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MSI's Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon motherboard reviewed

A new generation rises

Intel's desktop Kaby Lake CPUs have arrived. Alongside the processors themselves, Intel is also releasing the 200-series chipsets to ride shotgun. The Z270 platform caters to enthusiast builders, and like the Kaby Lake CPUs themselves, Z270 offers builders some minor improvements over Z170 before it.

The biggest upgrade for the Z270 chipset comes from the addition of four more PCIe Gen3 lanes. This allows the chipset to support up to 24 general purpose PCIe lanes, compared to 20 in the Z170. The "up to" qualifier exists because the motherboard maker is given some degree of flexibility with how it wants to allocate the chipset's flexible I/O lanes. Some of the lanes that can be used for PCI Express could be multiplexed with USB 3.0 and SATA ports. A motherboard could be designed to give consumers the maximum number of PCIe lanes for expansion cards, or the designer could swing the pendulum the other direction to maximize the number of USB 3.0 ports. Or, mobo makers could settle on a happy mid-point. Point is: mobo makers have options.

Another advantage of the Z270 over its predecessor is the ability to support Intel's new Optane Memory caching products. While it remains to be seen what the first round of products sporting 3D XPoint memory will look like, only the combination of Kaby Lake CPUs and 200-series motherboards will be Optane Memory ready.

One thing that hasn't changed is that the Z270 chipset itself is connected to the processor using the same four Gen3 PCIe lanes that make up the DMI link that we saw with the Z170. This provides for up to 32Gb/s (4GB/s) of bandwidth, which is far outstripped by the potential bandwidth of the chipset's 30 flexible I/O lanes. This is unlikely to change until we see a DMI link composed of Gen4 PCI Express lanes. For those feeling the bandwidth pinch, there's always Intel's high-end desktop platform built around Broadwell-E, with up to 40 on-die Gen3 PCIe lanes.

The Z270 platform also gives us some welcome enthusiast-friendly features, like the ability to split the processor's sixteen Gen3 PCIe lanes across multiple slots for multi-GPU graphics configs. The Z270 also offers full control over the processor's various knobs and dials, allowing overclockers to tweak to their hearts' content.

It's worth pointing out that both the new Kaby Lake processors as well as previous-generation Skylake CPUs can be used in the new Z270-based boards, thanks to the two chips sharing a common LGA1151 socket. We've also seen motherboard makers release firmware updates for existing 100-series boards to support Kaby Lake CPUs, so a new 200-series motherboard is not a requirement for running the latest and greatest silicon.

With that general introduction out of the way, one of the first 200-series motherboards we're looking at is MSI's Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon.

The Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon fits into MSI's "Performance Gaming" product segment. Like the rest of the Carbon models, it features a rear I/O cluster shroud and heatsinks with carbon-fiber-patterned accents. The plastic shroud is held on by two screws, so if you're not a fan of the look, you can simply remove those screws, disconnect the LED cable, and leave the shroud in the box.

The full-sized ATX board sports a very blacked-out look, with only a smattering of silver highlights along the expansion slots and across the heatsinks decorating the matte black PCB. If it weren't for the Audio Boost logo on the EMI shield covering the codec and the nickel accents from the nearby caps, the board would be living in a monochromatic world.

The back of the board shows that all the heatsinks 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. We can also see certification logos for SteelSeries gaming peripherals, Nahimic audio software, CrossFire, and SLI. If you were hoping to show those logos off in your build, you're probably going to be out of luck.

The underside of the board also gives us a good look at the RGB LEDs running along the left hand side and down the isolated audio section. These provide the ground effects for MSI's lighting system, which the company calls Mystic Light. As four out of five gaming hardware designers know, the presence of LEDs will make your processor's transistors switch faster and with more vigor. For those folks willing to risk running their systems dark, all of the lighting can thankfully be disabled.

The two VRM heatsinks conceal the Pro Carbon's 11 digitally-controlled power phases. Just as with Intel's Skylake processors, Kaby Lake once again puts the responsibility of CPU voltage regulation in the motherboard maker's hands. Given that Kaby Lake shares the existing LGA1151 platform with Skylake, this should come as no surprise. We'll have to wait for a future generation of processors to see if the fully-integrated voltage regulator (FIVR) that was introduced with Haswell chips and improved upon in Broadwell CPUs will be seen again.

Since 200-series boards sport the familiar LGA1151 socket, which itself maintains 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 Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon has just such a row of capacitors, located north of the CPU socket in the picture above. 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 VRM heatsinks 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 slot 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: one CPU fan headers, one liquid cooling pump fan header, and two system fan headers. MSI tells us that the pump header can supply up to 2A of current. There's also a healthy amount of room between the CPU socket and the topmost PCIe x16 slot, thanks to the M.2 slot located where the first expansion slot would normally reside on other boards.

The Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon serves up three PCIe x16 slots. When one graphics card is installed, all sixteen of the processor'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. Four ASMedia ASM1480 multiplexers are responsible for routing the PCIe lanes between the two silver x16 slots. You can spot them above the left-most PCIe x1 slots.

Peppered around those three x16 PCIe slots are three x1 slots. All three x1 slots are always enabled and always fed with a single Gen3 lane from the chipset. Similarly, the black x16 slot at right in the picture above is always enabled and supplied with four Gen3 chipset lanes.

Without the use of third-party PCI Express switch chips, a Kaby Lake or Skylake chip riding atop the Z270 platform provides enough PCIe lanes for two-way SLI setups. MSI fully supports this configuration with the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon. AMD's CrossFire multi-GPU implementation has more lenient bandwidth requirements that let the third chipset-driven PCIe slot above join in the fun. 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 installed, although we'd always recommend stowing heavy expansion cards separately.

An indicator LED rests under the locking mechanism of each PCIe x16 slot. When the slot is populated with a device that is using all 16 lanes, like a single GPU installed in the left-most slot, the LED glows red. If the slot is populated with a device that's using a lesser number of lanes, say 8, 4, or 1, the LED glows white. If it's not populated with an expansion card the LED doesn't illuminate.

That's a lot of words. Here's a diagram of the Pro Carbon's expansion slots and the connectivity options for each:

The Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon's expansion slot layout can handle something as wild as a pair of triple-slot video cards. It's worth pointing out that this doesn't leave any PCIe expansion slots free. In more typical multi-GPU setups, installing a pair of double-slot cards will still allow access to one of the PCIe x1 slots and the four-lane PCIe x16 slot; both of which can be used at the same time.

Now, on to the board's storage subsystem.