As the Computex 2014 concluded few days ago, we have seen many companies unveiled their new models of motherboards based on the latest Intel Z97 chipset. Now, at last we were able to see almost full lineups of Z97 motherboards coming from various vendors. MSI is no exception, they introduced their Z97 boards ahead of Computex’ official kick-off. With some interesting offerings from MSI from the Gaming product line to the MPower lineup, we are now taking a look at their XPower model, which is MSI’s flagship motherboard for the Z97 chipset.
Overclocking to the limit or simply, No Limit - that is the principle of the XPower series from MSI. With the latest Z97 chipset, MSI has once again continued the legacy to bring the new XPower board to the market and target at gaming and overclocking enthusiasts. The XPower comes equipped with a military-grade 16-phase digital phase power design, 8-layer PCB, and plenty of onboard OC-essential buttons that make overclocking experience super comfortable. Apart from the overclocking features, there are also tons of connectivity that come with the board. These include five PCIe 3.0 x16 slots, twelve USB 3.0 ports and six USB 2.0 ports along with ten 6Gbps SATA 3 ports. In addition, it also sports a M.2 socket for lightning-fast solid state drives as well as all other features of the Z97 chipset.
At time of writing this article we couldn’t get much detail on the retail price of the MSI Z97 XPower AC for Malaysia’s market. But a quick check at newegg showed that the XPower is going for around $400 USD, which is not a surprise for such a premium board. Now, let’s dig out what MSI has to offer with the Z97 XPower AC.
Product Link: http://www.msi.com/product/mb/Z97_XPOWER_AC.html/
Suggested Retail Price: TBA
The MSI Z97 XPower AC comes in a yellow/ black retail packaging with the front side illustrated with a big yellow coloured “X” to show that it is part of the XPower series polished with Intel’s latest Z97 chipset. There is not much information you get from here other than the product name at the middle of the box, an “OC Series” logo at the bottom, and a pair of logos showing its support for Intel’s Core processor and Z97 chipset at the top right corner of the packaging.
Flipping over the box’s front panel you will find a see-through window to give us a glimpse at the motherboard before pulling trigger to purchasing it. The “X” cutout on the left side reveals more details about the key features of the XPower. Here, MSI explains about their awesome DigitALL power design which comes with 16 phases, the support for up to 4-way CrossFireX/SLI multi-GPU configurations for maximum gaming experience, the bundled Extreme OC Kit that is useful during overclocking session, as well as the onboard buttons and switches that make overclocking more comfortable.
The rear side of the packaging describes full specifications of the MSI Z97 XPower AC and its connectivity found on the I/O panel. Moving up a little bit you will find some logos showing interesting features of the board including the OC Essentials, Guard-Pro, Military Class 4, OC Genie 4, Command Center, Audio Boost, NVIDIA SLI and AMD Crossfire supports, as well as Intel’s Wireless Display technology. There are also pictures and diagrams talking about overclocking performance of the board, hybrid PWM cooling that offers water cooling solution, and stability of power delivery thanks to the Military Class 4 hardware components. Here, you can see where the 16-phase CPU digital power bank is placed onboard, 4-way Multi-GPU configuration, OC Essentials consisted of onboard OC buttons and switches, along with the Wi-Fi AC module that makes part of the motherboard’s name. Besides that, MSI has also proudly declared that the XPower is OC Certified, which means that the motherboard has been successfully stressed under Prime95 for over 24 hours with a highly overclocked CPU.
MSI bundles everything that you need to get the board up and running. You get a huge load of accessories package including a pair of CDs containing drivers and utilities, a rear I/O shield, three SLI cables in which two of them for dual slot and another one for triple slot, six 6 Gbps-rated SATA data cables in the mix of straight and 90-degree connectors, an e-SATA data cable with crimping lock, a set of cable labels for drive’s identification, an AC Wi-Fi module for wireless connectivity and its installation screw, a pair of wireless desktop antennas, a set of V-Check voltage point cables, an eSATA expansion bracket powered by Molex connector, a set of 4-pin Molex to SATA power extension cable, a pair of M-Connectors for front panel connectivity, an MSI OC Series case badge, the OC Fan Stand, the OC Series door hanger to avoid interruption during overclocking session in your benching room, the MSI Delid Die Guard, as well as an MSI OC Pendrive 8GB with XPower design for quick file transfer. To make sure that you have a good understanding on the motherboard and its hardware accessories, MSI provides a comprehensive set of documentations including a detailed user guide manual, an overclocking guide, a software and application user guide, a quick installation guide, and other quick hardware setup guides.
Moving on to the motherboard itself. Similar to other members of overclocking series of motherboards, the MSI Z97 XPower AC features a stunning look of a yellow and matte black colour scheme. The top portion of the motherboard has one of the best looking VRM heatsinks that we have ever seen so far, it comes with two preinstalled barbs measuring 3/8″ in diameter allowing users to watercool the PWM area and reduce the temperature of the MOSFETs as low as possible. Although you might not be seeing any performance boost by watercooling it, it does add some aesthetical looks to the motherboard. The “XPOWER” lettering on the heatsink located near the back I/O panel will glow yellow when the motherboard is powered up. On the lower right of the board we have a separated rectangular heatsink covering the Intel Z97 PCH. The MSI logo will glow white with the board powered.
The MSI Z97 XPower AC comes equipped with Military Class 4 components including the DrMOS II, Hi-C Cap, Super Ferrite Choke and Solid Caps that will make sure that the board runs more stable under extreme conditions. The XPower features MSI’s exclusive DigitALL digital power design which consists of 12-phases to regulate the power to the CPU. Sitting just below the socket LGA1150 is the PLX8747 chip to allow for a 4-way SLI or CrossFireX multi-GPU configuration.
To supply maximum power to the CPU socket, MSI provides 8-pin and 4-pin 12V CPU power connectors to the motherboard for maximum overclocking potential. The 4-pin connector is optional if you are not going to overclock your CPU or just a mild overclocking. Sitting right below the power connectors is a Wi-Fi/ Bluetooth expansion module connector to install the included Wi-Fi AC & Bluetooth module featuring 802.11 ac/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, and Intel WiDi (Wireless Display) connectivity. The only downside here is that you will have problem positioning this Wi-Fi AC module onto the tiny connector. You need to turn around the motherboard to secure the screw.
Moving on to the top right portion of the MSI Z97 XPower AC, we have four DIMM slots that are specified to run at dual channel configuration with support up to 3300MHz (OC) and 32GB capacities. Intel Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) is supported to get your RAM sticks run at factory-specified settings. We would like to see single-sided latch design on the memory slots in their future products. The bottom latches will touch the graphics card at the top primary PCIe slot. The 24-pin ATX power connector is located on the right of the memory slots to provide power to the motherboard. Next to it is a pair of USB 3.0 headers in which one of them is angled 90-degree to improve cable management. You will see this angled header later. Also, we have a V-Check Points 2 voltage measurement block, the OC Genie 4, Power, Reset, and Complete Discharge buttons, CPU BCLK increment and decrement buttons, CPU multiplier, Direct OC, and Slow Mode switches.
The enhanced V-Check Points 2 voltage measurement points allow for direct measurement of voltages using a multi-meter. There is a set of voltage measuring cables included in the package. The OC Genie 4 button provides an instant overclocking with a single push of a button. It allows you to switch between 2 gears. Gear 1 will automatically overclock the CPU to 4.0GHz while Gear 2 will push it to 4.2-4.4GHz. The Complete Discharge button will completely wipes your motherboard from all settings and removes information from the Z97 PCH. The BCLK switch allows base clock frequency increment/ decrement using the +/ - buttons. The CPU multiplier switch allows CPU ratio increment/ decrement using the same +/ - buttons. The Slow Mode switch is used for extreme overclocking session, allowing users to boot at a stable processor frequency and to prevent the system from crashing. Included with the MSI Z97 XPower AC is a debug LED display which is good for troubleshooting booting related issues. It is a mandatory for overclocking.
MSI integrated a total of seven expansion slots into the Z97 XPower AC - five PCIe 3.0 x16 slots and two PCIe 2.0 x1 slots. For the PCIe 3.0 x16 slots, the motherboard supports full x16 bandwidth with a single graphics card, x16/ x16 bandwidth with dual cards, and x16/ x8/ x8 with triple cards, and x8/ x8/ x8/ x8 in a 4-way configuration. 3-way and 4-way SLI configurations that needed at least x8 bandwidth per slot can be done perfectly thanks to the included PLX chip which supplies an additional of x16 bandwidth. You can see a pair of system fan header located just beside the second and third PCIe 3.0 x16 slots. These fan connectors are useful if you want to cool the graphics card or other expansion card with additional cooling fans. Above the top PCIe 3.0 x16 slot there is a 6-pin power connector to aid auxiliary power for stability of multi-GPU setups.
The MSI Z97 XPower AC also features a 10Gbps-rated M.2 port located between the lower primary PCIe X16 slots labeled PCI_E5 and PCI_E7. Formerly known as next-generation form factor (NGFF), M.2 is the replacement for the mSATA interface found on previous generation of motherboards. The M.2 port supports either M.2 SATA 6Gbps module or M.2 PCIe module. You can set the M.2 port to automatically detect or a specific interface with the JM2_1 jumper. The SATA5 and SATA6 ports will be unavailable when installing a module in the M.2 port. The M.2 PCIe interface does not support RAID 0, RAID1, RAID 5 and RAID 10. MSI teases about the possibility of releasing an M.2-to-SATA Express adapter separately, so that users can enjoy the lightning-fast solid-state drives which will hit the marketing soon.
MSI equipped the Z97 XPower AC with a dedicated audio chip powered by Realtek ALC1150 Audio Codec featuring AudioBoost technology. It offers 7.1-Channel HD Audio with studio level integrated 600 ohm headphone amplifier, golden audio jacks for pure audio signals, EMI shielded audio codec, and high quality Japanese-made Nippon Chemi-con filtering audio capacitors. The audio circuitry is isolated from the main PCB to minimize the interferences made by neighboring components and eventually produce a good sound quality. The heatsink on top of the audio chipset and yellow line separating the integrated audio board circuitry from the main board will glow yellow when the motherboard is powered.
Across the bottom of the motherboard, you can see the front panel audio connector just below the audio PCB, a system fan header, a pair of system panel connectors, a TPM module connector, the PCIe CeaseFire switch to enable or disable the PCIe x16 slots without having to remove the physical graphics cards, an optional fan header, a pair of USB 2.0 headers, a multi-BIOS switch, a chassis intrusion connector, and the GO2BIOS button (FASTB1) which forces the board into the BIOS without having to press the F2 or DEL key on reboot.
MSI includes a total of ten black 6Gbps SATA 3 ports. Six of the SATA 3 ports are natively controlled by the Z97 chipset supporting Raid 0, 1, 5, 10 and the other four ports are wired to the ASMedia ASM1061 controller. The SATA5 and SATA6 ports will be unavailable when installing a module on the M.2 port. To the right of the SATA connectors you can see the angled 90-degree USB 3.0 header that we have mentioned earlier. There is no SATA Express port like other Z97 boards that we have reviewed previously, but as we mentioned earlier that MSI will be releasing an M.2-to-SATA Express adapter separately in the near future once it is ready.
The rear I/O panel sports plenty of connectivity which include, from left to right, a PS/2 keyboard and mouse combo port, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, two Wi-Fi AC & Bluetooth module outputs, six USB 3.0 ports controlled by the ASMedia ASM1074 controller, a Gigabit LAN port powered by Intel I218-V, an optical S/PDIF audio output, an HDMI, a DisplayPort, two USB 3.0 ports controlled by the ASMedia ASM1042 controller and six analog audio ports.
The back side of the matte black PCB comes plain with just a single backplate at the CPU socket. You can see some screws used to secure the MOSFETs, PLX chip, and PCH heatsinks located at the other side of the PCB. The components are well soldered on the entire PCB. The yellow coloured line that separates the audio circuitry also can be seen here.
The UEFI BIOS
MSI calls their UEFI BIOS the Click BIOS 4. The Click BIOS 4 interface of the MSI Z97 XPower AC is absolutely identical to the previous Z87 XPower. It is easy to use in which all of the options are accessible with the mouse and keyboard. Navigation by the input devices is very responsive and accurate. The layout design of the new UEFI BIOS is quite informative with the descriptions of every option displayed on the right pane of the screen. At the top portion of the BIOS you can see information of the CPU installed and its clock frequency, the memory frequency and its capacity, as well as the date and time. Under the date and time, the current version of the BIOS is displayed. On the left, we have the CPU and motherboard temperatures along with the “OC Genie” and “XMP” buttons. These buttons are clickable with the mouse to enable these features.
MSI Command Center
The MSI Command Center utility serves as an intuitive central hub for performance tuning in Windows environment. You get almost all of the control settings similar to the BIOS for the CPU, DRAM and GPU including the ability to set up a dedicated RAM disk using their RAMDisk utility in the Command Center. Command Center allows users to fine tune the settings to increase system stability, maximize overclocking performance and adjust cooling features.
Test Setup & OverClocking
To give you a quick look at the overclocking ability of the MSI Z97 XPower AC, we used basic tweaking to see how far we could push the motherboard. I was able to get the XPower running stable at a 4.6GHz out of the i7-4770K CPU speed, a 2666MHz memory speed at 10-12-12-25-1T timing, and a 3.9GHz cache speed. System stability was tested with the AIDA64 System Stability Test for about half an hour. One of the core temperatures hit 91 °C maximum with 1.344V supplied. Anything more than 4.6GHz will result in thermal throttling and causing system instability.
With the 4.6GHz being our best stable overclock, we took this figure to proceed for our benchmark tests. For the 3D benchmarks, we used the ASUS ROG Matrix R9-290X Platinum graphics card.
The 6Gbps SATA 3 performance on the MSI Z97 XPower AC motherboard is strong and shows similarity as compared to other motherboards in the competition.
The game benchmark settings are listed in the table below:
The game titles selected demand GPU power over CPU power therefore in each test the difference is rather marginal. We didn’t test the games with the integrated HD4600 graphics iGPU because we believe that nobody is going to use it for gaming especially with the ultra-high quality texture used on these modern game titles. Normally gamers will most likely add a dedicated graphics card for better gaming experience.
For some reason we were not able to increase the frequency of the Samsung kit any higher than 2666MHz. The only thing that we could do was to tighten the memory timing to 9-12-12-18-1T with 1.91V VDIMM supplied. Other boards had no problem pushing the same memory kit to 2800MHz but the MSI Z97 XPower AC just couldn’t accept any settings that we have thrown, extensive voltage or loosen timings. Therefore we strongly suggested that a BIOS refinement is required to overcome this memory overclocking issue.
Samsung IC RAM: G.Skill TridentX 2666C10 2 X 4GB @ 2666MHz 9-12-12-18-1T
Thoughts & Verdicts
The MSI Z97 XPower AC is designed with overclocking in mind is that comes with dozens of overclocking features to aid the overclocking process. Equipped with high quality DigitALL power design with 16-phase of awesomeness, as well as military-grade DrMOS, Dark and Hi-C Capacitors, Super Ferrite Chokes and many other exclusive features, the XPower is certainly the overclockers’ dream board.
Starting with the bundled accessories, MSI loaded the retail packaging with huge amount of unique kits such as the OC Fan Stand, Delid Die Guard, and the OC Pendrive. The OC Fan Stand is useful for users to mount an additional fan on the test bench or the motherboard itself. The Delid Die Guard will enhance the mounting of the delidded CPU between the bare chip die and the cooler’s base. The OC pendrive comes with the basic drivers and allows users to safely transfer the saved OC profiles generated in the UEFI BIOS.
The board layout is top notch with a good placement of the PCIe 3.0 x16 slots. The onboard OC-essential buttons are placed conveniently within reach along with the enhanced V-Check Point voltage measuring block which is easily accessible be it on a test bench or conventional desktop casing. The MOSFET heatsink is totally reengineered from the ground with a hybrid watercooling design to maximize thermal dissipation and at the same time add some aesthetical looks to the motherboard. To prevent shortage of storage space, MSI includes huge loads of USB 3.0 and SATA 3 ports, as well as the M.2 socket for the fast-lightning storage devices.
Throughout the benchmark tests, the MSI Z97 XPower AC did not fail to deliver good results compared to the other motherboards in the competition. With the XPower being designed as an overclocking board, it yielded what it is supposed to deliver. Overclocking through BIOS settings was impressive. However, overclocking in Windows environment could have been made better. MSI Command Center overclocking utility is simply not good enough. The nested options could have been minimized to make tweaking process more comfortable. To make it worse, surprisingly, we couldn’t find the Command Center Lite in the enclosed disks or from their website. The Command Center Lite is supposed to make tweaking more comfortable with a single window. Nevertheless, I still managed to push the chip to 4.6GHz after going through some tweaking. Somehow we found that the XPower needed a little bit higher voltage than other Z97 boards in the round-up. Aside from that, we also would like to see improvement on the memory overclocking with their coming BIOS.
Despite a few shortcomings, the MSI Z97 XPower AC has a lot of solid build qualities that make it a right choice for gaming and overclocking enthusiasts. With good performance, a plethora of features, and huge bundle of accessories package, it is certainly a motherboard that you should consider to pick one into your shopping cart.
Big thanks to our friends at MSI Malaysia for supplying us the MSI Z97 XPower AC motherboard for review and we are looking forward to seeing more in the near future.
Performance/Price Value: 4/5
+ Good performance
+ Stunning yellow and black colour scheme with good layout design
+ Military Class 4 components for durability and stability
+ Supports up to 4-way SLI and CrossFireX Multi-GPU configurations
+ High quality Audio Boost audio chip
+ Tons of USB and SATA ports
+ Comes with an M.2 port for extra storage option
+ Included hybrid PWM heatsink with watercooling barbs
+ Included a Wi-Fi AC and Bluetooth module for wireless connectivity
+ Huge package of OC-essential accessories and documentations
- Would be costly
- Mixed feeling of overclocking performance
- UEFI BIOS needs refinement
- Command Center could be improved in terms of speed and functionality
- Command Center Lite is not included
- No SATA Express port & M.2-to-SATA Express adapter
- Boot time could be faster
- Memory slot latches could have come in single clip design to prevent it from touching graphics card installed on the top PCIe 3.0 slot
- Wi-Fi AC & Bluetooth module installation is a little bit tricky
- Watercooling barbs are not removable
- Colour scheme might not be so attractive for some of us
MSI Z97 XPower AC received Silver Award from OCDrift.com
Disclaimer: OCDrift.com gives out our own award based on the Hardware Performance, OverClocking Ability, Innovation, and Value as determined by the reviewer
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