The Z170 market is a confusing one with the main motherboard manufacturers each boasting dozens of products, many of which are extremely similar if not carbon copies of one another. Like Gigabyte and ASUS, MSI is guilty of this market saturation as well, particularly between the $125 and $175 price points where they have no fewer than eleven different motherboards. In today’s review we’ll be looking at the Z170A Tomahawk AC, an affordable yet extremely feature-rich motherboard that breaks with the sameness the market has been experiencing in some pretty unique ways.
Trying to market Z170 motherboards hasn’t been easy since the processors they’re attached to have struggled to distinguish themselves from the generation they replaced. However, the platform itself represents something of a renaissance moment from a connectivity standpoint since elements like M.2, USB-C and numerous other features that used to be only available on the enthusiast-grade X99 platform are now more accessible than ever. An excellent example of these market forces at work is the all new MSI Z170A Tomahawk AC.
This newcomer to the marketplace is part of MSI’s Arsenal series and as such is focused with laser like intensity on the PC gamers; but unlike most so-called ‘gaming’ motherboards we have looked at, the $135 Z170A Tomahawk AC is not priced to stratospheric levels. When compared to so called entry level ASUS Republic of Gamers motherboards this looks like a downright bargain.
While this motherboard may be frugally priced, that is not the same as saying it is cheap. Instead of boatloads of cutting-edge features MSI has simplified the motherboard and packed a lot of value added items that are focused upon improving a user’s gaming experience. This is why you won’t find any fancy plastic fascia coverings, metal clad PCI-E ports, U.2 ports, multiple M.2 storage options, or even a massive number of SATA ports. Instead MSI has spent most of their time, energy, and budget in a few critical areas: the onboard sound, network connectivity, overclocking, and USB connectivity. These four areas combine to create what MSI hopes is a winning formula that can make an already reasonably priced motherboard into one that speaks directly to its intended audience.
For the onboard sound solution MSI has opted for the 7.1 channel capable Realtek ALC892 controller. While this controller is not as potent as the ALC1500, its capabilities are still well regarded, especially when combined with Japanese Chemicon caps and an isolated section of the PCB to cut down on interference. The Realtek controller’s drivers are arguably more stable than their SoundBlaster counterparts so what they give up in fancy advanced software abilities they make up for in actually working properly. Unfortunately, MSI hasn’t included any op-amps (not even $2 Texas Instrument op-amps), nor have they added any advanced features like an EMI shield, or de-pop relay. Put another way this sound solution is barebones, but as it is electronically separated from the rest of the motherboard, its abilities should still be more than good enough to satisfy the typical entry level consumer – who will not be using $1000 speaker systems!
For making overclocking as simple as possible MSI has not only added support for DDR4-3600 speeds right into this board’s DNA, but also included a very decent power delivery subsystem that makes use of high quality ‘military grade’ components that have a reputation for durability and stability. Automatic overclocking gets some emphasis as well, being a single BIOS button press away as this board comes with what MSI is calling ‘Game Boost’ – or what used to be called OC Genie. A single button press is about as easy as can be, and yet Game Boost does promise to deliver a noticeable increase in performance – more on this later in the review.
The two real stars of this motherboard though are the networking options and connectivity. For USB 3.1 abilities MSI has opted for the ASMedia controller that is fighting tooth and nail to stay relevant in the face of Intel’s more powerful option, but is still much more potent a controller than the typical entry level consumer has access to. On the networking side of the equation MSI may only include a single Realtek RTL8111H-based RJ45 port, but they also do something more expensive ASUS RoG boards cannot: include full Wireless 802.11AC!
The included dual band WiFi + Bluetooth 4.0 capable M.2 card really, really does push this motherboard over the edge and potentially into best in class territory. It is this combination of features and price that demanded we take a closer look. When you mix in additional value added items such as onboard LEDs and 24 hour component testing at the factory level, the end result is the Z170A Tomahawk AC may not just be a good gaming orientated product but a great all round motherboard as well.