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MSI's Z87-GD65 Gaming motherboard reviewed

Will the real Blood Dragon please stand up?

Despite the broader downturn in the industry, the PC gaming market grew 8% last year. No wonder we've seen an uptick in the number of gaming-oriented motherboards. These boards are similar to typical enthusiast fare, but they're usually endowed with more premium peripherals and electrical components—and priced higher to match.

MSI's Z87-GD65 Gaming is different. While the board has fancy components, a Killer NIC, and Creative-enhanced integrated audio, its $180 asking price is much lower than that of typical ATX gaming boards, which live well north of $200. Spending a little less on the motherboard makes perfect sense for gaming, since your dollars are usually better directed toward a more powerful graphics card.

There's no shortage of competition in the middle of the enthusiast market, so the Z87-GD65 Gaming needs more than just conceptual soundness to rise above the fray. Fortunately, it's also equipped with a bunch of firmware upgrades and all-new tweaking software. Both will have to deliver if MSI hopes to keep up with the innovations available in the Haswell-ready Z87 boards we've already reviewed: the Asus Z87-PRO and Gigabyte Z87X-UD3H. Let's see how the MSI Z87-GD65 Gaming stacks up.

Were it not for the Far Cry offshoot's clashing neon color scheme, I'd be tempted to dub the GD65's aesthetic Blood Dragon. The red tone is particularly rich, and it makes the dragon graphic really stand out on the otherwise blacked-out landscape. The hue also harkens back to the bright red boards of MSI's past, thankfully without the accompanying rainbow of multicolored slots and ports.

Black capacitors make the circuit board look particularly stealthy. They're part of a collection of "Military Class 4" components that includes higher-efficiency capacitors and ferrite-core chokes. Anything less would be uncivilized on a modern enthusiast gaming board.

In this price range, so would having fewer than three PCI Express x16 slots. All three of the GD65's x16 slots are connected to the CPU. 16 lanes of PCIe 3.0 bandwidth can be dedicated to the top x16 slot, split evenly between the top two slots, or divvied up between all three slots in an x8/x4/x4 setup. Most mobos link their third x16 slot to the chipset, where it has to share bandwidth with the PCIe x1 slots. The only PCIe sharing here occurs between the x16 slots.

MSI squeezes an mSATA connector between the slot stack and CPU socket. The mini SSD slot is linked the Z87's sixth Serial ATA port, which means connected drives can participate in RAID arrays or SRT caching configs.

The mSATA slot is slung low enough to avoid bumping into longer expansion cards or oversized CPU coolers. Clearance shouldn't be an issue for the VRM heatsinks, either. Their matching dragon-head designs are sloped, giving the socket some breathing room. This shape also makes it easier for my clumsy fingers to get at the CPU mounting hole that lies between them.

We can't check every hardware combination for compatibility, but we can measure the distance between the CPU socket and various landmarks.

Apart from the VRM heatsinks, which are relatively short, the socket area is wide open. Note the proximity of the DIMM slots, though. Most Z87 boards have similarly-sized gaps between their sockets and memory, and problems often arise when pairing oversized CPU coolers with taller DRAM modules.

One might think the monstrous chipset heatsink would present clearance problems, as well, but it's short enough to avoid interfering with longer expansion cards. The SATA ports are edge-mounted to keep cabling out of the way, too.

In the picture above, the first three pairs of SATA ports to the right are connected to the Z87 platform hub. The last pair also offers 6Gbps connectivity, but through an auxiliary ASMedia chip. Drives connected to that controller can't participate in Intel-managed RAID arrays or caching schemes. Spoiler alert: the auxiliary ports are also slower than the Z87's native ones.

Although comparable boards from Asus and Gigabyte split the Z87's USB 3.0 connectivity using hub chips, the Z87-GD65 Gaming connects all of its SuperSpeed ports exclusively to the chipset. Four ports occupy the rear cluster, and two more are available via an internal header.

In addition to USB 3.0, the cluster houses a largely standard array of I/O ports. The clear CMOS button is a nice touch, and so is the addition of a coaxial S/PDIF output. More on the integrated audio in a moment. First, we have to address that bright red Ethernet port.

The port connects to a Killer E2205 networking controller, which is something of a novelty as far as integrating networking goes. In addition to supporting Gigabit speeds, the chip comes with complementary software that automatically prioritizes packets associated with games and streaming media. That's a nice feature if you want to log a quick Battlefield session without pausing your BitTorrent download, but it doesn't let your PC's packets jump ahead of those associated with other systems on your local network—or on the Internet at large.

MSI has spruced up the integrated audio in several ways. The Realtek codec is the latest ALC1150 revision, which has a higher signal-to-noise ratio than the old chip but doesn't add any features of note. Shielding protects the codec from electromagnetic interference, and the signal traces are isolated from other circuitry to reduce interference. Don't ask me why the Audio Boost logo is backlit by a pink LED, though.

At least there's some actual boost involved. The Z87-GD65 Gaming uses a Texas Instruments OPA1652 amplifier to drive headphones up to 600 Ω. Creative's Sound Blaster Cinema software is layered on top, providing surround-sound virtualization, smart volume management, and a handful of routines that massage audio output to enhance dialog and other types of sounds. Too bad neither the Creative software nor the Realtek drivers support real-time encoding for multichannel digital audio. As a result, surround-sound gaming audio is limited to analog output.

The picture above provides a glimpse of some other onboard goodies: the Go2BIOS button boots the board right into the firmware, the POST code display provides diagnostic info, and the OC Genie button handles automatic overclocking. Hardcore overclockers also have access to voltage probing points in the opposite corner of the board.

You don't have to be a seasoned tweaker to appreciate the port blocks included in the box. The blocks are a godsend when wiring front-panel connectors, regardless of whether it's your first build or your fiftieth.

MSI throws in a couple of cheesy accessories—a sticker and a door-hanger—but neither adds substantial value to the overall package. More interesting things are afoot in the firmware.