MSI Z68A-GD65 review

Z68-based Intel Core i5/i7 motherboard with Genie Overclocking
Photo of MSI Z68A-GD65
£150

The MSI Z68A-GD65 motherboard is designed for Intel LGA1155 ‘Sandy Bridge’ processors – very like earlier models such as the P67A-GD65. But unlike that motherboard – and as its name suggests – the new board marks a change from Intel’s P67 chipset to the new Z68 chipset. This brings two significant new features.

Integrating GPU and graphics card
The first new feature is a piece of software called Lucid Vertu, which combines the processing power of the integrated graphics found in every Sandy Bridge core with that of your PCI Express graphics card. In theory, this delivers the best of both worlds, and we’ve seen similar technologies from Nvidia with Hybrid SLI and AMD with Hybrid CrossFireX.

The fundamental difference is that AMD and Nvidia make decent integrated graphics and add-in graphics cards, while Intel makes rather basic IGPs – and you cannot buy an Intel own-brand graphics card. This means that Lucid Vertu has to combine Intel graphics with a different make of graphics card – and that’s a tricky task to fulfil. In practice, the software isn’t especially clever about the allocation of work between the CPU, GPU and integrated GPU.

Smart Response
The other new feature is Intel Smart Response, which is part of its Rapid Storage Technology RAID system. Smart Response aims to combine the benefits of a fast, expensive SSD (solid state drive) with a cheap, high-capacity hard disk drive (HDD) into a single virtual drive. In this type of RAID, the SSD acts as cache for the hard drive. Over time, the controlling software learns how you use your PC and copies the files you use most often to the SSD to speed up performance.

We started our testing using a 2TB WD Caviar Black HDD, and then combined a 20GB Intel 311 SSD to see the effect of Smart Response. Using the HDD alone we saw a PC Mark Vantage just under 11,000 marks. Adding the SSD made no difference in the first test run, but the score had increased to 14,000 marks by the time of the third run, compared to a score of 17,000 marks on a test system using just an SSD.

The downside of Z68
It’s unusual to start a review with the test results, but the fact is that Smart Response means that Z68 can offer a healthy increase in performance over P67-based motherboards provided you’re prepared to pay for an SSD cache drive. If you’re not prepared to spend the money or, alternatively, if you’re using an SSD as your main drive with an HDD as a data drive, then you’re probably best advised to stick with P67.

The reason we say that is that the first wave of Z68 motherboards include graphics connectors that take up a fair amount of space on the I/O panel. In the case of the Z68A-GD65, the graphics connectors consist of HDMI, DVI-D and VGA. If you have no intention of using Lucid Vertu, then you may feel that the space could be put to better use. On the MSI Z68A-GD65 there are two USB 3.0 ports on the I/O panel, along with four USB 2.0 ports. There’s a bracket included in the package that adds two more USB 3.0 ports, and there are USB 2.0 mid-board headers that support six further ports.

A total of six USB ports on the I/O panel is just about acceptable, but MSI’s P67-based P67A-GD65 doesn’t have all of those graphics connectors and as a result is able to pack in ten USB connectors. As the saying goes, you pays your money and your takes your choice – which, in the case of the Z68 chipset, means you will be paying a £20 premium over a P67 motherboard with a similar specification.

A closer look at Z68A-GD65
The other features on the Z68A-GD65 are pretty much what you would expect to see on an enthusiast motherboard. The heatsinks on the power regulation hardware are linked by a heatpipe and are held down with steel screws to ensure they remain solidly attached.

MSI has done a fine job when it comes to upgrades and expansion, starting with the pair of widely spaced PCI Express 2.0 graphics slots. They support dual graphics cards using AMD’s CrossFireX system or Nvidia’s SLI, with plenty of space to allow cooling air to circulate.

In addition, there are three PCI Express x1 slots and two legacy PCI slots. Down one side of the board are eight SATA connectors. Two of these connectors are native 6Gbit/s, four are native 3Gbit/s and two are 6Gbit/s on an add-in controller.

We’ve covered the USB 2.0, USB 3.0 ports and graphics connectors on the I/O panel. In addition there is surround sound audio with optical and coaxial S/P-DIF, a ‘clear CMOS’ button, Gigabit Ethernet and a PS/2 port.

Overclocking and performance
Performance of the system depends on your choice of CPU, RAM and graphics card. The current crop of Intel Sandy Bridge CPUs are notoriously tricky to overclock unless you take the easy option of buying a K-series processor that has an unlocked Turbo Boost multiplier – so that was exactly what we did.

With the power off, we pressed the OC Genie II button, turned on the power and started the PC. In a matter of moments the Turbo setting on our Core i5-2500K was raised from the stock speed of 3.7GHz to 4.2GHz. The extra clock speed raised the PC Mark Vantage score from 16,000 to 19,000 marks which is a handy increase in performance for a minimal amount of work.

Specification
Graphics expansion: Dual PCI Express 2.0 x16 with support for CrossFireX and SLI
Graphics connectors: HDMI, DVI-D and VGA
Memory support: Up to 32GB of DDR3-2133MHz in four DIMMS
SATA 6Gbit/s:  Four ports
SATA 3Gbit/s:  Four ports
Expansion slots: Three PCI Express x1, two PCI
USB 3.0:  Four ports (two on I/O, two on supplied bracket)
USB 2.0:  Four ports on I/O, mid-board headers for six ports
Audio: Six mini-jacks, optical and coaxial S/P-DIF
Ethernet:  Gigabit Realtek
Special features: OC Genie II, Power and reset micro buttons
Form factor:  ATX (305x244mm)

Company: MSI

Website: http://www.msicomputer.co.uk/

Contact: MSI on 0871 288 5605

Positives
  • OC Genie II Overclocking, Intel Smart Response.
Negative
  • Lucid Vertu graphics are confused; price is rather high.

Verdict

The central question to answer before buying the MSI Z68A-GD65 is whether or not you need the new Intel Z68 chipset. Provided you're won over by Intel's Smart Response feature then the MSI Z68A-GD65 oozes quality and features in equal measure - but there's no denying that it is rather expensive.