MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3)
Spoiler alert: MSI’s Z68A-GD80 targets value-minded enthusiasts by being the least-expensive product in today’s round-up. Consequently, it sits across from ASRock, which sought to provide the greatest number of features in today’s round-up.
That’s not to say the Z68A-GD80 is a stripped-down product. In fact, it includes twice as many gigabit Ethernet and USB 3.0 controllers as Gigabyte’s competing model. MSI also adds a DVI output, though we're not sure of its value to enthusiasts (who are less likely to tap into Intel's HD Graphics engine than mainstream or business buyers).
MSI loves to point out that it is the only company to support PCIe 3.0 on both of its CPU-supported x16 slots. Of course, you’ll need to wait for next-generation LGA 1155 CPUs to enable that feature, and even then we have our doubts about important this functionality will be in near-term products. Adding a second card to the middle slot still causes transfers to drop from x16/x0 to x8/x8 modes, so MSI is relying on the new technology to keep the bandwidth of its two x8 slots equal to the two PCIe 2.0 x16 of some higher-priced competitors (such as ASRock’s Z68 Extreme7).
While we could argue either way about the value of doubling lanes or enabling PCIe 3.0, we have to acknowledge that this board is limited to two-way SLI. While three-way CrossFire is technically possible, its third x16 slot wired with four lanes isn’t optimal for the task. Assuming all 20 Gb of the chipset’s DMI went to a third graphics card, there would be nothing left for other devices on the PCH, such as drives, network controllers, or USB.
This brings us to where we left off in the discussion of Gigabyte’s sacrificed features, only this time its not the PCIe x1 slots in peril. Instead, anyone using the third PCIe x16 slot in x4 mode must be willing to sacrifice the Z68A-GD80’s 88SE9128 SATA controller (two ports), front-panel D720200F1 USB 3.0 controller, PCIe-to-PCI bridge (two slots), and VT6308P FireWire controller (a PCI device).
On the (somewhat sarcastic) bright side, that means we don't have to worry about a front-panel USB 3.0 port cable blocking the installation of a graphics card because installing a graphics card disables the USB 3.0 front-panel header. If you want to avoid disappointment, just think of that bottom x16 slot as a x1 connector.
Once we get over that third x16 slot, the Z68A-GD80 becomes a wholly acceptable and perhaps even desirable model. The two usable graphics card slots are triple-spaced to improve cooling to the top card. MSI’s tantalum PWM capacitors provide additional clearance around the CPU. And we even find a row of voltage detection points across the motherboard’s front edge.
While we'd hope for six SATA cables in an enthusiast-class motherboard (which we get from some of the boards in this story), MSI’s Z68A-GD80 has four. We're also missing a USB 3.0 bay adapter, though we’d like to suggest that anyone building a new PC should pick a case with its own USB 3.0 front-panel connectors.