MSI Z68A-GD80 Review

ccokeman - 2011-02-08 18:40:57 in Motherboards
Category: Motherboards
Reviewed by: ccokeman   
Reviewed on: May 10, 2011
Price: $239

Introduction:

Just a few short months ago the Intel Sandy Bridge platform was introduced to the world. This new platform showed great promise and stunning performance by comparison to the earlier Core i7 and Core i5 processors. Overclocking was rumoured to have died with the release but in reality a new bar was set with chips that seemed to go well past 4.5Ghz (at will) on air. Just after launch, we looked at a series of P67 motherboards including the MSI P67A-GD65 and were able to see the performance scale with more capable boards. One thing missing was the ability to use the Intel HD 3000 graphics on our K SKU processors with the P67 boards as this ability was limited to the H67 chipset based which in itself was limited by the inability to overclock above the limits of the Turbo Boost ratios. Now we have the best of both worlds with the release of Z68 chipset motherboards such as the MSI Z68A-GD80 that I am looking at today. Add in dynamic graphics switching and Intel Smart Response technology and the latest chipset looks pretty interesting.

What you get with the MSI Z68A-GD80 is a full featured motherboard with all of the MSI engineering and Military Class II build-up that includes DrMOS, Hi-C capacitors and Dynamic switching Super Ferrite Chokes, OC Genie one touch overclocking, Voltage Check points and more. Let's take a look and see if this latest offering from MSI is a worthy successor to the P/H67 series and whether this is the chipset we should have seen to begin with.

Closer Look:

The packaging for this offering from MSI is full of information on all sides but the largest single item of note on the front panel of the box is the use of its Military Class II component selection that includes Super Ferrite chokes, Hi-C caps with Tantalum cores and the use of solid capacitors. After this is, the one second OC Genie is featured prominently (as it should be) since it is a feature with a proven track record then there's USB 3.0 and SATA 6. Beside the Z68A-GD80 name is verification that this board uses B3 Revision silicon so there will not be an issue with the SATA 3Gb/s ports. Across the top is a list of supported technologies that include SLI, CrossfireX, Intel Second Generation Core processors and Windows 7. The back panel has a synopsis of many of the listed Military Class components as well as other features including Control Center Instant OC, Super Charger, Winki 3 and THX True studio sound. The front cover flips up to show a picture of the Z68A-GD80 with individual features pointed out on the PCB as well as discussion on the Extreme Power Design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opening the package shows the bundled accessories stacked on top of a cardboard divider that is pretty much standard packaging for a motherboard these days. Underneath this divider is where the motherboard sits in an anti static bag.

 

 

The bundled accessories for the Z68A-GD80 includes everything you need to get the board installed and operational. Of course you need to supply the CPU, memory and associated peripherals. What MSI supplies is the documentation including the manual, a guide for the MSI specific applications, a quick start guide, driver and application disk and the hardware part of the bundle. Included are the rear I/O panel, USB 3.0 expansion bracket, SATA 6Gb/s cables with locking ends, a pair of 4 pin the SATA power adapters, an SLI bridge, M-Connectors and the V check cables to extend the V check points out further from the PCB.

 

 

The M-Connectors are used as an intermediate connection point that can be used to put all the front panel connections onto one block while they can be clearly seen and reached. This eliminates trying to fit the connections to the motherboard individually once it is in the chassis. Nothing like trying to hook up the HDD light connection to the bottom right corner of a board in a tight chassis. The V-check cables extend out the V-Check ports so they can more easily be accessed.

 

 

MSI has put enough information out on the box so an informed buying decision can be made. The key is will the hardware back up the claims?

Closer Look:

The GD-80 series boards from MSI are at the top end of the product stack and come fully loaded with all the good parts and technologies. The Z68A-GD80 is a full ATX motherboard that is based off of and carries all of the Z68 chipset capabilities such as SSD caching and Quick sync, video outputs and overclocking on a top end board instead of the lower end. This is more of a combination of H67 and P67 feature sets so you get the best of both worlds. MSI's Military Class II components are used throughout the board for increased reliability and stability. The board uses a blue, black and silver theme as in the P67 line-up. The back side of the PCB has the base of the CPU retention mechanism made by LOTES. The heat sink package is held on by screws instead of push pins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at the I/O ports, the difference between a Z68 and P67 motherboard are obvious with the inclusion of the SL-DVI and HDMI outputs. The Single Link DVI port means a 30 inch monitor cannot be used without being stuck at a resolution of 1280 x 800. To reach the supported 1920 x 1080, you have to use a monitor with a maximum resolution of 1920. This is not a board problem but the build-out on the Intel HD 3000 graphics. From left to right are a PS/2 port for use with a mouse or keyboard, an Optical S/PDIF output, Clear CMOS button, a single IEEE 1394 port, 4x USB 2.0 ports, 1 eSATA port, 2 NEC controlled USB 3.0 Supercharger ready ports, Dual Realtek controlled GB LAN ports and the Realtek HD eight channel audio. Expansion slots options are three 16x PCIe slots that support both NVIDIA SLI and AMD CrossfireX multi-GPU solutions, 2 PCIe 1x slots and two PCI slots. When all three 16x slots are populated, some onboard connectivity is lost due to the limitation on PCIe lanes to the chipset. When two 16x slots are populated, they run at 8x x 8x. The CMOS battery is located just above the top PCIe 16x slot.

 

 

The bottom edge of the Z68A-GD80 contains a wealth of connectivity as well as added functionality. Left to right are the front audio header, S/PDIF output, IEEE 1394 header, Power, Reset and OC Genie buttons, NEC controlled USB 3.0 header supporting two ports for a total of four on board, three USB 2.0 headers for a total of ten on board with the last header being for the front panel switch and LED connections. The OC Genie button allows the end user to overclock with just a push of a button and literally takes a second to do. Push the button and sit back. This button is lit when the feature is activated and power is supplied to the motherboard so there is no question as to whether it is enabled or disabled.

 

 

Starting up the right side of the Z68A-GD80 is the balance of the front panel connections with this header supporting a chassis speaker. The single SATA 6Gb/s port is Marvell 88SE9128 controlled while the balance of the SATA ports are controlled by the Z68 chipset. Two (white) SATA 6Gb/s ports and four SATA 3Gb/s ports that support RAID 0,1, 5,10. Just up from the SATA ports are a pair of fan headers out of the total of five on board. The dual BIOS chips are between and behind the single SATA 6Gb/s port. The 24pin ATX power connector, V-Check points and four DIMM slots that support DDR3 2133,1600,1333,1066 up to 32GB max but realistically with densities available today, 16GB is the current maximum using 4GB modules. Just to the right of the power connection are a pair of Super Ferrite chokes. The V-Check points allow a multimeter to be used to check and verify voltages to key components including VCCP, CPU VTT, CPU graphics, VCC DDR and PCH.

 

 

Along the top of the PCB there is not a lot to view other than one of the heat sinks for the VRM circuit and the 8 pin auxiliary power connection for the CPU. The one item that holds interest are the CPU phase LEDs that show how many phases are enabled at one time.

 

 

Power is supplied to the board through three different connection points, 24 pin ATX on the right hand side of the board, the 8 pin 12v power source at the top behind the I/O ports and a 6 pin PCIe connection just above the top 1x PCIe slot that supplies power to the installed graphics cards.

 

 

The heat sink package is fairly small on the Z68A-GD80 but is effective at removing the heat from the DrMOS components and chipset underneath when the CPU is under load. Around the socket are a pair of heat sinks that are interconnected by a heat pipe. The chipset heat sink is flat with large fins to dissipate the thermal load and is oriented to capture airflow from a front mounted case fan to help with cooling. The gray and blue color scheme compliments the board's design.

 

 

The LGA 1155 CPU socket uses a LOTES retention mechanism in black chrome. A much better looking solution than a steel colored latch. Around the CPU socket are the majority of Military Class II parts that MSI uses to give the end user a more stable and reliable platform for the long term. A twelve phase power circuit is used on the Z68A-GD80. Under the heat sinks are the DrMOS (Driver Mosfets) of the VRM circuit that prove to be able to handle 2x the current of traditional designs with up to 96% efficiency. Visible around the socket are the Dynamic Power Switching Super Ferrite chokes that offer a 30% increase in current capacity and 10% increase in efficiency as well as the Tantalum core flat capacitors that have 15x less current leakage. These low profile capacitors also end up creating a nice bit of room around the socket for large cooling solutions. Both my NH-U12P and water cooling kits fit without a problem.

 

 

This board seems to show plenty of promise as a successor to the P67 chipset offering everything in one package. But the board is not the only part of the package. Let's take a look at some of the included apps from MSI.

Closer Look:

MSI has included the latest edition of their Control Center software for use with the Z68A-GD80. What this application can do is allow you to overclock the system from within the operating system and instantly apply the settings rather than reboot and hope the settings worked (as in the past). In the Overclocking section there are a total of four different areas that have either information or the capability of manipulating the clock speeds, voltages or memory timings. The Mainboard section gives top line information about the motherboard with more detail found under the "More" button to the right of the window. The CPU monitor section again gives top line info about the installed CPU, in this case an Intel second generation Core i7 2600K. The CPU monitor tab to the right of the window opens up a new window that shows the current CPU clock speed, clock multiplier, temperature and maximum Turbo Boost ratio by cores. The "More" button shows information displayed that is similar to what you see displayed in CPU-Z. The OC Genie tab gives an illustrated tutorial on how to use the OC Genie button.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Along with the Control Center, MSI puts a few other applications into the package that allow the user to take advantage of all the board has to offer. Live update is used to update the BIOS and drivers on the motherboard and can be configured to do this automatically or allow you to check on your own schedule. Easy Viewer is an application used to view and manipulate images and screen video. The Teaming Genie is used to set up the teaming function of the two Realtek Gigabit Lan ports. The Video Genie is used for color enhancement of your desktop, videos and games while the Audio allows for speaker calibration and THX mode setting. Supercharger is an app for charging your portable devices quickly through a USB port.

 

 

 

 

LucidLogix Vitu Software is included to take advantage of the Z68 chipset's ability to use Dynamic switching between the Intel HD 3000 and an installed discrete GPU. The software comes with a preset list of supported games and applications although I found 3DMark Vantage to not switch between the IGP and discrete card while several games did show the jump in performance (indicating the sofware switched from IGP to the discrete graphics card).

 

 

To take advantage of Intel's Smart Response technology (SSD Caching) you will need to have the latest Rapid Storage technology driver, a small SSD and a mechanical drive. This ability allows the most frequently accessed programs to be cached on the SSD for a faster response. Setup requires that the primary drive and solid state drive are installed and the controller is set to RAID instead of AHCI or IDE. Then once the OS is installed to the mechanical drive and the drivers and INF are installed, install the latest RST (10.5.1026), reboot and open up the RST control panel, choose Accelerate and follow the directions. Once this is done you can enjoy the benefits of a combination said to be faster than a hybrid drive. A small SSD is recommended with the largest cache supported being 64GB. Currently a 32GB SSD will set you back from 80 to 100 dollars. This option shows promise but a few more dollars spent can get you the full abilities of an SSD.

 

MSI's Winki is a small application that allow for a quick boot into a small Linux distro. The Winki software is enabled in the BIOS and allows for pretty much anything you can do in the windows OS. Get on the internet, look at files or view and work with pictures.

 

Closer Look:

MSI has continued the use of its "Click BIOS" and provides a richer experience in the BIOS. It is called this because you navigate through the BIOS and chose the settings to change with the "Click" of a mouse button. Catchy Eh? The shell is different from what other manufacturers have done but MSI has gone a different route. When you first enter the BIOS, there are a total of five options to choose from, Green Power, Utility, OC, Game and Settings. Each section has a distinct set of options to tweak. Under the Green Power tab you can turn on or off the Active Phase Switching feature of this board as well as saving a few pennies by turning off the motherboard LEDs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under the Utility tab there are four separate items, Memory Test that allows the end user to run a test similar to memtest, use the Live update feature to update the BIOS or find new drivers for your hardware. The Boot Screen tab gives the ability to change the view of your boot screen and HDD backup to safely backup the contents of the disk drives.

 

 

The OC Section is where most of the overclocking is done. The adjustments that MSI put into this BIOS are quite granular. The BCLK adjustment is made in 10Khz increments. The voltages adjustments allow for tuning up to the limit rather than overshooting what the system needs. Under this section is where the CPU and memory configuration is accomplished. Setting the Turbo Boost ratio and DRAM timing are things that are found in this section.

 

 

 

 

The Games section is included and offers some low overhead games but is not something of great interest although you can kill some time with them. The Settings section is the other section of value within the Click BIOS. Under this tab are the System Status, Advanced, M-Flash, Security, Boot and Exit tabs. The system Status button brings you to what normally would be the main BIOS page showing the installed disk drives, system time and date as well as the installed hardware. The Security button provides a way to set user and admin passwords, configure the chassis detection features and a way to automatically update the BIOS. The Advanced section is where the integrated peripherals can be enabled and configured, USB options setup and the fan profiles and monitoring can be configured. Power management is also found here. M-Flash is used to update the BIOS with little worry as to whether the flash will take or that the board will be non-responsive. With the amount of times I flashed a BIOS on this board not once did I have an issue. The Boot section allows the MSI logo to display during the POST sequence. This can however be turned off. Inside the Boot section is where the disk boot sequence is setup. Save and Exit is just what the name implies. Here is where the default or optimized BIOS configuration can be set. Here is the way out of the BIOS if pushing the F10 key is not to your liking.

 

 

 

 

This implementation of the Click BIOS is easy to work through and is smooth in the process. The look on the other hand, is not one that has grown on me since I looked at the P67A-GD65 but that is a personal preference. It is going to be something that is either liked or disliked. With a high-end offering, I would like to see something more along the lines of the graphic used in the Control Center rather than a cartoonish look. Again personal preference that takes nothing from the functionality. This is a radical step away from the traditional BIOS with just enough keyboard action to keep a purist happy.


 

Specifications:

Socket
1155
CPU (Max Support)
Sandy Bridge
AM3 CPU Ready
N/A
FSB / Hyper Transport Bus
100MHz
Chipset
Intel Z68
DDR2 Memory
N/A
DDR3 Memory
DDR3 1066/1333/1600*/2133*(OC)
Memory Channel
Dual
DIMM Slots
4
Max Memory (GB)
32
PCI-Ex16
3
PCI-E Gen 2.0
Gen2 (1x16, 1x8)
PCE-Ex4
N/A
PCI-Ex1
2
PCI
2
IDE
N/A
SATAIII
3
SATAII
4
RAID
0/1/5/10
LAN
10/100/1000*1
TPM
1
USB 3.0 ports (Rear)
2
USB 2.0 ports (Rear)
4
Audio ports (Rear)
6+Coaxial/Optical SPDIF
Serial ports (Rear)
N/A
Parallel ports (Rear)
N/A
1394 ports (Rear)
1
eSATA
1
Display Port
N/A
VGA
N/A
HDMI
1
DVI
1x SL-DVI
VGA Share Memory (MB)
64
DirectX
NA
Form Factor
ATX
DrMOS
Y
APS
Y
Sideport Memory
N/A
SLI
Y
3-way SLI
N
Hybrid SLI
Y
CrossFire
Y
Hybrid CrossFire
Y
D-LED2
N/A
Green Power Genie
Y

 

Features:

 

 

All information courtesy of MSI @ http://us.msi.com/index.php?func=prodpage1&maincat_no=1

Testing:

Testing the Z68 chipset based motherboard will include a run through the OCC test suite of benchmarks that include both synthetic benchmarks and real world applications to see how this board performs in relation to the P67 based comparison board. The gaming tests will also include a couple of synthetic benchmarks and actual game play to see if similarly prepared setups offer any performance advantages. The test system received a fully updated fresh install of Windows 7 Professional 64bit edition and used the latest drivers for each board and the latest AMD Catayst drivers for the HD 5870.

Testing Setup: Intel Core i5/i7 Socket 1155


 

Comparison Boards:

 

 

Overclocking:

Overclocked Settings:

Overclocking the MSI Z68A GD80 is in reality the same as overclocking the MSI P67A GD65. The same tools are used and in the end I came up with a slightly better overclock than I did on the P67A GD65 (by about 80MHz). To get to this level I worked exclusively in the Click BIOS and made adjustments to the CPU core voltage, memory voltage and for the most part, left the balance of the voltages on auto. When I did this though, I found that at the maximum clock speed the CPU would start throttling. By adjusting the "Long Duration power limit" from 95 to 110 I was able to eliminate the throttling. This gave me a good 4.96GHz clock speed that proves stable when the CPU is kept cool enough. Playing around in the BIOS is not the only way to overclock an MSI motherboard. MSI's Control Center application can be used from within the Windows environment and adjustments that can be applied without rebooting. Or if a hands off approach is required, the OC Genie again proves to be reliable for a nice overclock. In this case, a bump up to just about 4.2GHz with nothing more than the push of a button. Each time I have tried this application the results have been positive. Each time proving to be not only stable but Prime 95 stable. One button, One second, One great result.

 

 

Maximum Clock Speed:

Each CPU has been tested for stability at the clock speeds listed when in an overclocked state. These clock speeds will be used to run the test suite and will provide the performance difference increase over the stock settings in the overclocked scoring.

 

 

Benchmarks:

  1. Apophysis
  2. Bibble 5
  3. WinRAR
  4. Geekbench
  5. Office 2007
  6. POV Ray 3.7
  7. PCMark Vantage Professional
  8. Sandra XII
  9. ScienceMark 2.02
  10. Cinebench 10
  11. Cinebench 11.5
  12. HD Tune 4.60
  1. Aliens vs. Predator
  2. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2
  3. Batman Arkham Asylum
  4. 3DMark Vantage

Testing:

The first part of our testing will be the system specific benchmarks.

 

Let's get started with Apophysis. This program is used primarily to render and generate fractal flame images. We will run this benchmark with the following settings:

 

 

The measurement used is time to render, in minutes, to complete.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

Lower is Better

 

WinRAR is a tool to archive and compress large files to a manageable size. We will use 100MB and 500MB files to test the time needed to compress these files. Time will be measured in seconds.

 

ZIP:

   

   

Lower is Better

 

 

RAR:

   

   

Lower is Better

 

Geekbench:

Geekbench 2.1 is a benchmark that tests CPU and memory performance in an easy to use tool. The measure used for comparison is the total suite average score.

   

Higher is Better

 

Bibble 5:

This test consists of converting 100 8.2MP RAW images to jpeg format. The file size is 837MB. The measure used for comparison is time to convert the file in seconds.

   

Lower is Better

 

In Apophysis, the time to complete the fractal flame file rendering is almost identical to the P67 based comparison boards. The WinRar stock testing shows this same result. In fact, the stock testing across the board shows how close the boards are at stock speeds. When overclocked, the Z68A-GD80 is tied for or the highest performing board in four out of seven tests.

Testing:

Office 2007 Excel Big Number Crunch: This test takes a 6.2MB Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and performs about 28,000 sets of calculations that represent many of the most commonly used calculations in Excel. The measure of this test is how long it takes to refresh the sheet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

Lower Is Better

 

POV Ray 3.7: This program features a built in benchmark that renders an image using Ray Tracing. The latest versions offer support for SMP (Symmetric MultiProcessing) enabling the workload to be spread across the cores for quicker completion.

   

Higher Is Better

 

The Office 2007 testing shows the results at stock to be similar with a small differential between the boards. When overclocked, the Z68A-GD80 delivers the lowest completion time for the test. The POV Ray stock results show that the motherboards offer very little in the way of a difference in scoring. When the 2600K is ramped up, the performance falls in line with what one would expect from the increased clock speeds.

Testing:

SiSoft Sandra is a diagnostic utility and synthetic benchmarking program. Sandra allows you to view your hardware at a higher level to be more helpful. For this benchmark, I will be running a broad spectrum of tests to gauge the performance of key functions of the CPUs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Processor Arithmetic

   

   

Multi-Core Efficiency

   

   

 

Memory Bandwidth

   

   

 

Memory Latency

   

 

Cache and Memory

   

 

 

Power Management Efficiency

   

 

The results in this benchmark are an indicator of performance but the differences most likely will not be "felt" during day-to-day operation. The one surprise was that the power efficiency took a nose dive when overclocked, much the same as the P67A-GD65.

Testing:

ScienceMark tests real world performance instead of using synthetic benchmarks. For this test, we ran the benchmark suite and will use the overall score for comparison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

   

Higher is Better!

 

 

 

CineBench is useful for testing your system, CPU, and OpenGL capabilities using the software program CINEMA 4D. We will be using the default tests for this benchmark.

 

   

 

   

Higher is Better

Cinebench 11.5

 

   

Higher is Better

 

HD Tune measures disk performance to make comparisons between drives or disk controllers.

 

   

 

   

Higher is Better

 

   

 

   

Lower is Better

 

In Sciencemark, the scoring does not vary. All of the boards fell into a small performance envelope. The Cinebench mirrors this at stock speeds. In both of these tests the overclocked results are as varied as the maximum clock speeds. In HDTune, the Burst speeds dropped when overclocked but the mean average remained about the same.

Aliens vs. Predator, developed by Rebellion Developments, is a science fiction first-person shooter and is a remake of its 1999 game. The game is based off the two popular sci fi franchises. In this game, you have the option of playing through the single player campaigns as one of three species, the Alien, the Predator, and the Human Colonial Marine. The Game uses Rebellion's Asura game engine that supports Dynamic Lighting, Shader Model 3.0, Soft Particle systems, and Physics. To test this game I will be using the Aliens vs. Predator benchmark tool with the settings listed below. All DirectX 11 features are enabled.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

The parity in scoring across the comparison boards and the Z68A-GD80 shows that with the same hardware you will get comparable performance. When testing games at moderate settings, the performance limitation is the video card. The differential in performance maxes out at 1 FPS in this game.

Testing:

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is an iteration of the venerable first person shooter series, Call of Duty. Despite its long, successful pedigree, the game is not without substantial criticism and controversy, especially on the PC. Aside from the extremely short campaign and lack of innovation, the PC version's reception was also marred by its lack of support for user-run dedicated servers, which means no user-created maps, no mods, and no customized game modes. You're also limited to 18-player matches instead of the 64-player matches that were possible in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Despite all this, the game has been well received and the in-house IW 4.0 engine renders the maps in gorgeous detail, making it a perfect candidate for OCC benchmarking. You start off the single player missions playing as Private Allen and jump right into a serious firefight. This is the point where testing will begin. Testing will be done using actual game play with FPS measured by Fraps.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

At the lowest resolution, the Z68A-GD80 delivers the highest FPS count. As the resolution increases, that lead evaporates with little or no gain as the resolution increases.

Testing:

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a new game that brings together two bitter rivals, the Joker and Batman. The Joker has taken over Arkham Asylum, Gotham's home for the criminally insane. Your task is to rein the Joker back in and restore order. This game makes use of PhysX technology to create a rich environment for you to become the Dark Knight.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

In all three resolutions the Z68A-GD80 delivers FPS numbers that compare well with the rest of the field but still falls to the lower end of the grouping in several resolutions.

Testing:

Featuring all-new game tests, this benchmark is for use with Vista-based systems. "There are two all-new CPU tests that have been designed around a new 'Physics and Artificial Intelligence-related computation.' CPU test two offers support for physics related hardware." There are four preset levels that correspond to specific resolutions. "Entry" is 1024 x 768 progressing to "Extreme" at 1920 x 1200. Of course, each preset can be modified to arrange any number of user designed testing. For our testing, I will use the four presets at all default settings.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

Throughout this benchmark the Z28A-GD80 delivers performance numbers at the upper end of the comparison field.

Testing:

The Z68A-GD80 is equipped with video outputs to make use of the capabilities of the Z68 chipset. If a discrete video card is not installed, the Intel HD 3000 graphics are capable enough for most instances where gaming is not the sole use of the system. Sure the IGP can run games at lower settings and resolutions well enough but when you want more, the discrete card is a better option. To get the best of both worlds (lower power consumption during non-3D intensive tasks such as video trans coding using Intel Quick Sync technology) and gaming performance that the HD 3000 graphics just cannot deliver, install a separate graphics card. First off, the software is vendor agnostic so that any vendor's card can be used (NVIDIA or AMD) so you really are not locked into one brand. MSI and LucidLogix have delivered a solution in their Virtu software that allows a discrete video card to be installed in the system and used when 3D performance is needed. All through the on-board graphics port. As interesting as this seemed, one has to wonder if it really will work as advertised. And if so, what is the performance penalty going to be? To test this out, I used the HD 5870 as the discrete card and ran a couple of tests to verify the performance or lack of it. I used Futuremark 3DVantage using the Performance setting and Batman Arkham Asylum with my standard game settings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Batman Arkham Asylum:


3DMark Vantage:

 

The LucidLogix software works well as long as the game is supported. I was surprised to see that 3DMark Vantage, while supported, did not show an increase over what the IGP was capable of. In Batman Arkham asylum the software switched to the discrete HD 5870 when the game was launched and delivered the expected gaming performance without having to get behind the system and swap cables from one output to the other (which is a plus). There is however, a performance hit when gaming this way. At 1280 x 1024 the average FPS when Virtu is disabled and the monitor is connected directly to the video card, I averaged 190FPS. With the software enabled and the monitor connected to the Z68A-GD80 SL DVI port, I averaged 181 FPS or a 9 FPS drop. On a percentage basis this is just under a 5% hit. Not bad for convenience. Even though it works, there seems to be some issues with compatibility. Further testing showed that AvP and COD MW2 did benefit from the use of the software when connected to the motherboard.

 

SSD Caching:

Another benefit of the Z68 chipset is SSD Caching, Or the ability to take a small SSD and large mechanical HDD to create what in essence a system that uses the SDD to store frequently used data for faster access and increased drive performance. According to the MSI and Intel literature, this can be up to four times faster than a traditional drive and two times faster that a hybrid drive. By using Intel's 10.5 Rapid Storage Technology software, the solid state drive is setup as the cache drive and the HDD is setup as an accelerated drive. To test this ability I will run PCMark Vantages Hard Drive tests a total of five times and take the average result. For the Smart Response setup I will run the test a total of six times with the first test thrown out.

 

When you look at the testing results the technology works when a program is frequently accessed. The first run score was similar to the mechanical drive score and from that point on the results were in a small envelope where the performance would get no better.

Conclusion:

So where do I start with the Z68A-GD80? If you start with the performance and overclocking, its P67 Deja Vu all over again. To put that in context, I need to say that it is a good thing. Even a mediocre chip can pull off some stellar numbers when thrown into a well built board. The Z68A-GD80 fits that description to a "T". To that end, the maximum clock speed I was able to pull out of this board with stability was 4966MHz or pretty much equal to the highest clock speed my poor 2600K will run Prime 95 at. I did find I needed a tad more voltage to get it stable than some of the other boards I have used but it's really a moot point at close to 1.5 volts. If manual tweaking is something that is above your means or capabilities, MSI has equipped the Z68A-GD80 with its One Touch OC Genie. I am still amazed at how simple it is to get a nice stable overclock with just the push of a button. That's it. Push the button and watch the clock speed it delivers. In this case, 4.2Ghz was the result. That's 500MHz more than you get with Turbo Boost enabled and all for a minimum time commitment. But wait there's more...MSI's Control Center utility will allow for both overclocking and power saving features from within the Windows environment with a real time application of the adjustments. This can be good or bad depending on how aggressive you are with the adjustments. Making all of this performance possible is the Military Class II components including DrMos, Dynamic Switching Super Ferrite Chokes, Hi-C caps with Tantulum cores and Active phase switching . DrMos allows for higher current flow (2x or 40A) and increased efficiency of up to 96%. The Tantulam core capacitors offer 15% less current leakage while the Dynamic Switching Super Ferrite Chokes offer increases in current capacity and a 10% increase in efficiency.

While performance is good, it's not the determining factor in many builds. Reading the forums people are looking for value and features. Features sell. Of course with the Z68A-GD80 there are the Military Class II components but there's more to the board than that. The list includes USB 3.0 connectivity front and rear, Intel Z68 Chipset to take advantage of Intel Quick Sync technology, LucidLogixs Virtu software that allows for a single monitor connection to the system when a discrete video card is used to get the best of both worlds (low power consumption in 2D mode and the power of the discrete GPU in the 3D environment) when you are ready to game. I found that this option worked fine in most of the games I tried but 3DMark Vantage still did not show any improvement while Batman AA showed the performance jump it should have when the software was enabled. Support for both CrossfireX and NVIDIA SLI GPU technologies is included and up to two cards are supported in Virtu. What has to be one of the best additions to a board are the V Check points. These are so far the best implementation of this option allowing the user to leave the multimeter probes in place during a bench session without modifying anything. And last but not least, is the UEFI Click BIOS. For my tastes it does not fit in the grand scheme of the Z68A-GD80. The look just does not fit. However that's where the bad stops and the good begins. Once you work your way through the BIOS a few times, I found it easy to navigate and easy to use with both a mouse and keyboard. The "save overclocking profile" option in the Click BIOS worked great and allowed for an immediate boot up to 4.96GHz from the stock settings. The SSD caching feature of the Z68 chipset showed some promise. I was able to see increased performance in the PCMark Vantage testing as well as the start up and shut down testing. However, to see these benefits you need to use a drive that is at least twice as fast as the mechanical drive you are using. The maximum size cache that can be used is 64GB so a small SSD is a good choice to increase performance without going off the deep end on costs. Z68 is a mainstream chip set you know.

When it's all said and done, MSI has put together a good functional package with the Z68A-GD80 that offers up real performance enhancements along with some innovative features to put this board a couple notches above the P67 based boards in its lineup.

 

Pros:

 

Cons: