Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/7244/msi-z87i-review-miniitx-haswell-for-140
MSI Z87I Review: Mini-ITX Haswell for $140by Ian Cutress on August 27, 2013 10:15 AM EST
I am always excited when a mini-ITX motherboard bound for the mainstream market crosses my desk. In a small PCB, compared to full sized ATX, it can be difficult to have a feature filled product that stands up to scrutiny. Today we have the Z87I under the hammer, MSI’s small solution to Z87 Haswell.
MSI Z87I Overview
After recently reviewing MSI’s Z87 heavyweight, the MSI Z87 XPower, moving to something smaller means I want to see how much of that big product can be retained down the stack. The MSI Z87I comes in at $140, and there are some noticeable differences (apart from the size) compared to the bigger brothers.
Nonetheless, the MSI Z87 is geared up for Ethernet network connectivity, with two Realtek NICs. We do have WiFi onboard, although this is the 802.11n 2.4 GHz Centrino N-2230 solution we saw on the XPower – not the 5 GHz dual band option I would prefer in all WiFi enabled motherboards. This amount of extra network controllers is due to the Flex IO allocation – as the board only has four SATA 6 Gbps and six USB 3.0 from the chipset, this gives the other 8 Flex IO lanes all the PCIe 2.0 for these controllers. Video outputs come via a HDMI, DisplayPort and combination DVI-I, and the board also sports the Realtek ALC892 audio codec.
Being a mini-ITX motherboard, our auto overclock options are limited. On almost all mainstream MSI Z87 motherboards we get an OC Genie button giving a one press overclock – this functionality is relegated to BIOS and software with the Z87I, giving only one option to 4.0 GHz. The BIOS is better than the Z77 brethren, offering a better visual representation of fan speeds (which still need a better upgrade, but is a step in the right direction) and a hardware monitor to detect when hardware is not recognized in the motherboard. There is still room to improve the BIOS, especially in how the overclocking options are organized, although word from MSI is that this will be changed in due course. With the motherboard I reached a 4.6 GHz overclock manually, although the BIOS limited the CPU voltage to 1.3 volts.
Software is a little different, with Command Center offering voltages up to 2.1 volts (not a good idea) but features like the RAMDisk are a bonus. Live Update 5 works well at updating the system software and drivers, although in our testing it had trouble updating itself, causing me to recommend users get the latest version from the website.
In terms of results, the Z87I performance is a little strange - despite having MultiCore Turbo enabled by default it does perform worse than expected on a number of computational benchmarks. The one flaw that stood out of the testing was my 2D explicit grid solver test, where the MSI strangely scores 15% less than the rest of our Z87 testing. Discrete GPU and USB testing are on par with other Z87 motherboards without boosting features, and POST times under Windows 7 with a discrete GPU were great, scoring under 9.2 seconds.
The MSI Z87I offers a nice motherboard for users needing multi-LAN functionality, and Live Update 5 will keep it up to date. The decision to go with the N-2230 is one that baffles me to no end, and I hope that MSI offer a dual band SKU by default, or even an 802.11ac SKU.
As with almost all mini-ITX motherboards the main concern comes at the socket placement, and here MSI have placed the socket up against the DRAM slots but almost 1cm away from the PCIe slot. This might be a nudge towards the MSI Lightning range of GPUs which have a bulkier rear plate than most. The small VRM heatsink is to the left of the socket and did not get in the way of any of my coolers, though the close proximity to the DRAM slots made my TRUE Copper heatsink clash with the Corsair Vengeance Pro memory.
The socket area has access to two fan headers – one four-pin CPU header above the socket between the chipset and WiFi module, and a four-pin SYS fan to the left of the chipset. Ideally on a motherboard this size I would prefer three fan headers where possible, although it is not necessarily a deal breaker.
The CPU 4-pin power connector is in a slightly better place than what we saw in the last mini-ITX motherboard review – here we get it just above the power delivery heatsink. My main argument on the 4-pin power connector is that wherever it is, a cable has to reach it, and I would prefer if this cable did not have to go across all of the motherboard components. With this location on the Z87I, it seems best to come at it from the direction of the SATA ports if from above is not possible.
Moving clockwise around the motherboard and we get a USB 2.0 header above the front panel header. This is an odd location for a front panel header, also confusing due to the lack of on-board lettering telling users which pins are which. The SATA 6 Gbps ports are at the top of the motherboard next to the USB 3.0 header, both preferred places for these ports. Between the chipset and the WiFi module we also have a COM header. The DRAM slots use single sided latches, which are my preferred option when large GPUs may be in use.
On the rear IO panel we get a combination PS/2 port, two USB 2.0 ports, a Clear CMOS button, a Go2BIOS button, HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI-I, two antenna ports, dual Realtek NICs, four USB 3.0 ports and audio jacks.
Board Features: MSI Z87I
Two DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 16 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1066-3000 MHz
Dual Realtek 8111E
Centrino N-2230 802.11 b/g/n 2.4 GHz
|Onboard Audio||Realtek ALC892|
1 x PCIe 3.0 x16
1 x mPCIe 2.0 (for WiFi)
|Onboard SATA/RAID||4 x SATA 6 Gbps (Chipset), RAID 0, 1, 5, 10|
6 x USB 3.0 (Chipset) [4 back panel, 1 header]
4 x USB 2.0 (Chipset) [2 back panel, 1 header]
x+y+z = 18
4 x SATA 6 Gbps
1 x USB 3.0 Header
1 x USB 2.0 Header
2 x Fan Headers
1 x Clear_CMOS jumper
1 x Serial Header
1 x 24-pin ATX Power Connector
1 x 4-pin CPU Power Connector
1 x CPU (4-pin)
1 x SYS (4-pin)
1 x PS/2 Combination Port
1 x Clear_CMOS Button
1 x Go2BIOS Button
2 x Antenna Mounts
4 x USB 3.0
2 x Realtek NICs
|Warranty Period||3 Years|
The decision to use Centrino N-2230 is a big glaring amber light on this motherboard, as any preferred dual band solution, even for an extra $5, would be preferred. Due to the size of the motherboard I was not expecting any additional controllers, but I am glad to see a DVI-I port rather than a standard DVI-D and disregard the VGA entirely.
The big selling point for this motherboard will be the multi-network functionality, though in order to get group discounts from Realtek MSI has used standard ALC892 audio solution which performed average in our audio tests. If MSI were aiming more at a HTPC or gaming market, we might have seen an ALC898, as I suspect the ALC892 saves a few cents off the overall cost.
MSI Z87I BIOS
As this is our third MSI 8-series motherboard reviewed, we get a third crack that the MSI Click BIOS 4. Whereas previously we had seen the gaming editions run a red dragon color scheme and the overclocking motherboards run yellow, when it comes to the ‘classic’ range we get a wide eyed blue. Nevertheless, the functionality is pretty much the same as the other motherboards. The only significant deviation I was able to find was that the Z87I had an upper limit when it came to CPU voltages – 1.3 volts on the i7-4770K. This is actually a good idea on a mini-ITX board, although for users wishing to push boundaries it would be nice to have an ‘advanced OC’ switch to increase this value even more. Users who feel adventurous can up the CPU voltage using OS software even further.
Nevertheless, as a functional BIOS the Z87I does have some merits which we alluded to in our previous MSI BIOS rundowns:
Like the Z77 BIOSes from MSI, the main selling point is the ribbon of information along the top – we get details of the motherboard being used, BIOS version, CPU installed, current speed, memory size and also memory speed. Ultimately all we are lacking is CPU voltages and fan speeds, but there is also perhaps another issue – this ribbon is quite big. Keeping it this size and keeping it a consistent part of the display means that everything else is squashed and it becomes an effort to fit everything in. A few manufacturers that are going down this route are keeping the ribbon small enough to make sure that the actual ‘options’ area of the BIOS have plenty of space.
Aside from the ribbon we have a standard MSI layout of six buttons around the edge and the main options in the middle. For Z87 the options have changed slightly, with the main two additions being Hardware Monitor and Board Explorer. Hardware Monitor is actually an awesome way to organize your fan controls from the BIOS:
While the level of control is quite small (a two point gradient, no hysteresis, BIOS engineers confusing power applied to the fans as directly proportional with the actual RPM), the execution of visually showing the fan controls is one of the best we have seen. By moving the sliders in the ‘fan control’ section around the graph changes to show what is actually happening. Aside from the power-to-RPM issue (which should be inexcusable in 2013), what we need here is more control – more points in the gradient to deal with, as well as hysteresis and manual control over the points on the graph. Then perhaps MSI would be onto on overall fan control success.
The second new feature of the BIOS is Board Explorer, which mimics features we originally came across in other manufacturer BIOSes:
Here is a visual representation of the motherboard, and everything on board which has something plugged in comes up blue. My moving the mouse over an area we get an explanation of the hardware plugged in with the hardware string assigned by the manufacturer. Moving to the SATA ports or IO panel and clicking brings up an additional visual showing which ports are in use:
I am glad this is a feature becoming standard. It ultimately helped when I received the ES version of this motherboard into the office and one of the PCIe did not work – I was able to diagnose this issue through Board Explorer. If hardware is not seen here, then it was not recognized by the motherboard at POST time.
For the rest of the BIOS, we have typical MSI fare. Most of the regular options available to the user are in Settings, including SATA configuration and turning on/off controllers:
A nice positive is the Boot Override, also slowly becoming standard across all manufacturers allowing a one type boot from a secondary device.
As on the previous MSI Z77, our OC options are almost a complete jumble, although I am told that the BIOS engineers are working on a more sophisticated layout:
There is some sort of order, but it would be ideal to actually have headings like the Integrated Peripherals menu in standard Settings, such that CPU overclocking features are separate from the DRAM options and then voltage options inserted into the appropriate places. As it stands the MSI BIOS looks like a higgledy-piggledy jumble to a new overclocker. One of the positives on the Z87 generation at least is the addition of the information panel on the right hand side, allowing users to see a small amount of information on each option. Ideally this side panel should also show the min, max, interval and ‘suggested value’ for each option to assist overclockers, but that may appear in another update. It should also be pointed out that for some of the options, there is almost no guidance – it merely repeats the option listed or says ‘Adjust X’, which is not particularly helpful to anyone but the BIOS engineer.
One additional option that MSI should consider is a greater range of automatic overclocking options so users can select between 4.0 and 4.5 GHz in 100 MHz jumps with just an option selection in the BIOS. This would aid users in finding out how to overclock the CPU a bit more, and can work side by side with OC Genie.
MSI Z87I Software
MSI’s software package for Z87 is a mixture of old and new, and we do not get many different options between model segmentations (channel, gaming, OC), meaning that our software explanations are identical to that of our previous MSI Z87 motherboard reviews.
From our testing, the stalwart of the package, Live Update 5, is still present in all its glory. So far in terms of auto-update packages, MSI’s was the first to reach an echelon worthy of an update package that informs the user and applies the updates. Other manufacturers are now getting into the groove, but MSI have that initial advantage.
In terms of the new, Command Center gets a fresh update. The new Command Center is a visual uplift from the old version, giving the user more control and a better experience in order to adjust the system – this includes a better visual of the fan controls as well.
However we start at the installation disk and not much has changed. The interface has two main options at the top (Driver, Utility) which expand into several options below and a ‘Total Installer’ button. This button opens up a menu whereby the user can select/deselect options (such as Norton Antivirus) to install. I am beginning to get to a position where the Driver CD on loading should be showing information about the current setup as detected, such as CPU/motherboard numbers. This way we can verify the hardware we are dealing with without loading additional programs or opening up the case. Perhaps this is something easily implementable to think about for the future.
One of the first things that the user might notice on the initial installation is the MSI theme that gets applied when everything is installed. I am of the opinion that this is a good positive move for motherboard companies, as long as the pictures are tasteful and fit. I know a good number of users will customize an OS setup regardless, but it does provide a sense of ownership for those that leave it in the background.
First in MSI’s lineup is EasyViewer, a replacement of Windows Photo Viewer with a few extra commands for resizing and slideshows. Personally I use FastStone Image Viewer for my image previews (and one of our benchmark tests) as it does almost the same thing with a lot more options.
MSI Live Update 5
The big plus in the MSI package is from Live Update 5 (LU5). With LU5 the system will connect to the internet, detect the current platform, get a list of available software on the MSI servers, and then compare this to the software it can detect on the system. If there is a discrepancy in the version, it offers a download. Alongside the software available, the system also checks BIOS versions against the latest available on the servers. The only issue for me is that the program does not tell you the size of the download until you are actually downloading it, which could be an issue for limited bandwidth users if they end up downloading 200 MB of audio drivers rather than 5 MB of other software.
I did have one issue with Live Update 5 on this motherboard – for whatever reason, Live Update does not like to update itself. It will try, fail, and then you are left without Live Update installed – I suggest getting the latest version from the website initially, then the rest of the updates (including new ones for each motherboard) will be offered.
Realtek Network Genie
Unlike the Killer NICs used on the high end MSI motherboards, MSI has a Realtek NIC on the Z87I. Realtek provide network management software as part of the IC, which MSI have skinned in their color scheme and logo. This software, like others, allows users to prioritize network traffic from specified applications over others, or rely on the software modes: Game, Stream, Browser or Auto.
MSI Video Genie
The Video Genie software is a software tool designed by MSI to adjust the monitor settings on the fly for various on-screen visuals. Thus in a dark scene on a film it will attempt to provide more focus by making the screen contrast higher, or as shown below will attempt to adjust the screen for a more ‘lively’ feel. This type of feature is arguably a software replacement for some of the more hardware based solutions.
MSI Fast Boot
With motherboards now allowing for hardware enhancements to improve POST time to Windows 8, it can be difficult for users to get into the BIOS if the system bypasses the ‘Press F2 to enter BIOS’. For overclockers the solution is easy with ‘Go2BIOS’ buttons now being implemented on MSI motherboards. However if the system is in a case, there has to be a software solution, and MSI provide Fast Boot for this, with a Go2BIOS option.
Sound Blaster Cinema and Realtek Audio Manager
Even though the Z87I uses Realtek ALC892 audio codec, MSI have invested in Sound Blaster Cinema software in order to enhance the audio experience. This works in conjunction with Realtek’s own audio software in terms of presets and EQ. For our audio tests however, SBC had to be turned off in order to get a result.
MSI Command Center
The last piece of the MSI software stack is our upgraded version of Command Center. Previous iterations were fairly complex with lots of information in a large interface (a bit like XTU) but visually did not disrupt the user experience. The new version of CC is of a similar ilk, however the settings are divided up to be easier to handle. For example, here is the first screen giving simple overclock and fan control options:
MSI have tried to split up the various sections of CPU/DRAM/GPU into menus, however users can navigate left and right – this puts CC in the firing line for an upgraded smartphone app in the future. With CC users can adjust fan controls, overclocks and voltages. Rather alarmingly Control Center allows users to apply 2.1 volts to their CPU immediately:
This is a large oversight. It would have been better for MSI to have an easy/advanced mode, where the advanced mode would allow voltages only extreme overclockers on sub-zero cooling would use.
A new element to CC is the addition of RAMDisk software, similar to ASRock’s XFast RAM:
If a user has a large pool of memory to use, any amount could be used to open up a RAM Disk and use it as a cache for some of the more readily used programs, such as web browsers, temp files or even page files.
Also available through CC is OC Genie, monitoring tools and an alert tool in case various values fall outside safe limits.
In order to group all the MSI apps together, we have MSI Suite – a drop down menu on the top of the desktop. It offers icons for all the MSI utilities, as well as options to add custom utilities. It offers notifications when updates are available. While I see no use for it personally (I would prefer instantaneous movements rather than animations), it does have potential to clear some desktop clutter.
MSI Z87I In The Box
Motherboard packages have two ways to approach how the box is packed – the method used by most is cost down, such that we have minimal extras in the box in order to keep costs low; after all, in the case of mini-ITX, a SFF motherboard is typically a cheap one. The other method is to go all in on extras – SATA cables, USB 3.0 brackets, eSATA brackets, SLI bridges, special posters/stickers/extra bumpf that makes the package something special to the user. Mini-ITX motherboards, especially ones using overclocking chipsets, can go both ways – it all depends if the motherboard has upgraded audio/network/WiFi and so on. If this is the case, we typically see an ‘all-in’ type of product. As the MSI Z87I is not a Gaming/OC motherboard like the high end part of MSI’s range, we get the following:
Rear IO Shield
Two SATA Cables
The WiFi antennas is a culmination of bad for the Z87I – by only having the N-2230 2.4 GHz solution, short unmovable antennas mean that ideally you need the router in the same room as the PC in order to get good reception in a busy apartment block.
MSI Z87I Overclocking
Experience with MSI Z87I
Mini-ITX motherboards are always a mixed bag when it comes to overclocking. While the Z87I uses an overclocking based chipset from Intel, the form factor is not necessarily conducive to large coolers, or for some mini-ITX products the power delivery might be basic at best. Typically on MSI motherboards we see the OC Genie button for a one-touch quick overclock, but due to the stature of the Z87I, we do not have one here – it has to be enabled via the BIOS. Nonetheless, we persevered with overclocking, and surprisingly the motherboard limits CPUs to 1.3 volts. This is necessarily a good thing, because at this voltage is when Haswell CPUs tend to start increasing in temperature fairly rapidly.
What is missing from MSI motherboards however are a range of automatic overclocks. The sole option, 4 GHz, relates to a very mild OC when paired with the 4770K. Ideally we need several options to moisten the appetite and help users understand how to overclock the platform.
Nonetheless, we hit 4.6 GHz with our CPU sample very easily, restricted only by the voltage limitations.
Our standard overclocking methodology is as follows. We select the automatic overclock options and test for stability with PovRay and OCCT to simulate high-end workloads. These stability tests aim to catch any immediate causes for memory or CPU errors.
For manual overclocks, based on the information gathered from previous testing, starts off at a nominal voltage and CPU multiplier, and the multiplier is increased until the stability tests are failed. The CPU voltage is increased gradually until the stability tests are passed, and the process repeated until the motherboard reduces the multiplier automatically (due to safety protocol) or the CPU temperature reaches a stupidly high level (100ºC+). Our test bed is not in a case, which should push overclocks higher with fresher (cooler) air.
The sole automatic overclock option can be found in the BIOS or in the Command Center software – OC Genie. This option gives a 40x100 overclock (4 GHz) at all times, with a CPU reading of 1.096 volts at load, 1596.01 score in PovRay, and a peak OCCT temperature of 65C. The OC Genie option also enabled XMP for the memory kit used.
Using the options in the BIOS, our overclock starts at 1.000 volts and 40x100. If a stability test fails, the CPU voltage is raised by 0.025 volts, whereas if a stability test passes, the CPU multiplier is raised.
Here are our results:
Many thanks to...
We must thank the following companies for kindly providing hardware for our test bed:
Thank you to OCZ for providing us with 1250W Gold Power Supplies.
Thank you to G.Skill for providing us with memory kits.
Thank you to Corsair for providing us with an AX1200i PSU, Corsair H80i CLC and 16GB 2400C10 memory.
Thank you to ASUS for providing us with the AMD GPUs and some IO Testing kit.
Thank you to ECS for providing us with the NVIDIA GPUs.
Thank you to Rosewill for providing us with the BlackHawk Ultra, and 1600W Hercules PSU for extreme dual CPU + quad GPU testing, and RK-9100 keyboards.
Thank you to ASRock for providing us with the 802.11ac wireless router for testing.
Intel Core i7-4770K Retail
4 Cores, 8 Threads, 3.5 GHz (3.9 GHz Turbo)
ASRock Z87 Extreme6/AC
ASRock Z87 OC Formula/AC
ASRock Z87M OC Formula
MSI Z87-GD65 Gaming
MSI Z87 XPower
Thermaltake TRUE Copper
OCZ 1250W Gold ZX Series
Corsair AX1200i Platinum PSU
GSkill TridentX 4x4 GB DDR3-2400 10-12-12 Kit
Corsair Vengeance Pro 2x8 GB DDR3 2400 10-12-12 Kit
|Memory Settings||XMP (2400 10-12-12)|
ASUS HD7970 3GB
ECS GTX 580 1536MB
NVIDIA Drivers 310.90 WHQL
|Hard Drive||OCZ Vertex 3 256GB|
|Optical Drive||LG GH22NS50|
|Case||Open Test Bed|
|Operating System||Windows 7 64-bit|
|USB 2/3 Testing||OCZ Vertex 3 240GB with SATA->USB Adaptor|
|WiFi Testing||D-Link DIR-865L 802.11ac Dual Band Router|
Power consumption was tested on the system as a whole with a wall meter connected to the OCZ 1250W power supply, while in a dual 7970 GPU configuration. This power supply is Gold rated, and as I am in the UK on a 230-240 V supply, leads to ~75% efficiency > 50W, and 90%+ efficiency at 250W, which is suitable for both idle and multi-GPU loading. This method of power reading allows us to compare the power management of the UEFI and the board to supply components with power under load, and includes typical PSU losses due to efficiency. These are the real world values that consumers may expect from a typical system (minus the monitor) using this motherboard.
While this method for power measurement may not be ideal, and you feel these numbers are not representative due to the high wattage power supply being used (we use the same PSU to remain consistent over a series of reviews, and the fact that some boards on our test bed get tested with three or four high powered GPUs), the important point to take away is the relationship between the numbers. These boards are all under the same conditions, and thus the differences between them should be easy to spot.
While at the low end of our PSU efficiency, the readings for the Z87I at long idle are higher than expected compared to full sized ATX motherboards. At normal idle however, the MSI is efficient – similarly during CPU loading. As the Z87I is a mini-ITX motherboard, we can only test with one GPU installed, explaning the difference in results for a gaming load.
Windows 7 POST Time
Different motherboards have different POST sequences before an operating system is initialized. A lot of this is dependent on the board itself, and POST boot time is determined by the controllers on board (and the sequence of how those extras are organized). As part of our testing, we are now going to look at the POST Boot Time - this is the time from pressing the ON button on the computer to when Windows 7 starts loading. (We discount Windows loading as it is highly variable given Windows specific features.) These results are subject to human error, so please allow +/- 1 second in these results.
I am glad to see another motherboard POST less than 10 seconds in our test, although mini-ITX motherboards have the advantage in this test by only dealing with one discrete GPU compared to two used in other motherboards).
Rightmark Audio Analyzer 6.2.5
In part due to reader requests, we are pleased to include Rightmark Audio Analyzer results in our benchmark suite. The premise behind Rightmark:AA is to test the input and output of the audio system to determine noise levels, range, harmonic distortion, stereo crosstalk and so forth. Rightmark:AA should indicate how well the sound system is built and isolated from electrical interference (either internally or externally). For this test we connect the Line Out to the Line In using a short six inch 3.5mm to 3.5mm high-quality jack, turn the OS speaker volume to 100%, and run the Rightmark default test suite at 192 kHz, 24-bit. The OS is tuned to 192 kHz/24-bit input and output, and the Line-In volume is adjusted until we have the best RMAA value in the mini-pretest. We look specifically at the Dynamic Range of the audio codec used on board, as well as the Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise.
In terms of dynamic range, the ALC892 leaves a lot to be desired compared to the ALC898 and ALC1150.
For this benchmark, we run CrystalDiskMark to determine the ideal sequential read and write speeds for the USB port using our 240 GB OCZ Vertex3 SSD with a SATA 6 Gbps to USB 3.0 converter. Then we transfer a set size of files from the SSD to the USB drive using DiskBench, which monitors the time taken to transfer. The files transferred are a 1.52 GB set of 2867 files across 320 folders – 95% of these files are small typical website files, and the rest (90% of the size) are the videos used in the WinRAR test. In an update to pre-Z87 testing, we also run MaxCPU to load up one of the threads during the test which improves general performance up to 15% by causing all the internal pathways to run at full speed.
Nothing particularly special about USB speeds, in line with other Z87 MSI motherboards tested in the past.
Deferred Procedure Call latency is a way in which Windows handles interrupt servicing. In order to wait for a processor to acknowledge the request, the system will queue all interrupt requests by priority. Critical interrupts will be handled as soon as possible, whereas lesser priority requests, such as audio, will be further down the line. So if the audio device requires data, it will have to wait until the request is processed before the buffer is filled. If the device drivers of higher priority components in a system are poorly implemented, this can cause delays in request scheduling and process time, resulting in an empty audio buffer – this leads to characteristic audible pauses, pops and clicks. Having a bigger buffer and correctly implemented system drivers obviously helps in this regard. The DPC latency checker measures how much time is processing DPCs from driver invocation – the lower the value will result in better audio transfer at smaller buffer sizes. Results are measured in microseconds and taken as the peak latency while cycling through a series of short HD videos - under 500 microseconds usually gets the green light, but the lower the better.
Peak DPC latency for Z87 platforms continues to poll over 145 microseconds, suggesting that is still a generational issue. If you want lower, then something other than Z87 might suffice.
Readers of our motherboard review section will have noted the trend in modern motherboards to implement a form of MultiCore Enhancement / Acceleration / Turbo (read our report here) on their motherboards. This does several things – better benchmark results at stock settings (not entirely needed if overclocking is an end-user goal), at the expense of heat and temperature, but also gives in essence an automatic overclock which may be against what the user wants. Our testing methodology is ‘out-of-the-box’, with the latest public BIOS installed and XMP enabled, and thus subject to the whims of this feature. It is ultimately up to the motherboard manufacturer to take this risk – and manufacturers taking risks in the setup is something they do on every product (think C-state settings, USB priority, DPC Latency / monitoring priority, memory subtimings at JEDEC). Processor speed change is part of that risk which is clearly visible, and ultimately if no overclocking is planned, some motherboards will affect how fast that shiny new processor goes and can be an important factor in the purchase. Processors which were tested on MultiCore Turbo enabled systems are indicated with a '+' symbol in the graphs.
For reference, the Z87I does have this feature enabled by default, although performance in some benchmarks is not what we would expect in this configuration.
Point Calculations - 3D Movement Algorithm Test
The algorithms in 3DPM employ both uniform random number generation or normal distribution random number generation, and vary in various amounts of trigonometric operations, conditional statements, generation and rejection, fused operations, etc. The benchmark runs through six algorithms for a specified number of particles and steps, and calculates the speed of each algorithm, then sums them all for a final score. This is an example of a real world situation that a computational scientist may find themselves in, rather than a pure synthetic benchmark. The benchmark is also parallel between particles simulated, and we test the single thread performance as well as the multi-threaded performance.
The MSI Z87I performs as expected in the single threaded test, however in the multi-threaded test we get a score around 700, rather than the 730+ we normally see with MultiCore Turbo enabled. In fact, despite the system (and CPU-Z) recognizing the full 3.9 GHz implementation, the benchmark performs similar to a non-MCT implementation.
Compression - WinRAR 4.2
With 64-bit WinRAR, we compress the set of files used in the USB speed tests. WinRAR x64 3.93 attempts to use multithreading when possible, and provides as a good test for when a system has variable threaded load. WinRAR 4.2 does this a lot better! If a system has multiple speeds to invoke at different loading, the switching between those speeds will determine how well the system will do.
Despite the 3DPM-MT tests, the MSI Z87I is on par with WinRAR.
Image Manipulation - FastStone Image Viewer 4.2
FastStone Image Viewer is a free piece of software I have been using for quite a few years now. It allows quick viewing of flat images, as well as resizing, changing color depth, adding simple text or simple filters. It also has a bulk image conversion tool, which we use here. The software currently operates only in single-thread mode, which should change in later versions of the software. For this test, we convert a series of 170 files, of various resolutions, dimensions and types (of a total size of 163MB), all to the .gif format of 640x480 dimensions.
Being single threaded, the Z87I performs similarly to other boards for FastStone.
Video Conversion - Xilisoft Video Converter 7
With XVC, users can convert any type of normal video to any compatible format for smartphones, tablets and other devices. By default, it uses all available threads on the system, and in the presence of appropriate graphics cards, can utilize CUDA for NVIDIA GPUs as well as AMD WinAPP for AMD GPUs. For this test, we use a set of 33 HD videos, each lasting 30 seconds, and convert them from 1080p to an iPod H.264 video format using just the CPU. The time taken to convert these videos gives us our result.
The Z87I fits in the middle between the non-MCT result and the other motherboards that have MCT, suggesting a continuance of the MCT issues observed.
Rendering – PovRay 3.7
The Persistence of Vision RayTracer, or PovRay, is a freeware package for as the name suggests, ray tracing. It is a pure renderer, rather than modeling software, but the latest beta version contains a handy benchmark for stressing all processing threads on a platform. We have been using this test in motherboard reviews to test memory stability at various CPU speeds to good effect – if it passes the test, the IMC in the CPU is stable for a given CPU speed. As a CPU test, it runs for approximately 2-3 minutes on high end platforms.
PovRay is particularly good at finding out if a benchmark is always at a constant speed on all tests, and in this case our results on the Z87I match what we saw with XVC – somewhere between the other MCT enabled motherboards and our non-MCT result.
Video Conversion - x264 HD Benchmark
The x264 HD Benchmark uses a common HD encoding tool to process an HD MPEG2 source at 1280x720 at 3963 Kbps. This test represents a standardized result which can be compared across other reviews, and is dependent on both CPU power and memory speed. The benchmark performs a 2-pass encode, and the results shown are the average of each pass performed four times.
The x264 results propagate the XVC and PovRay results, showing a performance better than true stock but lower than true MCT.
Grid Solvers - Explicit Finite Difference
For any grid of regular nodes, the simplest way to calculate the next time step is to use the values of those around it. This makes for easy mathematics and parallel simulation, as each node calculated is only dependent on the previous time step, not the nodes around it on the current calculated time step. By choosing a regular grid, we reduce the levels of memory access required for irregular grids. We test both 2D and 3D explicit finite difference simulations with 2n nodes in each dimension, using OpenMP as the threading operator in single precision. The grid is isotropic and the boundary conditions are sinks. Values are floating point, with memory cache sizes and speeds playing a part in the overall score.
The biggest variance in results comes from our 2D explicit solver result, where the Z87I scores 1122 Mnps compared to 1300+ from MCT enabled motherboards. This result was consistent across reboots and other memory configurations, suggesting a fundamental issue. Though this should not cause a scare for owners of this board – this is the only benchmark I found to produce this result, and thus seems like an edge case. In the 3D variant we are still down, by 8% this time, rather than the 15% observed in 2D.
Grid Solvers - Implicit Finite Difference + Alternating Direction Implicit Method
The implicit method takes a different approach to the explicit method – instead of considering one unknown in the new time step to be calculated from known elements in the previous time step, we consider that an old point can influence several new points by way of simultaneous equations. This adds to the complexity of the simulation – the grid of nodes is solved as a series of rows and columns rather than points, reducing the parallel nature of the simulation by a dimension and drastically increasing the memory requirements of each thread. The upside, as noted above, is the less stringent stability rules related to time steps and grid spacing. For this we simulate a 2D grid of 2n nodes in each dimension, using OpenMP in single precision. Again our grid is isotropic with the boundaries acting as sinks. Values are floating point, with memory cache sizes and speeds playing a part in the overall score.
Nothing particularly bad about the Implicit grid solver result from the Z87I, keeping up with the MCT-enabled group.
Point Calculations - n-Body Simulation
When a series of heavy mass elements are in space, they interact with each other through the force of gravity. Thus when a star cluster forms, the interaction of every large mass with every other large mass defines the speed at which these elements approach each other. When dealing with millions and billions of stars on such a large scale, the movement of each of these stars can be simulated through the physical theorems that describe the interactions. The benchmark detects whether the processor is SSE2 or SSE4 capable, and implements the relative code. We run a simulation of 10240 particles of equal mass - the output for this code is in terms of GFLOPs, and the result recorded was the peak GFLOPs value.
The n-Body result shows that the motherboard is clearly behind the MCT enabled group of motherboards we have already tested, although not too far in this SSE4 enabled benchmark.
Our first analysis is with the perennial reviewers’ favorite, Metro2033. It occurs in a lot of reviews for a couple of reasons – it has a very easy to use benchmark GUI that anyone can use, and it is often very GPU limited, at least in single GPU mode. Metro2033 is a strenuous DX11 benchmark that can challenge most systems that try to run it at any high-end settings. Developed by 4A Games and released in March 2010, we use the inbuilt DirectX 11 Frontline benchmark to test the hardware at 1440p with full graphical settings. Results are given as the average frame rate from a second batch of 4 runs, as Metro has a tendency to inflate the scores for the first batch by up to 5%.
Dirt 3 is a rallying video game and the third in the Dirt series of the Colin McRae Rally series, developed and published by Codemasters. Dirt 3 also falls under the list of ‘games with a handy benchmark mode’. In previous testing, Dirt 3 has always seemed to love cores, memory, GPUs, PCIe lane bandwidth, everything. The small issue with Dirt 3 is that depending on the benchmark mode tested, the benchmark launcher is not indicative of game play per se, citing numbers higher than actually observed. Despite this, the benchmark mode also includes an element of uncertainty, by actually driving a race, rather than a predetermined sequence of events such as Metro 2033. This in essence should make the benchmark more variable, but we take repeated in order to smooth this out. Using the benchmark mode, Dirt 3 is run at 1440p with Ultra graphical settings. Results are reported as the average frame rate across four runs.
A game that has plagued my testing over the past twelve months is Civilization V. Being on the older 12.3 Catalyst drivers were somewhat of a nightmare, giving no scaling, and as a result I dropped it from my test suite after only a couple of reviews. With the later drivers used for this review, the situation has improved but only slightly, as you will see below. Civilization V seems to run into a scaling bottleneck very early on, and any additional GPU allocation only causes worse performance.
Our Civilization V testing uses Ryan’s GPU benchmark test all wrapped up in a neat batch file. We report the average frame rate of a 5 minute test.
While not necessarily a game on everybody’s lips, Sleeping Dogs is a strenuous game with a pretty hardcore benchmark that scales well with additional GPU power due to its SSAA implementation. The team over at Adrenaline.com.br is supreme for making an easy to use benchmark GUI, allowing a numpty like me to charge ahead with a set of four 1440p runs with maximum graphical settings.
Despite the computational discrepancies we have seen on the Z87I, the gaming benchmarks perform well – very few of our benchmarks show much difference when dealing with a single discrete GPU at 1440p. The only ‘low’ result is perhaps Sleeping Dogs using a 7970, although the difference between 27.60 FPS and 28.10 FPS will not be noticeable.
MSI Z87I Conclusion
Making small motherboards is almost becoming an art form – the manufacturers have to ensure that in this small form factor they offer enough functionality to remain competitive, but there is an upper limit to pricing which users will find ‘reasonable’ when deciding to choose which motherboard is worth purchasing. MSI have gone down the network connectivity route with the Z87I, featuring dual Realtek NICs and a 2.4 GHz N-2230 802.11n WiFi solution.
Unfortunately, this is where the main problem starts – having a single band WiFi solution in 2013 is a big no-no, especially when dual band 802.11ac is starting to get into the higher end of the Z87 spectrum. At this point in time I am willing to say ‘Dual Band’ or not at all, as a sole 2.4 GHz solution performs poorly in a modern environment with many APs in the local vicinity. This is partly compounded by MSI’s decision for two antennas ‘fixed’ to the rear IO. Although the user can select the direction, the antenna provided do not allow for movement away from the rear panel, meaning users will have to have good coverage in the home.
The motherboard does come with four SATA 6 Gbps ports and two USB 3.0 ports, and I was pleasantly surprised with the use of single side latch DIMM slots due to the price point of the Z87I. The socket area is close to both the DIMMs and the PCIe, limiting options when it comes to CPU coolers, and the 4-pin CPU power connector is located near the center of the motherboard meaning that cables will have to be stretched over the GPU, DIMMs or SATA ports in order to reach. I applaud motherboard manufacturers that can get around this issue that continues to crop up on the mini-ITX platform.
Performance using a single discrete GPU in 1440p gaming performed in line with other Z87 motherboards we have tested, although there is an issue when it comes to the CPU performance. By default we do get a form of MultiCore Turbo (max CPU Ratio at any loading) reported by the system, but in several benchmarks the performance was actually between a non-MCT and MCT enabled platform. This suggests there is an element of efficiency missing in the platform that MSI will need to address.
Overclocking on the Z87I was better than expected – typically a mini-ITX system can be limit when it comes to CPU overclocking, but our CPU sample hit 4.6 GHz easily, as it has done in other motherboards. The MSI Z87I limits the user to 1.300 volts in the BIOS for the CPU, which is a reasonable boundary for a small system (although the fact that the OS software allows up to 2.1 volts is a large oversight).
Whereas there may be hardware issues, MSI is working on the BIOS and software, featuring a good visual representation of fan controls in the BIOS along with one of the best driver/software update systems in the operating system compared to other manufacturers.
There are several Z87 mini-ITX motherboards available at Newegg, with the MSI Z87I actually being one of the cheapest. While there are some issues to iron out, users who need network connectivity and a tiny platform for mild overclocking have an option in the Z87I.