MSI Z77A-GD65 £148
10th Apr 2012 | 11:45
A solid Z77 debut with the old-school CPU silicon
Introduction and Architecture
As CPU launches go, Intel's new 22nm Ivy Bridge family is firmly in the reluctant, heel-dragging category. But we understand they're imminently go for launch and the MSI Z77A-GD65 is one of the very first motherboards optimised for this latest line of Intel desktop number crunchers.
In its wisdom and mercy, Intel has decided not to roll out yet another socket for Ivy Bridge.
So, the good news is that you can drop in any existing Intel LGA 1155 processor into the MSI Z77A-GD65 and let rip.
It's also this backwards compatibility that allows us to get a feeling for the MSI board and the new Intel Z77 chipset that underpins it before the first Ivy Bridgers are finally dragged into the open, blinking and rubbing their eyes.
That gives a chance to gauge how the Z77 shapes up for raw performance, what we can expect from it in terms of overclocking, how it compares to the old 6 Series family of chipsets, such as the Z68 and H67 and all, well, that jazz.
Of course, the MSI's Z77A-GD65 isn't the only new Ivy Bridge-oriented motherboard to hit TechRadar towers. In terms of reference points, you can also have a look at our reviews of the new Asus ROG Maximus V Gene and Asus Sabertooth Z77.
Nor, as it happens, is the Z77 the only new 7 Series chipset from Intel.
Chipset - Intel Z77
Socket - Intel LGA 1155
CPU support - Intel 2nd & 3rd Generation Core
Form factor - ATX
Graphics support - Nvidia SLI and AMD CrossFire, Intel integrated
High speed interfaces - 4xUSB 3.0, 2X SATA 6Gbps
For context, Intel is also rolling out Z75 and H77 chipsets to the accompany the Z77 effort used by the GD65.
There's not a great deal to differentiate them.
The Z77 and H77 support SmartResponse SSD caching, while Z75 does not, but Z77 and Z75 have full access to CPU ratios and overclocking, where available, but for the H77 there's no overclocking fun.
Frankly, it's all a bit batty and ultimately rather artificial.
These aren't differences in the silicon. This is stuff Intel is switching on and off purely to create market stratification. Still, one new feature that may be of interest is PCI Express 3.0 support, which will arrive with the Ivy Bridge processors.
As standard, you get 16 lanes integrated into Ivy Bridge CPUs. But only on the Z77 and Z75 chipsets can they be split into two x8 connections for multi-GPU graphics.
However, because PCI Express 3.0 offers double the bandwidth of PCI Express 2.0, that's actually equal to two x16 PCI Express 2.0 links.
You will of course need graphics cards that support the 3.0 spec to hook into all this. For the record, the Z77 and thus the MSI Z77 can also be configured with one x8 and two x4 links for triple-GPU action and supports both NVIDIA SLI and AMD Crossfire.
And again, remember that's equivalent to one x16 and two x8 PCI Express 2.0 connections. The bottom line, then, is that the 7 series and the Z77 in particular is a fair bit more multi-GPU friendly.
It also offers a heap more bandwidth for peripherals thanks to four native USB 3.0 ports.
Board makers no longer need to add a USB 3.0 daughter chip. Huzzah. That said, only two of the six SATA ports are 6Gbps, which is pretty pathetic. AMD has been delivering chipsets with full 6Gbps support on every port for yonks.
Get with it, Intel.
As for the specifics MSI has cooked up for the Z77A-GD65, well, you get Military Class solid state components, which adds up to some pretty serious power management, thermal protection and stability.
Then there's MSI's obligatory OC Genie button, which enables idiot-proof overclocking at the flick of a finger
Hardcore overclockers are well catered for, too, both in the UEFI BIOS, which is comprehensive, and courtesy of features like V-Check points and the LED debug display.
The only omission of note is a clear-CMOS switch on the back panel. You'll have to fiddle with jumpers to recover defaults if you've applied a setting that's preventing you from getting back into the BIOS.
We'll have to wait a little longer to see just what the Z77 chipset and MSI Z77A-GD65 are capable of with the full might of Intel's new Ivy Bridge chips.
For now, we've taken a look at how they perform courtesy of the Intel Core i7 2600K, which is hardly a slouch.
Providing a baseline and a reminder of how the 2600K stacks up in a 6 Series motherboard is ECS H67H2-M.
It's early days for the Z77, but our intial tests reveal a pretty broad spread of performance at both stock and overclocked settings.
But one thing is for sure, the Z77 is an overclocking beast.
CPU rendering performance
Video encoding performance
With the arrival of the Z77 chipset, we're hoping for a little uptick in raw platform performance.
In other words, it would be great if it was faster than the 6 Series chipsets for existing CPUs. Add in the performance benefit of the upcoming Ivy Bridge generation and you've got a promising overall package.
Unfortunately, we're not quite there yet with the Z77A-GD65 and not just because Ivy Bridge isn't quite out.
At default clocks and settings, it doesn't move the game on from Intel's previous generation chipsets. Whether it's memory bandwidth, rendering, encoding or gaming, the MSI is very much in the same ballpark as our reference H67 board.
That the Asus ROG Maximus V Gene is significantly pacier than the H67 in all the application benchmarks makes things a little tricky for MSI. Time will tell if the Maximus is a one off or whether MSI's Z77 is a little off the pace.
For now, it's pretty much on a par with the Asus Sabertooth Z77 for default metrics.
If that's a little disappointing, the MSI GD65 does keep us with the Maximus board when it comes to overclocking.
Both boards will hit an easy 4.8GHz on air cooling alone with our Intel Core i7 2600K test chip. That's around 200MHz higher than we're used to seeing with the same chip in an Intel Z68 motherboard.
Problem is, this time around it's the Sabertooth that delivers the goods, achieving a borderline bonkers 5GHz with a shonky air cooler.
The MSI doesn't exactly tear 'em up when it comes to one-touch overclocking. 4.2GHz courtesy of the OC Genie button isn't exactly shabby, but the competition is clearly quicker.
MSI doesn't skimp on quality and the Z77A-GD65 is veritably loaded with top notch caps, MOSFETs and other gubbins.
The cooling kit is nicely executed, too, and there are plenty overclocking features for both novices and experts.
The harsh truth is that the MSI GD65 didn't blow our socks off. At default settings, it doesn't move the game on from boards sporting Intel's 6 Series chipsets.
And while it does send some socks sailing when it comes to overclocking, Asus' Sabertooth Z77 puts on an ever better show.
MSI's first Z77 effort doesn't do a lot wrong, but it's not the best showcase of Intel's brand new chipset.