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MSI MEG Z490 Unify - Review 2021

MSI’s MEG Z490 Unify motherboard ($299.99) stands out as an unusual board in the market for high-end Intel desktop boards, but not for any of the reasons you’d likely think by looking at it. It doesn’t have a unique configuration, or any uncommon hardware. It’s simply one of the few high-end motherboards from the last few years—on AMD or Intel platforms—not to glow like the rising sun. This motherboard instead is jet-black and devoid of cosmetic LEDs. This kind of sober approach has been absent outside the low-end board market for years now. It’s an intentional design from MSI, and welcome, though the board itself is largely vanilla, despite the dark design. We’ve seen better mainstream value in some other Z490 boards from Asrock and Asus, but this one will certainly do the job and deliver a stealthy design to boot.

The Design: Basic Black at the High End

The MEG Z490 Unify, built around the LGA1200 socket and Intel’s Z490 chipset for its mainstream desktop CPUs, features an almost entirely black color scheme, with the only traces of contrasting color coming from capacitors and power phases on the board and the steel-reinforced PCI Express slots. If you’ve looked at motherboards over the last few years, it may come off a bit flat for your tastes. But if you’ve been looking for a motherboard that isn’t trying to double as a light show, this one could be your new low-key buddy.

MSI MEG Z490 Unify (Horizontal)

To be entirely accurate, there are a few LEDs on the board, but these lights aren’t there for aesthetics. They are the usual items included for troubleshooting purposes only. One set is an “88”-style LED debug panel. A few additional LEDs lie near the 24-pin power connector and illuminate during the various stages of the boot process. A few more are set around the board to indicate activity or power.

MSI MEG Z490 Unify (CPU Socket)

Don’t let the lack of gratuitous bling fool you, though: This is still a high-end board with a top-notch power system. The delivery scheme consists of 16 90-amp power stages. These circuits are cooled by two large heatsinks that are joined by a heatpipe. One of the heatsinks is actively cooled by a small fan that helps to push heat out the rear I/O panel, which improves thermals in this critically important area of the board, especially if you’ll be trying to push a late-model unlocked Intel chip beyond stock.

MSI MEG Z490 Unify (Chipset and M2 Heatspreaders)

The motherboard also comes equipped with a fairly large heatsink for the chipset, and it has heat spreaders atop all three M.2 slots.

A Look at the Networking, Audio, and Rear I/O

For networking, MSI equipped the Z490 Unify with a Realtek 8125B Ethernet controller that supports up to 2.5Gbps of bandwidth. This chip has shown up on several motherboards recently in this price band, so this doesn’t give the Z490 Unify much of an advantage against its competition. This controller is nonetheless a sizable step up from the single-gigabit controllers that have been ubiquitous on motherboards of this price class made over the last decade. For most system builders, this should be an upgrade over their outgoing desktop’s networking loadout.

The Z490 Unify also has built-in wireless support, provided through an Intel AX201 controller. This chip was designed around the Wi-Fi 6 802.11ax networking standard and can attain data transfer speeds as high as 2.4Gbps in conjunction with the right Wi-Fi 6-capable router.

The rear audio jacks on MSI’s MEG Z490 Unify are connected to a Realtek ALC1220 audio codec. This chip has been heavily used on motherboards of the last few years. It has a relatively high signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of 120dB, which is part of why it has shown up on a healthy chunk of late-model boards priced above $100.

MSI MEG Z490 Unify (Audio Hardware)

The front audio port(s) run off a separate Sabre 9018Q2C audio codec designed by ESS. This chip is a more robust solution, with an SNR of up to 121dB. It also can support 32-bit 384KHz audio, and it has an integrated DSP for audio processing. 

The rear I/O panel includes eight USB ports, one of them a USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C port that supports 20Gbps of bandwidth. You’ll rarely see these 2×2 ports, even on higher-end boards, and they are mostly useful at the moment for reaching peak speeds with bleeding-edge external SSDs like the recently reviewed SanDisk Extreme Pro V2 and Seagate FireCuda Gaming SSD.

MSI MEG Z490 Unify (Rear IO Panel)

The other seven USB ports are all Type-A. Three (the red ones) support USB 3.2 Gen 2, which isn’t quite as fast (10Gbps maximum bandwidth) as the Gen 2×2 variety but still have twice the peak potential of regular USB 3.0 ports. The last four USB ports are divided between USB 2.0 and USB 3.2 Gen 1.

Also on the rear I/O panel are five 3.5mm audio jacks, an optical S/PDIF port, an RJ-45 Ethernet jack, and a legacy PS/2 port. The back panel also has buttons for flashing and clearing the BIOS. Around the various ports is a smattering of ventilation holes, which allow air to flow in and cool the board’s VRMs.

The Building Experience

Getting all the cables plugged in on this board proved somewhat problematic, but not insurmountable. The heatsink around the rear I/O panel makes plugging in the CPU power connectors a little difficult, but the top-most VRM heatsink is the bigger issue. Or, rather, it’s more accurate to say that the placement of the CPU’s fan headers are the issue, as these reside on the thin strip of PCB between that VRM heatsink and the edge of the board. This makes plugging fans into them difficult, especially if you have a water cooler already top-mounted in your chassis. You’ll want to tend to these headers early on in your build.

The placement of the remaining ports on the board is mostly without issue, though. A four-pin fan heater near the CPU socket can be difficult to access, but as there are three additional fan headers at the bottom of the board, this feels like a minor issue.

MSI opted to use right-angle connectors for all six SATA 3.0 connectors on this board, as well as a right-angle-mounted 19-pin USB 3.0 header connector, which can help create a cleaner finished build, depending on the case you have. (In some cases, that right-angle USB 3.0 header will be a blessing; in others, a curse.) You also get a cutting-edge USB Type-C front-panel header here, too, but this isn’t mounted at a right-angle.

A Brief Look at the BIOS and Software

No surprise: MSI opted to use its Click BIOS 5 software on this board. When first loading into the BIOS on this board, you enter EZ mode. This menu, by design, has fewer options than the Advanced BIOS section, but at the same time it’s not really lacking. From here you can enable memory profiles, check the system configuration, update the BIOS, and adjust the boot order. Unless you are overclocking, you won’t find much need to go into the Advanced menu at all.

MSI MEG Z490 Unify (Easy Mode BIOS)

The Advanced menu, as you’d expect, delivers finer-tuned controls, especially when it comes to overclocking the CPU and RAM. Also here you’ll find lots of tweakables and options too numerous to name, but if you want to adjust parameters such as when USB devices load, or need to configure a RAID storage array, this is where you’d go.

MSI MEG Z490 Unify (Advanced Mode BIOS)

I noted two issues with this board and its BIOS. The first (and lesser) of the two has to do with the EZ mode menu and MSI’s CPU auto-overclocking feature (called Game Boost), as well as the memory XMP profile controls. The problem here is that you’ll see no indication if you have these features enabled or disabled in the EZ mode menu. A red line appears and disappears on the buttons as you toggle them, but it doesn’t actually indicate whether that indicates “on” or “off.” It’s a somewhat minor UI issue, as you can tell if the mode is active inside of Windows or in the Advanced menu, but MSI should make this clearer. 

The other issue: For some reason, this board ran the fans of the Corsair all-in-one liquid cooler I used at full blast in both the BIOS and Windows. The system temperatures were relatively low with my Intel Core i9-10900K CPU sample installed (around 30 degrees C), and there’s no reason the system should be doing this, but for some reason, it does.

MSI includes three software utilities with this board, but two of them are common programs and not exclusive to this board or even other MSI products. First is a copy of CPU-ID’s seminal CPU-Z system-info utility that’s been reskinned in an MSI theme; second is a copy of Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU) that can be used to overclock your PC from within Windows.

MSI MEG Z490 Unify (MSI Dragon Center)

The final program is MSI’s Dragon Center, which has a host of different aspects and features. It, too, can be used to overclock your system and to check information about its operating conditions. It also has a built-in LAN manager, as well as an LED controller for tweaking any add-on lighting you might attach to the board, and the suite can be used to check for driver updates.

Verdict: Are You Happy in the Dark?

Though the fan conflict may be concerning and the placement of some of the headers could be better, the MSI MEG Z490 Unity appears devoid of serious issues, if our testing and build experience are accurate judges. The fan issue, we suspect, will be addressed eventually by a BIOS update, and it may be specific to this board and liquid-cooler combination. Priced at $299.99, the Unify is also competitively priced against many other Z490 motherboards given the feature set.

MSI MEG Z490 Unify

It’s worth addressing the lack of RGB lights on this board once again, though. It will be a positive or indifferent factor for some shoppers, but there’s an additional perspective to consider. Not having onboard lights doesn’t seem to have cut the cost much, if at all, relative to other Z490 boards, and motherboards festooned with LEDs usually have an option to simply turn them off if you don’t want to see them. Viewed from this perspective, the lack of lighting could also be looked at as paying the same money, or more, to get less.

For some, that will be a trade-off they are fine with. If you’re not bothered by a little bling, though, and won’t be doing any hard-core overclocking, we suggest checking out a more moderate-value board like Asrock’s Z490 Phantom Gaming Velocita or Asus’ Z490 Prime-A.

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