MSI's firmware interface is one of the most streamlined around. It doesn't make extensive use of the mouse support offered by modern EFIs, but the cursor tracking is smooth and the GUI is easy to navigate.
All the essential overclocking options are there, including clock, frequency, and voltage controls. Most values can be keyed in directly, making individual settings quick to change precisely. Users also have access to multiple profile slots, and configurations can be saved to or loaded from USB storage.
A separate OC Genie profile is available for one-click overclocking from Windows. This profile contains a modestly overclocked config by default, but you're free to make the settings more aggressive.
The firmware's fan section is a little sparse, with temperature-based speed control limited to the CPU fan. Only static speed control is available for the system fan; the rotational speed can be set manually, but it won't change in response to system temperatures.
Don't get too excited about those browser and utilities shortcuts over to the right side of the interface. Although the integrated flashing utility works well, the live update, browser, and messaging software all reside outside the firmware. Those applications need to be installed on the system's hard drive, where they run on top of a Linux distribution. The new EFI framework allows for robust applications within the firmware itself, and we wish motherboard makers would take advantage.
If you want to poke around in the firmware but would rather not reboot, MSI's ClickBIOS software replicates the interface in Windows. Unfortunately, it takes forever to load—16 seconds on our SSD-equipped Core i7-3770K system, which is longer than the time required to launch Photoshop. Changes are saved slowly, as well, and they always seem to require a reboot. So much for convenience.
Fortunately, ClickBIOS isn't your only option for tweaking within the comfort of the OS. MSI's Control Center software is packed with overclocking controls that respond in real time. This app is also little slow to load, and it spits out an error message related to the Intel ME driver even when using the latest version available on MSI's site. The error doesn't appear to affect Control Center's functionality, though, and the software offers a bunch of extra features not included in the firmware.
The monitoring pane tracks a range of system variables and allows users to set warning ranges for temperatures, voltages, and fan speeds.
Fan controls also make an appearance, this time with intelligent speed management for the system fan. Motherboard tweaking software is becoming an increasingly important differentiator, and it's nice to see MSI making improvements on this front.
Oh, and one more thing. There's also an app for that.
Control Center includes remote server software that talks to MSI's Command Center Android and iOS apps. The Android app runs relatively smoothly on my Galaxy Nexus, and it sports a range of overclocking, memory tweaking, and system monitoring features. There's even a CMOS clearing button and a remote for Windows Media Player.
Smartphone-fueled overclocking feels a little gimmicky, but there's value in Command Center's monitoring and media control functionality. The app is free, too, and the associated Windows software is unobtrusive. Control Center and its remote server component consumed less than 1% of CPU resources on our Core i7-3770K, and their combined memory footprint was a mere 23MB.
Unfortunately, all this fancy Windows and smartphone software comes with a catch. To use it for overclocking, you need to enable OS-based multiplier control in the firmware, which locks the CPU to a single multiplier and seems to disable all idle clock throttling. Savvy enthusiasts will probably want to craft their final overclocked configs in the firmware.
Speaking of overclocking, we turned up the clocks on the Z77IA-E53 twice: once with the default OC Genie profile and again using a mix of the Windows software and Android app. Before beginning, our Corsair H80 water cooler was kicked into high gear, and a triple-wide Asus Radeon HD 7970 graphics card was plugged into the PCI Express slot. Stability was tested with a combined CPU and GPU load consisting of AIDA64's CPU stress test and the Unigine Heaven benchmark.
Overclocking via OC Genie proved quick and easy. The default profile pushed our CPU to 4.2GHz, a modest 300MHz jump over the Core i7-3770K's maximum Turbo speed, and the system didn't so much as hiccup under load. We know this particular chip can go much higher, so we started turning the screws manually.
The CPU made it to 4.5GHz before additional voltage was required to keep blue-screens at bay. Eventually, we got the CPU stable at 4.8GHz on 1.375V. The system did boot at 4.9GHz, but we couldn't find a combination of voltage and power settings that kept it stable at that frequency.
We've had a couple of Mini-ITX Z77 boards reach 4.9GHz with the same hardware, so the Z77IA-E53 isn't the best overclocker of the bunch. The fact that we pulled up only 100MHz shy of our maximum—and with very little drama—is a good sign, though.
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