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MSI's X79A-GD45 Plus
MSI takes a slightly different approach with the X79A-GD45 Plus, right down to the whole back-and-grey look.

The circuit board has a glossy finish, and there are hints of brown around the traces. This isn't a pure black like on the Gigabyte board. At least MSI sticks to one shade of grey, though. The overall theme looks a little more coordinated as a result.

Predictably, the GD45 is populated with exotic electrical components. Driver MOSFETS? Check. Super-ferrite-core chokes? Uhuh. Solid-state capacitors? Yep, including special Hi-c flavors. Hi-c denotes high conductivity, and my childhood makes me suspect that high-fructose corn syrup is the secret ingredient.

Nine power phases supply juice to the CPU—two more than on the Gigabyte board. MSI and Gigabyte use different electrical components, so I wouldn't read too much into the phase counts alone. We'll get a sense of each board's overall power efficiency a little later in the review.

The GD45's DIMM slots are just a smidgen closer to the socket than on the Gigabyte board. The VRM heatsink is a little farther away, though, and so is the top PCI Express x16 slot.

To avoid potential clearance issues, we use a closed-loop water cooler on our X79 test rig. Modern CPU blocks are nice and compact, and their retention mechanisms screw right into the metal bracket surrounding the LGA2011 socket.

If you want to run four-way SLI or CrossFire setups, the X79A-GD45 Plus comes up short. Those black x16 slots are limited to a single lane of Gen2 connectivity each. The spacing wouldn't work for four double-wide graphics cards, either, but three-way configs will be just fine. The first two grey x16 slots have 16 Gen3 PCIe lanes each, while the third slot has eight lanes. There's enough room between the first two slots for a pair of triple-wide cards—or a slot's worth of airspace for dual-double-wide setups.

The X79A-GD45 Plus is entirely devoid of old-school PCI slots. I see no reason to complain, probably because I can't think of a single PCI device that I couldn't easily go without in a modern system.

A four-pin Molex connector supplies extra power to the graphics card slots, and the SATA ports sit next it. The four 3Gbps ports are on the left side of the cluster, while the two 6Gbps ones are on the right. MSI doesn't equip the GD45 with auxiliary Serial ATA controllers, but it uses a couple of NEC chips to fuel four USB 3.0 ports. Those ports are split evenly between an internal header and the rear cluster.

The external I/O panel ticks a lot of the right boxes. The Gigabit Ethernet jack is powered by an Intel chip, there's a switch to clear the CMOS without cracking open the case, and digital audio output is available in two S/PDIF formats. Unfortunately, the onboard audio suffers from a familiar handicap: it can't encode surround-sound game audio for digital output. MSI does bolster the Realtek codec with Creative's Sound Blaster Cinema software, which provides speaker virtualization, dialog enhancement, and smart volume control, among other functions. I'd rather have DTS or Dolby Digital Live support for real-time multi-channel encoding, though.

Note that neither of these X79 boards has FireWire ports, a common omission that may irk folks with older video cameras. There's no Thunderbolt connectivity, either, but a platform limitation is probably to blame for that. We haven't seen any X79 boards with Thunderbolt.

Although we don't mind missing out on Thunderbolt, we wouldn't want to be without the little connector blocks pictured above. The blocks allow the bulk of the front-panel wiring to be constructed outside of the case, where there's plenty of space to fiddle with the tiny, individual connections. The blocks then plug into the motherboard, making the assembly process much easier. Connector blocks are included for the front-panel cluster and for one of the internal USB 2.0 headers. If only the GD45 came with a padded I/O shield like the Gigabyte board, as well.