Introduction, Specifications, and Pricing
I know we have devoted a lot of time to the high-end ATX boards like the MSI MEG Z490 Godlike, but today we take a different turn looking at the new Z490 ITX option from MSI's MEG series.
The MSI MEG Z490I Unify is the blacked-out MEG board made for those looking for a stout ITX based solution for their SFF builds.
Memory support being a dual DIMM board means that your maximum supported memory will be strictly based on the density of the two DIMMS that can be installed. However, being 1DPC means we could see easily over 5000MHz or MT/s as not having an extra slot hanging off the end will make the board more capable. However, keep in mind, you must have capable DIMMs and a good IMC if you are looking to push things to that level.
The I/O, while can be limited due to PCB space on such a small board, is quite good with a single Thunderbolt 3 port capable of up to 40Gb, while also supporting USB 3.2 Gen 2 10Gb as TB3 is still not nearly as widely used as USB. The Z490I Unify also had a 2.5Gb Wired network and Wi-Fi AX to ensure high-speed connectivity is addressed.
The VRM on the Z490I Unify is quite stout at eight 90A power stages to feed the CPU, and we will check them out when we tear the board apart for inspection.
PCIe support, well, its ITX, so only one slot. There are also dual M.2 slots, both supporting PCIe, but they are routed through the PCH and not direct CPU attached, so the single x16 slot does not bifurcate to other devices.
The Z490I Unify comes to market at the price point of $269.99, which for a tiny board may seem high, but in reality, most ITX platforms come at a premium as the level of engineering needed to stuff feature sets tantamount to a full-sized ATX board carries a cost.
Motherboard Features and Marketing
Here we give space to the motherboard manufacturer to talk about their marketing points, and we assess them and provide our point of view on the claims.
Here we see MSIs important notes for connectivity. The Z490I Unify comes with Thunderbolt 3, which is a notable addition as the controllers are not cheap, and the PCB spaced is at a premium. Also, Wi-Fi 6 AX is present, and that's expected for an ITX rig where it is more likely to be used without having direct cabled network access. The M.2 Slots are limited to PCIe Gen 3 as the Z490 chipset only supports a Gen 3 link, and since both run through the Gen 3 DMI link, that is going to be a hard limit.
Next up is going to be the cooling fitment, which MSI does well to keep the compact board as cool as possible. First of note will be the tiny fan hidden under the I/O cover, which doubles as part of the functional VRM heat sink. MSI also uses a high-quality thermal pad on the VRM cooling to ensure efficient thermal transfer from the power stages and chokes to the heat sink. There is a heat pipe onboard to transfer from the top VRM parts as well, and let us not forget the large heat sink for the M.2 slot.
Stability is the next callout, and MSI makes some sense here. First up is the use of a 10-layer PCB, which means signaling can be better controlled by having more layers for the motherboard layout engineers to work with. The PCIe steel armor is something most boards have but is a welcome inclusion to help support a heavier GPU from breaking the otherwise weak plastic PCIe slot. The ISL digital PWM feeding a direct 8-phase VRM equipped with 90A power stages gives a feeling of confidence in the board's potential to keep things well fed.
Here we see an exploded view of the cooling, and you can see the VRM cooling design. The entire I/O cover is aluminum to work as an integral heat sink.
Here we have an illustration of the CPU VCore VRM, while there are more power stages to feed things like VCCGT, but these direct eight power stages are all to feed the CPU, which is an excellent start to ensuring this is a stout little board.
Enough with the marketing lets get to the packaging and the board, what do ya say? Well, if you are reading this, you don't really have a choice as that's where we're going next.
Packaging and Accessories
The packaging fo the Z490I Unify is what we have come to expect from MSI boards, and is simple yet gets the point across. The front has an angled board shot with minimal iconography and the product name.
The rear is a different story as MSI has once again used about 25% of the back for another board shot and a few feature callouts and a spec sheet along with an I/O layout.
The hardware included with the Z490I Unify is limited and straightforward but appropriate for an ITX board.
- Wi-Fi Antennae
- 3x M.2 screws
- 2x plastic SATA cables
- DRGB/ARGB extension/adapter cable
Other parts of the accessory pack are the nonessentials or paper goods.
- Quick install guide
- User Guide/manual
- 3x MSI marketing cards
- Driver Disc
- Blacked out MSI case badge
Now that the accessories are out of the way, let's look at the board itself.
MSI MEG Z490I Unify Overview
The Z490I Unify is a small but blacked-out board with a great aesthetic. The board has three fan headers with the first one with the red circle being the CPU fan header, the next in yellow is the AIO Pump fan header, and lastly, the System Fan header, which is DC mode.
The rear comes with a large plastic with adhesive to hold it in place. This is to be removed but is there to warn users not to go ham on their waterblock or cooler as overtightening them on the SMD components found on the rear of the cooler hardware crushed them can damage the board. Here we can also see the other M.2 slot on the back, which for obvious reasons, does not have an M.2 cooling solution.
The I/O on the rear of the Z490I Unify is quite good but limited:
- Clear CMOS Button
- Wi-Fi Antennae Connectors
- DisplayPort and HDMI ports
- 2x USB 2.0 Type-A ports
- 2x USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-A ports
- USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A port
- Thunderbolt 3 Type-C port
- Analog 7.1ch audio with gold connectors
- Optical SPDIF port
- 2.5Gb RJ45 Realtek LAN port
The rear of the Z490I Unify has less I/O than I would like to see as more USB is always better when possible on such a small platform. However, we must consider that the board has an active fan which it tries to draw air through the shield to help vent the heat from the VRM, so that takes up more space than we would like, but there are other things we will show during the teardown affecting this area.
The slot arrangement is, well singular, and the only place it can be as ITX only has room for one PCIe slot, and it is full x16 and metal shielded.
The M.2 cooler is a thick chunk with a thermal pad and should work well to sap heat away from even the hotted SSD controller.
The Onboard pin headers being ITX are always a bit oddly placed. Just above the PCIe slot from left to right, we have the following:
- Front panel audio header
- Front panel header
- USB 2.0 header
The 24-pin side of the board hosts various connectivity as follows:
- 4x SATA ports
- TPM module header
- USB 3.2 Gen 1 header
- Post Status LEDs
- USB 3.2 Gen 2 header
The EPS 8-pin power connector is above the top VRM cooler portion, and being a high-quality unit should handle a 10900K without much issue, especially to the limit that the VRM can push, which is quite a lot.
Looking at the angle at the socket, the Z490I Unify could be mistaken for a full ATX board with the massive VRM inductor line peeking out from under the cooler.
Pulling the cooling parts and we see solid impressions in the thermal pads, which is excellent as it means that we should get an optimal thermal transfer from the components to the cooler.
Inside the I/O cover area, we find the tiny fan, which helps to blow air on the rear of the VRm heat sink to assist with cooling. One piece of feedback I would give is that MSI either open up some slits in the cooler to allow air to pass through or at least give the fan a small fin stack to blow on, as the surface area is not very useful for the fan as its blowing at a flat wall and heat pipe.
Now, I think it's about time we move on to the PCB and circuit analysis of the Z490 Taichi.
PCB and Circuit Analysis
With everything removed, you can see how absolutely tiny ITX is and how much is packed on this board.
Here we see the ISL69269 PWM controller from Intersil along with the ISL99390 90A power stages that make up the CPU and iGPU VRM.
Here we get a look at the rear I/O area I mentioned previously and why they included the air holes in the I/O shield. The Thunderbolt and the Type-C and PD controllers are in this location, and therefore it omits to place additional I/O such as other USB in this location. Also, here to the right, we see a Realtek controller model RTL8125B, which is the 2.5GB LAN controller for the rear I/O RJ45 port.
Here we see the Nuvotron SuperIO controller model NCT6687D along with the Audio codec from Realtek model ALC1220P.
Here we have the PCH, which is crammed into the board, and unfortunately, they could not make a smaller package for this to give more PCB space for other devices.
A Nuvotron NUC126NE4AE is an ARM MCU used for RGB LED control, most likely.
The rear of the socket shows all of the SMD caps in this area, along with a passthrough hole that you can insert a probe into for Extreme overclocking usage where you want to measure the CPU temperature to ensure you did not have the thermal contact failure such as paste cracking, resulting in the CPU temp climbing while the CPU pot is subzero.
Also adjacent to the socket, we see the IDT6V4 PCIe gen 4 clock gen, which tells us that the PCIe slot is going to support gen 4 when it comes along as we assumed previously.
BIOS/UEFI and Software
Moving into the UEFI, and the very user-friendly easy mode interface greets you. Of course, we will be moving directly to the advanced mode. We will show you several screenshots of the UEFI below.
It seemed appropriate to end with the save/exit screen as we move into the OS and look at the software.
Test System and Configuration
My testbench is strictly controlled with a fresh OS for any platform or component change. The system uses all the same components whenever possible to maintain comparable results between platforms. The ambient in the test lab is rigorously controlled at 22C +/- 1C. All tests are run a minimum of three times, and any outliers are discarded, and a replacement test run will be completed to achieve our average results. The use of a TITAN RTX for the testing is to ensure that the GPU is not the bottleneck for performance results, and will best represent the scaling across CPU and platforms.
- Motherboard: MSI MEG Z490I Unify (buy from Amazon)
- CPU: Intel Core i9 10900K
- Thermal Paste: Arctic Cooling MX-4 (buy from Amazon)
- Cooler: Alphacool Eisbaer LT 360mm (buy from Amazon)
- Memory: Corsair Dominator RGB 3600MHz 16GBx2 (buy from Amazon)
- Video Card: NVIDIA TITAN RTX (buy from Amazon)
- Storage - Boot Drive: Corsair MP600 (PCIe 4) 2TB (buy from Amazon)
- Network Switch: Buffalo Multi-Gigabit BS-MP2008 (buy from Amazon)
- Testbench: DimasTech Easy XL (buy from Amazon)
- Power Supply: Thermaltake 1200W (buy from Amazon)
- OS: Microsoft Windows 10 (buy from Amazon)
- Monitor: ASUS XG438 43" 4K (buy from Amazon)
- Video Capture: Elgato 4K 60 Pro (buy from Amazon)
- Keyboard: Logitech G910 Orion Spectrum (buy from Amazon)
- Mouse: Corsair Logitech G502 (buy from Amazon)
WPrime, SuperPi, Cinebench, and AIDA64
WPrime is first up and being a multi-threaded benchmark. We know it will scale with any CPU we throw at it. You can manually set the number of workers or threads you want to allocate to the calculation, which we did the total thread count for each CPU to ensure we measure the maximum performance the CPU can offer.
Here we see the short test has the unify mid pack while the longer test has the Unify in the top three right above the ACE.
SuperPi is a much older test, but it's worth including as it is a single-threaded computation workload that really can show in granular detail differences in the computational ability of the silicon being tested. One thing to note is that this is an aging application that tends to favor intel architecture, so don't be surprised when you see much better results by some chips, as those same chips you will see get beaten in other tests.
Cinebench is a long-standing render benchmark that has been heavily relied upon by both Intel and AMD to showcase their newest platforms during unveils. The benchmark has two tests, a single-core workload that will utilize one thread or 1T. There is also a multi-threaded test which uses all threads or nT of a tested CPU
All of these CPU/platform tests show what we expect, and that's a great thing, the Z490I Unify does what it's supposed to and keeps pace with the other Z490 boards in the stack. The majority of the tests thus far show the Unify and ACE being very close to each other, which says a lot about the consistency of the BIOS tuning from MSI.
Handbrake, 7-Zip, and WebXPRT
7-Zip is an open-source and free compression application. It works well with multi-threading and also can see gains from clock speed as well.
WebXPRT is a browser-based test, and we like this test as this is one of the areas not many think to test. This also happens to be a real-world usage test that can be impacted by the mitigations which have recently rolled through and were patched.
In these tests, once again, it is more of the same, and while that may sound humdrum, it really is good as there are no performance outliers that I need to worry about. Even with a lot less PCB space, the diminutive Z490I Unify pulls similar results to what we see with the bigger brothers to this board, even the $800 Godlike.
Unigine and UL Benchmarks
Superposition from Unigine is a DX12 based benchmark. We test with the 720p LOW preset as this removes all but the most basic GPU loading, and all of the FPS performance comes from the CPUs ability to push frames to the GPU. This test is far more efficient and speed based rather than being highly threaded.
PCMark is a benchmark from UL and tests various workload types to represent typical workloads for a PC. Everything from video conferencing, image import, and editing, along with 3D rendering, are tested.
3DMark Time Spy
Time Spy is another 3DMark test variant, but this one is for DX12 based systems. This test can be quite stressful, and since its an entirely different load, you may be surprised to see how the results shuffle when compared to Firestrike.
PCMark is the first time we see the Unify pull toward the rear of the pack, and that continued into Firestrike. However, when moving to Time Spy and the Unify made up some ground here. Still, I wonder if some Bios refinement will be necessary as the Unify seems to lose a bit in GPU performance.
System I/O Benchmarks
For storage performance, we test the platform using a PCIe 4.0 Corsair MP600 2TB M.2 NVMe drive. It is tested in CrystaldiskMark 7.0.0 x64, and we average the results to ensure a good cross-section of expected performance. Do note that some platforms do not support the new PCIe gen 4, and therefore will cap out around 3400-3500MB/s.
M.2: MP600 2TB
SATA: T-Force 2350GB SSD
USB: WD P50 1TB
The storage testing shows performance as we would expect and fall in line with what we would expect from the platform's capabilities. The external was tested on the Type-C as USB 3.2 Gen 2, which it does fine with and performs in line with what the other boards offer. One area of note, though, is the Randoms, which did not score super well, and that could be due to going through the thunderbolt port or something to do with routing, but we did not see as much of a fall off from other TB3 boards.
Network testing: Iperf
We use IPerf for network throughput testing; the server is an 8700K based DIY rig with an Aquantia 10Gb interface.
The performance falls in line with the other 2.5Gb equipped boards.
The next part of network testing is a file transfer test. We use the same endpoint, but we are transferring data from the internal SanDisk Extreme Pro 1TB NVMe SSD.
Here we see the file transfer test, which took 203.46 seconds, which is roughly in line with what we have seen for 2.5Gb equipped Z490s.
Here we see the actual throughput from windows reporting at an uninterrupted 279MB/s.
Clocks, Overclocking, Thermals, and Power Consumption
Here we will look at the physical and functional performance metrics for the new Z490 motherboards. This includes out of the box clocks, thermals, power consumption, and of course overclocking.
Out of the Box Clocks
First up is a frequency plot for the 10900K on the Z490I Unify, and we see the spikes to 5.1GHz, and while I observed the CPU hitting its spec 5.3GHz for very short blips, it was not long enough during our logging for it to be picked up.
For power consumption tests, we use a wall meter to test the full system draw. The reason for this is it will represent what the entire system pulls versus our meter, which shows power draw on each PSU cable. The reason for this is that measuring the power draw from the EPS cable, for example, does not take into account VRM losses and, therefore, can show a much higher power draw for the CPU or other device due to an inefficient VRM design or loading range.
Idle power with the full system and TITAN RTX discrete GPU in place, we see the 10900K platform pulling 51W, which is the lowest we have tested and is likely due to fewer components and controllers on the board as it is much smaller.
Loading up the CPU with a full FPU load, and we see the Unify pull the lowest result except for the Supermicro, which follows a much more stringent Turbo and TAU budget than the other enthusiast's boards.
Testing synthetic GPU stress only is an excellent way to show the overhead the CPU adds, as the GPU does not pull more power after it reaches steady state. Here we see the Unify once again pulling the least power of the bunch at 378W, which is of no surprise for reasons I mentioned previously.
Idle temps for the 10900K in each board are reasonably similar, but the Unify was a couple of degrees higher, and I also noticed it had a touch more voltage by default, which would lead to a slightly higher idle temp.
Loading each CPU up with a full burn-in FPU load, and we see the Unify still higher up in the charts but still within the margin of the other boards.
Here we see the Z490I Unify under our thermal imager with a full load on the CPU for over an hour. Even with such a compact board space, the Unify shows a maximum temperature on the heat sinks of 44C for the main large I/O cover heat sink, while the top is at 43C. The PCB near the VCCSA/VCCIO VRM is 52C, so the coolers are definitely putting in some work.
Overclocking with Comet Lake has been a lesson in limitations, both thermally and architecturally. As intel squeezes the 14nm node for all it has, the frequency is now under several boosting algorithms, which help enhance single or dual-core performance to the nth degree. However, it does not leave much on the table for overclocking.
The 10900K as expected pulled the full 5.2GHz that we have shown on every other board, and CPUz lies to us a bit here as while it shows 1.32VCore, the actual loaded VCore was 1.315. This is a small difference but worth noting.
The MSI Z490I Unify is a capable and well-equipped board, if not a little scant on the rear I/O USB support. To have Thunderbolt, MSI sacrificed a bit on the I/O, and I think that may have been a great choice. However, if you have a ton of peripherals, you may need to drop a little coin on a good USB hub.
What we like
Thermals: The Z490I Unify is a small board, but it keeps the powerful VRM in check thermally speaking and delivers excellent performance both for the CPU and the VRM cooling aspect.
PCIe 4.0: While the PCIe 4 is not here, for Intel at least, we know that by the time it is, there will be even more GPUs and SSD's available that can utilize the faster interface.
Thunderbolt 3: The Z490I Unify has Thunderbolt 3 onboard which means 40Gb storage devices or other Thunderbolt 3 enabled devices can be simply plugged in and ready to rock with a PCIe x4 interface right on the rear panel, or even a Display if you are using the iGPU.
What do we think could be better?
GPU performance: The Z490I Unify seemed to show some disparity on the graphics performance. While not huge, I think this may come down to some level of UEFI refinement, which I hope MSI can get sorted as while its not a considerable deficiency, it is there.
CPU attached M.2: Many of the larger ATX boards have an M.2 that is rated for PCIe Gen 4, and that would be a significant advantage when the new CPUs drop. However, being ITX, MSI opted to route the M.2 slots from the PCH, which are through a gen 3 x4 DMI link. I will give MSI some credit here as laying out the traces for Gen 4 signaling to an M.2 slot would be difficult. I would be lying if I didn't say I was missing it.
The Z490I Unify is a great and robust mITX board with very few niggles, in my opinion. It could use some fine-tuning and optimizations, which I assume will show up over time, but for now, it's a reliable performer that does as well or close to what it's bigger, more expensive brothers offer.
The Bottom Line
MSI has taken a lot of the performance prowess and feature appointment and bread it into a diminutive form factor. The Z490I Unify is a great SFF option, built on a 10-layer PCB, just mind the rear I/O limitations.