towards the bottom.
MSI has gone all in for next-gen storage interfaces on the Gaming M5. First up, we have two SATA Express connectors, which double as four standard SATA ports. Two more regular SATA ports to the right give us a total of six SATA 6Gbps ports. All of these ports, along with the internal USB 3.0 header, are right-angled to make for easier cable insertion with longer graphics cards installed.
M.2 support comes in the form of not one, but two such slots. One of these M.2 connectors lies above the topmost PCIe x16 slot, while the second resides beneath the lower PCIe x16 slot. SSDs installed in the first M.2 slot are caught between two potentially large heat producers: the CPU and the primary video card. For systems with multi-GPU setups, drives installed in the second M.2 slot will end up directly under the second video card. The heat from that card could cause some M.2 SSDs to get too toasty—Samsung's SM951 PCIe SSD already throttles itself even without a graphics card in play, for example. As long as only one graphics card is installed, though, an SSD placed in the second M.2 slot should be safely out of the way of toasty hardware.
Both M.2 slots can accept PCIe or SATA-based mini-SSDs up to 80 mm long. MSI also supports U.2 PCIe storage devices like Intel's 750 Series SSD with its Turbo U.2 host adapter card, which plugs into an M.2 slot.
As for potential storage bandwidth, the two Gen3 lanes that feed the SATA Express connector provide up to 16 Gb/s, while each M.2 slot's four Gen3 lanes are good for up to 32 Gb/s. Those are some impressive numbers, to be sure. That said, not all of the storage connectivity can be used at once.
The Z170 chipset shares its flexible PCIe lanes among different storage ports, which puts some constraints on which ports can be used at the same time. Here's how the sharing breaks down. If you install a SATA-based SSD in the top M.2 slot, you can't use the two regular SATA 6 Gb/s ports. If you populate the bottom M.2 slot with any type of SSD, the top SATA Express connector will be entirely disabled—not usable by either SATA Express or SATA devices. The bottom SATA Express connector is always enabled, though, and it can be used with either SATA Express devices or SATA devices.
With those two M.2 slots and the Z170's support for RAID arrays across PCIe SSDs, the Gaming M5 is primed for ludicrous storage bandwidth. Builders may find that the DMI link between the chipset and the processor is the next bottleneck, though. Despite this link's upgrade to PCIe Gen3 speeds (versus the Gen2 speeds used by the DMI2 link of the Z97 chipset), it's still based on just four PCIe lanes, so it has a maximum potential bandwidth of 32 Gb/s (4 GB/s).
The Gaming M5's rear port cluster continues the board's red theme. Several of the ports are clad in red, and the Gigabit Ethernet controller's RJ45 port also has a red LED embedded within. Never fear, though—despite the gamer-friendly color and lighting scheme, my tests showed that more mundane, non-gaming packets passed through the port unhindered.
To the left, MSI provides a lone PS/2 port for keyboards or mice. Original Model M keyboards the world over click in approval. Two USB 2.0 ports can also be found below the PS/2 port, and four more USB 2.0 ports are available through two internal headers.
Rear USB 3.0 connectivity comes in the form of four ports, each linked directly to the chipset. Two more USB 3.0 ports are available via a right-angled internal header. MSI uses a USB repeater chip to ensure a clean signal with longer front-panel USB 3.0 cables.
Finally, for the latest hotness from USB town, MSI taps ASMedia's ASM1142 controller for USB 3.1 connectivity. The Gaming M5 has both USB 3.1 Type A and Type C ports. This controller is connected to two of the chipset's PCIe lanes.
For buyers looking to use Skylake's integrated GPU, the Gaming M5 offers a DVI-D port and an HDMI port. HDMI support comes courtesy of NXP's PTN3360DBS controller, which supports HDMI 1.4b. Folks with discrete graphics cards don't have to worry about the onboard display outputs, of course.
To balance out the red-and-black color scheme we've seen all over, we've broken out our crayons to give you some wild colors in our port diagram:
Since this is a gaming-focused motherboard, MSI has foregone Intel's Gigabit Ethernet controllers in favor of a Killer E2400 chip. The Killer comes with traffic prioritization software that claims to improve ping times under conditions where multiplayer games are competing with other applications for bandwidth. While packet prioritization is nice in theory, it doesn't help if the network congestion is occurring at some point outside of the PC. MSI also tells us that their LAN Protect feature provides anti-surge protection up to 15KV to the Ethernet port.
MSI dubs the Z170A Gaming M5's audio implementation "Audio Boost 3." The underlying codec is Realtek's familiar ALC1150 backed by dual TI OPA1652 headphone amplifiers and high-end Nippon Chemi-Con audio capacitors.
Component selection is only part of the picture when it comes to onboard audio, though. Just as important is the analog signal quality itself. Thankfully, MSI has taken steps to ensure that the analog audio signals are as noise-free as possible. The audio circuitry and components are isolated to their own section of the board, and the audio codec is further isolated underneath a black EMI shield.
Overall, the Gaming M5's analog output was pleasing. My ears didn't detect any unwanted noise under a variety of load and idle conditions. For those who want to bypass the board's analog audio implementation, MSI provides an optical S/PDIF out port on the rear port cluster. Just be aware that there's no real-time DTS mojo for multi-channel digital output. Surround-sound virtualization is available through the bundled Nahimic audio software, though, along with many other audio enhancement features. We'll cover Nahimic in more detail in the software section of the review.
Next to the firmware's flash chip is an SPI header that can be used to re-flash the firmware with the right equipment, a common sight on MSI boards. This arrangement isn't as nice as having a socketed firmware chip, but it's better than nothing. One feature of MSI's more costly Z170 boards that isn't found on the Gaming M5 is BIOS Flashback+. Although it's not a feature that gets used every day, BIOS Flashback+ lets builders update their firmware with nothing more than a USB thumb drive and a power supply. That feature could save you from having to borrow a supported CPU to flash to an updated firmware.
Another gripe is MSI's omission of a front-panel wiring block. To makes matters worse, the board has no silk-screened markings beyond "JFP1". With no on-board guidance, you'll be visiting the user manual for a pinout of the front panel connector.
It's not all bad news on the niceties front, though. MSI includes some good DIY-friendly features. An XMP LED, between the DIMM slots and the ATX power connector, illuminates when your memory is running with an XMP profile enabled. MSI includes a high-quality cushioned I/O shield rather than a nasty stamped metal one. A two-digit diagnostic display in the bottom right-hand corner of the board shows debug codes when the system boots. It also displays the temperature of the processor package once the system is fully booted. Admittedly, this display is most useful in systems built inside windowed cases, but I really like this feature. Best of all, the display is completely OS-agnostic: no drivers or utility software are needed to make it work.
The Gaming M5 also includes a handful of features suited for extreme overclockers. A set of voltage monitoring points resides at the top right-hand edge of the board, next to the DIMM slots. All the way down at the other end of the board is a "slow-mode" switch that caps the CPU multiplier at 8X. While these features may be of limited use to most builders, it's certainly not a negative to have them included.
Last, and perhaps least—sorry, U.S. Robotics 56K modem in my cupboard—is a lone serial port header at the bottom of the board. This port, along with the PS/2 port on the rear cluster, are the only legacy interfaces that the Gaming M5 supports. I'm certainly not complaining, though. Serial ports can come in handy, though perhaps not so much on a dragon-branded gaming board.
Now that we've well and truly covered the Gaming M5 from a hardware perspective, let's look at the board's softer side.