Storage, audio, lighting, and the little things
Venturing down to the lower-right corner of the board we find the Pro Carbon's SATA-based storage.
When it comes to SATA connectivity, MSI is keeping it simple with six standard SATA 6Gbps ports. No SATA Express support to be found here. This omission isn't a great loss, though, since drives supporting the standard never appeared en masse. The first four ports are right-angled to make for easier cable insertion with longer graphics cards installed. Ports five and six are not. That decision could leave those two ports blocked if you install a lengthy expansion card in the third x16 PCIe slot.
The Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon's next-gen storage comes courtesy of dual M.2 slots. The M.2 connector above the primary PCIe x16 slot, labeled M2_1, can accept mini-SSDs with lengths up to 110 mm long. The second M.2 slot residing beneath the second PCIe x16 slot, labelled M2_2, can take mini-SSDs up to 80 mm long.
MSI has outfitted the M2_2 slot with a heat shield and thermal pad to prevent M.2 SSDs installed here from getting too toasty. In builds sporting two graphics cards, this could prove very useful because this 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 overheat, which can cause throttling. Samsung's SM951 PCIe SSD already throttles itself even without a graphics card in play, for example. If you so choose, this heat shield can be easily removed. It cannot be moved to the other M2 slot, however.
Both M.2 slots can accept PCIe or SATA-based mini-SSDs. 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 has to be purchased separately, however.
Each M.2 slot is fed with four Gen3 PCIe lanes from the chipset. Those lanes provide up to 32 Gb/s of potential storage bandwidth. That is an impressive number, to be sure. That said, not all of the board's storage connectivity can be used at once. As we've noted, the Z270 chipset provides 30 multi-purpose, high-speed I/O lanes that can be shared between different storage ports. That lane-sharing puts some constraints on which ports can be used at the same time. To help explain which ports are unusable in which scenarios, here's a graphical representation of the SATA ports with labels that we'll talk to in the following paragraphs:
Here's how the sharing breaks down. A SATA M.2 SSD installed in the M2_1 M.2 slot will disable SATA port 1. If you populate the M2_2 M.2 slot with a SATA-based SSD, SATA port 5 becomes unusable.
Since the M2_1 M.2 slot has its own dedicated I/O lanes from the chipset, installing a PCIe SSD in this slot doesn't cause you to lose any SATA ports. Installing a PCIe SSD in the bottom M.2 slot, M2_2, will disable SATA ports 5 and 6, though.
With those two M.2 slots and the Z270's support for RAID arrays across PCIe SSDs, the Pro Carbon is primed for ludicrous storage bandwidth. Builders may find that the DMI link between the chipset and the processor is the next bottleneck, though. Remember that this link is still made up of just four Gen3 PCIe lanes, so it has a maximum potential bandwidth of 32 Gb/s (4 GB/s).
The Pro Carbon's rear port cluster has a decidedly red theme. After all, nothing says gaming like a red paint job. The Gigabit Ethernet jack even 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 can pass through the port unhindered.
To the left, MSI provides a lone PS/2 port for keyboards or mice. Those Model M keyboard holdouts need not go searching for the correct USB-to-PS/2 adapter with this motherboard. 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. Four more USB 3.0 ports are available via two internal headers, one of which is a right-angled. MSI uses ASMedia ASM1464 USB 3.0 repeater chips to ensure a clean signal with longer front-panel USB 3.0 cables.
Finally, for the latest USB hotness, MSI taps ASMedia's new ASM2142 controller for USB 3.1 connectivity. This new ASMedia controller now connects to the chipset via two Gen3 PCIe lanes. This gives it twice the available bandwidth for connected devices compared to the older ASM1142 USB 3.1 controller, which could connect to either two Gen2 lanes or one Gen3 lane downstream. The Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon has both USB 3.1 Type A and Type C ports.
The two USB 3.0 ports above the HDMI port and the USB 3.1 ports are all "VR Ready" according to MSI. The mobo maker has outfitted the Pro Carbon with a "VR Boost" chip, which purportedly ensures a clean and strong signal, especially in the case of longer USB cables that connect to VR hardware.
For buyers looking to use a Skylake or Kaby Lake integrated GPU, the Pro Carbon offers a DVI-D port and an HDMI port. Folks with discrete graphics cards don't have to worry about the onboard display outputs, of course.
While this is a gaming-focused motherboard, MSI has foregone Killer's Gigabit Ethernet controllers for the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon. Instead, MSI has tapped an Intel I219-V chip to power the board's sole Gigabit Ethernet port. For those who want some form of traffic prioritization software, MSI provides its Gaming LAN Manager utility. This software uses the same underlying technology as cFosSpeed. Packet prioritization can be useful, but it doesn't help if the network congestion is occurring at some point outside of the PC. MSI also tells us that its LAN Protect feature provides anti-surge protection of up to 15KV to the Ethernet port.
To balance out the almost monochromatic color scheme we've seen all over, we've broken out our crayons to give you some wild colors in our port diagram:
MSI dubs the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon's audio implementation "Audio Boost 4." The underlying codec is Realtek's new ALC1220 chip, backed by a TI OPA1652 amplifier and high-end Nippon Chemi-Con audio capacitors.
Component selection is only one piece of the puzzle 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, the audio codec is further isolated underneath the black EMI shield you see above, and left and right output channels are split between different PCB layers. MSI also includes a special "de-pop" protection circuit designed to minimize popping noises during startup.
Overall, the Pro Carbon's analog audio output sounded pleasant. 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.
MSI includes some good DIY-friendly features with the Pro Carbon. A group of four debug LEDs to the right of the ATX power connector can alert you to what component is causing the boot to fail: the CPU, RAM, graphics card, or boot device. On the memory front, each DIMM slot has an LED to the right of it that illuminates when that slot is populated. There's also an XMP LED directly below the DIMM slots that illuminates when your memory is running with an XMP profile enabled.
Not content to put metal shrouds around only the two primary PCIe x16 slots, MSI has also given the DIMM slots this same treatment. This silver cladding adds extra ground points that MSI says can prevent against both physical damage and electrical overcurrent. It also acts as an EMI shield, which purportedly gives cleaner signals to and from the memory. This sounds a little extreme, but it certainly can't hurt and it continues the silver-on-black visual theme of the board.
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 Z270 boards that isn't found on the Pro Carbon 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. At least the board provides the pinout details via the silk-screened markings to the left of the firmware flash chip. It's a bit of an eye chart, however, so in a dimly lit case you may be visiting the user manual for which pins should connect to what.
If the Pro Carbon's onboard LEDs are a little too utilitarian for you, the board also has a four-pin header that supports 12V RGB multi-colored LED strips. This header, to the right of the front-panel audio header, is labeled JLED1. LED lighting strips connected to this header work in unison with the embedded RGB LEDs found in the chipset heatsink, the rear port cluster shroud, and along the sides of the board. Using the MSI Gaming App that we'll examine later in the review, users can pick essentially any color and one of several different effect presets, such as breathing, flashing, "meteor," and waving to play out through the board's lighting and LED strip.
MSI even includes a two-to-one RGB LED splitter cable for those folks who just can't get enough lighting. Perhaps this year's Christmas tree lighting will be PC-powered. MSI also ships a high-quality cushioned I/O shield with the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon, rather than a nasty stamped metal one. Finally, some SATA cable labels round out the accessories.
Now that we've well and truly covered the Pro Carbon from a hardware perspective, let's look at the board's softer side.