Packaging & Appearance
From the outset it appears MSI are taking a completely different approach to packaging their new range of motherboards. Gone are the cartoon elves and armour clad warriors replaced instead with a fresh, professional looking appearance. The reflective orange and white glossy exterior is accompanied by numerous emblems, perhaps most significantly, the NVidia SLI and Crossfire emblems signifying that that board, along with the P55 chipset does indeed support both multi GPU formats.
Flipping the box over we find the MSI have displayed the main features of the motherboard such as OC Genie, SuperPipe and DrMOS technologies, all of which are exclusive to MSI. Active phase switching is also unique to MSI motherboards which allows the motherboard to control power on demand. Along with V-Kit and Winki 2.0, which I will cover later in the review, the mainboard specifications and an I/O overview round off the rear of the package.
Upon opening the box, I was greeted with a library of manuals, leaflets and user guides, the likes of which appeared to be very well presented and not the usual budget paper garbage we are accustomed to. Each manual is very well laid out, even the main motherboard manual which makes a change with each component, setup guide and BIOS explanations presented in an easy to follow format. All of the manuals can be held within a plastic wallet for easy storage which is a great little inclusion for those who have a tendency to lose manuals.
The overclocking guide is particularly well presented in a full colour, glossy manual with full size pictures. The manual, I'm happy to report, also appears to be written by someone who actually knows what they are talking about! The manual goes into more depth than the motherboard manual and concentrates, as you would expect, on the overclocking features of the P55-GD80. BIOS explanations and simple overclocking tips are the order of the day and while a manual such as this is hardly the definitive guide to overclocking, it will be a very welcome addition to those new to the art.
The included accessories at first glance are nothing out of the ordinary with the driver disks, SATA cables, I/O shield, SATA power cables, USB bracket, E-SATA bracket and an IDE cable. Looking closer though we also find that MSI have included some 'V-Check' cables for use with a multimeter and perhaps most significantly 4 flexible Multi GPU bridges - 2 SLI and 2 Crossfire bridges of different sizes.
Remember the days of brown PCB's with pink and green slots? That used to be MSI's 'signature' calling card which, I'm sure they will agree was a fashion disaster to put it politely. Times have changed however and now MSI have a set of brand new clothes which might I add look very dashing. The Black PCB is complimented with blue and gun metal grey heatsinks along with black and blue plastic slots. The main components of the mainboard are all ideal placed around the leading edges which leads to a very well laid out motherboard. The rear of the motherboard is simple enough by the design with only a CPU socket backplate to be found. One area which I had a few concerns about was a tiny little chip directly in line with where a CPU heatsink backplate may be fitted which could cause problems but we'll come to that in the test setup section of the review.
The CPU socket area of Intels new 1156 standard is much smaller than previous incarnations but because of the DrMOS power regulators, chokes and solid capacitors, the area appears to be slightly cluttered which may be an issue come insulation time for the extreme coolers. The socket retention mechanism has been refreshed with the whole metal frame now lifting away with the metal pressure clasp. This new design is much more user friendly than previous versions but care should still be taken as I would imaging it would be very easy to scratch the main board with the clasp, thereby possibly cutting some traces. This new socket will however, need a new CPU cooler as the spacing is slightly larger than skt775 but smaller than skt1366. Hopefully there will soon be plenty of brackets available that will allow enthusiasts to continue to use their current heatsinks but in our case we had to buy a new CPU cooler as neither skt775 or 1366 coolers would fit.
One of the major difference between P55 and X58 is the drop down from triple channel DDR3 support to dual channel. The memory controller is still onboard the CPU but this drop in potential bandwidth is likely to affect performance even with the point to point interface of Core i5/i7. That said, the P55-GD80 will still support upto 16GB of DDR3 running at a massive 2133MHz (OC) which I'm sure will keep most enthusiasts happy.
The PCI area of the motherboard, again colour co-ordinated, is very well laid out with 2xPCIe x1, 3x PCIe 2.0 x16 along with two 32bit PCI slots. NVidia SLI is supported in both 2 and 3 way configurations as is CrossfireX however due to the limitation of the P55 Chipset, only 16 PCIe lanes are available which will cripple some cards when used in TRI configurations but unless you intend on using top end, dual GPU coolers such as the GTX295, and x8 + x8 setup will show no significant drop in performance.
The bottom right of the motherboard hosts a 6+2 SATA configuration. The 6 black right angled ports are controlled by the Intel P55 chipset, while the two blue ports, an eSATA and IDE port are controlled by the JMicron JMB322 controller. It's clear a lot of thought has gone into this area with all of the ports positioned such that even with a multi GPU setup installed, the ports are still easily accessible.
The I/O area of the mainboard is crammed full of 7x USB 2.0 ports, 1x firewire, 2x Gigabit Ethernet, 1x eSATA, PS2 keyboard and mouse ports coaxial and TOSLINK connectors as well as 6x 3.5mm analogue audio jacks. The audio is controlled by Realteks ALC889 chipset which affords 8-Channel HD-audio.
When I first looked at the on board switches of the mainboard I was gutted to see that MSI had included space for power and rest buttons but sadly not included them. After numerous times jumping the headers to get the board to power up I caught the power 'button' by accident, and hey presto it worked! Little did I know at the time that MSI had incorporated, power, reset and Green Power 'easy touch' buttons - very clever! I would still prefer physical buttons but I was too happy at this point to really care.
Above these are one of the major features of the motherboard - the OC Genie button and the +/- buttons. These allow instantaneous overclocking of the motherboard thanks to the on board OC Genie processor. This chip automatically adjust frequency, latencies and voltages to give an optimum overclock of you CPU. Once into your favourite operating system, the +/- button can also be used to fine tune the base clock or push the overclock even further. If that wasn't enough there are also on-board over voltage switches that increase the possible voltage adjustment values in the BIOS to extreme levels. With this in mind, at these extreme voltages it is very important that those voltages are monitored correctly and as such MSI have also included a neat little reading point which used in conjunction with a multimeter should give very accurate voltage monitoring - simply exquisite!
Slotting itself between the OC Genie and Base clock =buttons is a diagnostic LED which also doubles as a CPU temperature readout. The motherboard manual provides a comprehensive list of possible codes which should assist you when setting the mainboard up should you have any difficulties. There is also a further LED readout which displays the current phase control of the mainboard.
Breaking from the traditional 'Circu-pipe' technology, MSI have trimmed away the excess and produced a much more refined heatsink assembly. While the sinks are no longer copper, they are much more attractive and coupled with MSI's SuperPipe technology, temperatures are upto 50c cooler than traditional cooling methods! Being 8mm in diameter, MSI claim this is the thickest heatpipe used on current motherboards which is some 60% thicker than the most common used formats.
Interestingly, MSI placed a heatsink on an area that does not require any for there is no such thing as a QPI on the P55 chipset however, thanks to the wicking nature of the SuperPipe, this heatsink will further add to the heatsink assemblies heat dissipation.
Removing the heatsink was a doddle thanks to the spring loaded screws on the back of the motherboard. The whole heatsink is one part and as such each component will assist the other in dissipating heat rather than having individual heatsinks. The P55 chip we see below is not protected by an IHS so extreme care should be taken should you wish to replace the stock heatsink. While the heatsink made good contact with the chip, I was a little perturbed to find that no paste was used to aid contact. Instead MSI opted to use thermal pads throughout on both the P55 chipset and MOSFETs.
DrMOS (Driver MOSFET) is an integration of top and bottom mosfets along with the driver integrated chip all into one. This results in power savings and more importantly to overclockers, power switching frequency of 1000KHz which is 4 times faster than a traditional MOSFET switching of 250KHz. This aids power delivery voltages by being both stable and efficient even under heavy load conditions. Thanks to the 3-1 design, the the transmission distance between components is much shorter which means less noise as opposed to competitors to MSI who use more power switches which can lead to huge spikes in noise, in turn rocking the overclocking boat called stability.
The P55 heatsink also covers a Fintek F71889F Super IO controller chip however, no contact is made with this chip despite the heatsink covering this area. Watercooling the MSI P55-GD80 should be pretty straightforward as the main P55 chip has standard spacing that most universal chipset coolers should fit such as the MCW30 from swiftech.
WOW. If this is a sign to come for the P55 chipset then I can only say our birthdays have all come at once. From the packaging to the mainboard itself, this is one product that is sure to ruffle the feathers of MSI's major competitors as they have upped the game by a fair few notches presenting a board that not only looks the business but is as feature packed as any board on the market at the moment. Not only that but it is clear MSI are not content to follow the pack, plagiarising ideas but they are attempting to innovate and expand upon what they know enthusiasts want.
So far in this review they have definitely succeeded.
Let's take a look at the BIOS...