MSI Z97 XPOWER AC Review

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The MSI Z97 XPOWER AC is based on the MSI XPOWER Z87 and comes along with new features and the new Intel Z97 chipset. Featuring 16 phases, a ton of PCIe Slots, OC-Buttons and a neat black-yellow design, this board looks like a great choice for overclockers and gamers. In this reviewI will test if the board also clocks as well as it looks. The retail price is about 300 € in Germany.

Packaging and features:

Like the previous MSI overclocking-boards, the Z97 XPOWER AC also comes along in a cool black and yellow design. The packaging looks classy and well-designed. You can open the yellow X to see the mainboard below in the packaging.

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Taking a look at the backside, you can see the key and overclocking features.
Included in the delivery:

  • Z97 XPOWER AC Mainboard
  • OC-Drive (USB-Drive)
  • OC-Fan-Stand
  • Manual
  • Support-CD
  • 3 x SATA cable (One connector straight, one with 90° angle)
  • 3 x SATA cable (Both connectors straight)
  • 3 x Nvidia SLI bridge flexible
  • I/O shield
  • Delid Die Guard (Mounting for delidded CPUs)
  • Wires for the voltage measuring points
  • Wi-Fi / Bluetooth Module with antennas
  • Molex zu SATA adapter

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My favorite feature is the OC-Drive which makes the driver installation very comfortable if you don’t use an optical drive anymore.

 

Overview and impressions:

Following the nice black and yellow design, MSI is targeting the overclockers amongst us. Just as the Z87 XPOWER, the Z97 XPOWER also comes in shape of EATX.

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Expansion Slots:

You can find five PCIe x16 slots on the MSI Z97 XPOWER which makes it perfect for multi GPU systems. There are a lot of boards with x16 PCIe slots out there. But only a very small amount of systems also have a PLX chip.

The PLX chip provides additional PCIe-Lanes for the maximal multi-GPU-support. AMD Crossfire only requires 4 lanes. So you can usually run Quad Crossfire on all boards with four or more x16 PCIe slots. However, Nvidia SLI requires at least 8 lanes per card to work. Due to the PLX chip, this board can provide up to 32 lanes just for the x16 slots. So quad SLI is possible with 8 lanes per card. Keep in mind that this board features PCIe 3.0 slots, so the x8 connection is as fast as a x16 PCIe 2.0 slot – enough for your system to run without any limits 😉

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These configurations are available on the MSI Z97 XPOWER (Slot1/Slot2/…./Slot5):

  • x0/x16/x0/x0/x0
  • x16/x0/x0/x16/x0
  • x16/x0/x0/x8/x8
  • x8 /x0/x8/x8/x8

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Audio and network:

The “Audio Boost” is the audio solution of MSI. This is based on an ALC1150 audio chip from Realtek which is a standard, but good quality product.

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The I218-V network chip comes from Intel and features 10/100/1000 MBit connection. Intel’s network solutions are very solid when it comes to transfer rates and software support. I prefer this controller over all other solutions such as Killer network chips.

 

Wi-Fi / Bluetooth Module:

The MSI Z97 XPOWER comes along with a special Wi-Fi and Bluetooth module which you can mount at the I/O panel if needed. The Wi-Fi covers the latest 802 b, g and n standards and therefore provides very fast transfer rates.

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OC-Fan-Stand:

Another very interesting feature is the OC-Fan-Stand. This special mounting device allows to fix an additional 120 or 140 mm fan on the motherboard. In general, a very nice idea and very helpful, especially for open solutions such as benchtables. If you want to use the OC-Fan-Stand just for testing without benchtable or a proper case, you will not be able to mount it, because the required nuts are missing. To fix this, simply get two M3 nuts which should only cost a few cents at any DIY store. The fan in the picture is from aerocool and not included in the delivery.

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Delid Die Guard:

This is my absolute favorite feature of this motherboard – the Delid Die Guard. Probably  you have already read on different pages that Intel Haswell CPUs come along with a quite dry and cheap thermal paste which causes the CPUs to reach very high temperatures when overclocking. On previous CPUs, Intel soldered the heatspreader to the chip (die), but this has already changed with Ivy-Bridge.

To fix this issue, a lot of overclockers delid their CPUs and replace the thermal paste with new and better products or even liquid metal. Afterwards, they glue back the heatspreader to the CPU and mount the cooler on top.

The Delid Die Guard protects the chip after delidding and so you can directly mount the cooler on the chip itself without using the original heatspreader.

Using the normal Intel LGA1150 socket, you can’t mount a CPU cooler directly after delidding, because the CPU changes in height and there is no pressure to push the CPU into the socket.

The Delid Die Guard fixes this issue, so you can achieve the best temperatures for overclocking. Nevertheless, please keep in mind that delidding the CPU will lead to a loss of warranty. I tested the temperature benefits of this feature and you can find the results below.

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Integrated waterblocks:

On first sight, the MSI XPOWER Z97 features a heatpipe cooling solution. Taking a closer look, you will notice that the designated heatpipes are actually waterblocks. The black nickel plated copper pipe connects all three blocks, so you can easily integrate this motherboard into your cooling circuit. According to my testing, the VRMs are indeed very efficient and I see no need to cool the board with water.

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Besides the benefit of a possible watercooling solution, this also has a negative aspect. A heatpipe can always spread the heat over the whole heatsink, whereas the copper pipe can’t properly transfer the heat. To check this, I measured the temperature with an infrared thermometer on each block. The PCH heatsink reaches about 42 °C on load and the VRM heatsink only slightly above 30 °C which are perfect values. Only the PLX heatsink is a little bit warmer with about 50 °C which is still good and you don’t have to worry.

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Internal connectors:

The Z97 XPOWER features 10 x SATA III ports in total. Six are directly connected to the PCH and the additional four ports are connected to an ASMedia ASM1061 controller. In addition to the 10 SATA ports, you can find two USB3.0 and two USB2.0 headers on the board.

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To serve any kind of cooling solution, the board comes along with 7 fan ports. 2 x 4-Pin for the CPU, 3 x 4-Pin for system fans and another 2 x 4-Pin for optional fans.

 

 

 

External connectors:

Let’s take a look at the I/O Panel. You will straight catch the 8 x USB 3.0 ports which is enough to have a ton of drives, keyboard, mouse and more. However, there are also two additional USB2.0 ports which you should use for your mouse and keyboard. So in total 10 USB ports.

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Besides RJ-45 (network), SPDIF, Display Port and HDMI, the board comes with 6 ports for audio.

 

IC-Review:

After the quick review of all the features, we will now take a closer look at the important ICs. In the following picture I marked all important ICs with a short explanation. MSI used VRMs from IRF (International Rectifier) which is a high quality supplier for this kind of ICs. The IRF 3550M is one of the latest products of IRF and very efficient and energy saving. This means the VRMs are so stable and cold that you could actually use the board without a heatsink.

I again measured the temperature, using an infrared thermometer and after one hour of Prime95 stability benchmark, the VRMs did not exceed 55°C without heatsink. Additional cooling such as waterblocks or integrated waterblocks are not needed at all according to my testing.

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Overclocking Features:

Let’s go over to the really important part – the overclocking features. Just as the Z87 XPOWER, the Z97 XPOWER also comes with a full package of OC buttons which can be really helpful especially for extreme overclocking. In addition, you can also find a debug LED in the same area which will show a specific code if there is some problem during the power on self test (POST). Extreme overclockers will also find voltage measuring points in the same area to check the current voltages of their system.

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Here’s an overview of all the buttons and switches:

  • Multi-Up + Multi-Down (Adjust the CPU multiplier on the fly)
  • BCLK-UP + BCLK-Down (Adjust the BCLK on the fly)
  • BCLK_Step1 (Change the BCLK in steps of 0.1 or 1.0)
  • Power on / off
  • Reset
  • SLOW_1 (lowers CPU multiplier to x8 [only interesting for extreme overclockers])
  • BIOS_SW1 (Boot from Main- or Backup-BIOS)
  • FASTB1 (Go to BIOS)
  • DISCH1 (Same effect like removing the BIOS battery.)
  • OC1 (Auto overclocking)
  • PEGSW1 (Disable specific PCIe slots)

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Dual-UEFI-BIOS:

The board is equiped with two soldered BIOS chips from Winbond. So in case of a BIOS crash, there is always a backup to save your board. In addition, you can disable the backup bios using the BIOS_SW1 switch.

The navigation and design is pretty similar to the Z87 boards and very well organized. You can find important information such as CPU-Temperature and boot order straight at the top of the overlay. In the top left corner you can also simply load the XMP (Xtreme Memory Profile) of your memory to make sure it is running at the correct settings.

In the bottom left and right sections, you can find the submenues such as OC-Profile, Hardware-Monitor and all the basic settings like onboard devices and also the tool “M-FLASH” to update the BIOS. Like always, I just recommend to update the BIOS if you are experiencing issues with the system. Otherwise never touch a running system 😉

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In the main menu you can also find the submenu called „BOARD-EXPLORER“. This is a great feature to detect and check the components of your system. Especially running multiple GPUs, you can easily check the occupied PCIe-lanes. A very useful feature.

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In general, the BIOS is very well organized and you can easily navigate to all important settings. During my review, there was nothing I could find in the bug which I would like to change.

More screenshots of the BIOS:

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CPU-Overclocking and Delid-Die-Guard Test:

 

Since this board is built for overclocking, I wanted to test its capability and features. Usually you would not put a 50 EUR CPU on such a board, but for testing the Delid Die Guard I didn’t want to risk killing a good 4770K or 4790K. I used these components for the OC-Test:

 

  • MSI Z97 XPOWER AC
  • Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition
  • Phanteks PH-TC14PE (1 x 140 mm Lüfter)
  • Kingston SSD
  • Corsair Vengeance Pro 2933 C12
  • GeForce 8400 GS
  • Windows 7 x64 SP1
  • Prime 95 v27.9

 

Nowadays almost all overclocking boards at a price of 150 EUR and higher perform very well and usually don’t limit the actual CPU clock. However, when it comes to memory overclocking, some boards already have problems with frequencies of 2400 MHz and above.

The memory I used for this kit can clock very high and is rated at 2933 MHz with C12. Since there are only Hynix MFR on these sticks (single sided, single ranked), the performance is not the best even on high clocks, but it is good to test the raw frequency.

In the past, MSI had some issues with high memory clocks, but this time I simply went to the BIOS profile, loaded the XMP profile and it worked rockstable at 2933 MHz without any issues. A great improvement to the older generations.

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The Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition I used for this test could easily be clocked to 4600 MHz on air. The average temperature was at about 70 °C which means there is still about 30 °C left, before you hit the temperature limit of the processor. But even with this temperature, and therefore voltage window, I could not manage to get the CPU stable at 4700 MHz. Even after trying ridiculously high voltages of about 1,50 Volt.

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Delidding the CPU:

Delidding CPUs is in general always a risk. If you want to test this yourself, be aware that you will lose the warranty of your chip and might also kill it if you’re not careful enough. If you have any questions how to do this, simply reply to this review and I will try my best to help you.
To delid the CPU I used the “hammer-method” which looks quite stupid on first sight, but it’s a very easy way to remove the stock heatspreader of the CPU. Simply clamp the CPU in a vice and hit it carefully with a hammer from the side. After a few hits, the PCB came off safely. There are also several videos on youtube available showing how to do this. Try the keywords “CPU delid vice” and you should find it.

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Mounting the Delid-Die Guards:

To mount the Delid-Die-Guard, you have to remove the stock frame off the LGA1150 first. You need a torx screwdrive for this step which is not included in the delivery.

Simply remove the three screws and take off the frame. Keep in mind not to bend any pins in the socket itself.

After delidding, I cleaned the CPU with some acetone and a sharp knife to remove the rest of the black glue. In the next step I put the CPU into the socket.

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In the last step, carefully put the Delid-Die-Guard on top and fix it with the same three screws which you removed earlier. Make sure the CPU is in the correct position before tightening the screws.

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Now apply thermal paste on the die and simply put back the CPU cooler and you’re good to go.

 

Note: The height of the CPU is now slightly lower than before, so it could be that your CPU cooler does not fit anymore. It is really important that you check to have a cooler which is variable in the mounting-height.

 

Delid-Die-Guard Overclocking Test

 

I applied liquid metal on the die for this test in order to make sure I can achieve the best temperatures. I still used the Phanteks PH-TC14PE, but added a small plate between the mounting plate and the top of the CPU cooler to compensate the difference in height.

Afterwards, I went back to the BIOS and applied the same settings like in the first test to compare the core temperatures. The G3258 was again running at 4600 MHz with a core voltage of 1,42 Volts Prime95 stable. Compared to the first test, the temperature improved by about 20 °C.

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With the stock thermal paste I could only push the CPU up to 4600 MHz. Using the Delid-Die-Guard, I could push the Pentium Anniversary Edition to stable 4800 MHz at 1.488 Volt. It is very interesting that CPU did not exceed 58 °C even though I applied a quite high temperature. But similar to the first test, the CPU also hit a wall here and I could not go above 4800 MHz. Even with 1.60 volt on the CPU core. Still a great result for such a cheap 50 EUR CPU.

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Conclusion:

The MSI Z97 XPOWER is a very consistent board with a solid overall performance with only a few disadvantages. Compared to previous generations, MSI managed to fix a lot of issues and is on the same level as the other big vendors. The PCB looks very clean and the quality is also on a very high level.

 

The VRMs are very efficient and even during extreme overclocking, this board is far away from any temperature issues.

The features in general serve all needs – a lot of SATA an USB ports, a good network chip, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi module and many more.

I also really appreciate the OC-Fan-Stand and especially the Delid-Die-Guard which turns the MSI Z97 XPOWER into a unique product.

 

Recommendation?

If you can invest about 300 EUR and you are aiming for a multi GPU system, this could be the perfect board for you. The PLX chip offers the best performance for Quad-SLI and Quad-Crossfire. However, if you just want to use a single GPU, you should take a look at the MSI MPOWER MAX which has no PLX chip and therefore is more energy efficient.

 

Even extreme overclockers will be satisfied with this mainboard. But you should use memory sticks with Samsung ICs such as Corsair Dominator Platinum 2666 C10 or G.Skill TridentX 2600 C10. Using older sticks with PSC or BBSE, you might have some trouble running high clocks and low timings.

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8auer_tested-approved - msiz97

 

Useful links:
http://game.msi.com/en/product/motherboard/z97-xpower-ac
http://us.msi.com/product/mb/Z97_XPOWER_AC.html#hero-overview
http://us.msi.com/support/mb/Z97_XPOWER_AC.html#down-bios

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One comment

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