If you've held off on building a new PC for a couple of years, then the computing world has well and truly passed you by. Things have changed. No longer is gaming the exclusive domain of big, Extended ATX PC cases with equally massive motherboards and two or three graphics cards in SLI. In 2016, your gaming PC genuinely can be the same one that sits in the corner of your living room. I've been looking for a good, small motherboard for a top of the line Core i7 Skylake CPU for a little while, and I think I've decided on MSI's tiny Z170I Gaming Pro AC.
I've written in the past about how gaming PCs are getting smaller, and especially in the latest Z170 iteration of Intel's enthusiast chipsets, that's very much true — we've reached a point where tiny PCs are able to push higher-than-1080p monitors — we're talking the excellent 2560x1440 pixel Asus MG279Q (with AMD's 144 hertz FreeSync variable refresh rate tech), we're talking Ultra HD monitors and big-screen TVs — with perfectly acceptable frame rates. If you're still using a 1080p monitor or TV, any half-decent new PC is going to be more than powerful enough — as long as you have good components.
The heart of a system is the motherboard — it's the point of interconnect between your CPU, your graphics card, your RAM, your SSD. (Yes, your SSD. Don't tell me it's 2016 and you're still using a dinosaur-burning spinning-disk mechanical hard drive.) You've got to get it right, and when you're building a gaming machine that usually means going over the top and over-speccing — just to make sure you don't lose out on features you might use next year or in a couple of years. For a board that is genuinely stacked with tech, though, the Z170I Gaming Pro AC from MSI is surprisingly cheap — I've seen it for under $250.
It's a great all-in-one motherboard. If you built a system five years ago, you'd have been silly not to get an add-in or external Wi-Fi card. The Z170 Gaming Pro AC has an integrated Intel dual-band 802.11ac 8260 Wi-Fi module, and courtesy of two add-on antennas that screw into the rear I/O plate, it's actually extremely fast and high quality. Along with that there's a high quality integrated headphone amp, fast USB 3.1, and a bunch of SATA3 ports for all your old-school storage devices. It even has integrated graphics through the Intel CPU, so you could go without a GPU if you wanted.
It's made for fast RAM and faster storage. One of the huge advances in PC tech in the last couple of years has been the M.2 small-form-factor integrated SSD module — perfect for the stupidly fast Samsung 950 Pro, for example, or any other fast PCI-E NVMe M.2 drive that you can find (as long as it fits the 60mm module size). The Z170I Gaming Pro AC has one of these on the back, away from heat-producing CPU and GPU, and its DDR4 RAM support includes overclocking until upwards of 3600MHz — as long as you have sticks that can support those speeds. Crazy fast.
That M.2 slot, though, is a hair too small. Because it's a shorter board, the M.2 slot doesn't have enough length to support Samsung's 950 Pro with its 60mm capacity, which is a problem since the 950 Pro is a full 80mm long. One small issue that stops it from using what is basically the fastest SSD storage that any gamer is going to have access to in 2016. It's a real pity! You'll have to find an alternative, and they're certainly out there, but it's just a little disappointing. And you still have all that SATA storage space to use up, too.
It's small. Obviously. Being a mini-ITX board, the Z170I Gaming Pro AC packs all its circuitry and smarts into a 17x17cm square form factor. It's amazing how densely packed it is, and how weighty such a small board is as a result. But that does mean you have to make the massive compromise of only having a single PCI-Express 16X slot, which will inevitably be used by a graphics card if you intend on doing any kind of gaming on this board. Any other add-ins better use USB 3.0, because you don't have any other internal connectivity on a board this small.
It's a little short on cooling support. Only two onboard fan headers — one for the CPU fan, one for a single system fan — is a bit lackluster compared to to Asus' Maximus VIII Impact. The Impact series has been the gamer's go-to for a mini ITX board for a long time now, and has a third fan connector. Also, an inherent limitation of mini ITX boards is the restrictions they place upon larger air-driven CPU coolers; larger Noctua or Thermalright coolers just won't fit, since they'll foul on the board's own heatsinks and the DDR4 slots.
I really like the MSI Z170I Gaming Pro AC — it's only the small issue with that M.2 slot that turns me off. I think it'd make a great centrepiece for a high-powered, pint-size gaming or 4K home theatre system, as long as you don't want to pair it with a Samsung M.2 SSD.