MSI Z170A Gaming M5 Motherboard Review

Author: AkG
Date: September 14, 2015
Product Name: Z170A Gaming M5
Part Number: Z170A Gaming M5
Warranty: 3 Years
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A Closer Look at the MSI Gaming M5

Compared to some other Skylake-supporting motherboards we have looked at, the MSI Z170A Gaming M5's aesthetics will either be charmingly antiquated or right up your alley. This duality is due to the fact that MSI has basically just carried over their previous generationsí 'Gaming' series aesthetics to this new series. As such if you thought MSI's previous generations black and red with dragon motif was perfect for your custom PC gaming right, then the M5 will also be perfect.

The custom all black PCB and red and black heatsinks do make for a rather attractive package, just one that we have seen a million times before. There is however some newness here as well: there are red tracings from the DDR4 channels to the LGA1151 socket, and the PCI-E slots are clad in a metallic finish. This certainly proves that MSI are actually refining their Gaming series' aesthetics.

The refinements here are much more than just skin deep. The red tracings point to MSI being one of the first to electronically separate the DDR4 memory subsystem from the rest of the motherboard. Supposedly this allows for much more stable memory overclocking and less interference, both of which are laudable goals. So much so that we hope other manufactures follow suit.

However, separating the memory subsystem has caused a cascade effect with certain basic components having to be moved, which in turn meant finding room for them in somewhat unusual locations.

Let's start with the obvious - or first domino so to speak: the two 4-pin CPU fan headers. Usually both of these fan headers are adjacent to one another and located between the VRM heatsink and the DIMMs. Sadly there is now only room for one 4-pin fan header in this location and MSI's engineers had to relocate the second up near the top most corner of the motherboard.

This design choice in turn made it impossible to install the two digital LED diagnostic LEDs in their usual location right next to the DIMM slots. Instead the diagnostic display has been pushed down to the bottom of the board and is located in-between the SATA and front panel headers.

This unfortunately had the side-effect of reducing the amount of room available for additional USB 3.0 front panel headers and primary SATA ports. Thankfully MSI has not only included a single USB 3.0 front panel header (capable of powering two USB 3.0 ports) but they have also rotated the port by 90-degress making it easier access. Itís too bad that MSI couldnít find room for a second USB 3.0 front header somewhere else on the board, but considering the cascade of issues one simple change caused we are almost glad they didnít try. If you require quad USB 3.0 ports for the front of your case you will have to step up the Gaming food chain a bit.

As for the SATA port issue, usually a $185 motherboard can be counted on having at least eight useable SATA 6Gbps ports. Sadly there was only room for six. On the positive side, MSI has taken full advantage of the Z170's abilities and included two SATA Express ports. However if you do use both SE ports, the number of useable SATA 6Gb/s ports plummets to just two.

Both of those SE ports are fully compatible with PCI-E and SATA based devices so that if you do have a compatible device you can pretty much be assured it will work with either of these two ports.

Unlike other boards in this category, the Gaming M5 has not one but two four lane capable M.2 ports. This is indeed excellent news as it means you can easily use one to power a U.2-based storage device like the Intel 750 SSD, and use the other one for an 'old fashioned' M.2 device. As with the SE ports, these two M.2 ports are compatible with both PCI-E and SATA controller based units.

MSI has positioned the top most M.2 slot so that if you do decide on using the (not included) U.2 adapter card you will not run into installation issues with an SLI or Crossfire video card configuration. In fact a U.2 board, or standard M.2 drive can be added into this top M.2 port even if both the main and secondary PCI-E x16 slots are already populated. Of course, the bottom M.2 port is not so lucky, but that is why MSI has included two of these future-proof ports for users.

The only real issues you need to be aware of with these two M.2 slots is that both are only capable of accepting M.2 drives of 80mm or less in length. With 110mm M.2 NVMe drives from LiteOn and others are on the horizon, this compatibility issue could rear its head quite drastically in the near future. Of course, 80mm is the typical length used for M.2 drives so this is a rather minor issue at best.

The PCI-E slots themselves are equally well thought out and extremely well executed. As with all serious gaming-orientated motherboards, the M5's uses a simple x1 slot in the topmost position, with the main PCI-E x16 slot being pushed down one space. This may not sound like much, but the extra space allows users to install/uninstall their DDR4 memory of choice without first uninstalling the video-card. This is especially important as both sides of each DIMM have securing latches that swing outwards and if MSI had not done this, it would have caused some major hurdles. This extra space also allows even large air based CPU cooling solutions to be mounted to the CPU socket without interfering with that first graphics slot.

Also like other excellent examples of the genre, the secondary PCI-E 3.0 x16 slot has been separated from the primary X16 slot by two PCIe x1 slots. This allows the M5 the ability to easily mount two three slot video cards in SLI/Crossfire configuration without even breaking a sweat.

To ensure that you will not damage the motherboard if heavyweight video cards are used, MSI has beefed up these PCI-E x16 slots with much more robust soldering which can take added pressure and weight without fatiguing over time. In addition, with MSI's "Steel Armor" both of the main slots have EMI shielding covering them. Whether or not interference would cause any issues is moot, as this outside of the box thinking will be appreciated by gamers, even if it is overkill.

Of course no true enthusiast grade motherboard would not be complete if it did not also include a tertiary PCI-E slot for three-way video card goodness. Since LGA1151 / Z170 systems do not have enough lanes for true full bandwidth SLI configurations (using two will result in 8+8 mode) this third slot runs at x4 electrical speeds and shares its bandwidth with the secondary x16 slot.

This means thee video cards will run in an 8+4+4 configuration, but this is par for the course and the only way to overcome this is via the use of expensive PLX lane switch which you will not find in this price bracket.

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