MSI Z270 Tomahawk Arctic
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.
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.