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Firmware
MSI's Z170 family of boards ship with the latest iteration of the company's Click BIOS UEFI-based firmware, dubbed "Click BIOS 5." The firmware is very similar to that of MSI's Z97 and X99 boards. This isn't a bad thing, though, because the interface is both good-looking and easy to use.

The firmware presents two interfaces to the user: a novice-friendly EZ Mode and a full-featured Advanced Mode. Upon entering the firmware for the first time, you're greeted with the EZ Mode interface:

The EZ Mode interface gives users one-click access to settings like boot device priorities, XMP profiles, the baked-in Game Boost overclocking profile, and a handful of other options. An array of five buttons along the left-hand side governs what information is shown in the central region of the interface.

The BIOS Log Review button provides a handy summary of any changes made during a tuning session. You'll also get this summary upon exiting the firmware. This change log is a great feature that should be standard across all boards.

If you tweak certain settings often, a "favorites" menu can be pulled up using the heart icon in the top right corner of the interface or through a dedicated button in the bottom left corner of EZ Mode. These menus can be loaded with options pulled from anywhere in the firmware: just right-click on an option and select which favorite you'd like that option to become in the menu.

Advanced Mode is where most readers will probably spend the bulk of their time. Here, we find platform configuration options grouped under the Settings menu and overclocking options under the OC menu.

The OC menu provides no shortage of options for users to tweak their systems. Just set the "OC Explore Mode" to Expert, and you can wander through options for multipliers, frequencies, and what feels like an inordinate number of memory timing controls. There are loads of configurable voltages, too. The menus offer three modes for feeding the CPU cores and integrated graphics: manual, offset, and adaptive. Most values can be keyed in manually, and navigation is a breeze.

MSI has some of the best firmware-based fan controls we've seen, and the company's Z170 boards continue this tradition. Fan controls are found in the Hardware Monitor function, where individual profiles for two CPU fans and three system spinners can be configured.

Each profile has four points that can be clicked and dragged to define the response curve. The temperature-based control scheme is limited to four-pin PWM fans attached to the CPU headers. The three system fan headers can drive both three- and four-pin fans—but only in DC (or voltage control) mode.

At first glance, you might think that the checkboxes for CPU and system temperatures alter the reference temperature for each profile. Unfortunately, those checkboxes merely change the source for the real-time tracker displayed on the graph.

One firmware feature that could come in handy is the Board Explorer. This window shows a graphical guide for the board's various onboard devices, as well as information about the hardware connected to each socket, slot, and port. That information could come in handy for both newbies and enthusiasts. And let's admit: an interactive overlay for your motherboard is kinda cool in its own right.

Since the Z170 chipset drops support for full USB 2.0 Enhanced Host Controller Interface (EHCI) mode, installing Windows 7 on these boards is a little tricky. That's why MSI includes a "Windows 7 Installation" firmware option under Windows OS Configuration in the Advanced sub-menu of the Settings menu. Purportedly, all users need to do is enable this setting, plug a keyboard and mouse into the USB ports beneath the PS/2 port, and kick off the Win7 install. Once that's done, users need only to install the XHCI drivers before disabling the setting.

Overall, the firmware of MSI's Z170A Gaming M5 is excellent. It's well laid-out and easy-to-use, and it provides a wealth of configuration options. It does have a few questionable default settings, though. First, the processor's C1E sleep states are disabled by default. These can easily be re-enabled by heading over to the CPU Features section of the OC Menu, but it would be nice if the defaults were based on real-world use cases, rather than ones that might boost performance in synthetic storage tests at the expense of increased power consumption.

Some modern motherboards tend to take liberties with Turbo multipliers, too. Usually, that silent sleight-of-hand occurs when a user enables an XMP profile. I imagine the XMP config option's inner voice to be something like "Enabling an XMP profile, are we? Hmmm. They must be after some real speed. I know some config options over in core multiplier land. I'm gonna hook them up with some sweet juiced-up Turbo multipliers. They're gonna love this!"

Well, we don't. When we enable an XMP profile, the firmware runs our Core i7-6700K at 4.2GHz with all cores engaged—200MHz higher than the stock Turbo speed for all-core loads. While most CPUs can probably tolerate this bump in clock speed, overclocking the chip without telling the user is definitely the wrong way of helping them out. The fact that other motherboards behave similarly doesn't excuse the practice. Thankfully, this "helpful" behavior can be disabled by disabling the "Enhanced Turbo" option under Misc Setting in the OC Menu.

My final and admittedly very minor complaint is that while cursor tracking in the firmware is generally nice and smooth, the cursor has a tendency to flicker when dragging around UI elements like scroll bars or config options.

With that, we're at the end of our deep dive into the Gaming M5's firmware. On the next page, we'll look into the smorgasbord of software that comes with the board.