Introduction, Design, Features
Although Intel’s eighth-generation “Coffee Lake” CPUs fit ordinary LGA 1151 sockets, they aren’t backward-compatible with older chipsets such as the Z270. You’ll need to invest in a motherboard with the Z370 chipset when you build a PC around your new processor, so plan your budget accordingly.
The good news is that most Z370 motherboards aren’t priced sky-high. That’s not to say they won’t put a dent in your build budget; many Z370 boards (and especially gaming boards) push past the $200 mark. But compared to boards supporting AMD’s massive Ryzen Threadripper CPUs, they are a bargain. MSI’s X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC, for example, sells for more than $380. The MSI Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC we’re checking out today can readily be found for $10 or $20 below what seems to be a $209.99 list price.
In fact, you can shave some additional dollars off the price of your motherboard if you’re willing to part with wireless network access—a feature that many gamers rarely use. We’ve seen the Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon, minus the 802.11ac wireless add-on card, for as little as $169.99 online. With or without Wi-Fi, the Gaming Pro Carbon boards are among your best MSI choices for Z370 boards—short of the elusive Godlike Gaming model, which will run you $499.99.
The Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC has an uncluttered layout and understated color scheme that work together to create a very sophisticated (yet still gamer-friendly) appearance. The PCB is black, with gray beams streaking across the board. Although the gray isn’t quite as shiny as the steel that protects the PCI Express and memory slots, it meshes nicely.
Carbon fiber adorns the Z370 chipset’s heatsink, as well as the large shroud over the I/O ports. The look is very gamer, but it presents a lighting challenge for MSI by dramatically reducing the surface area that would support an LED-backlit cutout. MSI cleverly handled that issue by tucking LEDs underneath the edges of the heatsink and shroud, letting the light shine onto nearby surfaces.
The top half of the board sports an oversized I/O panel shroud that blends an L-shaped heatsink for the Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC’s power phases. That heatsink, along with the memory slots and a thermal shield for the nearby M.2 slot, create a clear, square-shaped space around the LGA 1151 socket.
The socket has plenty of room for coolers. If you’ve built a system with an LGA 1151 socket before, you’ll have no trouble installing a processor and cooler on the Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC. In fact, CPU installation on an LGA 1151 will probably be easy even for a first-time builder. The only catch is that any cooler will have a backplate that you’ll need to press against the board while installing the heatsink. The process isn’t particularly difficult, but adding a cooler to a socket that has screw holes (like the LGA 2066 on the Asus ROG Strix X299-E Gaming) is a far smoother experience.
MSI wrapped the Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC’s four memory slots in steel to provide better protection for the plastic spots—and, no doubt, to add a little flair. We’ve seen LED strips between memory slots on some recent boards, but MSI opted not to do that here, sticking with just the steel. That’s a fine decision in our book, considering how well the steel fits the overall theme of the motherboard.
The memory slots support up to 64GB of up to DDR-4000 DIMMs in a typical dual-channel configuration. Both ends of the slots have thumb tabs that lock the memory into place.
The thermal shield for the top M.2 slot is well out of the way of the CPU socket, so you could install either the CPU or your (presumably) SSD first without affecting the other. The slot is quite close to the top PCI Express x16 slot, however, so you’ll have more room to work with if you install the SSD before the video card.
The first thing we noticed about the lower half of the Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC is that the audio chip and other elements aren’t covered by a heatsink or shroud. Many gaming motherboards sport shrouds that extend from the I/O shroud to the lower end of the board, creating a clean look in front of the PCI Express slots. Some even use the extra surface area to add LEDs. MSI skipped all of that in this case, leaving its Audio Boost hardware in the open, which is fine by us.
MSI put two M.2 slots on the motherboard. Thanks to the board’s included Wi-Fi card, you won’t need to waste one of the slots on a Wi-Fi M.2 device and can use both for SSDs or Intel Optane memory, if you so choose.
The top M.2 slot is the longer of the two, at size 22110. The other slot (which doesn’t have a heatsink) accommodates devices up to 80mm (size 2280). A PCI Express x1 slot prevents the slot from supporting 110mm devices.
Two of the three long PCI Express expansion slots are wrapped in steel. The top slot supports up to 16 lanes, while the next slot offers 8. Both slots run at x8 when you plug two video cards in and run them in SLI. The lowest slot doesn’t get the steel-wrapping treatment, but it’s not likely to see much in the way of heavy add-on cards, unless you opt for three-way AMD CrossFire. (On the Nvidia side of things, two-way SLI is supported.)
The three PCI Express x1 slots also don’t have steel exteriors. The uppermost x1 slot will almost certainly be blocked by your video card, but with two nearby, that’s not likely to be a big issue.
As for lights, the Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC has plenty. As we mentioned earlier, the I/O shroud and chipset heatsink have LEDs designed to accentuate the carbon fiber strips.
MSI also put LEDs on the back side of the Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC, using the right edge of the board to reflect light off your PC case’s motherboard tray. And MSI embedded an LED vein in the left side of the board, near the audio capacitors.
The Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC’s LED layout makes for an excellent light show through a PC case window. Dubbed Mystic Light, MSI’s RGB LED lighting creates plenty of customization possibilities. If you use the free Mystic Light Windows software or the mobile app, you can direct the lights to pulse, move with the beat of the music, or respond to the CPU’s temperature, among other animation tricks.
As much as we like the motherboard’s lighting scheme, we can see how some gamers will want even more lights. As we mentioned before, MSI opted for carbon fiber in areas where LED cutouts are the norm, so the board lacks the broad LEDs and backlit logos you’ll find on other boards, such as the Gigabyte Z370 Aorus Gaming 7 we recently took for a spin.
Of course, you can easily add lights to your system by plugging LED light strips into the Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC’s four light strip headers. Two are standard 12V RGB headers, while the other two include a 5V rainbow header and a special header dedicated to Corsair. You can connect Corsair’s RGB fan hub to this header, or you can plug in a Corsair light strip.
If you look at the back of the motherboard, you can see MSI’s Mystic Light LEDs running along the left edge. The board has several screws that DIYers can use to remove certain parts, including the chipset heatsink.
The Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon has an uncluttered I/O panel. In fact, MSI had room to add its dragon logo. We’ve seen extra space in the I/O panels of other Z370 boards, as well. Gigabyte, for example, put a tiny fan in the same location.
A DisplayPort and an HDMI port provide access to the onboard graphics, while two USB 3.1 Gen 2 (Type-A and Type-C) ports provide connections to modern devices. You have four USB 3.0 ports for standard peripherals, and a bank of two USB 2.0 ports. The I/O panel doesn’t have a Wi-Fi antenna, as the add-on card has its own, but it does have a port for the Intel Gigabit LAN controller.
MSI sprinkled a total of six fan headers on the Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC. We can see some DIY builders wanting more, but typical gamers probably won’t complain. Three (including the pump fan) sit near the top of the board, while another is by the top M.2 slot, providing easy access to the fan at the back of your PC case. The other two are at the lower and right edges.
The right edge of the board is remarkably uncluttered. MSI didn’t put buttons on the Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC—even Power and Reset buttons—and put most of its headers along the lower edge of the board. In fact, only four of the board’s six SATA ports are on the right edge. The other two are on the lower edge, standing perpendicular to the board.
The board doesn’t have an internal USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C connector, which might throw some users. It’s true that the many motherboards don’t yet offer the internal USB 3.1 connector. And the I/O panel has two USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports. Still, the internal connector shows up on the MSI X399 Gaming Pro Carbon AC and Gigabyte’s Z370 Aorus Gaming 7, so we’re a little surprised it didn’t appear here.
The right edge has the standard 24-pin power connector (the other, 8-pin power connector is at the top of the board) and two USB 3.0 headers. One of the headers stands perpendicular to the board, while the other faces off the edge, giving you options when it comes to cable management.
The lower edge of the board is a bit crowded, despite having just one system fan header. As we mentioned, two of the SATA connectors are here, as well as two of the four LED RGB headers. The edge also features audio and TPM headers, along with an LED demo button, chassis speaker and intrusion detector headers, and two USB 2.0 headers.
Our only gripe here is that the front panel header is the fifth connector from the right side of the Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC. The front panel header’s location could make it difficult to reach, in some circumstances, and it means that your front panel connector cables will stretch farther to reach it. We suspect most cables will reach the header, but cable management might get tricky. MSI could make things a little easier here by providing a plastic guide that a user could slide the headers into before plugging the guide onto the header.