MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3) Motherboard
By Gabriel Torres on May 16, 2011
So far, MSI has released only two motherboards based on the new Intel Z68 chipset, one for the mainstream market (Z68MA-ED55, microATX, USD 160), and one for the high-end market (Z68A-GD80, USD 240). Let’s take a look at the MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3).
The Intel Z68 chipset is basically a P67 chipset with two new features added. First is the Intel Smart Response Technology (SRT), which allows you to speed up disk performance by using an SSD unit as a cache unit for your conventional (i.e., mechanical) hard disk drive. This technology works by storing in the SSD the programs and data you access the most.
The second technology that was added is a video connection between the CPU and the chipset, called FDI (Flexible Display Interface). This connection was previously available on the H67 and similar chipsets, but not on the P67 chipset. Socket LGA1155 processors have an integrated video processor, but the P67 chipset won’t allow you to use it since it is targeted to users who will use a physical video card. With the Z68, the use of integrated video processor is possible if the motherboard manufacturer added video connectors on the motherboard. This way, Intel won’t be releasing an “H68” chipset.
The big reason for this change was that Intel licensed a software from Lucidlogix called Virtu, which allows the computer to dynamically switch video cards depending on what you are doing with your computer. In a typical scenario, this software will make the system use the CPU’s integrated video engine when you are not playing games, turning your add-on video card completely off, and then turning on your add-on video card and turning off the CPU integrated video when you run games. By keeping your video card completely turned off when you are not playing games, you can save a lot of energy. For this feature to be available on a given Z68 motherboard, the motherboard manufacturer must have licensed the Virtu software.
Both models currently offered by MSI support Virtu, which is great.
The MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3) comes with three PCI Express x16 slots, two PCI Express x1 slots, and two standard PCI slots.
The first two PCI Express x16 slots are connected directly to the CPU integrated PCI Express controller. Therefore, they work at x16 when only one video card is installed or at x8 when two video cards are installed. They support both SLI and CrossFireX modes. The third x16 slot is connected to the Z68 chipset and works at x4 speed.
Because of the limited number of PCI Express lanes available, when a video card is installed in the third PCI Express x16 slot, the SATA ports controlled by the Marvell 88SE9128 chip (the eSATA-600 port and the additional SATA-600 port, labeled SATA7), the two USB 3.0 ports available on the front panel header (JUSB4), the FireWire ports, and the two standard PCI slots are disabled. Ouch. This could be solved by adding a PCI Express switch chip, but this addition would increase the cost of the motherboard.
Also, because of the limited number of internal PCI Express lanes, you can’t use both PCI Express x1 slots at the same time.
If you install a dual-slot video card in the first PCI Express x16 slot, you will “kill” one of the PCI Express x1 slots, and if you install a dual-slot video card in the second PCI Express x16 slot, you will “kill” one of the standard PCI slots. The third PCI Express x16 slot officially supports only single-slot video cards, but you can install a dual-slot card if you have a case with eight expansion slots. However, the video card may block the buttons and connectors available at the edge of the motherboard, depending on the position and shape of its cooler.
It is important to understand that Intel chipsets no longer support standard PCI slots, and the PCI slots are provided by an ASMedia ASM1083 bridge chip.
There is a six-pin auxiliary power connector available to give extra current for the video cards. Unfortunately, the manufacturer doesn’t say exactly when this connector should be used.
Intel socket LGA1155 CPUs have an embedded memory controller, meaning that it is the processor – and not the chipset – that defines what memory technologies and the maximum amount of memory you can have. The motherboard, however, may have a limitation as to how much memory can be installed.
The integrated memory controller from socket LGA1155 processors supports only DDR3 memories up to 1,333 MHz under dual-channel architecture, but MSI says the Z68A-GD80 (B3) supports memory up to 2,133 MHz through overclocking.
The MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3) has four memory sockets and, since DDR3 memory modules can now be found in capacities up to 8 GB, you can have up to 32 GB with this motherboard if you use four 8 GB modules.
The first and third sockets are black, while the second and fourth are blue. In order to achieve the maximum performance, you should install two or four memory modules in order to enable dual-channel architecture. When only two modules are used, install them in the black sockets. Otherwise, your computer won’t turn on.
The Intel Z68 chipset is a single-chip solution and is also known as PCH (Platform Controller Hub). This chip supports two SATA-600 ports and four SATA-300 ports, supporting RAID (0, 1, 5 and 10). The SATA ports that are controlled by the chipset are located on the motherboard edge rotated 90°, so video cards won’t block them. However, a third SATA-600 port, controlled by a Marvell 88SE9128 chip, is installed facing up. This chip also controls an eSATA-600 port.
There is no support for a floppy disk drive controller or an ATA-133 port.
This motherboard has 10 USB 2.0 ports, four soldered on the rear panel and six available through three headers located on the motherboard. It also has four USB 3.0 ports, two available on the motherboard rear panel, controlled by a NEC (Renesas) µPD720200 chip, and two available through a front panel connector, controlled by another NEC (Renesas) µPD720200 chip. (The motherboard comes with an I/O bracket for you to install two USB 3.0 ports in an expansion slot in your case.)
The Z68A-GD80 has two FireWire (IEEE1394) ports, one at the motherboard rear panel and one available at a header on the motherboard. These ports are controlled by a VIA VT6308 chip.
This motherboard supports 7.1+2 audio format, i.e., eight channels plus two independent channels for audio streaming. On this motherboard, the audio is generated by the chipset using a Realtek ALC892 codec. Finally, Realtek is disclosing the specifications of this chip, which include 97 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog outputs, 90 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog inputs, and up to 192 kHz sampling rate for both inputs and outputs. These specs are good for the mainstream user, but if you are looking into working professionally with audio editing, you should look for a motherboard that provides an SNR of at least 97 dB for the analog input.
The portrayed motherboard comes with independent analog audio outputs, meaning that you won’t need to “kill” the line in or mic in jacks when connecting an eight-channel analog speaker set and a digital SPDIF output. Digital audio is also available through the on-board HDMI connector, and you can either install a coaxial SPDIF jack or route digital audio to your video card to have digital audio in the HDMI connector using the available “JSP1” header.
This motherboard has two Gigabit Ethernet ports, controlled by two Realtek RTL8111E chips.
In Figure 5, you can see the motherboard rear panel, with shared PS/2 keyboard/mouse connector, optical SPDIF connector, clear CMOS button, FireWire port, four USB 2.0 ports, one eSATA-600 port, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, two USB 3.0 ports (blue), one DVI-D connector, one HDMI connector, and independent analog 7.1 audio outputs.
The MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3) has two BIOS chips. So, if the main BIOS fails because of an unsuccessful BIOS upgrade, you can still turn on your computer by switching the motherboard to the backup BIOS.
In Figure 7, you can see all the accessories that come with this motherboard.
The CPU voltage regulator circuit of the Z68A-GD80 has 10 phases for the CPU main voltage (Vcc a.k.a. Vcore), two for the CPU VTT voltage (integrated memory controller and L3 memory cache), and one for the CPU VAXG voltage (integrated video controller). Therefore, it uses a “10+2+1” configuration.
This motherboard uses military-class components. Electronic components are available in two series, civilian and military. Military components are more expensive but have tighter tolerance and can withstand a wider range of temperature. All electrolytic capacitors used in the main voltage regulator circuit are SMD (surface mount device), also known as highly-conductive polymerized or simply Hi-c, but the other voltage regulators (memory, chipset, etc.) use solid capacitors. All coils on this motherboard are solid ferrite-core models, also known as SFC, Super Ferrite Choke, which, according to MSI, can provide up to 20% improvement in efficiency.
Each main phase is controlled by a Renesas R2J20652 integrated circuit (click here for a detailed description and here for its datasheet), which combines the three required transistors (“high side,” “low side,” and “driver”) in a single chip. It also allows the switching clock to be at 1 MHz, which allows efficiency to be over 90%. (Usually, voltage regulator circuits switch at 250 kHz.)
There are two phases for the memory voltage, using ferrite coils, solid capacitors, and two Renesas R2J20652 chips, and two phases for the chipset voltage, using ferrite coils, solid capacitors, and low-RDS(on) transistors (i.e., high-efficiency transistors). This is important, because some motherboard manufacturers build high-end voltage regulators for the CPU but use lower-quality parts on the other voltage regulators.
If you want to learn more about the voltage regulator circuit, please read our tutorial on the subject.
The motherboard has 10 LEDs for you to monitor the phases of the main CPU voltage.
The MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3) offers some overclocking options, listed below (17.0 B17 BIOS):
For a better understanding of what these options do, please read our Understanding All Voltage Configurations from the Motherboard tutorial.
The Z68A-GD80 comes with a button called “OC Genie.” By pressing it, the motherboard will test and find the recommended overclocking settings for your system, allowing you to overclock your PC without having to go through the hassle of changing somewhat complicated settings manually.
For the enthusiast, the Z68A-GD80 offers voltage measuring points, where you can check the three CPU voltages (Vcc, VTT, and VAXG), the memory voltage, and the chipset voltage using a voltmeter.
The main specifications for the MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3) motherboard include:
* Researched at Newegg.com on the day we published this First Look article.
The MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3) has several nice features, such as two FireWire ports, four USB 3.0 ports, three PCI Express x16 slots, decent audio quality with optical SPDIF output, a very high-end voltage regulator circuit, and an impressive set of overclocking options, allowing you to increase the CPU base clock using 0.01 MHz (10 kHz) steps, which is unbelievable. In addition, the OC Genie button allows you to overclock your system without the need of manually changing any complicated settings. It supports Lucidlogix Virtu technology, allowing the computer to automatically turn off your add-on video cards when you are not playing games, thereby saving energy. Furthermore, you can benefit from Intel’s Smart Response Technology to greatly improve your system’s performance.
The main drawback with this motherboard is the reduced number of internal PCI Express lanes, causing it to disable the SATA ports controlled by the Marvell 88SE9128 chip (the eSATA-600 port and the additional SATA-600 port, labeled SATA7), the two USB 3.0 ports available on the front panel header (JUSB4), the FireWire ports, and the two standard PCI slots when a video card is installed in the third PCI Express x16 slot. Also, you can’t use both PCI Express x1 slots at the same time. These problems could be solved by adding a PCI Express switch chip, but this addition would increase the cost of the motherboard.
The MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3) has some advantages over the Gigabyte Z68X-UD5-B3: the support for the Virtu technology, a second Gigabit Ethernet port, four real USB 3.0 ports (the Gigabyte Z68X-UD5-B3 has only two real USB 3.0 ports; the eight USB 3.0 ports it has are achieved using hub chips), and price.