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Reviewed: MSI Z97I Gaming AC & R9 270X Mini ITX Featured

MSI sent us their latest Mini ITX Gaming products to check out - Are the big rigs of old an endangered species? Read on to find out. 

Since the Z77 chipset a couple of years ago, we have seen some feature rich Mini ITX boards that perform on par with their bigger siblings. Since then, case manufacturers have increased their ranges to cater more specifically for mini ITX form factor gaming and enthusiast builds. Small seems to be the new 'black' and when you look at the power you can cram into a case not much bigger than a shoe box, it's not hard to see why these builds are becoming more popular. The compromise really only comes down to a couple of SATA connections, 2 RAM slots and SLI/Crossfire - the Z97I Gaming AC has Killer Gigabit LAN, WIFI/BT, 4xSATAIII, AudioBoost 2, Gaming Device Port, DisplayPort and Dual HDMI.

With 2 RAM slots, you can still have 16GB in total and most Mini ITX cases don't really cater for more than 4 SATA devices so the outgoing eSATA ports are probably more use anyway - the only thing I'd really consider missing here is an NGFF/M.2 SSD slot.

twins

With the new Intel Z97 chipset release came a swag of new motherboards from the manufacturers - in many sizes and specifications. MSI sent us their smallest Z97 offering from their range of 26 new motherboards, the Z97I Gaming AC along with their new Radeon R9 270X Mini ITX Gaming Graphics card for a complete Mini ITX gaming experience. Having received the goodies with the slogan "JUST GAME" emblazoned on it we felt compelled to put the pair to the test with some benchmarks and a practical build in our white Fractal Design Node 304 case.

The R9 270X Mini ITX is a stubby looking card with a chunky but nicely shrouded heat sink. It has a single fan on it and a very solid heat sink - when hooked up together on the test bench and in our practical build the package makes an impressive gaming platform for the size and money. The R9 270X chip has 2GB of Video RAM which is suitable for 1080P gaming and matched with the pixel pushing power of the GPU itself - as we found out, it's spot on for gaming in your lounge room on a FULL HD TV.


Z97I Gaming AC Motherboard

Looking back at the Z87M Gaming that we reviewed a few months ago, I had high expectations. We've seen a positive trend across all the major manufacturers in terms of increasing the number of enthusiast features on their boards in all form factors and the jump in added value to the mini ITX lines has been nothing but good news for gamers. 

When we applied the standard 'gaming' checklist to the Z97I Gaming AC, it ticked all the boxes

tickboxGaming LAN (Killer)
tickboxGaming Grade Audio (AudioBoost 2 with SB Cinema 2)
tickboxOverclocker Friendly 
tickboxEnthusiast Software bundle 

As with most MSI products, the designers used Military Grade components for longevity, durability and reliability because nobody likes an RMA ticket on their gear - this is great to see and becoming a standard across the major manufacturers' enthusiast lines. 

The Z97I Gaming AC overclocked our i5-4670K as well as any other motherboard we tested, hitting our known limit of 4.6GHz with the magic 1.29v. Depending on your mini ITX build, overclocking might not be a priority but it's nice to see that it's also not a sacrifice of the smaller form factor.

 

msi-z97i gaming ac-product pictures-3d1
MSI Z97I Gaming AC

CPU Support

Supports 4th and 5th Generation Intel® Core™ Processors, and Intel® Pentium® and Celeron® Processors for Socket LGA1150

Chipset

Intel® Z97 Express Chipset

Memory

Support two DDR3 1066/1333/1600/1866*/2000*/2133*/2200*/2400*/2600*/2666*
/2800*/3000*/3100*/3200*/3300*(*OC) MHz DRAM

16GB Max
- Dual channel memory architecture
- Supports Intel® Extreme Memory Profile (XMP)
- Supports non-ECC, un-buffered memory

Memory Channel

Dual

Slots

1 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots

On-Board SATA

Intel Z97 Express Chipset
- 4 x SATA 6Gb/s ports (SATA1~4)
- 2 x eSATA 6Gb/s ports
- Supports RAID 0, RAID1, RAID 5 and RAID 10
- Supports Intel® Smart Response Technology, Intel® Rapid Start Technology and Intel® Smart Connect Technology*

*Supports Intel Core processors on Windows 7 and Windows 8/ 8.1

USB

Intel Z97 Express Chipset
- 6 x USB 3.0 ports (4 ports on the back panel, 2 ports available through the internal USB 3.0 connectors)
- 6 x USB 2.0 ports (4 ports on the back panel, 4 ports available through the internal USB 2.0 connectors*)
Audio Realtek® ALC1150 Codec
- 7.1-Channel High Definition Audio
- Supports S/PDIF output

LAN

1x Killer E2205 Gigabit LAN controller*

* The Killer Network Manager is only available for Windows 7 and Windows 8/8.1 currently. The supported drivers for other operating systems would be available on the website if provided by vendor.
Wireless LAN Wi-Fi/Bluetooth expansion module with Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 chip.
- Supports Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual band (2.4GHz, 5GHz) up to 867 Mbps speed.
- Supports Intel Wireless Display (WiDi)
Bluetooth

Wi-Fi/Bluetooth expansion module with Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 chip.
- Supports Bluetooth v4.0 (includes BLE* and Bluetooth 3.0+HS)

* BLE: Bluetooth Low Energy

Internal I/O Connections - 1 x 24-pin ATX main power connector
- 1 x 8-pin ATX 12V power connector
- 4 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors
- 1 x USB 2.0 connectors (supports additional 2 USB 2.0 ports)
- 1 x USB 3.0 connector (supports additional 2 USB 3.0 ports)
- 1 x 4-pin CPU fan connectors
- 1 x 4-pin system fan connectors
- 1 x Front panel audio connector
- 2 x System panel connectors
- 1 x Chassis Intrusion connector
- 1 x Clear CMOS jumper
- 1 x Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module connector
Back Panel I/O Ports - 1 x PS/2 keyboard/ mouse port
- 1 x LAN (RJ45) port
- 4 x USB 2.0 ports
- 4 x USB 3.0 ports
- 2 x eSATA ports
- 1 x Optical S/PDIF OUT connector
- 6 x OFC audio jacks
- 2 x HDMI port, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096X2304@24Hz/ 2560X1600@60Hz/ 3840X2160@60Hz/1920X1200@60Hz
- 1 x DisplayPort, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096X2304@24Hz/ 2560X1600@60Hz/ 3840X2160@60Hz/1920X1200@60Hz
BIOS • The motherboard BIOS provides "Plug & Play" BIOS which detects the peripheral devices and expansion cards of the board automatically.
• The motherboard provides a Desktop Management Interface(DMI) function which records your motherboard specifications.
Dimensions 6.7 in. x 6.7 in. (17 cm x 17 cm) Mini-ITX Form Factor
Mounting 4 Mounting Holes

The box and packaging is good quality in the standard black and red colour scheme with enough dragons on it to make sure you don't forget it's from the MSI Gaming line. The motherboard is packed inside an anti-static bag and all of the accessories are individually wrapped.

The accessories include:

  • 4 SATA 3 Cables
  • WIFI Module and 2 Antennae
  • Nice Dragon/MSI Gaming Case badge with a carbon Fibre like backing
  • Rear IO Shield with interference shielding and a force absorbing layer
  • Door Hanger
  • Set of Cable Labels

Pitched by MSI as a gaming motherboard in the smallest form factor available the Z97I Gaming AC is packed with practical features that you would expect on a larger board and dressed up with some eye candy on the heat sinks. The street price of this puppy is $249 online and not bad when you look at what's under the hood.

BIOS

Like the Z87M Gaming, the BIOS is intuitive and easy to overclock. You can use a USB drive to take snapshots of your settings and update the BIOS version. The snapshots of the interface are in the gallery below.  There were no issues overclocking our i5-4670K  to it's known limit of 4.6GHz in terms of the BIOS - there were some limitations in terms of cooling options but I'll get to that when covering socket placement. Most of the features in the BIOS can be seen below including overclocking, monitoring and fan control.

General Board Layout

The layout is generally well thought out and easy to work with in a small case. I used the MSI Mini-ITX platform in a Fractal Design Node 304 case and appreciated how the designers ran all of the connectors along the top edge of the board and behind the rear IO panel. 

layout

The front panel LEDs, Power and Reset headers are not labelled on the board so you need to look at the manual to make sure that you connect the leads up correctly. This isn't a big deal but it's easier to do this BEFORE you plug in the 8-PIN CPU power plug next to it. The front panel HD Audio header is easily accessible near the top of the board next to the 4 SATAIII connectors.

Memory DIMMs and the PCI-e slot placement along the bottom and right edges of the board are pretty standard and MSI didn't sacrifice any valuable real estate.

The heat sinks are low and compact and the mounting holes are not obstructed which is great when building in small cases. The battery is also mounted vertically off the motherboard to conserve space and tucked right out of the way.

Socket placement made testing interesting. Unlike the last Mini-ITX board that I tested from ASUS (P8Z77-I Deluxe) the socket is closer to the PCIE slot so you can't use a 120mm tower fan like the Noctua NH-U12S without blocking the PCI-e card. I tried to use the Noctua NH-L9i cooler but the Super Ferrite Chokes next to the CPU socket were too tall and didn't allow the wider based cooler to make contact with the CPU. The stock Intel cooler and most (if not all) water blocks would fit without issue as did the Deep cool Gabriel low profile cooler. As with any Micro ATX or Mini ITX board, if you plan to use an aftermarket heat sink, best to check the manufacturer compatibility matrix or forums to make sure your parts will fit.

Here you can see what a 120mm tower cooler looks like - no chance of getting a beefy graphics card in that PCIE slot but it did allow us to test out the overclock on the test bench.

IMG 6075

And here is the lower profile Gabriel. It's still a tight fit but it clears everything it needs to and manages to keep the RAM cool at the same time.

IMG 6082

The socket/cooler compatibility isn't a major issue but it is something to be aware of when planning your build.

LAN and WIFI

The WIFI module was fiddly to install but its something that you only have to do once so I forgave MSI for it. The module works a treat and I got slightly better performance from it than the on board WIFI on the ASUS P8Z77-V Deluxe motherboard when I tested them in the same physical location.

For gaming, generally the WIFI was pretty good and my ping stayed within a few ms of the LAN experience. I tested this by playing online games like CS:GO, Battlefield 4, DayZ and Titanfall.

The onboard gigabit LAN was solid, the Killer software seemed to prioritise correctly and dominated as expected when it came to transfer speed (write) tests hitting almost 800Mbps compared to 94Mbps at 5GHZ WIFI and 21.5Mbps at 2.4GHZ WIFI. The WIFI tests were conducted through 2 interior stud walls so depending on your setup at home, your mileage may vary in this regard. The board boasts Intel WIDI capability but we didn't have a receiver/display to test this with.

The Gigabit Lan testing result

WiredLANSpeedtest 

The 5GHz WIFI result

WIFISpeedtest5ghz 

The result of our tests at 2.4GHz WIFI

WiredWIFISpeedtest2.4

AudioBoost 2

When testing the Z87M Gaming board, I noted the impressive quality of the original AudioBoost platform with the headphone amplifier. I'm not sure what makes the second iteration better than the first but games, music and moves all sounded good on the Z97I Gaming AC. The rear outputs have 30µg Gold plated audio connectors with the dedicated headphone plug clearly marked in red to avoid confusion and boosted by a 600Ω amplifier. 

As with most if not all current onboard enthusiast offerings, MSI has isolated the Audio PCB and added a software layer to polish the experience. In this case, the software layer to complement the ALC1150 audio chipset is Creative SoundBlaster Cinema 2 with a variety of presets and available effects.

MSISBCinema

Military Class 4 Components

Although not new, MSI does make a big deal out of the military grade components, engineered to provide:

  • Circuit Protection
  • Eco Power
  • Humidity Protection
  • High Temperature Protection
  • Electro Static Discharge Protection
  • Electromagnetic Interference Protection

In terms of build materials, MSI has used

  • Hi-C CAP (Highly Conductive Capacitor) for longer life, less leakage, increased GPU power stability for overclocking
  • Dark  Capacitors for increased longevity, anti rust coating, higher efficiency and they won't burst.
  • New Super Ferrite Choke (SFC) for a more efficient and higher level of power delivery with better heat dissipation. Also for improved overclocking power stability.

Although there is a Gaming Device Port on the rear I/O, I don't have any P/S2 devices anywhere in my house, the lab or my storage locker and I wonder how much longer we will see this connectivity.

Software Package

MSI's usual suspects are present with Live Update 6 and Command Center. Live Update 6, as it's name suggests, keeps everything up to date and lets you know when new versions of drivers or BIOS updates are available - you can then choose what to download/update.

MSILiveUpdate

 

Command Centre is the place to go for monitoring, tuning, overclocking and using the handy RAMdisk utility. The gallery of the Command Centre software can be found below but it allows you to overclock pretty easily without going into the UEFI/BIOS screens. The Unlimited RAMdisk is used to carve off some RAM that you don't need and create a virtual drive in memory. This is good for cache directories and temporary files as the PC will read and write to RAM multiple times during the session and then write only once to your SSD as you log off saving the number of writes that you do - it's also good in terms of speed but with SSDs as fast as they are, it is hard to really notice in real world use. I tested the fan control on the test bench but only used the CPU Fan profiles in our Practical Build.

Command Centre also lets you monitor your system from your smartphone, record settings and set thresholds for warnings.

The other features that help justify the 'Gaming' tag are the fact that it suports SteamOS out of the box and the inclusion of XSplit Gamecaster. We haven't undertaken a true SteamOS build yet but it's really promising to see companies like MSI giving this kind of commitment to to support SteamOS systems. XSplit Gamecaster lets gamers record, broadcast, stream their gaming pwnage (or lack of) to all and sundry - it also has the ability to record from webcam at the same time for those who want to share their facial expressions/rage quit moments. 


The MSI R9 270X ITX Gaming takes a mid / lower mid-range GPU, makes it shorter but keeps the clock of 1030MHz (boost clock of 1070MHz) in gaming mode. There are 2 other modes, OC mode with a  boost clock of 1080MHz and Silent Mode with a boost clock of 1050MHz.

One thing that you notice straight away is the absence of the Twin Frozr cooling solution - to keep the card shorter, MSI has implemented their RADAX fan. The cooler looks more like a stock blower style fan but it's actually more like a compromise in that it does move a fair amount of heat out the back through the grill but there are vents around the card so it also dumps some hot air inside the case. In the end, it's a very effective cooling solution both thermally and acoustically. The results on an open test bench and in our closed practical build were the same.

The power connector is a single 8-Pin PCIE and it comes with the standard 2GB of 5600MHz GDDR5 Memory. There is a Crossfire connector on the top of the card but I can't imagine these being used on this ITX model card.

The connectivity is 1x Dual Link DVI, 1x HDMI (1.4a) and 2x Mini DisplayPort all along the slot next to the PCB which means that the second slot is available in its entirety to exhaust warm air from a compact case.

The full specifications of the MSI R9 270X ITX Gaming are listed below.

five pictures2 3154 20140430113603 g
MSI R9 270X ITX Gaming

Graphics Engine

AMD Radeon™ R9 270X

Interface

PCI Express x16 3.0

Memory Type

GDDR5

Memory Size(MB)

2048

Memory Interface

256 bits

Core Clock Speed(MHz)

1030MHz Core (Boost Clock:1080MHz) (OC mode)
1030MHz Core (Boost Clock:1070MHz) (Gaming mode)
1030MHz Core (Boost Clock:1050MHz) (Silent mode)

Memory Clock Speed(MHz)

5600

DVI Output

1(Dual-link DVI-Ix1)

HDMI-Output

1 (version 1.4a), Max Resolution: 4096x2160@24 Hz

Mini DisplayPort

2

HDCP Support

Y

Dual Link DVI

Y

RAMDACs

400

DirectX Version Support

11.2

OpenGL Version Support

4.3

SLI Support

Y

Card Dimension(mm)

170 x 120 x 35mm

Weight

585 g


The R9 270X ITX Gaming is a heavy but relatively short graphics card - the terms 'stubby' any 'stocky' were used by a couple of people who had the privilege of seeing it during the review. There is a really nice housing on the cooler with the gaming dragon etched on the cover and the power connectors have the clips facing the back plate of the card which makes connecting it up or removing it really easy. I wish this was the case for all graphics cards.

I haven't seen the street price on the MSI R9 270X ITX Gaming ITX but the longer Twin Frozr Gaming version is available for $250 at the time of writing so I'd expect it to be somewhere around that price point.

As you look around the card in the gallery of our unboxing shots below, you can see how solid the thermal solution is - it might be short but there is a lot of metal in there to cope with the heat.

Seeing only one fan on a shorter than average card with an AMD Radeon GPU, I wasn't expecting the card to be as quiet as the Twin Frozr on the GTX760 Hawk but it remained very quiet, even under load - perfect for a gaming/HTPC combination.

During the 3DMark 11  benchmark tests, the fan speed went up to around the 1400 mark, which was apparently 32% of it's potential and remained slightly audible with the GPU temp hitting a mere 69 degrees - and these are the maximums we saw in all of our testing. I tried Battlefield 4 for hours at 1920x1080 and about an hour at 2560x1440, Unigine Heaven and all of our standard gaming benchmark programs but the fan didn't need to go over 1400rpm which was slightly audible but still soft on an open air test bench. According to Afterburner, the GPU Core never hit 70 degrees in any of our testing which is a good result given the smaller form factor. In our practical build, the temperatures and fan speeds remained the same but the Node 304 case seemed to block out any noise quite effectively.

An image of the fan design courtesy of MSI is below - looks like science wins again here because the RADAX Fan cooler is awesome on the temps and better on the ears.

radax-features2

The R9 R270X ITX is a capable card and well matched to the Z97I AC board. The benchmarks show that it's well suited to 1920x1080 gaming with most of the eye candy on. I did run a few games at 2560x1440 with respectable results for the price - Skyrim ran like a dream but other more demanding titles like Battlefield 4, Crysis 3 and Titanfall found the limits of the GPU pretty quickly at 1440p. This is to be expected of a mid/lower mid range card that I expect to cost somewhere between $250 and $300.

Military Class 4 Components

As with the MSI Z97I Gaming AC motherboard, MSI has implemented the following technology for a longer and more efficient lifespan of the card.

  • Hi-C CAP (Highly Conductive Capacitor) for longer life, less leakage, increased GPU power stability for overclocking
  • Dark Solid Capacitors for increased longevity, anti rust coating, higher efficiency and they won't burst.
  • New Super Ferrite Choke (SFC) for a more efficient and higher level of power delivery with better heat dissipation. Also for improved overclocking power stability.

Backplate

Backplates are something that I really like to see on graphics cards and they seem to be getting more popular with the manufacturers. It was a welcome site to see the black majority coverage backplate on the R9 270X ITX Gaming because I wasn't expecting it on a card like this.

MSI Afterburner

I've been using MSI Afterburner on non-MSI cards for years and it's been my go-to application for graphics card tweaking. It's included in the software bundle but you can download it from their website and most enthusiasts probably already have it installed.

Packaging

The packaging is sturdy and the card comes well protected in an anti-static bag and custom cut out foam. There is a box of accessories including:

  • Driver CD
  • DVI-VGA Dongle
  • Reference Guide
  • 1x 6 to 8pin adapter

Test Setup

I tested the MSI Z97I Gaming AC R9 270X / Mini ITX bundle as a platform and listed those results against our gaming demon ASUS Maximus VI Gene Test Bench (specs also listed below). Although there is less RAM in the MSI platform, the benchmarks didn't tax the system for it to really matter - the main point here is to look at the compromise involved in 'downsizing' if any. In the interests of being thorough, I also checked the R9 270X Mini ITX Gaming on the ASUS test bench for the automated benchmarks and got virtually identical scores - within 1% margin of error.

MSI Mini ITX Platform

 

CPU

i5-4670K

CPU Cooler Deep Cool Gabriel low profile cooler & Noctua NH-U12S
Memory 8GB Corsair Vengeance Low Profile - Black (2x4GB)
Case Lian Li Pitstop T60
Hard Drive

Seagate Barracuda 2TB & Samsung EVO 250GB SSD

Power Supply

Corsair HX850

Graphics Card

MSI R9 270X Mini ITX

Audio

Logitech G430 Gaming Headset

Network

Direct connection to the cable modem &
Shared Gigabit connection via Netgear WNDR3700

Optical Samsung SATA2 BluRay drive
OS Windows 8.1

ASUS Maximus VI Gene Test Bench

CPU

i5-4670K

CPU Cooler Noctua NH-U12S
Memory 16GB Corsair Vengeance Low Profile - Black (4x4GB)
Case Lian Li Pitstop T60
Hard Drive

Seagate Barracuda 2TB & Samsung EVO 250GB SSD

Power Supply

Corsair HX850

Graphics Cards

Gigabyte GTX670 OC 2GB Windforce3
Gigabyte Stock GTX 580
MSI GTX760 HAWK

Audio

Logitech G430 Gaming Headset

Network

Direct connection to the cable modem &
Shared Gigabit connection via Netgear WNDR3700

Optical Samsung SATA2 BluRay drive
OS Windows 8.1

Test Methods

As time goes on, we will be adding more cards to the list but for now, we have to bench test what we have available.

There are two distinct types of testing that we do for graphics cards:

  • Benchmark testing where we use a scripted or specific benchmark utility that has no user interaction other than setting the graphics properties and hitting 'start'. The utility then gives us a report of the relevant statistics.
  • Subjective testing where we try to execute the same passage of game play from a save game or checkpoint with FRAPS running to a log file. This is less reproducible and more prone to variation so we declare this differently. The comparison between cards in the subjective section means less than the true benchmarks but it does provide a good indication of what you would see when gaming with each card.

We also only graph the average frame rates but include the minimum and maximum in the tables for reference. Minimum and maximum frame rates can be misleading, especially on subjective type test runs.


The following tests were all reproducible or scripted benchmarks as opposed to free form gameplay that can be more subjective.

IMG 6087

3DMark 11

3dmark11

MSI 760 HAWK

MSI R9-270
Mini ITX Gaming
Gigabyte GTX580 Gigabyte GTX 670 OC

P Score 8094 8119 6574 9177
Combined Score 6980 8310 6973 7709
Physics Score 7702 7530 7372 7784
Graphics Score 8358 7701 6388 9776

Unigine Heaven 

Unigine Heaven Benchmark 4.0 Basic is one of the programs that we run to temperature test the cards and we also do a benchmark run during the process. 

uniginescores

uniginebenchmark

MSI 760 HAWK

MSI R9-270
Mini ITX Gaming
Gigabyte GTX580 Gigabyte GTX 670 OC

Score 993 902 899 1123
Min FPS 20.5 7.5 19.8 22.3
Max FPS 93.6 81.9 87.5 104.3
Avg FPS 39.4 35.8 35.7 44.6

Tomb Raider 

For the in-game benchmarking utility, the following graphics settings were used

1920x1080, Motion Blur:On, Screen Effects:On, Quality: Ultimate,Texture Quality: Ultra,Texture Filter: Anisotropic 16X, Hair Quality: TRESSFX, Anti-Aliasing: FXAA Shadows: Normal, Shadow Resolution: High, Level of Detail: Ultra, Reflections: High, Depth of Field: Ultra, SSAO: Ultra, Post Processing: On, Tessellation: On, High Precision: On

Although TRESSFX is an AMD feature we had it enabled because gamers will want to enjoy it in this title and we have other benchmarks so it all evens out in the end.

tombraiderbenchmark

MSI 760 HAWK

MSI R9-270
Mini ITX Gaming
Gigabyte GTX580 Gigabyte GTX 670 OC

Min 24.4 35.8 29.1 24.5
Max 50.5 58.4 50 52
Avg 40.1 47.7 39 43.7

Batman Arkham City 

The settings used for the Arkham City ingame benchmark were:
1920x1080, V-Sync: Off, Anti-Aliasing: FXAA (High), Directx 11 Features: MVSS and HBAO, Dx11 Tessellation: Normal, Detail Level: Very High Dynamic Shadows: Yes, Motion Blur: Yes, Distortion: Yes, Lens Flares: Yes, Light Shafts: Yes, Reflections: Yes, Ambient Occlusion: Yes, Hardware Accelerated PhysX: Normal

batmanbenchmark

MSI 760 HAWK

MSI R9-270
Mini ITX Gaming
Gigabyte GTX580 Gigabyte GTX 670 OC

Min 49 21 25 50
Max 131 117 114 141
Avg 90 59 58 98

Hitman Absolution 

The following settings were used in the ingame benchmark:
1920x1080, MSAA:8x, Vsync: Off, Quality Setting: Ultra

hitmanbenchmark

MSI 760 HAWK

MSI R9-270
Mini ITX Gaming
Gigabyte GTX580 Gigabyte GTX 670 OC

Min 16 5 21.3 20.6
Max 30 28 31 28
Avg 23 23 25 26.3

Metro 2033

The benchmarking scripter for Metro 2033 was set using the following options

1920x1080, DX11, Quality: Very High, AA: MSAA 4X, Texture Filtering: AF 16X, Advanced PhysX: Disabled, Tessellation: Enabled, DOF: Enabled

metro2033benchmark

MSI 760 HAWK

MSI R9-270
Mini ITX Gaming
Gigabyte GTX580 Gigabyte GTX 670 OC

Min 9 10 5.75 9.22
Max 51 55 50 64.69
Avg 32 31 29 31

 


As opposed to the scripted benchmarks, subjective testing is where we try to execute the same passage of game play from a save game or checkpoint with FRAPS running to a log file. This is less reproducible and more prone to variation. The comparison between cards in this section means less than the true benchmarks but it provides a good indication of what you should expect when gaming with each card.

We also only graph the average frame rates but include the minimum and maximum in the tables for reference. Minimum and maximum frame rates can be misleading, especially on subjective type test runs.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

In this game play, we use the 'Arena' mode and benchmark a round 3 times, taking the average min, max and avg readings across all 3 runs. We do this because the runs are not typically that long. Despite its age, The Witcher 2 with the settings below really tests current graphics cards.

The graphics settings used were:
1920x1080, Texture Downscaling: High, Texture Memory Size (MB): Large, Shadow Quality: Ultra, Number of Shadowed Lights: Ultra, LOD Distance: Normal, Bloom: Enabled, Light Shafts: Enabled, Anti Aliasing: Enabled, Blur Effects: Enabled, Depth of Field - Gameplay: Enabled, Vignette: Enabled, Wet Surfaces Rain Effect: Enabled, SSAO: Enabled, Motion Blur: Enabled, Cinematic Depth of Field: Enabled, Depth of Field - Cutscenes: Enabled, Dangling Objects Limit: Disabled, Ubersampling: Enabled, Vertical Sync: Disabled, Decals: High Spec

witcher2

MSI 760 HAWK

MSI R9-270
Mini ITX Gaming
Gigabyte GTX580 Gigabyte GTX 670 OC

Min 26 25 23 29
Max 44 34 36 37
Avg 28 29 26.5 32


Battlefield 4

Battlefield 4 is a finicky game to use as a benchmark, even a subjective one as you will never see the same experience twice. We used the Firestorm map and tried to stay around the same capture point and not die (to avoid the respawning menu) when running the FRAPS benchmark.

The settings used were:
1920x1080, Ambient Occlusion: HBAO, AA Deferred: Off, AA Post High, Display Mode Full Screen, Effect Quality: High, Lighting Quality: High, Mesh Quality: High, Post-process Quality: High, Resolution Scale: 100, Terrain Settings: All High

battlefield4

MSI 760 HAWK

MSI R9-270
Mini ITX Gaming
Gigabyte GTX580 Gigabyte GTX 670 OC

Min 80 39 75 76
Max 132 62 141 126
Avg 99 51 73 98

Skyrim

Not a new title but the newest of The Elder Scrolls series and still a very popular game we maxed Skyrim out but didn't use any texture packs so keep that in mind when looking at the readings below. Testing was done from a consistent save game outside during the day at 1920x1080

skyrim

MSI 760 HAWK

MSI R9-270
Mini ITX Gaming
Gigabyte GTX580 Gigabyte GTX 670 OC

Min 84 76 74 85
Max 127 181 122 164
Avg 108 105 90 110

CRYSIS 3

Crysis 3 was tested outside in long grass using grenades and cloak mode in as consistent a fashion as possible.

The graphics settings were as follows:
AF: 16x, AA: 4x MSAA Medium, Display mode: Full Screen, All settings @ Very High, 1920x1080

crysis3

MSI 760 HAWK

MSI R9-270
Mini ITX Gaming
Gigabyte GTX580 Gigabyte GTX 670 OC

Min 25 18 24 25
Max 40 33 59 46
Avg 31 24 28.3 31

FarCry 3

Playing from a save game, starting at a checkpoint and moving around the buildings before blowing up a car with a grenade at the end of the benchmark run gave us the following statistics.

The Graphics settings were:
1920x1080, Window Mode: Full Screen, VSYNC: Off, GPU Max Buffered Frames: 1, Widescreen Letterbox: Off, DirectX 11, AA: 2xMSAA, Alpha to Coverage: Enhanced, SSAO Method: HBAO, Quality Settings: ULTRA (All maxed out)

farcry3

MSI 760 HAWK

MSI R9-270
Mini ITX Gaming
Gigabyte GTX580 Gigabyte GTX 670 OC

Min 22 38 23 49
Max 81 54 53 78
Avg 50.8 44 39.5 59

 


Testing something designed for confined spaces on an ATX open air Test bench chassis just didn't seem right so we brought out the white Node 304 from Fractal Design and built a realistic small footprint rig. I then sat this beside the 40" Samsung LCD TV and got some gaming and movies in for a weekend. 

In terms of components, I used:

  • Intel i5-4670K
  • 2x4GB Corsair Vengeance low profile DDR3 1600 (Black)
  • Deep Cool Gabriel Low Profile CPU cooler
  • Fractal Design Newton White 1000W modular power supply (it was all I had and way overkill for this project)
  • Fractal Design White Node 304 Case
  • Corsair M65 Gaming Mouse
  • Logitech G35 Gaming Headset
  • Logitech G110 Gaming keyboard (old faithful)
  • 120GB Intel SSD
  • 750GB Seagate Barracuda 7200RPM Hard Drive
  • Windows 8.1
  • Connected to LCD TV via HDMI cable

The location of the headers around the board and primarily at the top edge made this a breeze to install in the Fractal Design Node 304. I was able to run most of the front panel cables under the board itself and then connect them to the headers with minimal cabling mess. I liked the 24pin power connector along the top edge as well because those cables can usually be a bit rigid and difficult to work with. The build took about 90 minutes to assemble and tidy the cables - if I wasn't making notes and taking photos, it would have probably taken closer to an hour. The Node 304 is also an easy case to work with and I like just about any excuse to bring it out for a build - smaller cases may present other challenges and have different thermal properties.

Video quality via HDMI was flawless and at 1080P the setup did not miss a beat. No matter what I played, there was no noticeable noise coming from the Node 304 - if anything, I could hear the hard drive on occasion. Note that the Node 304 case fans were set to the low speed of 5volts via the case fan controller and temperatures were still under 70 degrees for the graphics card.

The practical build was the last part of the review process so as I sat on the couch thinking about dismantling the grunty little Mini ITX build, I asked myself the question of "Would I like to own this?"

  • For my lounge room/TV? - Hell yes, it was a great setup for 1920x1080 and gaming from the couch was very cool. Movies played effortlessly via Plex or Windows Video and there was basically no noise coming from the rig itself.
  • For my desktop? Probably not... I game at 2560x1440 so I like the grunt of my SLI GTX 670 setup to keep up respectable frame rates. The small footprint, portability and quiet audio profile of the practical build is compelling and would make for a neat desktop rig well suited to 1080p gaming in a bedroom or study where space is at a premium.

Pricing

MSI Z97I Gaming AC retails for $249 and is appropriately priced. It's worth noting that some cheaper Z97 Mini ITX boards from other manufacturers come with the M.2 SSD slot connectivity but not all of the other bells and whistles. 

MSI R9 270X Gaming Mini ITX hasn't hit the streets in Australia yet but if it is available for around the $279 mark it's certainly worth a look for a HTPC/Gaming PC. 

Final Thoughts

The Z97I AC packs all the essentials of a larger board in a 17x17cm form factor. Killer LAN, rear panel WIFI and awesome onboard sound with AudioBoost 2 makes this a premium offering, the cherry on top is the fact that it overclocks to our i5-4670's known limit that we found on other boards. Although the CPU socket placement had me scratching my head a little, if I was building a mini-ITX rig for myself, I'd be using a 120 or 140mm closed loop water unit anyway so it isn't a big issue. The software package, board features, inclusion of WIFI and thoughtful location of power and SATA ports made this board a pleasure to work with.

I'd use this board in a heartbeat for a LAN rig or HTPC/Steam machine and was genuinely sorry to pack it back in its box and return it to MSI after testing it.

The platform performed really well as a 1080P gaming rig without being too hot or noisy. If your gaming resolution is above 1920x1080 or you want ALL the eye candy on and high frames per second, it would be worth looking for a higher spec graphics card and a case that will take it. Remember that a 'Gaming' series R9 270X graphics card is around the $250 mark so its important not to expect the R9 270X ITX Gaming to perform like something twice the price and twice the size.

As a package, these components work really well together and to see the performance as per the benchmarks in a core system footprint of just 17cmx17cm is almost surreal. The big rig might not be an endagered species but the emerging mini ITX generation is sure to carve out a steadily increasing market share - as long as the manufactuers continue not to skimp on enthusiast features.

MSI Z97I Gaming AC MSI R9 270X Gaming Mini ITX
 msi-z97i gaming ac-product pictures-boxshot-1  five pictures1 3154 20140430113551 g

PROS

Great Audio
Motherboard layout is easy to work with
Intuitive BIOS/UEFI
Killer LAN
Good Software/Utility Bundle
Overclocks like a 'Big Board'
Military Grade Components for longevity
Very Quiet - virtually inaudible
The MSI Afterburner Software 
Power connector is oriented for easy connection/disconnection
Short form factor for confined spaces
Military Grade Components for longevity

CONS

It would have been nice to see a NGFF/M.2 SSD slot
CPU Heatsink & Fan compatibility might be an issue for those not going down the water cooling / closed loop path.

None - for the GPU that it is, the discrete graphics platform has been shrunk to fit without making it hotter, louder or slower. 

Awards

EditorsChoiceAward  

HighlyRecommended

TheSilenceAward

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Last modified onWednesday, 18 June 2014 19:24

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