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MSI Z170A Tomahawk AC Motherboard Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,410
Location
Montreal
Test System and Testing Methodology

Test System & Testing Methodology


To fully test the built in overclocking abilities of a given motherboard, we have broken down testing into multiple categories:

Stock Turbo Boost - To represent a 6770K at stock with turbo enabled.

Software OC - To represent a Tomahawk AC at best proven stable overclock achieved via included software based overclocking (4.4GHz).

Manual OC –To represent an experienced overclocker that is looking for the optimal long term overclock to maximize system performance while keeping voltage and temperatures in check (4.7GHz).

We chose benchmark suites that included 2D benchmarks, 3D benchmarks, and games; and then tested each overclocking method individually to see how the performance would compare.

The full list of the applications that we utilized in our benchmarking suite:

3DMark 8
3DMark 2013 Professional Edition
AIDA64 Extreme Edition
Cinebench R11.5 64-bit
SiSoft Sandra 2013.SP4
SuperPI Mod 1.5mod
RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.2.5
Sleeping Dogs Gaming Benchmark
Metro: Last Light Gaming Benchmark
Tomb Raider
BioShock Infinite


Instead of LinX or P95, the main stability test used was the AIDA64 stability. AIDA64 has an advantage as it has been updated for the Haswell architecture and tests specific functions like AES, AVX, and other instruction sets that some other stress tests do not touch. After the AIDA64 stability test was stable, we ran 2 runs of SuperPI and 2 runs of 3DMark to test memory and 3D stability. Once an overclock passed these tests, we ran the full benchmark suite and then this is the point deemed as “stable” for the purposes of this review.


To ensure consistent results, a fresh installation of Windows 8.1 was installed with latest chipset drivers and accessory hardware drivers (audio, network, GPU) from the manufactures website. The BIOS used for overclocking and benchmarking was version 1301 and the Nvidia drivers used were version 332.21.








Our test setup consists of an Intel Haswell 6770K, whatever motherboard is being tested, one NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 video card, 8GB GSkill RipJaws V DDR4-3600 1.35v memory, a Intel 335 180GB SSD, and a WD Black 1TB. All this is powered by an EVGA SuperNOVA 1000 P2 1000 watt PSU.

For cooling we used a Corsair H110i AIO w/ four 140mm fans attached. For hardware installation testing we also used a Noctua NH-U12S and a XSPC Raystorm waterblock.

Complete Test System:

Processor: Intel i7 6770K ES
Memory: 8GB GSkill RipJaws V DDR4-3600
Graphics card: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780
Hard Drive: 1x 180GB Intel 335 SSD. Western Digial Black 1TB.
Power Supply: EVGA SuperNOVA 1000 P2
CPU Cooler: Corsair H110i AIO

Special thanks to EVGA for their support and supplying the SuperNOVA 1000 P2.
Special thanks to G.Skill for their support and supplying the Trident X RAM.
Special thanks to NVIDIA for their support and supplying the GTX 780
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,410
Location
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Feature Testing: Onboard Audio, USB 3.1, Wireless

Feature Testing: Onboard Audio


While this motherboard is mainly orientated towards PC enthusiasts, the upgraded onboard audio is one of its main selling features. As such, it behooves us to see exactly what this upgrade brings to the table. To do this we have used RightMark Audio Analyzer.






As expected this motherboard’s onboard sound solution is sorely lacking when compared to most Z170 motherboards…at least on paper. Would most users hear a difference? Absolutely not but if you do buy expensive audio equipment, make sure you look elsewhere.

Feature Testing: USB 3.1 Performance


For the USB 3.1 device we have used an Asus USB 3.1 enclosure which uses a pair of Samsung 840 EVO 250GB drives, and is powered by an ASMedia ASM1352R chipset.

Crystal DiskMark


Crystal DiskMark is designed to quickly test the performance of your drives. Currently, the program allows to measure sequential and random read/write speeds; and allows you to set the number of tests iterations to run. We left the number of tests at 5 and size at 100MB.

http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/MSI_Tomahawk_AC/cdm_r.jpg[/IMG
[IMG]http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/MSI_Tomahawk_AC/cdm_w.jpg


Real World Data Transfers


No matter how good a synthetic benchmark like IOMeter or PCMark is, it cannot really tell you how your hard drive will perform in “real world” situations. All of us here at Hardware Canucks strive to give you the best, most complete picture of a review item’s true capabilities and to this end we will be running timed data transfers to give you a general idea of how its performance relates to real life use. To help replicate worse case scenarios we will transfer a 10.00GB contiguous file and a folder containing 400 subfolders with a total 12,000 files varying in length from 200mb to 100kb (10.00 GB total).

Testing will include transfer to and transferring from the devices, using MS RichCopy and logging the performance of the drive. Here is what we found.




These results are slightly worse than what we have come to expect from ASMedia based systems, but are still reasonably good. Put another way, we may have wished that MSI had gone with the more potent Intel controller, but these results will be more than enough to satisfy the entry level consumers’ needs.


Feature Testing: 802.11AC Wireless


As with the included onboard audio, the included 802.11AC wireless abilities of the ASUS Z170 Deluxe is one of its main selling features. To see exactly how good this 802.11AC upgrade brings to the table we have used some of our standard wireless testing scenarios. These tests include both real world file transfer performance and real world signal performance. The router used was an Asus RT-AC68U 'AC1900' router.

To test signal strength we use inSSIDer, a program which can graph signal strength of all wireless signals being received by the computer’s wireless NIC. For real world testing we have taken 10GB worth of small file and large file mixture and pushed from one wireless connected computer to a second computer connected via wired Ethernet. Testing will be done via MS RichCopy. For clarity sake we have averaged both the transmission and reception performance into one aggregate number.








Much like the onboard sound and USB 3.1 performance results, there are two separate and distinct ways of looking at the wireless results. On the one hand these results are rather lackluster by modern standards and some consumers may be better off looking at external solutions – or a PCIe wireless cards. Nicely negating this is the fact that so few Z170 motherboards come with any wireless abilities… and that something is better than nothing! This goes double when the rather low asking price of this motherboard is taken into consideration -as we do not know of a similarly priced board that can do better than the Tomahawk AC in this regard.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Feature Testing: Software Auto-Overclocking

Feature Testing: Software Auto-Overclocking


When it comes to automatic / software based overclocking options I feel like MSI has dropped the ball this generation. When compared against the likes of Gigabyte, ASUS and even ASRock, the options on this board are both limited and constraining. Basically, unlike the old OC Genie which offered numerous levels of overclocking and really led the market, the new ‘Game Boost’ cuts the possible settings back to one. The only exceptions to this general observation are MSI’s top of the line boards that offer multiple overclocking options.

Sadly, MSI’s new “Arsenal” series is generally not geared towards satisfying the well-heeled consumers’ esoteric needs, and more to the point the Tomahawk AC will certainly never be accused of being an expensive motherboard. Instead it is an entry level model meant to satisfy the needs of highly budget restricted buyers. As such the automatic overclocking options MSI has included are very, very limited.

This in and of itself is not all that surprising, as we do not expect a board which costs less than our RAM kit to be all that and a bag of chips in the automatic overclocking department. What we do expect however is that any overclocking features will be at least as well-rounded as those found on the competition. That didn’t happen here since even when compared to similarly priced options, the MSI Tomahawk AC offerings are downright poor. Basically, a single ‘one size fits most’ approach to hardware based overclocking and a single software option is no longer acceptable when competitors such as ASUS include multiple hardware options and multiple software options.

We would have been more tolerant of this sorry state of affairs if the included options were impressive in their capacity but they are not. Instead the hardware and software options feel like a halfhearted attempt that were added in at the last moment to tick another box on the list of included features.


In this day and age manufacturers cannot just rely upon factory presets that will push too much voltage to a core and call it good enough. Consumers at the very least expect to find multiple options of varying performance levels…. or at least expect the system to automatically test and make sure any applied overclock is stable. MSI obviously feels differently since those most basic features haven’t been added. As such, both Game Boost and the BIOS-based option tend to over-volt more than we would like and the returns are minimal.



To be fair we can understand MSI’s position here. They did not want to blow any of their limited budget on implementing a feature that only a small segment of the Tomahawk’s intended user base would ever use. With that being said, there’s a need to have options since this is a gaming-centric motherboard and including multiple overclocking options would have enhanced its value even more.


So what can gamers expect to get from the ‘Game Boost’ option? The board will automatically enable the XMP profile of their RAM, a 6700K will be pushed from 4.2GHz to 4.4GHz on all four cores. They can also expect the Uncore to be left at stock setting while the voltage will be pushed to an excessive 1.350V. Unfortunately, since this is a factory preset option and MSI had to make sure it was completely stable on all systems, it isn’t automatically stress tested, nor should it be used over the long term since the voltage is a bit too high for our liking.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
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Manual Overclocking Results

Manual Overclocking Results


When it comes to entry level motherboards there has to be a certain amount of lowered expectations with regard to overclocking abilities. Put simply extreme overclocking is usually very low on the priority list for most users and in nearly every case we have seen thus far, overclocking is held back by the CPU or its cooling rather than theboard itself. By that same token so-called ‘manual’ overclocking is an area that motherboard manufacturers have started to take seriously the past few generations, even down to their entry-level models. As such, even the most basic of motherboards should come with a modicum of overclocking potential built in.

In this regard the MSI Tomahawk AC is fairly decent if not spectacular for its price category. Many users will be satisfied with what this board has to offer and will be perfectly happy with the net results. Some of this is simply due to trickledown economics as MSI has always placed overclocking higher on their priorities list than some of their competitors. Nonetheless, the end result is the same: budget-minded gamers will be satisfied with what’s on offer here provided they want to delve into overclocking.

Somewhat counteracting this is the fact that MSI’s BIOS is almost antiquated in comparison to what ASUS or Gigabyte have to offer when it comes to ease of use and navigation. This may not directly impact the overclocking abilities of the Tomahawk AC Z170 but it certainly did make things more difficult and less enjoyable than they otherwise could have been. MSI desperately needs to refresh their BIOS and include features that are now the de-facto standard on other manufactures’ boards. Features like a customizable ‘favorites’ page that comes preloaded with the most likely to be used features, or even an active window area that is bigger than a postage stamp. Since such features are not included the Tomahawk AC Z170 is a touch less user-friendly than the competition’s offerings in this price range.

Further making this motherboard less intuitive in general and almost unfriendly to novice overclockers is the fact that MSI really hasn’t done much to instill confidence in their board’s ability to bounce back from failed overclocking experiments. If someone is used to advanced features like DualBIOS, or Retry buttons… or even BIOS ‘safeboot’ options that will keep your settings intact even during a failed POST this board is going to be a huge disappointment.

Unlike most Z170 motherboards we have looked at the Tomahawk AC won’t always automatically recover from a failed POST either. So much so that we had to resort numerous times to the clear CMOS option built into the backplate and even on occasion had to pull the battery. Thankfully the BIOS was never corrupted so we never actually bricked this board… but every time it happened a prayer was given to the overclocking gods that the ‘fix’ would not make the problem worse! Even for a budget motherboard this was disappointing.

The BIOS however is only one half of the equation and while consumers of all experience levels can muddle through and work around the aging BIOS, it does seem like the power delivery subsystem is lacking. There is certainly no denying that the components themselves are all decent enough and unlikely to fail but in the name of price, MSI stepped things back a bit and once again that’s understandable.




While this in and off itself is bad enough the Tomahawk AC Z170 has been further handicapped by MSI’ refusal to use an all-digital Voltage Regulator Module. This combination means that the already thin margins overclockers will have to work with are further reduced. The end result is that more voltage will need to be used to attain an overclock.

This is significant enough that we were simply unable to obtain our usual overclock of 4.8GHz and instead had to settle for less at 4.756Ghz on all four cores while not passing on to extreme voltages. On the positive side we were able to keep the Uncore at 4.3GHz so considering the price of this board this result is certainly not all that bad in the grand scheme of things.

Somewhat counteracting this somewhat disappointing state of affairs is the fact that MSI has not artificially limited DDR4 RAM overclocking like ASUS has on their entry level boards. Instead users can expect to push the hell out of their expensive new RAM kit…. unless they go crazy and purchase kits that are meant for high end systems. In other words, as long as someone settles for at most DDR4-3600 memory the Tomahawk won’t be the bottleneck. This feature may not fully make up for the mediocre CPU overclocking but it certainly did help restore our faith in this board.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,410
Location
Montreal
System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


In the System Benchmarks section we will show a number benchmark comparisons of the 6700K and motherboard using the stock speed (turbo enabled), Software OC (4.4GHz), and our manual overclock(4.7GHz). This will illustrate how much performance can be gained by the various overclocking options this board has to offer.

For reference the CPU speeds, memory speeds, memory timings, and UNcore speeds used for these tests are as follows:

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


SuperPI Benchmark


<i>SuperPi calculates the number of digits of PI in a pure 2D benchmark. For the purposes of this review, calculation to 32 million places will be used. RAM speed, RAM timings, CPU speed, L2 cache, and Operating System tweaks all effect the speed of the calculation, and this has been one of the most popular benchmarks among enthusiasts for several years.
SuperPi was originally written by Yasumasa Kanada in 1995 and was updated later by snq to support millisecond timing, cheat protection and checksum. The version used in these benchmarks, 1.5 is the official version supported by hwbot.</i>

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


CINEBENCH R11.5


<i>CINEBENCH is a real-world cross platform test suite that evaluates your computer's performance capabilities. CINEBENCH is based on MAXON's award-winning animation software CINEMA 4D, which is used extensively by studios and production houses worldwide for 3D content creation.

In this system benchmark section we will use the x64 Main Processor Performance (CPU) test scenario. The Main Processor Performance (CPU) test scenario uses all of the system's processing power to render a photorealistic 3D scene (from the viral "No Keyframes" animation by AixSponza). This scene makes use of various algorithms to stress all available processor cores. The test scene contains approximately 2,000 objects which in turn contain more than 300,000 polygons in total, and uses sharp and blurred reflections, area lights, shadows, procedural shaders, antialiasing, and much more. The result is displayed in points (pts). The higher the number, the faster your processor.</i>

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


Sandra Processor Arithmetic & Processor Multi-Media Benchmarks


<i>SiSoftware Sandra (the System ANalyser, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) is an information & diagnostic utility. The software suite provides most of the information (including undocumented) users like to know about hardware, software, and other devices whether hardware or software. The name “Sandra” is a (girl) name of Greek origin that means "defender", "helper of mankind".

The software version used for these tests is SiSoftware Sandra 2015. In the 2015 version of Sandra, SiSoft has updated operating system support, added support for the latest CPUs, as well as added some new benchmarks to the testing suite. The benchmark used below is the Processor Arithmetic benchmark which shows how the processor handles arithmetic and floating point instructions. This test illustrates an important area of a computer’s speed.</i>

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


PCMark 8 Benchmark


<i>Developed in partnership with Benchmark Development Program members Acer, AMD, Condusiv Technologies, Dell, HGST, HP, Intel, Microsoft, NVIDIA, Samsung, SanDisk, Seagate and Western Digital, PCMark 8 is the latest version in FutureMark’s popular series of PC benchmarking tools. Improving on previous releases, PCMark 8 includes new tests using popular applications from Adobe and Microsoft.

The test used in below is the PCMark 8 Home benchmark. This testing suite includes workloads that reflect common tasks for a typical home user such as for web browsing, writing, gaming, photo editing, and video chat. The results are combined to give a PCMark 8 Home score for the system.</i>

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


AIDA64 Benchmark


<i>AIDA64 Extreme Edition is a diagnostic and benchmarking software suite for home users that provides a wide range of features to assist in overclocking, hardware error diagnosis, stress testing, and sensor monitoring. It has unique capabilities to assess the performance of the processor, system memory, and disk drives.

The benchmarks used in this review are the memory bandwidth and latency benchmarks. Memory bandwidth benchmarks (Memory Read, Memory Write, Memory Copy) measure the maximum achievable memory data transfer bandwidth. The code behind these benchmark methods are written in Assembly and they are extremely optimized for every popular AMD, Intel and VIA processor core variants by utilizing the appropriate x86/x64, x87, MMX, MMX+, 3DNow!, SSE, SSE2, SSE4.1, AVX, and AVX2 instruction set extension.

The Memory Latency benchmark measures the typical delay when the CPU reads data from system memory. Memory latency time means the penalty measured from the issuing of the read command until the data arrives to the integer registers of the CPU.</i>

<div align="center"><img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/MSI_Tomahawk_AC/aida.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/MSI_Tomahawk_AC/aida_lat.jpg" border="0" alt="" /></div>
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,410
Location
Montreal
3D & Gaming Benchmarks

3D and Gaming Benchmarks


In the 3D and Gaming Benchmarks section we will show a number of benchmark comparisons of the 6700K and the motherboard using the stock speed (turbo enabled), highest stable software overclock of 4.4GHz and our manual overclock of 4.7GHz. This will illustrate how much performance can be gained by the various overclocking options this board has to offer.

For reference the CPU speeds, memory speeds, memory timings, and uncore speeds used for these tests are as follows:




3DMark Fire Strike Benchmark


The latest version of 3DMark from FutureMark includes everything you need to benchmark everything from smartphones and tablets, to notebooks and home PCs, to the latest high-end, multi-GPU gaming desktops. And it's not just for Windows. With 3DMark you can compare your scores with Android and iOS devices too. It's the most powerful and flexible 3DMark we've ever created.

The test we are using in this review is Fire Strike with Extreme settings which is a DirectX 11 benchmark designed for high-performance gaming PCs. Fire Strike features real-time graphics rendered with detail and complexity far beyond what is found in other benchmarks and games today.





Sleeping Dogs Gaming Benchmark


Sleeping Dogs is an open world action-adventure video game developed by United Front Games in conjunction with Square Enix London Studios and published by Square Enix, released on August 2012. Sleeping Dogs has a benchmark component to it that mimics game play and an average of four runs was taken.

The settings used in the testing below are the Extreme display settings and a resolution of 1920x1200. World density is set to extreme, high-res textures are enabled, and shadow resolution, shadow filtering, screen space ambient occlusion, and quality motion blur are all set to high.





Metro: Last Light Gaming Benchmark


Metro: Last Light is a DX11 first-person shooter video game developed by Ukrainian studio 4A Games and published by Deep Silver released in May 2013. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world and features action-oriented gameplay. The game has a benchmark component to it that mimics game play. Scene D6 was used and an average of four runs was taken.

The settings used in the testing below are Very High for quality and a resolution of 1920x1200. DirectX 11 is used, texture filtering is set to AF 16X, motion blur is normal, SSA and advanced physX turned on and tessellation is set to high.





BioShock Infinite Gaming Benchmark


BioShock Infinite is a first-person shooter video game developed by Irrational Games, and published by 2K Games released in March 2013. The game has a benchmark component to it that mimics game play and an average of four runs was taken.

The settings used in the testing below are UltraDX11 for quality and a resolution of 1920x1200.


 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
13,410
Location
Montreal
Conclusion

Conclusion


In a perfect world, everyone would be able to afford the wide-ranging feature sets of high-end motherboards and look the other way when it comes to pricing. But back here in the land of mortgage payments, and those other pesky things we call ‘responsibilities’, <i>budget</i> tends to play a large role in parts selection. With that being said, balancing necessary features alongside a shoestring budget can be quite challenging even in the best situation.

The current state of the Z170 motherboard market as a whole certainly doesn’t make decisions any easier either. There are (and I kid you not!) nearly a hundred different options in the $99 to $149 range alone, which are spread throughout the lineups of MSI, ASUS, Gigabyte, ECS, ASRock and EVGA. It is patently ridiculous but manufacturers seem to be striving to parachute products into every conceivable niche. MSI’s Z170A Tomahawk AC is one such motherboard; it is low priced but includes wireless capabilities that have typically been reserved for substantially higher priced alternatives.

Many companies play a game of “let’s see what we can cut before the experience itself suffers” in an effort to finely balance capabilities with price. No one has achieved better success with this formula than MSI, and the Tomahawk AC is certainly proof of that. It offers enough value-added features and high quality components that the differences between it and much more expensive motherboards are going to be all but unnoticeable for most buyers.

This excellent feature-set at a very reasonable price was obviously the main goal behind this motherboard’s design. No matter where you look, or what you consider to be your number one priority, the Tomahawk makes a great argument for why it should be carefully considered, even if a budget can accommodate more expensive models.

So how did MSI do this? By making sure that the things they cut to reduce the overall cost of didn’t impact the overall <i>experience</i>. For example, the onboard audio relies upon a mid-end Realtek controller and features an overall subsystem design that certainly can’t be considered cutting edge. And yet, that ALC892 controller is still quite potent and you’d need headphones that cost well over $150 to tell the difference between the sound signature produced by the Tomahawk and other boards at higher price points. Thus, nothing is lost from the end user’s perspective.

The same holds true for the network connectivity options this board has to offer. On the one hand, there are significantly better controllers available on motherboards in this price range, but very few - if any - of them offer a decent wired NIC <i>and</i> wireless abilities. Even here MSI made sure to not blow the budget on features that few will ever use, and included a basic but extremely capable 2x2 802.11AC implementation.

The board’s design itself is quite simple as well. You won’t find any gaudy plastic fascia coverings, metal clad PCIe slots or extravagant LED setups here. This is actually a great example of how to spend a limited budget wisely as these critical slots may lack EMI shields (of arguably limited use), but still have robust reinforced attachment points. This substance over style perfectly sums up the MSI Tomahawk AC.

Now with all this being said, this motherboard will not be right for everyone as MSI did have to cut back a few areas that will arguably be noticeable to some folks. While we don’t expect onboard Power and Reset buttons, the power delivery system may have limited our manual overclock and the automatic overclocking options are shockingly limited for a board that was launched in 2016. However, we consider these compromises to be more than fair, as in return a budget-minded buyer can get an extremely functional Z170 motherboard with wireless capabilities for very little money. As such, as long as you are aware of the compromises MSI has made, and are fine with them, this motherboard deserves to be on your shortlist.

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<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Motherboard/MSI_Tomahawk_AC/DGV.gif" border="0" alt="" />
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