Being the first to offer something new isn’t always easy, especially in terms of garnering popularity, yet Intel believes the consumer market is ready for the next big thing. With the release of Intel’s 12th Gen Core processors in late 2021 came a new socket. LGA 1700 is supported by the Z690 chipset, which also holds the privilege of being the first to bring PCIe Gen 5.0 and DDR5 to the consumer market. While we wait for AMD to release the next generation of Ryzen CPUs and a new CPU socket of its own, AMD processors continue to offer welcome competition even as the AM4 platform starts to reach end of life.
For now though, Intel’s 12th Gen Core processors are the only ones currently offering native PCIe 5.0 and DDR5 support, giving the company a head start. The Intel Z690 chipset has also been given a connection speed boost with the change to the DMI 4.0 interference at 16 GT/s, a doubling over DMI 3.0 found on the previous LGA 1200 socket. The next-biggest change is dual support for either DDR4 or DDR5 memory modules by the CPU, which has motherboard manufacturers offering a variety of configurations. Add this all together and Intel currently is the only platform satisfying various users and their specific needs.
MSI has come prepared with multiple product lines from the entry-level MAG Pro B660 to the flagship MEG Z690 Godlike. The MEG naming convention serves as MSI’s upper-mid to high-end line for Intel motherboards. Generally offering expanded performance compared to the MPG series as well as some additional premium features, the MEG Z690 lineup typically comprises three models: the Unify, Ace, and Godlike. The MSI MEG Z690 Unify is the lowest entry of the MEG family, but still caters to consumers interested in more than the basics one may find at a lower price point.
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify features a dedicated VRM design with 19 power stages, five M.2 sockets, and an additional BIOS flashback function to get you out of unwanted situations. To round out the experience, the MSI MEG Z690 Unify also offers great connectivity with the newest WiFi 6E technology and Dual 2.5G LAN for those who need to transfer data quickly. It also includes SLI and CrossFire support and PS/2 connectivity for legacy peripherals. There is a lot to cover in this review, so let’s take a closer look at the MSI MEG Z690 Unify.
Packaging and Contents
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify box gives off a more serious vibe than the rest of the MSI Z690 lineup. Below the misty motherboard picture is the product name, but not much more on the front.
The back of the box is brimming with information and does an excellent job of highlighting features this motherboard offers. Below the depiction of the motherboard is a list of specifications, which is always welcome. Overall, this is a prime example of how to show potential buyers what is being offered with clearly laid out sections of the more detailed specifications for those needing further confirmation.
The included accessories consist of everything necessary, with the manual, SATA and ARGB extension cables, and Wi-Fi antenna, to name a few. It is good to see more companies including a USB drive for the system drivers as building a computer with a DVD/CD drive has become increasingly rare.
The full list of accessories includes:
Quick installation guide
USB drive (drivers and software)
SATA 6 Gb/s cables
LED JRGB Y cable
LED JCORSAIR cable
LED JRAINBOW cable
EZ M.2 clip
Product registration card
Small screwdriver set
On the surface, the MSI MEG Z690 Unify looks just like the last generation, and the one before that. It’s black with no RGB lighting on the motherboard. Because it is a new socket, minor tweaks in layout have been made. A new addition to the Unify series is the back of the PCB now having a support frame to keep it from warping when the LGA 1700 socket is stressed by certain CPU coolers and mounts.
The back of the PCB also has an alteration with the inclusion of warning zones showing possible conflicts with cases and where the standoff should be placed.
Viewing the MSI MEG Z690 Unify at a lower angle gives us a wider perspective of potential installation hazards. In the case of the LGA 1700 socket for the Z690, new and old CPU coolers will need a new retention bracket if the mounting holes do not line up. Some additional care was placed into the layout of the capacitors to keep them away from the socket. Neither VRM heatsink section is particularly oversized, and far enough from the socket to avoid CPU cooler mounting troubles.
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify offers two PCI Express x16 slots, with the top two reinforced for extra stress support. PCIe slot one and two are PCIe Gen5 with a total of x16 lanes coming from the CPU. Slot one can either operate at x16 or x8. Slot 2 is wired for PCIe Gen5 x8 and will split the available lanes with the first slot if populated. These are all backwards compatible, allowing older PCIe devices to work without issue. The third slot is wired for PCIe Gen3 x4, and an open back allows for x8 and x16 PCIe add-on cards to be installed as well.
The motherboard also has both NVIDIA SLI and AMD Crossfire support, which is rare to see as neither multi-GPU solutions are popular or often supported in games as of 2022. Nonetheless, if you need this, MSI has you covered.
There are five M.2 sockets on the MSI MEG Z690 Unify, four of which are Gen4 x4, and all of them feature full-coverage heatsinks and thermal pads on the motherboard. The bottom two M.2 sockets share the same screw. While a minor inconvenience, this screw has to be removed to populate these sockets. Once done, reinsert the screw.
Note that the manual mentions that using M.2 socket (#4) will disable SATA port A/B. These are the lowest two SATA ports in the photo.
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify includes built-in power and reset buttons. These can be useful when first setting up the computer, if it is not fully wired up yet or for troubleshooting purposes. This is of course a matter of personal preference as neither button is required.
MSI included both the debug display and post LEDs. Voltage read points for VCC, VDD2 and CPU_AUX are placed next to the LEDs for further troubleshooting.
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify has two USB 3.2 Gen1 and USB 2.0 headers. An internal USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 (20 Gbps) Type-E header is included as well.
A hidden feature lost in the jumble of different headers and small labels is the Safe Boot, OC Retry, and Tuning Controller connector. If you are handy with wiring, it is easy to connect these up for more granular control outside the BIOS.
MSI included one 12v RGB and two addressable RGB headers.
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify uses an Intel I225-V 2.5 Gbps LAN controller for its network ports.
This motherboard also features dual 8-pin EPS connectors to make sure the power delivery is never an issue when it comes to overclocking the CPU.
The board has a total of six SATA 6 Gb/s ports on the side, angled 90 degrees from the board. Four of the ports draw their bandwidth from the Z690 chipset, while the other two labeled SATA A/B go to a separate ASM 1061 SATA controller. These A/B ports will be disabled when the M.2 (#4) socket is populated.
When it comes to external connectivity, the MSI MEG Z690 Unify has a bit more of everything. Besides Thunderbolt 4 and 10 Gb LAN, it is all here. Noteworthy connectors that set this apart from the herd are the Clear CMOS, BIOS Flashback, PS/2 port, and Dual 2.5 Gb LAN.
2x Antenna ports
Optical SPDIF Out port
4x USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A ports (10 Gb/s)
1x USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A ports (5 Gb/s)
USB4/Thunderbolt™ 4 Type-C port
RJ-45 LAN port with LED
Clear CMOS button
5x HD audio jacks
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify features a direct 19+0+2 phase VRM configuration without doublers or teaming of the power stages.
MSI is using a Renesas RAA229131 PWM controller to drive the MEG Z690 Unify.
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify uses Renesas RAA22010540 power stages for the nineteen Vcore phases. These power stages each support a maximum of 105 A of continuous current. MSI did not include a VCCGT (iGPU) phase on this motherboard, which means the Z690 Unify has no iGPU support.
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify has a maximum output of 1995 A dedicated to Vcore.
The CPU VCCAUX is driven by a Monolithic Power Systems M2940A PWM using two MP87992 70 A power stages.
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify has a well-laid-out EZ Mode that is the default landing screen. It gives you the ability to set the memory XMP profile, drive boot priority, automatic overclocking, and fan control without digging deeply into the sub-menus. Across the top is a helpful search tool if looking for a certain setting. It also allows for the language to be set.
Switch to Advanced Mode and the familiar MSI BIOS layout with the logo in the middle and each menu split into sections presents itself. Overall, you will spend the most time in the overclocking section, which has everything required for overclocking, setting voltages, and enabling features like ReSize-Bar for supported graphics cards.
At first I thought a “My Favorites” type of menu where you can add and subtract commonly used settings for future convenience was missing once again. However, it is hidden in EZ Mode. Since every vendor has a certain menu layout, those exclusively buying MSI products will have an easy time navigating these sub-menus. Those coming from a different brand may feel slightly overwhelmed as MSI essentially crams everything into the overclocking section, and it is a single long list, just like with everyone else. Luckily, the search tool will help if you know the name of the specific function you are looking for.
EZ Mode Menu
Advanced F7 Main
Long-time MSI users will remember the MSI Dragon Center app. It has been replaced with a cleaner GUI called MSI Center. It is a one-stop hub for all related MSI software. Because of its modular design, you can install only the software you want. While it does the job well, I would have liked to see better descriptions of each to avoid installing unwanted bloatware.
MSI Mythic Light should be installed if one wants control over the RGB lighting. There are open-source alternatives, but those are not MSI-branded and may not work as intended.
Fan Control and Options
Fan speed is controlled by temperature, actual minimums dependent on fan ability.
The fans are controlled by a Nuvoton chip, which is commonly seen on motherboards.
Fan control on the MSI MEG Z690 Unify can be accessed in the BIOS and through software.
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify has a total of eight main fan headers in two groups. A ninth header is present on the bottom, but it is actually just a water-flow meter and will not power a fan.
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify is black with small gray accents throughout. If you are looking for RGB lighting on the motherboard, you will not find any here.
MSI was also gracious enough to send over the MSI MEG CoreLiquid S360 AIO and 32 GB (2x 16 GB) of Kingston Fury DDR5-5200 (KF552C40BBK2-32) memory to be paired with this MEG Z690 Unify motherboard. A 360 mm AIO should be sufficient for most users, and any modest overclocking adventures with the Alder Lake CPU. TechPowerUp has a review of the MEG S280 AIO for those who want more details about its installation and general performance.
One of the nice features of the CoreLiquid S360 is the programmable screen with different presets or custom scrolling text. Besides installing MSI Center, this didn’t not require additional setup. The CoreLiquid S360 settings can be accessed through the “Features” tab. This also allows for a change in orientation if you do not like the default downward direction of the tubes.
Testing is performed with the newest available version of the BIOS at the time. All BIOS settings related to the CPU are left untouched. XMP is enabled for the memory. However, if the primary, secondary or tertiary memory timings are incorrectly set by the BIOS, it is tested as-is to mimic a standard user. The same goes for the CPU. Unless it is a bug in the current BIOS—i.e., not present in other versions—any and all CPU boost parameters are left alone.
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify separates the audio section with traces to isolate it from electrical noise created by nearby components. This is standard practice for manufacturers who care about quality on-board audio support. Without isolation of the audio components, unintentional electrical noise can be introduced into the audio line, creating unwanted hissing and static sounds.
The board uses a Realtek ALC4080 Codec. The ALC40XX Codec is starting to show up on some AMD X570S and a few Intel Z690 chipsets I have seen so far. The biggest change from the ALC1200 is that the device is interfaced through USB.
The board uses a Realtek ALC1220 Codec. The standard 20 kHz test benchmark was performed using RightMark and gives some decent results.
RightMark Audio Analyzer
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify has a large complement of storage options with a total of five M.2 sockets in varying configurations. The rear I/O section is good for those who don’t need a bunch USB 3.2 20 Gb/s or Thunderbolt 4 ports.
AIDA64 (SATA 6 Gb/s)
AIDA64 (USB 3.2)
The external USB-C enclosure is only rated for 10 Gb/s; 850 MB/s is right on target for most USB 3.2 Gen2 2×1 (10 Gbps) enclosures.
AIDA64 (NVMe M.2)
Using a Gen4 x4 M.2 drive, testing shows that four M.2 sockets are indeed Gen4 x4 with the correct amount of bandwidth allocated to each socket. The fifth M.2 socket is Gen3 x4 as stated in the specifications.
3DMark Time Spy and Fire Strike
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
All tests are conducted in-game at 1920×1080 resolution and without the built-in benchmarks.
Overclocking the 12th generation Intel processor comes with a light learning curve owing to new voltages and the new E-cores. I am certainly not an expert on the subject, but am making some personal progress through trial and error. Now that Alder Lake CPUs have been out long enough for a wide range of testing, the overclocking community suggests keeping it at or below 1.35 V for long-term use. However, please do not take my applied settings as a standard or copy my voltages, and ask on the TPU forums if you have questions related to voltages and general safety tips.
The MSI Z690 Unify is orientated towards CPU overclocking with the optional Tuning Controller header that can be wired up for real-time BLK adjustments, among other things. MSI has deployed nineteen 105 A power stages, which is more than enough for even the most extreme overclocks. In fact, the MSI Z690 Unify HWBOT CPU frequency record at the time of writing for this motherboard is 7.41 GHz using liquid nitrogen by SHIMIZU.
There are two main ways to overclock these CPUs, and it just depends on personal preference. Either one performs an all-core overclock or chooses two of the best cores and aims for the highest overclock on those alone. In the end, I settled for the highest all-core P and E-cores overclock. You of course can set a single core to be higher with an offset, and this motherboard certainly can do it if you have the patience to fine-tune the voltage offsets.
While I often will use XOC software for overclocking inside Windows, MSI Dragon Power did not function correctly for me. Therefore, I resorted to the BIOS instead. With every Alder Lake overclock, the process is the same, At first, I left the E-cores and Ring Cache alone and set out to push the P-cores up until I reached the stopping point of 1.35 V with an all-core overclock of 5.4 GHz in Cinebench R23. This was followed by raising the E-cores to 4.3 GHz with the Ring Cache left on Auto. Overall, if you can keep CPU temperatures under check, the MSI MEG Z690 Unify provides excellent overclocking for any supported CPU.
When it comes to memory, I was disappointed by the discrepancy between the QVL list and my results. The product specifications on the website cite DDR5-6666 (OC), but I could not get DDR5-6600 stable in Windows, and 6666 MT/s refused to boot. To put this into context, with the same CPU, memory, and voltage, 7000 MT/s is at least bootable and semi-stable on a different motherboard, with 6933 MT/s completely stable.
I also ventured to try four single-rank 6400 DIMMs and was limited to 5000 MT/s. This bit was unsurprising as 5200 MT/s is what I achieved using the ASUS Z690 Hero. This lower frequency has more to do with the limitations of the Alder Lakes IMC, though signal integrity and tracer lengths play a role as well.
Power Consumption and Temperatures
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify uses a single, large heatsink that is a little lacking in the heavy overclocking department for thermal dissipation. A back panel is also a part of the cooling solution. Even though it is minor, pads are placed on the rear of the VRM section for additional thermal dissipation through the PCB.
For the MSI MEG Z690 Unify, one probe is placed along each bank of power stages. A probe is left out to log the ambient temperature. For temperature measurement, I use a Reed SD-947 4 channel Data Logging Thermometer paired with four Omega Engineering SA1 Self Adhesive Thermocouple probes. All temperatures are presented as Delta-T normalized to 20°C, which is the measured temperature minus the ambient temperature plus 20°C. The end result accounts for variation in ambient temperature, including changes over the course of a test, while presenting the data as if the ambient were a steady 20°C for easy presentation. Additionally, there is direct airflow over the VRM for the first five minutes, after which the fan is removed. This gives an idea of what to expect with and without moderate case airflow.
Prime95 is used for maximum power consumption over a 30 minute period. For testing, I used an Intel Core i7-12700K set to 5.0 GHz and locked at 1.35 V. Other tests are conducted with an Intel Core i9-12900K set to 5.0 GHz all-core and stock configurations. Temperatures are logged every second, and the two probes are then averaged for a cleaner presentation before subtracting the ambient to calculate the Delta-T. The results are charted below.
These VRM tests are split into multiple charts for a wider understanding of the MSI MEG Z690 Unify cooling solution. Prime95 is in many ways designed to be a brutal torture test. It is a fairly unrealistic daily use case. That being said, without a direct fan placed on the VRM heatsinks, some of these power stages surpass 100°C. The thermal test was cut short to avoid potential damages.
The next step was to take the same CPU and overclock to a 3D rendering application that is more representative of a real world use case. The VRM temperature quickly shot up once the fan was removed, but started to plateau around the 25 minute mark.
The next step was to take the current high-end CPU from Intel, the i9-12900K. It completely ran at stock. While power draw was in the 250-watt range, the VRM became a bit toasty, reaching into the 90s.
The final test was to see how the VRM heatsink may fare in games. The MSI MEG Z690 Unify is a perfectly capable motherboard for gaming. As with many games, the load isn’t constant as Cyberpunk 2077 generally had the CPU clock frequency in the 3 GHz range, which moved up or down as the GPU load changed.
Final Thoughts and Conclusion
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify is available for US$480.
105 A power stages
Great CPU overclocking
PCIe Gen 5.0 support
5x M.2 sockets
ALC 4080 audio codec
Unsatisfactory VRM heatsink design
Mediocre memory support
2x SATA ports share M.2 socket bandwidth
Dual 2.5 Gb Ethernet
No iGPU support
We have reached the end of the review, and it is once again time to consolidate everything into a few talking point. As with previous reviews, I will start with what I think MSI could improve upon before finishing on a positive note.
It is easy to see that the cost of entry for an Alder Lake based system isn’t consistent across vendors. Pricing fluctuates as ongoing rare metals and chip shortages only inflate prices further. Supply chains are slowly returning to what they once where in 2019, but for the foreseeable future, a price slash is unlikely. This has many consumers looking for cheaper solutions. While these do exist, it isn’t without limitations of its own. For example, Intel B660 based motherboards do not support traditional overclocking methods with the CPU multiplier limited to the installed CPU’s Turbo frequency. Other cost-cutting tactics include less M.2 sockets, weaker power delivery solutions, and basic memory support.
These limitations are generally found in the cheaper sector, which brings forth the Z690 based motherboards that are often aimed at PC enthusiast, those into the newest trends and technologies. These motherboards tend to cost more in general, too. The MSI Z690 Unify fills a void by offering a little bit of everything compared to its contemporaries, but it equally lacking in some areas keeps it from undeniably standing out.
Lets pull the band-aid right off and get to the heart of the issue with this motherboard. Two big things stand out. First is the VRM heatsink. MSI’s use of high-end 105 A power stages is offset by an incompetent heatsink design. While the VRM torture test is designed to stress the power stages, they were not the actual problem. The test is designed as a worse case scenario created by running Prime95 for 30 minutes. Results showed that this Unify heatsink cannot handle the heat buildup from a prolonged CPU overclock without some sort of airflow around the VRM section. This isn’t a make or break situation; rather, because each Unify series has always been formulated towards the PC enthusiast crowd, it is disappointing to see.
Priced in the upper-range, I found the memory support sorely lacking. While I do not expect DDR5-6800 support on any 4-slot Z690 motherboard, I was left wondering why the website states 6666+ MHz since my lengthy testing showed that to be an unrealistic, unobtainable value. To stay in the clear of commenters, I will refer to DDR5-6400 as the highest value achieved without stability issues. DDR5-6666 refused to boot regardless of the voltages applied. Considering the memory kit and CPU used can run DDR5-6933 just fine on another motherboard, it leaves me to conclude that at least the motherboard sample I have is “soft-limited” to DDR5-6400 despite the QVL list certifying higher frequency memory.
On the flip side, the MSI MEG Z690 Unify has a great overclocking-rich BIOS and feature set, being that the limiting factor is actually the CPU voltage and cooling method instead of the overall power delivery setup. From casual overclockers to those using LN2, this motherboard has what it takes to set world records if you have the proper tools and know-how. However, it is more likely that the extreme overclocker will forgo the MSI MEG Z690 Unify for motherboards that are tailored specifically for overclocking with an XOC BIOS, and software to accompany it. In either case, whether you are a causal user looking to break into the realm of CPU overclocking or already well versed, this motherboard has a more than capable VRM setup and plenty of BIOS options, voltage readouts, and OC headers for different types of overclocking.
What may very well set this motherboard apart from the rest is NVIDIA SLI and AMD CrossFire support. With two PCIe Gen5 slots designed with bifurcation, it allows both slots to operate in x8/x8 PCIe Gen5. Even though NVIDIA SLI is to a great extend unsupported today, NVIDIA still requires the motherboard to be “certified” by the company in order to have official support. This is why many vendors just do not put the time and money into it anymore.
The MSI MEG Z690 Unify is in many ways stuck in limbo, between motherboards entirely designed around overclocking and ones for casual users or light overclocking setups. Cheaper solutions like the MSI MPG Z690 Carbon WiFi with features only found on Z690 based motherboards are equally satisfactory for the more casual user. On the other spectrum, the MSI MEG Z690 Unify-X is priced so closely (in the US market) while near-identical in features that it is clearly the better choice for those looking for higher-frequency memory support.
Reflecting upon the MSI MEG Z690 Unify as a whole, it has the means to be a well-rounded product that includes a little bit of everything. With a total of five M.2 sockets, numerous fan headers, Wi-Fi 6E support, and high-fidelity audio, it is only lacking in a few key areas that would otherwise place it among the note-worthy. As it is, I believe MSI has under-delivered where it counts when targeting enthusiasts. The average user has cheaper options from MSI and will never notice the missing overclocking features. In contrast, the overclocking crowd should spend a little more to get the Unify-X or look elsewhere.
I often find it perplexing to dislike a product because it is trying to appease everyone, but MSI having so many options to choose from makes the MEG Z690 Unify a needless product in the sea of Z690 motherboards. It is an uninteresting, mundane product that doesn’t need to exist—my most brutal and honest opinion to date. In the past, the Unify SKU has always been my go-to solution for MSI MEG Godlike level performance stripped of premium features at a fraction of the cost. It seems that legacy may now have been tarnished and overshadowed by none other than MSI itself.