The Box and Goodies -
MSI has recently moved their boxes into a material that has a reflective coating to it. This material actually makes the box look cheesy especially with the light blue coloration and the logos. However, it is unlikely that this alone will prevent someone from buying this board. Once you get past the tiny little reflective bits there are some compelling items on the front. The Military Class II components will be of interest to anyone that understands what they can do. The 1 Sec overclock (OC Genie) is also a great feature that will interest many while the USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0 round out the marketing on the front.
Under the front flap (yes there is a front flap) we zero in on a few features. The two they have chosen to talk about are the USB/SATA 3.0 controllers and the Click BIOS. The Click BIOS is the name that MSI is calling their EFI BIOS. We have looked at this before and like its flow, if not the look (but more on that in the second half of the review. Usually under the front flap we get a clear view of the motherboard. On the Z68A from MSI we find a picture with highlights and more of that annoying reflective material.
As you would have expected the back of the box follows the same line as the front but is more detailed and more chaotic at the same time. Here the reflective material gets in the way even more as in the right (or wrong) lighting it can be difficult to read.
Once we get inside the box we find a nice stash of goods. You get the now typical SLI/Crossfire bridge along with more manuals and inserts that are probably needed for the level of user this board is being marketed to. MSI also throws in a series of adapters for the connectors on the board (they call them M-Connectors). You also get a USB 3.0 bracket with ups the number of USB ports you get with this board to five (we will cover that later as well).
From a purely marketing standpoint the MSI has some rethinking to do. The new packaging for this level of product is not very good; it gets the point across but not to the anticipated market. Of course MSI can rely on great performance numbers to overcome this especially in the US and Western Europe. Still we are not sure why they did this to begin with as the packaging before and on their upper end products is much better.
The Layout -
The layout of any motherboard is important. Even simple mistakes in component placement or the signal traces can cause major issued in performance and stability. With the ATX form factor we find that this is even truer; the devices we drop onto them demand more and cleaner power while the signal speeds push faster and faster. MSI has been working hard on their layout and the design choices they make in regards to their motherboards. Not all that long ago the moved away from the traditional Solid Caps around the CPU socket and went with self-healing parts. These are called Hi-c CAPs and have a rather interesting feature to them. As the material inside them heats up it becomes malleable. This means that they can reform as they cool so it is sort of like getting new caps every time you power up.
When we take a look at the actual board we really are not seeing anything that much out of the ordinary. You have the same basic ATX layout that you find on other motherboards. You could almost match them up part for part and find the same the same pieces (well maybe difference pieces but in the same place). However there are still differences in design logic that can make one board perform better or be easier to use than another. Taking a look at the upper right-hand side of the board we find what looks like the typical RAM slots, Power connector etc. However there is a difference here. On many boards have voltage read points all you get is a series of pads or a line of connectors for extension cables. On the Z68A-GD80 you get a block that allows you to use the typical leads from a multimeter.
Looking at the CPU socket area we get a good look at some of the new choices that MSI has made. You can see the Hi-c CAPs around the CPU. This is an area that truly needs components like this as this area pulls the most voltage and generates the most heat. This level of heat, especially when overclocking can affect the life of even the best Solid Cap. Another item that MSI has chosen is SFCs This stands for Super Ferrite Choke and is supposed to yield 30% better performance for that component when compared to your standard choke. For those that are keeping score the CPU Socket is a Lotes socket, although I have to say that I have never had an issue with the Foxconn socket. Looking at the cooling here we find that it is centered on only the voltage regulators. This type of cooling does concern me as it leaves the caps and chokes out of direct contact but does allow them to affect the air temperature around the heat sink and lessen its efficiency.
We were talking about power and the way that MSI is dealing with in on the Z68A-GD80 (that is what all that talk about CAPs and Regulators was about). So let’s talk about the power connectors and their placement on the board. MSI has the typical 24-pin ATX connector as well as an 8-Pin connector in the typical place. But, where most companies drop a Molex connector MSI has used a 6-pin PCIe power connector on the board. This actually can almost replace the two power adapters that some companies use.
Now we move down into the peripheral area of the GD80 and find what looks like a very light number of slots. You get three PCIe x16 mechanical slots, only one (the first or top slot) is fully x16 and that is when the second one is empty. If you have cards in both then they both function as x8 which is good enough for a couple of nVidia or ATi GPUs. The bottom PCIe slot is x4 only. As an interesting note, if you put a PCIe device into the last slot that is at least x4 you lose some components on the board. You will lose the ability to run all of the following; 1 eSATA port, the SATA 7 port, the front USB 3.0 connector, two of the firewire connectors (both the back panel and the board header) and both PCI slots. The reason for this is that there is simply not enough PCIe lanes available to run everything. I think that MSI might want to drop in a PLX bridge on future revisions of this board to prevent this loss of resources.
The THX audio sticker down here is covering a Realtek ALC892. This is a fairly good codec and adding the THX software on top only adds to its performance. Along the bottom edge of the board we get a good view of the board mounted controls. These are fairly typical but, still are nice to have there. The OC Genie button is something that we will talk about a little later and test in the second half of our review.
Flipping the Z68A-GD80 around we find a rather large heatsink over what we normally call the Southbridge but is really the MCP (Media Control Processor). We also get a look at the SATA ports; there are two SATA II ports, two SATA 3.0 ports that are run from the Intel host controller on the B3 stepping Cougar Point chipset. As an added bonus MSI has thrown in a Marvell controller to run an extra SATA 3.0 port and also an external SATA port on the back. It is this chip that you lose if you have an x4 or above PCI device in that last slot on the board.
Now let’s take a look at the I/O ports we find an unusual choice. MSI has put the TOSLINK optical audio out on top of the dual purpose PS/2 port. Next to that there is a small flat press button that allows you to clear the CMOS without needing to open the case. In the next “stack” on the board we see that SATA 3.0 eSATA port we told you about. It is underneath a couple of more mundane ports. In addition you have two USB 3.0 ports, a DVI-I port, HDMI port, and the typical analog audio ports.
In all it the MSI Z68-GD80B3 is a well thought out board, with the notable exception of the lack of a bridge chip (PLX or another type) to prevent the loss of resources that happens when you have the last PCIe x16 slot filled. Now it is up to us to see if these choices can turn into performance.
In the current market motherboard (and indeed almost all component) performance is very close. The days of a large performance advantage between boards using the same chipset are long gone. That is unless someone makes a HUGE mistake (like runs traces completely wrong). Now, the thing that differentiates different products is the features. These are things like power management, extra slots, better audio CODECs etc. It is these items that R&D teams work so hard to drop into what are really identical pieces of hardware at their most basic level.
Super Ferrite Chokes
Military Class II components
3.0 eSATA port
The components choices MSI has made on the Z68-GD80 are a great feature. They truly will allow you either great product longevity or excellent overclocking. The OC Genie is another good feature although putting it in the Excellent slot was a little bit of a stretch for us until we thought about the potential of this feature with the components on the board and the new Sandy Bridge CPUs.
In the middle (sort of good) -
Voltage Monitor Points
Multiple 4-pin Fan headers
nVidia SLI and AMD Crossfire
These are nice extras but are not items that are going to push things over the edge for a buying decision. The Dual BIOS is on almost every board in this class on the market.
Floor Mats -
Super Charger for USB
This list rounds out the product but let’s face it LEDs are pretty common now and while cool are not going to improve your performance any. USB 3.0 is becoming more and more common so really it is something that realistically should be in just about any board these days.
Conclusion Part I -
The MSI Z68-GD80 B3 has some good and bad design choices. The biggest one that I can see is the lack of a bridge chip to allow all of the components on the board to keep running when all of the PCIe slots are populated. This is something of a shame as MSI has put in a good deal of work and thought into the other components on the board. This lack takes away from what should be a great board design. We will be taking a look into these choices to see if they impact performance at all in the second half of our review.
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