Despite dwindling PC sales and a shrinking computer market, building your own machine is still the best way to get the most bang for your buck and enthusiasts know that more than your average PC user. Today we take a look at three of the higher end motherboards available in the market- the MSI Z87 Xpower, the Asus Z87 Deluxe/Dual and the ECS Z87H3-AX Domination.
All three of these boards are compatible with the latest Intel 4th Generation Haswell processors. While your older processors won’t work on these newer motherboards, at least your older LGA1155 coolers are compatible with the new LGA1150 boards. So let’s take a look at what these boards have to offer.
MSI Z87 XPower
The box that the motherboard comes in is a mix of black and yellow with a huge yellow “X” covering nearly the entire front with information on its features on the back and inside flap. The board came with a modest set of accessories listed below:
- Driver Disk
- Rear I/O Shield
- Manual and Software Manual
- Do Not Disturb sign (‘Out Buying LN2’ and ‘Busy Breaking World Records’)
- MSI mouse mat and poster
- Rear USB 3.0 bracket and eSATA + power bracket
- 3 X SLI bridges of varied length
- 6 X SATA 6GB/s cables and 1 X eSATA cable
- 1 X 4-pin Molex to 2x SATA Power cable
- 1 X 2×2:2 Wi-Fi + Bluetooth Rear IO Module with 2 Magnetic Antennas
It’s not a bad list of additions and you may find some of these useful although some are more gimmicky that only teenagers will find a use for. At least MSI has provided the bare essentials to get your motherboard connected.
The board has quite a clean layout with buttons and switches clearly marked and placed in the right areas so you don’t have to look around for too long to find what you need. Due to the board’s XL form factor it is essential that you make sure your current or intended chassis can fit this size board and there’s enough space to add all the required peripherals to it.
At the top, next to the RAM slots there’s the OC Genie button along with the discharge button, the power button, the reset button and the CPU and BCLK buttons. The discharge button is quite a unique feature that when pressed dissipates all the energy in the system, restarts and resets the BIOS.
Thanks to the large sized board, installing huge CPU coolers should neither be an issue nor a bother as the distance between the CPU socket and the heatsinks shielding the 32-phase power delivery and PLX chip. The PLX chip handles the multi-GPU systems and is linked to all but one of the PCIExpress x16 slots. The second PCIExpress slot should be used for optimal performance in a single graphics card setup as it bypasses the PLX chip for optimal performance. This slot is automatically disabled when using the first and third slots. If you wish to utilize all the PCIExpress slots that can be used in a multi-GPU setup you should be aware that the last slot has little clearance near the bottom and proper airflow maybe restricted.
The heatsink above the CPU socket has a big yellow “X” that lights up when the system is turned on. A trivial addition that you won’t even be able to see when the system is in a case because the “X” is facing the socket. As a whole however, the board is easy to navigate and feature packed. The extra size makes the slots and CPU socket easy to handle and install components on. With the OC Genie and other onboard buttons I would have liked to see MSI include a front case mounted device with access to these features but I would guess that would have increased the price by a good bit.
BIOS and Software
The XPower has a new and improved Click BIOS 4 which makes use of an improved display, a graphical layout of options and most importantly both a mouse and keyboard. The main BIOS menu is tab based with tab windows to the left and right. The BIOS itself is full of options and features. The monitoring tab window has a graph with various pieces of information around it. It doesn’t include anything really special, it’s just your typical monitoring information presented rather nicely. Another tab shows you a picture of the motherboard but if you click on a slot you get information such as the slot’s designation and what is plugged into it. The rest of the BIOS is pretty ordinary until you get into the serious overclocking options that should be handled with care.
The bundled software on the driver disk and downloadable via MSI’s website includes MSI’s very own software suite of applications. MSI’s Command Center gets a new UI and improved functionality. It can be used to overclock the system, adjust fans and also conserve energy. The bundle also includes a RAMdisk utility. The software is easy to use as long as you know what everything is and whoever buys a serious motherboard like this probably does. MSI has also bundled Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU) which also provides an array of overclocking options for the novice and experienced overclocker.
MSI offers plenty of ways to overclock your system such as the BIOS, Onboard buttons, bundled software and Intel’s XTU. MSI’s OC Genie 4 is a simple way of getting more power out of your system with just a simple click of a button. The onboard OC Genie button enables the use to get a little bit of overclocking power safely. The Intel Core i7-4770k at default runs at 3.5GHz and with a turbo mode, speeds up to 3.9GHz. With the OC Genie button enabled the system boots up and runs at 4GHz and stable but if that’s not enough for you, the board has a switch above the set of onboard buttons that overclocks the processor to a more “extreme” 4.2GHz. Not bad but I think MSI’s previous OC Genie’s were gutsier with their overclocking.
4.2GHz might seem tame to some especially after paying so much for this board which is why you can overclock the system manually. Under the OC Genie button and Power buttons are buttons that adjust the CPU and Base Clock (BCLK). There is also a switch next to these buttons that adjusts the BCLK increments. You can choose to either increase or decrease the BCLK by 1Mhz or 0.1Mhz.
Using Intel’s XTU we managed to get 4.7Ghz @ 1.25V and this ran at 78C under load. Not too shabby from a simple overclock and we will see how this board fares against the other two boards we are reviewing today. Bear in mind that whatever overclocks we reach or fail to reach with these boards is not a guarantee. Your system may perform better or even worse than ours.