With a single Thunderbolt port and no PCIe bridge to facilitate lane sharing, the best way for MSI to beat Intel is on price. It’s no wonder, then, that the Z77A-GD80 is $35 cheaper than Intel's DZ77RE-75K.
Anyone interested in the Z77A-GD80 gets two fewer back-panel USB 3.0 ports, but more audio connectivity compared to MSI’s most closely-matched rival, Intel. We also find a third PCIe graphics slot, which could be the deciding factor for many buyers.
A quick look at the PCIe switches tells us that the Z77A-GD80 goes from x16/x0/x0 mode to x8/x8/x0 when a card is installed in the second x16-length slot, and then to x8/x4/x4 mode when a third graphics card is added. A quick check of the motherboard manual confirms our observation. Though this is the only way to natively support three graphics cards from the Ivy Bridge processor’s on-die PCI Express controller, the same configuration is not available if you have a Sandy Bridge-based processor installed. The newer CPU supports three devices, while the older CPU supported only two.
MSI uses a forward-facing USB 3.0 internal header to fit that big and inflexible cable underneath any long expansion cards. Most cases that support forward-facing SATA cables will have no problem with the forward-facing USB 3.0 ports.
The Z77A-GD80 also includes two added-in SATA 6Gb/s ports via a third-party PCIe-based controller. That controller sits on the same PCIe 2.0 lane as FireWire, however, and you have to pick the device you want enabled through MSI's firmware.
You're faced with the same conundrum if you have multiple PCI Express x1 cards, since the four slots sit on only two lanes. Choosing between slots one and two should be easy since the second x1 slot is usually blocked by the graphics card anyway, and an SLI configuration would make the same choice between x1 slots three and four just as easy. MSI could have simply left out x1 slots two and four to save a few cents, except that enthusiasts are more likely to notice blank spaces on the motherboard before they realize two of those slots won't work at any given time, disingenuous as that may be.
Overclocking exhibitionists will like the Z77A-GD80’s on-board Port 80 diagnostics display, enough though its location could be covered by a second graphics card. A row of voltage detection points, power, and reset buttons are similarly valuable, and fortunately less likely to get covered up.
The Z77A-GD80 includes four SATA cables, a set of voltage check-point adapter wires, a USB 3.0 slot panel adapter, and a single SLI bridge.