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.
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.
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.
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.
A given processor’s maximum stable frequency is mostly determined by the limitations of that particular chip—which we know as the silicon lottery—and the CPU cooler one straps on top. Still, whether your particular CPU is the golden child of the wafer or the runt of the litter, you want a motherboard that makes the process of finding out as painless as possible.
We put the Z170A Gaming M5 through the wringer with a Core i7-6700K CPU, which we cooled with Cooler Master Nepton’s 240M. The Nepton has a 240-mm radiator and a $110 asking price, so it’s probably at the high end of the range of coolers one might see in a system built around the Gaming M5. That said, it should do a good job of keeping our four Skylake cores from getting too warm.
The first stop on our overclocking journey was MSI’s Gaming App. After enabling OC Mode, we were asked to restart the system. Prior to the appearance of the firmware splash screen, we were notified that Game Boost was enabled and that it wasn’t recommended to do any modifications under the BIOS OC Menu. The system also warned us against updating the BIOS or clearing the CMOS. So noted.
Upon booting back into Windows, we were greeted with a 4.4GHz clock speed. All Turbo multipliers were set to 44x with the base clock at its default 100MHz. To support these speeds, the CPU was being fed 1.25V. OC Mode also bumped our memory speeds up to 2666MHz. This configuration unfortunately wasn’t stable—Prime95 produced errors instantly.
Knowing full well that my chosen stability test, Prime95, is a worst-case scenario, curiosity got the better of me and I tried a multithreaded Cinebench run with these overclocked settings. That test successfully ran to completion. While these settings weren’t stable by my usual definition, the pre-baked profile that OC Mode enables may be stable enough for others who run less demanding workloads.
Next, we enabled MSI’s Game Boost setting directly. This feature can be enabled either via the Command Center utility or via the firmware. Enabling it in either place results in a restart before the changes take effect.
Unsurprisingly, enabling Game Boost this way gave us the exact same 4.4GHz clock speed and 1.25V core voltage that the Gaming App’s OC Mode bestowed. As expected, history repeated itself and Prime95 found errors as soon as a run was started, while multithreaded Cinebench ran successfully.
With our short list of auto-overclocking options exhausted, it was time to turn off the autopilot and see what we could do with manual tuning. We started out, as we usually do, by tweaking the multiplier alone. We left all of the voltages at their “auto” defaults.
Beginning with a 42x multiplier, we didn’t get very far. Running Prime95 only pushed our CPU clock speeds to 4.0GHz. Some investigation with Intel’s XTU showed throttling due to the current draw limit. A quick trip back to the firmware to raise the CPU Current Limit config option to 256A—the maximum—got us our desired 4.2GHz clock speed. With these settings, the firmware was supplying our CPU with 1.176V. Prime95 still wasn’t happy, though—within a few minutes, we saw some errors. Once again, Cinebench successfully completed its rendering test.
At this point, it was obvious that the firmware’s “auto” voltage settings were being too conservative for our torturous Prime95 stress test, so we took control of both the multiplier and the core voltage. Throwing caution to the wind, we also upped both the short and long duration power limit options in the firmware to their maximums. This was no time for seat belts. Despite burning our safety net, we had a good set of monitoring tools on hand with XTU and Command Center.
Using Prime95 as our stress tester, we slowly upped the offset voltage until we reached a stable configuration. We then increased the multiplier, rinsed, and repeated. We reached the end of the road at a 45x multplier and 4.5GHz. Those speeds were reached with a core voltage offset of 0.170V, for an actual voltage of 1.344V. With these settings, Prime95 was completely stable, no throttling occurred, and CPU temperatures peaked at 73 ºC.
While 4.5GHz was perfectly stable, no amount of voltage could get us through a Prime95 stress test at 4.6GHz. We got Prime95 errors within 15 minutes. That result is within 100MHz of what Asus’ Z170-A was able to extract from our Core i7-6700K sample using the same Nepton 240M cooler, so not a lot of performance was left on the table.
Z170-based boards feature a revised reference clock architecture that decouples the PCIe and DMI bus speeds from the base clock. This setup allows one to tweak the base clock without having to worry about running other system devices out of spec. While it’s much easier to overclock using multipliers alone, we ran a quick test to see how the Gaming M5 fared when overclocking with base clock tuning. We first tried 200MHz in the firmware, leaving everything else on “auto.” The system booted perfectly, and our CPU was stable at 4.2GHz:
Pushing for a base clock of 250MHz was too much: our system failed to post. Thankfully, the firmware caught this error and loaded safe defaults.
Given the Gaming M5’s limited auto-overclocking functionality, this board is more suited to seasoned tweakers who know their way around the firmware than newbies just starting out. Both the pre-baked CPU overclocking profile of Game Boost and the firmware’s “auto” voltage settings gave us conservative configurations that aren’t always stable. When we moved over to manual overclocking, turning the screws on our Core i7-6700K was smooth and easy once we upped the power and current limits in the firmware to prevent throttling.
Since many chipset functions now reside on the CPU die, and considering that there’s only a handful of third-party peripheral controllers out there, we rarely see meaningful performance differences between motherboards these days. That said, we still test system performance with different motherboards, if for no other reason than to ensure everything is functioning correctly.
When it comes to testing motherboard performance, we’ve usually gathered benchmark results using the CPU’s peak stock memory multipliers. Since DDR4 is so new, however, and Skylake’s 2133MHz maximum stock DDR4 speed is so conservative, we’ve continued a practice we began with our X99 reviews. We test our Z170 boards with the memory clocked at the highest speed we can attain while keeping the CPU at its stock clocks.
We tested MSI’s Z170A Gaming M5 against Asus’ Z170-A, which I also recently reviewed. Both boards were able to clock our DDR4 DIMMs up to 3000MHz while maintaining stock CPU clocks, so the results below were gathered with these settings.
MSI’s Z170A Gaming M5 trades blows with the Asus Z170-A. In some tests, the MSI board comes out on top by a small margin, while Asus’ mobo wins in others, but the differences between the boards are small in each test. Even boot times are close:
Unlike our performance results, one’s choice of motherboard can have a notable impact on power consumption. We measured total system power draw (sans monitor and speakers) at the wall socket with our test system idling for a period of five minutes at the Windows desktop and then under a full load of Cinebench rendering with the Unigine Valley demo running concurrently.
Although MSI’s board isn’t as efficient as Asus’, it consumes less than 10W more, which is a pittance in the context of a complete system. That delta is too small to have a dramatic impact on system temperatures and noise levels inside a typical desktop rig.
The following page is loaded with detailed motherboard specifications, system configurations, and test procedures. If you’re thinking of taking this opportunity to head straight to the conclusion, be sure to go back and study the tables on the next page—you don’t want to fail any upcoming TR pop quizzes.
Okay, so maybe we’re not going to have pop quizzes right away. But, you don’t want to be caught unprepared if we start, do you?
We’ve already gone over the Z170A Gaming M5’s most important details, but for completeness, here’s the full spec breakdown.
|Platform||Intel Z170, socket LGA1151|
|DIMM slots||4 DDR4, 64GB max|
|Expansion slots||2 PCIe 3.0 x16 via CPU (x16/x0 or x8/x8)
1 PCIe 3.0 x16 via Z170 (x4 or x1)
4 PCIe 3.0 x1 via Z170 (only one available if above slot is x4)
|Storage I/O||2 SATA Express via Z170
2 SATA RAID 6Gbps via Z170
2 M.2 up to type 2280 via Z170 (SATA and PCIe)
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC1150 with dual TI OPA1652 headphone amplifiers
Surround virtualization via Nahimic audio enhancer
|Ports||1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
1 DVI-D via CPU
1 HDMI 1.4b via CPU (and NXP PTN3360DBS)
2 USB 3.1 (1 Type A and 1 Type C) via ASMedia ASM1142
4 USB 3.0 via Z170
2 USB 3.0 via internal header and Z170
2 USB 2.0 via Z170
4 USB 2.0 via internal headers and Z170
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Killer E2400
1 analog microphone in
4 configurable analog ports
1 digital S/PDIF output
|Overclocking||All/per-core Turbo multiplier: 8-83X
Base clock: 70-655MHz
CPU Graphics ratio: 8-60X
Ring ratio: 8-83X
DRAM reference clock: 100,133
DRAM frequency: 800-4133MHz
CPU voltage: 0.6-2.155V
CPU graphics voltage: 0.6-2.155V
CPU IO voltage: 0.6-2.0V
CPU system agent voltage: 0.6-2.0V
CPU PLL OC voltage: 0.6-1.5V
CPU PLL SFR voltage: 0.9-1.5V
CPU ST PLL voltage: 0.6-2.0V
DRAM voltage: 0.6-2.2V
PCH core voltage: 0.6-2.0V
|Fan control||2 x CPU (PWM), 3 x SYS (DC)
Manual Mode to set fan speed by percentage
Smart Mode profiles with four temp/speed points per fan
Our testing methods
As a reward for making it this far, you may now gaze upon our test system:
Performance testing and overclocking were carried out on an open-air testbed. We also installed the machine in Antec’s P380 full tower case, which Jeff reviewed a while back. Here’s what the system looked like assembled and powered on:
We used the following configurations for testing:
|Processor||Intel Core i7-6700K|
|Cooler||Cooler Master Nepton 240M|
|Motherboard||MSI Z170A Gaming M5||Asus Z170-A|
|Platform hub||Intel Z170|
|Audio||Realtek ALC1150||Realtek ALC892|
|Memory size||8GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4 SDRAM at 3000MHz|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost with Catalyst 15.7 drivers|
|Storage||OCZ ARC 100 120GB|
|Power Supply||Cooler Master V750 Semi-Modular|
|Operating System||Microsoft Windows 8.1 Pro x64|
Thanks to Antec, Cooler Master, Corsair, and OCZ for providing the hardware used in our test systems. Thanks, also, to the motherboard makers for providing the boards.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- 7-Zip 9.20 64-bit
- TrueCrypt 7.1a
- Chrome 40.0.2214.115
- x264 r2431
- DiRT Showdown demo
- Fraps 3.5.99
- Cinebench R15
- Unigine Valley 1.0
Some further notes on our test methods:
- All testing was conducted with motherboard power-saving options enabled. These features can sometimes lead to slightly slower performance, particularly in peripheral tests that don’t cause the CPU to kick into high gear. We’d rather get a sense of motherboard performance with real-world configurations, though; we’re not as interested in comparing contrived setups with popular features disabled.
- DiRT Showdown was tested with ultra detail settings, 4X MSAA, and a 1920×1200 display resolution. We used Fraps to log a 60-second snippet of gameplay from the demo’s first race. To offset the fact that our gameplay sequence can’t be repeated exactly, we ran this test five times on each system.
- Power consumption was measured at the wall socket for the complete system, sans monitor and speakers, using a Watts Up Pro power meter. The full-load test combined Cinebench’s multithreaded CPU rendering test with the Unigine Valley DirectX 11 demo, which we ran with extreme settings in a 1280×720 window. We then recorded the peak power consumption during the Cinebench run. Our idle measurement represents the low over a five-minute period sitting at the Windows desktop.
- Our system build was performed using all of the hardware components listed in the configuration table above. Completing this process as our readers would allows us to easily identify any pain points that arise from assembling a system with this particular motherboard.
The tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. All tests except power consumption, were run at least three times. Unless otherwise indicated, we reported the median result for each test. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
MSI’s Z170A Gaming M5 has lots of appealing characteristics. The board takes full advantage of the bounty of I/O built into the Z170 chipset. We’re happy to see dual M.2 slots fed with quad PCIe Gen3 lanes alongside dual SATA Express ports. USB 3.1 connectivity is available by way of Type A and Type C ports. The dual PCIe x16 slots linked to the CPU’s Gen3 lanes are spaced to allow a pair of double-slot video cards one slot worth of breathing room. And the Gaming M5’s PCIe slots are reinforced with metal shrouds to prevent damage from stress and strain.
Excellent fan speed controls reside both in the board’s firmware and in MSI’s Command Center Windows software. Once the system has booted, the onboard two-digit diagnostic display shows the CPU’s temperature. Built-in voltage measurement points let overclockers measure board parameters directly, if you want to get your multimeter in on the action.
Then come the board’s gaming-oriented perks, like a year-long premium license for XSplit’s Gamecaster and Broadcaster software. The bundled Nahimic software offers surround-sound virtualization and other audio enhancements. Killer’s E2400 Ethernet controller and its packet-prioritization software could provide improved network performance during heavy gaming sessions. Killer NICs seem to polarize folks, so depending on your preference, this feature may or may not be a point in the board’s favor.
There is one annoying omission from the Gaming M5’s arsenal. Front-panel wiring blocks like Asus’ are nowhere to be seen. Given that there are no silkscreened pinout markings on the board, MSI should really include one. Another shortcoming is limited support for automatic overclocking: the board’s built-in profiles weren’t stable under our heaviest testing loads, so the Gaming M5 might not be the most newbie-friendly choice. We got better—and more stable—overclocking results by taking matters into our own hands.
With its $180 price tag, the Z170A Gaming M5 costs a little more than other mid-range Z170 boards. If you’re a builder who needs as much room for next-gen storage as you can get, this board is definitely worth a look. For everyone else, provided that you see value in all of the gaming-focused add-ons and don’t mind a board with limited automatic overclocking support, the Z170A Gaming M5 should serve as a solid basis for a Skylake build.