Custom PC - - REVIEWS / NEW KIT -

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

In­tel LGA1151

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

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