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An early look at the MSI Z170A Gaming M7 motherboard

By Jasper Oregas & Koh Wanzi - 7 Aug 2015

An early look at the MSI Z170A Gaming M7 motherboard

Here’s an early look at the MSI Z170A Gaming M7 motherboard

The MSI Z170A Gaming M7 is based on Intel's latest Z170 chipset and will support the new LGA1151 Skylake processors.

Intel’s new Z170 chipset brings a lot of new features over its Z97 predecessor like support for DDR4 memory and native support for Turbo M.2 speeds of up to 32Gbps. To that end, MSI has prepared a full line-up of Intel Z170 motherboards that will support Intel’s latest Skylake processors. We’ll be taking a closer look at the currently available MSI Z170A Gaming M7 motherboard to give you an overview of the new features you can expect from MSI’s latest motherboards.

For starters, the MSI Z170A Gaming M7 features the new LGA1151 socket for Skylake CPUs. Z170 motherboards will not support older LGA Haswell chips, although you’ll still be able to use LGA1150-compatible CPU coolers and mounting brackets.

Compared to last year’s Z97A Gaming 7, the Z170A Gaming M7 sports some aesthetic differences. The red-and-black color scheme has been carried over, but the rear I/O area is now shielded by a stylized metallic shroud. The area of the PCB between the four RAM slots and the CPU socket also feature red traces for quite a striking look.

The aesthetic of the board has been tweaked slightly from the previous generation.

DDR4 Boost

In fact, the red traces aren’t just for show. The board has a new feature called DDR4 Boost, which MSI says isolates the memory circuitry from other components in order to retain a cleaner memory signal for greater stability. This is similar to what we’ve seen MSI and other motherboard manufacturers do with their audio circuitry, and it looks like the same principles apply here.

The DDR4 Boost design isolates the memory circuitry from other components in order to ensure a cleaner memory signal.

Audio Boost 3

The audio circuitry has also been upgraded over the previous generation. MSI’s Audio Boost 3 now features the Nahimic Audio Enhancer technology that we saw on some of its notebooks at Computex 2015. In addition, the dual OPA1652 AMPs feature completely independent circuitry to reduce crosstalk and interference between left and right audio channels.

MSI has upgraded the audio circuitry on the Z170A Gaming M7 to Audio Boost 3.

Gaming Hotkey and LAN

Another new implementation is something MSI calls Gaming Hotkey, which is actually a dedicated USB port below the red PS/2 port on the rear I/O panel. After plugging your keyboard into the port, you’ll be able to do things like start your PC with an assigned hotkey and even adjust the base clock and CPU ratio to adjust your overclock.

The Gaming Hotkey USB port is the one located directly beside the red PS/2 port.

A switch at the front right corner of the board can be used to toggle the function on and off. Once the switch is set to the “On” position, the hotkey function can be activated by hitting Ctrl + Backspace.

The Gaming Hotkey feature can be toggled on and off via a switch at the board's top right corner.

Killer Ethernet also makes a return on the Z170A Gaming M7, and the board features a Killer E2400 Ethernet controller that is able to prioritize game-related data packages above other applications.

MSI's Gaming LAN is powered by a Killer LAN E2400 Ethernet controller.

Reinforced PCIe slots

We also like the reinforced PCIe slots on the MSI Z170A Gaming M7. The first and second PCIe slots ditch the usual plastic for some metal reinforcement that MSI is calling Steel Armor. This essentially bolsters the structural integrity of the PCIe slots, and MSI says that it has added more solder points on the PCB for extra strength.

The first two full-length PCIe 3.0 slots have been structurally reinforced to support the strain of heavy graphics cards.

Given that PCIe slots are often subject to quite a bit of stress from heavy graphics cards, this is a nice feature that will appeal to buyers who are concerned with build quality and product longevity.

In addition, to the two PCIe slots with Steel Armor, there is a third PCIe 3.0 x4 slot at the bottom. The topmost PCIe 3.0 slot runs at x16, while the second runs at x8 mode. This means that you’ll only get the full 16 lanes of bandwidth if you run a single card. Dual graphics card solutions will run at x8/x8 mode while triple GPU setups will switch to x8/x8/x4.

The Z170 Platform Controller Hub (PCH) now supports PCIe 3.0, thus providing an additional four PCIe 3.0 lanes for a total of 20. This is an improvement over Z97, which could only run at x8/x4/x4 with just 16 lanes to play with.

It’s also good to see that MSI has left ample room – more than the width of a double-slot card – between the first and second PCIe 3.0 slots. Most custom GPU solutions exhaust air back into the case, so it’s good to have more space for extra ventilation in dual-GPU setups.

 

More Connectivity Options

There are six SATA 6Gbps ports, in addition to two SATA Express connectors.

The board features six SATA 6Gbps ports and two SATA Express connectors.

The rear I/O panel has a total of seven USB ports, comprising three USB 2.0 ports, one USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-A port, one USB 3.1 Type-C port, and two USB 3.1 Gen1 (better known as USB 3.0) ports. Four more USB 3.1 Gen1 ports and four more USB 2.0 ports are available via internal USB headers to expand possible connectivity.

The board features a single USB 3.1 Type-C port for next-generation devices.

The board also sports dual M.2 2242/2260/2280 slots, up from a single slot on most Z97 boards. Each slot has four PCIe 3.0 lanes available to it, which it shares with the Z170 Platform Controller Hub (PCH).

The board has two PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots.

However, the second M.2 slot appears to share bandwidth with the SATA ports as well. If you populate both slots with PCIe drives, you’ll end up losing functionality on two SATA ports and the PCIe 3.0 x1 slot that sits above the x8 slot.

 

Overclocking with the turn of a knob

Finally, a nifty knob at the bottom right corner of the board lets you overclock your CPU by simply turning the knob. MSI calls this Game Boost, and it’s meant to provide automated overclocking as the CPU’s voltage and frequency will be automatically adjusted after you power on your PC. You’ll be able to choose from eight different positions between 0 (default) and 11.

Users can cycle through eight different positions on the Game Boost knob to automatically overclock their CPU.

However, do note that this isn’t an on-the-fly overclocking feature. Even if you turn up the knob while your PC is on, the changes will only take effect the next time you reboot your system.