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

While the H370 and B360 chipsets launched mid-2018, Intel reserved its high-end Z390 to be paired with its new “ninth generation” Core-i-series LGA 1151 processors. What seemed to be a strategic move to assure motherboard manufacturers the time to beef up their voltage regulators for the new eight-core CPU models hasn’t trickled down to the newly-launched low-budget models, however. The MAG Z390 Tomahawk might be the perfect board for a less-complex CPU, but it’s not up to the task of pushing our Core i9-9900K to its performance potential.

Specifications

SocketLGA 1151
ChipsetIntel Z390
Form FactorATX
Voltage Regulator9 Phases
Video PortsDisplayPort 1.2, HDMI 1.4
USB Ports10 Gbps: (1) Type-C, (3) Type A, (2) USB 2.0
Network Jacks(2) Gigabit Ethernet
Audio Jacks(5) Analog, (1) Digital Out
Legacy Ports/Jacks(1) PS/2
Other Ports/Jack
PCIe x16(3) v3.0 (x16/x4/x1)
PCIe x8
PCIe x4
PCIe x1(2) v3.0
CrossFire/SLI2x / ✗
DIMM slots(4) DDR4
M.2 slots(2) PCIe 3.0 x4^ / SATA*
(*Shares ports 2, 5-6; ^5-6)
U.2 Ports
SATA Ports(6) 6Gb/s (Port 2 shared w/SATA M.2-1, 5-6 w/M.2-2)
USB Headers(2) v3.0, (2) v2.0
Fan Headers(7) 4-Pin
Legacy InterfacesSerial COM Port, System (beep-code) Speaker
Other InterfacesFP-Audio, RGB-LED, D-LED, TPM, Chassis Intrusion
Diagnostics Panel
Internal Button/Switch✗ / ✗
SATA ControllersIntegrated (0/1/5/10)
Ethernet ControllersWGI211AT PCIe, WGI219V PHY
Wi-Fi / Bluetooth
USB Controllers
HD Audio CodecALC1220
DDL/DTS Connect
Warranty3 Years

A great many compromises go into making a Z-series board inexpensively, but most of those aren’t immediately apparent from a promo shot. We still see a dozen RGB LED’s grouped in fours, with eight behind the board’s surface and four more under the edge of the PCH heat sink. We still see three PCIe slots at x16 length. And we still see maximum leveraging of the Z390’s integrated features expressed as two USB 3.1 front-panel header, two NVMe M.2 slots, six SATA headers, and a Key-E “style” slot that supports CNVi wireless modules exclusively (it’s not like you can see the lack of PCIe or USB2.0 pathways for that).

Out back are four Gen2 USB 3.1 headers, again leveraging the chipset’s integrated features, along with a pair of USB 2.0 for your keyboard and mouse…or mouse and printer if you’re using the PS/2 port for your keyboard. We even get two ports for Intel Gigabit Ethernet controllers, along with the standard five-analog one-digital audio connections, DisplayPort and HDMI. And it’s not like gamers who use graphics cards care that the HDMI for integrated graphics supports 4k at only 24Hz.

Additional attention to the slots reveals that only one of these has a metal cover, which is intended to brace the slot against the weight of a heavy graphics card. The other long slots only have four and one lane in an x16/x4/x1 fixed configuration, because the pathway switches needed to add configuration options also add cost. We also have to question why a board designed with full clearance for longer cards at the center PCIe x1 slot has a closed-end connector…since an open-ended connector would have allowed users to install cards with larger interfaces (such as x4) in the same x1 mode as supported by the bottom slot.

To this point, we haven’t seen anything to dissuade budget-minded performance enthusiasts from buying the MAG Z390 Tomahawk, rather than one of MSI’s higher-priced models. The board even has a similar set of front-panel headers as its higher-end siblings, primarily missing the Gen2 front-panel USB 3.1 header that typically matches higher-priced cases. The lower edge features HD-Audio, one (of two) RGB LED strip, digital LED strip, three (of six) PWM-style fan, legacy nine-pin serial, and a pair of front-pane USB 2.0 headers with two ports each. The front-panel button/LED group remains the standard set by Intel around two decades ago, and a row of four pins above it are there for people who still use beep-code speakers.

It’s not until we look at the top that we see the most brutal of cost-saving efforts in the nine-phase voltage regulator, of which only six phases are devoted to CPU cores. Our familiarity with MSI products causes us to question whether we can even power eight cores with six of its phases, but users can rest assured that MSI has figured out a way to make it work: The board defaults to Intel’s theoretical 95W TDP by throttling back the frequency of its Core i9-9900K CPU.

MAG Z390 Tomahawk users can configure their board nearly any way they’d desire since there aren’t any major conflicts in component space. All card slots support cards of any length thanks to the forward-facing SATA ports and secondary front-panel USB 3.0 headers, and while the cooler of a graphics card in the bottom slot could smash the cables beneath it flat, most of the cables designed to fit those headers (apart from those of some fans) can survive that treatment. On the other hand, builders won’t likely put a high-end card in the bottom slot because it has only one lane.

The MAG Z390 Tomahawk includes a driver disc and documentation, two SATA cables, an 80cm RGB LED extension cable, an MSI VIP card and case badge, and documentation.

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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
    2843698 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.

    47340 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
    2843698 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
    8708 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
    2843698 said:
    8708 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
    2843698 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
    8708 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
    2843698 said:
    8708 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
    2438238 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
    2850425 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.