It seems that Intel only just managed to fix the P67 and H67 chipsets that it launched early this year (and then recalled). But this hasn’t impacted the release of the Z68, Intel’s enthusiast-focussed chipset for Sandy Bridge. In many ways the Z68 is the chipset that the others should have been, addressing some glaring issues such as the ability to leverage Intel’s QuickSync video transcoding while still having a discreet graphics card installed.
The Z68 also brings with it some new features, such as Smart Response. This refers to new features in the SATA controller and software that allow you to use a small capacity SSD to speed up the hard drive in your system. This delivers roughly 80% more performance than a hard drive alone, but it doesn’t have the same boost that just switching to an SSD would deliver. (We plan on looking deeper into Smart Response next month.)
Gigabyte is pretty aggressively transitioning its LGA 1155 motherboard to the new chipset, which means that they have ones that do and don’t support the integrated graphics functions of the Z68. We have been testing the Z68X-UD3H-B3, which does support processor graphics, but you’ll likely see other models that don’t. As a rule of thumb with Gigabyte motherboards, look for the H suffix in the model name if you want to take advantage of QuickSync.
The next major feature of the Z68 chipset comes with support for switchable graphics. At the moment this involves running Lucid’s Virtu software, (NVIDIA also has a solution coming real soon now for its graphics cards). This works much like NVIDIA’s laptop Optimus technology – the desktop and light workloads are run via processor graphics and then when you fire up a GPU intensive program Virtu detects it and switches over to discreet graphics (this involves ‘profiles’ downloaded from Lucid rather than any auto-detection). It does involve a bit of a performance hit but if you want to use Quicksync and still have enough power for games or GPGPU based software then it is a decent enough solution.
Apart from these two major features the Z68 is largely similar to the P67 and H67 chipsets. It supports LGA 1155 CPUs, but finally allows for overclocking and integrated graphics to exist on the same platform. While overclockers will want to go for Intel’s unlocked K version processors, the Z68 allows users to do a small amount of overclocking to locked processors as well.
As with previous Sandy Bridge motherboards performance is mainly determined by the CPU, which controls not only the memory but the x16 PCI-Express connections. This means that the determining factor in choosing the right motherboard comes down to the feature set on offer. The Z68X-UD3H-B3 is Gigabyte’s highest end Z68 that supports integrated graphics, and as such has a pretty impressive list of features.
On the I/O backplane sit D-Sub, DVI, HDMI and Displayport outputs for the processor graphics. There are two USB 3 and five USB 2 ports (one is a hybrid eSATA one). There are also single PS/2, Gigabit Ethernet and FireWire ports, and the usual array of audio outputs (including optical). The board itself supports seven SATA drives (only two ports are SATA 6Gbps however), front panel USB 3 as well as multiple USB 2 front panel connectors, and both SLI and CrossfireX via the two x16 PCI-Express slots. The area around the CPU socket is remarkably sparse, thanks to a move to space-saving ‘Driver MOSFETS’ for power regulation.
While we still aren’t completely sold on the advantages of Smart Response, Virtu makes for a more compelling feature. Serious gamers will likely want to avoid Virtu due to small performance overheads and a reliance on Lucid to keep its profiles up to date (this can be especially frustrating for those wanting to play a game the day it is released).
We do have to applaud Gigabyte for aggressively moving its products to the Z68, because we can’t help but feel that this is the chipset Intel should have released for Sandy Bridge. It puts to rest some of our concerns over being unable to use Quicksync with discrete graphics, while also bringing with it features that should have turned up the first time around. If Quicksync doesn’t appeal then you won’t need a board with integrated graphics support, but we would still recommend the Z68 over its brethren.