The Z490 Mini-ITX Showdown: GIGABYTE’s Z490I Aorus Ultra and MSI’s MEG Z490I Unify Reviewed

The mini-ITX form factor is as popular as ever, with a handful of options already available for Intel’s new LGA1200 socket. Over the years motherboard vendors have been perfecting their small form factor models designed to offer all of the performance of the larger-sized models, but with a smaller desktop footprint. Of these, two of the most desirable models based on features and pricing from all the mini-ITX models on the Z490 chipset are the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra and MSI MEG Z490I Unify. Offering dual PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots, 2.5 GbE Ethernet ports, and integrated Wi-Fi 6 radios, both GIGABYTE and MSI’s motherboards are designed to address the high end of the market. And with both boards going for the same price as well, it’s easy to see why these Z490 boards have become such worthy adversaries.

Two of the Best – $270 Mini-ITX Shoot-out

Focusing on the two motherboards in our review, both models have similar feature sets and the same MSRP of $270. There is only a handful of Z490 mini-ITX boards currently available, with a couple of entry-level models, as well as some mid to high-end models like the pair we have for review today. Overall, the six mini-ITX Z490 boards that are on the market today range in price from $160 to $300, with both the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra and MSI MEG Z490I Unify coming with an MSRP of $270.

On paper, both models are quite similar in specifications, with a 10-layer PCB featured on both, and near-identical power delivery systems based on Intersil 90 A power stages. The most significant difference, aside from aesthetics and minor details, are that the MSI MEG Z490I Unify also includes an Intel Thunderbolt 3 controller, which is one of the features more commonly associated with flagship Z490 boards. So with two very capable and very similar Z490 boards in hand, we’ll be reviewing the finer details of these two motherboards, including performance, power delivery thermals, and general differences in a good old fashioned mini-ITX showdown.

Opening up this head to head mini-ITX Z490 review, we have the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra motherboard. Clad in the company’s typical Aorus-inspired design with a black PCB with white patterning, it includes a black brushed power delivery heatsink which doubles up as a classy looking rear panel cover, as well as a contrasting silver and black chipset heatsink which also doubles as an M.2 heatsink to save space. This means one of the PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots is on the front of the board, while the second is located at the rear, with both slots offering support for both PCIe 3.0 x4 and SATA drives. Offering an element of customization to the aesthetics, GIGABYTE adds an RGB LED strip which creates an underglow effect at the right-hand side of the board, with a further pair of RGB LED headers that allow users to add some more pizazz to a system. 

Coming from the previous-generation Z390 boards to the new Z490 models, there isn’t that much difference in terms of the chipsets themselves, but one notable improvement across the majority of models is memory support. The GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra offers support for up to DDR4-5000 which will, in turn, require the integrated memory controller on the CPU to be strong enough to support this. In addition to this, Z490 supports the 32 GB memory modules like Z390 does, which means the Aorus Ultra ITX model supports up to 64 GB across its two memory slots.

For a small form factor model it has a plethora of features with a solid controller set, which includes an Intel I225-V 2.5 GbE Ethernet controller, an Intel AX201 Wi-Fi 6 interface, as well as a Realtek ALC1220-VB HD audio codec. On the rear panel is plenty of connectivity, although the Realtek ALC1220-VB HD audio codec powers just three 3.5 mm audio jacks, and omits the S/PDIF optical output to save space. The limited space also means GIGABYTE doesn’t have much to work with to take advantage of the Z490 chipset’s greater native USB 3.2 G2 connectivity, so the Z490I Aorus Ultra includes just two USB G2 ports; a Type-C and Type-A pairing. Other ports include four USB 3.2 G1 Type-A and two USB 2.0 ports, as well as a Q-Flash Plus button to allow users to update the board’s firmware without fanfare, and a dedicated USB 3.2 G1 port marked on the rear panel to provide this function.

Focusing on the performance, the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra performed competitively in our CPU testing, with similar performance in our game testing compared to other Z490 models we’ve benchmarked. In system performance, the Z490I Aorus Ultra showed quite high long idle and idle power state readings, but redeemed itself in our full load testing with a reading of 212.5 W. In our non-UEFI POST Time testing, it showed pretty fast boot times at default settings with a total POST time of 13.6 seconds. We test DPC latency performance at stock settings in Windows 10 and although the board hasn’t been optimized by default, it’s still competitive with other Z490 boards.

In our overclock testing, we managed to achieve a maximum overclock of 5.3 GHz on our testbed Core i7-10700K – the maximum our chip can do on ambient cooling methods – although we did experience thermal throttling. In our manual testing from 4.7 to 5.2 GHz, the Z490I Aorus Ultra performed well with decent levels of VDroop on the CPU VCore, which was tighter as we increased the frequency. 

The GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra is a feature-packed model crammed into a small-yet-capable mini-ITX sized frame. It’s clear by how jam-packed the PCB is that GIGABYTE has gone all-out with its ITX model, and despite not offering anything special in the way of functions, it has a certain air of quality about it. From the rear panel configuration to the impressive 9-phase power delivery on the 10-layer PCB, GIGABYTE looks to compete with other vendors mini-ITX models with a price tag of $270.

The GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra is a mini-ITX motherboard and is positioned into the mid-range of the Z490 product stack. It represents its gaming-focused Aorus brand and as such, features an aesthetic similar to other Aorus branded models. There is a single full-length PCIe 3.0 x16 slot, as well as two memory slots with support for DDR4-5000 and a maximum memory capacity 64 GB. For cooling there are four 4-pin headers with one for the CPU and three for system fans. And users looking to tap into Intel’s integrated UHD graphics can do so via two video outputs on the rear panel, where GIGABYTE offers and HDMI 2.0 port as well as a DisplayPort 1.4 output. Storage is pretty standard for a mini-ITX model in this day and age with two PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots and four SATA ports with support for RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 arrays.

GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra ITX Motherboard
Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link
Price $270
Size Mini-ITX
CPU Interface LGA1200
Chipset Intel Z490
Memory Slots (DDR4) Two DDR4
Supporting 64 GB
Dual Channel
Up to DDR4-5000
Video Outputs 1 x HDMI 2.0
1 x DisplayPort 1.4
Network Connectivity Intel I225-V 2.5 GbE
Intel AX201 Wi-Fi 6
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC1220-VB
PCIe Slots for Graphics (from CPU) 1 x PCIe 3.0 x16
PCIe Slots for Other (from PCH) N/A
Onboard SATA Four, RAID 0/1/5/10
Onboard M.2 2 x PCIe 3.0 x4/SATA, RAID 0/1
USB 3.2 G2 (10 Gbps) 1 x Type-A Rear Panel
1 x Type-C Rear Panel
1 x Type-C Header
USB 3.2 G1 (5 Gbps) 4 x Type-A Rear Panel
1 x Type-C Header
1 x Header (two ports)
USB 2.0 2 x Type-A Rear Panel
1 x Header (two ports)
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX
1 x 8pin CPU
Fan Headers 1 x CPU (4-pin)
3 x System (4-pin)
IO Panel 1 x USB 3.2 G2 Type-A
1 x USB 3.2 G2 Type-C
2 x USB 3.2 G1 Type-A
4 x USB 2.0 Type-A
1 x DisplayPort 1.4
1 x HDMI 2.0
1 x Network RJ45 (Intel)
3 x 3.5mm Audio Jacks (Realtek)
2 x Intel AX201 Antenna Ports
1 x Q-Flash Plus button

The rear panel has plenty of connectivity including two USB 3.2 G2 ports split between Type-A and Type-C, two USB 3.2 G1 Type-A ports, and four USB 2.0 ports. Users looking to add more can use the front panel USB 3.x headers to wire up a USB 3.2 G1 Type-C port as well as two USB 3.2 G1 Type-A ports, while two USB 2.0 headers provide a further four ports. In regards to networking, there’s a single Ethernet port powered by an Intel I225-V 2.5 GbE controller, as well as an Intel AX201 Wi-Fi 6 interface which also adds BT 5.1 connectivity support.

The GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra follows a consistent and subtle design which is based on a black PCB with a black rear panel cover and black power delivery heatsinks. This aesthetic extends to the black and silver mono-tone chipset heatsink, which also doubles up as an M.2 heatsink. At the right-hand side of the board is an ARGB LED strip which sits on the rear of the board and creates an underglow effect. Users looking to add more RGB LEDs can use the ARGB and RGB header pairing.

Towards the lower portion of the motherboard (just above the single full-length PCIe 3.0 x16 slot) is the chipset heatsink, which is designed to accommodate the front-mounted M.2 slot. The second PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slot is located on the rear of the PCB. Both of the M.2 slots do include support for SATA drives, with four additional SATA ports with support for RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 arrays. On the right-hand side is a USB 3.2 G1 front panel header which adds two ports, a single USB 2.0 header which also adds two ports, with a single USB 3.2 G1 Type-C header. Also on the right-hand side is a pair of steel reinforced memory slots, which feature support for DDR4-5000 memory speeds and a maximum capacity of up to 64 GB.

To save what little remnants of space there is on a mini-ITX PCB, GIGABYTE has opted to use non-standard connectors for the three 4-pin chassis fan headers. In order to accommodate this, the company includes small extension cables in the accessories bundle, converting these headers to the usual 4-pin standard. Note however that this means that fan headers on the board are all but require the cables to function, so you’ll want to take care not to lose them. Otherwise, the 4-pin CPU fan is a conventional 4-pin header and is located in the top left-hand corner of the board by the 8-pin ATX 12 V CPU power input.

The GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra is using a large 9-phase power delivery system, which is operating in an 8+1 configuration. The PWM controller of choice is the Intersil ISL69269. The CPU section is using eight Intersil ISL99390 90 A power stages, while the SoC is using a single ISL99390 90 A power stage. The capacitors are interesting as the GIGABYTE is using premium surface-mounted Tantalum Polymer capacitors, which certainly adds cost to the board. So does the 10-layer PCB which puts it on a similar footing to the MSI Z490I Unify.

Cooling the key components, including the power delivery system, the front-mounted PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slot, and the chipset, is a trifecta of heatpipe-connected heatsinks. The design of this moulds into the metallic rear panel cover and stretches around the board in a C-shape. The PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 heatsink slots within the chipset heatsink and can be accessed by screws on the top plate making access to this slot easy with a screwdriver. There are profound imprints within the thermal pads which show that the connection between the heatsink and the power stages is nice and tight.

Due to space constraints on mini-ITX motherboards, the audio section of the board is very cramped with GIGABYTE utilizing every bit of spare PCB space. The Realtek ALC1220-VB HD audio codec is supplemented by three Japanese gold audio capacitors, with no PCB audio separation from the rest of the board. The HD audio codec doesn’t include an EMI shield, and just above this is a front panel audio connector. 

On the rear panel is plenty of USB connectivity which is spearheaded by a pair of USB 3.2 G2 ports including one Type-C and one Type-A. There is also four USB 3.2 G2 Type-A and two USB 2.0 ports, with  DisplayPort 1.4 and HDMI 2.0 video outputs. GIGABYTE has also included a Parade PS175 chip, which allows for the DisplayPort to carry HDMI 2.0 video when used with an appropriate adapter. The three 3.5 mm audio jacks are powered by the Realtek ALC1220-VB HD audio codec. At the same time, the boards networking includes an Intel I225-V 2.5 GbE Ethernet controller and an equally premium Intel AX201 Wi-Fi 6 wireless interface. Finishing off the rear panel is a small, yet handily located Q-Flash Plus button which includes a dedicated USB 3.2 G1 Type-A port to update the firmware easily.

The second of our $260 Z490 mini-ITX boards is the MSI MEG Z490I Unify, which is similar in style and design. Forgoing the usual RGB lighting, the MSI Z490I Unify is the epitome of sleek and stylish, at least as far as motherboards are concerned. The board features an all-black aesthetic, with a black PCB and black heatsinks, and has a whole host of features.

Leading the impressive feature list is the inclusion of an Intel JH7540 Thunderbolt 3 controller, which is exposed as a USB Type-C port on the rear panel. The MSI MEG Z490I Unify is one of just a small selection of Z490 models which include a Thunderbolt 3 controller, while another impressive feat is the 10-layer PCB which adds another premium element to the board. Other features include two PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots, with one located on the front, and another located on the rear, and four SATA ports for conventional SATA drives and other devices such as optical drives.

For hardened enthusiasts, the Z490I Unify has official support for up to DDR4-5000 memory, with a maximum capacity of 64 GB available across two memory slots. Due to size constraints, there’s just one full-length PCIe 3.0 x16 slot, which sits along the bottom of the board. Focusing on networking, MSI is using a Realtek RTL8125B 2.5 GbE Ethernet controller, with the boards wireless and BT 5.1 capabilities controlled by an Intel AX201 Wi-Fi 6 CNVi module.

Onboard audio is controlled by a Realtek ALC1220 HD audio codec, which adds five 3.5 mm audio jacks and S/PDIF optical output, but at the cost of extra USB ports. That being said, there is still a USB 3.2 G2 Type-A port, a Thunderbolt 3/USB 3.2 G2 Type-C port, two USB 3.2 G1 Type-A ports, and two USB 2.0 ports. The inclusion of a small cooling fan within the rear panel cover to help keep the power delivery cool also detracts space from the rear panel cover with a fan grill.

Summarizing up the performance in our motherboard test suite, the MSI MEG Z490I Unify has the highest power consumption in our testing from any Z490 model tested so far. The difference between the other boards is marginal, however, and we didn’t notice any anomalies in our power testing. This is different in our non-UEFI POST time testing with the Z490I Unify showing the fast POST times from any Z490 board we’ve tested so far with a default POST time of 10.3 seconds from power-up to Windows 10. We test DPC latency out of the box at stock settings, and the MSI board performed well versus the other boards in our charts. In our CPU and game testing, the MSI Z490I Unify was also competitive with no anomalies found in our testing.

Focusing on overclocking, the MSI MEG Z490I Unify has a solid 9-phase power delivery running in an 8+1 configuration, and uses 90 A power stages throughout. Despite this, we didn’t manage to reach the heights we’ve found so far on our Core i7-10700K, which is 5.3 GHz, despite thermal throttling. The new Comet Lake desktop chips run quite hot at stock, so it doesn’t take long when overclocking to hit trouble, but overall the maximum stable overclock we managed to reach on the mini-ITX Unify model was 5.1 GHz. Whether or not it was just our sample in particular, we expected quite a bit more, but the performance was acceptable, and the board’s overall VDroop control at default settings were adequate. It did overcompensate a little on CPU VCore, more so than we would have liked. This adds extra heat and with little headroom available on conventional cooling, this is important to consider. 

The MSI MEG Z490I Unify is a very solid board in both the aesthetics department and in specifications, and boasts a single Thunderbolt 3 Type-C port on the rear panel. It has some interesting design choices on the rear panel and trades some space for extra capability in cooling the 9-phase power delivery system. Couple that with its 10-layer PCB, dual PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots and 2.5 GbE and Wi-Fi 6 network pairing, the Unify looks to solidify its space in the Z490 mini-ITX market. 

The MSI MEG Z490I Unify is a mini-ITX motherboard which slots into the mid-range of MSI’s Z490 product stack. Along with Thunderbolt 3 support, the board offers a single Realtek RTL8125B 2.5 GbE Ethernet controller and an Intel AX201 Wi-Fi 6/BT 5.1 CNVi radio. There is two PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots which also support SATA drives, and four SATA ports with support for RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 arrays. One of the M.2 slots is located on the front of the board with an M.2 heatshield built into the chipset heatsink, while the other is located on the rear of the board. 

MSI MEG Z490I Unify ITX Motherboard
Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link
Price $270
Size Mini-ITX
CPU Interface LGA1200
Chipset Intel Z490
Memory Slots (DDR4) Two DDR4
Supporting 64 GB
Dual Channel
Up to DDR4-5000
Video Outputs 1 x HDMI
1 x DisplayPort
Network Connectivity Realtek RTL8125B 2.5 G
Intel AX201 Wi-Fi 6
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC1220
PCIe Slots for Graphics (from CPU) 1 x PCIe 3.0 x16
PCIe Slots for Other (from PCH) N/A
Onboard SATA Four, RAID 0/1/5/10
Onboard M.2 2 x PCIe 3.0 x4/SATA, RAID 0/1
USB 3.1 (10 Gbps) 1 x Type-C Rear Panel (TB3)
1 x Type-A Rear Panel
1 x Type-C Header
USB 3.0 (5 Gbps) 2 x Type-A Rear Panel
1 x Header (two ports)
USB 2.0 2 x Type-A Rear Panel
1 x Header (two ports)
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX
1 x 8pin CPU
Fan Headers 1 x CPU (4-pin)
1 x Water Pump (4-pin)
1 x System (4-pin)
IO Panel 1 x USB 3.2 G2 Type-A
1 x USB 3.2 G2 Type-C (TB3)
2 x USB 3.2 G1 Type-A
2 x USB 2.0 Type-A
1 x Network RJ45 (Realtek)
5 x 3.5mm Audio Jacks (Realtek)
1 x S/PDIF Output (Realtek)
2 x Intel AX201 Antenna Ports
1 x Clear CMOS Button

Memory support is impressive with DDR4-5000 supported officially, although due to size constraints, there is only two memory slots, giving the board a maximum memory capacity of 64 GB. Audio is simplistic with a full five 3.5 mm and S/PDIF optical output powered by a Realtek ALC1220 HD audio codec. However, going full fat on the audio means the board has fewer ports available than the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra. It’s a trade-off to make the MSI more desirable for overclocking as rear panel space is also taking up by the external vent located on the I/O shield for the small fan which cools the power delivery. 

Opening with the design, the MSI MEG Z490I Unify has an all-black and clean aesthetic throughout, with no RGB LEDs found whatsoever across the board. Users looking to add some color can use the two 3-pin RGB headers located along the top of the board. There is a large rear panel cover which covers the power delivery heatsink, which is in two parts and is interconnected via a single heat pipe. This heatsink stretches around the left hand side and top of the board which cools the entirety of the power delivery. It is also using a 10-layer PCB which is superb for a mini-ITX model. Located around the edging of the PCB are three 4-pin headers which are split between one for a CPU fan, one for a water pump, and one for a chassis fan. 

Along the bottom is a single PCIe 3.0 x16 slot, with no space for any additional slots due to the smaller form factor that is mini-ITX. For storage, the MSI Z490I Unify has two PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots, with one located underneath an amalgamated chipset and M.2 heatsink on the front of the board, with the second slot located on the rear of the PCB. There is also a total of four SATA ports with support for RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 arrays. Despite the obvious limitations on spacing for memory slots on mini-ITX motherboards, the MSI Z490I Unify does provide support for up to DDR4-5000 with a maximum capacity of up to 64 GB across two memory slots. 

The MSI MEG Z490I Unify is using a simple 9-phase power delivery system operating in an 8+1 configuration. It is using eight Intersil ISL99390 90 A power stages for the CPU section and a single ISL99390 90 A power stage for the SoC. The power delivery is controlled by an Intersil ISL69269 PWM controller. For a mini-ITX motherboard, this is a considerably large and capable power delivery system with a maximum output of 720 A for the CPU VCore. In theory, this means that the Z490I Unify should be a very capable overclocker when used with both ambient and sub-ambient cooling.

Looking at the power delivery heatsink, one section is affixed to the plastic rear panel cover and is assisted by a small cooling fan with a grill pushing the air out of the rear of the panel. Despite the cooling fan, the heatsink isn’t very bulky or weighty, but MSI has pre-applied thermal pads to allow heat transfer between the heatsink and the power stages/MOSFETs.

On the audio section of the PCB is a Realtek ALC1220 HD audio codec which is accompanied by three Japanese gold audio capacitors. The codec itself is bare with no EMI shielding, and the audio PCB is separated in part by an opaque line from the rest of the board’s componentry. 

One of the MSI MEG Z490I Unify’s main features is the addition of an Intel JHL7540 Thunderbolt 3 controller, which is exposed on the board’s sole rear USB Type-C port. In addition to this are a single USB 3.2 G2 Type-A port, two USB 3.2 G1 Type-A ports, and two USB 2.0 ports. The five 3.5 mm audio jacks and single S/PDIF optical output is controlled by the Realtek ALC1220 HD audio codec, while the board also includes HDMI and DisplayPort outputs. On the networking front, the single RJ45 port is driven by a Realtek RTL8125B 2.5 GbE Ethernet controller, while an Intel AX201 Wi-Fi 6 interface adds support for wireless and BT 5.1 devices. Finishing off the rear panel is a very small clear CMOS button.

The firmware on the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra uses a black and orange contrasting theme, with white text and dark orange highlights. The firmware itself has two primary modes, Easy mode and the advanced mode which users can access by pressing the F2 key. 

Upon first boot and entering the BIOS, the Easy Mode displays an essential list of information including the version of the firmware being used, the installed processor, as well as information pertaining to the CPU frequency, temperatures and basic voltages. To the bottom left-hand corner, users can change the boot sequence order, while the right-hand side displays a list of menus which can be accessed by pressing the corresponding key. 

In the advanced mode, users can tweak and perform overclocks on both the CPU and memory, as well as access more intricate parts including GIGABYTE’s Smart Fan 5 utility and chipset related options. There’s plenty of options for users to get to grips with including an extensive list of CPU and memory frequency, memory latency and voltage settings. Other options included within the firmware also stretch to integrated graphics frequency, as well as settings for changing the ring and base-clock frequencies. For enthusiasts, GIGABYTE includes power-related options for Intel’s VF Curve and power profiles, as well as settings to change the power delivery and load-line calibration settings for tighter or slacker VDroop control.

Gallery: GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra BIOS Gallery

The GIGABYTE Aorus firmware in itself is easy to navigate and use, although the menus are quite stacked and somewhat cramped. This can be intimidating for users without much in the way of organization of the Tweaker menu and opts to just list all of the settings, as opposed to placing them in individual sections for CPU, memory and voltages. GIGABYTE is consistent with its firmware and it is responsive and intuitive. 

All of GIGABYTE’s software package revolves around the Aorus App Center which adds as a central hub for all of its software offerings. It also provides access to a multitude of Windows-related settings including power options, network settings, and the integrated Windows Firewall. 

Some of the most notable inclusions with the Z490I Aorus Ultra include the @BIOS firmware updating application, the EasyTune software, GIGABYTE’s RGB Fusion 2.0, and the System Information Viewer or SIV software.

The EasyTune software allows users to perform in operating system overclocks, with plenty of options for changing the CPU frequency, base clock frequency, and related voltage settings. Users can opt to overclock the CPU on a per-core basis in 100 MHz increments, or sync all-cores for more hardened and heat-intensive overclocks. There are also options to change the memory frequency on the fly as well as DDR4 primary latency timings, as well as alter the CPU VCore current protection for users looking to perform big overclocks, although with Comet Lake running hot even at stock settings due to great turbo clock speeds, this is more for the enthusiasts with beefier cooling setups.

GIGABYTE’s software omits any form of audio software, although users can download the Realtek Audio Center direct from the Microsoft store. Users can alter and create disco-inspired light shows with the integrated RGB Fusion 2.0 software, as well as customize additional RGB LED strips which can be purchased separately. Users can even sync compatible RGB memory with the integrated LEDs for a more uniformed look.

Gallery: GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra Software Gallery

Overall the GIGABYTE software package is basic, but it provides extra user experience and offers customization of styling, as well as overclocking. Despite advancements in overclocking software, we still recommend users do all the CPU and memory overclocking within the BIOS.

The MSI Click BIOS 5 firmware is consistent throughout its models, with slight variations in the color scheme dependent on the model. Looking at the GUI, it uses a primarily black background with white text and red highlights, which looks to be based on MSI’s Gaming brand, which the Z490I Unify is technically representative of. There are two primary modes for users to select between, the basic mode and the advanced mode which can be accessed by pressing the F7 key.

The basic mode lists basic information in regards to the installed processor, memory and also displays CPU and motherboard temperature readings from integrated sensors within the board. Along the left-hand side is a list of menus which shows basic information including the CPU, memory, storage, and fan information, as well as allowing users to enable or disable the Thunderbolt 3 controller and turn LED’s on or off. It should be noted that this relates to RGB LED strips, as the MSI MEG Z490I Unify has no onboard RGB LEDs.

After pressing the F7 key, the advanced mode opens up a whole host of customizable options, with the most notable settings sitting within the OC section. The OC section has all of the boards overclocking settings which range from CPU frequency and CPU VCore options to memory settings including an extensive list of changeable memory latency settings. This also includes power options which include voltages from CPU VCore, CPU PLL OC voltages and DRAM voltage, to customizing and changing the boards Load-Line Calibration options for tighter VDroop control. Other options include Intel’s Thermal Velocity Boost options for users looking to alter the default profile for more aggressive or less aggressive auto overclocking options. 

Gallery: MSI MEG Z490I Unify BIOS Gallery

Overall the MSI Click BIOS 5 firmware is nothing new to us, and it’s responsive and intuitive to use. It includes a board explorer for a birds-eye view of the board with clickable panels for installed components, as well as fan curve profile options within the hardware monitor. Users can sync the three 4-pin fan headers, as well as change the fan control b between PWM and DC modes. Overall there’s plenty for users to sink their teeth with extensive overclocking settings, chipset related options, and lots of customizable settings for memory overclocking.

Going back a couple of years, MSI used to offer more software utilities than users could shake a stick at, which was sometimes a blessing and a curse. Nowadays MSI amalgamated much of its software into the MSI Dragon Center which not only acts as a plexus for a variety of different software but bundles much of it into one easy to navigate utility. MSI also includes its own custom skinned version of the CPU-Z information monitoring utility.

The MSI Dragon Center utility combines various software packages including a hardware monitor, MSI’s True Color options which allow users to select between different display settings based on the current task such as movies or gaming. There is also a hardware monitor which allows users to keep tabs on current CPU usage, CPU Frequency on the first core, as well as displaying a basic list of information including current voltages, DRAM frequency, and temperatures from the CPU and CPU socket sensors.

Also housed within the MSI Dragon Center is MSI’s Mystic Light RGB utility, which allows users to customize external RGB LED strips and other compatible hardware such as VGA, RGB enabled CPU coolers and DRAM. MSI offers a wide variety of different LED lighting effects, as well as options for changing the speed of the light effects and the overall brightness. Users can also sync the different components which can create a very vibrant looking system or something with a little more uniformity.

Gallery: MSI MEG Z490I Unify Software Gallery

The combination of all of MSI’s core software into the Dragon Center is welcomed as it allows users to keep thing to one piece of software, instead of multiple which can take up extra space on the desktop, as well as storage. MSI doesn’t include any audio customization software within the software bundle, but users can opt to install the Realtek Audio Manager or the Nahimic Audio software direct from the Microsoft store. Overall, MSI’s software has been condensed into one primary app, and it’s very intuitive to use. 

As per our testing policy, we take a high-end CPU suitable for the motherboard that was released during the socket’s initial launch and equip the system with a suitable amount of memory running at the processor maximum supported frequency. This is also typically run at JEDEC subtimings where possible. It is noted that some users are not keen on this policy, stating that sometimes the maximum supported frequency is quite low, or faster memory is available at a similar price, or that the JEDEC speeds can be prohibitive for performance. While these comments make sense, ultimately very few users apply memory profiles (either XMP or other) as they require interaction with the BIOS, and most users will fall back on JEDEC supported speeds – this includes home users as well as industry who might want to shave off a cent or two from the cost or stay within the margins set by the manufacturer. Where possible, we will extend out testing to include faster memory modules either at the same time as the review or a later date.

Test Setup
Processor Intel Core i7-10700K, 125 W, $374
8 Cores, 16 Threads 3.8 GHz (5.1 GHz Turbo)
Motherboard GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra (BIOS F5c)
MSI MEG Z490 Unify (BIOS 7C77v11)
Cooling NZXT Kraken Z63 280 mm AIO
Power Supply Corsair HX850 850 W 80 PLUS Platinum
Memory G.Skill TridentZ DDR4-2933 CL 14-14-14-34 2T (2 x 8 GB)
Video Card MSI GTX 1080 (1178/1279 Boost)
Hard Drive Crucial MX300 1TB
Case Corsair Crystal 680X
Operating System Windows 10 1909 inc. Spectre/Meltdown Patches

Readers of our motherboard review section will have noted the trend in modern motherboards to implement a form of MultiCore Enhancement / Acceleration / Turbo (read our report here) on their motherboards. This does several things, including better benchmark results at stock settings (not entirely needed if overclocking is an end-user goal) at the expense of heat and temperature. It also gives, in essence, an automatic overclock which may be against what the user wants. Our testing methodology is ‘out-of-the-box’, with the latest public BIOS installed and XMP enabled, and thus subject to the whims of this feature. It is ultimately up to the motherboard manufacturer to take this risk – and manufacturers taking risks in the setup is something they do on every product (think C-state settings, USB priority, DPC Latency / monitoring priority, overriding memory sub-timings at JEDEC). Processor speed change is part of that risk, and ultimately if no overclocking is planned, some motherboards will affect how fast that shiny new processor goes and can be an important factor in the system build.

Hardware Providers for CPU and Motherboard Reviews
Sapphire RX 460 Nitro MSI GTX 1080 Gaming X OC Crucial MX200 +
MX500 SSDs
Corsair AX860i +
AX1200i PSUs
G.Skill RipjawsV,
SniperX, FlareX
Crucial Ballistix
DDR4
Silverstone
Coolers
Silverstone
Fans

 

Not all motherboards are created equal. On the face of it, they should all perform the same and differ only in the functionality they provide – however, this is not the case. The obvious pointers are power consumption, POST time and latency. This can come down to the manufacturing process and prowess, so these are tested.

For Z490 we are running using Windows 10 64-bit with the 1909 update.

Power Consumption

We test power consumption on the system while in a single MSI GTX 1080 Gaming configuration with a wall meter connected to the power supply. our 850W power supply has ~75% efficiency > 50W, and 90%+ efficiency at 250W, suitable for both idle and multi-GPU loading. This method of power reading allows us to compare the power management of the UEFI and the board to supply components with power under load, and includes typical PSU losses due to efficiency. These are the real-world values that consumers may expect from a typical system (minus the monitor) using this motherboard.

While this method for power measurement may not be ideal, and you feel these numbers are not representative due to the high wattage power supply being used (we use the same PSU to remain consistent over a series of reviews, and the fact that some boards on our testbed get tested with three or four high powered GPUs), the important point to take away is the relationship between the numbers. These boards are all under the same conditions, and thus the differences between them should be easy to spot.

Power: Long Idle (w/ GTX 1080)Power: OS Idle (w/ GTX 1080)Power: Prime95 Blend (w/ GTX 1080)

Both the GIGABYTE and MSI mini-ITX models on test display generally higher power consumption figures, both at long idle and idle power stages. At full-load however, the differences are stark with the Z490I Aorus Ultra showing good power consumption figures, while the Z490I Unify outputs the highest full-load figures from all Z490 models tested so far. 

Non-UEFI POST Time

Different motherboards have different POST sequences before an operating system is initialized. A lot of this is dependent on the board itself, and POST boot time is determined by the controllers on board (and the sequence of how those extras are organized). As part of our testing, we look at the POST Boot Time using a stopwatch. This is the time from pressing the ON button on the computer to when Windows starts loading. (We discount Windows loading as it is highly variable given Windows specific features.)

Non UEFI POST Time

In our non-UEFT POST Time testing, the MSI has the fastest POST times from the Z490 models we’ve tested with an impressively fast time of 10.3 seconds at default settings. The GIGABYTE isn’t far behind with a default POST time of 13.6 seconds. 

DPC Latency

Deferred Procedure Call latency is a way in which Windows handles interrupt servicing. In order to wait for a processor to acknowledge the request, the system will queue all interrupt requests by priority. Critical interrupts will be handled as soon as possible, whereas lesser priority requests such as audio will be further down the line. If the audio device requires data, it will have to wait until the request is processed before the buffer is filled.

If the device drivers of higher priority components in a system are poorly implemented, this can cause delays in request scheduling and process time. This can lead to an empty audio buffer and characteristic audible pauses, pops and clicks. The DPC latency checker measures how much time is taken processing DPCs from driver invocation. The lower the value will result in better audio transfer at smaller buffer sizes. Results are measured in microseconds.

Deferred Procedure Call Latency

We test DPC latency from out of the box with default settings. Both the MSI and GIGABYTE models perform competitively with other boards on test, although none of the Z490 models tested so far has been optimized for DPC latency.

For our motherboard reviews, we use our short form testing method. These tests usually focus on if a motherboard is using MultiCore Turbo (the feature used to have maximum turbo on at all times, giving a frequency advantage), or if there are slight gains to be had from tweaking the firmware. We put the memory settings at the CPU manufacturers suggested frequency, making it very easy to see which motherboards have MCT enabled by default.

For Z490 we are running using Windows 10 64-bit with the 1909 update.

Normally we test our motherboards with out of the box settings. This means that the performance will get boosted based on whatever default algorithm each motherboard vendor implements with regards turbo time and boost power. Intel actively encourages this – the numbers it puts in for turbo time and turbo power are recommendations, rather than specifications, and Intel wants motherboard vendors to engineer their products to the turbo and power that each vendor deems acceptable for their product. As a result, a lot of motherboards will implement an aggressive turbo algorithm.

For this generation, ASUS has done something different. ASUS’ enthusiast motherboards offer two different options on first boot: Intel recommendations, or ASUS recommendations. This means that there is a small performance delta between the two, especially for ASUS’ high-end motherboards. ASUS has put this into the product based on customer feedback and how motherboard vendors have slowly drifted over the last decade to well beyond what Intel recommends.

For our testing methodology, we try to leave as much as we can on default, because this is part of what makes a motherboard different to any other, and the motherboard vendor has to decide how aggressive it must be. Also, for non-enthusiasts who daren’t enter the BIOS, or understand even what turbo or a CPU or what memory channels are, they will just end up with the non-XMP default settings. It is unclear what such a person might select when presented with the ASUS default option.

At this point we have included the results from selecting Intel’s recommendations on ASUS’ boards. Based on feedback, we are in the process of including both sets of data in our Z490 reviews. We were planning to cover it in depth in our first ASUS Z490 review, but please bare with us while we update our results for this review. We will still cover it in depth in the ASUS review.

Rendering – Blender 2.7b: 3D Creation Suite

A high profile rendering tool, Blender is open-source allowing for massive amounts of configurability, and is used by a number of high-profile animation studios worldwide. The organization recently released a Blender benchmark package, a couple of weeks after we had narrowed our Blender test for our new suite, however their test can take over an hour. For our results, we run one of the sub-tests in that suite through the command line – a standard ‘bmw27’ scene in CPU only mode, and measure the time to complete the render.

Blender 2.79b bmw27_cpu Benchmark

Rendering – POV-Ray 3.7.1: Ray Tracing

The Persistence of Vision Ray Tracer, or POV-Ray, is a freeware package for as the name suggests, ray tracing. It is a pure renderer, rather than modeling software, but the latest beta version contains a handy benchmark for stressing all processing threads on a platform. We have been using this test in motherboard reviews to test memory stability at various CPU speeds to good effect – if it passes the test, the IMC in the CPU is stable for a given CPU speed. As a CPU test, it runs for approximately 1-2 minutes on high-end platforms.

POV-Ray 3.7.1 Benchmark

Rendering – Crysis CPU Render

One of the most oft used memes in computer gaming is ‘Can It Run Crysis?’. The original 2007 game, built in the Crytek engine by Crytek, was heralded as a computationally complex title for the hardware at the time and several years after, suggesting that a user needed graphics hardware from the future in order to run it. Fast forward over a decade, and the game runs fairly easily on modern GPUs, but we can also apply the same concept to pure CPU rendering – can the CPU render Crysis? Since 64 core processors entered the market, one can dream. We built a benchmark to see whether the hardware can.

For this test, we’re running Crysis’ own GPU benchmark, but in CPU render mode. This is a 2000 frame test, which we run over a series of resolutions from 800×600 up to 1920×1080. For simplicity, we provide the 1080p test here.

Crysis CPU Render: (6) 1920x1080

Point Calculations – 3D Movement Algorithm Test: link

3DPM is a self-penned benchmark, taking basic 3D movement algorithms used in Brownian Motion simulations and testing them for speed. High floating point performance, MHz, and IPC win in the single thread version, whereas the multithread version has to handle the threads and loves more cores. For a brief explanation of the platform agnostic coding behind this benchmark, see my forum post here.

3D Particle Movement v2.1

NAMD ApoA1

One frequent request over the years has been for some form of molecular dynamics simulation. Molecular dynamics forms the basis of a lot of computational biology and chemistry when modeling specific molecules, enabling researchers to find low energy configurations or potential active binding sites, especially when looking at larger proteins. We’re using the NAMD software here, or Nanoscale Molecular Dynamics, often cited for its parallel efficiency. Unfortunately the version we’re using is limited to 64 threads on Windows, but we can still use it to analyze our processors. We’re simulating the ApoA1 protein for 10 minutes, and reporting back the ‘nanoseconds per day’ that our processor can simulate. Molecular dynamics is so complex that yes, you can spend a day simply calculating a nanosecond of molecular movement.

NAMD 2.31 Molecular Dynamics (ApoA1)

Application Load: GIMP 2.10.4

One of the most important aspects about user experience and workflow is how fast does a system respond. A good test of this is to see how long it takes for an application to load. Most applications these days, when on an SSD, load fairly instantly, however some office tools require asset pre-loading before being available. Most operating systems employ caching as well, so when certain software is loaded repeatedly (web browser, office tools), then can be initialized much quicker.

In our last suite, we tested how long it took to load a large PDF in Adobe Acrobat. Unfortunately this test was a nightmare to program for, and didn’t transfer over to Win10 RS3 easily. In the meantime we discovered an application that can automate this test, and we put it up against GIMP, a popular free open-source online photo editing tool, and the major alternative to Adobe Photoshop. We set it to load a large 50MB design template, and perform the load 10 times with 10 seconds in-between each. Due to caching, the first 3-5 results are often slower than the rest, and time to cache can be inconsistent, we take the average of the last five results to show CPU processing on cached loading.

AppTimer: GIMP 2.10.4

For Z490 we are running using Windows 10 64-bit with the 1909 update.

Grand Theft Auto V

The highly anticipated iteration of the Grand Theft Auto franchise hit the shelves on April 14th 2015, with both AMD and NVIDIA in tow to help optimize the title. GTA doesn’t provide graphical presets, but opens up the options to users and extends the boundaries by pushing even the hardest systems to the limit using Rockstar’s Advanced Game Engine under DirectX 11. Whether the user is flying high in the mountains with long draw distances or dealing with assorted trash in the city, when cranked up to maximum it creates stunning visuals but hard work for both the CPU and the GPU.

For our test we have scripted a version of the in-game benchmark. The in-game benchmark consists of five scenarios: four short panning shots with varying lighting and weather effects, and a fifth action sequence that lasts around 90 seconds. We use only the final part of the benchmark, which combines a flight scene in a jet followed by an inner city drive-by through several intersections followed by ramming a tanker that explodes, causing other cars to explode as well. This is a mix of distance rendering followed by a detailed near-rendering action sequence, and the title thankfully spits out frame time data.

GTX 1080: Grand Theft Auto V, Average FPSGTX 1080: Grand Theft Auto V, 95th Percentile

F1 2018

Aside from keeping up-to-date on the Formula One world, F1 2017 added HDR support, which F1 2018 has maintained; otherwise, we should see any newer versions of Codemasters’ EGO engine find its way into F1. Graphically demanding in its own right, F1 2018 keeps a useful racing-type graphics workload in our benchmarks.

Aside from keeping up-to-date on the Formula One world, F1 2017 added HDR support, which F1 2018 has maintained. We use the in-game benchmark, set to run on the Montreal track in the wet, driving as Lewis Hamilton from last place on the grid. Data is taken over a one-lap race.

GTX 1080: F1 2018, Average FPSGTX 1080: F1 2018, 95th Percentile

Strange Brigade (DX12)

Strange Brigade is based in 1903’s Egypt and follows a story which is very similar to that of the Mummy film franchise. This particular third-person shooter is developed by Rebellion Developments which is more widely known for games such as the Sniper Elite and Alien vs Predator series. The game follows the hunt for Seteki the Witch Queen who has arose once again and the only ‘troop’ who can ultimately stop her. Gameplay is cooperative centric with a wide variety of different levels and many puzzles which need solving by the British colonial Secret Service agents sent to put an end to her reign of barbaric and brutality.

The game supports both the DirectX 12 and Vulkan APIs and houses its own built-in benchmark which offers various options up for customization including textures, anti-aliasing, reflections, draw distance and even allows users to enable or disable motion blur, ambient occlusion and tessellation among others. AMD has boasted previously that Strange Brigade is part of its Vulkan API implementation offering scalability for AMD multi-graphics card configurations.

GTX 1080: Strange Brigade DX12, Average FPSGTX 1080: Strange Brigade DX12, 95th Percentile

Experience with the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra

Overclocking on Intel’s LGA1200 is similar to its previous desktop platforms, overclocking simply being a matter of dialing in the CPU Core frequency and CPU VCore settings. The primary difference with Comet Lake processors is the presence of Intel Thermal Velocity Boost (TVB), which makes clockspeeds even more temperature-sensitive than they already were. Using inadequate cooling methods can result in a drop of performance at stock, but there is a little bit of headroom depending on the quality of the silicon itself, or for users performing all-core overclocks for better performance in multi-threaded applications.

Using GIGABYTE’s Aorus firmware to perform overclocks is fairly straightforward, with all of the relevant settings available within the Tweaker menu. All of the CPU frequency overclocking settings sit firmly at the top, with memory settings further down and lastly towards the bottom, is where all the board’s power-related options and voltage settings rest.

Users can change the CPU Frequency, and CPU VCore settings for achieving easy and basic overclocks, with extensive memory options available including enabling X.M.P 2.0 memory profiles and latency options present within the firmware. One thing to consider for higher overclocks is changing the power settings and Load-Line Calibration level which can apply more VDroop for higher and more stable voltages under load, which can be the difference between stability, but at the cost of extra power and heat. 

Overall the GIGABYTE firmware packs everything needed for overclocking the CPU, memory and even offers base clock customizations for users looking to fine-tune settings. It should also be noted that altering the base clock will not only alter the CPU frequency, but it will also overclock the memory frequency, so using this to overclock is dependent on extra headroom available from both components.

Experience with the MSI MEG Z490I Unify

For users familiar with MSI’s Click BIOS firmware, all of MSI’s overclocking settings can be found within the OC Tweaker menu. Compared with the GIGABYTE model, MSI has a better and more visually pleasing layout with all of the CPU frequency settings sit towards the top of the menu, the memory settings in the middle, and the voltage and power options towards the bottom.

The Click BIOS 5 firmware is easy to navigate and customize, with extensive memory overclocking settings including a large list of tweakable memory settings including primary, secondary, and tertiary latency options. The Z490I Unify includes a base clock generator for fine-tuning frequencies, but this is linked to both the CPU and memory frequency.

Users looking to squeeze every last drop of performance from Comet Lake will appreciate the MSI Click BIOS 5 firmware, with plenty of settings for overclocking, with lots of power options within the advanced CPU configuration sub-menu. This includes C-State options as well as adaptive thermal monitoring settings, with CPU over Temperature Protection which can be extended beyond the default settings, or disabled altogether. We don’t recommend this due to the heat of Intel’s Comet Lake processors even at default settings. 

Overclocking Methodology

Our standard overclocking methodology is as follows. We select the automatic overclock options and test for stability with POV-Ray and Prime95 to simulate high-end workloads. These stability tests aim to catch any immediate causes for memory or CPU errors.

For manual overclocks, based on the information gathered from the previous testing, starts off at a nominal voltage and CPU multiplier, and the multiplier is increased until the stability tests are failed. The CPU voltage is increased gradually until the stability tests are passed, and the process repeated until the motherboard reduces the multiplier automatically (due to safety protocol) or the CPU temperature reaches a stupidly high level (105ºC+). Our testbed is not in a case, which should push overclocks higher with fresher (cooler) air.

Overclocking Results

GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra

Overclocking with the GIGABYTE Z490 Aorus Ultra motherboard proved fruitful in our testing, and we managed to achieve a maximum stable overclocking of 5.2 GHz at 1.40 V on the CPU VCore. We did experience thermal throttling which is expected, even with refinements over Skylake with thinner die and with a better thermal interface material between the CPU die and the IHS. 

Despite GIGABYTE omitting any overclocking presets, overclocking from 4.7 GHz to 5.3 GHz worked as expected. Performance gradually went up in our POV-Ray benchmark, although we did experience a little thermal throttling at our maximum stable overclock of 5.2 GHz. We did manage to achieve 5.3 GHz at 1.45 V on the CPU VCore, but these settings instantly kicked in the thermal safeguarding, and as such, our system crashed. The VDroop control at the default power settings while overclocking remained tight, which got tighter the further we pushed the processor, especially at higher CPU Vcore voltages such as 1.35 to 1.45 V. 

Overall the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra is a capable overclocker, and with the right CPU cooler, we expect this model with its solid 9-phase power delivery and a good array of overclocking settings to push any Intel Comet Lake chip to its maximum capabilities under adequate cooling methods. 

MSI MEG Z490I Unify

Overclocking with the MSI MEG Z490I Unify was a slightly contrasting experience when compared with the GIGABYTE model, mainly due to our Core i7-10700K maxing out at just 5.2 GHz; this is 100 MHz lower than we know our chip is capable of. Despite this, the Z490I Unify performed well in our testing from 4.7 GHz to 5.2 GHz, although we quickly hit thermal throttling limits at 5.2 GHz, including instability. MSI also doesn’t include any overclocking presets to select between, which we find is a current theme with Comet Lake already running particularly hot at stock settings.

Overall the MSI Z490I Unify ran a little bit hotter than the GIGABYTE model, despite remounting the CPU cooler at least three times for parity. This also stretched to the power delivery thermals, which we analyze on the next page. Going from 4.7 GHz to 5.1 GHz showed a gradual performance increase in our POV-Ray benchmark, with slight overcompensation the CPU VCore. The VDroop is a little aggressive on this model, which could explain why the Unify ran a little hotter than the GIGABYTE, although for users looking to do more extensive tweaks may be able to lower the temperatures and the overall power consumption down a little.

A lot more focus has been put onto power delivery specifications and capabilities, not just by manufacturers, but as a result of users demands. In addition to the extra power benefits from things like overclocking, more efficient designs in power deliveries and cooling solutions aim to bring temperatures down. Although this isn’t something most users ever need to worry about, certain enthusiasts are bringing more focus onto each boards power delivery. The more premium models tend to include bigger and higher-grade power deliveries, with bigger and more intricate heatsink designs, with some even providing water blocks on ranges such as the ASUS ROG Maximus Formula series.

Testing Methodology

Our method of testing out if the power delivery and its heatsink are effective at dissipating heat, is by running an intensely heavy CPU workload for a prolonged method of time. We apply an overclock which is deemed safe and at the maximum that the silicon on our testbed processor allows. We then run the Prime95 with AVX2 enabled under a torture test for an hour at the maximum stable overclock we can which puts insane pressure on the processor. We collect our data via three different methods which include the following:

  • Taking a thermal image from a birds-eye view after an hour with a Flir Pro thermal imaging camera
  • Securing two probes on to the rear of the PCB, right underneath CPU VCore section of the power delivery system for better parity in case a probe reports a faulty reading
  • Taking a reading of the VRM temperature from the sensor reading within the HWInfo monitoring application

The reason for using three different methods is that some sensors can read inaccurate temperatures, which can give very erratic results for users looking to gauge whether an overclock is too much pressure for the power delivery handle. With using a probe on the rear, it can also show the efficiency of the power stages and heatsinks as a wide margin between the probe and sensor temperature can show that the heatsink is dissipating heat and that the design is working, or that the internal sensor has drifted significantly. To ensure our probe was accurate before testing, I binned 10 and selected the most accurate (within 1c of the actual temperature) for better parity in our testing.


The hottest part measured on the PCB of the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra was 69.9c between the CPU socket and the power delivery system

To recreate a real-world testing scenario, the system is built into a conventional desktop chassis which is widely available. This is to show and alleviate issues when testing on open testbeds which we have done previously, which allows natural airflow to flow over the power delivery heatsinks. It provides a better comparison for the end-user and allows us to mitigate issues where heatsinks have been designed with airflow in mind, and those that have not. The idea of a heatsink is to allow effective dissipation of heat and not act as an insulator, with much more focus from consumers over the last couple of years on power delivery componentry and performance than in previous years.


The hottest part measured on the PCB of the MSI MEG Z490I Unify was 72.9c between the CPU socket and the power delivery.

For thermal image, we use a Flir One camera as it gives a good indication of where the heat is generated around the socket area, as some designs use different configurations and an evenly spread power delivery with good components will usually generate less heat. Manufacturers who use inefficient heatsinks and cheap out on power delivery components should run hotter than those who have invested. Of course, a $700 flagship motherboard is likely to outperform a cheaper $100 model under the same testing conditions, but it is still worth testing to see which vendors are doing things correctly. 

Thermal Analysis Results

Focusing on the thermal performance of both models power deliveries and cooling methods, we found the MSI MEG Z490I Unify to run considerably warmer at full load when compared to the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra. Opening with the MSI Z490I Unify, it doesn’t include an integrated power delivery system thermal sensor, so we rely on our calibrated thermal probes. We managed to hit 83c on our first probe, while the second recorded a slightly higher temperate of 86c. This is despite using a small cooling fan built into the rear panel cover to help pull heat from the power delivery out of the back of the rear panel I/O shield. Using our FLIR thermal imaging camera, we recorded a temperature of 72.9c on the hottest part of the CPU socket/power delivery area of the PCB, which is over 10c lower than the power delivery itself.

The GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra, in contrast, performed better, which could be due to the heatsink arrangement which uses a heat pipe to interconnect three different heatsinks including two power delivery heatsinks, and the chipset heatsink. The integrated temperature sensor gave us a reading of 67c, while our thermal probes were close to this with readings of 58c and 62c. It’s clear that the GIGABYTE model has better VRM thermal temperatures at full-load, and has a more efficient design, despite opting for a very similar set of power delivery componentry and configuration.

When it comes to building a high-performance, small form factor Intel system, the market for motherboards remains a unique one. The integration and tight engineering tolerances means that there are fewer boards, and what boards we do get tend to carry a price premium, but at the end of the day mini-ITX boards are irreplaceable from a size standpoint.

On paper, both the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra and MSI MEG Z490I Unify are quite similar in regards to features, with much of the same functionality for identical price tags, though the MSI Z490I Unify does include a Thunderbolt 3 controller, which helps it stand out.

The GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra is the company’s only mini-ITX model at present, and it occupies a firm position in the mid-range of its product stack. It is essentially a smaller version of its ATX form factor Z490 Aorus Ultra, with similar stylings and a condensed feature set that is influenced by the mini-ITX form factor. It has plenty of features including a good selection of USB ports on the rear, including seven Type-A ports and one Type-C port, as well as a pair of video outputs for users looking to leverage Intel’s integrated UHD graphics. This also includes three 3.5 mm audio jacks powered by the Realtek ALC1220 HD audio codec, though this is noticeably condensed from the typical five 3.5 mm and S/PDIF array.

Other features include a single Intel I225-V 2.5 GbE Ethernet controller and a AX201 Wi-Fi 6 controller, which is standard for $250+ Z490 boards. Meanwhile on the CPU and memory front, we’re looking at two DIMM slots for a maximum of 64 GB of memory, while the CPU is used to drive the board’s single full-length PCIe 3.0 x166 slot. Overall, in many ways the Z490I Aorus Ultra is the quintessential mid-range motherboard, offering a very solid feature set in a board that’s otherwise going to stand out more for its size than its functionality.

Looking at the aesthetics, GIGABYTE opts for a more stylish black and silver contrasting theme, with much of PCB covered by, componentry, traces, and heatsinks, in which GIGABYTE has effectively used all of the available space. One interesting thing to note is that GIGABYTE has opted to use its own fan connectors and provide adapters within the accessories bundle, which has allowed them to fit in an extra 4-pin fan connector when compared to the MSI model. GIGABYTE has even managed to fit in a USB 3.2 G2 Type-C front panel header, which is likely to further increase the overall cost of the system, yet it’s still a welcomed feature to include as Type-C ports become more common on computer cases.

In our testing, the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra was very competitive with the other Z490 boards in our test suite, showcasing solid performance in our system tests, while power consumption at full-load was the lowest power figure we’ve seen to date. It also performs well in our CPU and game testing, while scoring a big win in our power delivery system thermal testing, besting several other Z490 boards in the process. This is a bigger feat than it sounds, as mini-ITX models generally run hotter due to the condensed PCB space and closer components; but the Z490I Aorus Ultra manages well. Even in our overclocking testing, the GIGABYTE board managed to max out our chip at 5.3 GHz, despite obvious thermal throttling issues, and breezed through our settings at 5.2 GHz making it a solid board for enthusiasts looking for a good performing small form factor system.

The MSI MEG Z490I Unify is part of MIS’s enthusiast gaming stack, which is generally reserved for its top boards. When MSI first announced it was creating a mini-ITX version of its popular Unify series, there was a lot of fanfare surrounding the performance, capabilities, as well as the componentry used. In regards to the specifications, MSI didn’t disappoint with its 10-layer PCB and powerful 9-phase power delivery system, with the inclusion of an Intel Thunderbolt 3 controller also positively raising eyebrows.

Much of the board’s appeal comes from its subtle monotonal all-black design, which opts to omit any form of integrated RGB lighting. This is a selling point as far as MSI is concerned, as the majority of its models are RGB-infused and focus on multiple areas of customizable LEDs to create a very vibrant and personal system. So the Unify board offers something different, if only by virtue of taking something away.

With regards to features, the MSI Z490I Unify includes plenty of things to talk about, including the aforementioned Thunderbolt 3 controller, a USB 3.2 G2 Type-C front panel header, as well as two PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots and four SATA ports with support for RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 arrays. 

Focusing on the performance, the Unify showed great performance in our system tests with the fastest POST time from any Z490 model we’ve tested so far. But that speed also leaves the board in a bit of a hurry to draw power in general, and as a result our power consumption figures were higher than what we’ve seen for other Z490 boards, including the GIGABYTE board. Otherwise we noticed no anomalies in our CPU and game testing, and the board was very competitive against other Z490 boards. In our overclock testing, we were a little disappointed that we couldn’t reach our peak frequency of 5.3 GHz on our testbed Core i7-10700K processor, while the power delivery system ran a bit hot despite the inclusion of a small cooling fan to help keep these temperatures lower.

On paper, the power delivery system and overall feature set put the MSI MEG Z490I Unify ahead of most boards in its price range. Overall, it’s a good implementation of the Unify series on a small form factor board, especially as this is MSI’s first mini-ITX Unify. It also gives MSI a good platform to refine for later models and refreshes (e.g. Rocket Lake), and we expect MSI will make the Unify series one of its premier series going forward.

When comparing the MSI MEG Z490I Unify and GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra against each other, both have their strengths and weaknesses. MSI’s board offers a stronger feature set with Thunderbolt 3 compatibility out of the box, as well as a pleasing design style that looks neat and simple. Both the MSI and GIGABYTE use similar 10-layer PCB’s and power delivery systems, which should on paper, make them both attractive for users at the $270 price point. Both include dual PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots, four SATA ports, support for 64 GB of DDR4-5000, 2.5 GbE Ethernet, and Wi-Fi 6 capability, further reinforcing these similarities. But the boards do eventually diverge at a couple of aspects.

If overclocking and power delivery system cooling are the top considerations, our testing shows the GIGABYTE to be the superior model, thanks in part to a better heatsink implementation than MSI’s board. GIGABYTE also offers integrated RGB LEDs, which used sensibly can add a degree of customization to the board’s overall aesthetic. Conversely, the Unify noticeably forgoes those RGBs LEDs, and instead focuses on a few extra features such as Thunderbolt support.

Overall, I feel that MSI’s Unify board has the edge in aesthetics. But when it comes to performance – particularly overclocked performance – GIGABYTE’s Aorus Ultra is a slightly more attractive option. MSI’s cooling system isn’t quite as hearty under extreme workloads, and a better heatsink probably would have been more effective than the miniature cooling fan MSI used. However if you’re not overclocking, then it’s hard to ignore the MSI’s inclusion of a Thunderbolt 3 controller, which gives the board a definite edge in features.