MSI Z68A-GD65 G3 LGA 1155 Motherboard Review
In the motherboard business, it’s about differentiating the product. Once in awhile a motherboard manufacturer like MSI does just that before "the other guy." And that’s where the Z68A-GD65-G3 comes in bringing PCI-Express Generation 3 support and a new UEFI interface to the table.
MSI Is a long time manufacturer of motherboards. Specifically enthusiast class solutions in virtually every price point. One thing that has to be hard for a manufacturer like MSI or any other is competing against the fierce competition in the enthusiast market. It’s always about bringing your game to the next level and adding just one more feature that the other guy hasn’t thought of. Once in awhile a motherboard manufacturer like MSI does just that. And that’s where the Z68A-GD65-G3 comes in. No it’s not really a new spec of Intel’s chipset, but rather a board based on Intel’s Z68 chipset. However MSI added PCI-Express 3.0 support a little early. As of right now there are no PCI-Express 3.0 devices I’m aware of. There are also no processors which have a PCIe 3.0 controller either. Intel’s Ivy Bridge and Sandy Bridge-E processors haven’t released just yet. So right now all that MSI is offering us today is peace of mind for the future, which is something people may want if they are in the mood to buy today knowing that there are new technologies coming tomorrow.
The MSI Z68A-GD65 G3 is based on Intel’s Z68 Express chipset. The Z68 is functionally almost identical to the older and mature P67 Express chipset but differs slightly with the following two features. First the chipset supports the use of the integrated GPU built into all LGA1155 processors. Secondly it supports Intel’s Smart Response Technology feature which is a fancy term for SSD disk caching for your legacy mechanical drives and RAID volumes. Like many of MSI’s motherboards, the Z68A-GD65 G3 boasts MSI’s Military Class II feature set. This is in essence compliance with several military specifications set forth for electronics. This is supposed to inspire confidence in the build quality of the board. Not that I’m doubting that, as it seems to be true. But not being an electrical engineer by trade, I don’t know what all the specifications actually amount to. And if I ever have to end up in a foxhole fighting for my life, I don’t think I’ll care about my gaming PC a whole lot at the time.
MSI does build a good motherboard, but like any manufacturer MSI has had some hit-and-miss products. Which brings me to the next feature I feel should be mentioned. MSI’s Click BIOS II. You may recall our coverage of the MSI Z68A-UD3H B3 in which we thoroughly examined MSI’s UEFI BIOS called "Click BIOS." To say it was atrocious is an understatement. It was bad and bordered on the unusable side. It featured horrible clown colors, unnecessary double-clicking, features that didn’t work, blinking cursor problems, bad mouse support, and a horrific interface that just didn’t flow very well. To be fair MSI is one of only two companies really trying to leverage UEFI to any serious degree. The other of which is ASUS. ASUS set the bar for what UEFI should be. Or at least it’s the best we’ve seen so far. However the gap between the ASUS implementation and MSI’s last entry is as wide as the Grand Canyon or as wide as the difference between the Visiontek 700w and a good power supply.
Insulting I know but, it’s the truth. We were very frank with our opinions about it with MSI’s PR department. Both Kyle and I trashed the Click BIOS to put it in layman's terms. MSI responded saying "we are working on a totally revamped interface for our Click BIOS." That’s pretty much all they’d say at the time, though they did acknowledge many of our comments specifically. I’ll cover it in more detail in the BIOS section but needless to say MSI responded taking many of the criticisms to heart and taking appropriate action. Though they didn’t address all of our complaints yet.
On a more technical level the Z68A-GD65 G3 uses an 8+2 phase power setup for stability and solid overclocking performance. Like all its enthusiast boards these days, MSI uses all solid electrolytic capacitors and its "Hi-C capacitors" with solid ferrite chokes. All of these add up to board that seems well built for general use and everything else you can think of including overclocking.
Feature-wise I’d call this a mid-range board. It lacks FireWire, multiple controllers with RAID support, and has only two PCIe x16 slots and therefore won’t support 3-Way SLI or triple card CrossFireX. We do have two-card SLI and CrossFireX support along with one gigabit Ethernet controller, USB 3.0, SATA 3 and 6G support, as well as onboard iGPU support which will also leverage Intel’s Quicksync feature. Going one step beyond that, MSI has introduced one feature of note and that’s PCI-Express generation 3.0 support. How did they accomplish this on a chipset that doesn’t support it?
Well, that’s a complicated subject. First off, the chipset only has a limited number of PCIe lanes. The CPU itself has a PCIe controller which is limited to using only two PCIe devices (usually graphics cards) at 8x8 or one graphics card at x16. Because the PCIe controller is integrated into the CPU, simply switching your existing LGA1155 CPU out for a shiny new Ivy Bridge CPU will get you what you need. As long as all the supporting hardware is on the board to support PCIe 3.0 electrically you should be fine. However, there are connectivity limits with Ivy Bridge and PCIe similar to the limitations of existing Sandy Bridge and earlier processors with integrated PCIe controllers. To overcome those connectivity limitations, (mainly device limits) MSI has integrated a bridge chip. Specifically the Pericom PI3PCIE3412. The theory is similar to that of using the nForce 200MCP to give PCIe 2.0 support to the legacy 680i SLI chipset and calling it something new. Moving forward though, PCIe generation 3.0 compatibility will be available on this board for that peace of mind.
I wouldn’t in all honesty pay that too much attention giving that we aren’t saturating PCI-Express generation 2.0 slots right now. In fact there is no difference in the real world running a 3 or 4-Way SLI setup on an X58 chipset based board and running the same thing on a P67 board with less total PCIe lanes. Though the latter requires a bridge chip like the nForce 200 MCP to overcome the two device limit imposed by Intel on the PCIe controller for LGA1155 CPUs. So yeah, you get peace of mind going forward but it isn’t a big deal in reality and may never become a big deal during the operational life time of the machine. By the time it is a big deal, you’ll either be looking to move on or have done it already. From what I gathered in my discussion with MSI, they aren’t singing the praises of PCIe 3.0 either. Ask them and they’d rather talk to you about Click BIOS II and the new 5 year warranty. Both of which represent what I’d call a step in the right direction.
Main Specifications Overview:
Detailed Specifications Overview:
The Z68A-GD65 G3 uses the same basic motherboard packaging we’ve been seeing since the '90s for motherboards and that’s fine. It works and our test sample arrived damage free. This means it’s able to withstand the punishment of UPS or FedEx. That says enough right there. The board box art uses the typical blue and white color scheme which is vaguely reminiscent of Gigabyte’s packaging. Once inside the box we see a relatively complete yet light bundle. Inside are some manuals, driver DVD, USB 3.0 external bracket, SLI bridge, SATA data and power cables, I/O shield, M-connectors, and some voltage meter probe connectors. PCB version 4.0 was what we received and I believe this is what you can expect to see in the wild.
The layout of the Z68A-GD65 G3 is competently executed with no glaring flaws or errors in the thought processes of its designers. With that said I’d like to see the SATA ports moved down closer to the bottom left hand corner of the board. I’d also like to see the power and reset buttons moved over near the OC Genie button which is located in front of the DIMM slots near the 24-pin ATX 12v connectors. The location of the USB 3.0 header is interesting. It is as if they couldn’t decide whether or not to allow you to make use of a case’s front panel connectors or the rear I/O panel bracket. MSI went for middle ground with the header being pretty much in the middle on the bottom edge of the board. This will no doubt prove good and bad for different people. I don’t really have much of an opinion on this myself as I can see the dilemma from both perspectives.
The CPU socket area is well done with no clearance issues I can foresee beyond the use of extremely large CPU coolers. There could be some interference from the DIMM slots if you use taller modules. As a result some care should be taken when selecting RAM or the CPU cooler, or both. I was water cooling so I had no trouble at all here.
MSI went with a blue and black color coding for the DIMM slots using the correct alternating dual channel pattern we all know and love. Looking at the images you’ll notice what looks like some kind of connector in the bottom right hand corner in front of the DIMM slots. This is for your voltage connectors and is basically the same thing as ASUS’ "Probe It" feature. What sets this apart from ASUS is the price point at which we are seeing it. All the ASUS boards that have this are very expensive models and this is a mid-range model for MSI. So I’m pleased to see this helpful diagnostic tool included here.
The south bridge houses what’s left of the chipset as most of the functions have been moved to the CPU at this point. MSI used a simple flat and passive heat sink here. It is adorned with MSI’s logo. Simple but effective. Directly in front of the heat sink and chipset you’ll find all the SATA ports. The SATA 6G ports are white while the 3G ports are black. What’s interesting here is that the Marvell ports are beneath the Z68 ports and I’m used to seeing this done in reverse. No big deal, but I thought it was a odd choice.
The expansion slot area is good. The PCIe x1 slot above the primary PCIe x16 slot is perfectly free of obstruction and is therefore actually usable. In fact even with two dual slot cards installed, you’ll still have two PCIe x1 slots free and one legacy PCI slot. So MSI did a good job here.
The I/O panel wastes a lot of space for iGPU connectivity which is to be expected. So we only have 6 USB ports, only 2 of which are USB 3.0 compatible. We have our standard analog stereo outputs and one optical port. Along with those you’ll find a S/PDIF port, clear CMOS button, and a combination PS/2 mouse port. For iGPU connectivity we have DSUB (VGA), DVI-D, and HDMI ports to choose from.