Page 2:Technical Specifications
Page 3:MSI X99S SLI Plus, In Detail
Page 4:X99S SLI Plus Software And Firmware
Page 5:How We Test
Page 6:Synthetic Benchmarks
Page 7:3D Gaming
Page 8:Non-Gaming Applications
Page 9:Power, Heat And Efficiency
Page 10:BIOS Frequency And Voltage Settings For Overclocking
Defining value is difficult when it comes to Intel's X99 platform, in part because the company designed it for professionals and performance enthusiasts. Compared to Intel’s highest-end mainstream processors, Haswell-E offers more cores at lower clock rates. That sounds like a recipe for reduced value in most applications, but there’s a catch. Haswell-E also has a 40-lane PCIe 3.0 controller.
Or does it? Of the available LGA 2011-v3 processors, the Core i7-5820K comes closest to the cost of Intel's Core i7-4790K, the highest-end Haswell part you can buy. The -5820K's frequency is 25% slower and it has 12 of its PCIe 3.0 lanes disabled. Yet, even with its lower clock rate and reduced PCIe lane count, this entry-level Haswell-E chip keeps its high-end label by wielding six potent cores. Oh, and then there’s the native support for three-way SLI.
Yes, even the cheapest of Intel’s high-end processors gives us support for three-way SLI, though other boards in the sub-$240 class don’t enable it. While every X99 motherboard can use all 16 lanes from the -5820K on the uppermost slot, MSI is the only company that chooses to untether eight of them for use by the third slot across its entire X99 motherboard series. Even the cheap ones.
We can also see that the X99S SLI Plus is capable of distributing a higher-end processor’s 40 lanes across all four slots, facilitating four-way SLI. MSI has good reason not to mention this, though. GeForce cards supporting four-way SLI all have double-slot brackets, and the X99S SLI Plus’ third and fourth slots are single-spaced.
The rather clever use of pathway switches even allows the X99S SLI Plus to support three-way SLI and an M.2-interface PCIe 3.0 x4 SSD simultaneously, which I probably only think is clever because it’s the first configuration I thought of when Intel revealed that the Core i7-5820K has 28 lanes. We’ll let you decide whether MSI is brilliant, whether its competitors are a little daft or whether these companies just have slightly different priorities.
MSI X99S SLI Plus, In Detail
The X99S SLI Plus' feature set is extensive enough to actually confuse us. To begin, it has all of those PCIe 3.0 switches that its competitors couldn’t afford to add, which enable combinations like three-way SLI and PCIe 3.0 M.2. The company then adds six more USB 3.0 ports through two add-in controllers, increasing the total port count (including two front-panel headers) to twelve, while competitors limit their USB 3.0 port count to six on any X99 model under $240. Did we mention that the X99S SLI Plus is usually available somewhere for less than $200? Hence our confusion. Does MSI lose money on these?
You’ll find a lighted CLR_CMOS button on the I/O panel in addition to the basic stuff. Sliding down the edge a little we also find another unusual feature (by budget-oriented board standards): a row of voltage detection points including both DIMM rails, CPU I/O, CPU core and PCH voltages. MSI doesn’t even mention this feature in its X99S SLI Plus user manual. As with the X99S SLI Plus’ ability to run a fourth PCIe x16 graphics card, it’s an “Easter egg”.
One capability that we always thought would be standard on ATX-based X99 motherboards is the second set of DIMM slots corresponding to each of the platform’s four channels. That’s eight slots. The only competing sub-$200 X99 board has four. Perhaps someone else thinks that buyers who can’t afford more than $200 for a motherboard won’t use more than four DIMMs. Perhaps they’re right. But any of us can appreciate the added expense of including the full set of slots.
Other internal features include a PCIe connector that extends the bottom two (outward-facing) SATA ports into SATA-Express, a dual-BIOS switch (next to the SATA-E interface), Power/Reset/OC Genie buttons just below the last PCIe slot and a total of five four-pin PWM-style fan headers. The OC-Genie button engages MSI’s automatic overclocking and validation routine without installing the bundled software application that does the same thing.
Two of the fan headers are found near the front and back of the bottom edge, two are near the front of the top edge and one is placed between the rear DIMM slots and I/O panel connectors to serve a case fan. Builders with two intake fans may need an extension cable to reach the farthest bottom connection.
Speaking of extension cables, I’ve never seen one for front-panel audio. That’s a shame, since the front-panel cables of some cases are just a little too short to reach the FP-Audio header in the X99S SLI Plus’ bottom-rear corner. This placement was specified by Intel around eighteen years ago, so builders who experience this problem should send a strongly-worded letter to their case manufacturer.
MSI places one front-panel USB 3.0 header above the top graphics card, along the front edge, so that it won’t get in the way. The company faces its second USB 3.0 header forward, so that its cable can tuck under the card. Eight of the ten SATA 6GB/s ports also face forward for the same reason.
MSI recommends that builders with 40-lane CPUs use the lowest slot to enable three-way SLI with x16-x16-x8 connections, though doing so has several drawbacks. First, there’s a good chance that a long graphics card in that slot will block the SATA-Express port (or the two SATA cables you might use there instead). Second, the same type of card will block the dual-BIOS switch, which might be a problem if you overclock too far. Third, a long graphics card probably won’t fit with a fan plugged into the bottom-rear fan connector. And other front-panel cables will likely need to be smashed flat against the tops of their connectors to seat that card. Finally, since the bottom slot shares four lanes with the M.2 connector, the connector’s PCIe 3.0 interface gets disabled. MSI still beats competitors by providing two back-up M.2 connections, PCIe 2.0 x2 and SATA 6Gb/s x2 (both through the X99 PCH). But there is a better option available. Instead of using the fourth x16-length slot for a third graphics card, we recommend using the third.
Why? The third PCIe x16 slot gets eight lanes from the first slot. That’s what makes it possible for a 28-lane CPU (the Core i7-5820K) to have three-way SLI (x8-x8-x8 mode) and PCIe 3.0 M.2 (x4 mode) simultaneously. Users of 40-lane processors would get the “odd” configuration of x8-x16-x8 with this card placement, but if that doesn’t bother you it doesn’t bother us either. The x8 slot is still your “limit”, whether you have one or two cards using it. And, at PCIe 3.0’s high transfer rate, we’ve yet to measure a limit from a x8 slot (or, in this case, two).
Unlike most reduced-cost motherboards, the X99S SLI Plus includes six SATA cables. On the other hand, it also has only one SLI bridge. Power users who want three-way SLI will need to find another one.
X99S SLI Plus Software And Firmware
The X99S SLI Plus includes MSI’s full utility suite, with applications to reboot directly to firmware, update your drivers and firmware from an MSI server, reduce power by disabling fans and ports and quick-charge your portable devices.
MSI Command Center still looks the same, but without as many disabled features as I’ve seen in the past. Keyed-in values next to CPU ratio and base clock frequency actually worked this time, where previously I could only change those values through plus and minus buttons.
CPU and system fans can be set to automated profiles, to manually configured temperature/RPM curves or to a fixed RPM. MSI Fan tune allows the X99S SLI Plus to determine potentially better fan profiles through an automated test routine.
CPU and DRAM voltage adjustments work within the limits of firmware, which is a nice feature to access from Windows. The DRAM Frequency menu has no controls, since changing this ratio requires a reboot.
Integrated graphics controls that are meant for LGA 1150-based motherboards are greyed-out on products that lack integrated graphics, such as the X99S SLI Plus. MSI’s RAMDisk utility still works as expected.
MSI OC Genie runs a firmware stability and overclock test routine, regardless of whether it’s enabled through software or an on-board button. The benefit of the button is that it can be disabled more quickly (as long as the button isn’t covered by a graphics card).
The program pushed our CPU to a stable 3.7GHz at 1.05V. That’s a cool-running, energy-conserving overclock!
Command Center’s “Advanced”, “Settings” and “Information” tabs reveals popups for advanced voltage settings that work, DRAM timings that don’t work, redundant fan controls, health monitoring and temperature/fan/voltage alarms. The most you can expect from the “DRAM Timings” menu is a Command Center application crash.
Can’t find the exact setting you want? MSI also adds its logo to Intel’s XTU (Extreme Tuning Utility) software.
Like the low-cost ASRock motherboard that went before it, MSI’s X99 SLI Plus pushed our CPU to a maximum stable frequency of 4.4GHz at 1.28V. Better-overclocking boards have gotten this same CPU to 4.45GHz. The question is, how much is an extra 50MHz worth to you?
MSI skips the non-working 11x memory multiplier and jumps straight from DDR4-2666 (10 x 100MHz x 4/3 x 2) to DDR4-3200 (12 x 100MHz x 4/3 x 2). Both of those settings use a 4/3 integrated memory controller to CPU core ratio, and the data rate is twice the clock rate.
Fortunately, MSI’s DDR4-3200 setting works with our DRAM, eventually pushing it to a stable 3233 MT/s after we added 1MHz to the base clock.
The CPU core voltage setting was close to spot-on, but we had to use a 1.32V setting to get the DRAM to our desired 1.350 to 1.355V level. That’s particularly important on our specific CPU-integrated memory controller, which becomes slightly less stable at 1.37V (give or take a few millivolts).
The X99S SLI Plus includes a full range of primary, secondary and tertiary memory timing controls.
Advanced voltage controls include “Vdroop Offset”, though we didn’t experience voltage drops at default settings.
Other firmware features include a report of default DRAM timings, CPU power controls, six registers to store your custom firmware settings as importable/exportable overclocking profiles, user-configurable maps for all five fan headers and a “board explorer” illustration to show which interfaces are connected to devices.
How We Test
Because our first X99 round-up had $240-300 motherboards, our most recent round of testing focuses on boards that cost less than $240. ASRock’s X99 Extreme4 qualified for both rounds after dropping from $241 to $211, yet it still represents the most expensive product to which MSI’s X99S SLI Plus must be compared. Retaining the older model without a lengthy retest required us to use the same hardware configuration as our first X99 round-up. No problem, we’ve used it all along!
Synthetic benchmarks might not represent any specific real-world program, but they do help us look for configuration flaws by focusing on the performance of individual components. The only way to get a substantial win is to sneak in an overclock, which we don’t allow since we like to control our overclocks. Similarly, significant losses can only be attributed to misconfiguration.
A tight race in synthetics is a great indication that each competitor is operating as-expected. MSI does take a slight win in memory bandwidth at default timings, but secondary and tertiary timings are really the only place a company can optimize for performance without blatant cheating.
Game benchmarks are only truly meaningful when comparing different GPUs (Battlefield 4, Far Cry 3), CPUs (Arma 3), or memory (Grid 2). Readers still request these in motherboard reviews on occasion, and the tests add only around 30 minutes to a single-board evaluation.
ASRock’s X99 Extreme3 falls slightly but unnoticeably (in actual game play) behind in Arma 3, and MSI’s X99S SLI Plus pulls slightly but unnoticeably ahead at Grid 2’s most memory-bottlenecked setting.
Our encoding, creativity, productivity and compression benchmarks are extremely useful for comparing processors, memory configurations and the OpenCL capabilities of graphics cards. None of those results change in a motherboard comparison. Then again, our automated process runs these benchmarks while we’re busy doing other things.
Lower might be better in a timed test, but less is more when it comes to motherboard evaluation. That’s because close results prevent lengthy investigations.
Power, Heat And Efficiency
MSI’s X99S SLI Plus runs mid-pack in both power and heat, compared to similarly-priced models. Our overall performance and efficiency charts are slightly different in that they contain the results of all 12 boards we’ve reviewed since the X99 launch.
Because less expensive motherboards have fewer features, we find all three of the boards in the MSI X99S SLI Plus comparison producing higher efficiency numbers compared to the overall average. Getting more specific, the X99S SLI Plus falls between the two most closely-priced models in both power and efficiency.
BIOS Frequency And Voltage Settings For Overclocking
MSI’s X99S SLI Plus includes a reasonably broad range of voltage and clock settings at relatively small intervals, yet produces a CPU clock that’s on par with the other sub-$200 motherboard, ASRock’s X99 Extreme3. Ask a golfer: par can be a good thing.
Moreover, the X99S SLI Plus produces a far superior DRAM overclock. Of course, secondary and tertiary memory timings play a role in that exceptional stability, and we’ve added an extra chart for non-stock DRAM data rates to see how aggressive—or conservative—those settings really are.
It appears that MSI gets its grand DRAM overclock by using conservative timings. If you want top memory performance on the X99S SLI Plus, your best bet is to buy fast RAM and set it to XMP defaults.
Is the X99S SLI Plus the best solution for budget buyers? MSI thinks so, and put quite a bit of technology into this product to prove its worth. We’re still trying to figure out how one manufacturer can add four two-lane PCIe 3.0 switches to enable three-way SLI on Intel’s Core i7-5820K, while all of its competitors believe this is too costly for an entry-level X99 motherboard. As if anything X99 can be classified as entry-level.
But MSI doesn't stop with three-way SLI support. The company also adds a couple more switches to enable PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 SSDs, or a graphics card in the fourth slot and PCIe 2.0 x2 M.2, or SATA 6Gb/s x2 M.2. That’s a lot of M.2 options. And users who don’t like M.2 can still get top SSD performance in an off-motherboard drive via SATA-Express, which is also missing from competitively-priced products. You can’t run SATA M.2 and SATA-Express, or run the M.2 slot in PCIe 2.0 x2 mode with SATA-Express, since those connections are shared, but even high-end boards with both interfaces have that restriction.
So, does this make the X99S SLI Plus a high-end board at an entry-level price? The six added-in USB 3.0 ports might have us thinking this, had we not already been blown away by all the PCIe 3.0 interface options. MSI even equips the board with twice as many DIMM slots as its closest competitor. It appears the only high-end features we don't get are a “Port 80” status code display and a secondary network interface. Those value-adds aren't missed much. We also aren't bothered by MSI's use of a previous-generation ALC892 codec where competitors have upgraded to the ALC1150.
Two final things that are missing (though not from the motherboard itself) are the second SLI bridge required to enable three-way SLI and 50MHz. Wait, what? In overclocking, the X99S SLI Plus came up 50MHz shy of most high-end boards using the same settings. Then again, so did its closest competitor. On the other hand, this is also the only moderately-priced motherboard to support our memory at data rates beyond DDR4-3200.
Performance-per-dollar appears a perfect match between the X99 Extreme3 and MSI’s X99S SLI Plus. But this chart is based on the running price of both products compared to the average of all 12 X99 motherboards we’ve tested in the past six months. If we were to instead use the temporary promotional price of $179 listed at Newegg, the X99S SLI Plus achieves a supreme value rating of 141%. Oh, and if you believe in rebate cards, Newegg even offers one for an additional $20 discount.
All of this means we’d be nuts not to give MSI’s X99S SLI Plus an award. But which one? Our Approved recognition simply means a product slightly exceeded our expectations. Recommended means that it’s also a better-than-average value. Our 2015 Choice award replaces last year’s Elite and generally indicates that a product is remarkably better than everything else in its class. But does price alone define this motherboard’s class?
The nice thing about the word Choice is that it’s a little less elitist than Elite. We can probably use it when referring to the ultimate reduced-cost X99 board. A less expensive audio codec and ordinary overclock aren’t enough to distract us from this product’s vast array of extra features. And besides, the X99S SLI Plus really is our choice for moderately-priced LGA 2011-v3 builds.
MSI now offers a revised version of the X99S SLI Plus featuring USB 3.1. Called the X99A SLI Plus, it replaces this board's ASM1042 controller with an ASM1142 USB 3.1 controller via two PCIe 2.0 lanes. The entire 10Gbps bandwidth can be dedicated to a single device or shared over two ports, and MSI states that this adds only $10 to the X99A SLI Plus MSRP. The steep discounts found with the X99S SLI Plus are not available for the X99A SLI Plus, so we'd still pick the original model in our search for value.