Thunderbolt comes to the Windows PC – ASUS P8Z77-V Premium and MSI Z77A-GD80 Review
MSI first showed a glimpse of Z77A-GD80 to the public at CES 2012, but it was not quite the finished product then (lacked the final heatsink design and Thunderbolt IC). Then at CeBIT, we saw the completed motherboard, which is in our hands today.
Apart from Thunderbolt support and a few more DrMOS units at the CPU area, the Z77A-GD80 (right) is uncannily similar to the Z77A-GD65 (left), the latter being a motherboard we rate highly because it had been one of the least troublesome Z77 motherboards that we've encountered (review for that coming soon).
Accessories and Documentation – MSI is keen to emphasize that their product is "Military Class", even including a faux certificate of compliance.
Unlike the ASUS board, the MSI Z77A-GD80 goes for a minimalist I/O back panel and does not employ any additional 3rd party host controller (less CPU interrupts, good for low latency setups and performance squeezing). The Z77 PCH drives six USB ports (only two USB 3.0) and there is a solidary Intel Gigabit LAN port for networking. The inclusion of a D-sub analog VGA among the three display connectors is a puzzling one, granted that hardly anyone uses it with HD monitors nowadays. Finally, like most motherboards out there, an unremarkable Realtek codec takes care of audio functions.
Here we have the Intel Cactus Ridge 2C Thunderbolt controller, which like the ASUS board taps on two PCIe 2.0 lanes (8Gb/s effective) from the Z77 PCH.
The Z77A-GD80 uses a regular three PCIe 3.0 x16 slot arrangement (electricically x8+x8 or x8+x4+x4) augmented by four other PCIe 2.0 x1 slots for other peripherals.
The right angled internal USB 3.0 connector here is a plus for cable management, and the eight SATA ports (four of them SATA 6Gb/s) should be enough for most users as well.
Over at the RAM slot area we get a set of voltage probe points (not on the ASUS board), Power/Reset buttons and another "OC Genie" button to activate auto overclocking.
A uP1618A 6+2 phase buck controller drives the space saving Renasas DrMOS units, which is supposed to have faster switching frequencies and higher efficiencies than regular designs.
We feel that MSI's cluttered UEFI bios layout could use a bit of reorganization, as the actual important options menu in the middle takes up less than half of the entire screen. Other than asthetics, overclocking our Ivy Bridge 3770K to 4.8GHz was achievable and we could use our G.Skill TridentX 2400MHz XMP 1.3 profiles without incident. Some of the Z77 motherboards that we have in our labs struggle to work even with these entry level settings so kudos to MSI for getting it right like ASUS.
MSI's Control Center Windows utility has a much leaner disk and memory footprint than ASUS's bloaty AI Suite, but most settings required an operating system reboot for changes to take effect, which is annoying.