Today MSI are revealing the first teasing peeks at their upcoming refresh of the GAMING motherboard range, designed primarily for enthusiast gamers seeking to get the very most from their hardware and perhaps a few software goodies thrown in for good measure. These new designs may form the basis of Z97 when the updated chipsets from Intel roll in, but for now they give us the strongest indication of what to expect from MSI's designs intended for Intel socket LGA1150 motherboards.
You can see in this article pictures of each member of the GAMING range: the GAMING 3, GAMING 5 and GAMING 7. Briefly we should take note of the change in naming convention - it appears that MSI are dropping, or at least de-emphasising, their traditional 'G' system for a more straightforward representation of where the motherboard sits in a range. In all likelihood they'll still be preceded by the chipset, but we probably won't be seeing any more "Z87-G43 GAMING" esq SKUs. Reducing the potential for customer confusion is something we can always get behind, especially if it doesn't actually reduce choice.
All three new motherboards appear to conform to ATX size standards rather than the larger and more exotic EATX and XL-ATX, resulting in uniform case compatibility. Although there are no heatsinks a few features can be immediately discerned from the shots available, the clearest of which is the total elimination of PCI slots from the GAMING 5 and 7. These legacy slots are only available on the GAMING 3, and is the strongest indication yet that if you're still sporting this older format of cards for audio or wireless networking it may be time for an upgrade.
Each of the motherboards appear to be optimised for 2-way SLI, keeping a gap of two slots between the two main X16 PCIe lanes. This will help with cooling the topmost GPU and general air flow, although it does mean that triple-SLI may be effectively restricted to their extreme overclocking range.
The progression in power infrastructure between each of the motherboards is also clear. The GAMING 7, possibly the range leader, has significantly more real estate set aside for MOSFETS, VRMs and other components consistent with regulation of higher the voltages needed for higher CPU frequencies, whilst voltage monitoring points for high level overclocking are also present. Although each is likely to be capable of some level of overclocking, the GAMING 5 and especially GAMING 7 are the ones to go for if you're interested in really pushing your CPU.
As usual, MSI Audio Boost technology remains a fixture of the GAMING range, generally providing improved audio quality for the onboard solution.
Finally each is well equipped with SATA and USB 3.0 connectors, although one should stress that these are early samples which are very much subject to change. All four motherboards also have a single 8-pin 12VEPS supply for the CPU, ensuring consistent voltage supply but potentially necessitating an upgrade in your PSU if you're still utilising one with 4-pin CPU power.
If you're concerned about the lack of mini-ITX variant fear not, we're sure that MSI won't overlook this popular standard.
Additional Proprietary Features
SATA Express & M2 Storage
Breaking through the limits of SATA3 appears to be something of a feature for the new GAMING 'boards. Solid State Drive NAND arrays are capable of bandwidth far in excess of the ~600MB/s limits of SATA3 and SSD manufacturers have been butting up against that limit for years, so it's no wonder that the SATA standard steering committee SATA-IO have been pushed into action. The outcome is SATA Express, or SATAe.
The SATAe standard combines both SATA and PCI-Express signalling into one connector such that it remains backwards compatible to older SATA drives, but can unlock PCIe signalling when connected to a SATAe-compatible drive. MSI are implementing this standard in a way that is slightly off the beaten path - rather than push this relatively bulky connector solely to the already crowded motherboard surface it will be accessible through an add-in card.
M2 is a different beast which we have gone over before, but suffice it to say that it's a standard that's faster and much more space efficient than mSATA and unlike SATAe has been in mainstream production for quite some time. Like SATAe it makes use of PCIe signalling in order to push data bandwidth up to 10Gb/s, but is surface mounted rather than going through a cable. All three members of the GAMING range are equipped with the connector: the GAMING 3 and 5 locate it below the CPU socket, whilst the GAMING 7 includes it at the bottom of the board.
M2 connector on the upcoming MSI GAMING 7
By including both M2 and SATAe MSI are offering the potential for extreme levels of data bandwidth in excess even of today's fastest SATA drives, whilst still being compatible with any kit you may already have. It also means system builds with currently available hardware will be cleaner as it can take advantage of edge-mounted SATA connectors, rather than needing to go back to vertically-mounted sockets to be compatible with the next connector standard. Not bad, not bad at all.
MSI USB Audio Power
MSI USB Audio Power is intended to clean up the 5V line being delivered to your rear I/O, with the aim of greatly introducing the noise often associated with USB-powered devices such as headsets. Older solutions saw the power fluctuate greatly, becoming worse with every additional device connected via USB. Anything that improves audio fidelity for your (often quite expensive) peripherals sounds like good news to us.
Sometimes the small details matter. With the MSI GAMING line all I/O shields will match the range's black and red livery, ensuring that you won't be embarrassed when an acquaintance at a LAN catches a glimpse of the rear of your PC. Everything will still be labelled clearly of course, just in a more aesthetically consistent fashion.
Perhaps the most fascinating reveal is MSI's partnership with XSPLIT for their GAMING range; now each new motherboard comes with a 6-month premium subscription for their GAMECASTER streaming software. Designed to make streaming to a platform of your choice as simple as possible, GAMECASTER eschews some of the advanced options contained within the BROADCASTER app for a more streamlined UI that's easier for an amateur to get to grips with.
As well as the added value for anyone who is looking to stream their gameplay through their broadband connection, it's also important to note that the software is agnostic towards your graphics card type. This means that unlike NVIDIA's Shadowplay you can run it with both NVIDIA and AMD hardware, utilising CPU resources for encoding to FLV or MP4 (including the facility to make use of QuickSync via on-board Intel graphics). A premium licence also means that you're free to use it for commercial means.
Unfortunately we don't yet have an ETA on the new range, but we hope to have more information in the coming weeks. It's difficult to ascertain whether these are based on Intel's Z97 chipset, rumoured to be due to launch to coincide with the Haswell refresh later this Spring, but it's unlikely they would be using CeBIT as a venue without the release being relatively soon. From the looks of things MSI certainly appear to have things well in hand.