Motherboard manufacturers ebb and flow when it comes to consistently producing hardware that you know will tick all the boxes. Whether it's XFX, then DFI, ASUS, Gigabyte and, more recently, MSI. They all have their moment in the sun. Lately MSI have been producing a bevy of motherboards that not only hit all the aesthetic marks, but perform well and are priced so competitively that everyone else has to take a long hard look at their pricing. The Z77 saw two monsters with the Gaming series and the MPOWER. The MPOWER was the best performing of all of our Z77s, and the pricing was so good that to buy any other motherboard was pointless.
Things have continued in the same vein with the Z87 range so far. The GD65 Gaming is up there with the very best and exceptional value for money. Can that trick be repeated with the MPOWER MAX? It's the middle child in the MPOWER range this time. There is the basic MPOWER, the MPOWER MAX we have on test today, and then the XPOWER for extreme enthusiasts. That doesn't mean that the MAX is shorn of features though. If anything the extra cost of the MPOWER MAX seems, on paper at least, to be fully justified.
Glancing through the specifications reads like almost any other Z87 motherboard you've seen. Plentiful SATA3 and USB 3.0 ports are backed up by lots of room for memory and PCI Express lanes. So far, so average. As always though there is more than meets the eye in a simple specification table, so let's move on to take a look at the MPOWER MAX and see what else in on offer.
The first thing that strikes you is MSI have continued the yellow and black colour scheme from the first MPOWER. It's a refreshing change from the tedium of black and red, being both eye-catching and different. One of the ironies of customisable PCs is that they've ended up all looking the same anyway. Yes we haven't got beige boxes, but black and red boxes are just as ubiquitous.
The CPU socket area is extremely well designed with plenty of room for whatever cooling solution takes your fancy and beneath that is the 20 phase power to give you stability regardless of whether you're running at 5GHz or just stock.
PCI Express lanes are well spaced. Given that a single card is the most popular choice, and SLI/Crossfire the next best with an enormous drop-off before you reach people with more than two graphics cards, it's important to have plenty of room for the air-cooler on your main GPU to do its thing. We'd rather have two well-spaced options than four cramped ones merely to allow "QUAD SLI!" claims in the advertising.
As always with the mid to high-end MSI boards the MAX comes with the OC Genie and tweaking buttons, allowing you to either get a mild overclock with zero effort, or tweak an already high-end overclock into world record territory. We like the CMOS battery being placed below the second PCI slot too. It's those little things that allow you to have a headache-free overclocking session.
In keeping with the lots of "little things done well" design the Go2BIOS button, invaluable in recovering from failed overclocks, is right next to the 7seg display. No sooner do you see the POST fail code than you can use the light of it to hit the button and be back in the BIOS again.
At the other end of the MAX is a separate audio PCB to help reduce interference and ensure the smoothest audio possible with an onboard solution. We also find the KillerNIC, something that is always hotly debated but there is no denying it's better to have it than not. Little things.
At the rear we have, from left to right. PS2 port, USB 2.0 ports, CMOS clear, WiFi expansion slot, USB 3.0 ports, KillerNIC Gigabit LAN, DisplayPort and two HDMI outs, as well as the S/PDIF and audio jacks.
The PCB is worthy of particular attention. The MPOWER MAX comes with a six layer PCB. This allows for thicker traces to assist in stability, thermals and greatly reduce interference. As well as this thicker is sturdier, so if you're one of the people who prefer to have your cooling provided by LN2 or similarly exotic options you have a greatly reduced risk of the 'board warping. When you compare the MAX, in the middle, to two other MSI motherboards it's obvious that the traces are hidden better between the layers.
Of course all this is fine on paper, let's see if it actually has a real-world benefit to the average user.
The BIOS is skinned in an eye-catching/retina-burning yellow depending upon your preference. In general it's similar to every other BIOS you see. Certainly there are slight adjustments in where you find particular tweaks, but it wont take you longer than a moment to get used to it.
The bottom two images provide the biggest talking points. The monitor and fan control screen is a far cry from the simple number output of old, and far more attractive. It's always nice to have a visual representation of your settings. Speaking of which the Board Explorer allows you to see at a glance what you have installed, where, and therefore fault-find a lot faster.
Speaking of colour-schemes, there is currently some limited edition Natus Vincere branded Kingston RAM and SSDs on the market. If the yellow and black sets a warmth in your heart, or you fancy designing your system to look like a wasp or a JCB then you're guaranteed to find exactly what you need. There is no denying it's a gorgeous arrangement.
MSI Z87 MPOWER MAX
Intel Core i7-4770K
Club3D HD7970 Royal Ace
Corsair Vengeance Pro 2400MHz
Corsair Neutron GTX
Windows 7 x64
The OC Genie seems to be toned back on this particular model. Whereas the Z77 motherboards would happily overclock the CPU to around 4.3GHz, with the Core i7-4770K we only have 4GHz. Not poor, but hardly a boost over the stock speed.
Manually overclocking provides the biggest benefits as always, and we got a rock-solid 4.9GHz at 1.26v which will be the speed we'll test at today.
As we all know by now the biggest limiting factor on the i7-4770K is undoubtedly heat. Almost any motherboard can push the CPU to its limit and the MPOWER MAX is no exception. However, if you've got a great cooling option such as a full water-loop then there is loads of potential to be unlocked. We obtained the always important 5GHz, although our temperatures were too high to run this as our bench clock it's always nice to know that the motherboard wont be the limiting element.
We start of with a little bit of a mixed bag. Certainly the MAX doesn't top the graphs, with the Gigabyte OC and Sniper M5 both proving to outperform it. However, that isn't to say that the performance isn't up there with the best, and in a couple of tests it does just edge the competition. The 31GB/s copy speed is a particular highlight.
Sandra continues the AIDA results, with the MAX rocking up in third place in the charts. Again we have to point out that we're talking third place by a whisker, and realistically any Z87 motherboard will provide excellent performance as long as you have a clock speed to match. It's a very solid performance so far.
The cryptography bandwidth test is a bit of an eye-opener. The MSI MPOWER MAX gives us the lowest overclocked result we've yet seen. Worse than the Maximus VI Extreme. Considering how well it did in the AIDA64 AES test we're not sure why it responds so badly to Sandra.
Demonstrating that all the overclocking ideas in the world don't always make a difference at the sharp end, the MAX ends up in third in our x264 benchmark, behind the Sniper M5 and it's stablemate the GD65. 21 and 94 FPS in the second and first pass respectively aren't bad, but the extra cost of the board isn't being reflected in the results.
The MAX continues its strange ability to be both impressive and disappointing at the same time. It's consistently amongst the best in our results, without ever actually being so. Given the hoopla that accompanied it we'd expect slightly more, especially when compared to its cheaper cousins. It's unquestionably consistent though. 30677 and 6963 PC Marks in Vantage and 7 respectively are still fine scores.
PC Mark Vantage
PC Mark 7
Finishing up our calculation heavy tests and the MAX slots back in to its seemingly default place just behind the two heavy-hitting Gigabyte boards. By no means disgraced with 10.53 CPU Pts.
Finally wPrime95 neatly sums up the ability of the MSI MPOWER MAX. It's extremely competent without ever setting our trousers on fire.
As we move from CPU benchmarks to 3D ones the results always narrow considerably, and CatZilla is no exception with every motherboard producing nearly identical results. Certainly ones that are well within the variance you'd expect from different runs and installs.
Resident Evil 6
In Capcom's rather disappointing Zombie shooter the MAX is neck and neck at the top of the graph along with the chart topping Sniper M5, both scoring 11044.
When we're talking about differences of, at most, a tenth of a frame you know that the Z87 motherboards in general are inseparable in 3D scenarios. Certainly in Unigine Heaven they are.
Unigine Valley continues the endlessly similar 3D benchmark results by being, well, identical to all the others. Intel providing such a solid chipset is fantastic for you, but does have us reaching for the thesaurus more than we'd like.
3D Mark Vantage
Although the results are similar enough to not cause any consternation or gnashing of teeth to whomever purchases a MAX, it's worth noting that it's just shy of the best results in both the P and X presets. Important if you're gunning for the top spot.
3D Mark 11
In the Performance preset the MAX is once again just a shade behind the rest in 3D Mark 11. It is, however, bang on point in the Extreme preset, which is how we'll all be running our games anyway. Nobody would buy this setup to run at 1024 surely?
Finally the latest version of 3D Mark and, altogether now, it's inseparable from the rest of the overclocked Z87 motherboards.
As we've seen a lot of from MSI recently, there is a hell of a lot of hard work that has gone into the design of the MPOWER MAX. The board itself starts off with a very thick PCB, designed to help maintain a decent thickness trace for stability and performance reasons, as well as just being sturdy to withstand everything from a bump to the temperature change when you pour some LN2 onto it. There is no denying that the moment you take it out of the box you feel the quality. This continues with the placement of the components. Sometimes you can tell that a lower-range motherboard is the same PCB with a load of spaces where features should be, or alternatively an old PCB with some new features bodged on wherever possible. With the MAX everything is exactly where you want it, and indeed where you'd place it if you had the chance. There are loads of fan headers, the expansion ports are nicely placed and we love the looks of it. The yellow highlights are gorgeous and make a refreshing change from the sea of red and blue we have to tolerate. Even better is that the yellow is subtle. If you really aren't fussed about it it's not so in your face that you can't avoid it.
Overclocking is simplicity, as it nearly always is on recent Intel chipsets. Although the placement of some items in the BIOS aren't where we might be used to them, there is a logic to everything and with the Go2BIOS button and plenty of power phases you'll reach the limit of your CPU in a pain-free manner. All of our benchmarks respond well to the motherboard, and it's unbelievably consistent with no weaknesses or holes anywhere. The Memory copy speed was a particular highlight, being 1GB/s faster than anything else we've tested.
If we had to describe the MPOWER MAX in a word it would be understated. It would be easy to consider that either as a good or bad thing depending upon your perspective, so of course we have to expound upon that. Sometimes when we're testing we get results that are gaudy, standing proud a mile above everything else in the graph. Or, alternatively, terrible. A product that wholly fails to achieve what it's set out to do. The MPOWER MAX is almost stealthy. You never notice it standing tall at the top of a graph, it never gives the kind of result that causes your jaw to drop, and yet whenever you look a little closer at the results it's always there in a very close second or third place. To borrow some sporting analogies it's Lotus, Liverpool or the Green Bay Packers. Unless you're looking for them you hardly notice them and yet at the end you always find them much closer than you think. So it is with the MSI MPOWER MAX.
For just on the £200 mark it's a step up in cost over most of the standard Z87 motherboards, and although the performance is excellent it's not quite on the leading edge as other motherboards such as the Sniper M5 or MSI's own GD65 Gaming. Thankfully though the price is nowhere near as ridiculous as the Maximus VI Extreme, and we can't see any features that the MPOWER MAX is missing when compared to that. Certainly none that will make the difference to the average user.
Therein lies the quandry with the MAX. The build quality is outstanding, we love the looks of it, and it has a wealth of features. But for the average user, and even the average enthusiast, you wont get anything more out of it in either overclocking or results than you'd get from a much cheaper model. It's relentlessly consistent though, and we think that the combination of build quality, aesthetics and performance are enough that the higher price-tag doesn't detract too much from the score. We considered long and hard whether it's worthy of a Gold or a Silver Award and in the end we felt that the extra £50 for limited gains are enough to just push it down to a Silver. It is a highly polished Silver though, and if you like the looks and don't mind spending that little extra it's unhesitatingly recommended.
Thanks to MSI for supplying the MPOWER MAX for review. Discuss your thoughts in the OC3D Forums.