The board that most review sites used for their Z77 Express previews, MSI’s Z77A-GD65 sports a number of similar design attributes as its competition. MSI has its own hybrid digital voltage regulator however, which could give the board a small boost in overclocking stability.
This editor contends that as long as a chipset has USB 2.0 ports, they should probably be used for low-bandwidth peripherals. That includes USB keyboards and/or mice. And since one or two of these is always present, there should still be a pair of the outdated ports on an I/O panel. MSI has four, while one of its competitors has zero.
Priced around $170, we’d have preferred to see two fewer USB 2.0 and two more USB 3.0 ports on the back. A value bump may have also been found from the inclusion of eSATA. But MSI decided instead to use the Z77A-GD65’s sole add-in controller for internal SATA 6Gb/s ports.
Overclockers will immediately notice the power, reset, O/C Genie base clock control, and I/O panel CLR_CMOS buttons. The Z77A-GD65 also includes a two-digit diagnostics display, line voltage detection points, and a dual-ROM firmware switch.
With FireWire on its I/O panel, we were a little surprised to find an IEEE-1394 port internally. MSI may have included this as a concession to older case designs with front-panel FireWire connectors, since many people hate/fear/distrust unconnected ports. Newer cases will make use of the front-panel USB 3.0 header, which faces forward to avoid conflict with graphics cards.
The Z77A-GD65's most surprising feature, perhaps, is a pair of tiny two-lane PCIe 3.0 switches between its second x16-length slot and its clock battery. While all of today’s boards automatically switch from single-slot x16 to dual-slot x8/x8 modes for CrossFire and SLI, the Z77A-GD65 can further switch to x8/x4/x4 transfers for three-way graphics arrays. This causes quite a bit of commotion amongst some of MSI’s competitors, but keep in mind that third-gen PCIe x4 slots offers the same bandwidth as second-gen PCIe x8 slots. That should be enough for three-way CrossFire, so long as your hardware (CPU and GPUs) are PCIe 3.0-compliant.
PCIe 3.0 x4 is mathematically superior to PCIe 2.0 x4, so we can safely conclude that MSI provides the best motherboard in this story for three-way graphics arrangements. That's why we haven't recommended the PCIe 2.0-based implementations of competing platforms for anyone looking to use a trio of graphics cards. Those boards would be better for hosting other devices without impacting graphics bandwidth.
Beyond the complexity of deciding how the third 16-lane PCIe slot might be used, the only minor problems we find with the Z77A-GD65’s layout are that the eight-pin CPU power connector has an upward-facing latch, and the front-panel audio connector is located in the extreme rear corner along the motherboard’s bottom edge. The first issue affects cable removal in some cases that have bottom-mounted power supplies, while the second makes cable reach problematic for some cases with short audio cables.
We doubt that MSI could ever get an official thumbs-up from Nvidia for its x8/x4/x4 design, so the inclusion of a two-way SLI bridge is acceptable. Three-way CrossFireX is possible using the bridges included with two of the cards, and MSI’s inclusion of four SATA cables is adequate, if not generous.