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MSI Z77A-GD80 with Thunderbolt Motherboard Review

Author: Ken Addison
Subject: Motherboards
Manufacturer: MSI

Conclusion

When I’m not reviewing the occasional device, my main position at PC Perspective is in Video Production. That being said, video work is probably one of the biggest current markets for Thunderbolt technology. Between Thunderbolt video capture devices, to high speed storage arrays and SSDs, Thunderbolt may very well be an answer to the bandwidth problems that video professionals currently face. However, as is the case with new technologies, these devices come at a cost. The Pegasus R4 RAID array we used for Thunderbolt performance testing earlier in this review runs about $1000 for the 4 X 1 TB drive option. Add in the cost of the 4 Corsair SSDS we have, and you are well past $1500 for the performance we saw.

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That being said, as with any new technologies, the price and availability should decrease as adoption rates increase. This is where boards like the Z77A-GD80 comes into play. With MSI and other vendors being on the cutting edge, and putting Thunderbolt on their fully featured boards such as the GD80. While having Thunderbolt on the high end SKUs is great itself, and several other motherboard vendors have done this as well, MSI is taking the Thunderbolt approach a step further.

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While I was taking a look at this motherboard, MSI announced the Z77A-G45 Thunderbolt motherboard. As you may have guessed from the G45 name, this will be a lower end SKU in the MSI product lineup but this will be the most inexpensive Thunderbolt-enabled motherboard. While we don’t have final pricing, we expect this board to be well under $200, and most likely in the $150 range. Even with this price jump, MSI has promised the same Thunderbolt performance. We will certainly keep you updated on any news with this board, and hopefully take a look at it when it debuts.

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Beyond Thunderbolt, which of course is the main attraction to the Z77A-GD80, this is an extremely solid motherboard with the Z77 chipset. From things like 3 PCI-e x16 slots, ample USB 3.0 ports and display outputs, as well as MSI’s surprisingly impressive software suite, the GD80 is nothing shy of a fully featured motherboard.

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In a crowded Z77 chipset motherboard, the GD80 is a great all around option. Beyond being a rock solid motherboard, the GD80 was the first Intel certified Thunderbolt motherboard. Even though it is one of the first Thunderbolt boards, MSI seems to have hit the ball out of the park on their first implementation. If you are interested in Thunderbolt, this very well could be the board to get.

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October 30, 2012 | 02:15 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Thunderbolt is of no use if you have two other displays. That is not quite par with the way ASUS, Gigabyte and others have implemented it.

MSI could have justified this with some other useful feature like 2x GbE RJ45 ports to offset the loss of the use of Thunderbolt as storage and network interface - since a lot of people could use 2 gigabits per second to their NAS or network, especially in small offices working on media-intensive tasks. As it is there's no reason to prefer this over the ASUS or Gigabyte dual-Thunderbolt alternatives now on the market.

Given that Thunderbolt seems intended on this board only as a display technology, one would wonder about their implementation in other ways.

ASUS shows USB3 speeds using their proprietary technology that exceed out-of-the-box Thunderbolt with low-end enclosures. Given that, it's the higher end enclosures and more serious users that probably need the 10Gb interface, and those will want two ports.

MSI board lifespan has historically not been up to ASUS, Gigabyte, intel or Apple quality. Cheaping out and buying MSI doesn't pay in my experience. It would be worth it only if MSI had some features like dual-gigabit LAN at a substantially lower price than the others, and they don't. Probably the only way MSI can appeal is to get a 10GbE interface on the board, if they insist on having only one RJ45 port. Thus triggering the Thunderbolt vs. 10GbE war that we all want - the way Firewire brought 1GbE prices way way down and then disappeared, Thunderbolt can do the same for 10GbE prices. We all ought to encourage that, and not buy substandard stuff like this.

October 31, 2012 | 01:06 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Why do you think it is only a display technology?  It runs just as fast in storage and data connectivity as the ASUS Premium board does...?

October 30, 2012 | 02:19 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

3xPCIex16 slots are nice and offset the video deficiency to some degree (each card comes with usually two more ports, so three monitors leaves the Thunderbolt free). However someone who spends that much on video is probably not going to buy from MSI unless they really need three x16 slots. PCIe SSDs, a major growing use of PCIe slots, may use x16 eventually but most available now top out at x4, a few at x8.
So the more typical two-card six-display setup of very high end gaming and room displays doesn't need that third card which doesn't need x16.

The board electronics for another GbE RJ45 or a 10GbE RJ45 would have been a better investment than that third slot, for almost all users. After all what's the use of a 10Gb interface if you talk to your net at 1 gigabit maximum? It ends up being only for those who shlep the physical drives around.

October 31, 2012 | 01:07 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

I think most high end Z77 boards have three PCIe slots though.

October 30, 2012 | 07:54 PM - Posted by Angry

Picky much?

Board looks pretty solid.
And minding the above post, ive got msi boards that have been well abused that are still chugging along. One of which Is an am2+ board has been on for almost 3yrs straight (Or more)...minus the power going out or swapping parts.

November 17, 2012 | 10:06 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

"Why do you think it is only a display technology? "

Given there's only one port, no chaining, it makes a lot more sense to use HDMI+VGA and leave that one Thunderbolt open for those $500+ storage devices where it actually beats the optimized USB3 drivers ASUS and others now have...

I will probably never buy another MSI board, to even consider it would require something like a 10 gigabit Ethernet port (are you listening, MSI?) or (something worth $400) two 10 gig, two 1 gig, and two Thunderbolt ports. Plus an ARM core making it useful as a router when it's "off". Likely we'd get the ARM core from AMD and 10 gigabit chipset from Intel (why not? Thunderbolt chips do 10 gig) and wait until say 2016 for something with both.

If MSI wants to ship that in 2015, though, I will look. ;-)

November 17, 2012 | 10:10 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

If PCPer wants to do a real service, it will clearly mark all dual-gigabit LAN board reviews as such in the title. And dual-Thunderbolt board reviews too.

Had I known this had only one of each, I would not even have looked at it. 10 gigabit devices are expensive and without fast chaining or LAN teaming (getting at the data at 2 gigabits from elsewhere) it makes little sense to attach them to one desktop except in specialized video and audio editing tasks and a few weird things involving huge local data.

Would rather see smaller boards without so many PCI slots that are useful as HTPC+NAS+10gigrouter.

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