The Board - Layout
The board made a great first impression once I took it out of its anti-static bag. The board itself is covered in a matte black finish with a few slashes of yellow on a couple of heatsinks. The heatsinks themselves are a dark grey rather than black, but still fit in quite nicely. The rear of the board is pretty open, and I noticed that MSI used screws to mount the heatsinks.
I did notice something else on the rear, though. It seems that the MSI Big Bang Z77 MPower is a 9-layer PCB, rather than the normal six or eight layers that most other boards use. This should help with heat dissipation through the board itself, as well as offer a decent level of protection for interference from EMI sources, while providing enough separation between devices to aid stability. The socket area is surrounded by quite a few capacitors, but MSI uses solid capacitors here, making clearance issues, and insulation for extreme cooling no problem at all.
There are seven expansion slots on the Z77 MPower board, three PCIe x16 slots, and four PCIe x1 slots. The PCIe slots offer a x16 link in total only, with that link splitting in half if a card is inserted into the lower slot, leading to a x8/x8 configuration. If you install a card into the bottom slot (even with the slot in the middle unpopulated), you'll get a x8/x4/x4 configuration if you have an Ivybridge CPU installed. If you use a Sandybridge CPU, the bottom slot will not work. There are four slots for DDR3 onboard, each supporting DIMMs up to 8 GBs in density. MSI lists them as possible of pushing speeds up to 3000+ MHz, great for those high-end overclocking ram kits.
The bottom board edge is full of headers, including a few I've not seen before. The usual audio and USB and such are here, but there's one block in the middle listed as "JDLED3", which to me translates as "Jumper-Diagnostic LED3", and LED1 and LED2 are found elsewhere, too. I am not sure if MSI already has some special device that connects here, or whether this is for a future device. The front-panel block is in the middle as well, which is not the most ideal spot, to say the least.
The USB 3.0 header is found between the SATA ports and the 24-pin connector, a right-angled header that I haven't seen very often. Nice touch, MSI. There are a total of five 4-pin PWM-based fan-headers on the MSI Big Bang Z77 MPower with not a single 3-pin in sight. Another nice touch.
The rear I/O panel has six USB 3.0 ports. There are two USB 2.0 ports and a PS/2 keyboard/mouse port. There are both wireless and Bluetooth dongles sticking out, a LAN port, and a HDMI and Display port, with a digital output at the top. The analogue audio portion has six ports in total for 7.1 audio, line in, and mic, all at the same time.