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Editor's Note: If you've been holding off on a Sandy Bridge-based upgrade, anticipating Intel's Z68 Express, we have a special opportunity for you. CyberPower offered us one of its new Power Mega 1000 configurations with a Core i5-2500K and Asus Z68 platform to give away to a lucky Tom's Hardware reader. Flip through our review and, on the last page, enter to win a brand new PC, compliments of CyberPower!
We've Been Waiting...
Intel pulled off a big coup in January of 2011. It really wasn't a surprise that the company's Sandy Bridge architecture delivered impressive performance on the processing side. Rather, Intel's big win was the hardware-accelerated encode and decode functionality rolled up into its Quick Sync engine. Dedicating valuable die space to speeding up such a specific workload was a gutsy move. However, the performance we saw from Quick Sync in Intel’s Second-Gen Core CPUs: The Sandy Bridge Review was super-impressive. From there, we went even deeper, exploring the quality of what comes out the other end of Intel's video engine in Video Transcoding Examined: AMD, Intel, And Nvidia In-Depth. For the first time, Intel was able to school AMD and Nvidia in a field that both competitors historically dominated.
At least on the surface, Intel seemed to have the perfect enthusiast-oriented value-add to go along with its Cougar Point-based chipsets, P67 and H67 Express. Somewhere along the way, though, marketing got in the way and dictated that P67 would enable processor-based overclocking and dual-GPU configurations, while H67 could facilitate access to the integrated HD Graphics core, including Quick Sync. Thus, enthusiasts were explicitly blocked from utilizing the capability. And anyone who wanted to exploit the goodness of Quick Sync had to also lean on Intel's mediocre 3D engine as well.
Talk about a bum deal.
The silver lining was that, back in January, we knew about this chipset called Z68 Express that'd effectively combine the benefits of P67 with the integrated graphics handling of H67. That sounded promising. At least there was a planned platform that'd address the primary (and very unnecessary) limitations of both existing Sandy Bridge-compatible chipsets.
Now, the fact that Z68 paves the way for processor-based overclocking and integrated graphics is great. But no self-respecting gamer is going to overclock his K-series processor to 5 GHz and then lean on Intel's HD Graphics solution just for easy access to Quick Sync-accelerated transcoding. So, Z68 itself wasn't going to solve the company's little capability conundrum.
But what we didn't know at the time was that Lucidlogix planned to unveil a piece of software called Virtu for H67- and Z68-based motherboards. Originally, Virtu was to let power users connect a display to the HD Graphics engine, along with a discrete card, and essentially run games on the add-in GPU, while transcoding apps would be accelerated natively via Quick Sync. We explored that implementation in Can Lucidlogix Right Sandy Bridge’s Wrongs? Virtu, Previewed.
Shortly after, though, Lucidlogix let us know that it'd found a way to operate the discrete card natively, virtualizing Quick Sync instead. That was the configuration we really wanted. And we got to take it for a test drive in Intel Z68 Express Chipset Preview: SSD Caching And Quick Sync.
But our early Z68 workhorse wasn't licensed, making it impossible to use all of Virtu's features. We were also running an early version of Intel's Rapid Storage Technology software, so we couldn't generate final performance numbers using the company's SSD caching feature. Today, the rev-limiter is off; we're able to kick the tires and light the fires on Z68 Express, the chipset we've been recommending you wait for since Sandy Bridge first launched earlier this year. We have more exhaustive Virtu testing, and more definitive SSD-based caching results.