The Intel Z87 chipset has been a fantastic one for mini-ITX. Asus offered not one but two enthusiast-grade boards in the form of the Maximus VI Impact and Z87i-Pro, while EVGA and Gigabyte have been getting in on the act too with the Z87 Stinger and GA-Z87N-WiFi.
MSI hasn't been idle either, with the MSI Z87I being the best bet for a budget but overclockable Z87 mini-ITX motherboard. It clearly wasn't content to just occupy the lower end of the scale, though, and good as the MSI Z87I is, it does lack the wow factor that many of the competition's boards offer.
So, just as Asus has done for the first time with its ROG brand, MSI has now included a mini-ITX offering in its Gaming series lineup, and if its large siblings are anything to go by the MSI Z87I Gaming AC could certainly set the cat among the pigeons.
The price is the first thing that stands out. At £123, it's only around £20 more than MSI's own Z87I and some £40 less than Asus and EVGA's top offerings. You do actually lose some features in that money saving though. The Z87I Gaming lacks the swanky power circuitry of both Asus boards, although its six phase delivery matches that of the Stinger.
If you're not up to date with your WiFi standards then the AC in the name may not mean much to you, but it's essentially referring to the 802.11ac mini PCI-E WiFi card bundled with the board. This is in the form of Intel's 7260 module with integrated Bluetooth. It's actually available separately for around £25 and will certainly give a hefty boost over typical 802.11n speeds, at least in raw throughput if not in low latency.
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The Z87I Gaming AC is certainly much better looking than its cheaper sibling too and the heatsinks that are included shouldn't interfere with any coolers. Layout on the hole is good, although there are a couple of bones to pick here. The 8-pin EPS12V connector is in a pretty awkward place right behind the mosfet heatsink. The SATA ports too are effectively at the top of the motherboard - a slightly bizarre choice, although in many mini-ITX cases with a horizontal motherboard mount such as the BitFenix Prodigy, this isn't too much of an issue - in fact in the Prodigy they rest right next to the two side 2.5in mounts.
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Other issues are the 24-pin ATX connector and USB 3.0 header which, like the SATA ports, sit at the top of the motherboard - again how much of a pain this is will depend on your case but in a tower case with the PSU at the bottom and motherboard mounted vertically, you'll just have to hope you can hide the PSU cable. Compared to other mini-ITX motherboards the CPU socket is placed very low indeed so CPU coolers that are particularly wide might have issues too.
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Aside from the 802.11ac WiFi adaptor, there are a couple of other notable features. The small ALC 1150 audio chip is actually isolated from the rest of the motherboard and also features a 600ohm headphone amplifier. Also, if you already own an MSI Gaming graphics card, slotting one in to the Z87I Gaming will unlock power limitations when overclocking via a feature called VGA Boost. Another thing we noticed in the specifications is that there's a 16GB memory limit - not likely to be an issue seeing as this should be ample for the average life of a motherboard bought now anyway but EVGA's Stinger and Asus' Maximus VI Impact do support 32GB if this is an issue for you.
Chipset Intel Z87
CPU support LGA1150 compatible
Memory support 2 slots: max 16GB
Sound 8-channel Realtek ALC1150
Networking Killer E2205 Gigabit, Intel 7260 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth
Ports 5 x SATA 6Gbps via Intel Z87 1 x eSATA 6Gbps, 6 x USB 3.0 (2 x via header), 4 x USB 2.0 ( 2 x via header), 1 x LAN, audio out, line in, mic, Optical S/PDIF out, HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI, half-height mini PCI-E