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MSI Z270 Gaming M7 Motherboard Review

MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,088
Location
Montreal
We recently reviewed the MSI Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon, which while not seriously deficient in any one area, didn't really impress us as much of some of the other Z270 motherboards that we have reviewed thus far. Specifically, it had somewhat limited automatic overclocking features, its PCI-E slot configuration was less than optimal, it had SATA ports in two different locations for no discernible reason, and its audio output results didn't quite match the competition. As a result, we ultimately couldn't give it our unqualified recommendation, despite its reasonable $175 USD / $230 CAD price tag.

Today, we are reviewing another MSI motherboard - the Z270 Gaming M7 - and this model sheds itself of any mainstream pretenses and aims for the top-end of the market. In fact, with a price point of about $245 USD / $320 CAD, the Gaming M7 is the most high-end Z270 motherboard that MSI offers. What does this model bring to the table that its cheaper sibling did not? Not as much as you might expect, at least with regard to conventional specs. Both have three PCI-E x16 and three PCI-E x1 slots, both have six SATA 6Gb/s ports, both have one USB 3.1 Type-A and USB 3.1 Type-C port, both have only one LAN port, and both have two video outputs. So as you can see, a lot of the fundamentals that most shoppers quickly look at when evaluating a motherboard are the same between both models. Thankfully, there are important differences that make the Gaming M7 a radically different beast.

For starters, this motherboard has three M.2 slots instead of the more common two, and it also has a U.2 port, so it supports a total of four high-speed storage devices. This might seem like overkill now, but once Intel's Optane caching drives hit the market that may change. We praised the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon for its unique angled USB 3.0 header, and not only does the Gaming M7 have one of those and another regular USB 3. 0 header, but it also has a rare USB 3.1 Type-C header. This means that this motherboard will be able to provide high-speed USB connectivity to the front panel of any future case you buy.

Dubbed Audio Boost 4 PRO, this motherboard's onboard audio design is very unusual in that it features two Realtek ALC1220 codecs. We have never seen this implementation before, and the idea is that you can use headphones and speakers at the same time. Why you would want to do this is less clear to us at this time, but we may figure out as the review unfolds. Much to our surprise, the Gaming M7 has a rather simplistic RGB LED lighting feature. While still called "Mystic Light", this motherboard can only display seven colours and it has just 5 effects. Not only that, but you can't control the various lighting sections independently, they are all linked together. This is a bold choice from MSI for such a pricey motherboard, and regrettably it has one important oversight that we will explain later on.

Now what really makes the Z270 Gaming M7 stands above from the crowd are the little touches. This motherboard has small diagnostic LEDs literally all over the place, making troubleshooting a piece of cake. It also has a debug LED display, further aiding to diagnose any issues. It is the first Z270 motherboard that we have reviewed that comes with voltage read points, which is a great addition for overclockers, and there's also a ton of added special features for hardcore sub-zero overclocking. For those with more down-to-earth ambitions, this model also features a physical Game Boost Knob allowing users a quick and easy way of literally manually overclocking without ever having to enter the UEFI or using any piece of software. It's a pretty great idea, especially since it has seven performance profiles, and some of them are pretty aggressive.

So at first glance, we like what we see with the MSI Z270 Gaming M7. It is clearly not just a clone of every other Z270 motherboard out there. There are some distinctive features that we are anxious to test, and some interesting design and engineering choices that we look forward to taking a closer look at.

 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
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Location
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Packaging & Accessories

Packaging & Accessories


Now that we have gone over some of the Z270 Gaming M7's features and specifications in the introduction, it is time to examine the packaging and then crack open the box to take a look at the bundled accessories. Let's check it out:


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We have to give MSI a huge thumbs up for this packaging. We love the fact that the motherboard itself is actually represented on the front of the box. None of the other motherboard manufacturer tend to do this for some reason, instead opting for (sometimes) eye-catching but ultimately generic graphics. We also like that the back of the box is filled with useful information regarding all of the interesting features that have been packed onto this model, as well as a full specifications list and a handy rear I/O panel diagram.


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Once you flip open the box, you are greeted with two separate sections, the top half securely holds the motherboard in an anti-static bag while the bottom half contains the accessories, the documentation and the software DVD.





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MSI doesn't tend to go crazy when it comes to the accessories bundle, and this model is no different. There is the black and red rear I/O panel cover, a Gaming Series sticker, four SATA cables, a simple 2-way SLI bridge, two M-connector pieces to help connect the case wires to the front panel header, and a RGB LED light strip extension cable that also acts as a Y-splitter so you can power two light strips from the single header. Given the price point of this motherboard, we would have really liked to see the inclusion of a high bandwidth SLI HB bridge since ASRock managed to do so on a model that retails for $65 USD / $85 CAD less.
 

MAC

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Joined
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Messages
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Location
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A Closer Look at the Z270 Gaming M7

A Closer Look at the Z270 Gaming M7




When we first pulled this motherboard out of the box, we couldn't help but notice how strongly it resembled the ASUS Maximus IX Hero. Neither company copied the other, there's just only so much that you can do with black and grey and a plastic shroud. Either way, it is a good looking motherboard with some unique additions that really stand out upon further scrutiny. For example, that little corner piece between the two MOSFET heatsinks is a cool design touch, since that area is usually just a void. You might also notice that every shroud, cover, and heatsink has little white plastic cut-outs to allow the LED lighting to shine through, which should combine to create a distinctive appearance. There are also a lot of metal elements, like the 'Steel Armor' reinforcement for the DDR4 and PCI-E slots, the M.2 Shield, and the decorative metallic covers on the M.2 and U.2 connectors. It all combines to create a pretty macho aesthetic.

While the overall layout is great with all the numerous ports, connectors, buttons, and headers thoughtfully placed on every edge, this model does have the same issues as the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon. That is to say, unlike most other Z270 motherboards, this model has a unique slot configuration that places a PCI-E x1 slot directly under the primary PCI-E x16 slot - instead of directly above it - which renders that slot absolutely useless as soon as a dual-slot graphics cards is installed. While that has provided extra room for the M.2 slot to accommodate longer 22110-type SSDs, other manufacturers have managed to do both. When it comes to dimensions, the Z270 Gaming M7 is based on the conventional full-size ATX form factor - 30.5 cm x 24.4 cm / 12.0-in x 9.6-in - so there are no compatibility issues to worry about with any properly designed case.



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We have gotten used to CPU socket areas being cramped due to the unfortunate positioning of capacitors, thankfully that is not the case on the Gaming M7. In fact, this motherboard is a breath of fresh air with ample room all around the socket. There is is absolutely enough clearance room to fit any large heatsink or water block, and those using LN2 pot will have no issues insulating the entire area.

This motherboard has been outfitted with a solid 11-phase CPU power design that utilizes an uPI Semiconductor uP9508Q hybrid digital PWM controller and NIKOS PK616BA (highside) / PK632BA (lowside) MOSFETs, which regrettably aren't top-tier FETs. There are eight doubled phases for the cores, two simple phases for the integrated graphics portion of the processor, and one simple phase each for the VCCSA and VCCIO. Though not explicitly stated in the marketing materials, we do believe that this motherboard is using 10K polymer capacitors throughout. We are very pleased to see that MSI have used their top-of-the-line titanium chokes, which are inductors with titanium as their core material, hence the "Ti" stamp.

Since this is MSI's flagship Z270 motherboard and it is aimed at overclockers, it not only has one 8-pin CPU power connector but a supplementary 4-pin CPU power connector as well. This is a welcome addition since very highly overclocked processors can draw a ton of current through the 8-pin CPU power connector, enough to trip up certain power supplies with wonky over-current protection (OCP).

This motherboard has two fan headers near the CPU socket, one is the usual CPU fan header, while the header labeled PUMP_FAN1 has been designed for water pumps and it can supply up to 2 amps of current. All of the fan headers on this motherboard are fully controllable via both DC and PWM fan control modes, and the motherboard itself can even detect and configure the fans. You may notice that there are two LEDs near those two fan headers, and they are there to indicate the current fan control mode. Red is PWM mode and green is DC mode. Overall, it is a brilliant little feature.



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With these two images, we just wanted to give a closer look at the whole MOSFET heatsink area. For example, that corner piece between the two MOSFET heatsinks that occupies the void that is found on most other motherboards. And you also get a better look at the little white plastic cut-outs to allow the LED lighting to shine through.



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The four DDR4 slots are regulated by a two phase VRM, support up to 64GB of total system memory, and they have been certified for overclocked memory speeds of up to DDR4-4133+. Make sure to check out our Overclocking Results section to see whether we were able to hit that level. MSI still haven't adopted the whole "clipless on one side" concept, but that's not a huge issue for us since as you'll see in our Installation section there are no clearance issues with the back of the primary graphics card.

As you may have noticed, MSI have put metal shielding on each of the memory slots. This was done for largely aesthetic purposes, since this shielding in no way strengthens the slots. In fact, if you click here, you will see that this metal shielding is actually very flimsy and makes no actual contact with the slots.

To the right of the 24-pin ATX power connector is you will find the four EZ Debug LEDs, which will stay lit let you know if there is an issue with either the boot device, the graphics, the memory, or the processor. Those aren't the only diagnostic LEDs though. There are a ton of them on this motherboard. There are four next to the memory slots to show which slots are occupied, and there is also another one to the right of the slots to show when XMP is enabled. There is also a Debug LED display, which can provide precise error information.

To the right of the 24-pin ATX power connector is also where you will find the six voltage read points, which is a very welcome addition for those who take their overclocking seriously and want to directly measure the various voltage rails. You may also notice the OC_FS1, OC_RT1, JSLOW1, and JLN1 jumpers, which are also overclocking oriented. These are mostly intended for hardcore sub-zero overclockers, and they fix issues like failure to boot, getting rid of overclocking failure warning before entering the UEFI, dropping the CPU multiplier to enhance system stability while booting at sub-zero temperatures, and also helping the system boot at very low temperatures. There is even a discharge jumper, so that if everything goes terribly wrong, you don't need to bother pulling out the battery. Frankly, all of these additions makes the Gaming M7 one of the very best choices for serious overclockers.


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To the left of the 24-pin ATX power connector are two very rare USB headers. There is a unique angled USB 3.0/USB 3.1 Gen1 header and a high performance USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C header, courtesy of an ASMedia ASM2142 host controller. On the one hand, the angled header will make cable management much more simple, while on the other hand users will be able to look forward to high performance connectivity on the front of their cases, assuming they are new enough since not at all cases support this connector yet.

The FLASHB1 button is part of the BIOS Flashback+ feature. In coordination with the BIOS Flashback+ USB port on the rear I/O panel, you can enable the UEFI flashing process without ever needing to boot the motherboard. You simply plug in a FAT32-formatted USB drive with BIOS file on it, and then push button to start the flashing process. The BIOS Flashback+ LED will start blinking, once it stops the process has been completed.


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Directly below the CPU socket is one of the three M.2 slots, with a full-speed PCI-E 3.0 x4 interface, theoretical maximum bandwidth of 32Gb/s, and support for SATA, PCI-E, and PCI-E NVMe M.2 solid state drives. They all also support Intel's upcoming Optane technology. Since there is no PCI-E x1 slot in the way, you can install a 22110 form factor SSD, which is 110 millimeters long instead of the usual 80mm. You can also RAID all three M.2 slots for added performance (RAID 0) or redundancy (RAID 1).

However, be warned, if you do RAID-0 with three high-end PCI-E SSDs, you will hit a bottleneck due to the bandwidth limited DMI 3.0 link between the CPU and Z270 PCH. In fact, you're unlikely to ever hit over 4GB/s, so it might not even be worth attempting when a single Samsung SSD 960 PRO can hit up to 3.5GB/s. Then again, RAID-0 splits queues across multiple devices, so that does lead to significantly reduced latencies.


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This motherboard features six SATA 6Gb/s ports, all of which are supplied by the Z270 PCH and as a result support RAID 0/1/5/10 plus Intel Rapid Storage Technology. There is no SATA Express compatibility, but we now consider that to be a dead interface. There is a U.2 port that can handle up to 32Gb/s of bandwidth, which is great, but at the moment it can only be used with an Intel 750 Series SSD.

The M.2 Shield attached to the middle M.2 slot is a pretty cool addition to this motherboard. It is essentially just a piece of metal with a strip of thermal material under it that is intended to both draw heat away from an M.2 SSD and also reflect heat from the SSD if there's a graphics card in the second PCI-E x16 slot. This is great since as we have mentioned many times in the past, M.2 SSDs can start throttling themselves when they run too hot, which greatly affects their performance. This middle slot and the bottom slot can only support SSDs up to 80mm length, but otherwise features identical specifications as the top slot, including support for Intel's upcoming Optane technology and RAID.

Now there are numerous storage combinations possible with this motherboard, and they have all have different effects on whether you can use a particular SATA port or M.2 slot, so definitely take a look at this compatibility table that we have made:

 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
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Messages
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Location
Montreal
A Closer Look at the Z270 Gaming M7 pt.2

A Closer Look at the Z270 Gaming M7 pt.2




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The lower-right corner of the motherboard is packed with goodness. As you can see, this is where you will find the Game Boost Knob, as well as the power and reset buttons. We won't go great detail about the knob here - we'll save that for the Overclocking Results section - but basically it allows users a quick and easy way of manually overclocking without ever having to enter the UEFI or using any piece of software. It is a cool, functional addition to this motherboard, and as you will see later on, it does work very well.

Next to the power button is one of the two front panel headers and a USB 3.0 header. That USB header is red because it is the "Charger Port", capable of outputting more current than the other USB headers and thus more useful for charging mobile devices.

The bottom edge of motherboard is where you will find two USB 2.0 headers, two system fan headers, and the front panel audio header. The JLED1 pins are for the RGB LED header, which is where you can plug in any 12V/2A 5050 RGB LED light strip and have it fully powered by the motherboard and controlled by the LED utility.


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Much like Skylake and previous mainstream generations, current Kaby Lake processors support sixteen PCI-E 3.0 lanes for graphics purposes. These lanes are divided across two separate PCI-E x16 slots thanks to a handful of ASMedia ASM1480 PCI-E 3.0 switches. The third mechanical PCI-E x16 3.0 slot operates at x4, and as far as I can tell, it doesn’t actually share it’s bandwidth with anything else. Likewise, it doesn't appear that anything affects the three PCI-E x1 slots, which receive their lanes from the Z270 PCH.

In a regular single graphics card setup, the first PCI-E x16 slot will obviously operate at PCI-E 3.0 x16. In a dual graphics card configuration, the first and second slots will operate at PCI-E 3.0 x8, which will still provide ample bandwidth for even the highest-end GPUs. This 2-Way configuration is the limit for SLI however, as NVIDIA doesn't support SLI on any PCI-E x4 slots, which as mentioned above is the limit for the third PCI-E x16 slot. If you install three Radeon graphics cards, the expansion slots will be running at x8/x8/x4 in PCI-E 3.0 mode. This is obviously not optimal since this last slot doesn't have a direct low latency connection to the processor, but Triple CrossFireX does work in theory.

One of the new features that MSI are promoting are that the two main PCI-E x16 slots are reinforced with "Steel Armor". While this metal shielding will indeed stop the slot from bending when a heavy graphics card is installed, MSI are also claiming that it has some effect in reducing EMI as well. Regrettably, we can't test that. This Z270 Gaming M7 model also has a unique plastic shroud next to the PCI-E slots, featuring LED-lit numbers representing each slot. While it is an interesting design element, we have no idea why MSI stopped at number five when there are six slots. It's truly puzzling.

As briefly mentioned on the previous page, this motherboard has a different PCI-E slot configuration than every other Z270 motherboard that we have reviewed thus far. While they all had a PCI-E x1 slot above the primary PCI-E x16 slot, on this motherboard the first PCI-E x1 slot is below the PCI-E x16 slot, and as a result it will obviously be blocked by any dual-slot graphics cards. It is a rather unusual decision, though perhaps they placed a greater priority on giving the M.2 slot extra room to handle extra-longer 22110-type M.2 solid state drives. Maybe that will be the form factor that Intel's upcoming Optane SSDs use...




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Once we removed the plastic shroud that covers the audio section/numerically classifies the PCI-E slots, we finally got a good look at the truly bizarre Audio Boost 4 PRO onboard audio implementation.

As you can clearly see, there are indeed two Realtek ALC1220 codecs, which is something that we have never seen before. Each codec features an audio amplifier integrated into its package. While that audio amplifier is built-in, it can only be hard-wired towards one output. As a result, most motherboards have an added amplifier - like a Texas Instruments NE5532 or OP1652 - so they can power both the gold-plated rear audio outputs and the front panel header's headphone jack.

Since this particular motherboard has two codecs it obviously doesn't need a separate amplifier, but another advantage is that instead of merely being able to output audio to the speakers or the front panel header's headphone jack, it can do both simultaneously. While this might sound cool - pardon the pun - we still can't really wrap our heads around needing to use the headphones and speakers at the same time. Unsurprisingly, given the two codecs, this motherboard has twice the number of Nippon Chemicon audio-grade capacitors that we usually expect.

We would have liked to see EMI covers on both of the codecs, but failing that at least there is the familiar PCB isolation line to help protect the audio signal. The addition of a de-pop circuit should stop any of those annoying pops you might have previously heard when connecting/disconnecting microphones or speakers or headphones, which will clearly come in handy on this motherboard.



The Z270 Gaming M7 has a decent assortment of ports on its rear I/O panel, and there is even a button. Starting from left to right, there is a combo keyboard/mouse PS/2 port, the Clear CMOS button, a USB 2.0/BIOS Flashback+ port, DisplayPort 1.2 and HDMI 1.4 video outputs, a Killer E2500-powered gigabit LAN port, USB 3.1 Type-A and USB 3.1 Type-C ports, and five gold-plated analog audio jacks and one S/PDIF output.

Since this is higher-end Z270 motherboard, we are disappointed by the lack of a second LAN port. Specifically, we would have really liked to see one Intel-powered gigabit LAN port, since they do tend to have greater compatibility with non-mainstream operating systems and arguably even better performance. The fact that there is only two USB 3.0 ports on the rear I/O panel might be an issue for some people, but there are two internal USB 3.0 headers so that makes it less of an issue in our opinion.

The BIOS Flashback+ port is obviously part of the BIOS Flashback+ feature. In coordination with the BIOS Flashback+ button, you can enable the UEFI flashing process without ever needing to boot the motherboard. You simply plug in a FAT32-formatted USB drive with BIOS file on it, and then push button to start the flashing process. The BIOS Flashback+ LED will start blinking, once it stops the process has been completed.




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So what's powering all these ports? Well starting from the top left there is a Killer E2500 gigabit LAN controller, a ASMedia ASM2142 USB 3.1 Gen2 host controller, a ASMedia ASM1543 USB 3.1 Type-C switch, a NXP PTN3360DBS HDMI 1.4b chip, numerous ASMedia ASM1464 USB 3.0 signal repeaters, and a Nuvoton NCT6795D Super I/O monitoring controller.

MSI have also added a VR Boost accelerator chip, which they claim can provide superior signal to a USB port, giving you a more seamless VR experience when you plug if your VR device into that single port. Once again, that's regrettably not really something that we can test at this point in time.




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While there are a handful of tiny ICs mounted on the back of the motherboard, clearly some MOSFET doublers, we aren't worried about them being exposed/not covered by a heatsink. As was the case on the Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon, the silkscreening definitely caught our eye, since it is all gaming-oriented manufacturer certifications.

As we have come to expect from a motherboard in this price range, all of the heatsinks and the plastic shroud are attached with metal screws.


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This is just a good look at the PCB audio separation line that surrounds the audio subsystem. You might notice that there are no LEDs visible, and that is because the audio line is not backlit. Instead those LEDs are integrated into the plastic shroud mounted on the front of the motherboard.
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,088
Location
Montreal
Hardware Installation

Hardware Installation


In the Hardware Installation section we examine how major components fit on the motherboard, and whether there are any serious issues that may affect installation and general functionality. Specifically, we are interested in determining whether there is adequate clearance in all critical areas.



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Since it has such an unobstructed CPU socket area, installing any type of cooling on this motherboard should be a breeze. No matter if we install it in the East-West or North-South orientation, our Prolimatech Mega Shadow cooler and its numerous bits of mounting hardware had no issues physically clearing the capacitors or the MOSFET heatsinks. As a result, we believe that most large CPU heatsink, all-in-one liquid coolers, water blocks, and LN2 pots should be easily installable.


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We did not encounter any clearance issues between standard height memory modules and our large CPU cooler, though the fan clips did not come close to making contact with the memory heatspreader. However, like on most Z270 motherboards, when we installed our tallest memory modules in the furthest memory slots, we could no longer use fan clips since the fan itself was flush against the nearest module's memory heatspreader.


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Thanks to the expansion slot layout, there is a large gap between the DDR4 memory slots and the back of the graphics card, so there is no need to take out the GPU in order to release the clips and install/uninstall the memory modules. The 24-pin ATX power connector and the 8-pin CPU power connector are both ideally placed, so that makes assembling and disassembling the system just a tad easier.



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This motherboard will hold one, two, or even three dual-slot graphics cards without difficulty. The cards will obviously extend past the motherboard length-wise, and that last card will overhang all the headers on the bottom edge of the motherboard. Since there is a decent amount of room between the primary graphics card and the heatsink, it was relatively easy to reach the PCI-E slot release clip.


The U.2 port and six 90-degree SATA ports are obviously accessible no matter how many graphics cards are installed.


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Installing an M.2 SSD in the top M.2 slot is a trouble-free affair. You shouldn’t need to remove your CPU heatsink, but you will have to remove any graphics card installed in the primary PCI-E x16 slot since the space between the heatsink and the back of the graphics card will likely be rather minimal.


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Installing an M.2 SSD on the middle or bottom M.2 slot is also simple. Obviously, any dual-slot expansion card installed in the secondary PCI-E x16 slot will make the M.2 slot inaccessible, so that graphics card will need to be removed before installing/uninstalling any solid state drive.


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We were able to install our Prolimatech Mega Shadow heatsink without running into any issues, but its large rear mounting bracket did come pretty close to one little solder point. This is the case on most motherboards, so nothing to worry about there.
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,088
Location
Montreal
BIOS Rundown

BIOS Rundown


Given the relatively minor differences between Z170 and Z270 motherboards, MSI have unsurprisingly decided to carry forward their well-liked Click Bios 5. In fact, the overall layout and design of this UEFI has remained basically unchanged since Click Bios 2, so clearly MSI are the brand of choice for those who like consistency from one product to the next. The UEFI is divided across two distinct modes. The EZ Mode is simplified and features a mouse-friendly graphical user interface (GUI) for basic tasks, while the Advanced Mode has all the settings, options, and features that you could ever want. The one important setting that it does lack is any way of controlling the onboard LEDs, you must install the Gaming APP in order to manage that feature. There should at least be an on/off option for those who really don't want anything to do with RGB LED lighting.

In both modes, the top third of the screen is occupied by a row that 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.

In the top-left corner are also two large buttons: Game Boost and XMP. The Game Boost feature 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. This model offers eight Game Boost modes, and it will overclock a Core i7-7700K from a mere 4.60Ghz all the way up to 5.20GHz, while also setting a DDR4-3200 memory speed. If that's not the enough, or if you just want to higher memory speeds, the XMP button enables your memory kit's XMP profile. Together these two features will remove two of the main reasons for entering the Advanced mode.




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When you first enter the Click Bios 5 you 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 pleasing to use.

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.

If the EZ Mode doesn't have the versatility that you are looking for, it is time to move on to the Advanced mode:



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In the Advanced mode, the bottom two-thirds of the screen is divided into two columns with three rows each and a center space. 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. Because the top of the screen and the two sides are occupied with static information or menus, that center space is not huge, and that is less than ideal since that is where you will be viewing and tweaking all the settings.

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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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.
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,088
Location
Montreal
BIOS Rundown pt.2

BIOS Rundown pt.2



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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.

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The OC Profile feature gives users the option to save and switch between BIOS profiles, for example an everyday profile and a benchmarking profile. Not only is this infinitely quicker than manually inserting every setting, but the profiles can be saved and shared among other Z270 Gaming M7 owners.

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The Hardware Monitor section is dedicated to the monitoring of the various voltages, temperatures, and fan speeds. This whole section is quite comprehensive, 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.

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One of the unique aspects of MSI's BIOS is the Board Explorer feature, which 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 about what fan headers, USB ports, and SATA ports are in use. It's actually a pretty neat feature.


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By pressing the F1 key or by clicking on the little heart icon in the top right corner you are brought to the new and somewhat hidden Favorites section. This basically mirrors what we have seen on ASUS motherboards, and it basically allows you to have all your most useful or most used settings in one place, so you no longer have to search through the whole bios to find what you need time and time again.
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
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Location
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Included Software

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 wide ranging number 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.

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The Command Center initially opens to the CPU tab, 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. You can also adjust the fan speeds of both the CPU and PUMP/FAN1 headers, either manually or by using the Fan tune option.

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The DRAM tab allows you to change the memory frequency, as well as alter the DRAM voltage (for each channel). The IGP tab allows you to control the clock multiplier and voltage of the GPU that is integrated into the processor. This section might not be all that useful since most users will have a dedicated graphics cards.

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The Game Boost tab is where you will find the automatic overclocking feature, though we prefer using the one-click button in the BIOS. As you will see in our Overclocking Results section, thought it is very easy to use it isn't quite as versatile or aggressive as some other manufacturers implementations.

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At the bottom this utility is a static strip with the buttons Advanced, Settings, and Information. Each of those three options reveals - in the form of icons - a handful of additional sub-menus and/or features.

For the Advanced option, the voltage button pop-ups a windows with eight fully adjustable system voltages. The fan button reveals where you can adjust all the system fans, and only the system fans, since the CPU fan control is part of the CPU section of the Command Center app. Clicking the DRAM button will reveal a few dozen memory timings settings, which is pretty sweet. The Sensor button opens up a large real-time onboard temperature sensor control window, which has temperature readouts and fan speeds.

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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. The Mobile Control panel is where you setup remote access to overclocking and monitoring functions, as well configure your mobile device as a remote for your system's media playback.

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The Information section is just some fundamental information about the specifications of the motherboard, the processor, and the system memory. There is also a Hardware Monitor that allows you to monitor system voltages, fan speeds, and temperatures.
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
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Messages
1,088
Location
Montreal
Included Software pt.2

Included Software pt.2


Gaming App

While the Command Center is clearly the primary utility in MSI's rich software suite, the standalone Gaming App is also incredibly useful, especially since it is the only means of controlling the onboard RGB LED lighting. As a result, we are glad to see that it has received a sizeable update for this generation.


When you first enter the app, you are presented with three system performance profiles. The OC Mode simply enables the Game Boost preset that is found in the UEFI, and thus overclocks a Core i7-7700K processor to 4.8Ghz. The Gaming Mode forces the processor to run at its Turbo frequencies at all times, while the Silent Mode restores the clock frequencies to their default values and also allows the system to downclock to 800MHz when idling. If you are using an MSI graphics card, the Game Boost and Gaming Mode should automatically provide some form of GPU overclock.

The other four small icons open up Gaming Hotkey, Mouse Master, and VR. The four greyed out icon obviously has something to do with headsets, but it is not a clickable option, even in MSI's documentation. Gaming Hotkey is user-friendly feature that allows for the easy programming of macro keys, assigning of function keys, or creation of shortcuts for everything from launching any of any application with a single press to multimedia playback control. Mouse Master is a mouse macro utility, allowing users to assigns actions to different keys, as well as adjusting DPI on-the-fly at the touch of a hotkey. The VR feature effectively just enables and closes unnecessary applications in order to ensure the best possible VR experience.



The three icons at the top of the Gaming App are far more interesting than the three/four at the bottom. The first one is - as its name suggests - related to the onboard LEDs. This LED section is the only feature that gives users control over the Mystic Light RGB LED lighting, since there is no such option in the UEFI.

The RGB LEDs that are integrated into the four main lightning areas, as well as the RGB light strip header, can be adjusted to any one of 16.8 million colours and customized with your choice of cool lighting effects, such as breathing, flashing, double flashing, marquee, meteor, stack, rainbow, lightning, and random. They can also dance to your music, but not to the actual beat, instead you need to select the type of music you are playing (pop, rap, jazz, play, movie). The rudimentary MB Function LEDs - of which there are five - only have four of these effects and don't respond to music. We wish that this software - or perhaps the whole Mystic Light implementation - was a little more 'intelligent', with actual music beat detection and other real-time effects like reacting to CPU temperature, etc.

Since every lighting area is independently controlled, when you make changes you must click apply to save before moving on to the next area, which is a little annoying. We wish there was a way to control all the lighting areas with one click. Currently, the only such option is a button in the top-right corner that only allows for enabling or disabling all the LEDs.

The Chart icon is for the OSD. This on-screen display feature provides a real-time in-game overlay of potential information like CPU usage, CPU frequency, CPU temperature, CPU voltage, how many system memory is being used, and of course what the frame rate is.

The little eye icon opens up the Eye Rest feature, which has four modes that adjust the screen contrast to the optimal level for the given situation. The Eye Rest mode reduces your displays blue light output, which is the type of light that fatigues your eyes the most. The Gaming Mode bumps up the contrast and makes colours pop a little more. The Movie mode dynamically tweaks the gamma and contrast levels. The Customize mode gives you full control over brightness, contrast, gamma, and level...which as far as we can tell is just a less dramatic brightness correction.


Live Update 6


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


X-Boost


The X-Boost utility offers a number of system modes designed to increase the performance of specific tasks. It is a little esoteric, since we have no idea what they could be doing to improve "Graphics Performance" or "Audio". Primarily though, this app is really marketed as a way boosting USB performance. In this respect it does work since it makes transfer rates slightly less erratic, but we suspect that is because there is a bit of caching going on somewhere.


Gaming LAN Manager


The Gaming LAN Manager is a utility designed to help reduce latency courtesy of the often-used cFosSpeed traffic-shapping technology. This utility provides users with a lot of control and monitoring capabilities over every application that is accessing the network. It displays CPU usage, ICMP and UDP average ping, and the network utilization of every system process and program. This tool also allows you give priority to certain applications, and throttle or block others to free network resources for other applications. It is your one-stop tool for monitoring and controlling all network traffic.


DPC Latency Tuner


As you might have gathered from its name, the DPC Latency Tuner allows users to tweak a few key CPU and memory settings in order to lower DPC latency. While DPC issues are largely software related, there are a few hardware tweaks like stopping the processor from constantly varying its clock speed that may also improve any latency issues.


RAMDisk


The Z270 Gaming M7 comes with the familiar RAMDisk utility. For those not familiar with what a RAMDisk is, it basically acts as a virtual drive that is much faster than even the fastest high-end solid state drive. The reason for this is that it makes use of unused system memory (ie: RAM), and turns a chunk of it into an OS-level storage partition (with its own drive letter) that can be used to accelerate the performance and response times of installed or cached applications.


Nahimic 2


Much like the Creative Sound Blaster Cinema suite that ships with certain motherboards, the Nahimic 2 application takes a capable onboard audio solution and noticeably improves it. With this program you can enhance the surround soundstage to make it easier to pinpoint enemy player locations in online games, optimize the output for clearer audio for music, improve your microphone's abilities to yell orders to your team mate, record XSplit Gamecaster sessions to improve the sound before you upload to your audience, or even just balance all audio at the same level so when switching between applications you don’t deafen yourself. Much like Sound Blaster Cinema add-on which ships with certain motherboards, the Nahimic Audio Enhancer application takes an already good onboard audio solution and noticeably improves it. With this program you can enhanced enhance the surround soundstage to make it easier to pinpoint enemy player locations in online games, optimize the output for clearer audio for music, improve your microphone's abilities to yell orders to your team mate, record XSplit Gamecaster sessions to improve the sound before you upload to your audience, or even just balance all audio at the same level so when switching between applications you don’t deafen yourself.


Killer Network Manager


The Killer Network Manager is the software control interface for the Killer E2500 network processing unit (NPU) that is installed along with the drivers. This utility provides users with a lot of control and monitoring capabilities over every application that is accessing the network. It displays CPU usage, NPU usage, ICMP and UDP average ping, and the network utilization of every system process and program. This tool also allows you give priority to certain applications, and throttle or block others to free network resources for other applications. It is your one-stop tool for monitoring and controlling all network traffic.


While we have represented you with that pieces of software that are the most interesting to us, there are bunch of other utilities that we didn't have time to touch on, such as Fast Boost which enables/disables the UEFI's fast boot mode, or Smart Tool which creates a bootable USB for Windows 7 installation, or Dragon Eye that can overlay Twitch or YouTube videos on top of your active gaming session, or Mobile Control which is essentially a smartphone version of the Command Center application. There is also a free 1 year premium license for XSplit Gamecaster V2, which is a utility that allows record, stream and share your gaming session
 
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MAC

Associate Review Editor
Joined
Nov 8, 2006
Messages
1,088
Location
Montreal
Test Setups & Methodology

Test Setups & Methodology



For this review, we are going to be testing the performance of the Z270 Gaming M7 in four configurations: default settings @ DDR4-2133, default settings with XMP enabled (DDR4-3866), one automatic overclock, and our manual overclock. The components and software are the same across all five configurations, and aside from manually selecting the frequencies, timings, and voltages in the manual overclock configuration, every option in the BIOS was at its default setting.

Intel Core i7 'Kaby Lake' LGA1151 DDR4 Test Setup​

For all of the benchmarks, appropriate lengths are taken to ensure an equal comparison through methodical setup, installation, and testing. The following outlines our testing methodology:

A) Windows is installed using a full format.

B) Chipset drivers and accessory hardware drivers (audio, network, GPU) are installed.

C)To ensure consistent results, a few tweaks are applied to Windows 10 Pro and the NVIDIA control panel:
  • UAC – Disabled
  • Indexing – Disabled
  • Superfetch – Disabled
  • System Protection/Restore – Disabled
  • Problem & Error Reporting – Disabled
  • Remote Desktop/Assistance - Disabled
  • Windows Security Center Alerts – Disabled
  • Windows Defender – Disabled
  • Screensaver – Disabled
  • Power Plan – High Performance
  • V-Sync – Off

D) All available Windows updates are then installed.

E) All programs are installed and then updated, followed by a defragment.

F) Benchmarks are each run three to ten times, and unless otherwise stated the results are then averaged.


Here is a full list of the applications that we utilized in our benchmarking suite:
  • 3DMark Vantage Professional Edition v1.1.3
  • 3DMark11 Professional Edition v1.0.132.0
  • 3DMark 2013 Professional Edition v2.2.3491
  • AIDA64 Engineer Edition v5.80.4000
  • Cinebench R15 64-bit
  • FAHBench 1.2.0
  • Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward Benchmark
  • Grand Theft Auto V
  • HEVC Decode Benchmark (Cobra) v1.61
  • LuxMark v3.1
  • Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
  • PCMark 8
  • SuperPi Mod v1.9 WP
  • Valve Particle Simulation Benchmark v1.0.0.0
  • WinRAR x64 5.40
  • wPRIME version v2.10
  • X3: Terran Conflict Demo v1.0
That is about all you need to know methodology wise, so let's get to the good stuff!
 
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