|Introduction and MSI Z87 Features|
|We’ve already had a taste of what ASUS and Gigabyte have to offer in the way of Z87 motherboards, and now it’s time to give MSI’s lineup a spin. MSI’s offering of Z87 motherboards has essentially three tiers: the “POWER” series (which includes four XPOWER and MPOWER boards), a trio of gaming boards, and five mainstream boards. The company sent us a motherboard from each area to put through their paces.
The Z87 chipset goes hand-in-hand with Intel’s 4th-generation Haswell processors, and we outfitted the three MSI boards--the tiny Z87I, the Z87-G45 Gamer, and the Z87 MPOWER Max overclocker--with an Intel Core i7-4770K (3.5 GHz) CPU to see how the trio performs.
MSI built all of its Z87 mainboards with "Military Class 4" components, which are designed to enhance stability and include Hi-c Caps rated for 160,000 hours, super ferrite chokes that allow for 30% higher current, and Dark Caps that are rated for 40 years of “office use” and more than 10 years of work under a full load. MSI’s Military-Class Essentials promise strong EMI and ESD protection as well as better component protection from humidity and high temps.
MSI Z87 Motherboard Series Software FeaturesAs expected, MSI wasn’t stingy with their bundled software. There are some usual suspects such as the Intel Extreme Tuning Utility and Norton, as well as Trend Micro Safe Sync (none of which you have to install if you don’t want to). MSI also threw in 7-Zip, a handy open source extraction tool, which is a nice touch.
The Fast Boot utility helps the system--you guessed it--boot faster, and it has a Go2BIOS button that lets you boot into the BIOS without having to bang on the Delete key repeatedly. (It’s the little things in life, folks.) Super RAID is simply three Intel utilities--Rapid Start, Smart Response, and Smart Connect--rolled into one, and Super Charger will give extra juice to a USB port to more quickly charge your attached mobile device.
However, the two big stars of the software show on MSI’s platform are Live Update 5 and the MSI Command Center.
Live Update 5 is a simple but powerful application that makes it easy for you to keep your drivers, software, and utilities up to date. You can set the software to run a scan for updates periodically or run it manually, but either way you prefer to run it, Live Update 5 is a one-stop shop for updates.
Command Center is chock full of goodies, and tinkerers may lose themselves among the many settings they can adjust. There are five sections: CPU, DRAM, GPU, RAMDisk, and OC Genie.
Under CPU, you can adjust CPU core frequency, adjust the CPU ratio, and change the BCLK; set different auto fan modes or switch to manual settings; and adjust the CPU voltage. You can perform essentially the same adjustments under DRAM and GPU (but obviously for the memory and graphics card, respectively).
RAMDisk is a brilliant, tried-and-true tool (and is also found on ASUS’ RoG boards) that lets you treat your unused system memory somewhat like SSD cache to give a hand to your system storage. You can create a new drive letter, determine the disk size and format, and add a number of options for settings and backups.
The final tab within Command Center is OC Genie, which is MSI’s auto-overclocking utility. It will give you automatic stable overclocks by adjusting settings on the CPU, DRAM, and GPU, and all you have to do is shut down the system, press the OC Genie button on the motherboard, and turn the system back on. You can also enable OC Genie from within the BIOS.
If you’re hungry for even more settings to adjust and (for the most part) at a more granular level, you can click Advanced in the Command Center window to pull up Voltage, Fan, and DRAM. Clicking any of those will bring up more detailed settings you can adjust. If you click Setting, you can open the Record function and track voltage, fan speed, and temps over time.
From the Setting feature, you can also set parameters for safe component operation and receive warnings when and if something maxes out past your preferred limit. Finally, the Information area will give you detailed data on the motherboard, CPU, and memory.
That's a lot of software in support of these boards. Let's look at the hardware...
|The MSI Z87I is the resident small form factor motherboard in MSI’s Z87 lineup, the mini-ITX board sports an all-black PCB with black and dark silver trimmings for a chilled-out look. MSI managed to fit a satisfactory array of components on this tiny motherboard. There’s nothing at all immediately adjacent to the CPU socket, although there is a small passive heatsink over some of the power array and one over the southbridge. It’s worth noting that there is a secondary power input on this board, but instead of the 8-pin connector that you so often see, the Z87I requires just a 4-pin connector.
There are two DIMM slots on the PCB which support up to 16GB of DDR3-3000 (OC) memory. The board has just one PCIe 3.0 x16 slot, although there’s also a half-size mini-PCIe slot, as well; the Z87I ships with an Intel Centrion Wireless-N 2230 WiFi/Bluetooth card installed in that slot, but you can always yank that out if you’d rather connect something else. The WiFi card offers dual-band 802.11b/g/n, Intel WiDi, and Bluetooth 4.
The Z87I has four 6Gbps SATA ports that support RAID 0/1/5/10, and the board supports up to 10 USB ports (6 USB 3.0, 4 USB 2.0); all of the above is provided by the chipset. For audio, the Z87I has 7.1 surround sound via a Realtek chip, as well as Sound Blaster Cinema software that lets you select presets (based on use cases and situations such as movie-watching or video chatting) or customize your own surround setup.
MSI gave you options for built-on graphics, too, by including DVI-D as well as DisplayPort and HDMI. The latter two both support 4K displays, and you can use any two of the onboard graphics ports for dual-display functionality.
In the box, you’ll find driver and utilities discs, a compact user manual, quick start guide, WiFi module antennae, two SATA cables, and the I/O shield.
With respect to the fact that a mini-ITX motherboard doesn’t give you much room to work with, we found there to be some layout issues with the Z87I. For one thing, the wires from the WiFi module to the WiFi antenna mounts on the I/O panel drape all the way across one side of the board, and they’re completely in the way--especially when you’re trying to connect to the adjacent pin headers. In fact, the headers most occluded by the WiFi module wires are the ones for the power and reset switches and one of the two fan headers.
In summation, the Z87I has some solid features, but the layout of the board is pretty tight in spots and you are going to want to double-check your complementary components for compatibility.
|MSI Z87-G45 Gaming|
|Like ASUS’ ROG series, MSI’s Z87 gaming motherboards have a red and black color scheme. The PCB of the MSI Z87-G45 is a sort of faint reddish black with black and metallic red accents, and the southbridge is covered with a sharp dragon logo. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s a modest assortment of heatsinks around the CPU socket; there are simply two modestly-sized passive heatsinks on the power array, although the heatsinks cleverly form that same dragon shape if you look at them sideways.
The board supports up to 32GB of DDR3-3000 (OC) RAM, and there are plenty of expansion slots. There are three PCIe x16 slots, which support up to three-way CrossFire or two-way SLI setups, as well as four PCIe x1 slots for everything else. MSI included VGA Boost software that lets you easily goose your graphics card clocks, as long as that card is MSI-branded.
The Z87-G45 has a Realtek ALC1150 codec that supports 7.1 channel HD audio, but MSI also loaded the board with Audio Boost, which consists of a headphone amplifier, gold-plated jacks, and audio circuitry that’s isolated from other circuits on the board to avoid interference. It also features Sound Blaster Cinema software, like the Z87I.
Z87-G45 sports a PS/2 port, two USB 2.0, four USB 3.0, coax and optical S/PDIF, six audio jacks, and a clear CMOS button. Of the three onboard video ports, the VGA and DVI-D support max resolutions of 1920x1200, while the HDMI port can handle 4K resolutions; any two can be paired up to support a second display.
The LAN port boasts a Killer E2200 networking chip that prioritizes game traffic for low latency. In terms of gaming features, MSI also tricked out the PS/2 and USB 2.0 ports for high polling rate mice to support response times as low as 1 millisecond.
|MSI Z87 MPOWER Max|
|The MSI Z87 MPOWER Max, with its yellow-and-black design, is built for overclocking. In addition to the Military-Class 4 components mentioned earlier, this board features an all-digital power PWM controller, a PCB built with more layers to better isolate traces and reduce interference, and a robust thermal design that’s designed to work well even in low airflow scenarios and to accommodate a variety of coolers.
The board also features v-check points, a debug LED, and dual BIOS chips. There’s an OC Genie button attached to the PCB, as well as DirectOC +/- buttons, so you can make some overclocking adjustments from the board itself.
Like the Z87-G45, the Z87 MPOWER Max has a Realtek ALC1150 codec that supports 7.1-channel HD audio, as well as the same Audio Boost feature. It also has a Killer E2205 LAN controller and a single LAN port, and the PS/2 and two USB 2.0 ports on the I/O panel have the same high polling frequency mouse support.
MSI saw fit to include a WiFi module that slots into a header adjacent to the I/O ports and offers 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, and Intel WiDi. The module includes two antennae.
Although the Z87-G45 didn’t come with a great deal of extras, the Z87 MPOWER Max came fully loaded. In addition to the driver discs, user manual, quick installation guide, a certificate of quality and stability, a pictorial board reference guide, I/O shield, and the aforementioned WiFi module and antennas, the box includes a Do Not Disturb door hanger, case badge, seven SATA cables, a MOLEX-to-SATA power adapter, SLI bridge, v-check cables, M-connector adapters, dual eSATA port bracket, and two-port USB 3.0 bracket.
|UEFI and Overclocking|
|MSI’s UEFI BIOS is fairly straightforward in that there are just six sections to concern yourself with: Settings, OC (overclocking settings), M-Flash, OC Profile, Hardware Monitor, and Board Explorer.
In the Settings area, you can check your system status, adjust boot settings, save your work and reboot, and more. M-Flash is simply a tool to flash the BIOS (or save it to storage). OC Profile is a place to load an overclocking profile from a USB flash drive or save one that you’ve created within the UEFI. The Hardware Monitor area is self-explanatory, but it offers a great deal of data on fan speeds, temps, and voltages. One area that seems to be just a bone thrown to less experienced users is Board Explorer, which offers an interactive image of the motherboard; you can click on various highlighted board components to get more information about them.
Of course, the OC area is where most of the action is. MSI has provided plenty of adjustable settings for the CPU, DRAM, and more in this area, but not so many that your mind will explode. The company has struck a solid balance here between offering enough features for the discerning overclocker without overloading the user with endless parameters to nitpick.
On the main screen, there’s a good bit of data on display, and it’s essentially what most manufacturers opt to show, including CPU and motherboard temps, the time and date, which BIOS version you have, some basic system info, and boot device priority info. It’s interesting to note that MSI apparently decided against having an “Advanced” and a “Basic” UEFI; that setup is somewhat common, but we’re not complaining that MSI is only giving users one BIOS to look at. It just seems simpler.
MSI also gets a nod for having such a mature, stable UEFI. It’s fluid and responsive enough that you forget you aren’t just using some piece of Windows software, and there’s not much in the way of extra visual gobbledy-gook to clutter it up or slow things down.
Each of the three families of MSI Z87 motherboards has its own UEFI skin. The mainstream boards are blue-themed, the gaming boards red (with that killer dragon art), and the POWER boards yellow.
Unlike others in the market, the MSI boards we tested didn’t have a lot in the way of physical buttons for on-board overclocking controls. The exception in the trio we looked at was the Z87 MPOWER Max, which has an OC Genie button and DirectOC +/- buttons. In all cases, though, we used the UEFI to adjust our overclocking settings as opposed to physical buttons or Windows-based software.
For the purposes of this article, we kept things simple, working with just the BCLK and CPU multiplier to see what these boards would let us do. We also used an aftermarket dual-fan cooler (Corsair A70) as opposed to a liquid cooling system.
On their own, the overclocking results seem solid enough. The two bigger boards delivered identical performance of 4.6GHz with a BLCK of 100MHz and x46 multiplier, while the little Z87I mustered 4.4GHz (BLCK 100MHz, multiplier x44). Much of anything we tried beyond that, including increasing the BCLK a smidgen, resulted in a BSOD.
Compared to the ASUS and Gigabyte Z87 motherboards we’ve recently tested, this isn’t a particularly strong performance. The Gigabyte boards couldn’t get past a x46 multiplier either, but we were able to push the BCLK on all three boards at x46 at least a little bit, and the ASUS motherboards all made it into 4.7GHz range before coughing up a hairball.
However, all three MSI boards hit their max overclocks while keeping temperatures relatively low. And of course, you could get more out of these mainboards with more time, patience, and liquid cooling.
|Test Setup and PCMark Tests|
|Test System Configuration Notes:
When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered
their respective UEFI menus and set each board to its "Optimized" or
"High performance Defaults". We then saved the settings, re-entered the
BIOS/UEFI and set the memory frequency to the maximum officially
supported speed for the given platform. The drives were then formatted,
and Windows 7 Home Premium x64 was installed. When the Windows
installation was complete, we updated the OS, and installed the drivers
necessary for our components. Auto-Updating and Windows Defender were
then disabled and we installed all of our benchmarking software,
performed a disk clean-up, cleared temp and prefetch data, and ran the
Our system included an Intel Core i7-4770K processor, ZOTAC NVIDIA GeForce GTX 285, 4GB of Kingston DDR3-1600MHz RAM, and an OCZ Vertex 4 SSD with Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 x64.
The PCMark test is a collection of workloads that measure system performance during typical desktop usage. This is the most important test since it returns the official PCMark score for the system
As expected, the scores here are tightly clustered, although the trio of MSI boards definitely posted some of the stronger numbers. Further, scores between the MSI boards were notably consistent.
|Cinebench R11.5 and POV-Ray|
|Cinebench R11.5 is a 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D
from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation suite used by
animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's
very demanding of processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure
Other than the MSI Z87-G45 Gaming's single-thread score of 1.74 and the ASUS Maximus VI Impact's slightly superior 8.61 in the multi-threaded test, the field shook out fairly evenly across the board.
The story of parity continues with POV-Ray...
|LameMT and SunSpider|
|In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to
the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work
with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their
digital audio content. LAME is an open-source MP3 audio encoder that is
used widely in a multitude of third party applications.
What else can you say here except that each board delivered identical scores?
All of the systems were tested using the latest version of Internet Explorer 10, with default browser settings, on a clean install of Windows 7 Home Premium x64.
Lower scores are better in SunSpider, and you can see that our three MSI motherboards were a small step faster than the rest of the field.
|Low-Res: Gaming Tests|
|For our next set of tests, we moved on to some in-game benchmarking with Crysis (DirectX) and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars (OpenGL). When testing processors with Crysis or ET:QW, we drop the resolution to 1024x768, and reduce all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible. However, the in-game effects, which control the level of detail for the games' physics engines and particle systems, are left at their maximum values, since these actually place some load on the CPU rather than GPU.
In Crysis, the scores were all within one FPS of each other, with the exception of the G1.Sniper 5 and Z87X-OC Force. However, in ET:QW you can see that there's a marked difference between the Maximus VI Formula's high score of 298.85 FPS and the lowest score--289.72, posted by the MSI Z87 MPOWER Max. Percentage-wise, though, that's a very small gap. We are talking about nearly 300 FPS here.
|Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we also monitored how much power our test systems consumed using a power meter. Our goal was to give you all an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling and while under a heavy workload. Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption at the outlet here, not just the power being drawn by the processors alone.
We weren't surprised to see that the little MSI Impact board was so much more efficient than most of the field, but it was somewhat surprising to see how power efficient the three MSI boards were at idle. In fact, the Z87 G45-Gaming and Z87 MPOWER Max actually required less juice than the Impact, which is far less than any of the other boards we tested. There's closer parity in the amount of wattage each system pulled under load, though.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: Benchmark scores across the entire gamut of Z87 motherboards we tested were tightly clustered for the most part. That's to say that the MSI Z87I, Z87-G45 Gaming, and Z87 MPOWER Max all performed solidly and as expected. The MSI trio did post the best scores in SunSpider and proved to be relatively power efficient, so that's something to note, but the gaming scores were on the weaker side (which could just mean MSI more modestly tunes their PLLs rather than goose them for benchmarks in reviews). We also found that Z87 motherboards from competitors ASUS and Gigabyte were somewhat better at overclocking, at least in our setup and with the minimal parameters and cooling solutions we used.
Moving on to the good qualities, MSI’s UEFI is one of the most mature-feeling and fluid we’ve seen yet. The look is so clean and the mouse and keyboard input is so smooth that you can easily forget that you’re not using Windows software. Speaking of the software, MSI did a fine job of keeping things simple. There’s not so much software that you feel overwhelmed, and just as Gigabyte recently did with its bundled software, MSI put the vast majority of its tools and utilities into one place, the MSI Command Center.
Compared to ASUS and Gigabyte, what MSI is doing is the motherboard space isn’t all that flashy, but that’s okay--flashy isn’t necessarily the best thing, and these three boards are for the most part very solid offerings. Of the trio, the Z87-G45 Gaming is the one we like the most, offering all the best of MSI’s take on the Z87 platform with none of the drawbacks we’ve heretofore mentioned.
One area in which MSI definitely takes the lead among the competition is on price. Of the nine Z87 motherboards we’ve recently reviewed, only three cost less than two hundred bucks. One is the Gigabyte Z87X-UD4H, which costs as little as $189.99 but can run you up to $232. We found the Z87I for between $129 and $170; the Z87-G45 Gaming between $145 and $186; and the Z87 MPOWER Max for between $240 and $281.
All things considered, the Z87I and Z87 MPOWER Max are budget products; they’re solid motherboards by any means, and if you want to save a buck on your next build, these are fine options. However, MSI's Z87-G45 Gaming is a terrific deal. Overclocking performance wasn’t the greatest, but its benchmark scores were excellent, the feature set is strong, and that price tag is mighty tasty.