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MSI Z170A Tomahawk AC Motherboard Review

SKYMTL

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The Z170 market is a confusing one with the main motherboard manufacturers each boasting dozens of products, many of which are extremely similar if not carbon copies of one another. Like Gigabyte and ASUS, MSI is guilty of this market saturation as well, particularly between the $125 and $175 price points where they have no fewer than eleven different motherboards. In today’s review we’ll be looking at the Z170A Tomahawk AC, an affordable yet extremely feature-rich motherboard that breaks with the sameness the market has been experiencing in some pretty unique ways.

Trying to market Z170 motherboards hasn’t been easy since the processors they’re attached to have struggled to distinguish themselves from the generation they replaced. However, the platform itself represents something of a renaissance moment from a connectivity standpoint since elements like M.2, USB-C and numerous other features that used to be only available on the enthusiast-grade X99 platform are now more accessible than ever. An excellent example of these market forces at work is the all new MSI Z170A Tomahawk AC.

This newcomer to the marketplace is part of MSI’s Arsenal series and as such is focused with laser like intensity on the PC gamers; but unlike most so-called ‘gaming’ motherboards we have looked at, the $135 Z170A Tomahawk AC is not priced to stratospheric levels. When compared to so called entry level ASUS Republic of Gamers motherboards this looks like a downright bargain.

While this motherboard may be frugally priced, that is not the same as saying it is <i>cheap</i>. Instead of boatloads of cutting-edge features MSI has simplified the motherboard and packed a lot of value added items that are focused upon improving a user’s gaming experience. This is why you won’t find any fancy plastic fascia coverings, metal clad PCI-E ports, U.2 ports, multiple M.2 storage options, or even a massive number of SATA ports. Instead MSI has spent most of their time, energy, and budget in a few critical areas: the onboard sound, network connectivity, overclocking, and USB connectivity. These four areas combine to create what MSI hopes is a winning formula that can make an already reasonably priced motherboard into one that speaks directly to its intended audience.

For the onboard sound solution MSI has opted for the 7.1 channel capable Realtek ALC892 controller. While this controller is not as potent as the ALC1150, its capabilities are still well regarded, especially when combined with Japanese Chemicon caps and an isolated section of the PCB to cut down on interference. The Realtek controller’s drivers are arguably more stable than their SoundBlaster counterparts so what they give up in fancy advanced software abilities they make up for in actually working properly. Unfortunately, MSI hasn’t included any op-amps (not even $2 Texas Instrument op-amps), nor have they added any advanced features like an EMI shield, or de-pop relay. Put another way this sound solution is barebones, but as it is electronically separated from the rest of the motherboard, its abilities should still be more than good enough to satisfy the typical entry level consumer – who will not be using $1000 speaker systems!

For making overclocking as simple as possible MSI has not only added support for DDR4-3600 speeds right into this board’s DNA, but also included a very decent power delivery subsystem that makes use of high quality ‘military grade’ components that have a reputation for durability and stability. Automatic overclocking gets some emphasis as well, being a single BIOS button press away as this board comes with what MSI is calling ‘Game Boost’ - or what used to be called OC Genie. A single button press is about as easy as can be, and yet Game Boost does promise to deliver a noticeable increase in performance – more on this later in the review.

The two real stars of this motherboard though are the networking options and connectivity. For USB 3.1 abilities MSI has opted for the ASMedia controller that is fighting tooth and nail to stay relevant in the face of Intel’s more powerful option, but is still much more potent a controller than the typical entry level consumer has access to. On the networking side of the equation MSI may only include a single Realtek RTL8111H-based RJ45 port, but they also do something more expensive ASUS RoG boards cannot: include full Wireless 802.11AC!

The included dual band WiFi + Bluetooth 4.0 capable M.2 card really, really does push this motherboard over the edge and potentially into best in class territory. It is this combination of features and price that demanded we take a closer look. When you mix in additional value added items such as onboard LEDs and 24 hour component testing at the factory level, the end result is the Z170A Tomahawk AC may not just be a good <i>gaming</i> orientated product but a great <i>all round</i> motherboard as well.

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SKYMTL

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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories



As this is a new series from MSI we were very interested in seeing the direction they would take with the packaging. In this case they have gone down the green faux weapons crate route, right down to fake carry handles and Tomahawk images printed on top. Considering Gigabyte – and others – did such things generations ago this does smack of ‘me too’ desperation and we have to wonder how much the “weaponized” approach really appeals to today’s gamers.


Once you open the packaging, you are greeted with an inner box that contains two separate sections. The top half holds the motherboard in an anti-static bag while the bottom half contains the software, documentation and various accessories included with this rather inexpensive motherboard.


Considering the Tomahawk AC’s price, the accessory list is quite complete – bordering on insane. In addition to the usual software disc and manuals, buyers can expect to find four SATA 6Gb/s cables, a small M.2 2230 mounting bracket, IO shield, and supposedly cable labeling stickers that make tracing which SATA cable goes to what device far easier. Our sample was missing the stickers, which does smack of poor Quality Assurance, but is neither here nor there. Also missing is MSI’s optional M.2 to U.2 adapter card. Obviously such accessories are reserved for the higher end motherboards.


Making up for these minor missteps – and giving the ‘AC’ its name – is the fact that MSI includes a rather decent wireless M.2 adapter and two moderately sized antennas. This is actually the Intel 8260NGW M.2 2230 WiFi and Bluetooth adapter module which fits into any ‘E’ keyed M.2 ports
 

SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the MSI Z170A Tomahawk AC

A Closer Look at the MSI Z170A Tomahawk AC




As this is the first MSI ‘Arsenal’ motherboard on our testing bench, there was quite a bit of excitement as we endeavored to dive deep into everything it has to offer. If the Tomahawk AC is any indication the Arsenal series is all about value above all else but we already knew that.

As you can see the layout and design of this board is extremely well thought out. Even compared to the slightly more expensive MSI Gaming M5 motherboard the Tomahawk easily holds its own with overall excellent component placing but there are still a few caveats that may somewhat limit its appeal. This however is getting a touch ahead of things.


It really is impressive to see what MSI was able to do with a rather limited budget. This motherboard is downright inexpensive but its more than evident this isn't a ‘cheap’ board.

The Tomahawk is very reminiscent of previous generation MSI boards since its overall styling is best described as ‘classic’ MSI. What this means is anyone interested in either aggressive styling, or a motherboard covered with a massive plastic fascia then this motherboard should look elsewhere. On the other hand, the combination of a black PCB with red and (occasional) white accents makes it rather easy to use as the foundation for a custom system build. All that is needed is a bit of forethought in component selection that will accentuate these highlights. For example MSI’s own ‘Gaming’ line of video cards would fit perfectly with this color scheme. So too would Crucial’s recently released Ballistix Sport LP ‘Red’ line of DDR4 modules.

Put another way this board may be inexpensive but it certainly can be used inside a windowed case. This is rather impressive as many similarly inexpensive motherboards need to be hidden away from sight!


On closer examination though, a few corners were cut in order to reduce the price below that of the Gaming 5 series. The most obvious change is the PCIe slots. Like most other manufacturers, MSI has started to use EMI shields on the PCIe x16 slots but as you can see these are devoid of any metal ‘shielding’.

On the surface this does put the Tomahawk at a distinct disadvantage compared to the only slightly more expensive Gaming M5. However, on careful examination of the PCIe slots themselves you can see that these use the exact same robust mounting procedure as the Gaming M5 – or what MSI calls ‘VGA Armor’. These broader mounting points allow the slots to handle even the heaviest of video cards. In other words, they may not be as flashy as the more expensive boards, but MSI has made sure to not cut actually important features.


This substance over style, and carefully marshalling limited resources to maximize real world potential are the defining philosophies of this inexpensive motherboard and are carried over throughout. For example, while this board may indeed be missing the third, and bottom most PCIe x16 slot, this is not overly worrisome since both AMD and NVIDIA are slowly moving away from triple card setups.

In return for dropping a rather less than useful PCIe slot MSI has included not one but two PCI slots – via a ASMedia ASM1083 controller. This could actively help with support for legacy components like sound cards and whatnot.


Continuing on, the Tomahawk may ‘only’ have three PCIe x1 slots instead of four like the Gaming M5, but MSI has paid careful attention to the layout and design of all the PCI/PCIe slots so as to maximize their usefulness. Basically, this board has the exact same excellent layout to the slots that makes accessing everything quite easily. With that top slot being x1 rather than one of the primary GPU slots MSI has also reduced interference between longer video cards and installing DDR4 RAM modules.



Even though the tracings are white instead of red this inexpensive motherboard has the same electronic separation of the DDR4 memory subsystem that higher end products feature. This is what MSI calls their ‘DDR4 Boost’ and it officially expands the Tomahawk's native memory support capabilities to DDR4-3600 speeds.



One area that is unfortunately carried over from the more expensive models was the dual 4-pin CPU fan header locations. As we noted when reviewing the Gaming M5, MSI does have a tendency to place them quite randomly on their entry level motherboards and the Tomahawk AC is no exception. Basically, one is located in the usual position but the other is way over on the other side of the four DIMMs.
 

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A Closer Look at the MSI Z170A Tomahawk AC pg.2

A Closer Look at the MSI Z170A Tomahawk AC pg.2



Sadly, another thing that MSI carried over from the Gaming M5 was the disregard for onboard power switches as the Tomahawk AC doesn’t come with onboard power or reset buttons. We can’t expect this board to really include these items since they aren’t necessary for building a system.

MSI has also included a small CLR CMOS button on the rear panel that can be accessed from the rear of the case. This will make things a touch easier for the average consumer since they won’t have to jump a couple of connectors on the motherboard itself.

Interestingly MSI has opted to remove their usual digital LED diagnostic display from this inexpensive model. Instead they simply include a few debug LEDs that glow if there is a problem with very specific components (‘CPU’, ‘DRAM’, and ‘VGA’).

Also missing is the MSI ‘Slow’ dipswitch which lowers the CPU ratio during POST. Also noticeable by their absence was the Gaming M5’s voltage read points. Those multimeter read points really did set the Gaming M5 apart from the competition but they would have been misplaced here on a completely budget-focused product.


The board also includes two USB 3.0 ports – or what the industry now calls ‘USB 3.1 Gen 1’ and both of these are directly connected to the Z170 PCH and positioned in a sensible locations. One angled 90° to the motherboard but neither is offset from the leading edge like on the Gaming 5. Instead both are in the typical location next to the main 24-pin power connector.


Sadly, the room for the second USB 3.0 port – we refuse to call it ‘USB 3.1 Gen 1’ – was found by reducing the onboard Storage options. Specifically, if you are one of the three people in the world who requires SATA Express on your entry level motherboard this is not the board for you… so tell your two friends to also not bother. To be perfectly candid this was a wise decision as it will not impact 99.99 percent of the intended customer base, but the additional USB 3.1 may actually be useful.

On the positive side, the number of SATA ports was not reduced from the Gaming M5’s already anemic six. Instead, MSI includes three 2 header SATA 6Gb/s blocks, all of which are connected directly to the Z170 PCH.


At first glance it may appear that this motherboard only has one M.2 slot instead of two the reality is a touch more complicated. There is indeed only one x4 M.2 slot. To be precise there is only one M.2 2280 ’M’ keyed slot, or what is usually just called a M.2 storage slot.


There is however two M.2 slots included on this motherboard. Unlike the Gaming M5 however this second slot is an ‘E’ keyed slot meant for WiFi and Bluetooth M.2 modules. This is why it is located just above the topmost PCIe x1 slot instead of residing between the second PCIe x16 slot and the first PCI slot. Most consumers, budget orientated or not, will not miss the secondary M.2 slot, but a lot of consumers will love the fact that this board not only comes with a M.2 2230 ‘E’ port but actually comes populated.


Also sure to please is the fact that this M.2 port has been rotated 90° so that the ‘wireless’ card is orientated upwards just as if it was a PCIe card. Just rememberthis will limit replacement M.2 ‘E’ cards to 30mm in length, as anything beyond this will go above the recommended Z-height for this portion of the motherboard. Most users may not encounter any issues with using a longer M.2 E card, but it will depend on the case the motherboard is installed in and even the CPU cooling solution used. For example a Corsair H80i 2.0’s radiator block may overhand this portion of the motherboard and hard limit M.2 cards to the 2230 standard. In either case, the fact that this inexpensive motherboard actually comes with wireless networking abilities is rather amazing.

The Tomahawk comes with an Intel 8260 based M.2 WiFi controller which is capable of 2x2 802.11AC configurations. Obviously it is also backwards compatible with 802.11N systems. This is a single band network card so it can either be used on a 5Ghz 802.11AC – at 867Mbps speeds - or used on a 2.4Ghz 802.11N – at 300Mbps speeds – network. This is a bit on the slow side by modern standards well within our expectations given this motherboard’s price.


Instead MSI has included a Realtek RTL8111H wired Ethernet controller which is a bit disappointing considering some other boards use Intel’s arguably superior NIC. However, we can’t think of a single person who would feel a difference between Intel or Killer or Marvell based solutions.
 

SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the MSI Z170A Tomahawk AC pg.3

A Closer Look at the MSI Z170A Tomahawk AC pg.3



The Tomahawk comes with true USB 3.1 – aka USB 3.1 Gen 2 10Gbit/sec USB- abilities. Specifically, MSI has included the new de-facto standard of one Type A and one Type C port. As expected – as this is an entry level motherboard – the USB 3.1 controller these two ports are connected to is an ASMedia ASM1142 rather than an Intel solution. This is ASMedia's first USB 3.1 controller, is compliant with Intel's eXtensible Hot Controller Interface specification 1.1, and is connected to the motherboard via two PCI-E 2.0 lanes.



Rounding out the included features of the rear IO port are two USB 2.0 ports, a PS/2 port, DVI-D and HDMI ports, two USB 3.0 ports (powered by the Z170 PCH), five audio analog ports and S/PDIF optical out port. There’s also a small CMOS Clear button and the WiFi antenna connectors. This is pretty standard fare for Z170 systems, but still very good for such an inexpensive motherboard.


The inclusion of numerous LEDs that give the motherboard a nice ‘glow’ when in darkened environments is also a nice touch. We would never choose a motherboard based on such a feature but its red glow does go nicely with the red and black color scheme and gives a clean look to the system when it is in operation.

The back of this motherboard is also clean and clear of any major components. With that being said the heatsinks are attached via spring loaded screws and do not have a reinforcing backplate but at least MSI didn’t use pushpins.


Generally speaking, motherboards in the MSI Tomahawk AC’s price range usually come with onboard sound solutions that can charitably called ‘adequate’. The Tomahawk AC on the other hand comes with a very good setup.

It is unfortunate that MSI did not take a page from their Gaming M5 and use the CMedia HD controller, but the Realtek ALC892 still has an enviable reputation, especially when combined with Japanese capacitors to further boost the abilities of this 'sound card'.


Even with gaming requirements more than satisfied MSI was obviously not overlooking the needs of overclockers when they designed the Tomahawk AC. As stated previously the four DIMMS are electronically isolated from the rest of the motherboard to reduce interference. It is worth pointing out that unlike the Gaming M5, the Tomahawk AC does not use a two phase VRM for the four DIMMS and instead this has been paired back to a single phase. This is still more than enough and few will notice the difference. This is because this system is capable of overclocking the RAM to DDR4-3600+ speeds.

As with all ATX form-factor motherboards the amount of room around the socket is a touch cramped with a few capacitors closer than we would like to see. However, all components encroaching on the socket mounting area do respect Intel's z-height restrictions and as such should not pose any CPU mounting issues - beyond marring the overall aesthetics and possible causing problems with LN2 users.


MSI has always made it a point of pride to include robust power delivery subsystems and even though this is an obvious entry level model it has been given a decent PWM design. It boasts an 8-phase design which relies upon a hybrid digital Intersil ISL95856 PWM controller. Of course it is not a true 8-phase design and rather is a 4+4 design with each of the four main phases being given an additional virtual phase.


As with memory power delivery, the CPU gets the full Military treatment. However, in this case MSI has opted for their older last generation Military Class IV components instead of Military Class V like the Gaming M5 uses. On paper, this is a downgrade but in actuality the combination of Dark Caps and Dark Cokes is still extremely capable.
 

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BIOS Rundown

BIOS Rundown


While there are minor differences the Tomahawk AC comes with a Click BIOS 5-based BIOS that is very reminiscent of the Click 5 BIOS which ships with the Gaming M5 – or any Z170 MSI motherboard for that matter. While it can certainly be called quirky 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.


As with the Gaming M5, when consumers first enter the Click BIOS 5 they will be greeted with 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. They 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 interface that prioritizes ease of use and navigation. It obviously does not 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.


When consumers do decide that a feature is not included in that rather impressive EZ Mode and enter to Advanced Mode they will be greeted with what enthusiasts have come to expect from MSI. In other words, while the graphics may have changed, Click Bios 5's Advanced Mode is basically identical to the one found on the Z97 series. We have almost no issues with MSI simply refining their previous design as the layout and quantity of settings is not only enhanced, but the overall smoothness and mouse support are noticeably better as well.

Upon first using this BIOS, terms ranging from ‘busy’ to ‘unintuitive’ will come to mind but we prefer to call it what it really is: a BIOS made for 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. Instead there will are some key features buried deep in submenus. For this reason, it would not be our first choice for someone new to overclocking who was interested in quickly and painlessly learning the ins and outs of BIOS overclocking. This is a shame as once you do understand the reasoning behind the layout and get used to its quirky interface this BIOS can help achieve better results.

The main issue here is the slightly busy layout which consists of two rows alongside three columns. That top row takes up approximately one third of the screen and contains a basic overview of your system (CPU temperature, motherboard temperature, CPU & RAM type, size and frequencies, date and time, etc) as well as a drag and drop boot priority list. While it does contain extremely handy information, this section carries over from one page to the next, taking up a massive amount of real-estate.


Also located in this top area are two large buttons: Game BOOST, and XMP. Game BOOST is basically the same as what MSI used to call OC Genie so with a simple push of this button the BIOS will immediately overclock your system and do so in a completely hands-off manner. Some higher end models come with more than one Game BOOST mode, but since this is a more budget orientated model it only comes with one: 4.4GHz for 6700Ks.

The other option here implements your RAM's XMP memory speed and timing profile. Together these two features will make up a good percentage of reasons for actually entering the Advanced BIOS. Of course, since the top third is the exact same in both EZ and Advanced Mode, this is not saying all that much.



The remaining two thirds of real-estate is further broken down into three equal columns. 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 Dragon 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.
 

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BIOS Rundown pg.2

BIOS Rundown pg.2



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.


The OC menu is where most enthusiast will spend their time. Simply put, these pages easily make up for the quirky UI. The list of features and settings for those options is insanely long and we doubt many will find a feature missing. The amount of detail here is nothing short of impressive.


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 managed 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 ASUS 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, and unlike Z170 ASUS motherboards, this section is 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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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, but most Gaming M5 users will be using a dedicated GPU and find this section uninteresting.

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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Included Software (Other)

Included Software


Live Update 6


The Live Update 6 utility is where you can automatically or manually update all the included motherboard-specific software, and also download and flash the latest BIOS. You can also install or uninstall any of the software suites from this app as well.


FastBoot


Fast Boot is utility that allows for an easy and automatic way to enter into the BIOS immediately after a restart. This is extremely handy for overclockers who tend to reboot their systems quite a bit as they dial in clock speeds. Unlike many others, this program also allows you to turn on or off MSI’s FastBoot option without having to enter the BIOS first.


Intel Extreme Tuning Utility


In a very interesting turn, MSI has opted to include an MSI-branded version of Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility. While certainly a nice little bonus, this is a program that you should never have to use considering MSI includes their own overclocking-friendly software package. Obviously MSI feels that this tool will be of some value to novice users and including it does show that they are at least trying to meet the needs of a wide a variety of consumers.


Gaming App


Oddly enough the standalone Gaming application actually has more overclocking options that the Command Centre! Specifically instead of one overclocking profile there are three of them. Of course OC Boost option does nothing more than implement the build in BIOS overclocking 'Game BOOST' preset, so overclocking is still fairly limted on this motherboard.

In addition to this 'heavy' overclock of 4.4Ghz on all four cores, the middle option 'Gaming Mode' unlocks all 4 cores to the stock turbo boost speed of 4.2GHz. This will boost FPS performance in games that are CPU bound and do so without overly taxing your CPU cooling solution. Silent Mode allows the system to downclock to 800MHz. The other four small icons modifies your monitors color profile and gamma settings to 'ehanhce' gaming and movie experiences.


RAMDisk


With RAM becoming cheaper and capacities increasing, it is nice to see that MSI includes free RAMDisk utility. This standalone program allows for creating fairly powerful RAM Disks and includes some very nifty advanced features such has automatically configuring IE, Chrome and Firefox to use it for their cache abilities, so while not the most advanced we have ever seen it is more than adequate for most users’ needs. Creating and using it is as easy as ticking one box and –if necessary – assigning a drive letter to the newly minted RAM disk.
 

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Hardware Installation

Hardware Installation


In order to test how different hardware combinations will fit onto the MSI Z170 Tomahawk AC, we installed a Noctua NH-U12S, a 8GB dual channel kit of G.Skill DDR4-3600 RipJaws V memory, or a 32GB kit of Crucial DDR4-2666 Ballistix Sport LT ‘red’, and an ASUS GTX 780 video card.


The NH-U12S is a moderately sized aftermarket CPU cooler so it should provide a good reference for other coolers so we can see if there any clearance issues around the CPU socket. We installed the G.Skill memory in the two sockets closest to the CPU to ensure clearance with 4 DIMMs and then if necessary installed the lower profile Crucial kit to show the importance – if any – of RAM height with this motherboard.


As this motherboard is an ATX form-factored unit, the amount of space between the CPU socket area and the four DIMMS is limited. However, the amount of room is actually enough that as long as fairly a reasonable sized CPU cooling solution is used consumers really need not worry all that much about how tall their DDR4 RAM sticks are.

Of course, using lower profile RAM ensures that users won't have any issues in regards to the RAM blocking the CPU fan, but considering we have seen much more expensive motherboards get this wrong the Tomahawk AC is certainly well above average. With that being said, if someone does opt for large or deep CPU coolers, such as the Noctua D14 or D15, they will overhang at least the two DIMMS. In which case, low profile or standard height DDR4 sticks are highly recommended.


It is also worth noting that even with the additional room there still isn’t enough space between these two areas that active memory cooling devices will properly fit without interfering with the tower's fan. This is not surprising as it was par for Z97 systems, and nothing has drastically changed in the Z170 generation- as there is only so much room on the motherboard for all the critical components and niche devices are not usually taken into consideration during the layout and design phase.



If your RAM truly needs active cooling, we recommend taking the plunge into CPU water cooling to reduce compatibility problems as even an entry level AIO will allow you to fully install a memory cooler and do so without interfering with cooling the CPU.


On the positive side the combination of only two low profile MOSFET heatsinks and no heatpipe connecting them means that actually installing any air based CPU cooler is a relatively straightforward affair. Once again the differences are small, but this additional space means that installing even large air based coolers will not take great feats of finger flexibility. Instead only patience will be needed. This too makes the Tomahawk well above average and more novice friendly than most.


Before switching to water based solutions there is one issue that is fairly unique to this motherboard. Specifically, the included M.2 ‘E’ 2230 WiFi+Bluetooth module. Unlike most motherboards MSI has rotated this card 90° so that it is standing upright. In and of itself this is not a concern; however, since it is located near the CPU socket area this card may actually cause more problems than RAM height. As with RAM consumers interested in air based cooling solutions will want to limit their CPU cooler choices to narrow designs. Basically if the CPU cooling tower overhangs the rearmost MOSFET heatsink it may block the M.2 port.

For example, our Noctua U12S was able to fit even with two fans attached but anything much deeper than this tower cooler may interfere with consumers actually being able to install the 802.11AC wireless module. This issue could have easily been avoided if MSI had implemented a more standard horizontal layout to the M.2 ‘E’ port or simply located it someplace else on the motherboard. In either case we strongly recommend either thin air based units or opting for water based solutions so as to be able to actually use this motherboard’s built in wireless abilities.


Switching from air to water cooling proved much more uneventful as there is more than enough room between the water block and its adjacent components. Basically the same features that make this motherboard air cooling friendly make it even more water cooling friendly. So much so that even All in One devices will not be an issue and yet will provide you with a lot more freedom from a hardware selection standpoint. Just be aware that if you do choose an oversized water block the key to success will be patience and taking your time mounting all the nuts and bolts. For most though it will be smooth sailing. For example, our XSPC RayStorm created zero installation issues and was a breeze to get mounted.


Also noteworthy, because MSI opted to make the first PCI-E slot a simple x1 layout and moved the primary x16 slot down a space, there should not be installation issues between the GPU – even massive triple slot models – and the memory, or CPU cooler.


It may not sound like much of a difference, but this extra room combined with tab free DIMMS on the lower half of each means consumers need not worry about removing the GPU before installing memory.


There are however a few issues that do mar an otherwise positive installation experience. As with the Gaming M5 the piss poor layout of the two 4-pin CPU fan headers will cause headaches as soon as consumers actually want to utilize both. Basically as long as you only want to use the primary 4-pin header you will not run into issues, but it will take some creative cable routing to keep the second fan’s cable from making a hash of your neat and tidy looking system. Things are even worse if you opt for an all in one liquid cooler which requires three fan headers. This is an issue that should have never made it based the first design stages as it is so basic and so obvious a problem… and yet here we are talking about it again on another MSI motherboard.


The other main issue will concern consumers who plan on using overly large video cards and wish to use the secondary USB 3 front header. Basically even single slot designs will block this port and force consumers to plug in the USB front panel cable before installing the GPU.


Conversely, if consumers either opt to only populate the secondary x16 slot, or SLI/CrossFire GPU configurations four of the six SATA headers will be blocked. Most of these issues are very common with ATX motherboard designs and none are large enough to make purchasing this inexpensive MSI motherboard contraindicated. By the same token care and careful consideration will be needed during component selection so as to minimize the impact these issue will have. Overall we consider the MSI Tomahawk AC to slightly above average.
 
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