UK price (as reviewed): £179.99 (inc. VAT)
US price (as reviewed): $189.99 (exc. tax)
The sub-£200 motherboard market is a crowded one for the simple reason it's the first step up from your typical budget board for those that want to splash a little more cash for premium features. It's also where you'll need to aim if you want to push your CPU to its limits, with decent cooling and power circuitry being one of the main reasons to spend a little more these days, especially if you want to use Intel's new eight-core CPUs. MSI has plenty of excellent offerings above and below the £180 demanded by the MPG Z390 Gaming Pro Carbon AC, so how it compares to cheaper MAG Z390 Tomahawk and dearer MEG Z390 Ace will be just as important as its fight against the likes of the similarly-priced Gigabyte Z390 Aorus Pro and Asus TUF Z390-Plus Gaming (Wi-Fi).
The board sports an 11-phase power array with five doubled phases (10 if we're feeling generous) dealing with the CPU and one for the integrated graphics. The heatsinks aren't heat pipe-linked to even-out the heat load, but they're reasonably substantial. There's a hefty I/O area shroud with funky carbon fibre plus the only top side RGB lighting, with the rest under the right side of the PCB. If you want to add more, there are three headers (two four-pin 12V, one three-pin addressable) plus extension cables in the box. You get a healthy seven fan headers too, although only one is rated up to 24W to power liquid-cooling pumps. Gigabyte's offerings on the Z390 Aorus Pro are more flexible, offering more temperature inputs (including two custom probes) to be applied to each fan header as well as the ability to stop the fans under certain temperatures, but MSI's efforts here are still decent with a reasonable amount of control, even over an elaborate cooling system.
A quick glance doesn't reveal too many aesthetic improvements over the Tomahawk, but there's certainly less PCB showing and less separation between heatsinks too. You also get the chrome surrounds in the DIMM slots, and overall the board looks a little less skinny. However, digging into the specifications reveals an awful lot more premium tech for just £30 more compared to the Tomahawk.
For starters, you get a larger heatsink for the lower M.2 slot. On that note both slots support SATA 6Gbps or PCIe 3.0 x4 devices, but MSI has made a bit of a booboo in that the huge heatsink will sit under your graphics card. This isn't an issue as far as cooling goes, as it's unlikely it will absorb too much exhaust heat from your graphics card's cooler even if the latter has vents pointing at it. Instead, the issue is that you need to remove your graphics card in order to get at the top screw that secures the heatsink, so you can't remove your M.2 SSD here while your graphics card is installed.
That's probably not a massive issue for most, but it certainly will be if your graphics card is water-cooled and your SSD dies or you otherwise need to remove it. While the heatsink on the Tomahawk is smaller, it doesn't suffer from this issue, although the oversized heatsink here did knock 20°C off the load temperature of our Samsung 960 Evo.
You get the standard six SATA 6Gbps ports in addition to the pair of M.2 ports, but one other addition over the Tomahawk is a USB 3.1 Type-C header, which you can see clad in silver and aligned vertically in the image below. The latter board had one, but it was limited to the USB 3.0 standard (5Gbps instead of 10Gbps).
The rear panel reveals the onboard 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Thsi is another trump card over the Tomahawk and so is full-fat Realtek ALC1220 audio. Sensibly, MSI has ditched the bizarre second LAN port of the cheaper board, and the rest of the specification here is identical. We guess the better audio, USB 3.1 Type-C header, and inclusion of Wi-Fi mean that adding more USB ports here isn't an option given there's barely £30 between the boards, but we consider five Type-A ports to be a bare minimum and would like to have seen more at this price.
April 16 2021 | 18:20