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MSI Z77A-GD80 with Thunderbolt Motherboard Review

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Subject: Motherboards
Manufacturer: MSI

Overview

Today we are taking a look at MSI’s flagship Z77 motherboard, the Z77A-GD80. Beyond being the GD80 SKU, which for several generations now has been given MSI’s premiere options, this GD80 in particular is an innovative board. This is due to the Z77A-GD80 being the first Windows motherboard that was certified for Intel’s Thunderbolt technology.

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As many of you may know, Thunderbolt has 10 Gbps of bandwidth, as well as integrates Mini DisplayPort for video. With all of this bandwidth, Thunderbolt is an exciting standard, which we will focus on in depth later in this review.

Continue reading our review of the MSI Z77A-GD80 Thunderbolt Motherboard!

Features Overview

  • CPU
    • Supports 3rd Gen Intel® Core™ i7 / Core™ i5 / Core™ i3 / Pentium® / Celeron® processors for LGA 1155 socket
  • Chipset
    • Intel® Z77 Chipset
  • Main Memory
    • Support four DDR3 DIMMs 1066/1333/1600/1866*/2000*/2133*/2200*/2400*/2600*/2667*/2800*(OC) DRAM (32GB Max)
    • Supports Dual-Channel mode
    • To support DDR3 2200*/2400*/2600*/2667*/2800*(OC) ,you must install an Intel 22nm CPU
  • Slots
    • 3 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slots
    • 4 x PCIe 2.0 x1 slots
  • On-Board SATA
    • SATAIII controller integrated in Intel® Z77 chipset
      • Up to 6Gb/s transfer speed.
      • Supports two SATA ports (SATA1~2) by Z77
    • SATAIII controller integrated in ASMedia® ASM 1061 chipset
      • Up to 6Gb/s transfer speed.
      • Supports two SATA ports (SATA7~8) by ASM 1061
      • (If you set external SATA 6Gb/s ports to AHCI mode, we highly recommend that you install Windows 7.)
    • SATAII controller integrated in Intel® Z77 chipset
      • Up to 3Gb/s transfer speed.
      • Supports four SATA ports (SATA3~6)
  • RAID
    • SATA1~6 ports support Intel Rapid Storage Technology enterprise (AHCI / RAID 0/1/5/10) by Intel Z77 
  • USB 3.0
    • 2 USB 3.0 rear I/O ports by Intel® Z77
    • 1 USB 3.0 onboard connector by Intel® Z77
  • Audio
    • Chipset integrated by Realtek® ALC898
    • Flexible 8-channel audio with jack sensing
    • Compliant with Azalia 1.0 Spec
  • LAN
    • Supports one PCI Express  LAN 10/100/1000 Fast Ethernet by Intel® 82579
  • Multi-GPU
    • Supports ATI® CrossFire™ Technology
    • Supports NVIDIA® SLI™ Technology
    • Supports Lucid® Virtu Universal MVP
  • Internal I/O Connectors
    • 3 x USB 2.0 connectors
    • 1 x USB 3.0 connector
    • 1 x IEEE 1394 connector
    • 1 x Multi BIOS Switch
    • 1 x TPM Module connector
    • 1 x Front Panel connector
    • 1 x Front Panel Audio connector
    • 1 x Chassis Intrusion connector
    • 1 x Voice Genie connector (optional)
    • 1 x MultiConnect Panel connector (optional)
    • 1 x V-Check Points Set
    • 1 x Power button
    • 1 x OC Genie button
    • 1 x Reset button
    • 1 x Clear CMOS jumper
    • CPU x 1 / System x 4 FAN connectors
  • Back Panel I/O Ports
    • 1 x PS/2 keyboard/mouse port
    • 1 x Clear CMOS button
    • 1 x Coaxial S/PDIF-out port
    • 1 x Optical S/PDIF-out  port
    • 4 x USB 2.0  ports
    • 2 x USB 3.0  ports
    • 1 x RJ45 LAN jack
    • 1 x 6 in 1 audio jack
    • 1 x HDMI® port with max. resolution up to 1920x1200 @60Hz
    • 1 x Thunderbolt port (Mini DisplayPort) with max. resolution up to 2560x1600 @ 60Hz
    • 1 x VGA port  with max. resolution up to 2048x1536 @75Hz
    • MSI Reminds You...
    • This mainboard supports dual-display function by any two onboard graphics output ports (HDMI+VGA, VGA+Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt+HDMI)
  • BIOS
    • The mainboard BIOS provides "Plug & Play" BIOS which detects the peripheral devices and expansion cards of the board automatically.
    • The mainboard provides a Desktop Management Interface(DMI) function which records your mainboard specifications.

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As mentioned before, the Z77A-GD80 is a feature packed board, with an impressive amount of connectivity options. Like many Z77 boards we have seen, MSI has chosen to include 3 physical PCI-e x16 slots, as well as 4 PCI-e x1 slots.

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As you can see in this diagram, while the board has 3 x16 slots, the third slot can only be utilized with a Ivy Bridge processor installed. Since the Z77 chipset also supports Sandy Bridge processors, it becomes important to make sure that both your motherboard and processor can support the configuration you desire.

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The Z77A-GD80 also supports other connectivity options provided by the Z77 chipset. Some of these features include Intel SATA 6G and USB 3.0 controllers (including a front panel USB 3.0 connector), as well as native support for Intel HD graphics solutions. However, since we have covered these features in our initial Z77 review, we won’t be focusing on them here. Also included, is 8 channel audio with analog and digital connectors.

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MSI has chosen to include an ASMedia ASM 1061 for two extra SATA 6 Gbit/s ports, providing greater flexibility to the user.

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In the box, MSI has included 4 SATA cables, a USB 3.0 mounting bracket, along with the I/O shield and all the necessary documentation.

October 30, 2012 | 11:15 AM - 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 | 10:06 AM - 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 | 11:19 AM - 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 | 10:07 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

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

October 30, 2012 | 04:54 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 | 07:06 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 | 07:10 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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