MINI ITX MOTHERBOARD MSI Z170i Gaming Pro AC
Mini-ITX is becoming a big hit in enthusiast circles, with every major motherboard manufacturer looking set to offer at least one dinky motherboard that can take advantage of Intel’s K-series Skylake CPUs. Last time, MSI was at the forefront of the small form factor battleground and its Z97 offering was easily a match for Asus and Gigabyte’s equivalents. Sadly, there’s still no competitor for Asus’ top-end Impact, but with the new Z170i Gaming Pro AC, MSI is definitely looking to win some mid-range ground.
Its main competitor is Asus’ Z170i Pro Gaming, which picked up an Approved award (see Issue 147, p26), thanks to a competitive price, great layout and plenty of features. The MSI Z170i Gaming Pro AC retails for the same price as the Asus board so, at face value, it could be a close call between them. Indeed, the layout is all but identical, with the SATA 6Gbps and SATA Express connectors, USB 3 header and 24-pin ATX connector all in the same place on both boards.
The Asus board manages to squeeze in a total of three fan headers, though, whereas the Z170i Gaming Pro AC only has two – a shame, as MSI’s motherboard also has a good fan control suite in the EFI. In terms of aesthetics, the Asus board also has the edge, largely thanks to the exposed Wi-Fi module that MSI has used, compared with the custom riser module that Asus employed. The Asus also has an extra heatsink cooling the power circuitry, as well as a USB 3.1 Type-A port whereas the Z170i Gaming Pro AC lacks USB 3.1 entirely.
Both boards lack any on-board overclocking or testing tools with the exception of the MSI, which has a rearmounted clear-CMOS switch. They also employ rearmounted M.2 ports, although the Asus Z170i Pro Gaming has a better trump card here. It can support up to 80mm SSDs, whereas the MSI board is limited to 60mm drives. That’s quite a major drawback if you’re planning an upgrade to a Skylake-based system to take advantage of the latest super-fast M.2 SSDs, such as Samsung’s 80mm-long 950 Pro. It might be possible to use a piece of doublesided neoprene to attach a large SSD, as it’s only the lack of a mounting point that prevents you installing a longer card. However, you may as well get the Asus board and save the hassle.
Thankfully, that’s where our criticisms of the Z170i Gaming Pro AC’s
2 slots: max 32GB DDR3 (up to 4200MHz)
One 16x PCI-E 3 Realtek ALC1150 Intel Gigabit LAN Base clock 98–341MHz, CPU multiplier 8-83x; max voltages, CPU 2.155V, RAM 2.2V
4 x SATA 6Gbps (Z170), 1 x SATA Express, 1 x M.2, 4 x USB 3, 3 x USB 2, 1 x LAN, 3 x surround audio out, line in, mic, 1 x HDMI, 1 x DisplayPort, 1 x PS/2
170 x 170 features end. The Wi-Fi is top-notch, with an Intel 8260 dual-band module and two antennae included in the box. Audio has been a focus for MSI too, with the Z170i Gaming Pro AC including a headphone amplifier, an isolated audio PCB with separate layers plus a dedicated USB port for USB DACs, which MSI claims offers a stable 5V supply for better performance.
MSI offers some familiar software features as well, such as RAMdisk and Hotkey, which are essentially very similar to the features that Asus includes with its ROG motherboards.
Wi-Fi is top-notch, with an Intel 8260 dual-band module and two antennae
At stock speed, the Z170i Gaming Pro AC was behind the competition, with its image editing, multi-tasking and overall scores some way behind the rest of the field. For example, in the image editing test, it managed a score of 50,384 while the Z170i Pro Gaming mustered 53,492 and the Maximus VIII Impact 55,082. Overall, it managed a score of 127,426, while the Z170i Pro Gaming came in at 132,454. It was also behind Asus’ competition in our game test, and the SATA 6Gbps speeds were a few megabytes a second off the pace too, although only by 1-2 per cent at most.
Meanwhile, overclocking the Z170i Gaming Pro AC was fairly painless thanks to its excellent EFI, which is up to MSI’s usual clear, slick standards. However, we hit an issue where the clock speed would regularly clock down, leaving us unsure as to whether the overclock had been applied. After speaking to MSI, this issue turned out to be an overzealous cap on the default power limits, and manually raising them