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.
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.
MSI’s Z270 family of boards ship with the company’s familiar Click BIOS UEFI-based firmware, dubbed “Click BIOS 5.” While the firmware is very similar to that of MSI’s previous Z170 and X99 boards, there are a few additions for the that we’ll look at below. Building on what’s come before 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.
A new addition to MSI’s firmware is the search function, which will bring up all of the configuration options that contain the word you’ve typed in. To access this function, simply click the magnifying glass icon in the top right corner of the interface. This is an especially handy feature as it saves you searching through all the different menus to find the one setting you’re after.
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 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 be under 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.
Another new feature that was added to MSI’s Click BIOS for the Z270-based boards is the ability to invoke the secure erase command on SSDs directly from the firmware. This can be found under the Advanced Settings menu, when in Advanced Mode.
MSI has some of the best firmware-based fan controls we’ve seen, and the company’s Z270 boards continue this tradition. Fan controls are found in the Hardware Monitor function, where individual profiles for the CPU fan, the pump, and four 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 works with four-pin PWM fans attached to both the CPU and system fan headers and each header can be configured for PWM or DC (voltage control) mode. Settings to adjust spin-up and spin-down times for each header can be seen to the left of the response curve. Increasing these intervals smooths out the fan response to changes in temperature, preventing brief spikes from producing audible oscillations in fan speeds.
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.
For those Windows 7 die-hards, the Pro Carbon retains the “Windows 7 Installation” firmware option that we saw on MSI’s Z170 boards. This setting works around the issue that Intel chipsets since the Z170 dropped support for full USB 2.0 Enhanced Host Controller Interface (EHCI) mode, which makes installing Windows 7 on newer boards a little tricky. 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. That said, Microsoft’s official stance is that Kaby Lake is only fully supported with Windows 10, so your mileage may vary if you’re using Intel’s latest and greatest.
Overall, the firmware of MSI’s Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon 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. Sometimes, that silent sleight-of-hand occurs when a user enables an XMP profile. In the case of MSI’s Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon though, the defaults are even more aggressive. With default settings 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, running a user’s chip at higher than stock speeds without telling them is definitely not what motherboards should be doing. The fact that other motherboards behave similarly doesn’t excuse the practice. Thankfully, this behavior can be disabled by disabling the “Enhanced Turbo” option under Misc Setting in the OC Menu.
With that, we’ve exhausted our deep dive into the Pro Carbon’s firmware. On the next page, we’ll look into the cornucopia of software that comes with the board.
Utilities as far as the eye can see
Compared to firmware interfaces of years gone by, modern motherboard firmwares 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 a smorgasbord of options.
The simplest of these, MSI’s Gaming App, has gotten a makeover for MSI’s Z270 boards:
Enabling OC mode activates the pre-baked CPU overclocking profile, Game Boost, which can also be enabled via the firmware. 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. If you’re using an MSI graphics card, the utility should automatically overclock the GPU as well.
The Carbon Pro’s RGB lighting is controlled through the Gaming App’s LED function:
The utility lets users pick their desired color from the color wheel shown, which MSI tells us equates to a choice of 16.8 million colors. If that isn’t impressive enough, there’s also a long list of effects to choose from:
It’s even possible to control the lighting effects from your phone or tablet using the MSI Gaming App Android app. This mobile app can also sync with the RGB lighting on compatible devices like CPU coolers, memory, keyboards, mice, and system fans from other brands. MSI dubs this Mystic Light Sync. If all of this sounds like too much for you, or if you prefer the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon au naturel, it’s also possible to disable the LED lighting altogether.
MSI’s Gaming App can also create keyboard and mouse macros, assigning them to any key you wish. The mouse’s DPI can also be temporarily changed while an assigned hot key is depressed and hot keys can be set up to enable the above OC, Gaming, and Silent modes too.
Another promising little feature of MSI’s Gaming App 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. The only fly in the ointment is that your application—a game or benchmark—has to be supported by the utility. Your mileage may vary.
Rounding out the functionality of MSI’s Gaming App we have VR Ready and Eye Rest. When enabled, the former suggests applications to close for a better VR experience. The latter can be used to adjust the gamma, contrast and color balance of your display either under your direct control or via a handful of presets: gaming, movie, default, and eye rest, which aims to minimize the blue light from an LED backlit screen.
MSI’s more in-depth Command Center utility has been upgraded to version 3 for the 200-series boards, but it’s still loaded with the tweaking options we’ve come to expect. It can’t overclock MSI graphics cards, though. As in previous versions, 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 the processor’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 still 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 at least one 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 really 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 memory prices are low enough that some folks are still doing it today, since MSI is still bundling RAM disk software with their Z270 gaming motherboards. 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, saving you from having to fish out the UEFI reboot option in Windows (under the Advanced options in Troubleshoot).
MSI’s Dragon Eye utility lets you overlay a YouTube or Twitch video on top of a full screen game that you’re playing. This sounds pretty cool. The first thing that came to my mind was being able to quickly play snippets of a video walkthrough to an adventure game when puzzles get the best of me. My expectations were tempered by a list of supported games that is only 18 titles long. Hopefully this list grows over time.
MSI’s Gaming LAN Manager provides network traffic prioritization for the 200-series boards that use Intel GigE controllers instead of Killer chips, like our Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon. The interface will look familiar to anyone who’s used software of this ilk. Priorities can be assigned to applications from one of five levels, or the application can be blocked altogether. It also provides performance data so that you can easily see how much bandwidth each application has been using. As mentioned earlier, the utility is built on the same underlying technology as cFosSpeed. It’s worth pointing out that this utility is completely separate from the network drivers package, so only those who want to use it need to install it.
On the audio front, MSI includes version 2 of the Nahimic “audio enhancement” software by A-Volute. Along with the expected Virtual Surround option, this utility provides five more tunable audio effects. Two categories of profiles can be selected from: gaming or multimedia. Gaming provides presets for shooter, strategy, role playing, and racing games, while multimedia has support for music, movies, and communications (think telephony). Once the preset is selected it can be further tuned to taste if needed. The remaining three tabs control microphone effects, streaming effects, and a location-based visual sound tracker for first person shooters, respectively.
Another perk of the Pro Carbon’s gaming focus is a one-year premium license for XSplit, and a two-month premium license for WTFast. This XSplit license covers both the Gamecaster and Broadcaster utilities. For those unfamiliar with WTFast, it’s a gamer’s VPN of sorts that purports to route gaming traffic through latency-optimized servers. It would be interesting to know how many buyers actually end up using these bundled licenses, but free is free, so it’s all good.
Command Center isn’t the only Windows tweaking utility that MSI ships with the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon. Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility is also provided. 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 what we can do with the Pro Carbon.
Before we dive in, we need to get the disappointment out of the way. We’re going to be using a Core i7-6700K CPU to test the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon’s overclocking prowess. Unfortunately, the stars didn’t align to get me a Kaby Lake sample for testing. The process of overclocking Skylake on the board will hopefully be representative of what you’d see with Kaby Lake. If you’re interested in how Intel’s seventh-generation Core chips overclock, be sure to check out our full review.
It’s worth mentioning that a given CPU’s frequency potential (also known as the silicon lottery) and your choice of CPU cooler tend to have a greater impact on overclocking results than your choice of motherboard does these days. Still, you want to get to the peak clock speed of your chip with a smile on your face rather than a grimace. The quality of the overclocking experience is where your choice of motherboard becomes important. Ideally, you want a motherboard that will help you along the way, not one that forces you to become too acquainted with your clear-CMOS jumper.
To find out what kind of travel companion MSI’s Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon will be on this journey, we turned to our trusty Cooler Master 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 puts it towards the high end of the range of coolers that might be seen in a system built around the Pro Carbon. That said, it should do a good job of keeping our four Skylake cores from feeling the heat as we push the clock speeds up.
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 4.4 GHz 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 1.326V. OC Mode also set our memory speeds to 2400 MHz. With these settings, Prime95 was completely stable, no throttling occurred, and CPU temperatures peaked at 86ºC. While running Prime95 with these settings the test system drew 200W from the wall.
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 4.4 GHz clock speed and 1.326V core voltage that the Gaming App’s OC Mode bestowed. As expected, history repeated itself and Prime95 was stable.
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. This got us to 4.5 GHz using a 45x multiplier alongside the standard 100MHz base clock. At this speed, the firmware was supplying our CPU with 1.336V. This config proved to be stable during the Prime95 run. We saw no signs of throttling, and temperatures topped out at 88° C with the test system pulling 205W from the wall while running Prime95.
We didn’t get very far when we pushed the core multiplier to 46x with voltages on “auto,” though. Thermal throttling reared its ugly head with Prime95 causing core temperatures to spike up to 100°C. The firmware had bumped the core voltage up to 1.408V, and our Nepton couldn’t dissipate the heat. Before throttling kicked in, our test system was drawing 240W.
It was time to take voltage control into our own hands. By manually setting the core voltage, we made it to 4.6 GHz at 1.34V. Prime95 was completely stable with no throttling, and our Nepton was managing to keep temperatures in check at or below 94° C. Under these condition the test system drew 220W from the wall.
Unfortunately, 4.7GHz was out of our reach. Either Prime95 would find errors on one or more worker threads, or we’d push voltage so high that we’d hit thermal throttling.
A 4.6GHz final clock speed is very respectable for this CPU and cooler combination. It is, in fact, only 100MHz lower than the highest speed we’ve ever achieved on any of the Z170 boards we tested, so those numbers are right where we’d expect to be for our multiplier overclocking results.
The fun doesn’t end there, though. Skylake K-series CPUs running in Z270-based boards still allow tweaking of the base clock without having to run other system devices out of spec. This change was seen originally with the Z170 chipset, thanks to a revised reference clock architecture that decouples the PCIe and DMI bus speeds from the base clock. While it’s much easier to overclock using multipliers alone, we ran a quick test to see how the Pro Carbon 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. When we tried for 250MHz, the firmware mysteriously decided that a core multiplier of 8x was in order. Bumping this to 16x got us an even 4GHz, and a stable system:
A 266MHz base clock was out of the question. The firmware elbowed in and loaded safe defaults after one failed boot attempt to let us know we had pushed too far.
Despite the Pro Carbon’s fairly limited auto-overclocking functionality, this board could suit seasoned tweakers who know their way around the firmware as well as newbies who are just starting out. The pre-baked CPU overclocking profile of Game Boost was quick, easy, and stable, and the firmware’s “auto” voltage settings gave us a config that only left 100MHz on the table compared to tweaking settings manually. Overall, turning the screws on our Core i7-6700K was smooth and easy.
Now that our overclocking journey has come to an end, let’s see how the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon looks from a performance perspective.
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 that our test subjects are functioning correctly.
When it comes to testing motherboard performance, we previously gathered benchmark results using the CPU’s peak stock memory multipliers. Since Skylake and Kaby Lake clock their DDR4 relatively conservatively, at a maximum of 2133MHz and 2400MHz respectively, we’ve continued a practice we began with our X99 reviews. We test our Z270 boards with the memory clocked at the highest XMP profile speed we can attain while keeping the CPU at its stock clocks.
One advantage of testing the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon with a Skylake CPU is that we can have it face off against our stable of Z170-based boards. There’s your silver lining for me not having a Kaby Lake chip. This saw the Pro Carbon tested against MSI’s own Z170A SLI Plus and Z170A Gaming M5, Gigabyte’s Z170X-UD3, Z170X-Gaming 7, and Z170X-Gaming G1, and Asus’ Z170-A and ROG Maximus VIII Impact. 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 Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon ends up at or near the top for all of our performance tests. Without testing additional Z270 boards, we don’t know whether this is representative of the new platform in general or whether these wins come down to MSI’s implementation of it. Either way, the Pro Carbon looks good for anyone with a Skylake chip. Hopefully the same can be said when a user drops the latest Kaby Lake silicon in.
The Pro Carbon comes out looking good in our boot time testing also, only bested by Gigabyte’s Z170X-UD3.
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.
Although MSI’s Z270 board isn’t the most efficient board in our power testing, the difference comes down to 4W or less compared to the competition, 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 contains all of the detailed motherboard specifications, system configuration details, and test procedures behind everything you’ve read so far. It’s hard to make this kind of content interesting, especially if you feel our closing thoughts beckoning. But, if you do jump straight to the conclusion, know that you’ll be missing out on a couple of pictures of the test hardware, both clothed in a chassis and in its birthday suit. And who knows, maybe there’s a little easter egg in one of those tables of data, just waiting to be discovered.
We’ve already gone over the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon’s most important details, but for completeness, here’s the full spec breakdown.
|Platform||Intel Z270, 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 Z270 (x4)
3 PCIe 3.0 x1 via Z270
|Storage I/O||6 SATA RAID 6Gbps via Z270
1 M.2 up to type 2280 via Z270 (SATA and PCIe)
1 M.2 up to type 22110 via Z270 (SATA and PCIe)
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC1220 with TI OP1652 amplifiers
Surround virtualization via Nahimic audio enhancer
|Ports||1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse via Nuvoton NCT6795 Super I/O
1 DVI-D via CPU
1 HDMI via CPU
2 USB 3.1 (1 Type A and 1 Type C) via ASMedia ASM2142
4 USB 3.0 via Z270
4 USB 3.0 via internal header and Z270
2 USB 2.0 via Z270
4 USB 2.0 via internal headers and Z270
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Intel I219-V
1 analog microphone in
4 configurable analog ports
1 digital S/PDIF output
|Overclocking||All/per-core Turbo multiplier: 8-83X
Base clock: 98-270MHz
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: 0.6-2.0V
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||1 x CPU (PWM), 1 x PUMP (PWM), 4 x SYS (DC and PWM)
Manual Mode to set fan speed by percentage
Smart Mode profiles with four temp/speed points per fan
Didn’t find the easter eggs? Did you try taking the first letter of each word that wasn’t an acronym? Let me go work out what that spells…
Our testing methods
As a reward for not skipping this page, 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 Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon||Gigabyte Z170X-UD3||MSI Z170A SLI Plus||Asus ROG Maximus VIII Impact||Gigabyte Z170X-Gaming G1||Gigabyte Z170X-Gaming 7||MSI Z170A Gaming M5||Asus Z170-A|
|Platform hub||Intel Z270||Intel Z170|
|Audio||Realtek ALC1220||Realtek ALC1150||SupremeFX Impact III (ALC1150)||Creative Sound Core3D (CA0132)||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. Our thanks to the motherboard makers for providing the boards, too.
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.
The Z270 platform takes everything that we already love about the Z170 platform and polishes and tweaks it a little. It’s certainly not the big upgrade that the Z170 chipset was over the Z97, but then again, it doesn’t need to be. Much like Kaby Lake itself is mostly a tweak to the existing Skylake silicon for higher clock speeds, Z270 make life with those CPUs just that little bit nicer.
If MSI’s Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon is anything to go by, we should see Z270-based boards slip into the market at the same price points as their older siblings based on the Z170 chipset. Assuming our projections hold, and you’re looking to upgrade to Kaby Lake, there’s no reason not to get a Z270 board. If you’re already using a Z170-based board and you want some Kaby Lake action, you won’t see much benefit to upgrading to a Z270 platform unless you want to use hyper-speed RAM or to be an early adopter of Intel’s Optane Memory technology.
At its $175 suggested price, MSI’s Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon falls squarely into the mid-range price-bracket. The board makes excellent use of all that the Z270 chipset has to offer, and it does a good job of covering the essentials. (We’ll need to get further into 2017 to find out whether RGB lighting becomes essential). From this perspective it should fit the needs of most prospective buyers.
MSI has done a good job of tapping into all the chipset’s potential. This board offers support for CrossFire and SLI multi-GPU configs, next-gen storage support for NVMe PCIe devices and Intel Optane Memory, as well as full overclocking support for K-series CPUs. No matter if you’re a seasoned overclocker or a newbie just starting out, you’ll appreciate MSI’s excellent firmware, fan controls, and Windows software. DIY-friendly features like the inclusion of a cushioned I/O shield and useful debug LEDs scattered about the board are a very nice touch. An impressive RGB LED lighting system and bundled gaming utilities like XSplit are icing on the cake.
Against a backdrop of praise, I do have to mention a couple of minor nitpicks. First is the default firmware behavior that overclocks the CPU without telling the user. No motherboard should do this. It also would have been nice if MSI had included a front-panel wiring block and support for processor-free BIOS updates with BIOS Flashback+. Like I said, these are minor concerns, but even the best products have their compromises.
The Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon is among the first Z270 boards that we’ve tested, but there’s already a lot to like about it. MSI stuck with what worked for the board’s basics, and its copious RGB LED lighting doesn’t interfere with the essentials. We still need to test more Z270 boards to figure out other manufacturers’ takes on the platform, but we think the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon is quite worthy of consideration right now, especially if you plan to make use of its RGB LEDs and gaming-focused features.