MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) Motherboard Review

Author: Chris Ledenican
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Thursday, September 22nd, 2011
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Hardware/Reviews/MSI_Z68A_GD80_G3/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.

Over the last few years MSI has strived to improve the quality of its motherboards, and this led to better power efficiency, thermal performance and stability. However, MSI has also been working on improving the overall user experience by introducing features such as the easy-to-navigate UEFI Click BIOS interface, Windows OS based overclocking utilities, easy-access onboard tweaking features and improved audio quality. All of these features demonstrate MSI's commitment as one of the top-tier motherboard manufacturers, but with the Z68A-GD80 motherboard reviewed today, MSI is going one step further by increasing the length of their warranty from a standard 3-year time frame to 5 years. This essentially means this board will remain covered by MSI long after the Intel SandyBridge platform becomes obsolete, which is a huge bonus for mainstream consumers who are less likely to upgrade components frequently.  However, it'll cost you thanks to the Z68A-GD80's $239 price tag.

While Neoseeker has looked at multiple MSI motherboards over the years, this particular product is the first MSI Z68-based motherboard to enter the labs. This board comes with all the goodies introduced with Intel's latest chipset release, including SSD caching, LucidLogix GPU Virtualization and access to Intel QuickSync technology.  All of these features are designed to improve the overall performance of the SandyBridge platform.

Through its support for LucidLogix Virtu technology, the MSI Z68A-GD80 provides the most expandable feature for desktop platforms by allowing for switchable graphics. Users will be able to utilize both the motherboard's integrated GPU as well as their own discrete GPU for specific tasks.  For instance, when using a PC for playback, video transcoding and general applications, the discrete graphics card will be inactive while the IGP handles the workload. This in turn lowers the power rating needed for non-gaming related applications. In the same vein, the platform can release the full gaming power of the system by switching over to the discrete graphics card during gaming, or anytime parallel processing is required.

In addition, the Intel Smart Response technology improves the system's performance by supporting a SSD/HDD configuration. Essentially, Smart Response technology allows a small SSD to work as a cache data bank for the system, while a larger hard drive serves as the system's main storage unit. This is done through an intelligent block-based caching algorithm that allows the data from the SSD to be accessed directly, thus preventing the data from having to be retrieved from the HDD. This reduces the time needed to access the data and eliminates a bottleneck that has been plaguing systems for years.

Specifications
CPU (Max Support) i3/i5/i7
Chipset
  1. Intel P67 Express Chipset
FSB / Hyper Transport Bus 100MHz
Chipset Intel® Z68 (G3)
DDR3 Memory DDR3 1066/1333/1600*/2133*(OC)
Memory Channel Dual
DIMM Slots 4
Max Memory (GB) 32
PCI-Ex16 3
PCI-E Gen Gen3 (1x16, 1x8, 1x1)
PCI-Ex1 2
PCI 2
SATAIII 3
SATAII 4
RAID 0/1/5/10
LAN 10/100/1000*2
TPM 1
USB 3.0 ports (Rear) 2
USB 2.0 ports (Rear) 4
Audio ports (Rear) 6+Optical SPDIF
1394 ports (Rear) 1
eSATA 1
VGA Max Share Memory (MB) 1024
DirectX DX10.1
Form Factor ATX
DrMOS Y
APS Y
SLI
Y
CrossFire Y

The MSI Z68A-GD80 comes packaged in a box that is similar to other LGA-1155 motherboards from MSI, meaning it is adorned with the same color scheme, and still conveniently lists the supported features. Like other MSI motherboard products, the Z68A-GD80 box places a large emphasis on the use of "Military Class II" components, but it also lists new features such as the Clock BIOS II design, Gen 3 PECI Express slots and the newly extended 5-year warranty.

 

The accessories come packaged at the top portion of the box and are separated by an inner cardboard liner. MSI has included four SATA cables, two SATA power adapters, the rear I/O shield, a user guides, quick install guide, V-check cables, SLI video link, M-connectors, driver CD and multiple forms of documentation. MSI has also included an internal USB 3.0 bracket that can be secured to any of the open rear expansion slots. With this bracket and the available on-board USB 3.0 headers, the Z68A-GD80 can support up to eight USB 3.0 devices out of the box.

The overall design of the Z68A-GD80 is the same as other MSI boards currently on the market, as most use the same color scheme and on-board heatsinks. However, differences can be found in the expansion areas, as the GD80 includes three PCIe slots along with a wide array of expansion options. Overall, the board is aesthetically pleasing and the layout looks extremely spacious, which should provide ample room for expansion.

Turing the board around we can see that MSI has secured all the on-board heatsinks to the PCB with screws as opposed to plastic pins. This ensures the base of the heatsink is firmly secured to their designated areas, improving the thermal transfer rate and thus reducing the temperature of the dedicated components. Additionally, when looking at the back of the PCB we can see that all of the PCIe x16 slots include the full amount of soldering points needed to work at the maximum transfer rating.

The Z68A-GD80 uses a standard ATX form factor and like other MSI boards currently on the market, it features the latest Military Class II design. This means the board uses high-quality components to improve the board's lifespan, quality and performance, giving it unparallelled efficiency. All of this is achieved by increasing the quality of the on-board components themselves, and in this case MSI has used a DrMOS design with Hi-c capacitors, Super Ferrite Core chokes and of course all solid Japanese capacitors.

The CPU area on the Z68A-GD80 uses Intel's latest LGA-1155 interface supporting Intel's Sandy Bridge processors. Surrounding the CPU socket is the included voltage regulation area. which is very robust, as the board features a 12-phase Tantalum core Hi-C Cap power design used in conjunction with the all solid Japanese capacitors and a heatpipe thermal solution. This will ensure the installed processor receives ample current, thus increasing system performance, stability and overclocking headroom.

Next to the CPU socket are four memory DIMMs that utilize a dual channel architecture and can support up to 32GB of DDR3 memory at speeds of 2133OC/1600OC/1333/1066MHz. By default, the motherboard will supply the memory with 1.5V of power. Next to the LGA-1155 socket is the main 24-pin power connector, and a row of voltage checkpoints that can provide real-time readings of multiple voltage levels via a multimeter.

Moving onto the I/O panel, the MSI Z68A-GD80 includes a single PS/2 keyboard/mouse connector, optical S/PDIF out connector, IEEE 1394 connector, one eSATA 6Gb/s port, four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a RJ-45 LAN port, HDMI port, DVI port (supported via built-in SandyBridge IGP) and finally six audio ports. The USB 3.0 ports are connected via on-board NEC controller, while the audio chip utilized on the board is a high-end THX TruStudio PRO sound processor. Additionally, between the PS/2 and eSATA connectors is an easy access clear CMOS switch that can revert the BIOS back to the default settings when needed.

The expansion slots on the Z68A-GD80 are similar to the Intel P67 version of the GD80, but the Z68A utilizes the latest PCIe 3.0 technology which doubles the bandwidth of the PCIe x16 lanes to 32GB/s. In total, there are three PCIe x16 slots, two PCIe x1 slots and two PCI slots. This configuration will allow for plenty of expansion, but even with a tri-fecta of PCIe x16 lanes, the SandyBridge platform will still reduce the total bandwidth, meaning CrossFire and SLI will at most run at x8/x8, instead of a potential x16/x16.

For anyone using more than one graphics card, MSI has added an on-board 6-pin power connector that is dedicated to the PCIe slots. The extra power source will increase the available power supplied of the graphics cards, which in turn improves the stability of systems set up in either an SLI or CrossFire configuration. As part of the Z68 platform, the Z68A-GD80 also utilizes the LucidLogix Virtu technology. This allows the board to dynamically switch between the integrated IGP and discrete GPU during operation to either save power or enhance the graphics processing.

The bottom of the Z68A-GD80 looks just as busy as the rest of the board, as MSI has included plenty of onboard headers and storage expansion options. Starting with the bottom mounted headers, MSI has included a JSP1 header, audio header, three USB 2.0 headers, a single UBS 3.0 header, along with three on-board buttons that each have a specific function. The first button is the reset switch, followed by the power switch. Both of these buttons are self-explanatory, but the third button is a little more complex. This button is the OC Genie II switch which increases the clock speed of the processor in a single push, allowing the motherboard to automatically overclock the processor for you. During testing, the OC Genie II option provided an approximate 20% clock speed boost, which is pretty good considering there is no additional tweaking necessary on the user's part to make it happen.

Like other SandyBridge motherboards, there are no IDE ports on the Z68A-GD80, but there are plenty of SATA option available. In total there are seven ports that are separated by color. The white ports utilize the SATA 6Gbs interface, while the black ports use the older SATA 3Gbps standard. Of the seven ports, the top six ports (angled at 90°) are connected via the Z68 chipset, while the last SATA port is connected via an on-board Marvell 88E9128 controller. The ports connected directly to the Z67 Express chipset include full RAID support and will work in either ACHI or RAID  0,1,5 and 10 configurations.

The MSI Z68A-GD80 uses the latest UEFI Click BIOS II sub-system featuring an optimized graphical interface that includes mouse support. The new UEFI  BIOS interface is designed to improve the user experience by including multiple options that are found along the top and sides of the screen, while all the adjustable options are located in the in the middle. This allows the user to more easily navigate through the new BIOS interface and adjust the settings without having to enter a separate menu. Additionally, the new BIOS provides a consistent user interface both in the UEFI BIOS and in Windows, which improves ease of use by increasing simplicity and giving the user a standard design for tweaking within both the BIOS and the Windows operating system.

The main menu of the Click BIOS II menu includes a listing of the installed bootable drives at the top along with the system information, date, time, BIOS version and CPU/System temperatures. Below these are three icons that allow users to easily switch between power saving, standard and OC Genie II modes. In addition, the Click BIOS II sub-system includes options to adjust the OC, ECO, Browser, Utilities and Security settings. When the side options are accessed, a menu will appear in the middle of the screen that gives the user direct control of the system parameters.

Instead of starting with the UEFI BIOS interface, let's look at the simple, interactive EFI Shell menu which allows EFI device drivers to be loaded, applications to be launched, and operating systems to be booted. This is done via commands entered by the user. The EFI Shell menu is more advanced than the standard UEFI BIOS, but it offers plenty of flexibility and user controlled options.

Navigating away from the EFI Shell places the user back into the UEFI BIOS. The first option within this menu is "Settings". From within this menu the user can adjust multiple system parameters such as the date and time, as well as enter more advanced menus that allows the user to adjust an even wider array of settings.

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The next option is the "OC" menu, which is naturally where all the overclocking is done within the BIOS. From this menu the user can adjust the clock speeds, multiplier and voltages of the connected components. Like the other menus, the "OC" options in the UEFI Click BIOS II are all centralized in the middle of the screen so the user can either scroll up or down to change a certain setting. The amount of options available proved impressive, and this was demonstrated by the frequency rating Neoseeker was were able to reach with the tested Intel 2600K CPU.

The "OC" menu also allows customized settings to be saved in one of six available profiles. This allows the user to save multiple configurations which can be accessed on the fly.

Lastly there are the "Browser", "Utilities" and Security menus. These options are self-explanatory, as the "Browser" menu allows the user to surf the internet prior to booting into an operating system, while the "Utilities" menu has options such as Live Update, BIOS flashing and hard drive backup. The "Security" tab deals mainly with inputting a system password and changing certain parameters such as allowing the secondary BIOS chip to be flashed.

Overclocking the Intel K series Sandy Bridge chips is an easier task than it was with previous Intel Core CPUs, because relying on a motherboard to have a high bclock ceiling is no longer a concern. With the K series, the overclocking is done via the unlocked multiplier; adjustments to the bclock are now just a means to fine tune the final clock speed. In Neoseeker's Sandy Bridge review, the 2600K was able to achieve nearly a 4600MHz clock speed on the Intel P67 Express reference motherboard. However, stock motherboards usually don't have the same overclocking potential, so it will be interesting to see how high the MSI Z68A-GD80 can push the 2600K.

For overclocking I will be using a XSPC Rasa 750 RS360 water-cooling setup to cool the processor, and increase the voltage as necessary until the maximum bclock is reached. I will also be testing the overclocking button that is included on the motherboard's control panel.

MSI Z67A-GD80

Intel Core i7-2600K

[image94 width=400] [image95 width=400]

During testing the MSI Z68A-GD80 was able to achieve a stable CPU clock speed of 4900MHz. This clock speed was easily achieved by adjusting the mulitper to 49x and keeping the base clock at 100MHz. This chip has been overclocked in muitple test systems and it tends to max out between 4700MHz and 4900MHz, so the MSI board was able to push it to its threshold without issue. This is a clock speed increase of roughly 30%, which is impressive considering this speed was reached without having to increase the supplied voltage beyond 1.45V.

7-Zip:

7-Zip is a compression program, much like WinRAR. It features a built-in test, which gives a score for compression and decompression.

When testing motherboards with similar specifications, you'll want to see if the board is performing at least at the same level as its competitors, and exactly what impact overclocking has on the overall performance. In the case of the Z68A-GD80, the first benchmark demonstrates that it is indeed capable of performing at the same level as competing motherboards from ASUS and Gigabyte, as it fell behind just one board prior to overclocking.

Once overclocked, the MSI Z68A-GD80 showcased excellent scaling, and in the testing labs the extra clock speeds yielded an impressive performance increase of nearly 25%.

Handbrake:

HandBrake is an application that converts sound and video files to other formats. It makes use the many available threads so it can exploit the processor to its full potential.

During Handbrake benchmarking the Z68A-GD80 managed to keep pace with the other motherboards, shaving a whole two seconds off the total format time. Even while two seconds is not necessarily going to be noticeable in real-world use, the overclocking results increased the total performance by nearly 26%.

POV Ray:

POV-Ray, for Persistence of Vision Raytracer, is a 3D rendering software that has impressive photorealistic capabilities.

As you can see from the graph above, the MSI Z68A-GD80 was the fastest board tested when benchmarking POV Ray at stock settings. As observed in the prior benchmarks, the MSI board continues to show strong overclocking scaling, as the performance increased by nearly 20% with the faster clocks.

Cinebench:

Cinebench 10 is another rendering program, also optimized for many-core processors. I will run both the single-threaded benchmark as well as the multi-threaded.

Cinebench shows similar results. At the stock level, the MSI Z68A-GD80 has solid performance that is better than most of the SandyBridge motherboards tested so far. Overclocking the board provided performance increases that ranged between 20% and 25%.

Sisoft Sandra 2010:

Sandra, by SiSoftware, is a tool capable of benchmarking about every component found inside a computer. The processor arithmetic and multi-core efficiency will be ran as well as the memory bandwidth and latency benchmarks.

In Sandra 2010 testing, the MSI board performs more or less equal to other boards on the market, but as you can see overclocking the chip did improve the performance substantially.

PCMark Vantage:

PCMark resembles a lot to the 3DMark suite from FutureMark, except the fact that it includes many other tests like hard drive speed, memory and processor power, so it is considered as a system benchmark and not just a gaming benchmark.

The MSI Z68A board placed well ahead of all the other tested motherboards in PCMark Vantage testing, and as with previous tests overclocking continues to improve the performance by roughly 20% to 25%.

Crysis Warhead:

Crysis Warhead is a standalone expansion pack of the original Crysis, at that time well known for requiring the most powerful hardware to play at maxed settings. It uses an enhanced version of the same engine.

Overall, Crysis Warhead performed well with the Z68A-GD80, but this time overclocking did little to improve the average frame rate. This is actually due to the Intel 2600K not bottlenecking the tested HD6970 like some other processors tend to do, so it is not surprising that any performance gain was only observed at lowest tested resolutions.

FarCry 2:

Far Cry 2 is another first person shooter that has been developed by Ubisoft. The story takes place in Africa, where the ultimate goal is to assassinate an arms dealer.

Colin McRae DiRT 2:

DiRT 2 is the most recent driving game in the Colin McRae series. It features a built-in benchmark consisting of displaying a race of computer players using the same view as the gamer would.

The MSI board continues to perform excellently, but any overclocking gains for gaming are marginal at best.

When it comes to Sandy Bridge based motherboards, the MSI Z68A-GD80 has it all. Just looking at the features exclusive to the MSI brand, the board boasts an impressive array of features such as the on-board OC Genie II overclocking button, high-quality Military Class II components and a newly refined UEFI Click BIOS II sub-system. All of these features really improve the overall value of the Z68A-GD80, but MSI has taken things one step further by increasing the warranty period to a whopping 5 years, which is really putting your money where your mouth is.

In addition to the exclusive technologies this board offers, it also comes equipped will all the features that make the Z68 Express chipset the best choice available for Sandy Bridge processors. These include Intel Smart Response Technology that improves the performance of a system by allowing a hard drive and SDD to be paired together. This technology allows the system to work as if an SSD is the only drive in use, but in actuality the SSD is used for caching while a standard hard drive is used for data storage. This really is a win-win solution, as it boosts the performance without sacrificing storage space in return.

Another excellent feature of the Z68 chipset is the GPU Virtualization. This technology allows the system to dynamically switch between the GPU and IGP. The system can utilizs the power of a discrete graphics card when needed, while reducing the total power consumption by letting the IGP handle processes such as HD playback and video transcending.

One nice addition to the board, but not an necessarily important one at this point in time, is the PCIe 3.0 slots.  This technology effectively doubles the bandwidth of the PCIe x16 slots, which will improve performance down the road. For the time being though, PCIe 3.0 is not going to deliver performance gains with today's cards, but this may soon change because AMD could be releasing their Gen 3.0 graphics cards as early as this fall. To be sure, the generation 3.0 slots are still backwards compatible, so PCIe x16 graphics card will still work with this board.

MSI did an excellent job incorporating its exclusive technologies into the Z68A-GD80, and the latest Z68 Express features make one hell of a motherboard. At $239 it is an expensive motherboard, but it really delivers the goods, and is well worth the premium.

»Neoseeker.com

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