MSI Z170A GAMING M7 Motherboard Review
By David Ramsey
Full Disclosure: MSl provided the product sample used in this article.
The advent of Intel’s Skylake 6th-generation Core processors and their supporting Z170 chipset marks the biggest change in Intel’s consumer line since the original X68. While the Skylake CPU holds few surprises other than its support for DDR4 memory, the Z170 chipset finally brings to the mainstream market what it’s so desperately needed: more PCI-E lanes, and of the 3.0 variety at that! Of course MSI adds their own unique touches to this system and today Benchmark Reviews checks out the MSI Z170A Gaming M7 LGA1151 motherboard.
While there’s little to distinguish the previous Z77, Z87, and Z97 chipsets, the Z170 is the best argument for upgrading your rig since Sandy Bridge was introduced. Let’s take a look at what’s new:
Intel Z170A System Architecture
Intel’s progress in mainstream chipsets (i.e. not including the LGA2011 and 2011v3 platform) has been very slow, with only incremental improvements– a few more USB 3.0 ports here, some SATA 6 there– for the past few years. And while native support for these features was nice, it wasn’t anything that hadn’t been done with third-party chips before. The one thing the mainstream systems increasingly needed was more PCI-E lanes, and with the Z170, Intel has finally obliged. Why do you want more PCI-E lanes? Because all the spiffy new I/O devices, like m.2 SSDs, are using them.
The main thing in this diagram is the box labeled “Up to 20xPCI Express 3.0”. That’s the real win here. Chipset support for PCI-E lanes started with the Z68, which supplied 8 PCI-E 2.0 lanes, and there it stayed through the Z77, Z87, and Z97 chipsets. I’ve prepared a summary chart below showing native interface capabilities of Intel’s last few chipsets.
|SATA 3gb||SATA 6gb||USB 2.0||USB 3.0||PCI-E 2.0||PCI-E 3.0||m.2 support|
|Z97||–||6||8||6||8||–||2xPCI-E 2.0, mSATA|
|Z170||–||6||14||10||–||20||12xPCI-E 3.0, mSATA|
With the 16 lanes supplied by the Skylake CPU, a Z170-based system now has a total of 36 PCI-E 3.0 lanes available. An X99 system can still beat this, depending on the CPU: while the X99 chipset only provides 8 of the slower PCI-E 2.0 lanes, the Haswell-E LGA2011v3 CPU can supply up to 40 PCI-E 3.0 lanes on its own (the number of lanes depends on which CPU). Note that since the chipset PCI-E lanes cannot be used for GPUs, Z170 systems still don’t support triple-GPU setups any better than their predecessors, with an 8x4x4 configuration. So an X99 system still has the edge here.
Let’s take a look at this board in the next section.