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MSI Z68A-GD80 G3 Z68 Motherboard Review

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Eldonko

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Since the launch of Sandy Bridge, we have showcased a number of P67 and Z68 boards from ASUS, Gigabyte, and EVGA. Today we will add MSI to the list and have a look at one of their higher-end socket 1155 boards - the Z68A-GD80 G3. The G3 version of the GD80 board was released only a few weeks after the B3 with the main difference being included PCI-E 3.0 functionality. The X79 boards may be all the rage these days but savvy consumers have stuck with the Z68 platform for its lower price and excellent feature set.

Not only does the Z68A-GD80 G3 include PCI-E Gen 3 and support for upcoming Ivy Bridge processors (including Gen 3 SLI), but with the GD80 there is a long list of features on top of that. First and foremost, similar to what we saw with the ASUS P67 Sabertooth, the GD80 has Military Certified components (Hi-c and Solid Capacitors and Super Ferrite Chokes) and with that comes an extra two years on the warranty for a total of five years. Then of course we have the Z68-specific features: graphics switching with both DVI-I and HDMI outputs, SSD caching, Quick Sync Video, and SATA 6Gb/s direct to the PCH.

A few other notable features in the GD80 are OC Genie, MSI Control Center, and a UEFI / software GUI BIOS. For quick and easy overclocking, MSI has included an OC Genie button that provides instant overclocking of CPU, memory, and iGPU. For a more hands-on overclocking approach MSI’s Control Center utility provides overclocking and power saving options in a Windows environment. The UEFI BIOS on the GD80 is unique in how it provides a full UEFI option including full mouse control and touchscreen support as well as a software graphical user interface with Click BIOS II.

Coming in at around $260, the Z68A-GD80 G3 is in the price range of boards like Gigabyte’s Z68XP-UD5 and ASUS’ P8Z68 Deluxe. Sandy Bridge is all about performance for the money so let’s have a look if the GD80 is worth the extra dollar signs.

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Eldonko

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Z68A-GD80 G3 Specifications and Features

Z68A-GD80 G3 Specifications and Features

Before jumping right into photos and testing, let’s take a look at the specifications for the Z68A-GD80 G3:

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Notable features on the GD80 include:

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Eldonko

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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories


MSI went with a rather flashy and eye catching design on the box of the Z68A-GD80 G3. The color scheme uses mainly black and navy blue, consistent with the board colors and special attention is drawn to the board having PCI-E Gen 3, Click BIOS II, and Military Class II components. Although the GD80 has a 5 year warranty, MSI does not highlight this like ASUS did with the Sabertooth.

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Inside the front cover, there is a map of the board and several key features are explained in more detail.

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Inside the box, users will be greeted with a quick guide that provides illustrated instructions for hardware installation. Beneath that are the accessories and below a cardboard divider is the motherboard.

The accessory bundle is rather standard but does include some information on the Military Standard testing and a certificate showing that the board comes with a 5 year warranty.

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One notable accessory that comes with the GD80 is a USB 3.0 panel, which gives two extra USB 3.0 ports.
 
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Eldonko

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Included Software

Included Software

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The first item in the MSI software suite is the utility that an overclocker will use the most: MSI Control Center. This is a very powerful tool and allows tweaking and monitoring of the CPU clocks, memory, as well as a number of voltages.

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Under the Overclocking section within the MSI Control Center is another tab titled OC Genie. You often see auto overclocking features added to motherboard software suites but in this case Control Center only provides an explanation on how to use OC Genie. We'd count this as a bit of a disappointment since MSI's OC Genie is a great tool but it can still be easily enabled with a few button presses.

Under the Green Power tab are voltage and temperature readings as well as adjustments for CPU Phase Mode and fan speeds.

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Also under Green Power is an area called LED. This may seem like a bit of a waste like the OC Genie tab but within it you can disable CPU Phase LEDs if desired.

Back to the main Overclocking tab under CPU Clock Advanced tab are adjustable multis for each core of the CPU, the iGPU, as well as temperature readings for each core.

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The Overclocking section of MSI’s Control Center also has three handy info sections for memory, motherboard, and CPU. Memory timings, BIOS and driver information, and CPU information are all found in here.

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Last but certainly not least, the final area of Control Center is the DRAM Timings section. Using the DRAM Timings tool, both primary and secondary memory timings are adjustable in a Windows environment. This is a first for an 1155 board and something lacking in both ASUS and Gigabyte software offerings so kudos to MSI for including this!
 
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Eldonko

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Included Software p.2

Included Software

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MSI has a unique take on the BIOS utility with ClickBIOS II. ClickBIOS II provides access to the UEFI BIOS interface in Windows and even supports touchscreen control for Windows 8 and other touch operating systems.

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The Marvell host controller comes with its own Storage Utility. This utility provides an interface which can be used to set up RAID arrays while the Marvell RAID driver allows the drives to be used with SATA port multipliers for increased system performance and capacity.

MSI’s Teaming Genie utility allows for easy setup of Ethernet teaming when both ports are used. Teaming can provide load balancing and fault tolerance and can be quite useful in a server environment.

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EasyViewer1.3 is a handy image viewing utility which can be used to view a slideshow, rotate images and manage your photo collection. The SuperCharger Utility is quite simple, it allows for enabling and disabling the SuperCharger feature of the board which in turn can help charge certain devices through a USB port much faster than a standard interface.

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Live Update 5 is an all-in-one update tool that can be used to check for, download, and install the latest drivers, utilities, and BIOS updates. The first tab shows system information and how many items need updating and the Live Update tab allows for updating and installing with a few clicks.

We had some updating issues with the version of Live Update 5 on the GD80 install disk but after downloading the latest version it worked flawlessly. We thought this was a great tool as it saves you from manually searching the web for updates to utilities and drivers.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the Z68A-GD80 G3

A Closer Look at the Z68A-GD80 G3

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Above is a map of the Z68A-GD80 G3 motherboard layout with descriptions of the various parts. Looking at the board from a high level view, you can see that MSI left a good amount of PCI-E expansion space without any obstacles in the way so running multi card setups here should present no clearance issues at all.



The cooling system on the GD80 consists of a heatpipe cooler for the VRM and a passive heatsink on the chipset. The Z68 chipset runs at very low temperatures so additional thermal dissipation isn't needed.

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The heatsink above the Z68 chipset is held down with two screws and there are yellow rubber spacers to ensure a snug and even fit. All in all, it makes good contact a should have plenty of additional overhead for extreme overclocking situations.

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Lines of Hi-c caps, solid caps, ferrite chokes, and DrMOS surround the CPU socket and comprise the main part of the GD80's power system. These all add up to a 12 phase advanced digital VRM design which -like the cooling system- should be more than sufficient for long term overclocking stability and should still have capacity to burn when pushing the limits of Sandy Bridge chips.

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A big part of why the GD80 has a 5 year warranty is the inclusion of Military Class II VRM components. There are the Hi-c caps which are the flat capacitors located between the chokes and the CPU socket and supposedly have eight times the lifespan of a solid cap. They are made from Tantalum which has extremely high electrical conductivity and should also work towards increasing overall electrical efficiency as well.

The super ferrite chokes on the GD80 run cooler and can handle more power than typical chokes and DrMOS chips support APS (Active Phase Switching) which makes it possible for the board to shut down unused phases to save power. The UT257 PWM controller chip pictured above is the brains of the VRM and ties all of the different power sections together.

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The CPU socket itself is socket LGA1155, the predecessor to LGA1156 and made my Lotes. The socket hold down is typical to most 1155 boards and is held in place by a backplate on the reverse side.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the Z68A-GD80 G3 p.2

A Closer Look at the Z68A-GD80 G3

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The DDR3 memory slots on the GD80 are color coded blue and black, each to indicate a memory channel. According to MSI the blue slots are to be populated first if a two stick configuration is used.

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The 10 LEDs near the memory slots indicate the current CPU power phase mode. The higher the power phase number, the more reliable the power flow to the processor. The large Fintek chip marked F71889AD is the board’s Super I/O chip and is responsible for system monitoring.

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You may notice a few more Renesas R2J20651 DrMOS chips and chokes near the RAM slots; these make up the VTT circuit which includes Uncore and memory controllers. Moving further out from this area we find the 24-pin power connector and the voltage read points. Voltage read points are always a handy addition to any board, especially for overclockers.

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Next are the SATA ports, 7 in total. The white ports on the right are Intel ports and run 6GB/s while the four black ports are also connected to the Intel Z68 chipset and run at 3Gb/s. All of the ports running from the chipset support SSD caching. The remaining white port is 6Gb/s and is run by a Marvell 88SE9128 SATA controller. All in all, most users will find this layout more than sufficient but anyone with a large RAID array may be forced to look elsewhere for more drive installation points.

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The board's corner has a number of connectors: three USB 2.0 headers, two front panel connectors, a TPM Module connector, and a DLED3 connector. The TPM Module and MSI control card (DLED3) are not included with the board but can be purchased separately. The ASMedia chip marked ASM1083 is a USB 3.0 host controller that runs the USB 3.0 header next to the OC Genie button.

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Speaking of the OC Genie button, it is well placed and can be pushed down to enable auto overclocking. The button will remain depressed until it is pushed again to disable OC Genie. We'll look at what this can accomplish in our Overclocking Section a bit later in the review.

Next to that are power and reset buttons and a 1394 header. The connector marked JSP1 is a S/PDIF-Out Expansion Connector and the connector marked JAUD1 is the front panel audio connector.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the Z68A-GD80 G3 p.3

A Closer Look at the Z68A-GD80 G3

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For expansion slots, the Z68A-GD80 has two PCI-E 3.0 16x slots (PCI_E2, PCI_E4), thus making Gen 3 SLI possible but at x8 speed for each slot. Since Z68 has 20 PCI-E lanes, when the primary slot is populated ot will run at x16 but when dual card configurations are used in PCI_E2 and PCI_E4, each will run in x8 mode. The blue slot closer to the board's bottom may look like a full bandwidth PCI-E 2.0 16x (PCI_E2) slot but it will run at a speed of 4x when populated. Please note that if the PCI_E5 slot is populated with a PCI-E device, you will lose functionality of the the Marvell eSATA port, front USB 3.0, the 1394 port, and the two PCI slots due to the fact that these devices reside on the same PCI-E bus.

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A few chips of interest near the PCI-E slots are NEC D720200AF and the THX audio chip. The NEC chip is the USB 3.0 host controller that runs the nearby USB 3.0 header and the audio on the GD80 is powered by THX TruStudio PRO, a high-fidelity sound reproduction standard. Note that a Realtek ALC892 integrated HD audio codec is used.

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The VIA VT6308P above the audio chip is the IEEE 1394 host controller and the Marvell 88SE9128 is a SATA 6Gb/s and PATA host controller. This chip connects the Marvell SATA 6Gb/s port to the PCI-E 2.0 host and supports RAID functions.

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There are also a number of PCI-E switches marked PI3PCIE and PI2PCIE. The chips marked PI3PCIE are Gen 3 switches which allow for Gen 3 compatibility on the GD80 and the chips marked PI2PCIE are Gen 2 switches compliant with PCI-E signals at 2.5Gb/s.

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The I/O panel on the GD80 is fairly straightforward but it does have a few items worth explaining. The small black button is the board’s clear CMOS switch which any overclocker knows will come in handy for certain situations. There are also dual LAN ports on board for teaming and both DVI-I and HMDI outs for integrated graphics. All in all, the backplate connector layout is complete and well placed.
 
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Eldonko

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Hardware Installation

Hardware Installation

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In order to test how different hardware combinations will fit onto the GD80, we installed a Zalman CNPS10x Flex, a 4GB kit of G.Skill memory, and two GTX 470 video cards. The Zalman is an average-sized aftermarket CPU cooler so it should provide a good reference and the heatsinks on the G.Skill kit are taller than most so we can see if there any clearance issues.

As you can see above, MSI allows for plenty of clearance between this board’s heatsinks and an aftermarket CPU cooler so we have to conclude that most coolers will fit without any problems. There is also enough room to easily install or remove the heatsink with a screwdriver.


To have a look at memory clearance we installed an extra tall kit of G.Skill Trident modules to see if there would be any issues with heatsink fans. When installing a cooler with dual 120mm fans, there could be some issues on the memory side. However we feel that a dual fan cooler and extra tall memory would be a very rare occurrence and 95% of configurations should fit without issue. To get around the clearance issue, you could install the fan a little higher up on the memory side if your cooler allows for that.

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After adding two GTX 470 video cards to the GD80 we found that there could be a clearance issue when using the Marvell SATA port and larger cards in SLI. For some reason MSI went with a vertical configuration for this port instead of horizontal like the others. Similar to dual fans and tall memory however, this issue would be quite rare.
 
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Eldonko

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BIOS Rundown

BIOS Rundown

2011 is the year of the UEFI BIOS and MSI didn’t waste any time implementing a proper UEFI including mouse control and a Windows UI option. Throughout the course of testing the GD80 we went through a number of BIOS versions before finding the one we feel is best: beta version 18.6B8, dated 11/09/11. We found that compared to some other manufacturers, MSI seems to be slow on BIOS releases as there were three months between BIOS releases and it wasn't until the official 18.7 version a few weeks ago that most of the issues were taken care of.

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Much like many of the competitor's boards, the first and main BIOS screen contains information such as CPU and motherboard temperatures, current clock speeds, BIOS version, and a graphical representation of boot priority. Going into the first subscreen -aptly called Settings- there are pages for System Status, Advanced Settings, and Boot Options.

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The System Status page gives full details on the system, including information on CPU, BIOS, and hard drives. The Advanced Settings page has a variety of settings, most notably Integrated Graphics Configuration and Hardware Monitor.

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The Integrated Graphics Configuration page is where you enable the board’s iGPU and Virtu switchable graphics options. Hardware Monitor gives temperature and fan speed readings and has an option to enable CPU Smart Fan.

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Next up we have the most important page for most: the Overclocking Settings section. This is where all of your overclocking is done from clock speeds, to voltages, to memory frequencies and timings, it is all here. Set VDroop Control to Low VDroop to enable load line calibration.

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When you set DRAM Timing Mode to Link, the Advanced DRAM Configuration page becomes available giving access to a ton memory timings and subtimings. The CPU Features page is where users can adjust settings for C1E and C States and most disable these settings when overclocking.

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The OC Profiles page allows for saving customized OC Profiles suited for different situations. This is a very handy tool for any overclocker as it saves them from redoing settings manually after a CMOS clear. The last page we will look at today is the ECO Energy Saving page. All of the board’s energy saving options are here as well as monitoring for voltages and power consumption.

Take any motherboard on the market, any one at all and most users will say that it is the overclocking section (and stability of course) which will make or break and enthusiast level product. For the most part, the GD80 delivered. All of the options we expected to be included were there and while some of the more esoteric BIOS features of some high end X79 boards may not be available, this board is a far cry less expensive so we can't expect everything. We just wish MSI was a bit quicker when it comes to necessary updates.
 
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