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First Looks: MSI Z87M Gaming Motherboard - A Nifty Package

By Wong Chung Wee - 30 Oct 2013

First Looks: MSI Z87M Gaming Motherboard - A Nifty Package

First Looks: MSI Z87M Gaming Motherboard - A Nifty Package

The MSI Z87M Gaming motherboard is the first microATX Intel Z87-based motherboard from the Gaming series. We had a sneak preview of the MSI Z87-GD65 Gaming ATX motherboard. From first impressions, the board has an improved feature set over its older Intel Z77 counterpart. For the MSI Z87M, it appears MSI has distilled the essence of the MSI Z87-GD65 Gaming into a microATX package. We take a quick look at its key features on the newer, small form factor board.

The MSI Z87M Gaming board has all the goodness of its larger ATX counterpart, the Z87-GD65 Gaming, distilled into its microATX form factor package.

This board sports the familiar Dragoon Army color scheme of red and black. The board features the LGA 1150 CPU socket, with the accompanying Intel Z87 chipset. One of the distinguishing features of the newer chipset over the previous generation Intel Z77 Platform Control Hub (PCH), is the Intel I/O Port Flexibility technology.

This new feature will allow you to configure which of the USB ports, supported by the Intel Z87 PCH, to operate at USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 speeds. As a result, this will reduce the need for onboard third-party USB controllers due to this flexibility and increased number of USB 3.0 ports supported.  However, we have received word from MSI that support for this feature hasn't been implemented for its BIOS UEFI utility. The other major improvement pertains to the support for SATA 6Gbps ports; the number has been increased to six, against the previous generation Intel Z77 chipset's ability to drive only two of such ports.

Like its ATX counterpart, the MSI Z87M Gaming board has upgraded Military Class IV components. They include the usual Hi-c capacitors (Hi-C Cap), super ferrite chokes (SFC), along with solid capacitors (Solid Caps) and MOSFETs. The board has an 8-phase power design system.

The heatsinks that provide direct cooling to the MOSFETs are connected by a MSI Superpipe, which is essentially an 8mm thick heatpipe. We also see some capacitors located in front of the chokes.

In terms of expansions slots, the board has a pair of PCIe Gen 3.0 x16 slots, and another two PCIe 2.0 x1 slots. As we know that the new Haswell processor can still only deliver 16 PCIe lanes. On the board, this single PCIe x16 link can be split into two x8 links. Therefore, the board is able to get by with just two PEG slots. By default, the first slot operates with the full PCIe bandwidth of 16 lanes, rated at PCIe 3.0 speeds. When the second slot is also occupied, the lanes will be evenly split between the two occupied slots.

 The board has two PCIe Gen 3.0 x16 slots and a pair of PCIe 2.0 x1 slots.

Despite its limited PCB area, the Z87M Gaming board has four DIMM slots that support overclocked memory modules rated up to DDR3-3000. The total memory capacity supported onboard stands at 32GB. Beyond the DIMM slots near the edge of the board, we see the internal USB 3.0 connector, the ATX power connector, the two DEGUB LEDs, and three onboard buttons.

Near the DIMM slots, there are a host of features; like the DEBUG LEDs and the three onboard control buttons (Easy Button 3).

These three buttons are dubbed Easy Button 3. The OC Genie button allows for easy overclocking at the push of the button; while the power and reset buttons are handy in an open test bench environment. Once the board is installed in the chassis, any optical drives added to the rig will make them very hard to reach. A better location for these buttons would be at the bottom edge of the board where most of the internal connectors are located.

The OC Genie Mode switch is located near the DIMM slots. In the photo, the Gear 1 mode is engaged, if the switch is moved to the opposite side, the Gear 2 mode will be engaged.

The OC Genie button works in tandem with the OC Genie Mode Switch, a DIP switch that toggles between Gear 1 and Gear 2 modes. When the OC Genie button is pressed, the overclocking procedure "will be performed according to the setting of this switch."

At the bottom edge of the board, we can see that the internal connectors are well-spaced. What is missing from the line-up is the USB 3.0 internal connector, which is located near the DIMM slots, right next to the SATA connectors.

The internal connectors are made up of front panel headers for audio, system fan power connectors and TPM. The USB 2.0 expansion headers are located to the right of the TPM header. The three furthermost headers to the right are a system fan connector, and two system panel connectors.

The board's Intel Z87 PCH supports up to six SATA 6Gbps connectors and there are a total of six such onboard connectors. There are no SATA 3GBps connectors featured on the board.

The six SATA 6Gbps connectors of the MSI Z87M Gaming motherboard.

Moving on to the rear I/O options, we can see there are a total of six USB 3.0 ports, four of them are driven by the Intel Z87 PCH, and another two are courtesy of the Renesas third-party USB 3.0 chipset. There is the regular fixture in the form of PS/2 keyboard/mouse gaming port (optimized for high polling rates) and the pair of  USB 2.0 ports. The black clear CMOS button is located next to them. There is also a pair of eSATA ports (in red); hence, the board has a surplus of options to connect to external devices!

The LAN port, which has been colored red as usual, is powered by the board's Killer E2205 Gigabit chip. We have witnessed a slight tangible improvement in latency performance from our past experience. Do note the accompanying Killer Network Manager is supported on Windows 7 and 8 operating systems for now. For video connectivity, there are two HDMI ports and one DisplayPort port.

There is certainly no shortage of USB 3.0 ports, and we are surprised to find a pair of eSATA ports. Devices that support eSATA are quite hard to find these days.

For audio-video fans, they would be pleased to know the board supports MSI's Audio Boost technology. For starters, the audio options of the board are powered by an onboard Realtek ALC1150 audio chip that has EMI shielding. The audio ports have a thin "gold" plating, which MSI claims will enhance the aural experience (though we all know the more tangible reason is better conductivity and prevents the connections from getting rusty over time).

In the vicinity of the Audio Boost EMI shield for the Realtek audio chip, we see a scattering of audio capacitors (in black) that will amplify and filter the audio signals before they are routed to the audio ports.

We are impressed with the rich feature set of the MSI Z87M Gaming board. They will address the needs of a mainstream gamer who wants to build a compact gaming system. Like its ATX counterpart, the board showcases the Killer E2205 game networking platform and the Audio Boost technology. Despite its size, the board is also able to support a 2-way multi-GPU setup, but the graphics cards to be chosen are each limited to a 2-slot width. For power users, the board provides the option to overclock the system with a push of the OC Genie button (and a flick of the OC DIP switch); in addition, overclocked memory modules rated up to 3000MHz can be installed. A system based on this board can also double up as a HTPC due the board's ample video connectivity options (and you can have dual digital outputs simultaneously). The board's rear USB ports are also more than enough to support external storage devices. The MSI Z87M Gaming board is a nifty feature-packed board with an attractive price tag of S$299.

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