Package and Accessories
MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) mainboard comes in a box with Micro-Star’s traditional design. The front of it is covered with numerous logotypes of supported technologies and functions, with a new one indicating that it is the world’s first mainboard supporting PCI Express 3.0 standard. The flip-open cover reveals a large image of the actual mainboard and a brief description of its selected features, which continues to the back of the box.
Since it is one of the company’s flagship products, it comes with a large number of accessories including the following items:
Four SATA cables with metal connector locks, two with L-shaped locks and another two - with straight ones;
Two power-adapters for SATA drives;
A flexible bridge for two-way SLI graphics configurations;
Additional rear panel bracket with two USB 3.0 ports;
I/O Shield for the back panel;
"M-Connector” block including modules for easy connection of the system case front panel buttons and indicators, audio, IEEE1394 and USB 2.0 ports;
"V-Check Cable” adapter set for manual voltage monitoring with a voltmeter;
A booklet on proprietary software;
Colorful poster with mainboard connector layout;
A booklet with brief assembly instructions;
DVD disk with software and drivers.
We have already seen modules bringing USB 3.0 ports to the system case front panel with products from ASUS, Elitegroup and Gigabyte. It is a real pity that a useful device like that is not yet part of the accessories bundle for MSI’s high-end products. There were even a few differences from the previous model: now the mainboard is accompanied by a reliability certificate listing all components testing methods, similar to the one included with Asus Sabertooth products and promising longer warranty.PCB Design and Functionality
MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) is an exact replica of the B3 model. They haven’t even replaced the "True PCI-E 2.0 SLI & CrossFireX” with PCI-E 3.0 (unless the PCI-E 3.0 support is not "true”).
The only noticeable difference between the two models is the use of very convenient wide slot locks for the PCI Express 3.0 slots, similar to Q-Slot by ASUS. Since in the future the support of new-generation PCI-E will be provided by controllers currently integrated into the processors, it only exists for the first two graphics card slots. Just as before, a single graphics accelerator will work at full PCI Express 3.0 x16 speed, and if both slots are occupied it will be cut down in half. As for the third slot, you can install a graphics card there, too, but it will work as PCI Express 2.0 and its maximum speed will never exceed x4. Moreover, these four lanes are provided not by the CPU, but by the system core logic set. In normal mode they are used for different additional controllers, so if you have a graphics card installed into the third slot, then you will have to sacrifice one eSATA and one SATA port, both internal USB 3.0 ports, IEEE1394 (FireWire) support and two PCI slots.
The mainboard uses a twelve-phase processor voltage regulator circuitry. The APS (Active Phase Switching) technology allows the mainboard to change the number of active voltage regulator phases dynamically depending on the current CPU utilization and it will be reflected by the row of CPU Phase LEDs. MSI uses very high-quality "Military Class II” components, including long-lasting solid-state capacitors, Super Ferrite Chokes with lower operational temperatures and tantalum Hi-c CAPs. From now on they not just give you their word that all the components are of exceptional quality, but also include a special certificate documenting that. All VRM components that heat up substantially during work are topped with two additional heatsinks connected with a heatpipes. All heatsinks, including the chipset one, are screwed on to the PCB. The mainboard has two BIOS chips and a V-Check Points panel. Together with an enclosed V-Check Cable set you can use this panel to manually monitor all the important voltages using a voltage measuring device. You will be able to easily find Power On and Reset buttons, because they are glowing in the dark. There is also the OC Genie button for immediate system overclocking and Clear CMOS button on the back panel.
On the back panel of the MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) mainboard you will find the following ports and connectors:
PS/2 connector for keyboard or mouse;
Optical S/PDIF, and six analogue audio-jacks provided by eight-channel Realtek ALC892 codec;
Clear CMOS button;
IEEE1394 (FireWire) port implemented via VIA VT6308P controller, the second port is available as an onboard pin-connector;
Four USB 2.0 ports, six more USB ports are available as three onboard pin-connectors;
Two USB 3.0 ports (blue connectors) implemented via NEC D720200AF1 controller, the second controller like that provides support for two more USB 3.0 ports;
One eSATA 6 Gbps port implemented via Marvell 88SE9128 controller, a second port is available as onboard pin-connector;
Two local network ports (network adapters are built on Gigabit Realtek RTL8111E controllers);
DVI-I and HDMI video outs.
The table below contains all the mainboard specifications summed up in one place for your convenience:
The originally rich functionality of the Intel Z68 Express chipset has been additionally expanded on MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) with numerous additional controllers. The mainboard boasts very convenient components layout, and the buttons come in very handy if the mainboard is used as a testbed. Everything is great, except for the fact that only one fan connector out of five, the one for the CPU fan, allows adjusting fan rotation speed. This frustrating drawback is hardly acceptable for a flagship feature-rich mainboard, in my opinion.
We carried out our tests on a testbed that included the following components:
MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3), MS-7672 ver.3.0 mainboard (LGA1155, Intel Z68 Express, BIOS version V18.6 B2);
Intel Core i5-2500K CPU (3.3 GHz, Sandy Bridge, LGA1155);
2 x 2048 MB DDR3 SDRAM Patriot Extreme Performance Viper II Sector 5 Series PC3-16000, PVV34G2000LLKB (2000 MHz, 8-8-8-24 timings, 1.65 V voltage);
MSI N570GTX-M2D12D5/OC graphics card (Nvidia GeForce GTX 570, GF110, 40 nm, 786/4200 MHz, 320-bit GDDR5 1280 MB);
Kingston SSD Now V+ Series (SNVP325-S2, 128 GB);
Scythe Mugen 2 Revision B (SCMG-2100) CPU cooler and an additional 80x80 mm fan for cooling of the area around the CPU socket during overclocking experiments;
ARCTIC MX-2 thermal interface;
CoolerMaster RealPower M850 PSU (RS-850-ESBA);
Open testbed built using Antec Skeleton system case.
We used Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64 bit (Microsoft Windows, Version 6.1, Build 7601: Service Pack 1) operating system, Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility version 184.108.40.2060, Nvidia GeForce Driver 280.26 graphics card driver.Operational and Overclocking Specifics
We didn’t experience any problems when we assembled our system on MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) mainboard. It also worked perfectly fine in nominal mode. The only disappointment was the board’s inability to adjust the rotation speed of all fans other than the processor one. We almost always use an additional 80x80 mm fan for additional cooling of the area around the CPU socket during our overclocking experiments. The previous mainboard model with the B3 index could set the fan speed at 75% or 50%, but looks like they forgot to add this feature to the new BIOS version on the G3 mainboard. Therefore, on different occasions we adjusted the rotation speed of this additional fan either with Zalman FAN Mate 2 variable resistor, or via software tools, such as Speed FAN, which coped with the task very well. Unfortunately, the missing ability to adjust the rotation speed of any fans is not the only drawback of the new MSI Click BIOS II. The difference from the previous version is not only in the looks, because we have encountered a very serious problem that didn’t allow us to fully overclock our CPU.
If you press the OC Genie button on the mainboard or select "OC Genie II Mode” in the BIOS, you won’t have any problems. The mainboard will automatically increase the processor clock frequency to 4.2 GHz and at the same time significantly increase all voltages and disable all processor power-saving technologies. This is Micro-Star’s typical very non-optimal overclocked mode, which even commencing overclockers should avoid, and experienced users won’t ever use it anyway. The problems actually emerged when we tried to manually overclock our processor to higher frequencies than 4.2 GHz. The mainboard would start just fine even at the maximum clock frequency for our particular processor unit of 4.7 GHz, but during stability tests it would immediately drop its frequency to 4.3-4.4 GHz. In fact, this would be considered normal for any mainboard except ASUS and Gigabyte, if you forgot to push back the processor power consumption maximum in the "CPU features” section. So far, only the mainboards from these two manufacturers were able to automatically push back these thresholds, but now MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) can do it, too. It automatically set the thresholds to 200 and 250 W during overclocking, but for some reason, it didn’t really work.
Of course, we immediately addressed this issue with MSI representatives and checked out quite a few BIOS versions and settings combinations, but the problem remained. The mainboard continued to drop the processor clock frequency multiplier under heavy load, so we couldn’t get any acceptable results. Eventually, the company’s engineers managed to identify and resolve the issue and we received a new BIOS version 18.62B, in which the processor clock multiplier stopped dropping under load and the mainboard could finally overclock well. However, it took a month of joint efforts to have it all sorted out and now we have a way to overclock processors on Micro-Star mainboards with all processor power-saving technologies remaining up and running.
Quite a few other mainboards don’t ever have a problem like that. We can always increase the processor core voltage in the "Offset” mode, when the necessary value is simply added to the nominal Vcore and all Intel’s processor power-saving technologies remain intact. However, for some reason this parameter is long gone from the BIOS of Micro-Star mainboards that is why we tested them using a different approach. Before, if we increased the processor core voltage, all power-saving technologies on MSI boards would get immediately disabled. If we left the Vcore untouched, then the mainboards increased it on their own during overclocking by raising the base clock and the outcome was exactly the same. Now things have changed. With MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) it turned out that if you do not manually adjust the processor Vcore, the mainboard won’t raise it more than necessary and the power-saving technologies will stay active. Moreover, when the technology counteracting the processor Vcore drop under heavy load is enabled (it hasn’t yet disappeared from Micro-Star’s mainboard BIOS), the CPU Vcore stays at 1.4 V, which about what we need to push the CPU to 4.7-4.8 GHz clock speed. Unfortunately, we don’t have the best Intel Core i5-2500K unit, as it overclocks only to 4.7 GHz, but it means that even on an MSI mainboard we can now overclock our processor without losing all power-saving technologies!
However, reality made a few adjustments to our excitement. We discovered that when the CPU clock frequency is at 4.7 GHz, the mainboard cannot start without increasing the CPU Vcore. It booted just fine at 4.6 GHz, although we did receive a blue screen of death during OS loading, so we had to drop the clock to 4.5 GHz. As for the memory, our particular modules are a great fit for Micro-Star mainboards, as all latest models supported their operation at 1866 MHz frequency. In fact, it was an MSI mainboard that allowed us to hit from memory frequency for the first time in our lab, and only a little later the same could be repeated on the mainboards from other manufacturers. As a result, the final progress report for our overclocking tests looks as follows:
It is for the first time in a long time that all Intel’s processor power-saving technologies work perfectly fine during overclocking even on an MSI mainboard. The company’s proprietary APS (Active Phase Switching) technology that allows to dynamically change the number of active phases in the processor voltage regulator circuitry depending on the current CPU utilization still gets disabled, but most importantly, now the processor clock frequency multiplier as well as its core voltage both drop in idle mode.
Now we can finally compare the performance of different mainboards working in identical testing conditions. We can give up special modes, which we had to use for MSI mainboards. We had to sacrifice some of the overclocking success, but we encourage and support "smart” overclocking, that doesn’t require users to give up energy-efficiency even at the expense of a slightly lower maximum clock speed.Performance Comparison
As usual, we are going to compare the mainboards speeds in two different modes: in nominal mode and during CPU and memory overclocking. The first mode is interesting because it shows how well the mainboards work with their default settings. It is a known fact that most users do not fine-tune their systems, they simply choose the optimal BIOS settings and do nothing else. That is why we run a round of tests almost without interfering in any way with the default mainboard settings. For comparison purposes we are going to also include the results from our reviews of Asus P8Z68 Deluxe, P8Z68-V Pro and Asus P8Z68-V, as well as Asus Maximus IV Extreme, Biostar TZ68K+, Gigabyte G1.Sniper 2 and Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD, and MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3). The results are sorted out in descending order on the diagrams. The results of MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) are marked with darker color on the diagrams for your convenience.
We used Cinebench 11.5. All tests were run five times and the average result of the five runs was taken for the performance charts.
We have been using Fritz Chess Benchmark utility for a long time already and it proved very illustrative. It generated repeated results, the performance in it is scales perfectly depending on the number of involved computational threads.
A small video in x264 HD Benchmark 4.0 is encoded in two passes and then the entire process is repeated four times. The average results of the second pass are displayed on the following diagram:
We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.
In the archiving test a 1 GB file is compressed using LZMA2 algorithms, while other compression settings remain at defaults.
Like in the data compression test, the faster 16 million of Pi digits are calculated, the better. This is the only benchmark where the number of processor cores doesn’t really matter, because it creates single-threaded load.
There are good and bad things about complex performance tests. However, Futuremark benchmarking software has become extremely popular and is used for comparisons a lot. To estimate the average performance of our test platform PCMark 7 test measures the performance in common algorithms that are frequently used on an everyday basis. The diagram shows the average of three test runs:
3DMark11 suite measures the graphics sub-system performance in the first place. The diagram below shows the average results after three test runs in 3DMark11 Performance mode with default settings:
Since we do not overclock graphics in our mainboard reviews, the next diagram shows only CPU tests from the 3DMark11 – Physics Score. This score is obtained in a special physics test that emulates the behavior of a complex gaming system working with numerous objects:
We use FC2 Benchmark Tool to go over Ranch Small map ten times in 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings in DirectX 10.
Resident Evil 5 game also has a built-in performance test. Its peculiarity is that it can really take advantage of multi-core processor architecture. The tests were run in DirectX 10 in 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings. The average of five test runs was taken for further analysis:
As an experiment, we loaded the default optimal settings of the MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) mainboard and enabled "ECO Mode” in the BIOS. A little later we will see that it has hardly had any effect on the board’s power consumption, but right now we can state that it also has zero effect on performance. In most cases both MSI mainboards are next to each other on the diagrams, which proves once again that there is hardly any performance difference between related mainboards and in most applications they demonstrate very similar results.
Now let’s run the same tests with the CPU and memory overclocked. You can see the difference in the system parameters in the following table:
It is not surprising that MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) mainboard is mostly the last one, because our CPU overclocked 200 MHz less on it compared with the other testing participants. As a result you can notice its performance being a little lower, but the difference is insignificant: it is about 4% in most computational tasks.Power Consumption
We performed our power consumption measurements using an Extech Power Analyzer 380803. This device is connected before the PSU and measures the power draw of the entire system (without the monitor), including the power loss that occurs in the PSU itself. In the idle mode we start the system up and wait until it stops accessing the hard disk. Then we use LinX to load the CPU. For a more illustrative picture there are graphs that show how the computer’s power consumption grows up depending on the number of active execution threads in LinX (both at the default and overclocked system settings). The mainboards are sorted in alphabetical order on the diagrams.
When we ran the tests in the nominal mode on MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) mainboard, we enabled "ECO Mode”, but we can’t seem to notice any serious difference from the B3 mainboard on the power consumption charts. However, in overclocked mode our today’s hero takes over the leadership ousting Biostar TZ68K+ from the winner’s spot.
Of course, we didn’t manage to overclock our test processor on MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) as well as we did on other mainboards, but despite this fact its Vcore increases to about the same level and this is the major factor affecting power consumption. In fact, it is pretty obvious why Biostar mainboard used to be the leader: it is a fairly simple model with very few additional onboard controllers. Unlike Biostar’s mainboard, the MSI one is equipped with a complete set of extras, but nevertheless, it consumes just as little or even less. At last we can enjoy the advantages of high-quality electronic components, which have been used on MSI mainboards for a long time now. Xbit Laboratories