MSI Z270 Tom­a­hawk Arc­tic

Computer Shopper - - REVIEWS - James Archer

VERDICT

This eye-catch­ing moth­er­board is per­fect for un­lock­ing the po­ten­tial of a Kaby Lake CPU

THE TOM­A­HAWK ARC­TIC is only the third full-ATX, Z270 chipset-com­pat­i­ble moth­er­board to find its way into these pages, but the other two – the Asus Prime Z270-A (Shop­per 350) and MSI’s own Z270 SLI Plus (Shop­per 352) have both proven to be top-qual­ity part­ners for a 7th-gen In­tel Kaby Lake CPU. They cost roughly the same, too, float­ing around the £130-£140 range. Why, then, should you con­sider this one in­stead?

Let’s start with per­haps the most friv­o­lous rea­son: it looks ex­cel­lent. Style points aren’t gen­er­ally worth much when you’re talk­ing about a com­po­nent that sits not only within a PC case, but is half-buried un­der mul­ti­ple other parts and ca­bles, and yet the Z270 Tom­a­hawk Arc­tic is a truly hand­some piece of hard­ware.

THE LIGHTER SIDE

The white and sil­ver pat­tern­ing is a re­fresh­ing change from the usual unimag­i­na­tive grey and black mo­bos, and the whole thing is dot­ted with cool, ice-blue LEDs, re­sult­ing in a rel­a­tively classy spruce-up of our test rig’s in­te­rior. Un­like the stan­dard black Z270 Tom­a­hawk, the four RAM slots are also re­in­forced with shin­ing steel; frankly we’ve never heard of RAM sticks heavy enough to strain plain old plas­tic slots, but it is an­other good-look­ing aes­thetic touch.

In terms of lay­out, the Z270 Tom­a­hawk Arc­tic is al­most iden­ti­cal to the Z270 SLI Plus, with three PCI-E x16 slots, three PCI-E x1 slots, four RAM slots, six SATA 3 slots and two M.2 ports. The only mi­nor dif­fer­ence, if you’re con­cerned with ex­treme me­mory over­clock­ing, is that the Z270 Tom­a­hawk Arc­tic peaks at 3,800MHz RAM speeds; the Z270 SLI Plus maxes out at 3,200MHz.

Once again, the two M.2 ports are well specced in them­selves. They can take both PCI-E and SATA-based drives, and can run dual SSDs in a RAID ar­ray. Since this board takes com­pat­i­ble LGA 1151 In­tel chips, one of them can also hold an In­tel Op­tane drive in­stead of a conventional SSD. You’re cer­tainly get­ting your money’s worth on in­ter­nal con­nec­tiv­ity, and we ap­pre­ci­ate how all six of the SATA ports face out to the right in­stead of straight up – this will help keep ca­bling to a lower pro­file.

CLOCK AND ROLL

The same is true ex­ter­nally: the Z270 Tom­a­hawk Arc­tic serves up a won­der­fully di­verse mix of two USB2 ports, five full-size USB3.1 ports (the fastest avail­able), one USB Type-C con­nec­tor for more mod­ern de­vices and a sin­gle PS/2 for legacy hard­ware. Video out­puts, should you be for­go­ing a ded­i­cated GPU, are cov­ered by one HDMI and dual-link DVI-D apiece, and there’s scope to hook up high-end sound sys­tems with the op­ti­cal S/PDIF, C/SUB and rear speaker out­puts, which com­ple­ment the stan­dard line in, line out and mic in 3.5mm jacks.

How­ever, au­dio­philes should also be aware that the Z270 Tom­a­hawk Arc­tic only uses the years-old Real­tek ALC892 au­dio codec, as op­posed to the more re­cent up­graded codecs used by the Prime Z270-A and Z270 SLI Plus. An un­trained ear and/or lower-end speak­ers might make it hard to tell the dif­fer­ence for some, but if MSI has cut cor­ners any­where, it’s here.

Per­for­mance, on the other hand, has no such com­pro­mises. As with pre­vi­ous Z270 moth­er­boards, we paired it up with an In­tel Core i7-7700K, 8GB of RAM and a Cooler Mas­ter MasterLiq­uid Pro 240 wa­ter­cooler, then set our 4K bench­marks on it. Over­all, this con­fig­u­ra­tion scored 155 at the CPU’s stock 4.2GHz speed – that’s a cou­ple of points higher than the Z270 SLI Plus, and eight points lower than the Prime Z270-A. In other words, there’s not much of a dif­fer­ence at all, espe­cially dur­ing ev­ery­day us­age.

After over­clock­ing to 4.8GHz, how­ever, the Z270 Tom­a­hawk Arc­tic came out on top with an over­all score of 175. That’s sig­nif­i­cantly higher than its MSI sta­ble­mate, and Asus’s moth­er­board didn’t even reach this far, man­ag­ing to stay rea­son­ably sta­ble only at 4.7GHz and be­low.

It also has the Prime Z270-A beat on cool­ing sup­port, with five fan head­ers plus one wa­ter-cool­ing pump header – enough for a re­spectable open-loop sys­tem, or an all-in-one cooler with a heap of case fans.

CROSS EYED

Oddly, while the top two PCI-E x16 slots sup­port a CrossFire setup (with two AMD graph­ics cards run­ning at x8 speed each), Nvidia’s SLI equiv­a­lent doesn’t seem to be com­pat­i­ble. It’s fine with a sin­gle Nvidia card, but if you’re look­ing to build a multi-GPU sys­tem and al­ready have some­thing from the GeForce fam­ily, both the Z270 SLI Plus and Prime Z270-A are bet­ter suited. This is a shame, con­sid­er­ing how per­for­mance-minded the Z270 Tom­a­hawk Arc­tic is oth­er­wise.

We’ve no com­plaints about the BIOS, though. Even Ad­vanced Mode is a breeze to use, thanks to its clear grid-based lay­out, and the abil­ity to cre­ate mul­ti­ple over­clock­ing pro­files or load them from a USB stick is a great in­clu­sion for tech en­thu­si­asts. Even be­gin­ners can eas­ily get in on over­clock­ing with the Game Boost fea­ture, which ups the core ra­tio and volt­ages with a cou­ple of clicks. In our case, the In­tel Core i7-7700K re­ceived a boost to 4.8GHz, and was per­fectly sta­ble with our AIO wa­ter­cooler.

The Z270 Tom­a­hawk Arc­tic isn’t dra­mat­i­cally bet­ter than its ri­vals, but then they are al­ready so good that it doesn’t re­ally need to be. In any case, its upgrad­abil­ity, con­nec­tiv­ity and per­for­mance ab­so­lutely make it our new top pick for pow­er­ful Kaby Lake sys­tems.

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