MSI has been making quite a stir in the motherboard market. Their performance series' of gaming motherboards have received many accolades for their easy overclocking ability and rich feature sets. Earlier this year, I built a system with the Z270 Gaming M7 and was universally impressed. This summer, I decided to build a new gaming and editing machine based on Ryzen 7 and reached out to MSI to see if I could take a peek at their AMD offerings. They sent the X370 Gaming Pro Carbon, a full ATX board currently available for as low as $169.99. It's fantastic and a great choice for new builders. Let me tell you why.
- Socket: AM4
- Chipset: X370
- Form Factor: ATX
- Memory Support: DDR4, Dual Channel (4-slots, up to 64GB)
- Memory Speed: DDR4 3200(OC)+/ 2933(OC)/ 2667(OC)/ 2400/ 2133/ 1866
- Expansion Slots: 2 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots, 1 x PCIe 2.0 x16 slot, 3 x PCIe 2.0 x1 slots
- Storage: 6 x SATA 6Gb/s ports, 2 x M.2 slots (Key M), SATA RAID: 0/1/10
- Audio Chipset: Realtek ALC1220, 7.1 Channel
- LAN Chipset: Intel i211AT, 10/100/1000Mbps
- Rear Panel: 1 x PS/2 keyboard/mouse port, 1 x DVI-D port,1 x HDMI, 1 x RJ45, 4 x USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-A ports, 1 x USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-A port, 1 x USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C port, 2 x USB 2.0 Type-A ports, 1 x Optical, 5 x OFC audio jacks
- Internal Connections: 2 x USB 2.0 connectors, 2 x USB 3.1 Gen1 connectors, 1 x 4-pin CPU fan connector, 1 x 4-pin water-pump-fan connector, 4 x 4-pin system fan connectors, 1 x TPM module connector, 1 x Front panel audio connector, 2 x System panel connectors, 1 x Chassis Intrusion connector, 1 x Clear CMOS jumper, 1 x 4-pin RGB LED strip connector
- Additional Features: GPU and DRAM Steel Armor, Mystic Light/Mystic Light Sync, Turbo M.2, VR Boost, Audio Boost, Gaming LAN with LAN Protect, EZ Debug LED, Click BIOS 5, Multi-GPU Enabled
Until this year, most of my system building has been Intel based. Coming to AMD's Ryzen platform, I had to learn about the different chipsets and what they meant for my system. If you're a gamer, there are really only two choices worth considering: B350 and X370. Both are capable of overclocking, so the differentiating factors come down to four extra USB ports, three more SATA connections, two extra PCIe lanes, and multi-GPU support. In MSI's case, the X370 version also includes an extra M.2 slot which could prove important if you're the kind of gamer that upgrades their system over time. If you can live without those things, MSI's B350 is still going to be an excellent choice.
But let's get right down to it. The MSI's X370 Gaming Pro Carbon is a great motherboard. It is loaded with features that make it a great choice for any builder. In my case, multi-GPU support is a must. Even though I only slotted a single card, being able to expand my graphics capability with SLI is a huge value. The additional M.2 slot is also a huge plus. Like the GPU, I only slotted one, but when it's time to expand I don't want to be forced to remove my other one and put it in a drawer somewhere. Expandability is the name of the game with the X370 Gaming Pro Carbon.
The amount of onboard connections is fantastic also. There are six SATA 6Gb/s ports (five usable if you use dual M.2 drives) which should be more than enough for most gamers. The second M.2 disables SATA3 and the third PCIe slot – a similar case to my Gaming M7, which left me puzzled why one of my drives wasn't working until I remembered this limitation. There are four USB headers, two each for USB 2.0 and 3.0, for four extra ports for each. There are also four fan headers on top of your standard CPU fan and pump connections, all of which offer voltage control. The board itself is RGB enabled with Mystic Light Sync and includes an LED strip connection to easily sync your compatible system lighting using optional software. All of these headers are smartly placed, making it easy to connect every component with room to spare, a huge boon to cable management.
The board also features an EZ Debug LED indicator. The indicator is limited to CPU, BOOT, DRAM, and VGA indicators, so it's less defined than some I've seen, but is still a great feature for narrowing down why the system may be malfunctioning.
On the rear of the board, you'll find a total of six USB ports: 2x USB 2.0, 4x USB 3.1 Gen 1, 1x USB 3.1 Gen 2, and 1x USB Gen 2 Type C. You'll also have five audio ports and an optical S/PDIF out powered by RealTek ALC1220, an Intel i211AT gigabit ethernet port, your standard PS/2 connections for mouse and keyboard, and both an HDMI and DVI-D out, though neither will work on Ryzen 7 which doesn't have display support build into the CPU.
Boosts and Extras
The X370 Gaming Pro Carbon features MSI's suite of enthusiast add-ons. All four DDR4 memory and two GPU bearing PCIe slots are reinforced with Steel Armor to prevent torque from today's large graphics cards. It's purely aesthetic on the RAM slots but makes for a good look with the metal accents.
The first M.2 slot also includes a heat dispersing shield. I've never run into thermal throttling issues on either of my MSI motherboards with solid state drives, but I maintain my skepticism on positioning a heat sensitive component directly underneath the heatsink of the GPU. Either the M.2 shield is doing its job or these drives aren't as heat sensitive as that shield would make it seem because there's no doubt that this first M.2 is facing heat.
Then there are the “boosts.” VR Boost aims to reduce latency and prevent motion sickness. The Audio Boost 4 feature isolates the audio circuitry to prevent interference and provide an amplified signal for high end headphones and audio gear. Audio Boost 4 also works in conjunction with the Nahimic audio software to provide excellent positional sound and a much greater latitude for control than provided by windows (including some nice mic enhancements). Typically I avoid most included software, but Nahimic's latest release is actually very well done and simulates positional audio better than some surround sound headsets I've heard. In my testing with my Blue Lola high fidelity stereo headphones, I found the audio output to be sufficient but would still recommend a separate amplifier to get the most out of an audiophile grade of headphones.
It's also worth noting that the board is aesthetically neutral and should look good in most setups. The MSI branding is illuminated with Mystic Light Sync in above the rear panel and chipset heatsink, and you can change its color to match your theme and even add a few animations for flair.
Once everything is installed and you boot into the BIOS you're treated to a wealth of options. New users will want to stick with the EZ mode, but advanced users can switch into a deeper display mode, presenting you with all of your overclocking presets and manual configurations. For CPU overclocking, I'm a big fan of beginning with an MSI custom overclocking preset. The firm has done the heavy lifting here and if you don't mind dealing with some extra volts, you can select the frequency you're looking for and be done with it (probably – silicon lottery still is in effect). I found these to be quite stable, but MSI does opt for much higher voltages than I found necessary on my CPU. If your chip will support it, you can easily drop these voltages and save the temperature and possible thermal throttling.
Memory overclocking is a little less stable; however, I don't feel confident in drawing hard conclusions at this point. Importantly, the memory kits I had on hand for testing were not designed for Ryzen specifically, which is known to cause issues with compatibility at higher frequencies (the kits we tested were listed as compatible on MSI's Ryzen list). The Carbon is rated for a maximum frequency of 3200MHz, but across three separate memory kits from Crucial, G.Skill, and Patriot, the highest I was able to achieve and still POST was 2933MHz. MSI has been rolling out updates on almost a bi-weekly basis, so it's entirely possible that whatever conclusion we could draw would be moot on the next update.
Once you're booted into Windows, the driver CD and Live Update utility will get everything functioning and up to date. As a rule, I eschew most included software, but I found several apps actually became daily uses for me. The Command Center is the most important, allowing you to adjust your overclocks and fan profiles without rebooting and monitor system performance. Super Charger allows you to enable rapid charging for high performance smart phones. RAMDisk allows you to, you guessed it, easily mount a RAM disk. Nahimic too, which I talked about before is also worth keeping enabled.
After a good couple weeks using the MSI X370 Gaming Pro Carbon, I am just as impressed as I was with my more expensive Gaming M7. As an enthusiast that will be pushing and expanding my system, it provides the extra utility I need to prepare for the future without needing to start all over again. Building a system with it was easy and getting it up and running was very straightforward. Most importantly, though, the system has been rock solid. There's a bit too much software, but amongst the what's included are some great apps worth using on a regular basis. If you're an enthusiast, the X370 Gaming Pro Carbon offers reliability and performance that can easily stand against boards that are much more expensive. For that reason, it comes highly recommended.
- Multi-GPU support
- Extra SATA and USB connections
- 2x M.2 PCIe Slots
- Lots of fan headers with voltage control
- Intuitive BIOS with easy overclocking and system monitoring
- Shared M.2 connectivity with one PCIe and SATA3
- Illumination limited to two zones
- EZ Debug indicator limited to general sections
- Still too much included software