Pick a utility, any utility
Compared to firmware UIs of years gone by, modern motherboards have interfaces that are accessible to users of all experience levels. Some users still prefer to tweak their systems from within Windows, though. If that's what you're after, MSI provides you with numerous options. The simplest of these is MSI's Gaming App. Enabling OC mode activates the pre-baked CPU overclocking profile, Game Boost, which we saw in the firmware earlier. This utility should automatically overclock any MSI graphics cards connected to the system, as well.
The Gaming App has two other modes. Gaming Mode forces the CPU clock speed to its maximum value, so core frequencies will bounce between the all-core Turbo speed and the 1-core Turbo speed, depending on the load. Silent Mode, on the other hand restores CPU clock frequencies to their default values.
The Gaming HotKey function of MSI's Gaming App allows you to map user-defined hot keys to increase or decrease the base clock in 0.1MHz increments. On the Gaming M5, this functionality is software-based, so pressing your associated key will call up MSI's Command Center to do the work. Another nifty little feature is the ability to overlay real-time stats like the CPU's frequency, temperature, and load, along with an FPS counter and more, on games.
MSI's more in-depth Command Center utility is loaded with other tweaking options. It can't overclock MSI graphics cards, though. Command Center's options are grouped under four tabs: CPU, DRAM, IGP, and Game Boost.
Command Center's CPU tab gives access to individual core multipliers, the base clock speed, fan controls, and the CPU voltage. The fan controls offer identical functionality to what's available in the firmware, but the Windows app adds a calibration routine that gauges the speed range of any connected fans. The DRAM tab allows control over memory voltages, and it displays the current memory frequency. Memory clocks can't be altered in Command Center, however. The IGP tab houses controls for the frequency and voltage of Skylake's integrated GPU. Those features are only enabled when the IGP is in use, though. Finally, Game Boost lets users activate the same pre-baked CPU overclocking profile that the MSI Gaming App's OC Mode uses.
Clicking the advanced button reveals additional options for voltages, DRAM timings, and a real-time virtual thermal image of your motherboard. Each of these choices pops up a new window. For example:
Most values can be keyed in directly in both these pop-up windows and in the main UI, which can speed up the tweaking process for power users.
Command Center has separate hardware monitoring and logging windows under Information and Settings, respectively, that keep tabs on voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures. Historical logs can be saved and retrieved via the software, but there's no provision to export those results in an easily digestible format like a CSV file.
These days, no self-respecting motherboard comes to market without a smartphone app, or at least that's how it seems. To that end, Command Center has Mobile Control functionality. This feature pairs the Command Center Android or iOS app with the Command Center software running on your system.
Since Mobile Control is a function of Command Center, the software has to be running for all of the mobile features to work. If it's not running for some reason, the mobile app can start Command Center remotely. Once it's connected, a device with Command Center can send virtual keyboard and mouse input to a PC, along with various media-related commands. The mobile Command Center can also remotely overclock and monitor your system, and it can even trigger a system restart, shutdown, or CMOS reset. I'm not sure that I like the sound of that last one.
Regardless, the app provides access to a decent array of multipliers, clock speeds, and voltages. The remote CPU multiplier controls are limited to a single all-core ratio, though, and the fan options are restricted to static speeds of 50%, 75%, or 100%.
Overclocking one's PC using a smartphone is a fun exercise, although I'm not sure I'd continue doing it once the novelty wore off. I would keep using the Android app to monitor things like system temperatures, fan speeds, and voltages, though. It would be nice if the mobile app integrated with Command Center's warning system. The Windows utility pops up alert messages when key system parameters deviate from acceptable (and configurable) ranges, but these warnings are not passed on to the mobile client.
Allocating a slice of system memory to storage was the cool thing to do way back when. I guess some folks are still into it today, since MSI has bundled RAM disk software with the Gaming M5. Since SSDs offer nearly instantaneous access times at a much lower cost per gigabyte, this feature seems like kind of a waste outside of the competitive benchmarking realm.
Nevertheless, the RAM disk software works perfectly. Just assign a drive letter, choose a filesystem, select a disk size, and away you go. You can even arrange for the RAM disk to be persistent—the utility will back up the drive's contents at regular intervals, and they'll be restored on boot.
Fast Boot is a small, but useful, utility that allows the firmware's fast boot mode to be enabled and disabled. Not only that, it also provides a convenient software shortcut to reboot the system directly into the firmware. This provision is especially important because with fast boot enabled, no amount of Del key mashing on boot will get you into the firmware.
On the audio front, MSI includes "audio enhancement" software by Nahimic. Along with the expected Virtual Surround option, this utility provides five more tunable audio effects. Three different profiles are already set up for music, gaming, and movies, and they can be further tuned to taste if needed. The remaining two tabs control microphone effects and streaming effects, respectively.
Another perk of the Gaming M5's gaming focus is a one-year premium license for XSplit. This license covers both the Gamecaster and Broadcaster utilities. It would be interesting to know how many buyers actually end up using this bundled license, but free is free, so it's all good.
Command Center isn't the only Windows tweaking utility that MSI ships with the Z170A Gaming M5. An MSI-branded version of Intel's Extreme Tuning Utility is also included. This tool is loaded with CPU and memory options, but its control of the system's base clock tops out at 100MHz, and it lacks fan speed controls altogether.
Bundling XTU is a little redundant, but it does provide enhanced monitoring for important values like the package TDP and the various limits that can induce throttling: temperature, power, current, and motherboard voltage regulation. Seeing these values in real-time can help to keep things under control when overclocking.
Speaking of overclocking, let's see how the Gaming M5 stacks up.