Is MSI's Z68A-GD80 B3 The Ultimate Sandy Bridge Motherboard?
5/11/2011 by: Josh Smith
MSI launched their first foray into the Intel Z68 chipset in the form of the Z68A-GD80 B3 Military Class motherboard. While the name might not exactly roll off your tongue, the Z68A hopes to win your heart with a packed feature set and overall enthusiast-class goodness. If you were let down by the lack of integrated graphic support on the P67 Chipset series or the omission of overclocking capabilities on the H67 then the Z68 chipset is here to answer your prayers.
In an attempt to grab your attention the motherboard comes packaged in a white box covered with a prismatic-psychedelic hologram-style overlay, emblazoned with more technology logos than we care to count. The most prominent branding you will see is the Military Class II logo touting the same "military class" features found on the companies graphic offerings like the MSI N460GTX Hawk we reviewed earlier.
Unlike some motherboard vendors, MSI didn't went overboard with the size of retail packaging
Inside the box you find the usual assortment of cables and adapters. An SLI bridge, 90° latch SATA cables, rear PCI bracket USB 3.0 port, and Molex-to-SATA power cables are present as well as those wonderful little pin header blocks that make connecting front panel headers so much simpler. Along with the assorted cables there is also a software DVD as well as two instruction manuals, a quick start guide and a large fold out motherboard diagram listing the board's prominent features.
The black and blue coloring of the board seem to say enthusiast, as opposed the way many other boards SCREAM enthusiast with blinding colors and over the top logos and marketing gimmicks. The ATX motherboard features three PCIE x16 slots allowing the Z68A to support both NVIDIA's SLI as well as AMD CrossFire. Two PCIE x1 slots as well as two standard PCI slots are also present. The physical layout of the board follows standard design cues with features like 90° SATA 3Gb/s and SATA 6GB/s connectors along the board's leading edge. Memory needs are handled by four DDR3 DIMM slots. MSI carries their love of logos and branding to the board itself. In addition to the standard screen printing of connectors and the like commonly found on motherboards, MSI has also made use of any open space on the board for additional branding. Labels such as "Super Charger", "USBSafeguard"," Lossless Audio" are scattered across the boards surface, not to mention the now-standard heat sink branding most board-makers utilize these days.
MSI Z68A Board at Glance: Overall a very clean layout given the rich featureset
Enthusiast class boards such as the Z68A are always looking to improve the onboard feature set by adding features that cater to the overclocking enthusiast and this board is no different. In addition to the standard back panel connections MSI has also included a Clear CMOS button which, as you can imagine, allows you to clear the CMOS from the back panel without having to open your case and grab a flashlight, a great timesaver when your overclocking gets a little too ambitious.
Overclocking can be a rather time-consuming process. The possibility of damaging hardware also proves intimidating for many novices. MSI is attempting to streamline the overclocking process and has fitted the Z68A with an overclocking button…that's right a button. MSI boasts that the OC Genie (a button located next to the power button on the motherboard) provides 1 second overclocks. To activate the OC Genie you simply power down the system, depress the button on the motherboard and reboot. Upon reboot a warning screen alerts you that the OC Genie has been activated and suggests you refrain from changing any BIOS settings while the Genie is active. This could prove to be a great feature for users that are looking for some extra horsepower but lack the knowledge/time/desire to overclock the system manually.
For the bench testers out there MSI has included on board Power and Reset buttons, along with motherboard voltage checkpoints located near the ATX 24pin power connector. The voltage checkpoints allow users to monitor the voltages of CPU Core, CPU IO, CPU_GFX, DDR and PCH voltage. One downside to the Power and Reset buttons is that they are located just south of the bottom PCIE x16 slot, meaning that populating this slot will block access to these buttons effective rendering them useless. It would have been nice to see the buttons placed closer to the ATX 24 Pin connector (ala Intel DP67BG), a location that is less obstructed and easier to reach regardless of board installation orientation.
Rear panel on MSI's Z68A GD80 B3 board isn't short of connectivity options. Notice the BIOS reset switch
The back panel of the motherboard features four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports and, two 1000Mb/s LAN ports. Intel HD onboard/on die graphic output is handled by HDMI as well as DVI ports. MSI didn't skimp on the audio goodness either. MSI chose to move beyond standard onboard audio, the Z68A-GD80 sports THX TruStudio PRO onboard audio for high-fidelity sound reproduction.
For the uninitiated a motherboard's BIOS can be an intimidating place. While almost every other facet of computer software and hardware have advanced significantly over the years the BIOS tends to be the solitary stalwart refusing to update its appearance. Traditionally the BIOS has been a text-heavy interface with all the graphical appeal of a PC from the early 1980's. MSI has worked to change that with what they call their Graphical UEFI BIOS. As the name suggests the UEFI BIOS is GUI driven and can be navigated by either standard keyboard keys or your favorite mouse. BIOS-tinkering novices will appreciate the streamlined layout and options that are grouped by category such as Overclocking, Utilities and Settings.
In terms of installation the board posed no issues as all the necessary connectors were easily accessible. One small gripe however we had was that there is a large branding sticker placed over the CPU socket and it was (unknowingly) firmly attached to the CPU socket pin protector. Removing the sticker resulted in the pin protector popping off with a loud "Snap" and a few brief moments of panic while the socket was inspected for any potential pin damage. Thankfully there was none.
The feature set on the Z68A is a veritable laundry list of the must-haves for a board of this class, therefore we thought it made the most sense to list them in that fashion.
Overclocking...and the issues with the OC Genie
As we mentioned before, the Z68A-GD80 features the OC Genie, a one-touch, one second overclocking feature. We decided to put that feature to the test to see exactly what value it adds to the board. The literature with the motherboard states that the OC Genie will "...automatically detect the optimum to overclock after booting the system". The cold hard truth here is that this feature needs to work or it shouldn't be on the board to begin with. The reasoning behind this is that the likely users of such a feature are looking for an easy overclock. They do not wish to tinker around in the BIOS, fiddling with numerous different settings and stability testing to produce an overclock and by virtue of the fact that MSI markets this feature as a one-second overclock it should stand to reason that no additional adjustments should be needed by the user once they have activated the OC Genie.
A welcoming feature: MSI's Z68A_GD80 B3 Packs three quick buttons, including the Automatic Overclock Button
Directions for the OC Genie state that DDR3-1333 and above memory should be installed and that users should equip a better heatsink. Seeing as we had those bases covered we powered down, press the OC Genie button and rebooted. We were greeted with the warning screen letting us know that OC Genie was active. Once we had booted into Windows we verified that the OC Genie had in fact overclocked the CPU from 3.4GHz to 4.2GHz, an 800MHz overclock, theoretically a 19-20% performance gain. A little investigating showed that the OC Genie achieved this overclock by simply bumping the multiplier from the stock 34x to 42x. CPU voltages, memory settings/timings and the like all appeared to have been untouched by the Genie.
In order to test the performance and more importantly the stability of the new performance boost we first fired up 3DMark11 and ran the system though single pass at the Extreme preset. Everything appeared to be going smoothly as the system chugged its way through the test until we hit the Physics test (CPU Test). As soon as the system hit the Physics test it froze. We attempted to repeat the test numerous times but every time without fail the system would lock when it reached the Physics portion of the test.
When we originally noticed that the OC Genie had chosen not to adjust ANY voltages to support the 800MHz overclock we were somewhat skeptical of the overclocks stability and unfortunately the 3DMark run affirms that concern.
At BSN* we take overclocking issues very seriously. The problem that has arisen with overclocking over the years is that as it has moved from a underground enthusiast pastime to an industry accepted practice it has also catapulted up the marketing pipeline. Almost any PC component these days makes some mention of its overclockability and increased performance. The problem here is that the purpose of overclocking is to increase performance, if the overclock is unstable and causes system issues, locks, etc then you have a degradation in performance and have affectively achieved the exact opposite of what you set out to do in the first place.
The fact that the overclock failed to make it through single passes of 3DMark11 underscored the instability of the overclock. At BSN* our standard stability test for overclocked components is much more lengthy and involved than single 3DMark11 passes in order to ferret out any stability issues. If an overclock cannot complete 3DMark run it has no hopes of making it through the rest of our testing gauntlet. Admittedly MSI has attempted something noble here by working to open up the performance increasing aspects of overclocking to a wider audience and we applaud their efforts, however we cannot recommend the OC Genie in its current state. Perhaps we got a bad board or the OC Genie fell victim to the a pre-release BIOS, either way we would like to see MSI continue its efforts with the OC Genie as we feel this could prove to be a great feature... as long as it is stable.
For all of MSI's branding on the retail box and even the board itself we find it interesting that the one technology they don't outright mention is Lucid's Virtu. Virtu is short for GPU Virtualization. Essentially the software allows the motherboard to dynamically switch between the on-die Intel HD 3000 graphics (integrated GPU or iGPU) and a discrete (dGPU) graphics card(s).
Why is this important? After all, if you already have a discrete graphics card why would you even want to use the iGPU right? Well, there are a couple of reasons why Virtu is indeed an added feature. First, the iGPU is really good at one thing, video transcoding via Quick Sync. Quick Sync is hands down one of the best avenues to transcode video and it is surprisingly fast. The downside is that it only works when the iGPU is active and the problem here is that prior to the Z68 chipset you were forced to make a choice. For those that wanted overclocking ability the P67 chipset was the only option, however P67 did not support the iGPU, instead it just used the processor as a processor. In order to utilize the iGPU, you had to choose the H67 chipset, but the H67 did not support overclocking. Once you slapped in a discrete GPU the iGPU was no longer accessible. Virtu allows you to utilize a discrete graphics card while still having access to the transcoding power of the iGPU.
The second reason why Virtu deserves your attention is that Virtu is GPU Virtualization, not switchable graphics. The difference is that with switchable graphics you are either using the discrete card OR the integrated graphics, therefore you are switching between the two. With virtualization the motherboard can make use of BOTH the discrete GPU and the integrated GPU, and it can do it simultaneously. If you want to encode a movie while simultaneously playing Crysis 2, Virtu allows you to do just that. Essentially Virtu directs the graphics workload to the GPU of its choosing so that video encoding/decoding gets sent to the iGPU while 3D content such as games get sent to the dGPU.
Virtu utilizes SandyBridge's onboard display connector to actually display the video. When a workload is sent to the dGPU for processing, the processed data is then copied to the iGPU for display. The dGPU has done the actual computational work and the iGPU is merely being used to display it. Lucid does say that the monitor can be connected to either the iGPU or dGPU and even provides a chart for which features are supported by each.
In practice Virtu was simple enough to setup. Simply install a discrete graphics card, remember to leave the monitor connected to the motherboards video port, reboot and install the drivers. With our particular setup we needed to enter the BIOS and changed the initial video adapter to the integrated offering before the Virtu driver would even attempt to install.
Testing Lucid's GPU Virtualization clearly shows it works - power consumption went down considerably. Kudos to MSI for a proper implementation of the technology
Throughout our testing we randomly switched from physically connecting the monitor the iGPU to the dGPU and so on. In doing so we did notice some anomalies. At certain times Unigine's Heaven benchmark would not run at 1920x1080 when plugged into the discrete card yet would run at that resolution without issue when the monitor was connected to the iGPU. Another side effect of Virtu has to do with the discrete graphic drivers. Since Virtu is telling Windows that you are using the iGPU, the graphics driver (both NVIDIA and AMD) act as though no graphic card is installed. This prevents any type of changes from being made via the discrete graphics "control panel" and also greets you with random warning messages that no hardware for the installed driver has been found (such was the case with NVIDIA Optimus Technology and some CUDA Applications). If you prefer to make most of your graphic setting changes in-game then this is not much of an issue... the continued warning messages however can become rather annoying.
Game play was seamless with the software automatically switching to the discrete graphics card when a supported game was launched. Enough talk, let's get down to testing.
Benchmarks by definition provide a measure of performance, the challenge however is selecting benchmarks that properly recreate the intended usage scenario each product. Additionally we strive to provide a balanced mix of both synthetic benchmarks and real world scenario benchmarks.
In addition to pure strict motherboard performance we will also focus on testing Lucid's Virtu solution to determine whether it can deliver on its performance promises. In order to test the performance of Virtu and also determine what overhead the technology imparts you will see a different approach to this series of testing. For each benchmark we will attempt to isolate the various scenarios supported by the x68A and the Virtu software. The motherboard and software are GPU agnostic in that they can run either NVIDIA or ATI graphics in their respective multi-GPU configurations. The discrete cards for this review will be a reference NVIDIA GTX 560Ti and a MSI Radeon R6850 Cyclone. While these cards are in slightly different classes, we are not looking to compare the cards against each other, rather we will be comparing them against themselves. For comparison purposes we will provide results from each discrete running by itself as well as the results from each card running under Virtu and outputting to the iGPU. This should bring to light and performance discrepancies and reveal any possible Virtu-induced overhead.
- Intel Core i7 2600K Processor at 3.4GHz (Supplied by Intel)
- MSI Z68A-GD80 B3 Motherboard (Supplied by MSI)
- 2x 2GB Kingston DDR3-1600 MHz Memory
- MSI R6850 Cyclone (Supplied by MSI)
- nVidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti (Supplied by NVIDIA)
- 160GB Intel X25-M SSD
- Enermax Revolution 1000w PSU
- Samsung SyncMaster 2443BW 24-inch 1900 by 1200 pixel resolution display
The latest benchmark in Futuremark's long line of synthetic benchmarking tools is 3DMark11. The introduction of 3DMark11 now gives us the ability to test Tessellation, Direct Compute Physics and more. As this is one of the newest full featured benchmarks on the scene it is proving to be somewhat of a system crusher and lower frames per second and the resulting lower 3DMark score is to be expected for the time being.
Our initial 3DMark 11 testing is based on Performance preset, i.e. 720p resolution
In our 3DMark testing we run the hardware through two testing cycles. The first test is Performance Mode which offers a moderate test load designed to simulate modern gaming commensurate with most gaming PCs. The second test is Extreme Mode which pushes the hardware even further with a heavy load designed to stress even the highest end gaming PCs.
3DMark 11 in Extreme mode confirms a slight overhead of Virtu due to lack of DX11 support on Intel's hardware
It was clear to see that Virtu was working when we fired up 3DMark11. The iGPU on the 2600K does not support DX11. Any attempt to run 3DMark11 with the monitor plugged into the onboard video port without Virtu turned on resulted in a warning screen from 3DMark11 stating that there was no DX11 hardware detected. Simply clicking the "On" button in the Virtu control panel allowed us to fire up 3Dmark11 right away with the monitor still plugged into the onboard graphics port. In our first test we can already see that Virtu does impose some overhead with each card's score dropping somewhat when utilized under Virtu.
Unigine Heaven (DX11 and DX10)
Unigine was one of the first to offer a true DX11 benchmark and really showcase a graphics card's DX11 ability. As DX11 cards are just now becoming more common we still test performance in DX10 as well to give a greater overview of performance.
We continue to see the same performance degradation with both Heaven benchmarks but it is important to note that the degradation is very minute. In both cases there is less than a 1fps drop.
Synthetic game benchmarks hit a little closer to the core usage scenario of a graphics card. These benchmarks are built upon the game itself and generally run a scene or series of scenes from the game in order to garner a performance score. As these benchmarks are built upon current popular gaming titles they offer a better picture of the video cards real world performance .
Metro 2033 is a game set in the post-apocalyptic former Soviet Union. Metro 2033 has become the new Crysis and while it is one of the most visually stunning games on the market it is also one of the most punishing, bringing even high end video cards to their knees. The benchmark is run at 1900x1200 resolution with all the eye-candy turned up. The test is repeated three times with the end result being an overall average frame rate measured in frames per second.
Metro 2033 runs in DirectX 10 mode only - software limitation by Lucid Virtu?
With the standard framerates for both of these cards hovering in the mid twenties we expected to see a noticeable difference in performance during this test. When you are already running at sub 30fps, every frame counts. The MSI R6850 seems to take a larger hit than the GTX 560Ti in this performance test. We attempted to run the DX11 version of this test as well, however with Virtu enabled the benchmark would not give us any DX11 options.
Just Cause 2
Despite Just Cause 2 being included on the approved game list for Virtu, we were never able to successfully play the title when the monitor was connected to the iGPU. Instead the game would load and run very poorly at roughly 8fps, indicating that Virtu had never moved the workload to the discrete card, instead tasking it to the iGPU. We expect to see Lucid fixing this issue with one of future drivers.
Real World Gaming
For real world gaming, we elected to test with Call of Duty: Black Ops. We're working on a separate story that will test new games in greater detail to see just how fast Lucid Virtu technology is. In order to keep the compabitility with results, we'll solely rely on our MSI Z68A GD80 B3 motherboard.
Call of Duty: Black Ops
One of the most highly anticipated, and consequently most highly purchased games of all times, COD Black Ops is a game most are familiar with. We have chosen to include this game in our suite largely due to its sheer penetration in the gaming market, most gamers either own the game or have played the game, and those that haven't have most likely heard about it. While this test will fall under the real world gaming benchmark description, the "shooter on rails" moniker that the COD series have earned is well deserved in this case as there is generally only one way through a level. This real world benchmark will prove to be the closest to fixed-variable aspect of a synthetic benchmark.
High framerates are all around in Call of Duty: Black Ops and Lucid Virtu continus to drop a frame when compared to native approach
Black Ops follows the exploits of its main character Mason throughout 1960's including settings in Cuba, Vietnam, Soviet Russia and more. True to it's namesake, the mix of missions are "black bag" or clandestine operations. For benchmarking purposes we play through the first full level of the game.
Launching into a game played out much the same as launching a benchmark, the transition from iGPU to discrete graphics was imperceptible and the frame rates were very close to the standard discrete performance.
PCMark Vantage is the current iteration of Futuremark's full system test suite. Instead of specifically testing graphics, PCMark evaluates the entire computer system based on separate usage scenarios that are designed to replicate real world conditions. These Suites run the range from TV and Music to Gaming and Productivity. BSN utilizes the 64bit version of PCMark for testing purposes.
PCMark Vantage Showed MSI Z68A opening "a Can of Whoopass" over previous P67 chipset. A sign of just how fast Sandy Bridge can become with a proper chipset?
The MSI Z68A-GD80 clearly bests its older brother in the form of the Intel DP67BG by a strong margin. With the larger scope of PCMark's test suite, could this be an indication of next-gen dominance?
Sisoft Sandra 2011
Sandra is one of the go-to benchmarks when looking for a strict performance indicator. No flashy animations and arbitrary numbers. The full Sandra suite is capable of testing many of the PC's subsystems including CPU, memory and storage.
The P67 chipset of the Intel DP67BG puts up a strong fight in this test and even manages to narrowly beat the Z68A-GD80 in the Whetstone measurement.
The DP67BG keeps up the fight solidly beating the new Z68 chipset in memory bandwidth performance.
Cinebench is designed to illustrate the potential performance of a CPU or GPU when using Maxon's Cinema 4D software. Cinebench is comprised to two separate tests, one for testing CPU performance and the other for testing the OpenGL performance of a video card. The tests are designed to replicate different aspects of 3D animation usage scenarios.
The Z68A performed well in both tests. The two chipsets were neck and neck and the DP67BG's narrow victory on the OpenGL tests can most likely be attributed to Virtu's small overhead.
The folks over at Futuremark have been hard at work designing new benchmarks to punish…err test the latest and greatest computer hardware. While we cannot show you the results of the PCMark7 test until it is officially launch on Thursday May 12th, we can tell you that they have done a great job with the new benchmark. Check back on Thursday as we will update the test results once the embargo is lifted.
One of the benefits of being able to dynamically switch GPU's is power efficiency. While many of the newer iterations of graphics cards have made strides in terms of idle power draw they can rarely compete with integrated graphics. It is great to have gaming horsepower when you need it, but no one wants to pay for power draw when a system is sitting idle. To test power draw, the test system was hooked up to an Eaton 5PX UPS (look for a full BSN* review of this UPS in the coming weeks) that features voltage and amp draw monitor on a per receptacle basis. Idle temperatures were recorded after the system had sat for idle for 30 minutes on the desktop.
Lucid Virtu Power testing in idle gives significant performance difference on a system level
As stated above, discrete graphics simply cannot match the low idle power draw of integrated graphics, but that is to be expected. What we do see here is that the idle power draw of both cards is diminished when running under Virtu. It appears that Virtu is able to power down the discrete cards further than they would be able to on their own.
MSI has always proved to be a strong contender and the Z68A-GD80 B3 is no exception. The new chipset opens up not just performance gains but also added usability features as well. The introduction of Lucid's Virtu is a welcome one. The software is still new and the minor issues we had with it work to illustrate its immaturity.
The Z68A-GD80 did its job to best the P67 based Intel DP67BG, however it did so by small margins. The Z68A is more of an evolutionary step than a revolutionary one providing added performance but in moderate amounts. For current owners of P67 class motherboards we cannot say that the Z68 is a necessary upgrade. Most performance increases will only be apparent in benchmarks and not perceptible in day-to-day usage. The same holds true for Lucid's Virtu. The software is impressive, however the benefits it provides are primarily relegated to niche user scenarios with the largest benefits being provided to media transcoding enthusiasts and power-conscious users.
Throughout our tests the Z68A-GD80 B3 was as stable as could be. With the exception of the issue we face with the OC Genie there were no surprise crashes or other errata that are sometimes associated with enthusiast class boards. Manual overclocking features are plentiful enough to meet the needs of novice and experienced performance enthusiasts alike.
According to MSI, the street price of the Z68A-GD80 B3 will be around $239USD which has it landing somewhere in the middle of current Z68 chipset motherboard offerings. The Z68A offers some strong features for a board in its price range, and the flexibility to support either SLI or CrossFire means you wont be tied to either technology should your preferences change down the road. If you are in the market for a stable, overclockable motherboard with some and are sick of wasting time with slow video transcoding then the MSI Z68A-GD80 B3 definitely deserves a look.
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