Introduction, Design Features
AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper processors, teeming with cores, are among the best CPUs you can buy today for creative pursuits. They are certainly well-suited to content creation, but they also have game. (See our review of the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X, for one.) And no motherboard maker is going to miss an opportunity to target that lucrative community: PC gamers.
MSI’s X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC, as its name implies, tilts heavily toward gaming use. There aren’t a lot of X399 motherboards on the market at all, and all are pricey, in the $300-plus range; we saw just six models at the time of the Ryzen Threadripper launch, and we still see less than 10 for sale on Newegg.com at this writing. This model provides an alternative to the more strait-laced (and slightly less expensive) MSI X399 SLI Plus.
Now, Threadripper boards just aren’t cheap, but the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC’s price tag was a staggering $369.99 at Amazon. Even after a $20 mail-in rebate on offer, the board is pricey—though not, we should point out, the most expensive Socket TR4 motherboard on the market. Likewise, Newegg was offering the motherboard for $359.99, which will run you a (slightly more tolerable) total of $339.99 after the mail-in rebate. Either way, the message is clear: The X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC is meant for serious gamers willing to pay for the bells and whistles that make up a luxury motherboard. And while pricey, that’s the par for the course with these boards so far; the cheapest we saw on Newegg.com was $319.99 after rebate.
With its extra-large TR4 socket and X399 chipset, the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC supports AMD’s massive new processors. As we get into in great detail in the 1950X review linked above, the Threadripper CPUs are great choices for content-creation systems, thanks to their support for multi-threaded applications, but they also present some challenges to DIY builders. For one thing, installing a Threadripper processor is a more complicated undertaking than installing typical AMD or Intel processors. For another, your cooling options aren’t broad when installing a Threadripper. And what coolers you can find may not be able to handle the heat, if you choose to overclock one of these beasts.
Gamers and content creators will find plenty to like about the X399 chipset. Quad-channel DDR memory is supported—a must for any board facing off against Intel’s latest chipsets. The chipset is also capable of handling up to 66 PCI Express Gen 3.0 lanes and eight PCI Express Gen 2.0 lanes, and it goes big with plenty of USB 3.1 Gen1 and Gen2 ports and SATA ports.
For the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC, MSI focused on those features that make for better gaming, including the support for multiple video cards. The Gaming Pro Carbon supports up to 4-way SLI or CrossFire, should you have the cash and inclination to pick up four graphics cards. (Or in the case of Nvidia’s latest “Pascal”/10-series generation, two cards, the most that are officially supported.)
The MSI X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC has a tough, moody vibe going for it. The motherboard bristles with steel and steel-colored accents. Carbon fiber on its three different heatsinks pumps up the board’s style, as does the Mystic Light RGB LED illumination. On looks alone, the board will appeal to just about any gamer. As gamers who prefer sophisticated designs and moderate bling, we think the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC hits the sweet spot.
The oversize “TR4” CPU socket (the codename for the Threadripper socket), 13 power phases, and a whopping eight memory slots take up most of the motherboard’s upper half. The socket frame is more complicated than previous consumer-board CPU socket frames we’ve worked with, and we’ll discuss the installation process on the next page. MSI covers the socket itself with the standard cap and an extra plastic cover.
Thanks to the Ryzen Threadripper’s support for quad-channel memory, the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC has four memory slots on either side of the TR4 socket. All together, the slots support up to 128GB of DDR4 memory (up to DDR4 3600), should you have the budget for a matched quad-channel set. MSI wrapped the memory slots in steel for better support. It also opted to put a non-moving tab at the bottom of each memory slot, to prevent contact with your video card. The thumb tabs at the top of each memory slot swivel to lock/unlock the memory modules.
The lower half of the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC is also crowded, thanks in part to M.2 slots. Motherboard makers have been cramming their boards with M.2 connectors, sometimes reducing the number of standard PCI Express slots in the process. MSI manages to squeeze three M.2 slots of various lengths onto the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC while still finding room for two PCI Express x1 slots and four PCI Express x16 slots. With the real estate reduced, due to the size of the AMD Threadripper-chip socket, that’s a lot packed onto an ATX motherboard.
All told, the motherboard has three M.2 connectors for PCI Express 3.0 x4 NVMe storage or other devices. The two M.2 connectors that bump up against the two PCI Express x1 slots support devices up to Type-2280 (80mm long), while the center M.2 connector can handle devices up to Type-22110 (110mm).
All three of the M.2 connectors feature shields over the top that will cover any drive. Each shield has a thermal pad underneath that provides extra cooling for your storage device.
Like we’ve seen on many high-end boards of late, MSI wrapped the PCI Express x16 slots in steel sheathing to reinforce them against the weight of your video card (or cards). As we noted, the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC can handle up to 4-Way AMD CrossFire or 4-Way Nvidia SLI setups, though we suspect that many gamers, having already dropped huge chunks of their budget into the pricey motherboard, CPU, and system memory, won’t max out the video card slots. Indeed, with the latest Nvidia cards limited to a pair in SLI, and AMD’s Vega cards in such short supply, two cards is likely to be the practical upper limit for most buyers who don’t own a trio or quartet of previous-gen cards.
It’s worth noting that packing the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC with all of these features has resulted in some difficult design choices. MSI puts the first PCI Express slot just millimeters away from the left-hand bank of memory slots, and about the same distance from a six-pin power connector…
Board power connectors like this one can be a pain to attach and remove; trying to connect one with memory DIMMs and a video card nearby is even more challenging.
The X399 chipset is one of the few features on the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC that has plenty of room. MSI bills the heatsink as a “gaming heatsink,” capable of handling heavy loads. As we mentioned earlier, MSI gave the heatsink a carbon-fiber strip. The MSI logo is large and easy to spot through a case window, provided your view isn’t obstructed by video cards. And MSI added a light that shines into a crevice in the heatsink, which makes for a very slick, subtle accent. Interestingly, you can also swap certain heatsink covers with different covers included in the accessories package.
MSI also installed RGB LED lighting in the audio heatsink and the cover of the I/O panel’s shield, as well as underneath the motherboard, down by the SATA and USB 3.0 ports. All of the lights are governed by MSI’s Mystic Light package, which works with the free Mystic Light software for Windows, as well as the free Mystic Light Android and iOS apps. Your customization options are myriad: You can choose from multiple animations and virtually any color, as Mystic Light supports 16.8 million color choices. Want the lighting scheme to reflect the temperature of your CPU? No problem. The software also allows for coordination with other Mystic Light-compatible components.
The X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC also supports connecting two RGB lighting strips, giving you plenty of options to extend the Mystic Light animations elsewhere in your PC case. Both strip headers are at the bottom-left corner of the motherboard, and both support RGB LED light strips, though one header is designed specifically for RGB rainbow strips. You’ll want to pay attention to the manual when setting up your lighting, and consult it before buying any. Because the two headers have different voltages, you can damage certain lighting strips by attaching them incorrectly.
MSI, like Asus, has gotten into the 3D-printed accessories game, and it provides the plans for several 3D-printed parts for the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC, including a M.2 fan cooler and a slick SATA cable cover. The box also includes screws for mounting 3D-printed accessories.
The back of the motherboard is mostly unremarkable…
It has a large, sturdy backplate for the TR4 CPU socket, as well as screws for the X399 chipset heatsink. Above, you can see the eight LEDs along the lower-left side of the board, in a line like enemies from Space Invaders, that handle the lighting under the SATA ports.
The X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC has a loaded I/O panel.
As you’d expect, the far right of the panel is dedicated to audio ports. MSI uses individual PCB layers for left and right audio channels, and sticks with Chemi-Con golden audio capacitors and a Realtek ALC1220 Codec. The audio ports themselves deliver 7.1 channel sound and S/PDIF-out.
Much of the rest of the I/O panel is consumed by USB ports. The panel features two USB 2.0 ports, eight USB 3.0 ports, and two USB 3.1 Gen2 ports (one Type-A, and one Type-C). The Type-C port is handy for connecting modern devices, and it would be missed on a high-end board like the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC.
The panel also features a Gigabit LAN port, backed by an onboard Intel I211 Gigabit Ethernet controller. A PS/2 port is available for certain mechanical (or legacy) keyboards. In a nod to gamers, overclockers, and tinkerers, MSI put a Clear CMOS button and a BIOS Flashback+ button at the other end of the I/O panel from the audio jacks. Being able to clear the CMOS without opening the PC is handy. The Flashback+ feature helps you update the BIOS from a flash drive, even before the system is completely built.
Power delivery to this motherboard is more extensive than on any we’ve seen in recent memory. Three of the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC’s four power connectors sit just behind the I/O panel, around the left-hand bank of memory slots. Two of these connectors are the eight-pin units that provide power to the CPU (most consumer boards have just one of these!), while the third one, the six-pin connector that we pointed out above, handles power for the PCI Express slots. Guiding the PSU cables to these connectors can be a little tricky (especially when it comes to reaching the PCI Express connector), but MSI left an unobstructed channel alongside the memory, which makes for a straight cable run from the top of the board. The main 24-pin power connector is right where you’d expect it to be: on the right side of the motherboard.
The X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC sports six fan headers, including the CPU fan and water-pump headers. That’s a reasonable number of connectors for most builds. We don’t have any complaints about the locations of the headers. The CPU and water connectors sit near the top-right corner of the board, another fan connector sits just behind the I/O panel, and the remaining three are lined up along the board’s lower edge.
Because of the crowded layout, the right side of the motherboard is short on space. MSI stuck to the usual suspects here, putting the board’s eight SATA 6Gbps connectors, the 24-pin power connector, and the two big USB 3.0 header connectors on this edge.
We expected to see an internal front-panel USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C connector on a motherboard as luxurious as the X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC, and it is there—but not in the typical right-edge location. MSI opted to put this new-style header connector on the bottom edge of the board, near the right corner. You can see it here, just to the left of the Reset button…
So long as the cable for the case’s front-panel USB Type-C connector can reach that far, the location isn’t a problem. That said, we’d rather have the standard front-panel headers (for the power/reset buttons, the activity LEDs, and so on) in the right corner, where they typically sit on motherboards. Because of the position of the USB Type-C connector and some other buttons, the front-panel headers are closer to the center of the board’s bottom edge.
The buttons in the right corner represent another nod to gamers. MSI put Reset and Power buttons here, making it easy to get your system going without the fine-wire front-panel connections being made. The buttons are tall enough that we can easily reach them without bumping other components. The dial that sits next to the buttons is marked “OC1,” but is known officially as the Game Boost Knob. Once you configure the knob in the BIOS, you can turn it clockwise to select increasingly intensive overclocking settings.
MSI tucked a few features just below the X399 chipset, including a debug LED readout, a “demo LED” button (sometimes used by retailers), and a Slow Mode Booting Jumper, which is designed to help veteran DIYers who use extreme cooling methods while overclocking.
The remaining headers include a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) header, the usual front-panel audio header, and two USB 2.0 headers. MSI does a nice job of labeling its components, which will make setting up your PC a little easier.