Articles

MSI Z370I Gaming Pro Carbon AC mITX Review

Author:Daniel Dobrowolski

Editor:Kyle Bennett

Date: Friday , March 23, 2018

Many of us have gotten used to wanting things smaller and smaller in terms of today's electronics, and many enthusiasts have followed that trend when it comes to building fully capable high end desktop PC system. MSI is turning up the heat in the mini-ITX segment with it Gaming Pro Carbon series motherboards.

Introduction

MSI was founded in the late 1980s like many of its competitors. In that time, it's flourished in what is essentially, a cut throat business. You old timers like me probably can recall half a dozen motherboard brands that have come and gone over the years. I got into this hobby in the early to mid-1990s and there are only a handful of brands left that were around when or even before I started working with PCs as we know them now. While MSI is primarily known for motherboards, it offers a wide range of products. These include monitors, graphics cards, desktops, laptops and peripherals.

A few years back, MSI read the writing on the wall and realized that the desktop as we knew it was changing. The beige box that once dominated in offices and homes alike is a thing of the past. MSI understood that while desktop computers used to be largely built for office tasks, today's desktops are more often gaming machines or workstations. They've fallen into a specific niche which MSI has gone all in on. To better suit the market as MSI saw it, the company rebranded almost everything to "gaming" so that it would better target its core audience. This is a sharp contrast to what other motherboard manufacturers currently do from a branding perspective. ASUS has it’s "Republic of Gamers" brand while GIGABYTE has it’s "Aorus" brand. These brands specifically target gamers, while products in their regular lineups may not. Virtually everything MSI offers is "gaming" oriented at present. So, clearly MSI believes that the desktop PC as we know it is largely a gaming machine.

I’ve been shown data from various studies during presentations from multiple motherboard manufacturers that have led the industry to think of the desktop as more of a gaming or high-end workstation than anything else. MSI doesn’t currently focus too much on high-end workstation products, while some of its competitors have a few offerings in this arena. The only products that MSI has which lack a gaming focus seem to be for emerging markets and budget-oriented builds alone. Even most of its budget conscious offerings are still gaming oriented.

The MSI Z370I Gaming Pro Carbon AC is a mini-ITX offering based on Intel's Z370 Express chipset and is therefore only compatible with Intel's 8th generation Core i5/i7 series processors. It will not work with older CPUs such as those based on the Skylake architecture. Initially, when I got this motherboard from Kyle, he had given me the wrong CPU to go with it and can confirm for a fact that it will not POST with a Skylake CPU installed in it. As a mini-ITX offering, the Z370I Gaming Pro Carbon AC is suited to small form factor builds. The Z370I Gaming Pro Carbon AC uses a 6+2 phase power system. It features titanium chokes, low ESR dark chokes and dark capacitors. The capacitors are rated to last 10 years or more. The motherboard also sports humidity, temperature, ESD, EMI and circuit protection. This is what MSI refers to as it’s "Military Class-5" components.

The motherboard features HDMI, Intel networking for wired, wireless and Bluetooth connectivity, and the gamut of chipset and platform specific features one expects to find on any LGA 1151 socket-based motherboard. This includes DDR4, Intel Optane, PCI-Express 3.0, and USB 3.1 support. MSI’s DDR4 boost, Audio Boost 4, Steel Armor, and Turbo M.2 round out features that are effectively things every manufacturer is doing, but with marketing speak applied to make it sound unique or some how above and beyond the competition. When you separate fact from fiction, you’ll find that a lot of motherboard makers do almost all the same things each generation. The MSI Z370I Gaming Pro Carbon AC is no exception to this rule. I don’t see anything particularly innovative about it. However, its looks to be very well-executed.

Main Specifications Overview:

Detailed Specifications Overview:

Packaging

The box is small, which isn’t surprising. It’s essentially the same style artwork and package design used for the larger motherboards but scaled down. A cardboard insert protects the motherboard from damage while the accessories rest in a smaller box underneath the motherboard. Our sample arrived intact, with all accessories accounted for. Inside the box you’ll find the following accessories: Driver disc, SATA cables, I/O shield, SATA cable labels, user manual, product registration card, quick install guide, RGB extension header, wireless antennas, and a CORSAIR Individually Addressable RGB LED strip 5V connector cable.

Board Layout

The general layout of the MSI Z370I Gaming Pro Carbon AC is as good as you can expect for a motherboard of the size. As usual, SATA ports are split on both sides of the RAM slots which I find incredibly annoying. That said, were I to use this in a build I probably wouldn’t use more than one or two of these ports at most. I don’t think people buy mini-ITX motherboards and try to go for huge storage arrays given how limiting the form factor is. Therefore, it’s hard to argue that this is problematic. This isn’t something that’s unique to MSI either as I’ve seen this done on every mini-ITX motherboard I think I’ve ever reviewed.

The motherboard has two fan headers, both of which support PWM and DC control modes with what MSI calls "hysteresis." Fancy terminology aside, this is spin up and spin down speed control which allows the system to remain silent or at least, not alert you audibly with changing thermal conditions. Many people, including myself find fan speed changes rather annoying. I don’t care how loud the fans are to some extent. I just don’t like it when I can hear constant fan speed changes. By controlling the ramp up speed, manufacturers can keep those changes from being noticed. These headers also support AIO water cooling units and supports 2AM power output. You will also find the usual TPM header, RGB and USB headers in various locations on the PCB. For the most part, ports and headers are placed logically excluding the afore-mentioned SATA ports.

The CPU socket area is reasonably clear of obstructions. There are 8 power phases arranged in a 6+2 configuration with 6 dedicated to the CPU and 2 used for iGPU functions. What’s surprising is how thin the MOSFET coolers are. The thin, vertical orientation leaves the CPU area largely open and accommodating of larger coolers. These appear to be well made and are aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. These are secured with screws and are reasonably sturdy adding a feeling of quality to the motherboard.

There are four 288-pin DIMM slots which use MSI’s Steel Armor reinforcement brackets to prevent PCB warping and breakage during memory installation. These slots support a total of 32GB of RAM and are not color coded to denote proper dual channel memory mode operation. Although, with only two memory slots that’s irrelevant and coloring the slots for this purpose makes no sense. As I said earlier, the SATA ports flank either side of the RAM slots so you must potentially drape SATA cables over the DIMMs if you want to use all four ports. These slots use single sided locking tabs for module retention. This makes sense given the proximity to the expansion slot.

The chipset is cooled with a flat, passive heat sink. This heat sink is black in color and decently machined. It’s secured with screws rather than push pins and tension springs. The heat sink itself is one of the smallest I’ve ever seen to date. It is adorned by the MSI logo and woven carbon fiber-like accents. Around the heatsink you will find a few ports such as the TPM header and one of the fan headers.

There isn’t much to say about the expansion slot area given that it has only a single PCI-Express x16 Gen 3.0 slot. This slot uses MSI’s Steel Armor bracket for added strength and motherboard rigidity. Not that it’s needed on a motherboard of this size. Around the PCI-Express slot, you can see dedicated audio capacitors and the audio CODEC.

The I/O panel is what you’d expect given the amount of integrated options and features found on this motherboard. There is a dedicated PS/s keyboard or mouse port. 2x USB 2.0 ports, 2x USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports, 1x USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C port, 1x USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A port, 1x HDMI port, 1x DisplayPort connection, 1x RJ-45 port, 2x antenna connections, 1x optical output, and 5x mini-stereo jacks for analog audio. You will also find a single clear CMOS button on the back panel.