Motherboards are, as we've often said here at OC3D, now so interchangeable thanks to the excellence of the Intel chipsets that you can purchase almost anything and be sure of a good foundation to your system.
The days when you had to be brand loyal, or when the feature set of a particular model was so rich it was deserving of your hard-earned are slowly disappearing. It takes more than a highly tunable DFI BIOS to separate them.
That doesn't mean that there aren't differences to be had. In a lot of cases your choice is either one that is ultra-high-end just for the sake of having a particular brand in your signature, or maybe you're stuck with an average looking board to obtain one within your price range. Similarly to the ASUS X58 Sabertooth, MSI have blown the motherboard world wide open with their MPOWER, which was both feature-rich, great looking and high performing yet cost a mere £150. It covered all the bases so well that it's difficult to recommend any other motherboard.
Rather than rest upon their laurels MSI have gone back to the drawing board and seen if they can provide a motherboard that has enough differences to the standard types to be a genuine contender. Enter the Gaming series, designed for the people who want a good underpinning for their system, without minding too much about obscure features or having to pay through the nose for the privilege of one that looks nice.
So if you want a motherboard that is good value, but don't want to be stuck with a bright blue one or one with an entirely indistinguishable feature set, the MSI Z77 G45 Gaming provides some surprisingly well thought out options.
We have the usual suspects that are part of the Z77 chipset, lots of SATA and USB options alongside some fast Memory speeds and multi-GPU support. MSI have added to this a couple of things that should prick up the ears of the gaming community. We have the Realtek® ALC892 with Soundblaster Cinema support for your audio, and the Killer E2205 Network controller for low ping even when your connection is being used for downloads.
Straight away you can tell that the Gaming has been deliberately designed to be something different, rather than a standard model with a fancy appellation. The box, as well as being replete with the MSI Dragon logo, is matte black. The whole texture is different to the endless parade of glossy boxes we have through the OC3D offices.
As you would expect from the base model, the accessories are minimal with just a IO shield, manual, driver disc and some SATA cables. It's nice not to see a plain IO shield though. In such a crowded marketplace those little touches that make the difference.
We're going to come right out and say it, we love the looks of the G45 Gaming. So often a base model is plain blue, or if the company have given you a black PCB you're lumbered with odd plastic parts or the barest minimal heatsinks. The MSI offering looks fantastic, and the gorgeous heatsinks demonstrate what a lot of care has gone into the design.
A slight design niggle from the placement of the CMOS battery, requiring the removal of the GPU just to reset the CMOS, but otherwise the G45 Gaming is excellent. There are a few fan headers spread nicely on the edges of the board, and the 8pin CPU power input, so often placed somewhere that ensures our fingers are permanently scarred, is perfectly positioned.
We can't help but love the dragon heatsink. It lends an air of class to proceedings and, let's not deny it, looks cool. The big difference between the base G45 and the other models in the Gaming range is the inclusion (or in this case lack) of the OC Genie switch on the PCB. Indeed the G45 lacks any buttons at all.
Connectivity is fairly standard. It's worth pointing out that MSI have increased the amount of gold plating on the leftmost USB ports, so that your mouse and keyboard remain with an optimum connection regardless of how often you unplug your peripherals.
MSI Z77A-G45 Gaming Motherboard
Intel Core i7-3770K
8GB G.Skill TridentX 2400MHz
Cougar CM1000 PSU
Corsair F80 SSD
Thermalright Silver Arrow
Windows 7 x64
The BIOS is a nicely skinned UEFI number (as all BIOS' are these days), with a solid set of options for both enthusiasts and the average user. A couple of slightly counter-intuitive options don't spoil a solid, almost enjoyable, experience.
Considering that this is the G45 model, the lowest in the MSI Gaming range, the overclock achieved is pretty good. It's by no means a beast, as 4.7GHz is average for our processor, but it's fast enough for all but the most demanding.
First thing to note is that AIDA64 has been updated and the PhotoWorxx test (along with the AES test) are no longer comparable with previous tests. Hugely irritating for us as we obviously don't get to keep any of our test hardware so we can't retest it all.
Given that we 'only' attained a 4.7GHz clockspeed from the G45 Gaming it obviously doesn't quite match the big boys in pure benchmark based testing. The stock speed is a little disappointing to be honest, but the overclocked results are fine for the speed we have.
Again in our early benchmarks we're entirely reliant upon the clockspeed of the CPU, and so the G45 Gaming is right in the middle of the pack. The stock results are again a little disappointing, but let's see how we fair in some more real-world tests.
We start to see that in real-world testing the G45 Gaming performs relatively better than it does in the pure CPU tests. Of special noteworthiness is the OpenGL test. Considering that both the Gigabyte UD7 and the MSI MPower were running at 4.9GHz, the relatively lesser G45 Gaming makes excellent use if the available performance in both stock and overclocked trim.
Although POV-Ray is ray-tracing, and so heavily dependant upon CPU power, it does take advantage of many elements of your system and as you can see the MSI G45 Gaming is much better than it seemed in the Sandra and AIDA64 tests.
PC Mark Vantage
Away from the world of synthetic benchmarks and into tests that will reflect your actual experience, the G45 Gaming is nothing short of excellent. When you look down the graph the only motherboards that really run past it are the enthusiast models costing far more.
PC Mark 7
Stock performance is still a little disappointing, but the overclock is enough that you'd struggle to notice the difference unless we had graphs or you could AB them.
Our final CPU test before we move to the 3D side of things, the G45 performs well. Indeed despite it's relative overclocked deficit, it's only bested by the outstanding (and expensive) UD7 and Maximus V Extreme.
In keeping with the Gaming cognomen, the performance is excellent in Unigine Heaven. Indeed the MSI G45 Gaming gives us the highest average framerate we've seen. Impressive.
Again we see excellent performance in 3D benchmarks, with the G45 Gaming providing monster scores in 3D Mark Vantage, and some great scores in 3D Mark 11. Whether in Performance or the Extreme preset, the MSI lives up to the Gaming tag.
3D Mark Vantage
3D Mark 11
So often a motherboard is a set of compromises, and usually those are a balance of looks and performance. The more you have of one the less you usually have of the other.
The MSI Z77A G45 Gaming straddles the line beautifully between looks, performance and price.
Let's start with the looks. An all-black PCB, with black plastic and just a few hints of red in the heatsinks is always more popular than a blue PCB. Especially as, with so little red on the 'board, you could combine it with almost any colour-scheme you like without it dominating proceedings. The heatsinks deserve special praise, looking vastly more expensive than the £120 price tag would have you believe. As you can tell from our image at the top of the page, the Dragon branding logo is a particular highlight.
Performance is slightly mixed, but with certain caveats.
Yes it's by no means the best overclocking motherboard we've tested. 4.7GHz isn't to be sniffed at, although an average overclock on our particular processor is 4.8GHz and anything above that worthy of particular praise. So it's by no means poor, but we do have to mention that it's not a beastly overclocker. Equally we have to say that the stock performance isn't the best we've seen if you look through the graphs, but in use it wasn't noticeable. However it's worth pointing out. Perhaps even more so because, unlike the GD65 Gaming, the G45 doesn't come with the excellent MSI OC Genie button, so to overclock you'll have to refer to our overclocking guide rather than just press and forget, but we have proven how ever that these buttons are never that good in reality and the personal touch is MUCH better in the long run.
On the positive side the graphical performance is excellent. Whether it's the OpenGL result in CineBench R11.5, or the excellent results we saw in both Unigine and 3D Mark, the MSI G45 Gaming lives up to its billing as designed for gamers. Equally the SoundBlaster Cinema sound is good, but it's still a Realtek ALC892 beneath the hood. The merits of the Killer Networking solution have been long debated, and whilst there isn't any particular advantage in ping or speed in standard situations, if your PC unexpectedly starts updating something or you forgot to kill a torrent, then the traffic shaping keeps your gaming smooth.
The only real competition for the G45 comes from MSI themselves, with both the Z77A Gaming GD65 and Z77 MPower providing even more extraordinary value for money at only £30 more for better overclocking and richer features. But for £120 you're getting a great looking motherboard with decent overclocking and performance that is better than the relative clockspeed would indicate. If you want a motherboard that does all the good things right, and looks the part, then you could do a lot worse than the MSI Z77A G45 Gaming, and we're happy to award it our OC3D Gamers Choice award.
Thanks to MSI for supplying the G45 Gaming for review. Discuss your thoughts in the OC3D Forums.