MSI's 990FXA-GD80 motherboard
Judged on specifications alone, MSI's 990FXA-GD80 looks a lot like the Sabertooth 990FX. That's what happens when you've got two boards based on the same core-logic chipset drawing auxiliary peripherals from an increasingly shallow pool of options. Spend a little time with the GD80, though, and you'll discover that it's an altogether different animal in many ways.
The GD80 obviously has a different look, but only when it's compared to the Sabertooth. No fewer than four different motherboard makers are using similar black-and-blue color schemes on their enthusiast-oriented models, and the sheer sameness of it all is enough to make me long for the days when each mobo maker drew from a garish—but unique—palette of neon hues. To MSI's credit, all the colors match, the heatsinks follow a cohesive design language, and nothing stands out as an eyesore. That's more than can be said of some of the boards riding the black-and-blue bandwagon.
Speaking of bandwagons, the GD80 has all the swanky electrical components you'd expect from a high-end mobo. MSI claims to have been somewhat of a trendsetter in this arena, having been the first to use driver MOSFETs, digital VRMs, and tantalum-core capacitors. I don't remember seeing much talk about military specifications before Military Class logos started showing up on the company's boards, either.
Perhaps I'm getting jaded in my old age, but all this talk about superior component quality rings a little hollow without something to back it up. Claims of improved power delivery and efficiency are difficult to test at the component level, and so are promises of better stability when overclocking. The fact that MSI covers the GD80 with the same three-year warranty as lesser models suggests the high-end board is no more reliable than standard fare.
After measuring clearances for our last few motherboard reviews, I've noticed something interesting. On the boards in our Z68 Express round-up, the DIMM slots sit between 25.5 and 30 mm from the socket. With the two 990FX models we're looking at today, that gap shrinks to only 20-22 mm. The tighter spacing shouldn't be a problem for standard-height DIMMs, but taller modules may not be so lucky if you've got a heatsink tower that branches out toward them.
To MSI's credit, there's more room around the GD80's socket than there is around the Sabertooth's. The north-bridge cooler is barely taller than some of the surface-mounted components, so it definitely won't get in the way. I do have some reservations about how the low-profile cooler might handle the heat piped over by the VRM heatsink. The Sabertooth board has a similar heatpipe, but its north-bridge heatsink has a lot more surface area to aid heat dissipation.
With a second PCI Express x1 slot squeezed into the top of the stack, the GD80 offers one more expansion slot than the Sabertooth. The lane assignments for the PCIe x16 slots are pretty much identical, though. The first and third x16 slots can pull off a full-bandwidth dually, while the top three can be arranged in an x16/x8/x8 config. As with the Asus board, the fourth x16 slot is limited to four lanes of electrical connectivity.
The GD80's SATA ports are pushed right up to the edge of the board along with the front-panel USB 3.0 connector. Given how popular edge-mounted SATA ports have become in recent years, I hope case makers design their drive cages accordingly. You won't want longer graphics cards bumping up against a drive cage, either.
Before moving on, I've gotta give MSI props for including a two-digit POST code display to aid troubleshooting. I'm also going to add a shout out for the CMOS reset button that's been integrated into the port cluster.
The cluster looks pretty crowded, and it's nice to get USB power for both the eSATA ports. Surprisingly, there are only four USB 2.0 ports at the rear. Internal headers add another four ports, bringing the grand total to just eight. Even with two ports consumed by the hybrid eSATA connectors, four of the SB950's USB ports are left unused. There's room in the cluster for more ports and space on the board for additional headers, making the decision to skimp even more puzzling.
At least MSI brings more to the table on the audio front. In addition to a second S/PDIF output, the board will ship with THX TrueStudio PRO software that provides surround-sound virtualization and a smattering of other effects. We haven't spent enough time with the various speaker virtualization schemes to know how the THX software compares to what's available in Realtek's drivers, but you have the option of using either with the GD80. Alas, neither of those solutions offers real-time Dolby Digital Live or DTS encoding.
Believe it or not, the GD80 has a UEFI rather than an old-school BIOS. The only thing that gives it away is the mouse cursor hovering near the center of the picture above. The GUI we saw on MSI's first P67 motherboard has been scrapped, and the company is working on a new graphical interface to take its place. In the meantime, the GD80 is stuck with one of the most frustrating firmware interfaces I've used so far.
Believe it or not, the problems have nothing to do with how the UEFI looks and everything to do with how it reacts. Let's start with the mouse cursor, which flickers constantly and moves with less urgency than the tail end of a pack of mall-walking senior citizens. Even the keyboard response is sluggish, and it takes a few seconds to trigger rapid scrolling when holding down an arrow key. That's a bigger problem than one might expect, because multipliers and voltages must be selected from long lists of available options—they can't be keyed in directly. MSI's old-school BIOSes were much more responsive and easier to use.
The GD80's UEFI might be a pain to interact with, but at least it's loaded with all the overclocking and tweaking options one would expect from an AMD motherboard targeted at PC enthusiasts. Like the Sabertooth's UEFI, there's a core unlocker, an integrated flashing utility, and support for multiple configuration profiles. MSI's fan speed controls could use some attention, though. Users can set a target temperature and a minimum fan speed for the CPU fan, but there's no temperature-based control for the system headers, which can only be toggled between three static speed settings.
MSI's Control Center software doesn't improve on those fan speed controls, but it does bring most of the tweaking and overclocking options into Windows, where your mouse will actually work properly. I'd be curious to see some statistics on the number of enthusiasts who prefer tweaking with a BIOS or UEFI as opposed to using Windows software. Perhaps that would explain why some motherboard makers seem to have devoted far more resources to developing Windows software than transitioning to UEFI.
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