Date: Friday , January 12, 2018
MSI is one of the largest and most influential motherboard manufacturers in the world. MSI recognized the fact that desktop computers in a traditional sense are obsolete and even unnecessary. Many, if not most of the traditional desktop PC’s are primarily gaming and high-end workstation builds. It’s for this reason that MSI has gone all in on PC gaming and rebranded nearly everything in its product portfolio as "Gaming" products. MSI also took the red and black color scheme started and abused by other brands and made it their own. It’s been a wildly successful move for MSI and it’s moving lots of product as a result. MSI, like it’s competition, makes a wide variety of products beyond motherboards. However, MSI remains known as a motherboard manufacturer first, and everything else second.
Unless this is the first article you’ve come across that mentions socket AM4 motherboards, you probably know that the launch of these motherboards has ranged between problematic and a total disaster. There are lots of reasons for this and tons of articles and posts from people in the industry concerning what went wrong. I’m not going to delve into all that. The short explanation is that AM4 motherboards were launched with AMD’s underlying AGESA code not being up to scratch. The software, in its early state is plagued with memory compatibility and other problems. No motherboard manufacturer has been immune to these problems. ASUS, who is normally on top of things before other board makers are, released the worst AM4 motherboard we’ve seen to date. So how are things now? So many months after release, things are in a much better position. Issues with XMP still remain and memory compatibility outside the qualified vendor list or QVL is a crapshoot.
The motherboard we are looking at here is the MSI X370 Gaming M7 ACK. As the name implies, it’s targeted towards gamers. From a feature standpoint, the motherboard has a lot to offer. It’s the first AM4 motherboard I can recall seeing more than one M.2 slot on. It offers wireless networking, M.2 FROZR, turbo M.2, DDR4 boost, audio boost, Military Class 5 components and lots of other standard features for the computing enthusiast. A lot of that is marketing speak, but we’ll cut through all of that as we move through this article.
Main Specifications Overview:
Detailed Specifications Overview:
The box for the X370 Gaming M7 ACK is standard issue. The artwork is basic, and a far cry from the space ships and race cars MSI has adorned it’s packaging with in the past. Our motherboard sample arrived intact, with the following accessories : User Guide, driver disc, I/O shield, SLI bridge, quick installation guide, SATA cables, case badge, M.2 mounting screws, wireless antennas, and Rivet Networks Killer 1535 Wi-Fi card.
The overall layout of the X370 Gaming M7 ACK is excellent. Even when I examine the motherboard closely I do not find any serious or significant problems with regard to the layout. I find the overall aesthetic qualities of the motherboard pleasing albeit very similar to other motherboards on the market. Black and chrome, black and silver, and black and gray are basically the new black and red. Every motherboard manufacturer seems to be using this color scheme to some extent. MSI does have far more unique color schemes that no one else is using but chose not to employ those here. To be honest this is more of a mainstream solution instead of one of those higher-end motherboards used for custom builds. Those titanium color or white and silver and black and white motherboards are somewhat polarizing. The type of styling that people either love or they hate it. There are 6, 4-pin fan headers on the PCB. You’ll find a multitude of USB ports and other headers on the PCB as well.
This is where you start to see a few minor problems with the motherboards physical configuration. For starters the front panel headers are marked very badly. It is difficult to discern the proper pin orientation for the connections. I found myself referring to the manual quite often when connecting the front panel of the test bench chassis to the motherboard. No M connectors are included with the X370 Gaming M7 ACK, and looking at the front panel header you can see why. MSI changed the configuration of this connector and it is no longer compatible with M connectors. This one is actually shaped like a USB 2.0 header. Why MSI made this change is beyond me. There is plenty of PCB real estate to have use the existing connector from what I can see.
There are a couple of other quirks about the physical layout of the motherboard which are things I wouldn’t necessarily knock points off for but aren’t necessarily what I like to see. The LCD POST code display is located on the bottom left hand corner of the motherboard. I prefer this to be above the ATX power connector which is also my preferred location for onboard power and reset controls. I built hundreds of computer systems over the years and I find these are much easier to reach in a built system when they are in this location compared to the bottom left hand corner. Before talking about open air test benches like mine this is less of an issue, but when evaluating a motherboard like this you have to consider the fact that most of them will be in computer chassis and not on test benches. This motherboard lacks onboard power and reset buttons however, it does have a couple of buttons which are not marked very well. Fan headers are well-placed, but USB ports could be grouped together more than they are now. It has also been my experience that front panel USB connections should generally be located in the same place as all the cable links will be exactly the same.
My last minor complaint simply comes down to aesthetic qualities. MSI uses steel reinforced brackets on its x16 PCIe expansion slots. However, only two of the three x16 slots get steel reinforcement. The value of steel reinforcement on expansion slots is certainly debatable but I feel like if you’re going to do it you should do it to all of the slots not just some of them. Again, my complaint centers around visual appeal rather than functionality.
The CPU socket area is somewhat interesting. It’s clear of any major physical obstructions aside from the RAM slots being too close to the CPU socket. This is a problem that can be solved with water cooling or AIO cooling systems. However, if you are using traditional air cooling which requires a large heatsink you may run into clearance issues with certain memory modules. This is not MSI’s fault but rather a technical constraint imposed by both AMD and Intel. The X370 Gaming M7 ACK has 12 power phases. You can see titanium chokes which MSI claims to have 30% better power efficiency than traditional chokes. You will also find dark chokes and dark electrolytic capacitors. These are part of MSI’s Military Class 5 components. Which also includes humidity protection, temperature protection circuit protection, ESD protection, and EMI shielding.
The MOSFET cooling hardware has a nice, solid look to it. The two MOSFET coolers are joined via a bridge of some sort, but I can’t tell if a heat pipe runs through there or not. The finish work is only what I would consider average, but effective. Most importantly, the MOSFET cooling is secured to the motherboard using screws instead of plastic push pins with tension springs. Another interesting aspect of the CPU socket area’s design are the mounting holes for the thermal solution. These are elongated to accept thermal solutions for socket AM3 or AM4 systems.
There are four 288-pin DDR4 DIMM slots supporting a total of 64GB of RAM. Speeds up to DDR4 3200MHz or more are supported through overclocking. MSI chose to use to locking tabs per DIMM slot instead of one which is almost become standard now. I’ve talked with MSI about this as I have come to prefer the newer single locking tab design. I think it retains modules just as well if not better well-being easier to work with overall. According to MSI some markets around the globe do not like this design and prefer the older dual locking tab implementation. MSI only uses the single locking tab design when space constraints on the PCB force them to use it. (Editor's Note: Some "less informed" users have issues with the slots that only have one locking tab, which leads to more support calls and RMAs.)
The DIMM slots are not color-coded to signify proper dual channel memory mode operation. Again, color coding seems to have become unfashionable as choices are made not for functional reasons but to enhance aesthetic qualities. These slots use steel reinforcement similar to what we see on the U.2 port and PCIe slots. While I find the reinforcement on the expansion slots to be of limited value I find it to be incredibly useful on memory slots. Memory modules often require more insertion force than expansion cards to seat properly. Reinforcement prevents PCB warping and prevent stress on PCB trace paths and any surface mounted hardware.
The chipset is in the bottom left hand corner of the motherboard. It is cooled by a low-profile passive heat sink. The actual profile of the chipset is lower than it looks as its covered with a plastic shroud that also covers the M.2 slots. In front of the chipset cooler you will find 6x SATA III 6Gb/s ports, 1x U.2 port and one right angled USB 3.0 front panel header. To the left of the chipset, you will also find the POST code display.
The expansion slot area is configured almost perfectly in my opinion. The only thing I don’t like is the placement of the M.2 slots. The slots place the M.2 devices underneath graphics cards. However, there isn’t much else MSI could have done in this case without going to an E-ATX layout. The X370 Gaming M7 ACK supports Quad-SLI, Quad-Crossfire and 2-Way multi-GPU configurations using either brands technology. 3-Way GPU configurations are possible, but only using AMD’s Crossfire technology. SLI doesn’t support this. PCIe lane configurations of x16/x0 and x8/x8/x4 are supported.
The I/O shield has a clear CMOS button, 2x USB 2.0 ports, 1x BIOS Flashback+ port, 1x dedicated PS/2 mouse or keyboard port, 6x USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports, 1x USB 3.1 Gen 2 port (type-A), 1x USB 3.1 Gen 2 (type-C) port, 1x optical output, and 5x mini-stereo jacks for analog audio output. The audio jacks are gold plated with a plastic ring around each port. Oddly, only the microphone input port is color coded. The rest are all black.