MSI Z77A-GD65 LGA1155 Motherboard Review
MSI has been on a roll with its motherboards as of late. It’s because of this that our expectations for MSI’s foray into the world of Z77 chipset based motherboards are so high. MSI’s "GD65" series of motherboards have been an especially solid value and the Z77A-GD65 looks to be no different.
MSI is a well known motherboard manufacturer. We’ve seen a ton of its products over the years. While MSI occasionally drops the ball, it usually produces a solid product. Lately the company has been on a roll as nearly everything we’ve looked at has stacked up well in terms of build and value. The GD65 series of motherboards have always been particularly strong overclockers at its price point and offer a compelling feature set as well.
The MSI Z77A-GD65 is based on Intel’s latest and greatest chipset offering, the Z77 Express. To be succinct, the Z77 Express Chipset isn’t functionally a lot different than the Z68 Express Chipset that precedes it. The chipset is still limited to only supporting 2 SATA 3 devices. USB 3.0 is now officially supported, so that’s a welcome change, but honestly gives little advantage given how strong the USB 3.0 add-on logic has become. RST has had a slight improvement. PCIe 3.0 support via Ivy Bridge CPUs is now official, but it is hard to point to immediate gains. You also have slightly more flexibility in PCIe lane allocation. Instead of being limited to a single x16 connector or dual x8 slots, motherboard manufacturers can now opt for an 8x4x4 configuration. Finally legacy PCI support is gone and has to be provided by third party adapter interfaces.
The Z77A-GD65 is what MSI’s marketing team likes to call Military Class III. In other words it’s built to the military’s MIL-STD-810G standard and has been certified as such. It features DrMOS II MOSFETs, low ESR Hi-c CAPs, solid electrolytic capacitors, and super ferrite chokes. It also features an 8-phase power design.
One thing that caught my eye on the MSI web page for this board was the "Gaming Device Port." I’m going to guess that the MSI PR team has been hanging out with the guys at Monster Cable or something. MSI advertise increased thickness of the gold layers in the 2-in-1 PS/2 mouse and keyboard port as well as the USB connectors on the board’s back plane. This is tantamount to the nonsense about high priced HDMI cables being superior to $5 Monoprice cables. The reality is this isn’t remotely true. Digital connections are a transmission of 0s and 1s. If all the 0s and 1s aren’t transferred across things simply don’t work. This wouldn’t have bothered me outside of the fact that MSI claims this enhances mouse sensitivity in games. Ordinarily I cut board makers some slack with regard to creative marketing terms for features every brand shares. Often features that come from the CPU or chipset which isn’t made by the builder anyway.
But this claim is total nonsense. My Logitech G9x felt exactly the same connected to this board as any other. And I should know, I’ve played hundreds of hours of the Mass Effect series alone on this mouse. If somehow it were actually better with some added gold plating, I’d have noticed. MSI’s blurb on the website even says: "Besides enhancing mouse sensitivity in games, these improved interfaces deliver a longer lifespan and better stability of connectors and total solution for e-sports mouse control in UEFI BIOS." I can tell you this for sure, the added gold plating didn’t make using the mouse in the Click BIOS II UEFI any less unpleasant than it usually is. We just felt we needed to call BS on this nonsense.
The board does have a solid feature set. THX TruStudio PRO is supported, Lucid’s VirtuMVP, active phase switching, and HDMI 1.4 is supported as well. The board even boasts certification for both NVIDIA’s SLI and AMD’s CrossFireX technologies.
Main Specifications Overview:
Detailed Specifications Overview:
The board ships in the usual style cardboard container. Our sample arrived free of damage with all accessories accounted for. Inside the box you’ll find enough paperwork to choke a rhino. You have your overclocking guide, certificate of quality and stability, user guide, software & application guide, and a quick installation guide. Non-paper accessories include SATA cables, I/O shield, driver disc, SLI Bridge, and probe leads for voltage monitoring.
The Z77A-GD65 board layout is quite good. I’ve one minor complaint with the placement of the third PCIe x16 slot, but this slot is only usable with an Ivy Bridge CPU installed. There is even a warning sticker to this effect which you have to pull off that slot. (Which I did for the photos.) Otherwise the board is free of any glaring layout flaws.
The CPU socket area is standard issue for the LGA1155 socket and Z77 platform. There is enough room for most cooling solutions, but large air coolers could run into two problems. The MOSFET cooling hardware is on the tall side and clearance could be a problem depending on your cooling solution. The memory slots are also too close to the CPU socket and as a result you may block slots with some coolers. Now, this isn’t MSI’s fault as all boards which are compatible with CPUs that feature integrated memory controllers suffer from this same issue.
The Z77A-GD65 has four DDR3 DIMM slots which allow up to 32GB of RAM to be installed. The DIMM slots are color coded to signify which need to be populated for proper dual channel mode operation. As stated earlier, these are located very close to the CPU socket area, but that is unavoidable with this chipset. Other than that we find no issues with this area of the board.
Being a unified design, and given that many traditional north bridge functions are now handled by the CPU directly, the Z77 Express chipset is a single chip which is located where the south bridge was located in days past. It is cooled by a flat and passive heat sink. Directly in front of that are the boards 8 SATA ports. Just right of that is the USB 3.0 header. MSI used right angled SATA connectors and nothing is truly in the way here. Even with a GTX 580 installed I was able to reach all the SATA ports easily. I can’t say that for a lot of boards.
The expansion slot area is good. I’d have preferred the last PCIe x16 slot to be a little higher up, but realistically this isn’t a 3-Way SLI or CrossFireX board. You’d most likely use the other PCIe x16 slots for graphics cards. So I’ll give MSI a pass here as I really can’t envision a need for any changes to this area.
The rear I/O panel is pretty crowded. We’ve got "only" 6 USB ports back here, 2 of which are USB 3.0 ports. Six mini-stereo jacks for audio, RJ-45 for LAN, S/PDIF and optical output, clear CMOS and our combination PS/2 keyboard and mouse port. That’s all normal. Then we get to the video input options. We have HDMI which is fine, and DVI-D which makes sense. But we also have D-SUB / VGA. I don’t know why that’s there honestly. Go DVI-I and include the DVI-VGA adapter and be done with it. A display port to DVI adapter would have cleaned things up nicely as well. We saw a nicer and cleaner solution on the Sabertooth Z77 but that board also had the exhaust fan for the thermal armor which it had to accommodate. Since this board has nothing like that MSI could have filled it with USB ports or something more useful than antique monitor connections.
I’m sure the connectivity options here can be appreciated by many out there. So I won’t ding MSI for making this choice. At this price point I can see the merits of both lines of thinking. On a high end board I’d slam them hard for these types of choices. Moving on…..