MSI is no stranger to gaming-centric products, more specifically gaming motherboards and graphics cards. They’ve also got a solid line-up of overclocking SKUs that pack in virtually all possible features under the sun, and they’re so impressive that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the GAMING series is living in the shadow of MSI’s overclocking boards.
Nothing could be further from the truth and in fact, MSI’s most two most impressive motherboards recently have been gaming focused – specifically the GODLIKE motherboard and the XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM, which we may cover at a later stage. MSI is literally taking many of the features from their overclocking series and putting them on their gaming boards. In so doing, they’ve improved with each generation not only the component selection but the user experience as well.
It’s one of the most exciting line-ups of motherboards on the market and where progress is concerned no other vendor is making the kinds of strides that MSI is making in their gaming products. The GAMING M7 isn’t any different as it brings with it the tried and tested formula of including a gaming-grade audio solution and network controller chip. These are the pillars by which most gaming motherboards are measured, and as you would expect MSI has gone through great efforts to deliver premium components for these.
Starting with the audio, we have Audio Boost 3, which if you’ve not guessed is a combination of the Realtek ALC1150 Codec, high-quality audio capacitors, PCB audio signal isolation and of course headphone amplifiers. Regarding the headphone amplifiers, MSI has fitted three of these to the motherboard: two for the rear outputs and a single one for the front audio connector. Dual rear headphone amplifiers seems great at face value, but is perhaps a redundant feature as the use cases for two high-impedance headsets plugged into the same computer are virtually non-existent. Moreover, it isn’t as if two separate audio streams may be passed through each output. So in essence, you’re not only unlikely to use the second output, but even if you did use it, it would serve little to no purpose at all. The front audio amplifier is of some use though. It negates having to reach for the back of your PC just to use your headphones.
MSI has forgone the Sound Blaster audio and in its stead adopted Nahimic sound technology and software. The key features for this audio suite are its ability to render virtual surround on two speakers or a set of headphones, audio levelling which boosts low sounds and brings down ones that are too loud, and finally there’s bass boost which is self-explanatory. How necessary these features are and what they add to the gaming experience will come down to personal preference. Suffice to say that it’s a welcome change from the previous audio software which had long overstayed its welcome.
Next is the gaming NIC with the Killer Ethernet E2400 chip at its core. The claims regarding what this controller does have not changed, but MSI has added a feature called LAN Protect. It’s a 15KV anti-surge protection mechanism which guards against lightning and static damage, similar to what ASUS has on their more recent gaming motherboards.
Concerning performance, there really isn’t going to be a large difference between most Z170 motherboards. The variations in efficiency are not perceivable while gaming, but do lend themselves to synthetic performance differences. For enthusiasts and those focused on overclocking, these differences matter and in that regard the GAMING M7 is an interesting mix. It’s measurably faster than the ASRock Fatal1ty Z170 Gaming K6 (which I reviewed here) even if you do no tweaking and simply operate each board as is out the box.
These differences are not perceivable when running games at 1080p with the bells and whistles turned off, but since we are isolating the motherboard differences in our settings, the MSI board pulled ahead at every turn and that should bode well for those who may not necessarily have high-end GPUs or are limited to 1080p and lower resolutions. However, performance is mixed in the synthetic results, and the M7 is sometimes consistently slower than the Gaming K6. Having said that, those tests only concern overclockers and have no merit when it comes to gaming performance.
Speaking of overclocking (particularly where CPU overclocking is concerned), there isn’t any difference between the motherboards. As this board isn’t meant for competitive overclocking, there are some voltage tuning options that are missing for extreme overclocking. For most users these omissions will have no effect whatsoever, but for those that are serious about extracting maximum performance from their systems you may want to invest in the XPOWER instead as that one has all the options you need.
When it comes to memory, XMP is always tricky with new motherboards as more often than not it just doesn’t work. Fortunately for MSI, they seem to be on the money and all high-speed 3,200 and even 3,400MHz kits we tried worked flawlessly. Just as the documentation states, 3,600MHz is your realistic limit and this is exactly where one of our high-performance Hynix-IC based kits hit a brick wall. Anything past 3,600MHz would not POST regardless of the tuning settings. Still, we can’t help but be pleased with this as most users will simply resort to XMP and built-in overclocking profiles to get started. Those work as expected and MSI has done a great job simplifying the entire process.
One issue that has yet to be resolved unfortunately is the BSOD which occurs when you disable MSI’s Dragon logo within the UEFI. You won’t be able to boot into Windows 10 specifically it seems, regardless of what other settings you choose within the UEFI. This is most certainly a firmware/BIOS bug and hopefully one that is ironed out sooner rather than later. It’s not a major issue, but should you purchase this board and find that you are experiencing OS boot issues, simply enable the boot logo and the system will function as expected.
Overall, the GAMING M7 ticks the right boxes for a gaming motherboard and looks good for the most part. It doesn’t introduce anything that is a game changer, but that’s fine given that it isn’t the flagship product of the family. We appreciate the dual M.2 drive support and the above average memory support as well. Price-wise it could be a little cheaper as the competing ASUS Maximus series is cheaper across the range (barring the Extreme). With a price adjustment this motherboard would certainly score much higher, as it really is a solid motherboard that’s only betrayed by the slightly inflated retail price.