A running theme of our recent motherboard reviews have been ones that are ever cheaper and ever smaller.
Indeed a tiny size is such a part of modern life that everyone is seemingly on an eternal quest to have a product so tiny that it's almost invisible. Whether we're reducing thickness or pure real estate, the desire for small hardware is only countered by the growth of screen sizes in televisions and smart phones. Although even there the popular tablet size has shrunk from 10" to 7".
What does that mean today? Well it means that the MSI Z87I Gaming is, as a mini ITX board, riding the wave of small sized products. However, rather than cut down everything into a small package as is common with the minuscule ITX offerings, this is a full-on Z87 chipset equipped motherboard which even comes with the MSI Gaming branding.
MSI are definitely confident about the capabilities of the Z87I Gaming, so is it really possible to get the kind of performance reserved for full ATX boards in something so compact?
Obviously with a such a small form factor there are reductions in the amount of connectivity options available to you, and PCI Express lanes. In every other regard though the Z87I Gaming has all you'd expect to find on a Z87 motherboard.
It might be small enough to almost fit in your pocket, but MSI haven't scrimped on the packaging for the Z87I Gaming, giving it the full Dragon treatment.
Accessories are minimal as you'd expect from such an affordable offering, but we still have a nice IO shield, the dragon gaming sticker, and the antenna for the onboard WiFi. The Z87I Gaming itself is as tiny as you'd expect a mini-ITX motherboard to be. No matter how often we review them, we're always stunned at how compact they are.
MSI really have utillised every precious inch of available space. About the only thing we really don't like is how far inboard the 8pin CPU power connector is, especially given how inflexible a lot of 8pin cables are. Many people will question why the CPU is so close to the PCIE slot and the chipset at the top of the board, this obviously isnt the best positioning for an enthusiast build but mirrors the plain Z87i that the Gaming is ultimately based on. Major changes would have no doubt meant a higher price and with the choices we have available nowadays with AIO coolers actually performing well now-a-days this really isn't the problem it may have been 2 or 3 years ago.
Tiny size doesn't mean tiny features though. MSI have included the KillerNIC 2200 chip to give you the smoothest online performance as well as combining the ALC1150 audio with a OPA1652 headphone amplifier that supports up to 600Ω headphones. Small, but powerful.
MSI Z87I Gaming
Intel Core i7-4770K
Club3D HD7970 Royal Ace
Corsair Vengeance Pro 2400MHz
Corsair Neutron GTX
Windows 7 x64
If the features are still surprising given the mITX size, the decision of MSI to go with a full Z87 chipset and even have it as part of their Gaming is unquestionably a wise one. With an mITX we'd expect maybe 4.6GHz from our i7-4770K but the Z87I Gaming matches our very best motherboards with a whopping 4.9GHz. That's outstanding from such a compact package. We've known about it all week and we're still slack jawed. Mightily impressive. This just clarifies our thoughts about Haswell when it was first released, the CPU's demand so little power wise now that any decent motherboard should be capable of maxing out any CPU on air or water cooling. The Z87i-G has definitely proven this point!
The CPUz is backed up with our AIDA64 results. We have known some motherboards that didn't back up the clockspeed they showed, yet the Z87I Gaming is up there with any motherboard you care to name. The stock results are very good, and the overclocked ones are not only on a par with a lot of other 4.9GHz capable offerings, but ahead of a few too.
If the synthetic AIDA64 results showed the Z87I Gaming has promise, then Sandra continues the trend with the MSI board topping both our stock and overclocked results.
We aren't shocked to see the overclocked result being up there with other 4.9GHz overclocks we've managed to obtain. What really shines in our wPrime95 test was the stock results, which are incredibly impressive.
You wouldn't believe that this was just an mITX board if you only looked at the results. They're spectacular and if the overclock is good then the stock results are spectacular. Very impressive for such a tiny motherboard.
x264 Benchmark v5
The x264 result continues the excellent showing of the Z87I Gaming. Clearly size isn't everything, as it's matching some very expensive and enormous motherboards stride for stride.
With PC Mark Vantage the Z87I Gaming is up there with the best at stock and runs them close in the overclock. The Productivity scores aren't as high as we've seen, but the overall PC Mark result is right on the money. In PC Mark 7 it's more impressive with a PC Mark of over the magical 7000 points barrier when overclocked and neck and neck with the best at stock, scoring over 6100.
There might only be a single PCI Express 3.0 slot on the Z87I Gaming but it performs well, with the first of our 3D benchmark tests as good as any other.
Resident Evil 6
Capcom's Resident Evil 6 continues the good showing we saw in CatZilla. In fact the Z87I Gaming is the highest scoring motherboard we've tested, which is an eye-opening result.
Unsurprisingly things don't change in Unigine Valley with the little MSI board putting up a great showing and, albeit by a tenth or two, topping the graph in certain scenarios.
The Z87I Gaming just doesn't quit. Excellent CPU performance is backed up by outstanding showings in the 3D tests. Once again it's right at the very top of the graph and, whilst it might be a tenth of a frame or two, there certainly aren't any weak spots.
3D Mark Vantage
When you're out-performing the excellent Maximus VI Formula in both overclocked and stock scenarios, you know that something good is going on. At the very least you wont be disappointed in the MSI.
3D Mark 11
If the overclocked results are exactly where you'd expect, then the P score at stock is a real highlight, two or three hundred points better than the next best motherboard.
Finishing up with the latest version of 3D Mark and the Z87I Gaming continues its excellent showing, proving capable regardless of what you throw at it.
ITX motherboards have spent a long time as the weapon of choice of the HTPC crowd. Their tiny size and reasonable performance were perfect to place in a small case beneath your television and use as a media streamer, or for the occasional light gaming options. Although they have been gaining more of a foothold recently, they're still regularly built around a cut down chipset and rarely give performance equivalent to their bigger cousins.
The MSI Z87I Gaming completely destroys those preconceptions, and at the same time destroys your expectations too.
We've mentioned in the past items that are pocket rockets, but the Z87I really sets the bar high. Yes it's amazing for a mini ITX motherboard. Replete with the full fat Z87 chipset and the attractive MSI Gaming branding, it's desirable even if it only performed as well as a regular option. But it's not amazing for a mini ITX board. It's amazing for a Z87 motherboard, full stop. No qualifiers. No caveats. This this is outstanding.
4.9GHz out of our i7-4770K is as good as any motherboard we've tested, and it's rock solid too. Of course being such a small size you can't put a NH-D14 on it due to the CPU socket being too close to the CPIE slot, but the H100i that we used is perfect with its small size and would enable you to maximise the potential of the MSI. It's not just the CPU performance that was excellent though, as the memory bandwidth and 3D tests were up there with the very best the Z87 chipset has to offer.
By any yardstick the MSI Z87I Gaming is an outstanding motherboard. That it comes in a 'small but perfectly formed' ITX package for around £130 only enhances our sense of wonderment at its capabilities. Sure you're losing some USB/SATA ports when compared to a full size offering, and the placement of the 8pin CPU power could be better, but we're nit-picking.
A jaw-dropping motherboard with performance up there with the very best, the MSI Z87I Gaming easily wins our OC3D Gold Award.
Thanks to MSI for supplying the Z87I Gaming for review. Discuss your thoughts in the OC3D Forums.