06/01/2011 | 11:38 AM
Our experience with new Micro-Star mainboards based on Intel P67 Express chipset got off to a rough start. The first MSI P67A-GD65 sample that we received shortly before the launch of the then new core logic set suffered an unfortunate death by the will of nature. The second sample we received didn’t work quite correctly; besides, at that point we already knew about the issue with the Intel chipsets, so we decided not to proceed with the review. But whatever happens always happens for the best, because the third package from MSI contained a completely new model – MSI P67A-GD80 (B3). This is an extraordinary mainboard, a top solution in the entire line-up and it is going to be the star of our today’s review.
MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) mainboard is based on the refreshed B3 version of the Intel P67 Express chipset. You can find the indication of it not only on the box, but also in the mainboard model name. There is a photo of the mainboard behind the flip-cover in the front and on the back of the box alongside with the brief description of the mainboard’s key features.
This product comes with an elaborate accessories bundle, because it is one of the top flagship products:
No wonder that a contemporary mainboard from a well-known maker has very well-thought-through and convenient design, however, it is really satisfying to point it out once again:
According to Micro-Star, one of their boards’ major advantages is high-quality “military” component base, which has already evolved into “Military Class II” stage and includes solid-state capacitors with extended lifespan, SPF (Super Ferrite Choke) units with lowered operational temp, and Hi-c CAP tantalum capacitors. The processor voltage regulator circuitry consists of 12 phases and the number of active phases may dynamically change depending on the current processor utilization due to APS (Active Phase Switching) technology. Any changes in the number of phases are immediately reflected by a row of CPU Phase LEDs. The voltage regulator components emitting substantial heat are topped with two additional heatsinks connected with a heatpipe. By the way, all heatsinks, including the chipset one are installed with reliable screw-on retention.
Overall, MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) mainboard looks pretty common, although there are a few peculiarities typical of Micro-Star mainboards. The Power On and Reset buttons have become quite common on many mainboards, although in MSI’s products they are joined by the “OC Genie” button used for instantaneous system overclocking. Starting recently, higher-end MSI mainboards started to come with two BIOS chips. Besides, there is a “V-Check Points” panel. Together with “V-Check Cable” kit it will allow you to manually monitor the current voltages of the most important system knots by simply using a voltmeter. You only notice the mainboard’s greatest unique peculiarity when you look at the back panel carrying six USB 3.0 ports. This is particularly amazing, because besides these six USB 3.0 ports, the board also has two additional USB 3.0 pin-connectors that provide support for another four ports. MSI engineers didn’t have to load their mainboard with five additional controllers to deliver ten USB 3.0 ports. There are two Renesas (NEC) D720200AF1 controllers and two VLI VL810 hubs. It is a truly refined and unique approach, which so far has been used on Gigabyte GA-P67A-UD7 mainboard, for example.
The complete list of ports and connectors on the mainboard back panel looks as follows:
I have to say that an abundance of additional onboard controllers creates certain problems: the chipset doesn’t have enough free PCI Express lanes to connect them all. For example, the mainboard has three graphics card slots, which have pretty common operation modes for an Intel P67 Express based mainboard. A single graphics card installed into the top slot will work at full PCI Express 2.0 x16 speed. With two graphics cards the slots will work at half that speed each. The third slot has four PCI Express lanes and if it is occupied, then you won’t be able to use both eSATA ports, two onboard USB 3.0 ports, both PCI slots and one USB 3.0 port on the back panel (the top USB 3.0 port next to audio-jacks).
The table below sums up all the technical specifications of MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) mainboard:
At this point we can conclude that MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) is designed very smartly and conveniently. It supports all contemporary interfaces such as eSATA, USB 3.0, SATA 6 Gbps and IEEE1394 (FireWire). It boasts a few unique Micro-Star’s proprietary features such as “OC Genie” button and a special “V-Check Points” voltage control panel. A special treat is, of course, the ability to connect 10 USB 3.0 ports.
Mainboard BIOS has always been a scary and mysterious area for inexperienced users, therefore many manufacturers have undertaken countless attempts to make the BIOS of their mainboards simpler, easier to work with and more accessible. And for a while there has hardly been any positive outcome. Only the arrival of 3 TB hard disk drives and the need to ensure they are supported properly encouraged mainboard makers to become really aggressive in this aspect, but every manufacturer chose their own separate way. Gigabyte acted most carefully: they actually kept the same BIOS, added the support for higher capacity hard disk drives and named it Hybrid EFI Technology. Asus developed entirely new EFI BIOS for their mainboards, but they maintained the same good old recognizable BIOS structure that has been polished to perfection over years and is pretty convenient to work with. Micro-Star chose the most dramatic approach: they switched to a completely new Click BIOS, which doesn’t look anything like the old MSI BIOS at all. However, it would still be incorrect to call it completely new. A few years ago the company already offered an optional Click BIOS based on UEFI technologies.
We can certainly notice several common traits, even though the today’s Click BIOS looks slightly different.
An obvious advantage new Click BIOS has to offer is certainly the ability to select your native or at least familiar language from the list of 15. It should definitely make getting acquainted with the new Click BIOS much quicker and easier.
We would like to start discussing the features and functionality of MSI Click BIOS from the very first section called “Green Power”. Here we can change a few parameters related to power-saving technologies and also control the current settings on the most important voltages.
The “Utilities” section allows us to check system memory for errors, search for available BIOS updates online, backup the data and change the start-up image. Only the memory test and “Boot Screen” utility are actually built into the BIOS. You will need to use the DVD disk with drivers and software included among the mainboard accessories in order to launch “Live Update” and “HDD Backup”.
The “Overclocking” section is one of the largest in terms of the available parameters. It contains all options related to system overclocking and fine-tuning. There are also a number of informational parameters reporting the current system settings.
In order to offload this extremely large section and make navigating through settings easier, some parameters have been placed onto separate pages. In particular, memory timings have been singled out into an individual page. Each of the two memory channels may have identical or different timings settings.
The mainboard can save up to six full BIOS settings profiles. We wish they made some visual distinction between the empty and taken profiles.
However, working with the profiles is actually quite seamless. The date and time when the profile was created, as well as the BIOS version it refers to are saved automatically. You can also create a unique memorable name for your profiles or delete it from the memory.
The next two sections called “CPU Specifications” and “Memory-Z” serve purely informational purposes. The first one reports the basic details about our CPU:
You may dig even deeper if you want to and check out the list of processor technologies:
The “Memory-Z” section is organized in a very similar manner. As soon as you access this section, you see the info recorded in the memory modules SPD. These are the settings the mainboard will use by default.
However, the actual potential of your memory modules is hidden in the X.M.P. profile, which you can also check out in this section.
The “CPU Features” sub-section allows us to set the processor clock frequency multiplier and processor technologies. This pretty important sub-section is the last on the list, although it is very easily accessible, because all parameters in the “Overclocking” section are looped. You don’t have to list all the way through to the very last one by hitting the down arrow key multiple times: just press the up arrow key, and here you are.
The next icon in the main menu after “Overclocking” is the notorious “Games” section. Here you can play three straight-forward and even primitive games. “Puppy Run” is a game of agility, where a puppy has to collect all bonuses while avoiding adult dogs. “Pair Match” is a game of attentiveness where you have to memorize the cards and open pairs of identical ones. “Break-Out” is a version of a famous “Arcanoid” game. Like some other utilities, the games are stored on a DVD disk, which must be in the drive for the games to run.
All other quite numerous Click BIOS functions hide behind the “Settings” icon.
“System Status” sub-section is in fact the startup screen, which we usually saw when accessing the conventional BIOS.
The functionality of the “Advanced” section is also what we have expected: all of the options migrated fully from the conventional BIOS.
Here we would like to take a look at the “Hardware Monitor” page, where you can enable automatic adjustment of the processor cooling fan rotation speed and set the rotation speeds of all other fans at 50, 75 or 100% mark. I hope you weren’t discouraged by the missing voltages? This page is still far ahead, and you can always check the current voltages in “Green Power” or “Overclocking” section anyway.
The “M-Flash” sub-section now looks even simpler and easier to work with, although it remained exactly the same functionality-wise compared to the conventional BIOS. We have the opportunity to try booting using a BIOS image stored on a flash-drive, to save the current BIOS version or update it with a newer one.
The “Security” sub-section allows us not only to set the system access passwords, like on many other mainboards. You can also set a common flash drive to be your access key to the system, which is an interesting unique feature offered by Micro-Star mainboards.
“Boot” sub-section lets you set the order of boot-up devices:
The functionality of the “Save & Exit” sub-section is obvious and doesn’t need any explanation.
Everything new always looks unconventional, that is why in the beginning it may seem difficult to work with. But as time goes by you get used to new things and start enjoying them fully. Therefore, it could be fair to refrain from criticizing MSI Click BIOS at this time and only after a while try assessing the success in implementing new features and functions. However, even now we can clearly see that over the past years the internal structure of the Click BIOS hasn’t really changed and hardly will in the nearest future, so we feel we could voice out a few comments. One of our major problems with it is lack of convenience of use and ergonomics. We do get the intention not to overload the startup screen with a ton of icons, but why did they have to put “Games” section in the main window, why do they need it at all and why does it occupy such a significant place? I am afraid I can’t think of a situation when upon entering the BIOS in order to adjust some settings the user would suddenly feel an irresistible urge to play these primitive games (for which he or she will need to locate the DVD disk with the software bundle first). Casual games may be very addictive, but there are many free and much better-quality versions of these games available online today, so why would anyone want them in the BIOS? Ok, let them be, but at least not in the front page. However, here is the “Games” section, while six important sub-sections had to be hidden far behind the “Settings” icon.
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong about increasing the number of icons in the startup window. Here is an example of what it could look like:
This is just a quick mock-up that took me couple minutes to create in an image editing application. They could combine “Games” and “Utilities” into one section called “Programs” and arrange the nice section in three rows with three icons in each row. Ideally, it would be nice to allow users to drag and drop the icons with their mouse, so that they could arrange them in the most convenient order. They could come up with a few other things to make sure that “MSI Click BIOS” justifies its name and you can actually get t any section you need in one click. But in its current implementation it looks more like a “Click Click Click BIOS”.
We have already touched upon the proprietary software bundled with Micro-Star mainboards, when we mentioned utilities that could be launched right from the BIOS. In this respect we should definitely mention Winki III – a Linux based operating system, especially since “Live Update” and “HDD Backup” utilities work specifically in Winki OS.
This OS can be launched from the bundled DVD disk and it may also be transferred to a flash-drive, which should speed up the loading process. So far this OS has grown to version III and the standard set of programs for such “lite” operating systems (browser, image viewer, instant messenger, skype) has been expanded by adding a few company’s brand name utilities and office documents support.
Overall, there are quite a few Micro-Star programs here. “Audio Genie” will help configure the audio, “Video Genie” – the video, “Teaming Genie” combines the functionality of two networks adapters, “Live Update 5” will help updating the BIOS and drivers, “Super Charger” program is used to charge Apple devices, “Easy Viewer” will help vide 3D images. All of them are quite intuitive to work with, but there is also a special booklet telling us about the installation and features of all these applications. As for us, we are going to dwell on “
By default it opens in the “Overclocking” page with the mainboard info displayed at the top of the window. By pressing “More” you can get more system details.
The same works for the processor: there is some basic info in the window by default, with more information available upon request.
If you press the “Advanced” button, you will be able to adjust the processor clock frequency multiplier, i.e. to overclock.
Once you’ve selected the proper memory module from the drop-down list, you can get to its SPD by pressing “More”.
“DRAM Timings” button allows configuring the memory timings individually for each channel.
You can change voltages in the lower part of the main program window. You can select one of the preset operational profiles: Cooling, Cinema, Game or create one of your own. Moreover, you can also use an automatic overclocking function. The “Overclocking” tab in the upper left corner of the main interface window allows switching to “OC Genie” mode. This is merely a hint that you must press the onboard “OC Genie” button to enable this mode.
There is a “Green Power” tab next to “Overclocking”. By clicking it you get access to brand name power saving technologies and can manually set the rotation speed of three fans out of five to desirable fixed values.
By switching to “LED / Temp.” mode you can disable the indication of the number of active phases in the CPU voltage regulator circuitry using “CPU Phase LED” diodes.
You can use compact “Gadget Mode” for this utility and it will display the current CPU clock speed at all times.
Programs like that often have very few advantages and fall under severe criticism for a number of things. In this case we really liked that the utility was able to report a lot of useful data about our system. It allows changing the processor clock frequency multiplier, which is a very important feature for LGA1155 processors, as well as memory timings and voltages. However, there were also a few issues, which we have to point out. Namely, the program was unable to read the current memory frequency and instead always reported the startup frequency written into the modules SPD. WE didn’t manage to see any of the preset operational modes in action, because the system would hand every time we set any of them. According to the manual, the system is supposed to speed up by 3 % in “Cinema” mode, by 6% - in “Game” mode and should slow down 3% in “Cooling” mode. Since this program proved highly unstable and unreliable, we decided to refrain from using it for our overclocking experiments.
We carried out our tests on a testbed that included the following components:
We used Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64 bit (Microsoft Windows, Version 6.1, Build 7601: Service Pack 1) operating system, Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility version 220.127.116.115, Nvidia GeForce/ION Driver 266.58 graphics card driver.
We usually write that system assembly went smoothly, but in fact this isn’t quite the case. We always have a little issue with the installation of our CPU cooler. The thing is that Scythe Mugen 2 has a pretty large backplate. It inevitably pushes against the capacitor pins on the reverse side of the PCB around the CPU socket. This is a metal plate with a shock-absorbing pad, which prevents any possible shorting, but the cooler sits at a small angle. Therefore, I am especially pleased to say that there were no pins interfering with our cooler on MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) mainboard and it fit perfectly into the designated spot. Of course, this is a particular case, but it is the first mainboard for a very long time, which accommodates our Scythe Mugen 2 cooler ideally.
Overall, the mainboard worked fine in nominal mode except for the strange behavior of the APS (Active Phase Switching) technology. When it turned on for the first time, the number of active CPU phases in the voltage regulator stopped changing, depending on the current processor utilization, which was indicated by the CPU Phase LEDs. We enabled it the second time in the BIOS when we wanted to take correct screenshots of the “
Unfortunately, all this is true only for the nominal mode. As soon as you start changing the processor core voltage, dynamic adjustment of the active processor phases in the voltage regulator shuts down. Moreover, Micro-Star mainboards still do not know how to increase the CPU Vcore by adding the desired value to the nominal. The Vcore will simply be locked at a fixed value and won’t go down in idle mode any more. Keeping in mind that overclocking approach has become simpler and easier and that the CPU cooler is finally installed perfectly, we decided to push our system to 4.9 GHz CPU clock. Unlike other Intel P67 Express based mainboards, which failed the stability tests in this mode or passed them but at extreme CPU temperatures, Micro-Star mainboard didn’t even boot the OS. However, the 4.8 GHz CPU clock was an easy one for it.
In this case it had to raise the CPU core voltage a little over 1.4 V, just like on other mainboards. However, in all other cases the power-saving technologies continue to be up and running and the CPU core voltage in idle mode drops down to almost 1 V, while on MSI mainboards it remains raised and only the processor clock multiplier lowers.
We have known about Micro-Star mainboards’ inability to overclock and at the same time retain all power-saving technologies intact for a long time, and MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) once again disappointed us. However, it turned out that overclocking with MSI mainboards may be also quite rewarding. Check out the memory frequency in the previous screenshots: 1867 MHz. It is for the first time that we managed to achieve a result like that on an LGA1155 mainboard, although all mainboards support this frequency setting and our memory can theoretically work at frequencies up to 2000 MHz. However, all our previous attempts to get our memory to work at 1867 MHz didn’t succeed: all systems failed the Prime95 test. Ironically, it was another Micro-Star mainboard that failed this test most miserably. In fact, it completely lost its mind: after we raised the memory clock the mainboard failed to boot and decided that the BIOS chip was corrupt, so it reflashed the BIOS from a reserve chip. However, it has never recovered ever since: the LED indicating a BIOS chip failure keeps blinking no matter what we do.
Keeping in mind our numerous failed attempts to get our system memory to work at 1867 MHz, we decided to stop wasting our time and stopped at 1600 MHz during the last couple LGA1155 mainboard reviews. It was the automatic overclocking option – OC Genie – that encouraged us to go back to memory tests on our new MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) mainboard. Like all other similar technologies, this utility is still imperfect and manual overclocking can provide way better results. For example, in our tests the CPU was automatically overclocked to 4.2 GHz with the Vcore increased substantially to 1.355 V and CPU VTT – to 1.25 V. It automatically shuts down processor power-saving technologies. However, all that was a complete waste because our processor could easily work at 4.5 GHz even without any voltage adjustments. However, at the same time the board increased the memory clock to 1867 MHz and, surprisingly, passed the stability tests with the CPU in nominal as well as overclocked mode. So, from now on we will continue our attempts to increase the memory clock on LGA1155 mainboards, and in the meanwhile let’s see how MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) mainboard can actually benefit from it in practical terms.
As usual, we are going to compare the mainboards speeds in two different modes: in nominal mode and during CPU and memory overclocking. The first mode is interesting because it shows how well the mainboards work with their default settings. It is a known fact that most users do not fine-tune their systems, they simply choose the optimal BIOS settings and do nothing else. That is why we run a round of tests almost without interfering in any way with the default mainboard settings. For comparison purposes we are going to also include the results from our reviews of Asus Sabertooth P67, Foxconn P67A-S, GigabyteGA-P67A-UD4-B3 and Intel DP67BG. The results are sorted out in descending order with the numbers for MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) marked with darker color on the diagrams.
We used Cinebench 11.5. All tests were run five times and the average result of the five runs was taken for the performance charts.
We have been using Fritz Chess Benchmark utility for a long time already and it proved very illustrative. It generated repeated results, the performance in it is scales perfectly depending on the number of involved computational threads.
A small video in x264 HD Benchmark 3.0 is encoded in two passes and then the entire process is repeated four times. The average results of the second pass are displayed on the following diagram:
We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.
In the archiving test a 1 GB file is compressed using LZMA2 algorithms, while other compression settings remain at defaults.
Like in the data compression test, the faster 16 million of Pi digits are calculated, the better. This is the only benchmark where the number of processor cores doesn’t really matter, because it creates single-threaded load.
There are good and bad things about complex performance tests. However, Futuremark benchmarking software has become extremely popular and is used for comparisons a lot. The diagram below shows the average results after three test-runs in 3DMark11 Performance mode with default settings:
Since we do not overclock graphics in our mainboard reviews, the next diagram shows only CPU tests from the 3DMark11 – Physics Score.
We use FC2 Benchmark Tool to go over Ranch Small map ten times in 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings in DirectX 10.
Resident Evil 5 game also has a built-in performance test. Its peculiarity is that it can really take advantage of multi-core processor architecture. The tests were run in DirectX 10 in 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings. The average of five test runs was taken for further analysis:
As we have expected, there is hardly any difference in performance between the boards, it doesn’t even exceed 1%. All mainboards work at about the same speed and MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) is just as fast as the others. There is only one significant difference: Micro-Star mainboard is 3% faster than the competitors in 3DMark 11 test. We repeated the tests, but the resulting scores remained practically identical: 5500, 5501, 5499. We could suspect that there was some kind of an automatic overclocking system kicking in, because both: the mainboard and graphics card in our system were from MSI. However, in this case we would expect higher results in games, too, as this type of performance depends a lot on the graphics card. However, the gaming performance of our mainboard remained within usual limits. Then we could recall that Micro-Star Company was one of the major sponsors of the 3DMark 11 testing suite, but we do not want to suspect Futuremark in being unfair, especially since there are a lot of other issues with their tests already. So, let’s leave this unexpected victory an inexplicable success of the new MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) mainboard :)
And now let’s run the same exact tests in overclocked mode, when both - processor and memory – work at higher frequencies. Remember, that Gigabyte GA-P67A-UD4-B3 overclocked our processor only to 4.7 GHz, on Foxconn P67A-S we forced overclocking without the increase in the processor Vcore, so we had to stop at 4.5 GHz, while on other mainboards the CPU frequency was increased to 4.8 GHz. The system memory worked at 1600 MHz with 6-6-6-18-1T timings on all testing participants except Micro-Star P67A-GD80 (B3). Here the memory frequency was increased to 1867 MHz and the timings were set at 7-7-7-20-1T. The table below shows the differences in system settings for each testing participant very clearly:
Once again, there is barely any performance difference between the boards that managed to overclock the CPU to 4.8 GHz, with the exception of the notorious 3DMark 11 test. However, higher memory frequency puts MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) at the top of the list most of the times, which makes it seem like an indisputable leader of this test session. In fact, we already know from our previous article called “DDR3 SDRAM for Sandy Bridge: Choosing the Best Memory for LGA1155 Platform” that higher memory frequency does have a positive though not very dramatic effect on the system performance.
We performed our power consumption measurements using an Extech Power Analyzer 380803. This device is connected before the PSU and measures the power draw of the entire system (without the monitor), including the power loss that occurs in the PSU itself. In the idle mode we start the system up and wait until it stops accessing the hard disk. Then we use LinX to load the CPU. For a more illustrative picture there are graphs that show how the computer power consumption grows up depending on the number of active execution threads in LinX.
In nominal mode Micro-Star mainboard is just as good as other testing participants and the power consumption readings remain on the same level in idle mode. However, things change drastically during overclocking, because MSI boards, unlike everyone else, can’t keep power-saving technologies intact, which immediately affects the power consumption rates.
In this case we can disregard the results of Foxconn P67A-S, because we didn’t increase the processor core voltage during overclocking. So, its low power consumption comes at a price: the lowest performance. However, all other mainboards in idle mode consume 71-76 W, while MSI boards – 87 W. Under low operational load tested mainboards consume 116-122 W, while MSI board – all 132 W. It could have become the most power-hungry in case of maximum CPU utilization, but Asus mainboard took over the lead in this aspect. I have to admit that these are very disappointing results, which mean that it makes no sense to use MSI mainboards for overclocking, because they happen to waste a lot of power.
I think there are no mainboards without advantages (except for the defective ones, of course). And despite several downsides, MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) has quite a few indisputable advantages of its own. Let me start by saying that it comes with an extremely extensive accessories bundle, which is a very pleasing fact, even though a few questions still arise. And additional bracket with two USB 3.0 ports is definitely a plus, but I think that a mainboard that already has six USB 3.0 ports on the back panel, could better use a similar bracket for the front of the system case. Yes, it has great component layout. Superb functionality and support of all contemporary interfaces are also an advantage. The unique feature that makes MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) mainboard stand out is the ten USB 3.0 ports it provides. Even MSI Click BIOS has a lot of great features to offer. Take, for instance, “Overclocking” section that contains almost everything you may need for system overclocking and fine tuning in one place and there will be no need to jump from one section to another. It has very convenient looped settings lists, an impressive number of informational parameters, hints with “hot” keys. At the same time, the current Click BIOS structure lacks ergonomics and is obviously still quite raw. “
The system built around MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) mainboard will run pretty much as fast as other similar systems in nominal as well as overclocked modes. Overclocking is actually quite productive, and memory overclocking is even better than on other mainboards. But unfortunately, MSI mainboards still can’t overclock with all power-saving technologies intact. In nominal mode MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) consumes just as much power as any other similar mainboard, but during overclocking it wastes a lot of power and therefore suits well for one-time tests and experiments, but is hardly an optimal choice for long-term operation in overclocked mode.
However, things are getting better, but not due to MSI’s effort (we don’t see anything being done in this respect other than marketing campaigns), but merely due to the peculiarities of the
Moreover, there is yet another important argument in favor of MSI mainboards. Prices may differ by region, but as a rule, MSI mainboards are a little cheaper than competition. Of course, they also hold the price record on an Intel P67 Express based mainboard – MSI Big Bang-Marshal (B3) priced at $400. However, this is a completely unique special mainboard with eight expansion card slots and it cannot be judged using common criteria. Speaking of the more down-to-earth Micro-Star products, they are relatively affordable and this factor alone is enough to win a substantial number of users. So, MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) mainboard will undoubtedly find its customers.