If you are looking for a decent gaming motherboard, in an M-ATX form factor and you like dragons then this is the board for you. MSI has released the Z87M Gaming motherboard that boasts features you would expect from a standard ATX gaming or enthusiast grade board but in the more 'LAN Friendly" micro-ATX size.
MSI is known as a manufacturer of motherboards, graphics cards, notebooks, all in one and barebones PCs, and tablets. Having followed their enthusiast and gaming oriented products for years, I welcomed the opportunity to review the MSI Z87M Gaming micro-ATX motherboard.
Despite it's size, the Z87M Gaming still packs a hefty punch with high end network adaptor, sound chipset, dual graphics card capability and it's no slouch when overclocking - so where is the compromise? Let's take a moment to compare it with a full sized version, the MSI Z87-G45 Gaming motherboard. The main points of difference between the Z87M micro-ATX board and the Z87-G45 ATX board are that the Z87M Gaming has:
- 1 less PCI-Ex16 (4x)
- 2 less PCI-Ex1
- no mSATA
- 2 less rear USB 3.0 ports
- No VGA or DVI ports on the back plate
When it comes to gaming, none of the above omissions are going to hurt you in terms of gaming performance. Surprisingly, there are a few things that the smaller Z87M Gaming has on the rear IO Panel that it's big brother doesn't, such as:
- 2 HDMI ports instead of 1
- 1 Display port
- 2 eSATA ports
The MSI Z87M Gaming has an audio solution including MSI's "Audio Boost" with SoundBlaster Cinema implemented, a Killer E2200 Ethernet port, Gaming device connector (PS/2 ), and support for both NVIDIA SLI and AMD Crossfire. Other features like Total Fan control, fast boot, OC Genie and support for DDR3-3000 memory are also present and expected on an enthusiast level gaming board. The designers at MSI have included onboard power, reset and OC Genie buttons as well as the 2 digit Debug LED. Although the design team has trimmed some features to meet the M-ATX form factor, they managed to leave the things that count on the board.
The complete specifications of the Z87M Gaming are listed below. When working with the review sample, we didn't have any compatibility issues with our components and the on-board power switch was great for the review testing although I'm not sure how often it would be used by the average gamer.
In the past, I've installed the drivers that came with motherboards for personal builds but not worried too much about the utility bundle. Over the past couple of years, this has changed as the software utilities (across the board) are becoming higher quality and more meaningful. MSI's bundle is no exception with the Command Centre software doing a good job of monitoring the system's vitals, controlling fans, managing the RAMDISK and facilitating a handy overclock at the same time.
CPU (Max Support)i7
|Chipset||Intel® Z87 Express Chipset|
|Main Memory||Support four DDR3 1066/1333/1600/1866*/2000*/2133*/2200*/2400*/2600*/2666*/2800*/3000*(*OC) MHz DRAM, 32GB Max
- Dual channel memory architecture
- Supports Intel® Extreme Memory Profile (XMP)
- Supports non-ECC, un-buffered memory
|PCI-E||2 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots (16,0) or (8,8)
2 x PCIe 2.0 x1 slots
SATAIII controller integrated in Intel® Z87 chipset
2 x SATAIII controller integrated in ASMedia® ASM 1061 chipset
|USB||Intel Z87 Express Chipset
- 6 x USB 3.0 ports (4 ports on the back panel, 2 ports available through the internal USB connectors)
- 6 x USB 2.0 ports (2 ports on the back panel, 4 ports available through the internal USB connectors)
RENESAS UPD720202 chipset
|Audio||Realtek® ALC1150 Codec
- 7.1-Channel High Definition Audio
- Supports S/PDIF output
|Network||1x Killer E2205 Gigabit LAN controller*
* The Killer Network Manager is only available for Windows 7 and Windows 8 currently.
The supported drivers for other operating systems would be available on the website if provided by vendor.
|Multi-GPU||Supports 2-Way AMD CrossFireTM Technology*
Supports 2-Way NVIDIA® SLITM Technology
* Supports Windows 7 and Windows 8.
|Internal I/O Connections||- 1x 24-pin ATX main power connector
- 1x 8-pin ATX 12V power connector
- 6x SATA 6Gb/s connectors
- 2x USB 2.0 connectors (supports additional 4 USB 2.0 ports)
- 1x USB 3.0 connector (supports additional 2 USB 3.0 ports)
- 2x 4-pin CPU fan connectors
- 2x 4-pin system fan connectors
- 1x Front panel audio connector
- 2x System panel connectors
- 1 x TPM connector
- 1 x Chassis Intrusion connector
- 1 x Clear CMOS jumper
- 1 x Slow mode booting jumper
- 1 x Power button
- 1 x Reset button
- 1 x OC Genie button
- 1 x OC Genie mode switch
- 1 x 2-Digit Debug Code LED
|Rear Panel I/O Connections||- 1 x PS/2 keyboard/ mouse combo port
- 2 x USB 2.0 ports
- 1 x Clear CMOS button
- 1 x LAN (RJ45) port
- 6 x USB 3.0 ports
- 1 x Optical S/PDIF OUT connector
- 2 x eSATA ports
- 6 x OFC audio jacks
- 2 x HDMI port, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096x2160@24Hz, 24bpp/ 2560x1600@60Hz, 24bpp/ 1920x1080@60Hz, 36bpp
- 1 x DisplayPort, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096x2160 @24Hz, 24bpp/ 3840x2160 @60Hz, 24bpp
|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||9.6 in. x 9.6 in. (24.4 cm x 24.4 cm) Micro-ATX Form Factor|
|Mounting Holes||9 mounting holes.|
- Case Badge with the G-Series branding and Dragon on it
- I/O Shield plate with Aluminium Interface Shielding, Force Absorbing layer, Steel Shielding and dark outer coating with visible port labels
- Do Not Disturb door hanger
- Internal Header IO Connector
- 6 SATA3 cables
- SLI Bridge
- Quick Install Guide
Included Software Utilities
- Command Centre. This includes utilities for Fan control, overclocking, RAMDISK, Monitoring etc.
- Super RAID
- SoundBlaster Cinema
- Live Update 5 (one stop shop for driver, utility and bios updates)
- Super Charger (to charge apple devices like iPads and iPhones faster)
- Intel Extreme Tuning Utility
- Fast Boot
MSI VGA BOOST has been implemented and increases the power limitations for MSI GAMING Graphics cards when used in this motherboard. Put simply, it upgrades the power delivery to an MSI GAMING graphics card allowing the card to draw what it needs in a safe and stable way that won't cook your card.
Military Class 4 components including:
- Super Ferrite Chokes that run cooler and with a higher current capacity and efficiency than alternatives
- Dark CAPs with an aluminium core design are expected to last over 10 years (so well past your next upgrade)
- MSI state that all connections have ESD protection to prevent short circuit - please note that we did not try to short circuit this board in our testing but we did overclock it a bit.
The Z87M Gaming has all of it's cable headers and on board buttons around the outer edge of the board - all within 15mm of the outside edge. This is important because if you are trying to keep your cabling neat, it means that you can probably route your front panel IO and audio cables neatly to the board headers without having to go across the board - likewise for the fan headers. The battery is located between the PCIe slots - with a clear CMOS button on the rear IO panel, the only reason that you would need to get to it is to change the battery.
In a growing trend on gaming and enthusiast motherboards, we see the audio section of the board isolated by an LED lit channel.
When running SLI or Crossfire, the graphics cards are sandwiched close together which means that they will run hotter and louder than on a full sized board where there is usually a slot gap between the PCIe 16/8x slots. The other issue that this spacing presents is the difficulty in accessing the PCIe clip to release the cards. This is not a criticism of the MSI Z87M Gaming but just something to be aware of if you intend to use dual graphics cards on a micro-ATX board. The upside is that all of the IO connections along the bottom edge of the motherboard are accessible when using 2 dual slot graphics cards. Match this board with pair of upper or middle range graphics cards and a case with good ventilation for a powerful but compact LAN rig.
Rear IO Panel
MSI has taken the step of including 1 Display Port and 2 HDMI ports on the Rear IO panel and omitted a DVI port. The reality for anyone who buys this board is that it will have a dedicated Graphics Card (or two) so these may not be used. On board video is great for troubleshooting or for those unfortunate times when your Graphics card is RMA and you still want to browse the net, check email and maybe do some work that doesn't need a discrete GPU.
The PS/2 connection might be useful for some hardcore gamers but I don't have any surviving PS/2 peripherals so I was unable to test it. In case you have a lot of peripherals, MSI saw fit to also provide 2xUSB 2.0 and 6xUSB 3.0 ports as well as 2 eSATA ports. The Audio connectors are standard for most boards, even if the audio solution has been upgraded at a chipset and software level.
Finally, the "clear CMOS" button is a dead give-away that this board is for gamers who also like to push an overclock.
The lighting on the Z87M Gaming highlights and isolates the audio PCB section dedicated to the audio components. There is also dedicated lighting on the Power, Reset and OC Genie buttons. Although the white "MSI" logo on the Z87 chipset heat sink is pretty obvious, it get's obscured as soon as you mount a graphics card in the first PCIE slot. The lighting is bright but it isn't offensive and should blend in with most builds. Although there is a red and black theme to the motherboard, it's predominantly black and pretty clean looking. Dragon / MSI Gaming shaped heat sinks are a nice touch. If I was building with this board, I'd be looking to pair it with red, white or black cabling.
The addition of a Killer E2200 chipset is a nice touch and the software is pretty easy to use. When testing, we isolated the test bench on our cable internet connection and played Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4, the software seemed to work and we didn't see any unusual lag issues. Steam downloads were prioritised lower than our games and ran in parallel to our gaming session without any noticeable impact on our ping or general game play. The testing in Battlefield 3 was more meaningful as the Battlefield 4 servers are still a little hit and miss.
Screen shots from the software can be found below
Having long been a sceptic of onboard sound chips, AudioBoost surprised me. The sounds clarity was much better than I was expecting and it's great to see immersive gaming grade audio like this included onboard. Music and movies were also clear and I couldn't fault it. MSI have included:
- Studio level Integrated 600Ω Headphone amplifier (OPA1652)
- Gold-flashed audio jacks
- EMI shielded audio codec & amplifier
- High quality audio capacitors
On a micro-ATX board, you really don't want to sacrifice a PCIE slot for a sound card so to have a higher end audio chip is a real plus and now becoming a pre-requisite for gaming boards. There is also a software component to the Z87M Gaming's audio solution that uses the SoundBlaster Cinema application with a simple but effective front end. For gaming, general music and movies I don't have anything bad to say about it.
See the SoundBlaster Cinema screen shots below for an idea of the features.
MSI Command Centre
Every Motherboard manufacturer seems to have their own version of this. ASUS have AI Suite, Gigabyte has EasyTune and MSI has Command Centre. The MSI Command Centre is intuitive, allows for windows based overclocking - you wouldn't need to go into the UEFI if you didn't want to. Monitoring, fan control, RAMDISK, GPU Boost and other options are available through Command Centre. It even has it's own remote server control options via an App Store or Android app for your Smartphone.
MSI Live Update
This utility is great for letting you know when there is a new version of the BIOS, driver or MSI utility available. It's easy to use and can kick off the installation of an update for you.
We were in the process of building a new test bench so this was the first board we have used with this configuration. We have an i5-4670K that can hit 4.6GHz before things get unstable and our Noctua NH-U12S does a good job of supporting our overclocks even though it's not one of the biggest coolers we have. The Corsair HX-850 is overkill but it allows us some headroom for SLI configurations and the Lian Li Pitstop T60 open air test bench makes it easier to keep our testing area "neat-ish..."
|Memory||16GB Corsair Vengeance Low Profile - Black (4x4GB)|
|Case||Lian Li Pitstop T60|
Seagate Barracuda 2TB & Samsung EVO 250GB SSD
|Graphics Cards||Gigabyte GTX670 OC 2GB Windforce 3x (in SLI)|
Level 10M Gaming Headset &
Direct connection to the cable modem &
|Optical||Samsung SATA2 BluRay drive|
I was able to achieve a manual overclock of 4.6GHz with our i5-4670K @ 1.31v on air. The ambient temperature was 21 degrees and the maximum temperature we saw on the cores was 81 degrees with an average maximum temperature of 78 degrees Celsius. Overclocking manually through the MSI Control Centre Software was easy and we couldn't fault it from our testing.
For those who want to enjoy the benefits of an overclock but don't want to mess with a few sliders, MSI have the OC Genie button on the motherboard but you can also use the UEFI and Windows based Control Centre Software to let the motherboard do the work for you. The motherboard has a switch for overclocking near the RAM slots with 2 positions, "Gear 1" and "Gear 2".
When using the OC Genie, I was able to achieve the following overclocks with basically no effort at all.
- "Gear 1" gave me 4GHz
- "Gear 2" gave me 4.2GHz
MSI's BIOS is very easy to navigate in order to do simple things like set a boot order or more advanced overclocking tasks. Everything is easy to find and we didn't experience any issues with our Logitech G110 USB keyboard or Corsair M65 USB mouse - it just worked.
I've embedded a video of the UEFI flow and options below, captured via an AVerMedia Live Gamer Portable. there is no commentary, it's just there if you wanted to look at the configuration options available.
Pricing hasn't been confirmed but we are expecting these to sell for around the $239 mark. This places it price-wise as below:
- ASRock Z87M Extreme 4 at $159
- ASUS Gryphon (not including option armour kit) at $185
- MSI Z87M Gaming ~ $239
- ASUS Maximus VI Gene at $285
- Gigabyte G1 Sniper M5 at $299
The above list are all considered "gaming" or "enthusiast" micro-ATX motherboards - certified for NVIDIA SLI and AMD Crossfire, most with upgraded sound chips (*excluding the Gryphon which has ALC 892).
Like most micro-ATX boards, there is a need and subsequent thermal penalty for running dual graphics cards sandwiched together but at least you have the option to go SLI which cannot be said of all micro-ATX motherboards.
The Z87M Gaming has some great features and MSI designers don't seem to have skimped on the design. Overclocking was solid and easy, the bundled software was reliable and with 6 internal SATA ports as well as SLI and Crossfire support there is room to expand over time.
I would be more than happy to have this board in a micro-ATX case on my desk and couldn't find anything about it that I didn't like. Without hesitation we can highly recommend this motherboard and if you are trying to trim your build to fit within a budget, the MSI Z87M Gaming would be well priced at $239 (if the expected street price is accurate). At this time, without a formal RRP or street price we can't give it the "Value award" but if I had a motherboard budget of $250, this would be going in my LAN rig for sure.
|MSI Z87M Gaming Motherboard|
All the Bells and Whistles a gamer needs
|No DVI port on the rear I/O panel|