Intel Z77 Express Chipset
Intel launched their latest desktop platform in the first half of April 2012, beginning with board products. The Intel Z77 Express platform is an incremental upgrade from previous platforms, adding additional features and providing a wider level of functionality with full support for the 3rd Generation Core i5/i7 family of CPUs, commonly called Ivy Bridge in enthusiast circles.
The Ivy Bridge CPUs are made using a new 28nm process technology that lowers power consumption and gives a bit more performance-per-clock over previous Intel 2nd Generation Core i5/i7 products. Also changed is the onboard GPU that's part of the Ivy Bridge silicon, now taking up more of that slice of silicon that sits under the integrated heatspreader.
The integrated PCIe bus on the CPU has also been upgraded. It can be split differently from SandyBridge CPUs with IvyBridge natively supporting three devices over a single bus with 16 lanes of PCIe 3.0 connectivity, compared to the two devices and PCIe 2.0 connectivity that are found inside Sandy Bridge products. Taking advantage of that added PCIe functionality requires a motherboard design change from previous Sandybridge-supporting motherboards. Backwards and forwards component compatibility for both SandyBridge and IvyBridge platform products, including CPUs and chipsets, is still possible with updated firmware for older Socket 1155 board products. Using a new IvyBridge CPU with an older P67 Express or Z68 Express motherboard may limit PCIe functionality. PCIe functionality would, naturally, with SandyBridge only supporting two devices, be limited. The tertiary slot provided on some Z77 Express boards will not work with some products when a SandyBridge CPU is installed.
MSI has released several Big Bang products in the past, a label they reserve for the most high-end of their high-end. This one has several new features, including a claim of being the first "Overclock Certified" motherboard, and they tell me each board is hand-tested to be able to reach 4.6 GHz with "K-SKU" CPUs, passing a series of tests in multiple cooling environments. Honestly, that clock is a bit modest to me, as you've seen all boards I've tested with Ivybridge reaching 4.6 GHz, except for one that offered no overclocking at all. However, that isn't everything this board has to offer, so let's take a look.