MSI’s Z170A SLI Plus motherboard reviewed

Gaming, overclocking, small-form-factor, eco-friendly. MSI’s desktop motherboard lineup has you covered, no matter what your needs may be. What about the venerable “all-rounder,” though? You know, what the desktop motherboard was before we had all this choice. A board for that build that’s going to let you get some work done, play some games, maybe watch some movies, and if you’re feeling like it, partake in some overclocking fun.

Enter MSI’s Pro series of motherboards. These mainstream offerings come with everything you need for a stable high performance build and none of the superfluous extras that add unnecessary cost to a board. MSI’s Z170A SLI Plus is a good manifestation of this ideal. It’s a full-sized ATX board that sports an LGA1151 socket for Skylake CPU goodness, backed up with the enthusiast-friendly Z170 chipset. All that can be had for $139.99 online right now.

At a full 9.6″ wide (24.4 cm), the Z170A SLI Plus feels quite spacious. This width also lets MSI make use of all nine ATX mounting holes. If builders need to apply pressure to the Z170A SLI Plus, its PCB won’t flex like some narrower ATX motherboards might.

MSI kept things simple when it designed this board. The splash of gold from the audio caps aside, not a shred of bright color can be seen anywhere on the board. Just a few silver accents stand out from the matte-black PCB. I like the look. Now, if only I could find an excuse to build a film-noir-themed system…

The Skylake platform puts CPU voltage regulation back in the hands of the motherboard makers. The fully-integrated voltage regulator (FIVR) used by Haswell chips has fallen out of favor at Intel. MSI answers the call with 11 power phases, the chokes of which can be seen just next to the two VRM heatsinks. Like many other MSI boards, the Z170A SLI Plus uses “military spec” components. Fancy MIL-SPEC certifications aside, the caps and chokes continue the blacked-out look.

The VRM heatsinks are closer to the CPU socket than we’d like. Thankfully, at only 27 mm tall at their tallest point, they’re unlikely to cause issues for larger CPU coolers. These heatsinks are held in place with screws, a choice that we prefer over flimsy push-pins. Screws not only ensure better heatsink contact with the components beneath, 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 SLI Plus 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 furthest 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 compatibility 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:

The chipset heatsink is a low-profile affair that does a good job of both staying out of the way and cooling the Z170 silicon below it. Thanks to a 22nm manufacturing process, the chipset only needs to dissipate a mere 6W. Like the VRM heatsinks, the chipset heatsink is secured to the board with screws rather than push pins.

Four fan headers can be found 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. Perhaps because of this extra clearance, MSI uses locking mechanisms on both sides of the DIMM slots rather than the one-sided snap-in mechanism that’s become more and more common for memory slots these days.

The Z170A SLI Plus gives builders three PCIe x16 slots. When one graphics card is installed in the left-most silver slot, all sixteen of a Skylake CPU’s PCIe Gen3 lanes are routed to that slot. Those wanting to partake in some dual-GPU fun should use the two silver slots. With two cards installed, each will get eight PCIe Gen3 lanes from the CPU. The black x16 slot at the far right in the picture above is fed by four Gen3 lanes from the chipset.

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 is more than just some bling. Similar to the Z170A Gaming M5 that we looked at a bit back, MSI has once again reinforced the PCIe slots with metal shrouds that are soldered to the board at multiple points. This setup should reduce the chance of damage to the slots if you’re transporting a system that has a massive video card, but we’d still recommend removing any expansion cards rather than chancing damage to the board with a bump or jostle.

Peppered around those three x16 PCIe slots are three open-ended PCIe x1 slots. All three connect directly to Gen3 lanes from the Z170 chipset. In theory, open-ended x1 slots like these allow the installation of higher-lane-count PCIe expansion cards—provided the adapter can work with just one lane. In the case of the SLI Plus, however, only two of the x1 slots can realistically accept longer cards. The rightmost x1 slot abuts the CMOS battery, and if you’ve installed an 80-mm M.2 SSD on the board, all of the space behind the leftmost slot will be occupied.

For easy reference, here’s a diagram of the SLI Plus’ PCIe lane routing and expansion slots:

This 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 four-lane PCIe x16 slot.

Now that we’ve mapped out the Z170A SLI Plus’ expansion slots, it’s time to move on to the board’s storage subsystem.

 

Storage, sound, and lots of legacy

The SLI Plus’ SATA ports all reside in its bottom-right corner, along with its USB 3.0 internal header.

MSI has foregone SATA Express connectivity on this board. Instead, it’s opted for six regular SATA 6Gbps ports. That decision doesn’t really bother us, since there are practically no SATA Express storage devices on the market. It would have been nice if all of the SATA ports were right-angled, though, especially in the age of lengthy graphics cards. At least the leftmost internal USB 3.0 header is right-angled. That design choice should prevent the bulky USB 3.0 front-panel cable in most cases from interfering with longer graphics cards.

The Z170A SLI Plus ticks the next-gen storage box with a single M.2 slot, found between the topmost PCIe x16 slot and the CPU socket. Unfortunately, this position places the installed SSD between two potentially large heat producers. This heat 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. Still, this slot position is better than putting an M.2 SSD directly under a graphics card.

The M.2 slot accepts mini-SSDs up to 80 mm long, but only PCIe SSDs will work here—SATA gumstick drives need not apply. 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. This adapter is sold separately.

The four Gen3 lanes that feed the M.2 slot provide it with up to 32 Gb/s (4 GB/s) of bandwidth. Those are some impressive numbers, to be sure. That said, the DMI link between the processor and the chipset is itself a highway made of four Gen3 lanes. That link puts an upper limit on all of the board’s storage connectivity, including the third x16 slot.

The Z170 chipset provides immense flexibility to motherboard manufacturers, thanks to its 26 multi-purpose, high-speed I/O lanes. Up to twenty of these can be used as PCIe Gen3. In a nice change of pace however, the Z170A SLI Plus has no sharing of lanes between different storage ports. Any port or header you see on the board can be used without limitation. That saves me two paragraphs worth of rather dry writing.

The SLI Plus’ rear port cluster is a mish-mash of old and new. Not only does MSI give us PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports—we also get a VGA output thrown in for good measure. These ports come alongside some brand new hotness in the form of a Type C USB 3.1 port connected to an ASMedia ASM1142 controller. This is a “real” USB 3.1 port, also known as USB 3.1 Gen2. Unlike a lot of other Z170 boards that are equipped with this same ASMedia controller, MSI chose not to include a Type A USB 3.1 port alongside the Type-C connector.

Rounding out the back panel, we get two more USB 3.0 ports from the Z170 chipset Four more USB 3.0 ports are available from two internal headers, one of which is right-angled. The Gigabit Ethernet port is powered by Intel’s I219-V controller. Below this are two USB 2.0 ports, with four more available through two internal headers at the bottom of the board.

For buyers looking to use a Skylake CPU’s integrated graphics processor, the SLI Plus offers a DVI-D port and an HDMI 1.4b port alongside the aforementioned VGA output. Folks with discrete graphics cards don’t have to worry about the onboard display outputs, of course.

The only thing better than walls of text is overly colorful diagrams. We’ve broken out our crayons to draw you this port diagram:

The Z170A SLI Plus’ onboard audio suite relies on Realtek’s familiar ALC1150 codec. That chip is backed by dual TI OP1652 amplifiers and high-end Chemi-Con audio capacitors. MSI calls this implementation “Audio Boost”.

Component selection alone doesn’t ensure superior quality onboard audio, however. 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 left and right channels are split between different PCB layers.

Overall, the SLI Plus’ analog output was pleasing. My ears didn’t detect any unwanted noise under a variety of load and idle conditions: no pops, no hissing, nothing to disturb the listening experience. That’s a good thing, because the Z170A SLI Plus lacks an optical S/PDIF out port.

Just below 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 SLI Plus 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 builders 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. At least the board has silk-screened markings for each of the front-panel headers. You’ll need a flashlight and possibly a magnifying glass to make out the text once the board is installed, but that will hopefully save you a trip to the user manual. The SLI Plus also ships with a standard stamped metal I/O shield, rather than the padded affair we usually get with higher-end boards. Keep a box of Band-Aids handy.

It’s not all bad news on the niceties front, though. MSI includes some good DIY-friendly features. Three LEDs, above the ATX power connector show CPU, memory, and graphics operation during the boot process. This feature, dubbed “EZ Debug LED” can let you quickly and easily identify what is going on during POST. Another useful LED can be found between the DIMM slots and the ATX power connector. This XMP LED illuminates when your memory is running with an XMP profile enabled.

For folks who need legacy I/O options, the SLI Plus puts in an impressive showing. Not only do we get a serial port header, but we’ve also got parallel port support. MSI doesn’t include the actual bracket headers, though, so you’ll have to dig through that “miscellaneous cables” box until you find some. It’s nice to know that my trusty duo of an HP Laserjet 4 and U.S. Robotics 56K modem aren’t going to be left out in the cold with Skylake, at least.

Now that we’ve well and truly covered the SLI Plus from a hardware perspective, let’s look at the board’s softer side.

 

Firmware noir

Just like the Z170A Gaming M5 that we reviewed last year, the SLI Plus features the latest iteration of MSI’s Click BIOS UEFI firmware—Click BIOS 5. The biggest difference between what we see on the SLI Plus compared to the Gaming M5 is that the former has traded in the red-and-black color scheme of the latter for a decidedly film-noir feel, with an almost completely black-and-white visual style. Our impressions remain the same though: 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 OC Genie 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 the favorite group you want to assign that item to. The firmware provides five such groups to toy with.

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 a never-ending array 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 continues its tradition of excellent firmware-based fan controls with the Z170A SLI Plus. These 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 to the left 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. This could be useful for both newbies and enthusiasts. And let’s admit: an interactive overlay for your motherboard is kinda cool in its own right.

Overall, the SLI Plus’ firmware is excellent. It’s well laid-out and easy-to-use, and it provides a wealth of configuration options. Some of its default settings are questionable, 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.

Configuration options that silently apply other tweaks behind the user’s back are another evil we must deal with on some modern motherboards. The SLI Plus, just like its Gaming M5 sibling, takes liberties with Turbo multipliers. The sleight-of-hand at issue occurs when the user enables an XMP profile. Instead of simply applying the faster memory profile, the firmware also runs our Core i7-6700K at 4.2GHz with all cores engaged—200MHz higher than the stock Turbo speed for all-core loads. Worst of all, it does so without providing any indication to the user that it “helped them out” with some free performance. 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 Settings in the OC Menu.

With that, my short list of gripes about the SLI Plus’ firmware comes to an end. On the next page, we’ll look into the Windows software that comes with the board.

 

Software

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’s Command Center utility should be your first stop.

Command Center is loaded with tweaking options. Those buttons and dials are grouped under four tabs: CPU, DRAM, IGP, OC Genie 4, and USB. The 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.

OC Genie lets users activate the same pre-baked CPU overclocking profile that the firmware’s OC Genie setting uses. If you’re using a Core i7-6700K, you’ll be running at 4.4GHz all-core Turbo, while Core i5-6600K owners will get bumped to 4.1GHz all-core Turbo speeds.

Finally, Command Center’s USB tab lets users enable “USB 3.1 speed up” mode. MSI let us know that this setting adjusts some options in the firmware to improve USB storage device performance. My original guess that this enabled UASP for the ASMedia USB 3.1 controller wasn’t correct.

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.

With the ubiquity of smartphones today, motherboard makers have started to turn those devices into handy motherboard sidekicks. To achieve this, Command Center has a Mobile Control feature. This pairs the Command Center Android 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 the desktop app isn’t running for some reason, the mobile app can start Command Center remotely. Once it’s connected, a mobile 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. That last one scares me a little.

Regardless, the app provides access to a decent array of multipliers, memory timings, 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 voltages, system temperatures, and fan speeds, 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 aren’t passed on to the mobile client.

Memory prices are back to the near-all-time lows that we saw a few years ago. Even the latest DDR4 can be had for jaw-droppingly low prices. But, what do we do with all that RAM? MSI’s RAM Disk utility might be one answer. SSDs already offer nearly-instantaneous access times at a much lower cost per gigabyte, so turning RAM into semi-persistent, highly vulnerable storage seems like something of a waste outside of the competitive benchmarking realm.

Nevertheless, MSI’s RAM-disk software works perfectly. Just choose 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. Just be sure to not store anything irreplaceable on the RAM disk—DRAM is still volatile, so if your system crashes or loses power, the contents of your RAM disk will be lost.

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. With fast boot enabled, no amount of Del key mashing on power up will get you into the firmware, so this is a helpful option.

Command Center isn’t the only Windows tweaking utility that MSI ships with the Z170A SLI Plus. 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. Let’s see how the Z170A SLI Plus handles the challenges of overclocking now.

 

Overclocking

A given processor’s maximum stable frequency is mostly determined by the limitations of the particular chip on hand—also known as the silicon lottery—and the CPU cooler one straps on top. Still, you want a motherboard that is going to help you along on the path to peak clock speeds, not one that will hinder you.

We put the Z170A SLI Plus to the test with a Core i7-6700K CPU and Cooler Master’s Nepton 240M. The Nepton has a 240-mm radiator, and before it was superseded by the company’s MasterLiquid Pro 240, it had a $110 asking price. This probably puts it toward the high end of the range of coolers one might see in a system built around the SLI Plus. That said, it should do a good job of keeping our four Skylake cores from getting too toasty.

Our tour of the SLI Plus’ overclocking features starts with the OC Genie option in the firmware.

After enabling MSI’s OC Genie and restarting the system, we were greeted with a warning screen. This screen let us know that while OC Genie was enabled, we shouldn’t make any modifications to settings under the BIOS OC Menu. It also warned against updating the BIOS or clearing the CMOS. So noted.

Upon booting into Windows, we were greeted with a 4.4GHz clock speed, as promised by the firmware’s help dialog box. All Turbo multipliers were set to 44x with the base clock at its default 100MHz. To support these speeds, the CPU was being fed 1.312V. This configuration proved to be perfectly stable. Our Prime95 stress test ran with flying colors and no signs of thermal throttling. CPU temperatures peaked at 78°C.

Next, we tried enabling OC Genie from within Windows using the Command Center. Enabling it under Windows required a reboot, and the firmware displayed the same warning message as before. Unsurprisingly, enabling OC Genie this way resulted in exactly the same configuration as enabling it in the firmware.

Having exhausted the board’s limited auto-overclocking options, it was time to turn off the autopilot and see what we could do with manual tuning in the firmware. 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 started by testing stability with Prime95. Increasing just the multiplier, we made it all the way to a stable 4.6GHz. With this clock speed, the firmware’s “auto” voltage setting was supplying 1.384V to the CPU. Under these conditions our Nepton was capably keeping temperatures under control, with a peak of 90°C while running Prime95.

Attempting a 47x multiplier led to thermal throttling almost immediately. The firmware fed our CPU with 1.472V at these settings. That approach seemed a little heavy-handed, so we switched over to manual voltage control in our quest for higher clock speeds.

Starting at 1.39V and a 47x multiplier, we attempted a Prime95 run. One of our worker threads instantly failed with an error. Raising the voltage in 0.01V increments, we were able to run the chip at 1.44V without any Prime95 errors or signs of thermal throttling. Even so, all the extra voltage was causing our Nepton cooler to strain—even with its fans spinning at full speed, CPU temperatures maxed out at 94°C.

Pushing clock speeds higher proved unsuccessful. We ran into Prime95 errors or thermal throttling. Still, 4.7GHz matches the highest overclock we’ve gotten from any other Z170 board with the same i7-6700K and Nepton 240M combo. This is a great result, even if it did take more voltage than I would be comfortable with for long-term use.

Z170-based boards feature a revised reference clock architecture that decouples the PCIe and DMI bus speeds from the base clock. This setup allows tweakers to increase 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 SLI Plus 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:

We then got a little greedier and tried a 250MHz base clock. With all other settings on “auto,” the firmware selected an 8x multiplier for a final clock speed of 2GHz. Manually setting this to 16x brought us to a final stable clock speed of 4GHz:

Throwing caution to the wind, we dialed in a 300MHz base clock, at which point the motherboard failed to POST. Happily, the firmware detected that failure and gave us the option of loading a default configuration or entering the firmware to retract our hubris. Still, a 250MHz base clock maximum is an impressive result.

Overclocking our Skylake CPU was a very smooth process on the Z170A SLI Plus. Tweaking clock speeds and voltages was a breeze in MSI’s firmware. Given the limited auto-overclocking functionality, the board is more suited to seasoned tweakers who know their way around the firmware than for newbies just starting out. That said, the pre-baked CPU overclocking profile provided by OC Genie was perfectly stable, and could prove to be a good starting point for manual tuning.

Now that we’ve found peak stable clock speeds, it’s time to turn our attention towards the SLI Plus’ performance.

 

Performance highlights

Since many traditional chipset functions now reside on the CPU die, and there are only a handful of third-party peripheral controllers out there these days, we rarely see meaningful performance differences between motherboards anymore. That said, we still test system performance when we review motherboards 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 XMP profile speed we can attain while keeping the CPU at its stock clocks.

We tested the Z170A SLI Plus against MSI’s own Z170A Gaming M5, Asus’ Z170-A and ROG Maximus VIII Impact, and Gigabyte’s Z170X-Gaming 7 and Z170X-Gaming G1. All the boards were able to keep our DDR4 DIMMs ticking along at 3000 MT/s while maintaining stock CPU clocks, so the results below were gathered with these settings.

MSI’s Z170A SLI Plus comes out on top in the majority of our benchmarks. The two exceptions are Stream’s copy test and the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark. Stream is a synthetic memory benchmark, so we shouldn’t put too much weight on this result. Likewise, it’s unwise to put too much stock into SunSpider results, because the run-to-run variance of the test is approximately the size of the spread of results.

The SLI Plus boots in almost record time, getting just edged out by Gigabyte’s Z170X-Gaming G1. The difference between most boards only amounts to a couple of seconds, though. Modern operating systems have perfectly functional sleep and hibernate modes, too, so boot times are much less of an issue now.

Power consumption

While one’s choice of motherboard might not affect performance much, it can have a notable impact on power consumption. We measured total system power draw (sans monitor and speakers) at the wall socket for five minutes of idle time at the Windows desktop. We then repeated the test under a full load of Cinebench rendering with the Unigine Valley demo running at the same time.

The SLI Plus has the second-highest power consumption of our motherboard stable at idle. Only the fully-loaded Gigabyte Z170X Gaming G1 draws more power at the Windows desktop. Under load, though, this MSI board almost leads the pack for efficiency—only a single watt separates it from the leader, Asus’ ROG Maximus VIII Impact.

The following page contains all of the detailed motherboard specifications, system configuration details, and test procedures behind everything you’ve read so far. I’m yet to successfully automate the generation of this content so I encourage you to peruse. But, if the tantalizing possibilities of the conclusion are calling you, I trust you’ll come back to soak up the next page at a later time.

 

Detailed specifications

We’ve already gone over the Z170A SLI Plus’ 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)

3 PCIe 3.0 x1 via Z170

Storage I/O 6 SATA RAID 6Gbps via Z170

1 M.2 up to type 2280 via Z170 (PCIe only)

Audio 8-channel HD via Realtek ALC1150 with dual TI OP1652 amplifiers
Wireless NA
Ports 1 PS/2 mouse

1 PS/2 keyboard

1 VGA via CPU

1 DVI-D via CPU

1 HDMI 1.4b via CPU

1 USB 3.1 Gen2 (1 Type C) via ASMedia ASM1142

2 USB 3.0 via Z170

4 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 Intel I219- V

1 analog microphone in

1 analog line in

4 configurable analog ports

Overclocking All/per-core Turbo multiplier: 8-83X

Base clock: 98-341MHz

CPU Graphics ratio: 8-60X

Ring ratio: 8-83X

DRAM reference clock: 100,133

DRAM frequency: 800-4133MHz

CPU voltage: 0.6-1.55V

CPU graphics voltage: 0.6-1.55V

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

Thanks for not skipping this page. As a reward, you may now feast your eyes 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 SLI Plus Asus ROG Maximus VIII Impact Gigabyte Z170X-Gaming G1 Gigabyte Z170X-Gaming 7 MSI Z170A Gaming M5 Asus Z170-A
Firmware 1.40 1302 F4 F5e 1.20 0601
Platform hub Intel Z170
Chipset drivers 10.1.1
Audio Realtek ALC1150 SupremeFX Impact III (ALC1150) Creative Sound Core3D (CA0132) Creative Sound Core3D (CA0132) Realtek ALC1150 Realtek ALC892
Memory size 8GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4 SDRAM at 3000MHz
Memory timings 16-18-18-39-2T
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. Our thanks to the motherboard makers for providing the boards, too.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

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.

 

Conclusions

MSI’s Z170A SLI Plus comes out of our tests looking like a go-to mainstream motherboard for the Z170 chipset. It delivers a solid feature set, polished firmware and Windows utilities, and plenty of overclocking prowess. MSI includes the features that most builders will need without adding unnecessary “checkbox” functionality for its own sake—I’m looking at you, SATA Express. All that’s exactly what I’d want from a mainstream board, and it only requires builders to shell out $140 online.

Aside from my common complaint with regards to motherboard firmwares that silently take liberties with Turbo multipliers, the only real downside I can see for the SLI Plus is its very basic auto-overclocking functionality. When it comes to manual tuning, though, the board leaves nothing to be desired, and it achieved overclocks that hang with much more expensive mobos.

For the seasoned tweakers out there looking for a capable Z170 board, there’s a lot to like here. You get all that the Z170 chipset has to offer, including its bevy of USB 3.0 ports and PCIe lanes, as well as NVMe SSD support. MSI readies this board for next-generation peripherals with a USB Type-C port running at USB 3.1 Gen2 speeds, onboard audio backed by dual amplifiers and Realtek’s high-end ALC1150 codec, and excellent firmware. All those features come at a relatively wallet-friendly price, so it’s easy to call the Z170A SLI Plus TR Recommended.

Comments closed
    • crabjokeman
    • 3 years ago

    Motherboards without exotic components do well on Linux these days, but one sore spot is the sensor chip and fan control. While I’m not demanding a Linux test from non-*nix sites, it would be nice to know what sensor chip this board uses. Thanks.

      • loophole
      • 3 years ago

      This board uses a Nuvoton NCT6793D-M Super I/O controller for sensors. It looks like upstream lm-sensors gained detection support for the NCT6793D in August last year. (sorry about the late reply)

        • crabjokeman
        • 3 years ago

        Thanks

    • ronch
    • 3 years ago

    This reminds me of Space Quest 1.

      • crabjokeman
      • 3 years ago

      Roger, wilco.

    • PerfectCr
    • 3 years ago

    Thanks for the awesome review! I just picked up this board as part of a new build. I actually pulled the trigger based on great reviews from Anandtech and the [H], so I am glad to see my choice validated by my favorite tech site! 😉 Here’s my PC Part Picker build: [url<]http://pcpartpicker.com/guide/VN9TwP/my-waiting-for-pascal-2016-build[/url<] I don't have too much to add to your review. Agreed on a the black/white color scheme. Nice welcome change from the "gaming" type board MSI does that are mostly red/black. If I had to ding this board on one thing it would be the lack of USB ports on the back, instead opting for PS2 ports for Mouse and KB. There are only 4 USB ports on the rear panel (2 x USB 2.0, 2x USB 3.0) and one 3.1 port which is unused. That's really the only thing I can ding it for. I don't overclcock my CPU, although I did enable XMP mode for for Corsair LPX DD4. I was able to get this board on sale for $109 a few weeks back as well, which really was a steal for my new build, considering I splurged a bit on the case (Phanteks Enthoo Evolv ATX). 😀

    • bfar
    • 3 years ago

    Great work. Can we get a shot of the rear of the board in future reviews?

      • loophole
      • 3 years ago

      Will do. Thanks for the suggestion!

    • f0d
    • 3 years ago

    i really like the all black look of this mobo

    • chuckula
    • 3 years ago

    [quote<]The only thing better than walls of text is overly colorful diagrams. We've broken out our crayons to draw you this port diagram:[/quote<] Thank you Mark.

      • EndlessWaves
      • 3 years ago

      It’s a shame it’s such a strange selection of ports.

      Do MSI really think more motherboard buyers will be using a PS/2 trackball than will be using a 3840×2160 monitor or more than 4 USB devces?

      Although checking out MSI’s website it seems they’ve implemented a rudimentary filtering system so you can finally pick a motherboard based on features rather than having to trawl through pages of arbitrary marketing divisions. Hooray!

      Unfortunately, it does allow the shocking discovery that just six of their sixty-seven LGA1151 motherboards have a DisplayPort output. Given there are 20 Haswell boards with it I wonder what the logic behind that is.

    • chµck
    • 3 years ago

    Why is such variability in power consumption with different motherboards?

      • loophole
      • 3 years ago

      It’s hard to say for sure without being able to peek at the design documents for each board in question, but we can do some broad brush stroke guessing 🙂

      Some of it would come down to different voltage regulation schemes. Differences not only in the total number of phases, but also how the phases are implemented: are we using integrated driver MOSFETs, or does each phase have discreet components for the driver and high-side and low-side MOSFETs? And even how the VRM itself is implemented: is it completely digitally controlled or a hybrid implementation, does it power down phases when they’re not needed?

      And of course there’s also the onboard components: third party controllers that mobo makers use can draw power, especially if their device drivers don’t put them and their PCIe lanes into lower power states when not in use. An extreme example of this is the PLX PCI switch chip that the uber high-end Gigabyte Z170X Gaming G1 uses – this part alone draws 8W.

      Measuring board power is interesting 🙂

    • derFunkenstein
    • 3 years ago

    I have a system based around a similar MSI board – Z170A Krait Gaming. There’s a little more white in the heatsinks and two memory slots, and the USB 3.1 Gen2 controller’s ports are Type-A, but these boards definitely have a family resemblance. I’ve been really impressed with it. Looks like Mark was, too. Love the detail of his mobo reviews.

    • Firestarter
    • 3 years ago

    94 C sounds awfully toasty, is that due to the TIM in the CPU?

      • loophole
      • 3 years ago

      Intel using TIM under the heat-spreader instead of fluxless solder probably doesn’t help the matter, but in this case I think it’s more about my particular 6700K needing a lot of voltage to get to 4.7GHz.

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