Low-Cost Meets Eight Cores: MSI MAG Z390 Tomahawk Review

Software & Firmware

MSI Dragon Center includes performance tuning, hardware monitor and network optimization suites, in addition to user-oriented stuff like gamma customization and cloud service. Since the MAG Z390 Tomahawk underclocks at default settings, we skipped right past the OC button to one of the two customizable profiles.

Profile menus include both information and control icons, where we were able to fully configure the CPU Frequency section as long as we didn’t apply too heavy a software load.

Users can also configure warnings, which is something we wish we’d done before disabling voltage regulator thermal throttling.

DRAM timings can be adjusted in either per-channel or ganged mode, but any changes require a reboot.

Fan menu options include factory-programmed modes, automatic reconfiguration of factory-programed modes to match fan capabilities, and manual mode with the user’s choice of fixed settings or graphically plotted custom curves.

Users can choose the readings for a monitoring window which, due to the large fonts used, is probably optimized for 4k displays.

Gaming LAN Manager is MSI’s version of cFosSpeed.

MSI Mystic Light worked with both onboard lighting and our DRAM modules, but its reliance on our memory’s programmed lighting modes meant that it couldn’t time things like rainbow patterns to match. Also, the LEDs on the front edge couldn’t display a proper color wave, but instead changed color just on the top LED while strobing remaining LEDs before changing those to the new color simultaneously.

The “Sync” icon simply means that the same modes will be used, not the same speed or identical pattern, and typically lead to the memory doing its own thing while the onboard lighting got stuck to static red.

Firmware

MAG Z390 Tomahawk firmware opens the first time to its “EZ Mode” GUI, but remembers the mode used upon exit during consecutive entries. The standard “F7” keyboard function toggles between these modes.

If you were thinking that we couldn’t overclock a board that throttles our CPU below stock settings, you’d be half-right. Our CPU is rated at “up to” 4.70 GHz “Turbo Boost” with all eight cores loaded, and we found that the MAG Z390 Tomahawk could hold that setting by using overclocking techniques. Specifically, the board’s voltage regulator would only reach its 100° throttle point, without crossing it to force throttling, if we kept the CPU core voltage at or below 1.20V.

Our DDR4-2933 memory samples overclocked to a comparative-average DDR4-3800 at 1.351V, but the board required a 1.330V setting to reach that voltage as measured at the slots. While the DRAM Voltage reading of the OC Menu showed only 1.333V resulting, the Hardware Monitor menu gave a more-accurate report of 1.344V.

Our memory typically overclocks best at 19-21-21-42 timings on Intel platforms and 20-21-21-42 on AMD. The MAG Z390 Tomahawk provided those settings and far more, including IO Compensation and ODT Finetune settings for the memory tuning fanatic.

Keeping our CPU at or slightly below 1.200V under heavy loads required a “CPU Loadline Calibration Control” setting of “Mode 5”, where Modes 1 or 2 are more often used for higher-voltage overclocks. Those settings adjust core voltage to compensate for “droop” that occurs as the CPU is heavily loaded with operations such as our chosen Prime95 small-FFTs. You’ll also notice that we disabled “CPU VRM Over Temperature Protection,” which required us to keep a very watchful eye on the voltage regulator to make sure it didn’t go over 115 °C, as the only other option was to enable it and have the CPU throttle whenever it reached 100°. For daily use, we recommend leaving it enabled.

Other menus include a shortcut to the board’s firmware flashing interface, a page where custom firmware configurations can be saved as one of eight profiles (or transferred to a USB flash drive), a Hardware Monitor page that’s primarily dedicated to controlling the six PWM/Voltage-mode selectable fan headers, and a Board Explorer page where users can point their cursor at the desired interface to see the detected device’s description.

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  • Rogue Leader
    Absolutely shocked (not) that MSI has yet again released a fancy board that looks the part but can't walk the walk. This is what they are known for. I literally will not buy or recommend their boards for this fact, because for any good boards they release, they trick unwitting consumers with junk like this.
  • Onus
    This is the sort of board you might find in a Cyberpower or iBuypower "Gamer." It's a shame, because some MSI boards are really nice. I wish Asus were more willing to submit boards for review, they seem consistently good. With ASrock, the boards are generally good but typically have anomalies, Biostar is mostly good but sadly unfinished, I have a hard time now trusting Gigabyte, but this looks like a real "gotcha" as far as roping in suckers.
  • g-unit1111
    Hey it's the new 78LMT for 2018. Remember how that motherboard combined with an 8350 or a 9590 would be instant death for that PC? I could see it happening here easily.

    And sure, a $160 board can support a $500 CPU. Also, hold my beer! :lol:
  • karolbe
    I have to say that this review was based on a broken sample or is simply -------. I have i9-9900k and this mainboard and I have no such issues at all. I have been stress testing the system for couple of days with OCCT and Prime95 and it is rock stable and performs as expected.

    mod edit: language
  • Onus
    A bad sample is certainly possible. Hopefully Thomas will see this, and get an answer from MSI.
  • Crashman
    Anonymous said:
    I have to say that this review was based on a broken sample or is simply -------. I have i9-9900k and this mainboard and I have no such issues at all. I have been stress testing the system for couple of days with OCCT and Prime95 and it is rock stable and performs as expected.

    mod edit: language

    I find your words incredible. There are only six phases feeding the CPU cores, and holding 4.70 GHz on the Core i9-9900K at the Core i9-9900K's stock voltages is simply impossible for the board. With our CPU sample it throttles down to 3.4 GHz, which is lower than stock. But that's an "edge case": With a less-leaky CPU sample, you might get 3.60 GHz and have less room to complain. Of course you can always try reducing the core voltage, which is how we got it to run at 4.70 GHz in the O/C test.

    BTW, you can also get better results by running a lower-stress test in tandem, than by running Prime95 small-FFTs on its own. Prime95 assumes secondary priority, so the lower-stress "primary" task will have dominance over power load.

    That's also why, in order to test maximum power consumption for a gaming and encoding PC, we used to leave the FIRST thread idle in Prime95: The graphics test needed that thread, so that a system that consumed 550W with 7 P95 threads and a game test running might only need 400W with 8 P95 threads and the same game test running.

    If you want to draw max CPU power, run Prime95 small-FFTs with all other tasks idle.

    Anonymous said:
    A bad sample is certainly possible. Hopefully Thomas will see this, and get an answer from MSI.

    It was confirmed with MSI in a most...unflattering way. I have another MSI board with the same voltage regulator sitting here, not getting reviewed yet. I've offered to try a "Best Z390 for Core i7" article to retest all the boards that couldn't hold the Core i9-9900K at 4.70 GHz under Prime95 small-FFTs, but haven't received a response. Maybe that's because of the language I used...I might have said something about a loser board retest roundup...

    BTW, I'd like to apologize for not returning to this thread sooner: I'm no longer getting email notifications of these responses for some strange reason.
  • Peter Martin
    Stay away from msi everything
  • karolbe
    https://imgur.com/a/XYuQs71 there you go.

    I have been running it only for 5 minutes, I don't have more time now. But believe me, I have been stress testing the system for hours continuously using Prime95 and OCCT because I had problems with stability and wasn't sure what is faulty, turned out that 2 out of 4 HyperX modules died. However, with the new memory modules, there were no issues with stability. As you can see from the screenshot CPU was at 4.7GHz for the 5 minutes test period.

    This is on the default BIOS settings, I have only enabled XMP for the memory, and that's it.
  • Crashman
    Anonymous said:
    https://imgur.com/a/XYuQs71 there you go.

    I have been running it only for 5 minutes, I don't have more time now. But believe me, I have been stress testing the system for hours continuously using Prime95 and OCCT because I had problems with stability and wasn't sure what is faulty, turned out that 2 out of 4 HyperX modules died. However, with the new memory modules, there were no issues with stability. As you can see from the screenshot CPU was at 4.7GHz for the 5 minutes test period.

    This is on the default BIOS settings, I have only enabled XMP for the memory, and that's it.
    I tried to look for the Prime95 threads in your screenshot, but after a couple minutes of looking I got an auto-redirect adware that attempted to hijack my browser...

    OK, looked at it in a new browser, is that monitoring app showing the CPU bouncing between 1.5 and 4.7 GHz?
  • karolbe
    Anonymous said:

    OK, looked at it in a new browser, is that monitoring app showing the CPU bouncing between 1.5 and 4.7 GHz?


    Well, yes but it was before I started the test which is perfectly normal and expected. When the test started it was solid 4.7GHz on all cores (so there is just one line obviously at 4.7GHz).

    Better screenshot (this time on dropbox, didn't know that imgur is so bad nowadays)

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/mswid3kg7k84gas/Selection_021.png?dl=0
  • Crashman
    Anonymous said:
    Anonymous said:

    OK, looked at it in a new browser, is that monitoring app showing the CPU bouncing between 1.5 and 4.7 GHz?


    Well, yes but it was before I started the test which is perfectly normal and expected. When the test started it was solid 4.7GHz on all cores (so there is just one line obviously at 4.7GHz).

    Better screenshot (this time on dropbox, didn't know that imgur is so bad nowadays)

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/mswid3kg7k84gas/Selection_021.png?dl=0

    Ah, and that's Prime95 small-FFTs holding the Turbo Boost multiplier up?
  • karolbe
    It was OCCT, all is visible on the screenshot. Prime95 test I did a few days ago was similar, 4.7GHz on all cores, it was not the small FFTs test though, I was testing memory and not CPU back then and the small FFTs test is more CPU bound. I expect that AVX instructions can lower frequency a bit but for sure not to the 3.4GHz level as the review states. I can do this test when time allows (I am Linux user so I can not always reboot to Windows to run Prime95).

    Also, looking for other reviews (not many sadly) of the m/b I found this one. Have a look at the screenshots there, 5.1GHz on all cores on the very same mainboard. How do you explain this?

    https://thinkcomputers.org/msi-mag-z390-tomahawk-motherboard-review/5/

    I find this review much more believable than the one here on tom's hardware, it is simply more true to what I can see with my own eyes.

    I would personally never post a review bashing a product without first understanding the root cause, which I am rather convinced is far from bad m/b design but rather is related to a bad sample or testing error.
  • Crashman
    Anonymous said:
    It was OCCT, all is visible on the screenshot. Prime95 test I did a few days ago was similar, 4.7GHz on all cores, it was not the small FFTs test though, I was testing memory and not CPU back then and the small FFTs test is more CPU bound. I expect that AVX instructions can lower frequency a bit but for sure not to the 3.4GHz level as the review states. I can do this test when time allows (I am Linux user so I can not always reboot to Windows to run Prime95).

    Also, looking for other reviews (not many sadly) of the m/b I found this one. Have a look at the screenshots there, 5.1GHz on all cores on the very same mainboard. How do you explain this?

    https://thinkcomputers.org/msi-mag-z390-tomahawk-motherboard-review/5/

    I find this review much more believable than the one here on tom's hardware, it is simply more true to what I can see with my own eyes.

    I would personally never post a review bashing a product without first understanding the root cause, which I am rather convinced is far from bad m/b design but rather is related to a bad sample or testing error.
    You have to first understand that this is an edge case: Prime95 small-FFTs was the only workload we could find to make the board do that at default voltage settings and maximum power settings. We're using maximum power settings because most boards will throttle back "more gently" when using small-FFTs, which prevents testing consistency for maximum power and heat. So if a board doesn't hold 4.70 GHz under that excessive load, we increase the power limits and CPU thermal thresshold to allow it.

    If I recall correctly, the difference between "stays at 4.70 GHz" and "eventually fries the voltage regulator" is around 40W. It's understandable that MSI was a little miffed about the excessive load testing, because boards at this price point aren't designed for that type of abuse. And certainly, the thermal protection that prevents the voltage regulator from frying should NOT be disabled for normal use. But like I said, we were looking for the worst-case-sceenario in power and heat measurements.

    Now I'd like to send you to the Asus Maximus XI Hero follow-up thread, where people are arguing that I "must not have" used such a rigorous test, because that board DIDN'T fail ;)
  • Crashman
    BTW, I asked in the lead "Can a $160 motherboard support a $500 processor? Should it?" because in reality most users hoping to push a Core i9-9900K to its limit are looking at nothing less than the $200 MPG Gaming Pro Carbon. And that board passed.

    MSI thinks that the MAG Z390 Tomahawk is the perfect money-saving board for Core i5 and Core i7 users, and that belief is probably correct.
  • karolbe
    Anonymous said:
    BTW, I asked in the lead "Can a $160 motherboard support a $500 processor? Should it?" because in reality most users hoping to push a Core i9-9900K to its limit are looking at nothing less than the $200 MPG Gaming Pro Carbon. And that board passed.

    MSI thinks that the MAG Z390 Tomahawk is the perfect money-saving board for Core i5 and Core i7 users, and that belief is probably correct.


    I disagree and I showed a proof that the MAG can easily power i9-9900k fully loaded. If I were you I would be looking for answer why your mainboard sample behaves so strangely under AVX load.

    BTW that MPG Gaming Pro Carbon, what is the frequency in Prime95 in Small FFTs test? Does it run on 4.7GHz? Or slightly less, e.g. 4.5GHz? (I am thinking here about the default setup, no bios changes etc.).
  • Crashman
    Anonymous said:
    Anonymous said:
    BTW, I asked in the lead "Can a $160 motherboard support a $500 processor? Should it?" because in reality most users hoping to push a Core i9-9900K to its limit are looking at nothing less than the $200 MPG Gaming Pro Carbon. And that board passed.

    MSI thinks that the MAG Z390 Tomahawk is the perfect money-saving board for Core i5 and Core i7 users, and that belief is probably correct.


    I disagree and I showed a proof that the MAG can easily power i9-9900k fully loaded. If I were you I would be looking for answer why your mainboard sample behaves so strangely under AVX load.

    BTW that MPG Gaming Pro Carbon, what is the frequency in Prime95 in Small FFTs test? Does it run on 4.7GHz? Or slightly less, e.g. 4.5GHz? (I am thinking here about the default setup, no bios changes etc.).

    The problem is that Prime95 small-FFTs are the edge case that I claimed. Default behavior for VRM thermal protection was to kick it back to 3.4 GHz. We tried adding a fan but found that the thermal protection was overly aggressive. And that's what lead to disabling it completely (the board lacking any "in between" setting), which exposed that the thermal interface for its heat sink was also insufficient.

    Now you could be assuming that we just got a bad board, but we burned the first one. So you'd then have to assume that we got two bad boards several weeks apart.

    With Prime95 small-FFTs, the only way to approach the limit without frying the board was to disable VRM thermal throttling, manually monitor the MSI thermal report, and kill the process when it reached 112 °C. And so it was with the second board, after the first died from not being monitored while exhibiting the same behavior.

    I had experimented a great deal with the second board and found that merely disabling Hyperthreading on the Core i9 was enough to prevent the problem under Prime95 small-FFTs, which takes me back to MSI's assertion that this is a great board for Core i7's.
  • William_X89
    The low price point and other factors convinced me to buy this board for use with an i7-8700k before this review had come out. Should I expect problems down the line if I ever attempt to overclock it?
  • Crashman
    Anonymous said:
    The low price point and other factors convinced me to board for the i7-8700k before this review had come out. Should I expect problems down the line if I ever attempt to overclock it?
    We did quite a bit of experimentation to find ways to get the CPU under the voltage regulator's limit using the Core i9-9900K. One thing that worked was disabling hyperthreading, another was to reduce voltage levels. Either way, cutting 40W from its maximum load power gets you into the safe zone, so the Core i7-8700K should already be there. As for overclocking the 8700K, your guess is almost as good as mine: I believe my 8700K ran around 270W at peak load when overclocked to highest stable frequency using 1.30V core, so you're "probably OK".

    BTW, all those numbers (including the ones in the charts) are at the wall, so there's the 10% power supply inefficiency, the ~20W of idle components during the test, power losses at the CPU voltage regulator, etc etc etc to consider. 270W is closer to 200W.
  • liam.fermo
    i have this mobo, will i7 9700k be good?
  • Crashman
    Anonymous said:
    i have this mobo, will i7 9700k be good?
    We got power under control by disabling HyperThreading on the 9900K, so you should be fine.