Date: Tuesday , May 31, 2016
MSI is one of the world’s most well-known and respected motherboard manufacturers. They are particularly noteworthy for their almost total dedication to gaming branded motherboards, designed with the enthusiast in mind. We’ve been huge fans of some of MSI’s offerings over the years with some of the best motherboards on the market coming from them. The company was founded in 1986 and started with i286 based motherboards. Today it has a diverse product portfolio ranging from laptops to graphics cards, motherboards, tablets, desktop computers, servers and even mobile computing devices like tablets.
Back when the Z170 motherboards launched I knew that X99 refreshes would be inbound when Intel’s Broadwell-E processors came to market. Many people told me that wasn’t likely to happen. In fact, some of the X99 motherboard refreshes came out well ahead of Broadwell-E, but none the less we are starting to see more and more newer X99 motherboards showing up. The X99A Gaming Pro Carbon review represents the chance to answer several questions, both specific and general. Naturally the first question in a board review is whether or not it’s a good motherboard. However, the situation is unique. Because the HEDT platform crowd isn’t the same market as the mainstream or even certain enthusiast segments, the inevitable second question always follows: "Are the shiny new X99 motherboards worth the upgrade over the first run X99 motherboards?" When you have a transitional product like Broadwell-E and motherboards that support a newer processor design and simultaneously an older one, the waters get a bit murky. One may think of the new X99 motherboards as being the same as the old ones with USB 3.1 support tacked on. While I haven’t looked at every X99 design out there, I can say that this probably isn’t the case. As we’ve seen in past generations, updated boards are given more than just a single feature makeover.
ASUS for example already released a bundle of the Rampage V Extreme that offers a USB 3.1 card in the box. If USB 3.1 support is all you need, then the job is done and that’s enough motherboard right there. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, this is insufficient for today’s market. When X99 came out we saw plenty of motherboards that implemented M.2 badly or not at all. NVMe support was often a BIOS update away, and often times it never came. At the time X99 came out it was newer and more advanced than the Z97 Express chipset motherboards that were already on the market. Those motherboards also had variable quality M.2 support and feature configurations that may not necessarily have been forward thinking. X99 came out on the heels of that and earlier X99 motherboards wouldn’t necessarily be desirable today. At the time no consumer NVMe drives were available and M.2 hadn’t taken off like it has now. There was still hope SATA Express would go somewhere and ultimately it never did. SATA Express is backwards compatible with SATA connections so keeping it around doesn’t hurt anything or take away from the product.
Early X99 motherboards also have some trouble on the overclocking front. Often times they only worked with a 125MHz base clock strap setting and RAM frequencies didn’t scale all that well on them compared to today’s Z170 Express based motherboards. The highest frequencies I’ve personally seen on X99 were 3200MHz and I didn’t even achieve that. Personally I’ve seen 2800MHz and usually less. On Z170 I’ve personally achieved 3600MHz time and time again although sometimes at the cost of overall CPU clock speed. There are lots of potential opportunities for X99 to be reinvented and brought into parity with Z170. That means better DDR4 frequency scaling, USB 3.1, reliable NVMe support with 4x PCIe lanes, Thunderbolt 3 support and improved overclocking for both Haswell-E and Broadwell-E. There may be many older motherboards that can give you most or even all of those things in one way or another, but it seems clear to me that there is room for improvement. Fresh X99 motherboard certainly have their place in today’s market and upgrading to one may prove desirable.
As an HEDT platform user myself, I have a more vested interest in seeing for myself if there is an upgrade path for me. While the motherboard in question today probably isn’t what I’d choose based on the feature set, it does give me insight into what updated X99 motherboards may have to offer. Most notably I intend to see if the new X99 motherboards and Broadwell-E offer an upgrade path that’s worth the price of admission.
The MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon has a solid feature set but it isn’t loaded with the often redundant features that few people ever use. It has only one NIC, no 4-Way SLI support, wireless networking or multiple M.2 slots. It’s not stripped down by any means but it isn’t bristling with features like MSI’s X99A GODLIKE motherboard is. The X99A Gaming Pro Carbon like most MSI motherboards has a name that’s a mouthful to say the least. The X99A Gaming Pro Carbon is based on Intel’s X99 Express chipset and as a result there aren’t too many surprises or improvements over the previous generation’s X99 offerings in terms of big ticket features. The big addition is USB 3.1 (type-A and C) and a guaranteed 4x Gen 3.0 NVMe capable M.2 slot. Of course USB 3.1 and having Type-C ports opens the doors for Thunderbolt 3 certification which up until now had eluded X99. While this interconnect isn’t exactly seeing rapid adoption. It may be a good option going forward as it uses a physical interconnect that motherboards and systems will start using anyway. With things like external graphics adapters for portable units being able to use Thunderbolt 3 over what’s physically a USB 3.1 Type-C port, I think it’s got a better chance of successful adoption than the previous two Thunderbolt standards did.
Other improvements in the latest generation X99 motherboards aren’t huge but bring the X99 platform into parity with the newer Z170 Express based motherboards. Things like steel reinforcement on the expansion slots and ambient lighting are the two increasingly common features I think we’ll see on more and more X99 motherboards that aren’t really necessary other than to create parity in the platforms. Of course the parity those features create is probably more logistical and marketing driven than anything else. Naturally the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon comes with MSI’s gaming oriented features like the Game Boost, Mystic Lighting, LED light extensions, Gaming Hotkey, Audio Boost 3, OC Engine, Lan Protect and so on. When you fight past all the marketing departments cute names for things you’ll uncover pretty much the same feature list all the other guys are using. The take away from all that is that the motherboard should consist of a robust design that offers all the features found on similarly priced competing motherboards. At the very least, this is all true on paper. In the real world the quality of these features or rather their implementation can vary wildly. Like MSI’s other premier offerings, the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon uses MSI’s Military Class 5 components. The titanium chokes are rated to 220C while the dark capacitors promise a long 10,000 hour life span and low ESR. Humidity protection, high temperature protection, ESD and EMI protection as well as circuit protection all contribute to a robust motherboard design.
MSI, like the other motherboard makers have an opportunity to improve voltage regulation and the UEFI BIOS of their X99 offerings to again achieve parity with Z170 but also to bring more value to the table. Not only to entice people to buy newer X99 motherboards but to create a competitive edge against the competition. Specific tuning for Broadwell-E and ensuring solid overclockability would certainly help make newer X99 motherboards appeal to anyone wanting to go X99 now, or even upgrade from existing X99 motherboards. In fact, it’s virtually the only way to get someone who already has X99 to upgrade. Face it, USB 3.1 isn’t going to drive even the most ardent early hardware adopters to open up their wallets. It just isn’t a compelling enough feature by itself, and neither is Thunderbolt 3. Adding overclocking headroom or greatly improving XMP compatibility with X99 would go a long way toward moving X99 based motherboards through retail channels.
Main Specifications Overview:
Detailed Specifications Overview:
The packaging of the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon is a little different from the red and black boxes we are used to seeing from MSI. This packaging is adorned with carbon fiber, black coloring and a car of some sort on the front. Aside from that the box is standard fair for motherboards in general. The sample arrived in tact with all accessories accounted for. The bundle isn’t deeply rich with accessories or fluff. Inside the box you’ll find the following items: User guide, driver disc, door hanger, SATA labels, case badge, I/O shield, Crossfire bridge, SLI bride, SATA cables, M-connectors, and Mystic light extension cable.
We don’t normally talk about this aspect of the design, but the I/O shield itself is very nice. Its black in color and all the ports are marked in silver. The areas without ports are adorned with a large dragon. The I/O shield’s back is padded for that extra air of quality. This is something I will talk about more going forward as I’m sure others share my frustration with simple tin punch out back plates which are sometimes included with very high dollar motherboards.
The layout of the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon is decent but not perfect. The motherboard markings for some things such as the front panel headers aren’t ideally located or easy to read. I think the location of the CMOS battery is poor and that’s being nice about it. This should be a vertical type slot located somewhere that wouldn’t require component removal to change. Oversights like this are especially annoying because the solutions to problems like this are generally obvious. Otherwise there is very little to complain about with regard to the layout of the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon. Aesthetically the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon is quite striking. I thought the carbon fiber accents might come off cheesy when I saw the box, but after handling the motherboard I like them. It’s a bit boy-racer-ish, but at least when it comes to motherboards it’s something a little different. I’m for anything that gets us away from black and red motherboards.
In addition to a simple yet pleasing aesthetic quality, the build quality of the motherboard is physically excellent. It exudes quality in a way that even some of the higher end boards sometimes lack due to flimsy metal shrouds that are head in by one screw and tend to make noise or flop around. The location of most of the motherboard’s headers is well thought out. As I’ll discuss in more detail below, there are a couple I’d like to see moved but overall MSI did a good job with the ports and plug locations. I especially like the location of the 5050 LED RGB strip header. It’s at the bottom left of the motherboard or roughly in the back section of the motherboard below the last expansion slot. I think that’s a good "middle ground" place for it that works well regardless of chassis or enclosure design.
The CPU socket area is free of any major obstructions. Around the CPU socket you’ll find titanium chokes and dark capacitors. The MSI X99A Gaming Pro Carbon uses what it calls a "Turbo Socket" that’s actually 2036 pins instead of 2011 pins for increased memory overclocking, or so MSI’s literature states.
There are a total of eight 288-pin DDR4 memory slots on the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon. These are not color coded, but are numbered clearly. You do have to consult the manual or know the X99 platform well to know which slots to use. While I don’t like this from a purely functional standpoint, I understand the reasons it’s done cosmetically speaking. These slots are relatively close to the expansion area at their left hand side leading edge. As a result, these use a single sided locking tab on the right hand side to ensure memory module retention. The X99A Gaming Pro Carbon supports up to 128GB of DDR4 RAM at speeds up to 3466MHz through overclocking.
One thing that makes the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon stand out is the fact that the memory slots have the same "Steel Armor" as the PCIe expansion slots do. You’d think that MSI was prepping for 10lbs. DIMMs or something. The marketing stuff on its website indicates that this is actually EMI shielding and improves signal strength and reduces noise. I don’t know how true that is, but the DDR4 Boost technology that MSI touts is actually marketing code for "we used equidistant trace paths when possible and optimized the pathing to reduce noise and boost signal strength." MSI did isolate the memory circuitry according to its PR material. Usually that means that it has a dedicated power phase or phases, but often times we are now seeing single phases with phase doubling being used for power delivery. I’m not an electrical engineer, but that appears to be the case here. That is pretty standard in the industry and not any cause for concern. Back in the day we used to see chokes and phases almost identical or very similar to the ones employed on the CPU. The industry has probably moved away from that as an effort to reduce costs.
The chipset is in the usual lower left hand corner of the motherboard. It resides between the vast array of SATA and SATA Express ports, as well as the expansion slot area. The X99A Gaming Pro Carbon also makes use of both horizontal and vertical SATA ports which is something I’m not a fan of. In part this is done to make room for the U.2 port that only users of the Intel SSD 750 will need or want at present. MSI could have moved the front panel USB header over to the right and shifted the ATX power connector along with it. If they had done that the need for vertical SATA ports could have been avoided.
I don’t think anyone who’s concerned about their builds aesthetics wants SATA cables going two different directions. Granted simple build configurations with only one or two drives won’t have to rely on two different port types, but there are people out there who would make use of all the storage connectivity options who may be less than enthusiastic about this design choice. To the left of the chipset is also the cheap feeling OC knob that allows you to turn it up to 11. That was actually funny to me the first time I saw it and it still is. I’m not actually a fan of the feature as the knob feels like the type of electronic controls you find on dollar store children’s toys. The feature also doesn’t work that great. (More on that later.)
The expansion slot area is relatively well thought out. The placement of the M.2 slot is excellent, while the placement of the CMOS battery isn’t as I said before. The expansion slots support multi-PU configurations up to 3-Way SLI or Crossfire. There are actually four PCIe gen 3.0 PCIe x16 slots. Configurations of x16/x0/x0/x0, x16/x16/x0/x0, x16/x16/x0/x8, and x8/x16/x8/x8 are supported so long as you have a CPU installed that can support up to 40 PCI-Express lanes. The PCIe x16 slots all have MSI’s "Steel Armor" which is a steel bracket which is designed to reinforce the slot so that heavier GPUs can be installed without risk of breakage. Granted I think this risk is somewhat over stated as the last round of X99 motherboards didn’t have this feature and could handle the Titan X or even water cooled Radeon 295x2’s and so on.
The motherboard’s rear I/O panel is exactly what you’d expect for a motherboard in this price point and of this caliber. There is some extra space left over, but this is due to the fact that X99 motherboards have no integrated GPU options and due to the fact that there isn’t a second NIC or wireless controller built into the X99A Gaming Pro Carbon. The USB 3.1 ports are all color coded to denote what they are as are the USB 2.0 ports. There are no specific USB 3.1 ports. There is however a USB 3.1 type C port which is not Thunderbolt 3 compliant in this case. A PS/2 keyboard or mouse port is provided, as is a clear CMOS button. For audio MSI went with 5x analog audio connections which are gold plated, but color coded via plastic surrounds on the ports. A single optical output provides digital connectivity. You can see the PCB’s relative straightness in the above image and everything feels like it’s put together well.