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MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon Motherboard Review

AkG

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Whenever a new processor line is introduced, motherboard vendors usually go nuts and create all manner of next generation products based off of a new chipset. But what happens when the chipset is carried over without any changes from the previous generation? It’s happened in the past with Intel’s X79 platform, AMD’s ages-old 990FX and now Intel’s ultra expensive Broadwell lineup is tied at the hip to a chipset which was launched nearly two years ago. No one is taking Broadwell-E sitting down, least of all MSI. Their new X99A Gaming Pro Carbon highlights a situation where even though the underlying chipset hasn’t changed, it’s still possible to completely modernize a motherboard.

While the X99 chipset has certainly become synonymous with performance and longevity, Intel's decision to extend its service life to the new Broadwell-E generation was controversial. While Z170 has received a litany of chipset-bound PCI-E lanes for high bandwidth I/O, X99 hasn’t. Intel happens to disagree with any assessment of obsolescence and feels that their current PCH is still more than capable of supporting the Broadwell-E ecosystem. On the surface such a decision does make a certain amount of sense as the existing combination of a massive quad channel DDR4 memory bus, epic core count, and large number of PCI-E lanes has been a winning formula.

Whether or not you agree with Intel, beyond a shadow of doubt this <i>has</i> placed motherboard manufactures in a rather difficult and precarious position. Instead of at least being able to rely upon a new PCH to help sell their next generation 2011-v3 motherboards they instead have to find ways of persuading consumers with existing Broadwell-E capable motherboards (via a simple firmware upgrade) that purchasing a new board along with the new processor makes more sense than a simple (and free) firmware update. That is a difficult task given the fact that socket 2011-v3 X99 motherboards were never known for their affordability to begin with and the 'second generation' X99 based motherboards are not likely to change this perception.

So on to this MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon, a board which is representative of the steps this design philosophy has taken to its logical conclusion – and boy is it ever a nice conclusion for consumers. This is one heck of a value-focused motherboard.

Even with a reasonable price tag of $330, the MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon features an 8-phase 'Military Class V' CPU power design that provides more than enough power, even during high overclocking sessions. Further helping overclockers get the most from these next generation Intel processors, MSI includes not only their custom OC Engine that features 100/125/167 MHz straps, but also their 'Turbo' Socket which has 2036 pins instead of the usual 2011 pins.

On the RAM side of the equation there’s some drastic improvements as well via a rather robust dedicated all digital power delivery system, electronically separated pathways and EMI shielding ('DDR4 Steel Armor') for the DIMMS as well. This promises to allow better memory overclocking which is why this 2011-v3 motherboard supports speeds of up to DDR4-3466+.

On the sound side of things MSI has pulled out all the stops and includes their Audio Boost 3 with Nahimic enhancements for crystal clear sound in and out of gaming environments. In addition to EMI shielding this Realtek ALC1150 based sound solution comes with dedicated <i>dual</i> op-amps, and Nippon Chemi-Con capacitors alongside an isolated PCB to further reduce EMI. This promises to be one potent sound solution.

On top of all these extremely enticing features MSI has also included a few more that are sure to satisfy. Firstly, this is the world's first motherboard to come equipped with a front header USB 3.0 Type-C port. This alone makes the Carbon rather special since up until now all USB3.1 Gen 1 (aka USB 3.0) Type-C ports have always been located on the rear I/O panel – making them less than user-friendly for portable devices! This however is only one of the special features this Gaming Pro Carbon motherboard offers.

In addition to a very stylish carbon fiber and steel (via the Steel Armored PCIe slots) design this board also comes with Mystic Light RGB (16.8 million color) LED lighting effects that allow the heatsinks, rear IO shield and the audio portion to glow. Not only can these colors can be controlled via WiFi and a special application, but they can be set up to show the CPU temperature – so with just a look you can tell if the processor is hitting a thermal wall. There’s even a dedicated Mystic Light Extension header for RGB strip lighting (not included) so that you can take this Mystic lighting to the next level and really customize your rig.

If all that was not enough MSI also includes two more features that will surely seal the deal for numerous enthusiasts. In addition to the x4 M.2 2280 port there’s a honest to god U.2 port. Of course the M.2, U.2 and the fourth PCIe x16 slot share lanes, but with access to U.2 the chances of anyone using anything besides that port (or one of the other PCIe ports) is slim to say the least.

Taken as a whole, on paper at least the MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon seems like it may have everything any typical enthusiast could want. Based on previous generation MSI X99 motherboards we do have high expectations for this motherboard, and given its asking price of $330 USD it does need to not only live up to our expectations but surpass them in order to successfully argue why consumers of existing X99 motherboards <i>need</i> to upgrade to these '2.0' models.

<div align="center"><img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/MSI_X99A_Gaming_Pro_Carbon/mfg.jpg" border="0" alt="" /></div>
 
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AkG

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The X99 Chipset; More Lives than Disco?

The X99 Chipset; More Lives than Disco?


The new Broadwell-E processors obviously represent a large step towards enhancing the efficiency and performance of Intel’s enthusiast platform. Unfortunately, the X99 platform itself has remained relatively untouched despite several interfaces like U.2, M.2, Thunderbolt and USB 3.1 requiring an ever increasing amount of bandwidth. That doesn’t bode well for a series of motherboards that promises –in general at least- to cost more than their Z170 siblings.

Now before you start running at Intel with pitchforks and torches, remember this is actually not without precedent. X79 continued from Sandy Bridge-E onto Ivy Bridge-E without any noteworthy changes since its Platform Controller Hub included (at least in Intel’s mind) enough PCI-E lanes, SATA ports and other I/O elements for that generation’s needs. Enthusiasts had other ideas since, when compared to Intel’s less expensive Z97 its capabilities in the realms of native USB 3.0 support and Thunderbolt compatibility were missing in action.

The situation is actually the same now with Z170 and the X99 / Wellsburg PCH; Intel’s mainstream platform has included enhanced storage compatibility through the use of native PCI-E 3.0 lanes whereas X99 muddles along with PCI-E 2.0. As a result, motherboard vendors are being forced to come up with unique and sometimes performance-sacrificing methods to include the interfaces their high end clients expect.


From a high level view the changes to X99 are limited at best but there is a positive spin to the lack of movement as well: since the LGA 2011-v3 socket and tertiary functions remain the same, these boards are compatible with Haswell-E CPUs. In addition, Broadwell-E processors are simple drop-in upgrades for first gen X99 boards provided a BIOS update is done. Now there are some very minor changes to path circuitry being done on these newer products but there’s nothing on them which would impede their predecessors from operating just as well.

Anyways, onto those “changes”. Both the firmware and BIOS support has been updated to work properly with Broadwell-E CPUs while Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology stack has been enhanced as well. The latter is of particular importance since it allows for more efficient communications through multi-drive NVMe and PCI-E storage connections. For the record, you can apply its changes to your existing X99 motherboard as well once the drivers become available.

Another item being rolled into Broadwell-E is compatibility with DDR4-2400 memory. However this is something of a red herring since Haswell-E processors had no problems working with substantially faster RAM speed bins and neither should these new chips. This is a purely system integrator driven specification and the market Broadwell-E is targeted towards will naturally push their modules far beyond this.

High level graphics card usage is what the Broadwell-E platform lives and dies by. That means things Z170 users can only dream of accomplishing; setups with two high end GPUs feeding through a pair of Gen3 x16 interfaces or triple / quad card rigs. There are some caveats with 28-lan Broadwell-E processors and we’ll get into that below. Also, NVIDIA recently put a dent in Intel’s plans by announcing their focus on dual card configurations but that’s a topic best broached another time.

Despite these minor revisions X99 looks very much like a platform which was launched three years ago, at least on the PCH side. Granted it does incorporate native USB 3.0 ports but those PCI-E 2.0 lanes are completely insufficient for feeding current and future high bandwidth storage solutions. Z170 meanwhile incorporates PCH-based Gen3 lanes which allow a lot more flexibility for motherboard designers. Broadwell-E motherboards will either need to rely upon their CPU-originating PCI-E 3.0 lanes or use expensive bridge chips to multiply the number of lanes they have available.



In most situations the lack of additional PCI-E 3.0 lanes won’t be a hindrance provided you don’t want to run a serious amount of storage hardware. Compatibility also largely depends upon which CPU you choose. On most mid-range (read: $300 or less) X99 motherboards with a 40-lane processor installed either an M.2 or U.2 connector will become unusable when more than two GPUs are used. Higher end boards with those aforementioned bridge chips likely won’t encounter those hiccups. Just remember there’s no certainty to any of these statements since motherboard manufacturers are free to set up their products however they like.

When switching to the i7-6800K, things become a lot less clearly defined on a number of different fronts. Not only will dual discrete GPU systems be running at x16 / x8 speeds instead of x16 / x16 but quad card setups will be impossible without a bridge chip. In addition those 28 lanes leave previous little available Gen3 bandwidth for secondary devices like PCI-E based storage so many motherboard vendors will disable certain ports when the i7-6800K is detected.

Like previous generations, many of the changes between first generation X99 boards and their replacements fall into two areas: cosmetic ones and features that were present on Z170 boards being carried over to X99. For example, MSI is including upgraded sound subsystems, RGB lighting and other items onto their new X99 Gen2 products while ASUS, EVGA and Gigabyte are all doing it as well.

In some ways Z170 is being utilized as a proving ground for technologies which should eventually be rolled into Intel’s promised Skylake-E systems. Unfortunately that means Broadwell-E and X99, solutions supposedly designed for enthusiasts who want cutting edge tech, end up being left out in the cold more often than not. The question remains though: does this incapacitate the processors themselves? That’s up to buyers to decide.
 
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AkG

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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories




Unlike previous generations of 'Carbon' models the all newset MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon shipping container makes use of a more mature and lower key box that unfortunately doesn't have a front design that showcases the motherboard itself.



Once you remove the outside packaging, you are greeted with an inner box that contains two separate sections. The top half houses the motherboard in an anti-static bag and cardboard tray, while the bottom half contains the software, documentation and various accessories included with this new MSI motherboard.

Overall the included accessory list is standard MSI with new surprises to be found. That is to say it is good, but if consumers are expecting to find WiFi adapter or even a front panel Type-C 5.25" bay accessory they will be sorely disappointed – as such features are not included with MSI X99 motherboards in this price range.


On the positive side the accessory list is complete and covers all the bases nicely. There’s two 2-way SLI bridge connectors, eight SATA 6Gb/s cables, quick connect front-panel connector, a door knob hanger, accessory installation pamphlet, warranty pamphlet, user manual, and installation DVD with software and drivers.

In addition to all that buyers can expect to find a Gaming Series sticker and cable labeling stickers that make tracing which SATA cable go to what device far easier. Also on the positive side, the I/O shield is a high-end model with padded insulation that is much, much easier to work with than the old fashioned metal only style. Then on top of all this are two Mystic Light extension cables to further increase the light output this motherboard is capable of.
 
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AkG

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A Closer Look at the MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon

A Closer Look at the MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon



The MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon is a much more mature and refined version of previous Gaming Pro Carbon models. The aesthetics can be compared to a “murdered out” car with an all black color scheme. Now some potential buyers may not appreciate the complete lack of color accents but of you want that extra touch, that’s what the LEDs are for. Without the LEDs this thing is elegant and refined looking.

Despite the lack of gaudy additions, make no mistake about it; this new model still has its feet firmly planted in the Gaming genre, and is absolutely full of features that will appeal to even the most hardcore 'PC MasterRace' diehard.


Features like built in Mystic Lighting that can turn this rather elegant and low key looking motherboard into the most eye catching, chest-thumping component imaginable. Basically MSI has finally created the modern day version of a 1970's Copo Camaro. Made famous in the 1970s for being seemingly innocuous looking cars, those 'COPO' Camaros were anything but and when the owners wanted to they could out and out destroy most more in-your-face fast cars.

While our general thoughts of component-based lighting trend towards the “underglow doesn’t add horsepower!” mentality, we actually like what MSI has done here. Instead of adding color to the board itself, the X99A Carbon retains the aforementioned neutral color scheme and allows users to customize every aspect of the lighting to suit their other components. Brilliant stuff.


That COPO Camaro analogy is one that fits this model to a 'T', as you the owner are in full control. For work hours, the MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon can be as low key and professional looking as you could ever hope for, but then with a simple command entered into an app on your phone (or via the Windows app) you can then turn it into one of the most aggressive and eye catching motherboards we have seen.



Unlike earlier generations’ boards like the Gigabyte Sniper models, at no time will the MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon ever be accused of being garish. That is a rather impressive accomplishment to say the least as it is no mean feat wooing the younger PC gaming crowd without also turning off the more mature gaming crowd.


MSI was able to accomplish this by being more strategic in their placement of LEDs. Instead of taking page from the Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon and simply including a strip of LEDS along the edge of the motherboard’s edge, MSI has built the LEDS into the various fascia covering and heatsinks. This not only allows this motherboard to have multiple areas that can glow, but with the more down-firing nature of this setup, it provides a slightly more muted 'glow' than the “glow stick waving raver in a mosh pit” that some consider the Z170 Gaming Pro Carbon to resemble. Of course when the LEDS are off this additional fascia covering also helps give the motherboard a much more serious and thoughtful look – thus the extreme duality of this motherboards aesthetics.

There’s something else to appreciate about this setup as well: heat reduction. Like it or not LEDs do cause a certain amount of heat buildup so mounting them directly to the PCB causes a an associated temperature increase. MSI has found a way around this potential issue by avoiding it completely an mounting the LEDs away from the missing critical PCB and onto heatsinks.


The looks however are only the thin edge of the wedge with this model, and while the advanced features like 16.8 million color combination LED lighting will grab some people’s attention this model has what is easily the best layout and design we have seen from any MSI motherboard to date. Almost every feature is not only perfectly placed and easy to use but MSI has gone the extra mile and included features that may not appeal to everyone but will make life a lot easier for those that need them. For example, not many will be interested in the integrated U.2 port, but those with U.2 storage device will love not needing to use an M.2 to U.2 adapter.


The addition of native U.2 compatibility is certainly nice, but the best example of this outside the box thinking is the inclusion of a USB 3.1 Type-C front panel header. Not everyone will need or want a Type-C port on the front of their case but this single feature will make life a lot easier for consumers that do need it. There’s also a great amount of future-proofing involved here since even though you may not need USB 3.1 right now, devices using it are beginning to be much more prevalent these days.

Unfortunately, since the Carbon is a slightly more budget-focused model, this Type-C port is not connected to a dedicated (and expensive!) USB 3.1 controller. Instead it is directly connected to the X99 PCH. In practical terms this leads to this Type-C port being limited to 'USB 3.0' speeds as the aging X99 PCH has not been given a USB 10Gb/s performance boost. One does have to wonder if Intel not upgrading the X99 caught MSI by surprise and this feature was built around the 'expected' upgraded PCH (which is rumored to eventually have USB 3.1 G2 abilities). In either case this Type-C port may not provide as much performance, nor power as a 'real' Type-C port but it is much better than using a Type-A to Type-C adapter.

Also on the positive side is MSI includes two more typical USB 3.0 (aka USB 3.1 Gen 1) front panel headers, with one being angled 90° for easier insertion. Both are properly positioned so as to not interfere with any of the motherboard’s other ports. As with the lone Type-C connector these critical headers are directly connected to the X99 PCH. This combination allows consumers the luxury of having five USB 3.0 ports on the front of their case when not that long ago two was considered average.
 
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AkG

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A Closer Look at the MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon pg.2

A Closer Look at the MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon pg.2



Nestled in between the USB headers and the U.2 port is the first block of six SATA ports, all of which have the now standard 90° angled orientation. There’s also a pair of other areas (both with two additional connectors) with upwards pointing SATA interfaces. This gives a grand total of one U.2 port, one PCIe x4 enabled M.2 port, one SATA-Express port, and ten SATA 6Gb/s ports – which is a nice selection of storage options indeed!



Between the standard Reset and Power buttons likes a dial and red 'easy button' which are connected to a physical controller for the onboard OC Genie features. Basically by simply dialing in an automatic overclock setting, pressing the red button and then rebooting leads to a painless painless overclocking experience of varying performance levels - more on this later in the review!

Put simply this is the fastest, easiest way to overclock a system anyone could hope to find and while it does not happen in real time, a single reboot is a small price to pay given the significant performance boost MSI and this X99 Gaming Pro Carbon offers consumers. Brilliant stuff!


Now while there may indeed be thirteen storage ports of varying performance, that is not the same as saying users can actually use thirteen storage devices at the same time. There are a few limitations that directly stem from the aging X99 PCH and its innate limitations.

Due to its location – in front of the x1 PCIe slot – the 'Steel Amor' clad M.2 port is limited to 80mm or shorter cards. This isn’t a showstopper since M2280 is the most common form-factor for modern NVMe M.2 cards. However, the lone M.2 port does share its lanes with the U.2 port, as well as the bottommost 'x16' PCIe slot. This makes the U.2 and M.2 connectors an 'either or' deal so users can either install an NVMe M.2 drive or an NVMe U.2 drive.

It is also noteworthy that you cannot circumvent this by simply using a SATA-based M2. device as this will disable the two SATA ports next to the SATA-Express port. It also bears mentioning that if by some odd twist of fate, someone manages to obtain a SATA-Express enabled device, those two selfsame SATA 6Gb/s ports will also be disabled.


In practical terms what all this means is a very narrow subset of users will be able to utilize ten SATA devices, and either the bottommost PCIe x16 slot, or the U.2 port or the M.2 port – and completely ignore the SATA-Express port all together.

Most of these constraints could have been avoided by the use of a PCIe bridge chipset and a discrete SATA Express controller chipset. Instead all the devices either rely directly upon PCIe lanes via the CPU or the aging X99. Given the somewhat reasonable asking price we understand why MSI was hesitant to include additional budget busting features that would be of use to almost no-one.


Moving on it really doesn’t take a keen eye to see that MSI is one of the first to take the whole 'armoring' its logical conclusion and 'armor' not only the PCIe slots but also the eight DIMMS as well. Needless to say all this steel does give the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon a rather distinctive and professional look. Whether or not this 'Steel Armor' does what it claims to do and reduces EMI interference is debatable.

The armoring does however serve a second purpose: it increases the strength and durability of the RAM and PCIe x16 slots. This will be useful when dealing with heavy 2.5 or 3 slot GPU designs and large DDR4 RAM with active cooling requirements. As such we consider Steel Armor to be more than just a pretty face. Oddly enough the two PCIe x1 slots do not get this makeover.


The primary PCI-E slot layout is very well done if a touch unusual. Usually an ATX form-factor motherboard comes equipped with seven slots in total. The combination of x1 and x16 may vary but generally speaking the total is seven. The X99A Gaming Pro Carbon on the other hand comes with only six.

Removing the topmost slot this has given MSI the luxury of moving the DIMMS and their power delivery system down ever so slightly – approximately half a slot width. This is how MSI was able to create a CPU socket area that is extremely clean and clutter free. However, the distance between the DIMMS and the first x16 slot is still more than enough that there’s no need to worry about installing memory modules before installing a video card – or conversely having to uninstall the video card before being able to swap out the RAM. This is truly impressive engineering, and we fully expect other manufacturers to follow suit in the near future.

The change to the number of slots is not without its consequences. It is arguable that the loss of a single PCIe x1 slot won’t matter all that much as there are still two of them, but it does cause a domino effect on the x16 slot layout. Instead of being able to populate all four x16 slots with dual slot video cards, the MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon can only accommodate three dual slot GPUs.


While there is technically only a single 4-pin fan header dedicated to CPU cooling solutions, this motherboard offers three 4-pin fan headers. There’s one for the CPU fan itself (that can easily handle two fans via fan splitter cable), another by a conveniently located 'system fan' header (which can also accommodate and control two high performance fans), and then a third. Obviously MSI listened to consumer feedback and much like ASUS now includes a 'dedicated' water pump 4pin header for AIO and CLC water based CPU cooling solutions. This is a major improvement for MSI and once again makes this motherboard one of the most impressive MSI motherboards we’ve seen to date.


Located near the water pump and system fan is the two digit onboard diagnostics LED panel. This debug panel does make troubleshooting a lot easier than it used to be. As a nifty added bonus, when the system is fully booted up and the OS loaded, this two digit LED panel will automatically start to display the CPU temperature. Just be aware that the temperature displayed is usually on the cool side. For example, when our CPU was showing '47' in AIDIA monitor, the display was showing '42' which is odd considering both take their readings from the same location.


Interestingly enough MSI has also included multiple diagnostic LEDs that glow when there is a problem in one of a few key areas (‘CPU’, ‘DRAM’, and ‘VGA’). It is arguable if this doubling up diagnostic abilities is all that helpful – as the code on the 2-digit LED display will tell you what is happening anyways. However, having more options is never a bad thing, especially when a new build goes sideways and you have to figure out what the problem is before you can even begin to fix it!
 
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AkG

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A Closer Look at the MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon pg.3

A Closer Look at the MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon pg.3



The star of any motherboard, especially just after a new CPU generation is launched, is the CPU socket and surrounding area. In many ways socket 2011-v3 motherboards have a built-in advantage over socket 115x based systems as the area between the rear IO ports and the CPU socket cannot be used by the motherboard design team for an additional VRM heatsink. Generally speaking, this allows for a substantially less cluttered CPU socket.

The new MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon is no exception in this regard and is actually above average by even socket 2011-v3 standards. As you can see there is a generous amount of clearance area around the socket and so we do not foresee many compatibility issues with most reputable aftermarket CPU cooling solutions (be they air or water based). Of course enthusiasts using sub-zero and even phase change cooling devices may run into some problems, but even here any installation issues shouldn’t be insurmountable.

MSI has included their own custom 'Turbo Socket' CPU socket that contains 25 extra pins (2036 instead of the reference 2011). These supposedly give enthusiasts more control over the DDR4 memory and ring voltage. By distributing the CPU power over more pins, supposedly more performance can be obtained at extremely high overclocking levels. It is unlikely that the average consumer will notice any difference, but it may just make the difference between a stable and unstabled overclock.


Powering this 'Turbo Socket' is an 8-phase 'Military Class 5' based power delivery system which relies upon a hybrid digital Intersil ISL6388 PWM controller. Of course it is not a true 8-phase design and rather is a 6+2 design with the two additional phases being doubled up via virtual phases via Intersil ISL6611A phase doublers.

It is slightly disappointing to see that MSI has once again not opted for an all-digital based design but the combination of 10-year rated Dark Caps and Titanium core chokes is still a very potent combination.


In addition to being electronically separated from the rest of the board the two banks of DIMMS also get their own power delivery system. In this case each bank is powered by a 2-phase based design which relies upon Powervation's Dual-phase PV3203 controller. Interestingly enough this is an all-digital controller rather than being hybridized. As already mentioned in the introduction, the DDR4 slots on this board support overclocking of up to DDR4-3466 speeds and support Intel’s XMP 2.0 profiles.


To keep the main power delivery subsystem cool MSI has gone with a large and attractive heatsink which is not only attached to the motherboard via screws, but also uses a robust backplate on the underside for additional support. This backplate helps cool the numerous components that have been placed on the board’s underside. While we prefer to see the back of a motherboard free of such components the combination of a thick heatsink and heatpad should keep these critical components well within temperature tolerance. More to the point this too is how MSI was able to keep the CPU socket so clear and clutter free.


Moving on to the rear I/O panel we can see that MSI has included a very nice selection of features which we are about to get into.


As expected MSI has included USB 3.1 Gen2 (aka full speed USB 3.1) abilities via one Type A and one Type C port. Since the aging X99 PCH still does not have built-in 10Gb/s USB abilities MSI has opted for a first generation ASMedia ASM1142 controller. It is unfortunate that they did not use the more powerful Intel USB 3.1 controller as this would have also granted the Carbon motherboard ThunderBolt III abilities, but the ASMedia controller is still a greatl option for a motherboard in this price range.


It is arguable whether or not including only one wired Ethernet port is all that important as most users will never want to use anything other than the one MSI has included. To be specific this Ethernet port is directly connected to an Intel i218v IC. This may not be one of the newer Intel i219v controllers but given the price niche this motherboard resides in the use of any Intel NIC is better than average.


Rounding out the rear IO features are four USB 2.0 ports (black), four USB 3.0 ports (red), a clear CMOS button, a PS/2 port, five analog audio ports, and an S/PDIF optical out port. This is a very well rounded list of options, but the most noteworthy part is the fact that the USB 3.0 (USB 3.1 gen 1) ports are not directly attached to the X99 PCH like the four USB 2.0 ports are, nor do they go to the PCH via a Renesas USB 3.0 HUB. Instead MSI has opted for the rather unusual VIA VL805 controller. This controller was first released way back in 2012 and while still used on a handful of motherboards – usually of the AMD variety – it is mainly used for add-in card adapters, giving old systems USB 3.0 abilities before USB 3.0 became a standard feature.


The onboard sound solution is extremely capable. In addition to electronically separating this part of the motherboard from the rest, and using the Realtek ALC1150 8-channel audio CODEC, and Chemi-con audio capacitors, MSI has included three Texas Instruments' OP1652 op-amps. Two are dedicated to the 'headphone' channel while the other one is for the surround sound channels. The only things which differentiate this sound solution from those which ship on $500 motherboards is basically an EMI shield for the ALC1150 controller, a de-pop switch, and a few other minor details. Put another way this is the best damn sound solution we have seen on a budget orientated X99 motherboard.
 
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BIOS Rundown (EZ Mode)

BIOS Rundown (EZ Mode)



As this is best described as a 'refresh' rather than an entirely new generation of motherboard it comes as no surprise that MSI has carried over their Click BIOS 5 from the 'earlier' X99 based products. This is not precisely a bad thing as MSI has worked hard to make their GUI-based BIOS as user-friendly and as powerful as possible, and this hard work does pay dividends.

More to the point MSI has improved and refined things to the point where this is easily the best BIOS we have seen them ship to date. It may still be most aptly described as quirky in its navigation, but it is filled with advanced features that do make up for the unusual layout.


As with previous Click BIOS 5 models, when first entering the BIOS there’s a single screen that uses large icons and simplistic language. This "EZ Mode" is instantly responsive to your input commands and there is almost no noticeable lag. MSI did however include a few transition delays when switching from one section to another, but this is an intentional design feature that makes the new UEFI more aesthetically pleasing.


As the name suggests the EZ Mode of Click BIOS 5 boasts a simplified layout and features a mouse-friendly GPU that prioritizes ease of use and navigation. It obviously does’t have all the functionality of the MSI’s “advanced” mode. However, MSI has taken the EZ Mode and made it into a more powerful section than what even ASUS offers in their EZ Mode.


In addition to being able to use MSI's fan tuning wizard, change boot priority, implement XMP RAM profiles, and even turn on Game Boost (or what was once called OC Genie), you can also access a fully enabled hardware monitor to help troubleshoot common issues. There are also options for Fast Boot, turning on or off the Ethernet or onboard sound controllers, configuring the SATA devices to use (or not use) AHCI/RAID mode and even view a BIOS log to review any changes previously made.

This last feature is also perfect when troubleshooting issues that suddenly occur after a reboot. On top of all that you can also enter M-Flash to update your BIOS firmware, and access your own custom Favorites page, albeit it is empty by default, all without ever having to enter the actual Advanced Mode.
 
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BIOS Rundown (Advanced Mode)

BIOS Rundown (Advanced Mode)



For anyone craving more control the Advanced Mode is key. They will be greeted with what enthusiasts have come to expect from MSI: a BIOS made for enthusiasts, by enthusiasts. Catering almost exclusively to experienced PC users does come at a price though, as this BIOS never goes out its way to actually help you understand the workflow that it was designed around. Basically you’ll have to understand and accept that this BIOS is laid out just like certain older websites with a header section and three columns.

Just as with a website the header section never changes and this is where you will find basic tasks such as change boot order, enabled XMP or the various Game Boost sections – more on this in a moment – as well a basic information overview for CPU and RAM speeds.


Now before getting into the meat of this BIOS, the odd looking Game Boost button does need some explanation. In its default state the BIOS assumes everyone will want to adjust the automatic overclocking profile via that physical knob we talked about a few pages ago. This is represented by a HW (or “hardware”) in the center of the red button. In order to modify which Game Boost setting to use this button must be clicked upon at which point the HW will change to SW (or “software”) and the various options encircling it will be active. Simply clicking on the appropriate number will active it. The active software-based Game Boost setting will be shown via a small red diamond shaped icon. This is all fairly simple, albeit a touch convoluted.

On the positive side the XMP button is extremely straightforward. Press the icon so that its changed from a gray 'Off' to a red 'On' and your DDR4 RAM kit's built-in XMP profile will be activated.

The left and right columns are your main navigation sections and when one is selected the centermost column will change to reflect that sub-menu's options. The left and right columns are dedicated to navigation for Settings, OC, M-Flash, OC Profile, Hardware Monitor, and Board Explorer with the first three being located in the left hand column and the last three in the right. All of these dynamically change the center portion from the default MSI (new and improved) Gaming Series "Dragon badge" image.

With all of these items being displayed at the same time, MSI has left about 1/3 of the screen to work inside of. This is akin to navigating a webpage using its mobile web-portal while using a 27” desktop monitor. Sure, there is a method to MSI’s madness as it does promote –once you get over the learning curve- quick and efficient navigation but cramming all the important settings into a constrained area means modifying values quickly becomes tedious.


The Settings menu is the section where you will find the bulk of the BIOS's settings. The System Status sub-menu meanwhile lists some basic system information, including the date and time, standard storage devices, BIOS version, a few processor cache tidbits and the amount of memory installed.


The Advanced sub-menu is also where you can enable/disable or just find all the various settings and options for all the onboard devices like the audio, LAN, USB 3.0, SATA ports, etc.


The Boot sub-menu is essentially where storage device priority can be set, boot drives are selected, the full screen logo can be enabled or disabled, and ton of other boot settings that can help with the installation or troubleshooting of various OS installations can be modified. The Security sub-menu is where you can set the administrator and individual user passwords, as well as enable or disable chassis intrusion feature. There is also a Save & Exit option but that seems redundant since you can just hit the F10 key instead.
 
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AkG

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5,284
BIOS Rundown (Advanced Mode) – pg.2

BIOS Rundown (Advanced Mode) – pg.2



The OC menu is where most enthusiasts will spend their time. Simply put, these pages easily make up for the quirky UI. The list of features and settings for options is insanely long and we doubt many will find a feature missing. The amount of detail here is nothing short of impressive. Of especial note is the "Memory Try It!" option which comes with numerous presets built around very specific DDR4 RAM ICs. As long as you know which ICs are being used by your RAM Kit, you can probably find it here and turn tedious ram overclocking into a one click affair. Brilliant stuff!


As its name suggests, the Advanced DRAM Configuration section is where you will find all the memory-related settings. Within this section you can select and change all the memory settings, and each memory channel has its own area, from which you can alter the primary and secondary timings. It has just about every memory modifier that an enthusiast or overclocker would need to fine-tune their modules.

Each of the main subsections defaults to a closed list making scrolling to the proper subgroup faster for experienced users, but more time consuming for novices as they will have to manually enlarge each sub-section before being able to see the options. As we said this is a BIOS meant for enthusiasts and the learning curve can be very, very steep.


The CPU Specifications sub-section is where you can find all of the extensions that the processor you have installed supports, while the Memory-Z lists most of the important memory timings for each module you have installed. The M-Flash section is the built-in utility that greatly simplifies the BIOS updating process. Here, the BIOS can be updated from a ROM file located on your hard drive(s) or USB flash drive(s). It is quick, painless, and it takes the worry out of BIOS flashing.


The Hardware Monitor section is dedicated to the monitoring of the various voltages, temperatures, and fan speeds. This whole section is quite comprehensive and it has all the essential temperature and voltage readouts that you would expect. It also has improved fan control functionality thanks to real-time fan speed graphs with four manually adjustable RPM points.

For those that prefer a more hands-off approach, there is also a Smart Fan Mode that can intelligently manage fan speeds based on CPU and/or system temperatures.

The last top level menu option – ‘Board Explorer’ - is an interactive map of the motherboard and what is attached to it. By clicking on any of the highlighted areas you can easily pull up detailed information.


By pressing on the little heart icon in the top right corner you are brought to the somewhat hidden Favorites section. As with previous MSI Click BIOS 5 models this section allows a user to compile all their most-used settings in one place, so they no longer have to search through the whole bios to find what’s needed time and time again. Unfortunately, this section is still not populated and you will have to manually add in each and every 'Favorite' one by one…by one.

Before you save your settings and exit the BIOS, there is a handy window that lists the changes were made during the last session. It is a well thought out and implemented idea that we like to see on all modern systems.
 
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AkG

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5,284
Included Software (Command Center)

Included Software (Command Center)



The most important utility in MSI's software suite is the Command Center. Although MSI still has a few standalone apps for different functions, the CC can be used for a diverse range of tasks. This system management utility is the hub from which you can monitor system clock speeds, voltages, temperatures, and fan rotation but more importantly it allows users to do both automatic and manual overclocking from within Windows.


The Command Center initially opens to the CPU section, where you can see the current CPU multiplier(s) and the BCLK frequency. You can manually change the multiplier for any one or all of the cores, as well as increase or decrease both the base clock and CPU core voltage on-the-fly. The DRAM section allows you to change the memory frequency, as well as alter the DRAM voltage (for each channel).


The IGP section allows you to control the Integrated Graphics Processor.... which does not come with the 2011-v3 processors. Obviously MSI recycled this 'section' from earlier generations and it will be removed in the next software upgrade.


The last tab is the Game BOOST section is where you will find the automatic overclocking feature, though as you will see in our software overclocking section, it is nowhere as versatile or aggressive as ASUS's implementation, but it does work.


In addition to these four features, there are additional sections at the bottom of each section which allow you to launch further capabilities. In the Advanced section, you can manually change most system voltages, finely tune all system fans, or even tweak most of the crucial DRAM timings.


The Settings section is where you can record system voltages, fan speeds, and system temperatures. You can also establish high or low voltage, fan speed, and system temperature warnings. As its name suggests, the Information section is just some fundamental information about the specifications about the motherboard, the processor, and the system memory. However, there is also a Hardware Monitor that allows you to monitor system voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures - much like the BIOS' Board Explorer feature.
 
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