Introduction – MSI Z97 Xpower
Oh Overclocking, it seems to be whats makes the world go round some days and something that many motherboard manufacturers have really started to embrace as easier ways were found to do it. It used to be back in the old days (not that long ago but it makes it feel more special to reference as so) that overclocking required a ton of work, modding and hacking away at things to make it happen. Now days overclocking is simple, they even have buttons to do overclocks for you. And with recent chipset and CPU revisions it has become a game of binning chips to find a good one rather than tuning all night and days on end with a QX9650 because you know theres more in it, or getting a specific board because it tends to clock better. At least for now those days are gone and its all very heavily based on the quality of the chip to control just how far your overclocking journey will go.
That being said the board we have in front of us today is designed to ensure you can squeeze every ounce of performance out of your CPU and should you get a awesome gem of a CPU it has all of the necessary parts in place to ensure that you can freeze it and tear through the perceived limits toward world record glory. *Disclaimer: World records are not included with purchase and actual tuning ability and work will be required alongside good parts to acquire such lofty goals*
Ok now that part is out of the way lets dig into what is the MSI Z97 Xpower AC and see just what makes it tick.
The board comes in at a price of $379.99 on Newegg or Amazon. This is actually the highest price board to date but I have not seen the Maximus Extreme model from ASUS which is worth noting that the formula model is only 10 dollars cheaper so the Extreme will likely surpass the Xpower but time will tell. Now lets take a look at what makes the Xpower a buying decision worth considering for your extreme needs.
Features & Specifications
Military Class Components
When MSI puts military class components to the fire they are not joking as they come to the table claiming to have passed multiple tests following Mil spec (MIL-STD-810G) Tests including:
- Temperature Shock testing: Sudden thermal changes which can normally wreak havoc on electrical components are fully tested on these components to ensure they can last through some of the worst conditions like what the extreme enthusiasts community may employ them for.
- Humidity Testing: Testing of components in different humidity conditions can make a big difference as to the capabilities of the cards as different areas can have much different environments and not every deployment will be like a sterile lab and knowing they can take that kind of abuse once again is a major plus.
- Vibration tests: This one is a little nuts but being in California we suppose in an earthquake, MSI can ensure the shaking won’t affect the components.
- Low Pressure Testing: This once again is a little extreme as deployment for different elevations especially extreme enough to require low pressure testing will be extremely rare if ever but it will handle it.
- High Temperature Testing: This one should be a standard for every component in a high end PC as thermals are the enemy of every enthusiasts rig so I like to see such attention paid here.
- Low Temperature Testing: Once again this is something more targeted at the Lightning model, but the fact that they test these cards to withstand LN2 benchmarking temperatures tells us that under standard gaming stresses this card is gonna run and keep on running.
- Shock Testing: This is once again more extreme as these are similar to drop or rough impact testing which, even if the board survives we’re sure other components may not fare so well in this kind of scenario.
Basically this means that this board/components should last the test of time and offer excellent performance pretty much through anything it would ever experience in a extreme gaming PC.
This is what we were talking about as MSI has been building Mpower and Xpower boards for some time so adopting many of these features onto the board came naturally and easily.
- Slow mode switch: this allows downclocking of the CPU in order to pass boot issues or has even been used for quick flip for validation purposes although I believe a valid should be stable enough to at least be at desktop without loading.
- OC Genie Switch: The OC Genie switch takes the normal OC Genie and gives it another step or gear to push even higher clocks than standard OC Genie settings.
- Direct OC Switch: this switch is the toggle which allows chaging between .1MHz to 1MHz adjustments via the BCLK adjust buttons which will allow a more finite scale for when pushing the very edge of overclocking.
OC Genie has been around for awhile and is basically a quick easy to set overclock that is a one touch solution. Its an easy way for a gamer to get a free performance boost from their system.
The Xpower board offers a bit more than just the standard buttons with the full gamut of adjustability from +/- buttons for BCLK and CPU ratio adjustments along with the ability to even change the BCLK from 1MHz to 0.1MHz scaling for even more granularity when pushing for the very last little bit from the platform.
The Discharge button is a pretty awesome feature. It’s like the ultimate BIOS clear, as it clears not just the BIOS settings but even the training and everything from the memory of the board to an even deeper level. Those who bench will know that when a board starts going wonky sometimes you have to remove battery for a minute or two, which clears the board. This switch manages the same effect in just a few seconds so that is one really cool option as this board is mainly designed for those super-high end enthusiasts who will likely use this board at the edge of its stability.
The OC PCB consists of 50% more PCB material which allows for more trace isolation for tighter component fitment while reducing the risk of interference from an adjacent component. Also having a thicker PCB allows for larger power and signaling traces which means cleaner operation and more power available for when you’re really pushing hardware.
Digitall power design is the use of full digital designs for the VRM which means super precise voltage regulation along with better Vdroop control for extreme situations.
The thermal design for the Xpower was made for the enthusiasts as many will run liquid cooling which means very little airflow near the CPU socket area. Therefore MSI took the initiative to optimize the cooling design to allow thermal evacuation from the VRM area even with little to no airflow. For those really looking to push it there is also Water cooling fittings in place to allow liquid cooling of the VRM/Chipset area to keep things cool no matter the loading and airflow conditions.
The Extreme OC socket design utilizes many surface mount and low profile components so that when insulating for sub ambient cooling it is easy and doesn’t require hand yoga to figure out how to insulate around tall barrel caps.
Delid Die Guard
One very unique feature of the Xpower is the Die Guard which allows de-lidding of the CPU for Direct Die cooling and it includes a bracket to allow mounting of the CPU with pressure to ensure good pin contact while ensuring that you do not damage the CPU in the process.
It is worth noting and I feel an obligation to notate the fact that de-lidding the CPU definitely voids any and all warranties for your chip so this is for the die hard no warranties concerned extreme overclockers.
Water Cooling Heatsink
MSI ensured as I mentioned above that VRM/Chipset temps are kept cool as they included the ability to liquid cool the power/ PLX chipset which means regardless of airflow conditions it should be no issue.
MSI’s V-check point feature has always been very popular as it allows direct access to voltage readings directly form the board via a DMM, and the connector leads have a small bump in the connection which means your DMM leads snap in snug so you don’t have to hold them in place so you can bench while keeping real time monitoring data active during a session.
OC Fan Stand
MSI has introduced a newer feature for the Xpower and a interesting one to say the least. For those users looking to bench this board hard there are bound to be the need for mounting fans in various places and many times this results in hanging fans from a threaded rod for the LN2 pot like I have been known to do on many occasions.
The new OC Fan Stand actually makes a hard mount from the board mounting points to which a fan can be added as you can see in the pic a Sharkoon fan bearing MSI color scheme is shown and even came included with our press sample board. but any fan can be mounted here to allow airflow which can avoid settling of moisture and even frost over critical areas.
SATA Express / M.2
MSI Decided much like we saw on the Gaming 9 board to employ the M.2 slot and offer an adapter which should be available in the future to adapt the M.2 to a SATA Express port should you decide to go that route. This does allow the SATA ports to be less awkward compared to some boards with jumbled ports due to the SATA Express header being installed. This is more of a personal preference thing as I think this was a good idea as the likelihood of a user adopting both a M.2 Drive and a SATA Express drive is not extremely likely, but if you do then you may want to look to another solution.
MSI really put some time into selecting software and optimizing it for optimum overclocking performance.
MSI Command Center - The Command Center software from MSI is the full featured GUI based overclocking and monitoring tool designed to allow full control and flexibility of your experience with the board but obviously when edge overclocking most are gonna opt for the Command Center Lite version due to its low resource loading.
MSI Command Center Lite – MSI has its always popular command center but with the command center lite you get a tool that is very low resource usage and fast loading to allow adjustments from within the OS without the resource usage or even installation you normally have with the normal control utilities. This is excellently useful for those who are benching at the edge of stability and need to make a quick adjustment without crashing.
MSI RAMDisk - MSI integrated a RAMDisk software within its software suite which allows for using excess RAM as a super high speed storage volume. This is great in itself as some RAMDisk software can cost upwards of $30+ and may not have the same feature set. One thing we do like is that there are specific check boxes for enabling the RAMDisk to handle the Pagefile or browser cache files which means everything will actually load a lot more quickly. Also there is no size limit on this software so if you have a 32GB kit of memory in your system you can easily use a large chunk of that to make a storage system which can transfer at speeds up to 10GB/s. The RAMDisk will dump and image file to disk when shutting down and load it when starting up so you want to expect some delays during startup and shutdown to save or load the image especially if using a much larger RAMDisk.
Enthusiasts Optimized Slot Configuration
MSI wants users and benchmarkers alike to have the performance they are after and everyone knows the story where the PLX bridge causes some latency. So if you are benching or even just running a single card rig then the 2nd physical slot has full native PCIe lanes ready to roll without going thru the PLX bridge chip however should users want to run up to 4 Way SLI or Crossfire this board is ready as the PLX bridge works as a multiplexer to give more available lanes/bandwidth for the multi GPU configs.
Even though this is an OC board MSI knows that just like previous versions many will use it for gaming builds so they employed some of their Audio boost magic with the ALC1150 at the helm which is the base starting point for many gaming boards we have seen recently. This is a strong start and with high end audio caps and dual AMPs for both rear and front panel audio boosting you can expect a top quality experience no matter how you connect.
We have seen this before from MSI with the “Gaming” ports which are special ports which are tuned for using high sensitivity or quick response mouse technologies as many mice now can adjust the polling rate but the effect could be lessened depending on your port configuration. With the MSI gaming ports they are tuned for this along with having higher gold content in the contacts for these ports which allows for more reliable and consistent signal transfer.
MSI Click 4 BIOS
MSI has revised their UEFI to add even more options along with increasing the smoothness of it as well for a better end user experience. We have included a few screenshots of it especially the new features below in the BIOS section.
Here you can see the new BIOS looks very nice, and the yellow theme actually plays quite well. The settings are all easy to locate within main and sub menus. the Fan control allows for full fan ramping control based from temperature references or even manual fan controls. Also the board explorer feature is really nice as it allows you to see not just what is populated on the board but even device ID’s for what is installed as you see the DIMM information including exact model number here.
Even More Features
The MSI Gaming board is exploding with features such as.
- CPU OCP: MSI has enabled a Overcurrent Protection feature into the Xpower so that if it senses a short it will cut power and allow other devices to hopefully avoid damage and with all luck it will be isolated to the affected component only.
- OC Pen Drive: This one is kind of odd to me but being a overclocker I always use pen drives for all bench screenshots so it kinda makes sense but MSI included a pen drive from Team group and you can load pretty much anything on it but I imagine it will get relegated to bench OS loads or even bench screenshots… maybe thats just how I would use it.
- Go2BIOS Button: This button is a direct link to entering BIOS which means you don’t have to spam Delete as this button will get you there with a single press.
- Intel Ethernet: MSI chose to stick to old reliable way of a Intel Gigabit network which is in no way a bad choice as it has native support from most OS and is flat out a solid controller through and through.