MSI Nightblade Z97 Mini-ITX Barebone Gaming PC Review

ReviewHardware 3 months ago by
Pros Z97I Gaming AC Motherboard With Several CPU Options
Support for Graphics Card With Lengths of 290mm
Full Steel build Chassis, Interesting Design Scheme
Dual mSATA Drive good addition
Small Mini-ITX Form Factor designed for LAN Parties and Living Room setups
Built-In 600W PSU From Silverstone Rated at 80 Plus Gold
Cons Heat will become a issue when using high-end hardware
Limited number of ports
Limited Drive Bays
High Cost When Configuring For high-end builds
Presentation  8
Performance  9
Usability  9
Features  8
Value  7

Introduction – The Mini-ITX Revolution

Today, we have a very special product for review from MSI (Micro Star International) which is aimed towards the gaming community. The PC form factor is constantly evolving, from what once used to be towered desktops have now evolved into small form factor devices and PCs. We are looking at a trend of ITX gaming which has taken over the tower as the choice of gamers and the demand is constantly increasing. Even Valve, a name renowned by all of the PC Gaming community have entered the hardware industry with their own Steam machines which bundled with their Steam OS would integrate useful features and hassle-less gaming so that the users spend less time to figure out how the game works and get to play the game itself as soon as it’s installed. The Steam Machines are planned for launch in 2015 and will be available in several Mini-ITX and low profile PC systems that were unveiled at CES this year.

However, Valve isn’t the only one who has entered the market. Long before Valve, several manufacturers did try to please the enthusiast audience with their own Mini-ITX brand but it didn’t worked out as well since the top tier community always prefers the large E-ATX sized boards and full tower cases so that they get the full feature set of a specific platform and the ability to get better temperatures and cooling as their preferences. Time has been changed, and the reason we are once again seeing an influx of systems in the Mini-ITX market is because the PC hardware has evolved over the time and we are seeing brilliant new hardware technologies in the industry. The Mini-ITX boards which had to be skimmed down for the small form factor are now retaining the entire high-end feature set of their ATX sized brothers while the processors have become more power conservative through adopting smaller node designs. This has once again led in a boom in the Mini-ITX industry with manufacturer’s like Bitfenix and Corsair making new improved case designs for the form factor. The cooling industry has also seen a switch from the traditional air coolers to AIO liquid coolers which take less space inside the PC chassis and deliver better cooling performance.

This doesn’t necessarily means that the towers will stop selling well compared to the new M-ITX offerings. The PC tower market is strong as ever but these new options open room for more consumers in the DIY market. The DIY market is just one end of this process, this brings us to the OEM manufactures which is the product we are testing today. There are several companies who are offering their own small form factor PCs, Valve and their several PC partners (iBuyPower, CyberPowerPC, Dell, etc) are one thing but Intel has also made a small form factor platform known as the NUC which we reviewed back in 2012 is built on the same promise of delivering a compact yet user friendly and powerful system that can be compared to an average PC. While the NUC is not considered a Mini ITX PC, its still a part of the PC ecosystem that aims to provide performance in a small form factor. With NGFF SSDs becoming the norm since the start of the Z97 era, compact systems have become, more compact.NVIDIA Small Form Factor PCs

When it comes to the industry’s top motherboard and graphics card making companies, ASUS went with their slim ROG G-Series gaming PCs in the Mini-ITX scape while Gigabyte went route with Intel and launched their own NUC sized Brix gaming PCs. Even ASRock launched their own M8 Mini-ITX Gaming which includes a Mini-ITX Z97 or Z87 board with several options to upgrade. Earlier this year, MSI, one of the largest and renowned hardware manufacturer unveiled their Nightblade Barebone gaming systems. MSI has designed a custom chassis which is going to stick loyal to the M-ITX design and feature components which are built to deliver absolute PC Gaming performance to the masses who have come in love with the Mini-ITX designs. Today, we are looking at the MSI Nightblade barebone gaming system based on their Mini-ITX Z97 motherboard and features some interesting components which we are going to test today.

MSI Nightblade Z97 Mini-ITX Barebone Gaming System

As I mentioned in the introduction above, the Mini-ITX form factor has existed since a while now but the boom came in the last two years. So what really changed? The rapid advancements in technology and PC hardware is what drove this radical shift in the market. You might remember the GeForce GTX Titan from NVIDIA which was priced at $999 US back at the time of its launch in early February and the Kepler generation before it along with the Z87 generation of motherboards which scaled from Mini-ITX to E-ATX sized monstrosities such as the Z87 XPOWER AC from MSI. All of these are high-end hardware products but during this generation, power efficiency became a critical focus. While Titan was a graphics crunching beast, it was also silent and had lower thermal levels compared to its predecessors and on the motherboard section, boards such as the Z87I Gaming from MSI and Rampage VI Impact from ASUS were great for the ridiculous amount of features the packed underneath the hood. PCs which were always known for their brute and massive designs can now be configured as small as the gaming consoles saving users space and offering them top-notch performance.

The MSI Z97 Mini-ITX we received is a really small desktop PC but it has the open nature of the PC and has all the features of a high-end desktop counterpart. The main components of the MSI Nightblade PC are its custom case, the OC Engine which automatically clocks up the performance with the push of a button on the front panel, top-notch cooling performance, easy plug and play section on the front panel, features carried over from MSI Gaming series, ability to support graphics card with lengths of 290mm, easy accessibility, a Super Raid driver controller and a heatsink fan that fits nicely inside the case.MSI Nightblade Z97 Review_Official_2

In terms of specifications, the MSI Nightblade we were shipped with include a MSI Z97I Mini-ITX Gaming board, DVD Drive, a heatsink fan( Tower Cooler that operates at 3800 RPM), Super Raid Drive Controller, a 600W 80 PLUS Gold rated power supply, two case fans which include a 120mm front and 92mm rear fan. Connectivity includes support for a dual-slot GPU which is 290mm in length, support for any Intel 4th and 5th Generation CPU (includes; Intel Haswell, Intel Haswell Refresh, Intel Devil’s Canyon, Intel Broadwell, Intel Broadwell K-Series), support for 16 GB of DDR3 memory with speeds of up to 3000 MHz (O.C+). The motherboard has several options for connectivity which include a 7.1 Channel audio jack powered by the ALC 1150 codec, E2200 Killer Gigabit LAN port, Intel Wireless AC 7260 802.11 b/g/n connectivity, 1 x e-SATA, 1 x HDMI, 1 x DVI, 1 x Display Port, 1 x SPDIF, 1 x PS/2, 1 x Clear CMOS Switch, 2 Antenna Connectors for wireless, 2 USB 2.0 and 4 USB 3.0 ports. The front panel includes 2 USB 3.0 and 2 USB 2.0 ports along with audio in/out and headphone jacks. A LED for HDD and Wireless LAN activity are adjusted next to the power button and we can spot the OC Engine on the front panel too.

The entire package weighs 7.6 KG and comes with dimensions of 345.8 x 277.3 x 175.7mm (W/L/B). It can be seen that the package is relatively smaller than most of the Mini-ITX cases available in the market but MSI has done a good job routing the cables in the chassis which will be seen below in the unboxing section. Some of the features of the MSI Nightblade have been listed below:

SHOW OFF WITH A SMALL SIZE

Size doesn’t matter when it comes to the MSI Nightblade. Despite its mini-ITX form factor, this gaming barebone delivers powerful performance due to the fact that the interior components are well designed and laid out in the case. Thanks to its compact size, brushed aluminum finish on the front and awesomely presented Dragon on the side of the case, gamers won’t have to hide their PC beneath their desk anymore.

COOLING WITH A DRAGON FAN

We know all gamers want to be emerged in the game through its sound track and audio effects. To make you hear the crispest sounds, MSI made the Nightblade as quiet as possible by optimizing the airflow and keeping the system running cool. With no less than three air vents (front, side and top), hot air is easily exhausted out of the Nightblade’s chassis. Cool air enters the PC throught the front and bottom vents. In contrast with standard 400-1200rpm case fans, the seven giant blades of the MSI Dragon Fan can produce an air pressure of max. 4000rpm. So even when using the most extreme graphics cards to its max, the Nightblade keeps your head cool and lets you focus on your game.

PLUG AND PLAY

With the MSI Nightblade, you are set to go gaming! Two USB3.0, two USB2.0 ports and two audio jacks on the front panel give you plenty of options to plug in your Gaming Keyboard, Mouse and Headset.

SOLID AS ROCK

With more than 25 years of experience in manufacturing high quality and stable PC components, MSI carefully selected the best materials for the Nightblade’s Gaming chassis. To ensure stability and offer rigidness to gamers that care about their rig, the case is made out of 0.8mm thick steel and coated with zinc to prevent rust and wear. Unlike aluminum, steel doesn’t crack when bumped into or handled without care. The Nightblade is truly built to outlive a lifetime of carrying this gaming champion from one LAN-party to the other.

FITS FULL-SIZE GRAPHICS CARDS

Talking about a textbook example of optimizing space, the MSI Nightblade is fit large size Graphics Cards up to 290mm length and 35mm thickness. This means you can for instance fit in a MSI GTX780 GAMING graphics card or a MSI R9 290X GAMING graphics card, to blast away your gaming opponents. Both NVIDIA fans and AMD graphics enthusiasts can pick their personal favorite and easily upgrade to future generations when desired.

CARRY TO A LAN PARTY

A useful handle situated at the bottom-front of the Nightblade’s mini-ITX case can be used to pick up and carry this lightweight gaming beast around from one LAN-party to the next. And the level of mobility doesn’t just stop there. With help of the rubber covers fitting the metal screws on the backside of the Nightblade, this system can even be stacked up vertically after carrying it around. That way, the panel and connectors on the back remain unharmed each time when arriving at a new gamer’s den.

EASY TO ASSEMBLE With the MSI GAMING

motherboard smartly placed inside the MSI Nightblade and a PSU powerful enough to supply each component with sufficient power, the expansion options of the MSI Nightblade are countless. Whether you want to install an ATX-sized graphics card or assemble two SSDs, you can easily do it by opening the left side panel of the case. Add or remove your optical drive, upgrade your memory or CPU, it’s all possible.

READY FOR MASSIVE STORAGE, INCLUDING SUPER RAID

With a massive amount of Digital game downloads, the average gamer needs a legit space for storage in a gaming rig. The Nightblade provides just that, with enough space for HDD storage and Super RAID, the ultimate combo of every connected mass storage device. With MSI Super RAID, you can combine hard drives, SSDs and mSATA devices into blazing fast bootable drives, loading your games, operating system and videos faster than ever.

MSI Nightblade Z97 Specifications

CPU Support 4th and 5th Generation Intel Core Processors (Intel Haswell, Haswell Refresh, Devil’s Canyon, Broadwell, Broadwell K-Series)
Chipset Intel Z97 Express Chipset
Motherboard MSI Z97I AC Gaming Motherboard
CPU Cooler Tower-Type CPU Heatsink Cooler (Operates @3800 RPM)
VGA Support Support for dual-slot graphics card with a maximum length of 290mm
Memory 2 x DDR3 DIMM slots; Supports up to 16 GB Memory Capacity rated at 3000 MHz
LAN (RJ45) E2200 Killer Gigabit LAN port
Wireless Connectivity WiFi 802.11 ac/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 y WiDi (controlled by Intel Dual Band Wireless – AC 7260)
Audio Chip 7.1 Channel HD Audio – Realtek ALC 1150 Codec
Inputs / Outputs Rear Rear: 1 x e-SATA, 1 x HDMI, 1 x DVI, 1 x Display Port, 1 x S/PDIF, 1 x PS/2, 1 x Clear, CMOS Button, 2 x Antenna Connectors, 6 x OFC Audio Jacks Internal: 1 x ATX 24-Pin, 1 x 8-Pin ATX 12V, 5 x SATA 6GB/s, 1 x Clear CMOS
USB Rear: 2 x USB 2.0, 4 x USB 3.0 / Front: 2 x USB 3.0, 2 x USB 2.0 Ports
HDD/SSD Support for 1 x 3.5 “and 2 x 2.5″ Drives
ODD (Optical Disk Drive) Slim 9.5mm Slot-In
Fans Rear: 92mm 3600RPM, Front: 120mm 4000RPM
Power Supply Silverstone 600W 80 Plus Gold Rated PSU
Size Chassis 16 liters
Dimensions 34.6 cm x 27.7 cm x 17.6

MSI Nightblade Specifications

MSI Nightblade Z97 Barebone Gaming System -Unboxed

We finally take a look at the MSI Nightblade Z97 Barebone gaming system which is an interesting design from the looks of it. Well it actually is from its design to its built quality as the chassis is made up of Steel and comes with a steel plating coated in Zinc. The front of the case features a brushed aluminum finish and the whole case features a black color scheme which is the standard color of PC chassis. Weighing in at just 7.6 KGs and a little over 10 KGs with all the components configured, the Nightblade offers enough room to upgrade and use the barebone system as per user demands.

MSI Nightblade Z97 Review_Official_1

The first thing we get to notice is that odd glow of red from the bottom of the chassis. This is in fact an LED light integrated beneath the case handle. This handle has been placed in this position since the front air intake vent is placed right above it where the LED is emitting light from. The handle also lifts the case so that it can drag and supply air in and out of the large dust filter which has been fitted beneath the chassis and offers a easy push and pull option for removal and insertion.

MSI Nightblade Teardown

We head over to the tear down of the MSI Nightblade. Inside this section, we are going to inspect the different components of the chassis and the components featured inside it so that we can see how much accessibility has the case got to provide to end users.

MSI NightBlade_Review_Power Button (Custom)

The first thing we notice about the case is the front panel connector which has a large silver metallic power button which boots up the PC. Do note that upon boot, the power button emits a red LED which offers a nice touch to the overall design of the system.

MSI NightBlade_Review_Front Buttons (Custom)

Next up on the front panel connector, we have the four USB 3.0 super speed connectors, a microphone jack, a headphone jack, activity LEDs for hard disk and Intel’s Wireless connectivity and a OC Engine switch which turns red when pressed. The OC Engine boosts up the clock speeds of the processor by loading a preset configuration featured inside the board’s BIOS which delivers more performance to the users. This is a good option for users who don’t know how to overclock or are worried if they might get something wrong when adjusting clocks or voltages in the UEFI BIOS.

MSI NightBlade_Review_Side (Custom)

The casing has several vents configured on its side, here we can see the top section vent which doesn’t provide room for mounting a fan but its good to dissipate some heat out of the chassis to keep the internal temperature cool.

MSI NightBlade_Review_Side Panel (Custom)

The main side panel has a large Dragon print engraved on it which represents the Dragoon “Gaming G Series” design scheme that MSI has kept in mind when designing this barebone system. Both side panels have a vent out to supply air to the internal components.

MSI NightBlade_Review_Notches (Custom)

Rather than using screws, MSI went with simple notches which can be used to remove the cover and side panel from the chassis. The two levers can be pushed up to release the lock or pushed down to lock the side panel. This is a relatively easier way than screws which take more time and hassle.

MSI NightBlade_Review_Slot (Custom)

Since the MSI Nightblade system we received shipped without any graphics card, the slot covers were in place and the screwed in tight. You have the option to use the internal graphics processors of Intel CPUs or use any discrete graphics card when configuring the barebone system. We however, used the Radeon R9 280X and R9 260X graphics card in our testing.

MSI NightBlade_Review_Dragoon Fan (Custom)

The Dragoon fan as MSI calls it is features as the rear exhaust fan, retaining its black and red color scheme from the gaming series theme. MSI mentions that the 120mm fan can run up to 4000 RPM although it would result in a lot of noise which might become irritating especially when using this casing as a media setup box.

MSI NightBlade_Review_IO Panel (Custom)

Above, we can see the I/O panel which will be detailed in a section later on. The I/O shielding is painted matte black which is the recent design scheme MSI has implemented across their gaming and overclock series main boards.

MSI NightBlade_Review_DVD (Custom)

The chassis fits in a slim optical disk drive and a 600W Silverstone branded PSU rated at 80 PLUS Gold tucked in nice beneath the ODD. The PSU has a extended power port cable leading to the back of the barebone system’s chassis which is connected with the main power connector.

MSI NightBlade_Review_Side Open (Custom)

After opening the side panel, we noticed a large plastic cover which mentions that the cover is added to add an additional case fan to the side when using a Radeon R9 290X graphics card. Since the heat generated by the R9 290X is pretty damn high, it is a good choice to add this cover to mount in an additional case fan to increase air flow. The cover can also be used as a mount for a 120mm radiator for liquid coolers which can easily be used in the case.

MSI NightBlade_Review_Full Interior (Custom)

Here’s a final look at what the case looks like with all of its factory shipped components featured inside it. You can see additional pictures inside the gallery below and now we head on to details the several other components of the MSI Nightblade Barebone system.

MSI Nightblade Chassis Gallery:

MSI Z97I Gaming AC Mini-ITX Motherboard

The most interesting feature about the Nightblade Z97 gaming barebone system is that it features the Z97I Gaming AC motherboard from MSI. The motherboard is the flagship Mini-ITX offering from MSI and adopts a feature set which will rival some of the high-end Z97 motherboards. The motherboard is nothing short of an engineering marvel boasting a beautiful Dragoon design scheme which MSi has been using on their Gaming products since some time now. Before we take a closer look at the board, we will like to give you a glimpse at several technologies featured on the MSI Z97I Gaming AC.

CPU
  • Supports 5th and 4th Generation Intel® Core™ Processors, and Intel® Pentium® and Celeron® Processors for the Socket LGA1150
  • Please refer to CPU Support for compatible CPU; the above description is for reference only.
Chipset
  • Intel Z97 Chipset
Memory
  • Support four DDR3 DIMMs 1066/1333/1600/1866*/2000*/2133*/2200*/2400*/2600*/2666*/
    2800*/3000*/3100*/3200*/3300*(OC)DRAM (16 GB Max)
    - Supports Dual-Channel mode
    - Supports Intel Extreme Memory Profile (XMP)
Onboard Graphics Integrated Graphics Processor:

  • 1 x DisplayPort, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096×2160
  • 2 x HDMI Port, supporting a maximum resolution of 4096×2160
Audio
  •  Realtek ALC1150 Codec
    - 7.1-Channel High Definition Audio
    - Supports S/PDIF output
LAN/Wireless LAN
  • Wi-Fi/Bluetooth expansion module with Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 chip.
    - Supports Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual band (2.4GHz, 5GHz) up to 867 Mbps speed.
    - Supports Intel Wireless Display (WiDi)
  • Bluetooth
  •  Wi-Fi/Bluetooth expansion module with Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 chip.
    - Supports Bluetooth v4.0 (includes BLE and Bluetooth 3.0+HS)
Expansion Slots
  • 1 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots
Multi-Graphics Technology
  • Supports Windows 7 and Windows 8/8.1.
  • Storage Interface
  • Intel Z97 Express Chipset
    - 4 x SATA 6Gb/s ports (SATA1~6)
    - Supports RAID 0, RAID1, RAID 5 and RAID 10
    - Supports Intel Smart Response Technology, Intel® Rapid Start Technology and Intel Smart Connect Technology
    Supports Intel Core processors on Windows 7 and Windows 8/ 8.1
USB
  •  Intel Z97 Express Chipset
    - 2 x USB 3.0 ports available through the internal USB connectors
    - 2 x USB 2.0 ports
    - 4 x USB 3.0 ports on the back panel
    - 4 x USB 3.0 ports on the back panel
Internal I/O Connectors
  • - 1 x 24-pin ATX power connector
  • - 1 x 8-pin ATX 12V power connector
  • - 1 x 4-pin System fan connectors
  • - 1 x 4-pin CPU fan connectors
  • - 4 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors
  • - 1 x USB 2.0 connectors (supports additional 2 USB 2.0 ports)
  • - 1 x USB 3.0 connectors (supports additional 2 USB 3.0 ports)
  • - 1 x Front Panel Audio connector
  • - 2 x System panel connectors
  • - 1 x Chassis Intrusion connector
  • - 1 x Clear CMOS jumper
  • - 1 x Wi-Fi/ Bluetooth module connector
Back Panel Connectors
  • - 1 x PS/2 keyboard/mouse combo port
  • - 1 x Clear CMOS button
  • - 1 x Optical S/PDIF-out port
  • - 2 x USB 2.0 ports
  • - 4 x USB 3.0 ports
  • - 1 x RJ45 LAN jack
  • - 1 x 6 in 1 OFC audio jack
  • - 2 x DisplayPort with max. resolution up to 4096×2304@24Hz, 2560×1600@60Hz, 3840×2160@60Hz,1920×1200@60Hz
  • - 1 x HDMI ports with max. resolution up to 4096×2304@24Hz, 2560×1600@60Hz, 3840×2160@60Hz,1920×1200@60Hz
  • BIOS
  • The motherboard BIOS provides “Plug & Play” BIOS which detects the peripheral devices and expansion cards of the board automatically.
    • The motherboard provides a Desktop Management Interface(DMI) function which records your motherboard specifications.
Operating System Support for Microsoft Windows 8.1/8/7/Vista/XP
Support for Chromium OS
Support for Steam OS
Form Factor  6.7 in. x 6.7 in. (17 cm x 17 cm) Mini-ITX Form Factor

MSI Z97I Gaming AC Features:

  • Supports 4th and 5th Gen Intel Core / Pentium / Celeron processors for LGA 1150 socket
  • Supports DDR3-3300(OC) Memory
  • USB 3.0 + SATA 6Gb/s + eSATA 6Gb/s
  • Audio Boost 2: Reward Your Ears with True Quality
  • Killer Ethernet: Kill Your Lag
  • USB Audio Power: Survey Stable 5V Power & Better Signal Transmission over USB
  • XSplit Gamecaster: Show off Your Skills and Achievements
  • Guard-Pro: Improved Protection and Power Efficiency
  • OC Genie 4: Overclock in 1 Second
  • Gaming App: Boost Your Frame Rate
  • Click BIOS 4: Easily Fine-tune Your System
  • Sound Blaster Cinema 2: Realistic Surround Sound Experience
  • Gaming Device Port: Optimized with Triple Gold-plating for High Polling Rate Gaming Devices
  • Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, Intel Wireless Display

MSI Z97I Top View (Custom)

The MSI Z97I Gaming AC featured inside the Nightblade barebone is a Mini-ITX motherboard with every inch of its PCB space utilized to make for a feature-rich design. We can spot the Military Class IV components, a full slot PCI-e 3.0 slot, several I/O connectors, two DDR3 DIMM slots, a beefy heatsink for the PWM and PCH and several SATA ports configured on the board. The exact dimensions of the board are 6.7 in. x 6.7 in. (17 cm x 17 cm).

MSI Z97I Motherboard Overview (Custom)

To be honest, the Z97I Gaming AC is my first hands on experience with a Mini-ITX motherboard and I am officially in love with the Mini-ITX form factor. The amount of components manufacturers are able to cram inside the form these days is just incredible.

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MSI Z97I LGA 1150 Socket (Custom)

The MSI Z97I Gaming AC features the LGA 1150 socket which was also featured on the Z87 chipset motherboards and has no differences compared to the last socket implementation. The only thing that has been changed are the new electrical configurations which will allow Intel’s Broadwell CPUs compatibility only on Z97 motherboards and not Z87 based products. In short, the LGA 1150 socket supports Haswell, Haswell Refresh, Devil’s Canyon, Broadwell and Broadwell K-Series processors.

MSI Z97I DDR3 DIMMs (Custom)

There are two DDR3 DIMM slots which are able to support up to 16 GB of DDR3 memory in dual channel configuration. The frequencies supported by the DDR3 DIMMs are 1066 /1333 /1600 /1866* /2000 /2133* /2200* /2400*/2600*/2666*/2800*/3000*/3100*/3200*/3300*(OC)DRAM. The motherboard also supports Intel’s XMP Profiles for extreme memory configurations.

MSI Z97I PCH (Custom)

The Z97 PCH is seated beneath a large heatsink with the official Gaming G Series logo. The block heatsink is made of aluminum and has a brush finish on the sides of the G Series logo which gives a neat effect to the design. This heatsink also provides enough cooling to the PCH to keep it running stable and under optimal temperatures. The total number of SATA 6 Gbps ports are four.

MSI Z97I PWM (Custom)

The motherboard makes use of a 6 Phase PWM Design featuring MSI’s highly acclaimed Military Class IV high-Q grade components which include DRMOS, Dark CAP with low ESR, Hi-C solid state capacitors and Super Ferrite Chokes which run cooler and deliver 30% higher current capacity compared to traditional chokes.

MSI Z97I Heatsink (Custom)

Power to the socket is provided by a single 8-Pin EPS connector while the rest of the electrical circuitry is powered by the 24-Pin ATX connector. We can see the CMOS Battery lying behind the the power connector and the PWM heatsink and it could be pretty hard to take the battery out if ever needed.

MSI Z97I PCI-E (Custom)

MSI has featured only a single PCI-e 3.0 x16 slot on the Z97I Gaming 9 AC motherboard. That’s the basic slot which most of us should be used to on the Mini-ITX motherboards. A few motherboard vendors do offer mSATA or mPCI-e combo slots but those are not featured on MSI’s offering. Nevertheless, the board can support full length and high-end cards such as the Radeon R9 295X2, GeForce GTX Titan Z and many more given the space has the required room for installation which in the case of the Nightblade is an issue but we will detail the graphics cards installation part later on.

MSI Z97I Audio (Custom)

One of the interesting things I noticed on the motherboard shipped with the Nightblade was that it was missing its EMI shielding cover which is a reference part of the board. We don’t know whether this board was damaged or whether MSI intentionally removed it but from what we can see, it wasn’t there. The ALC 1150 codec chip can be seen in the bottom of the Audio Caps providing Audio Boost support.

MSI Z97I Heatpipe (Custom)

The heatsink used on the Z97I Gaming AC is quite beefy for a Mini-ITX motherboard and it’s actually good. Not only does it look nice but it works well too in reducing temperatures and dissipating heat from the PCH and PWM area so that it can be blown off by the airflow from the case fans.

MSI Z97I Power (Custom)

Below the 24-Pin ATX connector, we can see a single USB 3.0 header which is placed in a pretty odd place since it would cause difficulty when inserting the main power connector. A Turbo connector for the OC Engine and a CPU 4-Pin Fan header can also be spotted near the connector.

MSI Z97I 8 Layer PCB (Custom)

The MSI Z97I Gaming AC uses a 8 layer OC PCB which offers 50% more layers than previous designs. It features a digital power controller that automatically adjusts and supplies power to the PWM and features of the OC PCB include Increased number of PCB layers, Increased humidity resistance, Tight weave fiberglass PCB and Increased ESD protection.

MSI Z97I IO (Custom)

The I/O panel on the Z97I Gaming AC comes with 4 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, PS/2, CMOS Rest, 7.1 Channel Audio Jack (Powered by Realtek ALC 1150 codec), Two HDMI, Full-length Display port, SPDIF ports. More details are given below:

  • 1 x PS/2 keyboard/mouse combo port
  • 1 x Clear CMOS button
  • 1 x Optical S/PDIF-out port
  • 2 x USB 2.0 ports
  • 4 x USB 3.0 ports
  • 1 x RJ45 LAN jack
  • 1 x 6 in 1 OFC audio jack
  • 1 x DisplayPort with max. resolution up to 4096×2304@24Hz, 2560×1600@60Hz, 3840×2160@60Hz,1920×1200@60Hz
  • 2 x HDMI ports with max. resolution up to 4096×2304@24Hz, 2560×1600@60Hz, 3840×2160@60Hz,1920×1200@60Hz

MSI Z97I AC Wireless Module (Custom)

The main attraction of the I/O panel on the Z97I Gaming AC is the Intel WiDi AC module which ships with the package. Featuring Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/h/n/ac and bluetooth 4.0 wireless connectivity, this small yet very useful module can easily be attached to the I/O panel and can be connected with two wired antennas which are shipped within the box for wireless connectivity.

MSI Z97I Back PCB (Custom)The back side of the motherboard has most of the pins for the electrical components featured on the front side of the PCB. The socket has a back cover which is there to add stability when using large tower coolers so that board remains under normal pressure.

MSI Z97I Gaming AC LGA 1150 Motherboard Gallery:

MSI Dual mSATA Module

A very interesting feature of the MSI Nightblade is that it includes a custom mSATA module which can house up to two mSATA drives and installed easily inside the 2.5 inch drive bay. We were really surprised to see this custom module however we didn’t have any mSATA drives at our disposal so we had to resort to our HyperX 3K 90 GB SSD for installation and usage but nevertheless, a very useful module for those who have some extra mSATA drives lying around.

MSI mSATA Dual Drive (Custom)

The mSATA Module is powered by two SATA connectors and a power connector which boots it up. The design is simple from the looks of it but interesting regardless.

MSI Raid Drive (Custom)

MSI Tower Type Heatsink Cooler

The tower type heatsink cooler issued with the Nightblade is pretty standard quality. The adopts an aluminum fin design coupled with a total of 6 heatpipes and a 120mm fan placed right in the center operating at 4000 RPM. It is a loud cooler but at normal load, you would hardly hear the fan noise out of the casing. The cooler is bundled with the system but its optional if you want to use this or a separate cooler for configuring the system. As detailed , the case can easily support an AIO liquid cooler (120mm) on the side case cover which will offer you improved cooling. A liquid cooler is bundled in the top-end Nightblade model which comes with the 4770K and Radeon R9 290X.

MSI Nightblade Tower Cooler (Custom)

MSI NightBlade Graphics Card Installation

The Nightblade system we received didn’t ship with any discrete graphics card. The top most models do ship with either the Radeon R9 290X and GeForce GTX 780 Ti graphics card but unfortunately, we didn’t get that model.

MSI has mentioned that a card of 290mm length will fit in easily inside the chassis. We used the Radeon R9 280X which is a huge graphics card to fit inside the chassis and it was a good fit in the slot. The power supply has two 8 Pin connectors and can take up high-end cards easily. We tested the system with a Radeon R9 280X and a Radeon R7 260X configuration. The card you can see below is the Radeon R9 280X from HIS which makes use of the IceQ X2 cooler.

MSI Nightblade Installed (Custom)

Testing Setup

For testing, I used two different configurations to test test the Nightblade Z97 barebone. Since I was able configure the barebone PC as i saw fit, I paired the Core i7-4790K with 8 GB DDR3 memory and a Radeon R9 280X and a Pentium G3258 with 8 GB DDR3 memory and a Radeon R7 260X. This makes the analysis of the PC more constructive since it gives a enthusiast and a gamer a good idea how well the system can cope with the various configurations, one of which is an expensive option aimed for the more enthusiast minded user and the other is a more budget friendly configuration aimed at a gamer and the budget user.

Processor
  • Intel Core i7-4790K
  • Intel Pentium G3258
Motherboard:
  • MSI Z97I Gaming AC Motherboard w/ Core i7-4790K
  • MSI Z97I Gaming AC Motherboard w/ Pentium G3258
Power Supply: MSI 600W 80 Plus Gold Rated Power Supply
Hard Disk: Kingston HyperX 3K 90 GB
Memory:
  • 2 x 4 GB (8 GB) Kingston HyperX 2400 MHz 10th Anniversary Edition Memory Kit w/ Core i7-4790K, w/ Pentium G3258
Case: MSI Custom Mini-ITX Nightblade PC Chassis
Video Cards: HIS Radeon R9 280X w/ Core i7-4790K
HIS Radeon R7 260X w/ Pentium G3258
Cooling Solutions: MSI Standard Tower-Type Issued Fan
OS: Windows 8.1 64-bit

MSI Nightblade Z97 Barebone – Gaming Performance

3DMark Firestrike Extreme and Performance

3DMark from Futuremark further pushes the boundaries of benchmarking utilities going all out with cross platform support which include Windows, Windows Phone, iOS, MAC and even Android. The utility comes with three benchmark tests configured for different tiers of high-performance PCs, Mid-range PCs/Tablets and smartphone devices.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_3DMark Firestrike

Batman: Arkham City

The second title in the Batman: Arkham series has also been developed by Rocksteady Studios. Batman: Arkham City takes place in (isn’t it obvious by the name?) Arkham City which is infested with all the super-villains and their minions which Batman has previously met past his journey.

The game was released on PC in November 2011 and runs on the latest Unreal Engine 3 which features rich DirectX 11 detail, tessellation and PhysX support for NVIDIA cards.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_Batman Arkham City

Battlefield 3

Battlefield series is a name loyal to any PC gamer. Developed by DICE and published by EA, Battlefield 3 brings back the action, being one of the largest multiplayer launch titles of 2011. The game features both infantry and vehicular combat on some of the largest landscapes ever built in game with a total of 64 players pitted against each other.

Powering the game is DICE’s own Frostbite 2.0 engine. The successor to the original Frostbite engine that powered Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Battlefield 3 makes use of a highly detailed DirectX 11 engine, hardware accelerated tessellation and new lightning effects which deliver some of the most amazing visuals ever to be seen in a game.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_Battlefield 3

Battlefield 4

Battlefield 4 is the latest installment in the Battlefield franchise. Developed by DICE and published by EA, Battlefield 4 takes multiplayer FPS to the next level unleashing new levels of destruction and the game changing LEVOLUTION. Battlefield 4 is a true next generation experience on the PC rendered with the power of Frostbite 3 which features stunning DirectX 11.1 effects and Tessellation which only a few games dare to match. In addition to the engine, Battlefield 4 would also be the first to support AMD’s latest Mantle API which will leverage the game performance on AMD hardware.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_Battlefield 4

Bioshock: Infinite

Bioshock Infinite, the third title in the franchise developed by Irrational Games takes FPS and story telling to a whole new experience. The game puts us in the boots of Booker who in search of a girl named ‘Elizabeth’ ends up on Columbus,  a bustling metropolis of the early 20th century that floats in the sky. The game uses a modified Unreal Engine making use of DIrectX 11 effects.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_Bioshock Infinite

Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2, developed by Gearbox Studios is one of the hottest titles released in 2012. The game runs on a highly modified version of Unreal Engine making use of PhysX and rich DirectX 9 detail. During our test, we set the PhysX low for a fair comparison between the video cards.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_Borderlands 2

CRYSIS 3

PC gamers and Crysis franchise have a long running bond that cannot be broken apart. Crysis 3 is the last title of the franchise that for one last time puts in the Nano suit taking the role of Prophet. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic New York that is now under the control of C.E.L.L utilizing the left over Ceph technology to take grab in their quest for global domination by means of debt enslavement. We set out to take apart the CEPH and C.E.L.L forces in one last finale.

Visually speaking, the game is by far the most graphically intensive title ever developed with hyper realistic effects, textures and an environment with a massive scale. So much is the power of the CryEngine 3 that the game can only be ran on DirectX 11 compatible cards with a feature list length that never ends. Crytek had already done it once with the original Crysis and they have done it again with Crysis 3. Let’s see if the 2013 lineup of GPUs from NVIDIA and AMD hold up in it.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_Crysis 3

Far Cry 3

Developed by Ubisoft Montreal, Far Cry 3 is one of 2012’s hit titles which makes us take the role of Jason Brody, a tourist stranded on a tropical jungle along with his friends which is filled with pirates and a mad man known by the name of ‘Vaas’.

The game runs on Dunia Engine 2 and features DirectX 11 effects along with making use of Havok Physics effects. The game is one of the most graphically intensive titles released.

The game makes use of a highly improved Glacier 2 engine making use of DirectX 11 effects, Tessellation, Global Illumination and Depth of Field. Hitman Absolution is also one of the most demanding and visually impressive titles to be released in 2012.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_FarCry 3

Grid Autosport

Codemasters is back to their racing roots with the latest Grid Autosport and brings back the in-car view which was removed from Grid 2. Grid Autosport takes tuning to the next level and includes 100 racing maps set across 22 real-life based locations. The game uses the modified and updated version of the EGO 3.0 engine that has been used for F1 2012, Dirt Showdown, F1 2013 and Grid 2. The game makes use of rich lightning effects and full DirectX 11 support to deliver amazing scenery while driving in the game. We tested the game using the built-in benchmark utility which is pretty handy when testing out system performance.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_Grid Autosport

Metro Last Light

Metro Last Light once again puts us in the foots of Artyom, a survivor of the nuclear holocaust that shattered Russia. Metro: Last Light is considered as the best looking game to be released to date making use of intensive DirectX11 Tessellation, High-Res Textures, Global illumination lightning and more.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_Metro Last Light

Saints Row IV

Saints Row IV takes the fight straight to Zinyak, a hostile alien leader who has taken over the world and put the president in a virtual simulation to mess around with him. The game revolves around Bridgeport, the place we have all known since Saints Row 3 but re-purposed by Zinyak to suit his needs. The game uses advanced DirectX 11 effects which are quite taxing for even the modern graphic cards.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_Saints Row IV

Skyrim

The Elders Scroll: Skyrim was released by Bethesda in fall 2011. The game featured one of the most largest worlds ever created in an Elders Scroll game taking the RPG genre to the next level. Skyrim is based on the lates creation engine from Bethesda which is optimized towards higher clocked processors. This resulted in a good gain with the Pentium G3258 and Core i7-4790K in performance as compared to the Core i7-4770K we previously tested.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_Skyrim

Tomb Raider

The Tomb Raider franchise was rebooted this year with the latest title in the long running franchise. The players start off their journey with a younger and under-trained version of Lara who goes off on her first survival action journey.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_Tomb Raider

Watch Dogs

Watch Dogs has been the most highly anticipated title of 2014. The game which is based around a open-world action adventure theme puts you in the hands of Aiden Pearce, a hacker who seeks revenge after the accidental death of this niece. The open world title pits you in the streets of Chicago, Illinois where you must attempt to take out your enemies using various stealth and hacking techniques.

Aside from its story, Watch Dogs also boasts some of the most advanced graphics technology and visuals seen to date in an open world title, all thanks to the new Disrupt Engine which include ultra resolution texture, new DOF and lightning effects along with DirectX 11 tessellation on several objects in the environment. The game is pretty heavy and demands some high-end PCs to run with AA and higher resolutions. Ubisoft is trying to patch the game for the PC audience to add more stability and performance improvements to their blockbuster title of 2014.MSI Nightblate_Benchmark_Watch Dogs

Conclusion

Before I start this part, I would like to tell the reason for not posting the CPU benchmarks. The two processors I used included the Core i7-4790K and Pentium G3258. I have already performed testing and overclocking of the Core i7-4790K in a separate review over here and the review for the Intel Pentium G3258 will be posted shortly but since I had these two processors with me for the moment, I thought it would be a good choice to perform testing in two different configurations on the Nightblade system and since it is made for gamers, its better to perform gaming benchmarks than post CPU and Storage performance which mean little to gamers.

The MSI Nightblade is a barebone system which retails at $399 US. That includes the chassis, the power supply, a Z97 Mini-ITX motherboard, a CPU heatsink, a dual mSATA module and a optical disk drive. You can easily get all of these things cheaper if you buy them separately and configure the system yourself (DIY). MSI is indeed charging a little premium over this system but in return, they do give you a small form factor casing which has a sturdy built and nice design to it. The MSI Z97 board and the Silverstone made 600W PSU along retail for around $250 US. Add the casing, the tower type heatsink, the ODD and you get close to a $319 – $339 US pricing. Those 70 bucks might be a lot but it safes you the hassle of configuring your own system and getting you most of the components which you might otherwise wait your precious time finding in the market (although that isn’t much of an issue).

We tested the system on two configurations, one of these was a strict budget gaming system and the other was a high-end gaming system. The budget system costs around $750 US which is a few hundred bucks then the Xbox One while the high-end setup will cost you around $1300 US. So there’s a big difference in the prices there. We used these configurations just to give you an idea of what to expect from the barebone system in terms of speed and performance however the system gives you enough freedom to update as you seem fit.

The budget system actually turned out to be a well performing system on 1080P resolution. It might not play the games at Ultra quality but it still gives you a cheaper access to full HD gaming and the performance of the G3258 was surprising for a dual core processor. We will test it out in several more benchmarks in an upcoming review. The high-end system performed well at 2K resolution (2560×1440) but the the $1K + price is pretty high and there are limited options for people in the enthusiast category such as limited power, one graphics card support, limited HDD brackets and not enough cooling in the chassis. No doubt that the Mini-ITX system with a R9 290X and 4790K will sound good but heat will become an issue and so will the price.

Lastly, I would say that the Nightblade is a good addition in the Mini-ITX market from MSI. They already have the products such as the Mini-ITX motherboards and Mini-ITX graphics cards which are the perfect partner for the nightblade systems. If you are looking to built a Mini-ITX setup with a budget of around $700 – $1300, then the Nightblade is a recommended option for consumers.

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