Saturday, November 30, 2013

Enter the Dragon: A look at MSI gaming series motherboards

Here is a tough one for you – what is common between a hardware manufacturer, RPG developer and a Chinese calendar maker? The answer is, along with many other things that come with their respective trades, they all make good use of Dragons! The Dragon, as a mighty myth of mass-marketing, always has good commercial value and as such, seldom fails to inspire the extra bucks out of the pocked of an overwhelmed enthusiast, gamer or tourist! But as with every other creature of legend, they are not easy to work with and it surely takes a little more to tame a Dragon than, say, your average house-cat! MSI, however seems to have mastered this arcane art as this leading motherboard manufacturer now has a formidable line-up in form of it's latest gaming series!

About MSI

MSI (Micro Star International) needs no introduction to any hardware enthusiast or gamer. Even if you’re an advanced user, chances are you might have come across their motherboards or video cards as MSI has been a major player in the PC markets for a long time now. In recent times MSI has extended its portfolio beyond just PC components and has products lines that includes gaming laptops and mobile workstations but motherboards and graphics cards have remained its core business. In India, MSI products are popular among PC users and system integrators alike, mainly because of their performance, robust set of features and the value that they offer.

The Gaming series

It can be rather difficult to define a gaming motherboard as technically, any motherboard that you can play games on can be called one! However, to truly understand the idea behind a gaming motherboard you’ve to consider the fact that a significant number of PC users are also hardcore gamers. A gamer has a vastly different set of requirement and expectation when compared to that of a mainstream user. As a gaming enthusiast you want blazing fast frame rate and components that can keep up with it. This is where the “gaming” motherboard comes into play as it can make your experience more immersive by offering some additional features that are unique to gaming! This idea is nothing new though and the likes of Asus and gigabyte already have well established line of products like the ROG (Republic of Gamers) and Sniper series based on this philosophy. Prior to the Z77 chipset, however, MSI was having a little difficulty getting into this lucrative segment. While their mainstream boards were all solid offerings, they lacked that little extra in form of looks and features which is necessary to capture the imagination of an avid gamer! One could make an argument for the “Big Bang” or “M-Power” here, but in all honesty – they belong to a different category (Extreme Overclocking/ Quad-GPU gaming) and the price range is also higher! MSI needed something to close the gap between their high-end and mainstream offering with the extra gaming appeal.

With the new and rejuvenated “Gaming” series they seem to have found the answer!

Meet the Dragons

and you thought Skyrim had Dragons!
(click to enlarge)
As you can see in the above picture – MSI has no less than 9 (10 with the addition of Z87M) motherboards in their gaming series with more to come! These boards span across 5 different chipsets - ranging from Z87 to B75 and cover both of Intel’s 22nm processors (Haswell and IvyBridge). MSI has concentrated its gaming efforts into Intel’s mainstream platform which is the smart thing to do right now. The high end x79 platform does not offer any gaming advantage over the mainstream Z77/Z87 ones and trails much further behind when it comes to power efficiency; likewise the benefits of the extra PCIe lanes provided by the SandyBridge-E/IvyBridge-E CPUs aren’t fully realized in real world gaming. Ever since Leanfield, Intel’s mainstream and more affordable CPUs have proven to be better gaming chips and it’s good to know that motherboard manufacturers are also aware of the fact. In this case, MSI seems to have gone the extra mile to even include the H87, B85 and B75 chipsets. That’s really impressive as it does offer a lot more option to the user/system-builder. I can’t recall any ROG/Sniper boards based on these chipsets! MSI also has something for those looking for an elegant yet strong micro-ATX build - the Z87m boasting big features in a small form factor!
Needless to say, all these models carry the same dragon DNA which is apparent from their new and distinct heat-sink design. In a massive departure from their previous black and blue color scheme MSI has gone for a more striking red and black combo this time, which along with the pitch black PCB really adds to the ominous vibe! More importantly, all these motherboards have a very clean and organized layout - something that has been a hallmark of MSI design philosophy in recent years. The cooling arrangement on these boards is very good as the heat-sinks are made of an array of thin fins rather than a solid chunk of metal. By providing a wider multi-layer surface area, these types of heat-sinks tend to be more efficient in dissipating heat. Aesthetically, these boards are a treat to the eyes and if you buy your main-boards based on its visual aspects then perhaps there is no point in looking any further!

Features and details

Z87-GD65 - one of the best socket LGA1150 motherboards out there
(click to enlarge)

Thankfully, most of the enthusiasts and gamers I know choose their components based on build-quality, features and functionalities and that’s the proper way to do things as veterans like us know that sometimes, beauty is only (heat)sink-deep! And this is where we’ve to resort to MSI global website which has a very detailed and descriptive explanation of all the features offered. MSI seems to have made these boards loaded with features along with all possible forms video outputs and connectivity. But the stand-out features have to be the addition of Qualcomm's Killer E2200 NIC and MSI Audio Boost! While the former ensures a faster and lag-free networking - optimized for online gaming and high-quality streaming media, the later adds to your listening experience. That killer NIC could be a deciding factor for those who need faster ping and greater bandwidth during their on-line fragging sessions! Back to audio, MSI has used high quality capacitors for better stability and isolated the audio codec(an ALC 1150) by EMI shielding to minimize the interference. There is an integrated 600Ω Headphone amplifier too for powering your favorite headphone! MSI has also included the Sound Blaster Cinema effect which further enhances surround sound quality.

Then there is an interesting little feature called “VGA Boost” which, according to the company, increases the power limitations for MSI GAMING graphics cards when inserted in an MSI GAMING motherboard. The extra power headroom allows the GPU to operate at a higher clock speed for longer duration.

Finally there are the usual suspects like the Military Class moniker which currently is in its 4th generation and incorporates high quality components like the Hi-c Cap, Super Ferrite Choke (SFC) and Solid aluminum core CAPs for enhanced durability and stability of the motherboard. OC Genie, MSI’s one touch solution for automatic overclocking, is also there for those who don’t like do get into BIOS. Speaking of which, we have Click BIOS 4, which is the latest UEFI implementation from MSI with optimizations for Windows 8. On the connectivity front you get USB 3.0, SATA 3 (6 Gbps) and all shorts of video interface like VGA/D-SUB, DVI and HDMI. But these are mostly chipset features and Z87 is currently leading the pack with both number and standard.

First of all, let me start by saying that this is not a review; rather it’s kind of an overview of the entire gaming series from MSI. So if you are looking for details about a particular motherboard – you might as well do some extra readings and researches as it is not unusual for a certain model to come with some odd perks or quirks. There are some links at the bottom of this page that might be useful in this regard. Having said that, I’ve to admit that MSI has done an impressive job here! First and foremost the company has kept the build quality, appearance and feature sets consistent through out the whole series. So even the cheapest of the boards, something like a B85 chipset based motherboard, has all the bells and whistles to satisfy the needs of a demanding gamer! All the boards come with the Killer E2200 and Audio Boost along with VGA Boost, Military Class 4 components and other features. Here is one observation about the Killer NIC – I am not sure it is going to be much of a killer feature for an average Indian gamer. Here in India, users are bandwidth limited for the most part and the NIC is not much of a factor. While this feature can be important to dedicated MMO gamers, for most of the gamers I know the common Realtek gigabit NIC should be just fine! The sound solution on the other hand is a pretty good proposition and anyone with a decent set of speakers/headphones can benefit from it. The next thing is something that I’ve always liked about MSI motherboards – their clean look and I’m happy to report that it’s still there! A clean and uncluttered layout is always helpful for an effortless build and it also looks good. Speaking of looks, the fiery red and jet black color scheme is not everyone’s cup of tea! But Thanks to the clean layout, it doesn’t look out of the place. I like the black heatsinks with slight accent of red on the G-45 and GD-65 models but that’s just my personal preference.
Z87m -small in size, not in features!
(click to enlarge)
Now here I feel the Z87m deserves a special mention as this is the board that MSI seems to be targeting squarely at the size/space conscious gamers. M-ATX gaming space is quite a niche segment but the likes of Maximus VI Gene, Gryphon and G1.Sniper M5 might be up for some serious competition!

Now, let’s move on to the most important thing – price! Newegg, which I regard as the best place for buying computer hardware on-line, has these motherboards well under the $200 mark as of now. The flagship GD-65 or the Arch-Dragon is still a bit pricey at $180 for a gamer on budget but it also has a heat-pipe based cooling solution and 2 extra SATA 6 Gbps ports to boot. For me the best value lies in form of Z87 G45/G43. Along with an i5 4670K CPU and Radeon HD 7870/7850 based video cards, one can make a powerful and efficient gaming rig out of these boards. Here in India, high-end motherboards always come with a hefty price tag! But compared to some of the offerings from ASUS and Gigabyte, these MSI motherboards seem to have better price. I have given some links to on-line sellers in the end of this article but as always, check your local retail shops first for price and availability. 

MSI had put a good deal of effort and attention behind its last two generations of moherboards and the results have been really impressive! With its gaming series, MSI is now offering some of the features found in high-end and costlier products at a mainstream price point. The PC gaming market has always been very competitive and this latest invasion of the dragons will definitely make it more interesting!

On a finishing note, I’d like to see some full featured gaming boards based on AMD’s latest A88x chipset (Bolton D4 platform) when Kaveri makes its appearance. Gigabyte has already launched a “Sniper” branded motherboard on this platform and I see no reason why ASUS and MSI won’t. Also while doing research for this article, I couldn’t find MSI India website which was strange as I’m pretty sure there used to be a dedicated website! Digging further into the matter I was unable to locate India as a supported country in their global website. Whether or not it’s an issue with their supply chain and/or distribution policy, this is not an ideal scenario as there are lots of MSI products selling in India!

Here is a list of reviews from some of the best review websites around the world -

MSI Z87 GD65 Gaming review @ HardOCP, Techpowerup, Overclockersclub
MSI Z87 G45 Gaming review @ Tom's Hardware, Bjorn3d

Links to some online sellers in India - 

MSI Z87 GD65 @Hardware.In

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