Articles

MSI MEG Z390 ACE Motherboard Review

Author:Daniel Dobrowolski

Editor:Kyle Bennett

Date: Thursday , December 06, 2018

The MSI Enthusiast Gaming lineup expands once again with two Z390 offerings for Intel’s latest 9000 series CPUs. The MEG boards offer a blend of quality, features, with power delivery, and overclocking in mind. MSI has certainly raised the bar for its products over the last few years. So our expectations for the ACE motherboard are high.

Introduction

MSI is a well-known staple in the motherboard industry. The company has been around since the late 1980's and has grown into a multi-faceted company with a wide range of products from motherboards, graphics cards, gaming peripherals, desktops, laptops and even monitors. The company saw the writing on the wall several years ago and shifted the companies focus almost entirely to PC gaming. The PC has indeed shifted into a niche product as tablets and various mobile devices have taken over general computing needs for much of the world. As a result, nearly all MSI’s products are geared towards the gaming enthusiast.

Z390 Express Chipset

A new chipset would either get a separate chipset review or a blurb about it here. This chipset isn’t a real big deal and can’t really justify an article on its own. Once again, the chipset is an incremental upgrade from its predecessor, so this section isn’t going to be all that long. Intel lists the TDP of the chipset at 6 watts which is identical to the previous Z370. It still features the same number of SATA ports and PCIe lanes. DMI 3.0 is still in use between the PCH and the CPU. The only real changes are the inclusion of a built-in combination wireless and Bluetooth controller, plus an integrated USB 3.1 Gen 2 controller.

The MSI MEG Z390 ACE is based on Intel’s Z390 Express chipset, which offers only a few minor enhancements over the Z370 Express chipset, which itself is a derivative of the Z170 and Z270 Express chipsets. According to Intel’s product specifications, the only real difference is the inclusion of native USB 3.1 Gen 2 support rather than relying on an external controller like Alpine Ridge and its successor, Titan Ridge. Thunderbolt 3 support still isn’t native, therefore those controllers may still find their way into more expensive offerings from time to time. The MSI MEG Z390 ACE uses a 13-phase power solution and is built using premium components to produce a motherboard that’s enthusiast grade.

The MSI MEG Z390 ACE is one of two Z390 motherboards in the MEG Z390 family. The ACE is a more budget conscious offering where as the Godlike board pulls out all the stops and then some. Still, the MEG Z390 ACE isn’t an inexpensive board and is still what I would consider relatively high end. You get the standard feature set offered by the Z390 chipset with few extras beyond aesthetics and premium build quality. To me, this is a great option as it gives you something that’s close to being the best possible motherboard option without being bloated with too many features you won’t use. An emphasis on overclocking, stability and quality has been made rather than just packing on features which bloat the cost.

At the time of this writing, the MEG Z390 ACE can be had for $272. Conversely, the MSI MEG Z390 GODLIKE board costs around $590, which is in my opinion absurd for the mainstream motherboard market. Its not a value proposition for HEDT but $500 isn’t unheard of there. In the mainstream it's almost out of bounds. However, as we’ve seen mainstream parts start packing on the cores and prices climb for CPUs and GPUs, this may seem less crazy as time progresses.

Main Specifications Overview:

Detailed Specifications Overview:

Packaging

The packaging for the MSI MEG Z390 ACE is basically what we’ve come to expect in the industry going back a couple of decades now. The aesthetic qualities of the packaging are of course ahead of what they were even a few years ago, but this is largely irrelevant as very few people buy motherboards for their retail packaging appearance on store shelves. In any case, the motherboard is packed in an anti-static bag and placed in a cardboard insert that protects things like the protruding WiFi antenna ports on the I/O back panel. Inside the box you’ll find the following accessories: User guide, driver disc, SATA cable labels, warranty card, case badge, RGB extension header cables, wireless antenna assembly, SATA cables, M.2 screws and mounting posts, SLI bridge, and a water pump PIN to fan conversion cable.

Board Layout

The layout is excellent. I have very few things I can complain about here. I hate the location of the CMOS battery, but that’s hardly a deal breaker. MSI includes its overclocking knob as before, however, there has been a substantial quality improvement in it. While it still feels a bit inexpensive, it’s no longer has that bargain basement knock off electronics store feel to it. There is a single AIO pump header, 1x CPU fan header and 5x system fan headers. All of these are 4-pin headers which support DC or PWM modes. These fans support an auto-detection mode with hysteresis as MSI puts it. This is what other manufacturers may call automatic tuning with fan smoothing. The concept is the same as the fan speeds can be auto-detected with the correct mode being set automatically. The hysteresis mode allows the fan speed to be controlled for a more fluid or gradual spin up and spin down. The dedicated water pump pin header supports up to two amps.

The markings on the motherboard are well done as they are easy to read. Headers and connectors are well thought out and placed well. I would have preferred the power and reset buttons to reside near the 24-pin ATX power connector or RAM slots rather than the bottom corner. On an open-air test bench, this makes no difference but seems to work better inside an actual case. This has been my experience at least.

The motherboard features an industrial aesthetic design which MSI makes mention of on its product pages more than once. The black and dark grey color scheme looks fantastic, though its essentially the standard these days. Afterall, red and black is very 2010. Normally at this price point, there would be quite a bit in the way of RGB LED’s, but MSI has confined them to the covering behind the CPU MOSFET, with a few accents here or there.

Despite the large amount of power phases and robust MOSFET coolers, there is a decent amount of space around the CPU socket. Any LGA 1151 cooler should fit. However, taller DIMMs will always be a problem on these motherboards built for CPUs that use integrated memory controllers as there are signal issues with trace paths that are too long and DIMMs located too far from the IMC.

There are 13 power phases, 12 of which are dedicated to CPU power. Digital PWMs are provided by International Rectifier and Two 8-pin CPU power inputs are provided for optimal power delivery.

There are four 288-pin DIMM slots supporting a total of 64GB of DDR4 RAM. RAM speeds up to DDR4 4500MHz are supported via overclocking. These RAM slots use the older dual locking tabs for memory module retention, which I don’t like as much as the single sided variety. These slots have reinforced metal brackets to prevent plate bending. MSI has optimized the trace paths to make them equidistant to the IMC so that no one slot is weaker than another as far as memory clocks or stability is concerned. This enables you to achieve higher memory clocks and helps to preserve compatibility. There is no color coding to denote proper dual-channel memory mode operation. However, there are markings on the motherboard which make it easy to figure out which slots should be used if you are unsure.

The chipset is cooled with a relatively standard flat heat sink that contains embedded RGB lighting which adds a glow to the ROG logo with additional accent lighting thrown in for good measure. The heat sink has a low enough profile to avoid any installation concerns. Like the MOSFET coolers, these are screwed in rather than being secured with plastic push pins and tension springs. The chipset cooler isn’t nearly as large or as fancy as what you would find on the upper echelon motherboards.

The expansion slot area is configured precisely as I’d like it to be. While not ideal for more than 2-way multi-GPU solutions, this isn’t a big deal on the mainstream platform. More than that, the offset nature of the PCIe expansion slot area allows an M.2 slot to be placed above the primary PCIe x16 slot which is the most ideal placement for it on an ATX motherboard in my opinion. The PCIe x16 slots are all Gen 3.0 compliant and support a x16/x0/x0 or an x8/x8/x4 lane configuration. There are also 3x PCIe x1 Gen 3.0 slots provided as well for cards that don’t need 4x or more PCIe lanes.

While the built-in I/O shield hasn’t been around for very long, it feels like I’ve waited forever for MSI to get on the bandwagon and quit using I/O panel inserts like it's 1997. This allows for a higher quality and more aesthetically pleasing I/O panel area. There isn’t any color coding to speak of beyond USB 3.1 ports being marked in red vs. USB 2.0 ports. On the back panel you’ll find a clear CMOS button and one BIOS Flashback+ button. You will find 3x USB 2.0 ports and 6x USB 3.1 Type-A ports. There is also a single USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C port available on the back panel as well. You will also find dual-wireless antenna connections, 1x optical output and 5x gold plated audio jacks which have plastic surrounds, but no color coding beyond designating the microphone input.