With every tick or tock CPU launch Intel also customarily introduces a new chipset (or more aptly the ‘Platform Controller Hub’; PCH). This time, however, Intel did things a little differently (most likely as things were out of its hand). Intel launched a PCH before starting to ship a new processor. The 7 series PCH was married to the Ivy-bridge series of processors. However the groom (or the bride; take your pick) arrived earlier on the scene. Though it was possible to use boards based on the new PCH with older Sandy-bridge processor, one of its most touted features; support for PCI-e 3.0 devices was only possible if it were paired with the new processor.
With the recent launch of Intel’s 37xx series of processors which saw the Ivy-bridge architecture seeing the light of day, reviewing a 7 series board made more sense. Even if only in theory and not in practice as the extra bandwidth offered by PCI-e 3.0 is useful in extreme multi-GPU configurations (for gaming at-least). But here at WCCFTech we do things our way (our logo was once running doom on a calculator, so go figure). So readers, without further ramblings of mine, let’s see what MSI has done to make this z77 dish so peculiarly theirs. Oh and do not forget to read our review of the Intel 3770K first.
Motherboard: Quick Facts
|ProcessorSupport||All current LGA 1155 processors|
|Segment||Mid-range / High entry-level|
|Memory||DDR3 4 Slots/ 32GBSupports speeds of up to 2800MHz (with 22nm CPUs)|
|Features||Military Class III componentsOC Genie IIClickBIOS IITHX TruStudio PROSupport USB 3.0 & SATA 6Gb/sPCI-e 3.0 Supports (with supporting CPU)|
|Slots||1 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots @ x161 x PCIe 2.0 x16 slot @ x42 x PCIe 2.0 x1 slots @x13 x PCI slots|
|Over-clocking||Yes (Both Processor and Graphics Core)|
1 x PS/2 keyboard/ mouse port
6 x USB 2.0 ports
2 x USB 3.0 ports
1 x RJ45 (Gigabit Ethernet)
1 x HDMI (max res. 1920x1200 @60Hz)
1 x DVI-D (max. res 1920x1200 @60Hz)
1 x VGA (max. res 2048x1536 @75Hz)
Dual fidelity: HDMI+DVI, DVI+VGA or VGA+HDMI
The most touted features of the z77 (PCI-e 3.0; memory speeds) are actually features of the new CPU that are supported by the PCH. They are not PCH features per se. What are PCH features are the integrated USB 3.0 ports and support for Lucid MVP. The latter brings some benefits (in the form of ‘Hyperformance’) to discrete GPU gaming via Lucid’s middleware. Board manufacturers will have to pay extra to get this feature in their boards. As this MSI offering is more of a budget class board, it is missing MVP support. This is not a great loss as the benefits it brings, while somewhat tangible are not must haves. And even Z68 will qualify, if board manufacturers want to get MVP certification on their older offerings.
Packaging & Accessories
There is nothing new here. It looks exactly like the box that contained last year’s Z,P and H 6 series boards. Replace the PCH identification and the boxes will really look alike.
You get a disk, manuals, SATA cables, backplate with the board as well MSI’s equalent of Q-connectors. This to me is the most useful feature of the bundle. It makes connecting front panel cables a breeze as with a change in board, you do not have to fiddle with tiny connectors and wires. My only gripe is that this is not uniform amongst board manufacturers. If only all of them could come up with one standard so that these gadgets become universally useful (much like the upcoming European Cell-phone chargers and lap-top charger standards).
This ATX sized board features a black PCB with mostly blue and black components. What was once a novelty is now becoming mundane. There are times when I open a box wishing to see a green PCB boards considering how rare they have become!
As the new 22nm processors have a TDP of 77 Watts, the most Z77 boards will probably not have exotic power circuitry. This board seems to have a 4 phase power regulation for the processor. Also the cooling solutions are subtler. Two sets of heat sinks are all that are in place which again should do the job well enough. The socket itself is the same old LGA 1155 and will be happy accommodating old or the new processors.
As the heat sinks are of the low(ish) profile variety, the end-user is free to use as large (or as small) as heat sink as his (or her) heart desires.
The board features 4 DDR3 memory color coded for ease of installation and configuration of dual channel operation. The 24 pin power connector is in its usual places and on its right is the internal USB 3.0 connector powered by the PCH. There are oodles of fan connectors around the processor area; two at the front edge, one next to the top most memory slot and one next to the processor.
The board features 4 SATA 3Gbps ports and 2 SATA 6Gpbs ports all hanging off the PCH. This is the same configuration as was seen with the Z68 PCH.
The Z77 PCH lies under a low profile heatsink which should not interfere with long GPUs.
The board features one PCI-e 3.0 x16 (physical and electrical) and one PCI-e 2.0 x16 (x4 electrical slot). There are 3 PCI and 2 PCI-e 2.0 x1 slots as well. The PCI-e 3.0 slot is only operational at 3.0 bandwidth IF paired with the new 22nm processors (remember this is a CPU feature not a PCH feature)
The left edge of the board features the front panel connector area together with the USB 2.0 (4 ports) and front port audio connectors.
The rear IO area has multiple GPU outputs (HDMI; compliant with 1.4 provided you pair it to a Sandybridge or better processor, D-SUB, DVI); of these two can be used simultaneously. There are 4 USB 2.0 ports; 2 USB 3.0 ports, the customary audio, ethernet and combo PS/2 ports. There is one more fan connector at the rear of the board close to the audio connectors
The board features a very standard layout for a budget board; no onboard buttons or exotic features. But whatever is there is well laid out. The board as the box clearly shows uses high quality components (SFC and Solid CAP which “have passed MIL-STD-810G certification”).
The board follows a very standard layout. The USB 3.0 port, which are beginning to show up in greater numbers is usually located at the front edge. Is this going to be its permanent home, or is it going to be moved to the side, time will tell, for now the port is in reach of many bundled USB 3.0 boxes for casing. Plenty of fan controllers and a decent layout makes this board easy to work with.
EFI/ Bundled Software
MSI continues to refine and evolve its ClickBios EFI which is now in its second incarnation. The best bit about the EFI is the initial page; it displays all the essential CPU info as well as the all important CPU and board temperate. All other settings have their own icon (extra large) arranged across the edge of the screen. It seems that MSI wants to give Asus a run for their money when it comes to EFI ease of use. The EFI offers a full list of Over-clocking controls but it does limit what you can do with them. For example processor voltage can be adjusted along fixed increments rather than in a step-less fashion. This is essentially not a bad thing considering this is a budge offering. It is also possible to boot into a limited Linux environment to surf the net (Winki 3).
The bundled software also includes ClickBios II. This mimics the EFI right down to the dot so it is possible to make all the changes while in Windows.
The MSI Control center has been can also be used to monitor and over-clock the board. With the software version of ClickBios II, it is made somewhat redundant. However it does incorporate OC Genie function (one click Over-clock). This might be of some value to novices, but OC genie can also be activated via the EFI (as no physical OC button is onboard).
CPU-Z & Overclocking
As has already been floating around, Ivy-bridge brings with it its own set of over-clocking issues. The use of thermal goo, instead of flux-less solder as a means of heat transfer makes this a ‘hot’ processor. Though Intel has raised its Tjunc max to 105C. We were able to easily raise the processor clock to 4.5GHz while boosting CPU core voltage a notch.
CPU-Z is not reading the processor voltage correctly. It is ~1.28V.
The processor was hovering in high 80s while running a looped 3DMark Vantage physics test at this speed.
Testing motherboards is not an easy task. No matter what types of test are done the CPU’s performance does come into play. Testing IO is basically only testing the ability of the PCH. Thus what separates motherboards these days is their ability to provide functionality you need (read over clocking potential, RAID, multi GPU setup etc). But as the saying goes; when in Rome do as Romans do; we’ll put up some numbers to prove that we did spend time testing the board to dissect the ‘quantum’ difference between it and its peers!
|Motherboard||MSI Z77A-G43ASRock Z77 Extreme6Intel DZ77-GA-70K|
|Video||HIS 6950 2GB|
|Memory||G.Skill Sniper 2x4 GB (1600MHz; CL 9; 1.25V)|
|Hard Disk||Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 1TB (Both Systems)|
|Power||Thermaltake Tough-power XT 775 Watts|
|OS||Windows 7 (Service Pack 1)|
|Synthetic||Sandra 2011X264 Benchmark (HD V4)Cinebench3D Mark 11: Physics Test|
|Real World||7-ZipFar Cry 2Crysis: Warhead|
|IO Performance||SATA –HD TuneUSB –Crystal Mark 3|
|AS||ASRock Z77 Extreme6|
Sandra is a very competent stress testing and benchmarking suite.
The results are fairly close to one another to call this a tie!
X264 HD V3 & Cinebench R11.5
This benchmark measures the encoding performance of the processor. It offers a standardized benchmark as the clip as well as the encoder used is uniform.
at t� f� �� done the CPU’s performance does come into play. Testing IO is basically only testing the ability of the PCH. Thus what separates motherboards these days is their ability to provide functionality you need (read over clocking potential, RAID, multi GPU setup etc). But as the saying goes; when in Rome do as Romans do; we’ll put up some numbers to prove that we did spend time testing the board to dissect the ‘quantum’ difference between it and its peers!
3D Mark 11: Physics Test & Games
This is the latest incarnation of one of the oldest graphics benchmarking suites. The latest incarnation supports DirectX 11. It has a physics test that emulates physics on the processor.
Yawn. They are (nearly) all the same.
The base line for all tests is a Core i7-2600K processor running at its default speed (100%)
Far Cry 2
|Far Cry 2||1680x1050|
|Benchmark||Inbuilt ‘Ranch Small’ CPU|
|Rendering Path||DX 9 –Medium|
|Rendering Path||DX 9; Physics Set to Enthusiast|
The situation does not change when testing games.
Some might argue against using 7-zip’s compression and decompression benchmark as a ‘real world’ test. But if you try and think about it for a minute, the benchmark does show how fast the program will either compress or decompress, while negating the impact of disk transfers.
Wow… this close!
IO Tests: Storage
USB performance was compared between boards. Crystal Mark V3 was used in conjunction with a USB 3.0 compliant Kingston Data Traveler (Ultimate 16 GB). As all 3 USB 3.0 controllers used in the boards are integrated in the PCH we don’t expect to see major performance deltas (between boards).
Again, as they all are the same, they behave the same!
HD Tune was used to assess SATA performance.
Minor differences separate all of the board that have been tested so far.
Benchmarking boards reveal zilch difference. Whatever difference there is, is not significant. Thus as before with Sandybridge boards, buying a board is based more on what’s in the box, rather than how it performs. With greater on-die, on-chip integration by Intel (with rumors of moving the voltage regulator on the processor package by the time the next generation architecture refresh is released) the difference in performance will shrink even further. The ‘buy me’ factor will be determined by price and features.
Before you even start looking at the new 7 series boards, you need to figure out if you even need one. Those upgrading from a pre LGA-1155 platform should probably upgrade. Those who jumped the gun on LGA 775 should think twice (or thrice) before forking out cash, even if it is not that much.
Looking at this board from a price/ feature perspective, MSI has a decent product. For a average user (defined as one who would like a stable board, maybe tinker in some over-clocking) this is a great board. It comes with high quality components, and was stable during our testing. We did not experience one incidence of instability during our testing. It is missing features like Vitru MVP, and onboard glitz (buttons, LED display), but then at this price and point and consumer reach those best reserved for boards catering to a different segment altogether.
Do we like this board! YES! It is a great little board which does things like its supposed to without breaking a sweat!