The MSI 790FX-GD70 is a good looking board with its uniform blue on black theme and understated dull-silver cooling arrangement. Unlike a lot of other gamer oriented boards on the market these days, the GD70 isn't flashy, its components aren't randomly colored in a hundred hues and it doesn't sport an over-sized ornamental northbridge heatsink. What the GD70 does have is a clean, stealthy look that could easily pass as a serious workstation board.
Looks aside, the 790FX-GD70 is also a very well laid out board. Most of the connectors are where you would expect them, which is a good thing as many gamer and modder oriented chassis these days offer built-in cable routing features that cater to the typical layout.
The ATX 24-pin connector is on the edge of the board near the middle, and the 8-pin ATX12V connector is at the top corner near the rear I/O; both typical positions that will work well in most chassis. The USB, IEEE1394, front I/O and floppy connectors are arranged smartly along the bottom edge of the board while the single IDE channel connector is placed just under the ATX 24-pin connector.
MSI has rightly chosen to arrange the IDE connector at a 90 degree angle which will prevent the IDE cable from interfering with extra long expansion cards such as many modern PCI-E video cards. The 6 SATA ports offered by the SB750 southbridge are located right next to the IDE connector and they are also oriented at a 90 degree angle for the same reason. Two additional internal SATA ports offered by the onboard JMicron JMB322 chip are located further in on the board, next to the southbridge. They are oriented in the traditional upright position.
Component positioning and clearance on the board is generally quite good. The four DIMM slots are positioned a fair distance away from the CPU socket to allow for large heatsinks and they also don't interfere with the first PCI-E x16 slot. The GD70 doesn't have a massive decorative heatsink arrangement, instead using a purely functional design. The cooling consists of two passively cooled heatinks connected by a single large heatpipe. The northbridge headsink also cools the power regulation chips like the DrMOS MOSFET chip. The entire cooling arrangement is very low profile and doesn't present any obstacles for expansion cards.
The CPU socket is relatively clear of obstructions and the DIMM slots, as well as the northbridge heatsink, are offset enough to allow all but the most massive of CPU heatsinks. Located around the edges of the board are four chassis fan connectors; two connectors for the rear exhaust fan and/or power supply near the rear I/O panel and two more connectors for intake fans located on the opposite edge, near the bottom of the board.
Overall the 790FX-GD70 is well laid out and all the connectors seem to be logically placed except for one glaring issue. The front panel audio connector on the GD70 is placed at the bottom left corner of the board, or in other words, just about the furthest possible distance from the front/top of the chassis where the front audio panel would be. The front audio connector cable in many chassis configurations may not be long enough to even reach the connector, especially with multiple expansion cards in place. Take this into consideration if you plan on loading the GD70 with expansion cards and also require front panel audio. We wish MSI had included a front panel audio extension cable for those chassis configurations where the supplied cable wouldn't reach.
While the 790FX-GD70 doesn't have the typical visual flash of many gamer boards, it does have plenty of little extras that will please many enthusiasts. Located at the bottom-right edge of the board is a row of buttons which control basic functions like power, reset, and clear CMOS. There is also a button that toggles the board's Green Power adaptive phase system and another button that enables the GD70's OC Dial feature. The OC Dial is literally a small physical dial located on the board that can be used for overclocking. When the system is enabled, the dial can be used to increase and decrease the board's FSB on the fly, much like one would change the volume. Even better, the OC Dial feature doesn't require special software or drivers; you simply need to be booted. This is a neat little feature, but one that should be used with caution, as with all overclocking efforts.
The 790FX-GD70 also features a large number of ultra-bright blue LEDs placed all over the board to indicate a variety of things. There are LEDs to indicate each of the board's CPU power phase modes, there are LEDs for memory phase, system phase, HDD status and a LED to let you know if OC Dial is enabled. The LED clusters are mostly located near the top of the board around the DIMM slots with the exception of the OC Dial indicator LED and the HDD status LED which are positioned next to the onboard buttons. Each one of these LEDs are fairly bright individually and together they can almost illuminate the interior of a chassis all on their own. However, if you'd rather not have your motherboard glow blue, you can disable the power phase indicator LEDs in the BIOS.
Overall, the MSI 790FX-GD70 is a well designed board with several neat features and a good layout. With the possible exception of the front panel audio connector placement, everything on the board just makes sense. The onboard buttons and OC Dial feature definitely make the 790FX-GD70 an attractive choice if you have plans to overclock, or are running a system in an open-air chassis like the Antec Skeleton. However, with the exception of the clear CMOS button, which is always welcome, these features probably won't see much use if you plan on using a traditional enclosed chassis.