MSI Z77A-G41 LGA 1155 Motherboard Review
While it's usually the high end boards that get the most attention, it's often the lower end and mid-range boards that many people purchase. With this in mind we get back to basics with the Z77A-G41 which is an entry level offering from MSI that boasts many enthusiast features.
Let me start by saying that overclocking is not the Z77A-G41's strong suit. Overclocking was easy in a sense because the board gives you very little options for doing it. There is no control over the power phases, probably due to the fact that you've only got a 4+1 configuration to work with. So there is no load-line calibration to set or power phase response control. CPU PLL voltage cannot be set beyond enabling overvoltage. CPU voltage is an offset only mode and you'll get about 1.28v and that's it; serious overclockers need not apply.
I also ran into other problems overclocking with C1E enabled as the board would constantly throttle back and forth between the overclocked setting and the stock clock speeds. I had to disable C1E in order to correct for this which also meant that the board basically stayed at the maximum overclocked speed all the time. It never reduced clocks as the work load was reduced. I also noticed that my voltage readings fluctuated quite a bit. With a setting of 1.28v, it read anywhere from 1.98-1.28 and everything in between. Adjusting the base clock was a fruitless endeavor as the board can't handle it. I couldn't do anything with a multiplier set above 46x. I tend to adjust the multiplier upwards, then squeeze in a few more MHz with some base clock adjustments. Again this just didn't work. Such efforts were met with worker's failing in Prime95 and eventual BSOD's after a short time.
Despite 1.28v being enough to reach 4.8GHz on other boards, the Z77A-G41 just wasn't capable of doing it. I think poor voltage regulation and an insufficient number of power phases are to blame for this. Even if you could achieve such speeds, the lack of cooling the board has would have me concerned about longevity.
So if you are looking for a great budget overclocker, you'll want to look elsewhere. The Z77A-G41 isn't for you. Don't let the results below fool you. I don't think the board could hold that overclock for the long haul.
4.68GHz (100.00 x 47.0) DDR3 1600MHz
The first thing I noticed when I pulled this thing out of the box is that it felt cheap. The lack of weight from having virtually nothing on the PCB surface is likely the cause of that feeling. Still there are few power phases, and few enthusiast features either. You have no cooling hardware to speak of and the UEFI lacks the necessary options for solid overclocking and even if they were there, the board just isn't built for it.
MSI seems to have tried to bring the Z77 chipset into a lower price point and I think it has utterly failed to do so. It would be one thing if the board was at least decent at stock speeds but it isn't. I had quite a few problems with this board during the time I used it. Among the fun features of the board is the inability to boot with any USB 2.0 or 3.0 device plugged into any USB ports besides the ones closest to the PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports. And even then only the USB keyboard and mouse didn't cause a problem in those ports. I'd get a B4 error code and a blinking cursor when any USB device was inadvertently left plugged in. Another problem I encountered is a no-POST condition which resulted from plugging a discreet graphics adapter into the primary PEG slot while the SATA hot plug feature was enabled. Kyle's notes detailed this problem and I wanted to verify it as our system configurations differ quite a bit and I was able to do so easily.
To make matters worse I couldn't get video out of the primary PEG slot at all with the GTX 580 reference card. A GeForce 9500GT worked fine, but the GTX 580 didn't. When I moved the GTX 580 to the bottom PEG slot I ran into clearance issues thanks to those vertical SATA ports. Those things simply suck. Other layout issues like the difficult placement of the CMOS battery placement are inexcusable even at this price point. The PCB surface is virtually empty. All they had to do was move it during the design phase.
I'm seriously disappointed in MSI. I've evaluated some of its budget offerings in the past and found those to be an incredible value for the money with enthusiast-like features and performance at a budget price point. This board is not one of those. It's cheap, it's quirky, and unpolished. I have no confidence in this board's ability to do anything over a protracted period of time and the quirks are inexcusable. It has minimal features yet those features do not necessarily work correctly. Amateur hour layout mistakes on such a simple board leave me scratching my head and asking, "Why?" I'd avoid this board at all costs even if that meant saving another week or two until my piggy bank would allow me to buy something better. The board may only be around $114 or so but trust me, you’re better off saving up for something else. You'll be glad you did. (Editor’s Note: In the last two weeks since Dan wrote his conclusion, the MSI Z77A-G41 has dropped in price to $89.99 after $10 MIR.)
This MSI Z77A-G41 had several issues right out of the box. First off it seemed to have issues with certain video cards and being able to POST once you have saved out of the BIOS. To let you know the depth of my testing, here is a list of cards that were used to try and pinpoint what turns out to be a two-pronged issue: GTX 570-No POST, GTX 470-No POST, Radeon 5670-No POST , Radeon 7970-POST OK, Radeon X1950-POST OK, Radeon 2900XT-POST OK, GTX 680-POST OK. Moving a card back and forth between PCIe slots would allow it to POST though between reboots. I worked on what seemed to surely be a video card compatibility issue for a long while. In the end, and after a lot of granular testing, it ended up being that having Hot Swap SATA AHCI enabled was causing my No-POST problems. Turn off Hot Swap SATA in the BIOS and all the POSTing issues went away. I talked to MSI about this and it could confirm no issues with motherboards that it had in house. Hot Swap did however work fine inside the OS when it was enabled and you could trick the board into POSTing.
For what it is worth, I did use the latest v2.4 BIOS that I downloaded from the MSI site for testing. That BIOS flash did work fine using the onboard flashing utility. All of the video card testing did also remind me that the days gone by of vertical SATA headers can be a PITA.
Running gaming benchmarks was not an easy task either, and likely will not be a problem you would run into but it is worth mentioning. Our Lost Planet and STALKER benchmarks require a sound source and driver install to run. Lost Planet returned a "DirectSoundCreate8 Failed" error and STALKER returned a "OpenAL: Can’t create sound device" error. Looking on the MSI support site I found a newer audio driver from 7/26/2012, but no notes as to what was fixed. I did download and install this driver but got the same benchmark errors. Given this, I plugged in a set of headphone to see if I was actually getting sound. Once I did this, the OS saw that the sound device was working and it fixed my issue. Again not likely an end user problem, but something you might want to be aware of. I have never seen this issue on any other motherboard I have personally tested…which is every single motherboard we have ever reviewed since 1997.
Beyond these odd issues, I did not have problems with the MSI Z77A-G41 overall. Stability testing proved successful and incubated Torture Testing went quite well also. Incubated the board returned an ambient temperature of 41C, which I thought was a bit high given the 4+1 power phase design, but it ran under these stressed conditions for 3.5 days without issue. Many boards we see drop a thread under Prime95 after so long but the Z77A-G41 trucked right along and never hiccupped.
For overclocking I moved to a simple multiplier increase of 44 using our retail purchased Intel Core i7 3770K processor. Prime95 failed at 4.4GHz with all stock BIOS settings. Manually adjusting the vCore to 1.2v gave me a solid system under full CPU, RAM, and GPU loads. I could not get the board stable above 4.4GHz with increased vCore tweaks however. Moving to the OC Genie II application in the BIOS proved to be a waste of time. I could not get it to ever actually work. It would report that it was but no clock changes were ever seen inside the OS.
The MSI Click BIOS II has always been a pain in the ass to work with. We have reported this to MSI multiple times and we always get the response, and I paraphrase, "Everyone else likes it besides you and Dan." That may be true, but I still think that MSI’s implementation of UEFI pretty much sucks. This is what I wrote in my notes during testing. "Click BIOS II is more mouse usable than it used to be, but you still have to be a fast clicking son of a bitch in a lot of menus. The mouse pointer however is much more manageable and smooth." I think that is all I need to say.
The Bottom Line
We acquired this MSI Z77A-G41 motherboard because it looked as if it might be a diamond in the rough when it comes to budget prices motherboards. The Z77A-G41 was marketing some of MSI’s enthusiast class features and the motherboard is fairly inexpensive; coming in at $89 after $10 MIR at both Amazon with Free Prime Shipping and Newegg. That is basically a $25 drop in price since we acquired the board. At $90, the MSI Z77A-G41 should be attractive to some folks as the board was stable under a lot of stress testing and for the price was not a bad overclocker. The Z77A-G41 is not an enthusiast class motherboard even though we see some of MSI’s enthusiast marketing jargon printed on the box. With a little insight and some patience, the Z77A-G41 might however fit your build needs, just be prepared to jump through some hoops. If I were a small system integrator, I would surely look elsewhere for a trouble free build.