Four Z68 Express-Based Motherboards For Enthusiasts
Tom’s Hardware editor Andrew Ku called Intel’s Z68 Express a “real enthusiast chipset” back in May, when it was revealed that this platform controller hub is the only one able to utilize all of the features packed into Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors. Multiplier-based processor overclocking and Quick Sync-optimized video transcoding were mutually exclusive on the P67 and H67 platforms. It took Z68 to make them both accessible on the same chipset. Intel also added a much-anticipated technology that turned small SSDs into caches for mechanical hard drives (though we still recommend loading your performance-sensitive apps onto a larger, dedicated SSD if that fits within your budget).
Power users could argue that Intel's X58 platform is the only one suitable for enthusiasts, since it features more than two times as many PCI Express 2.0 lanes than an LGA 1155-based processor. However, Sandy Bridge incorporates that connectivity onto the CPU itself, facilitating quicker access. Besides, some enthusiasts don’t need the extra lanes. Those same power users could also argue that X58's LGA 1366 interface is the only one able to accommodate six-core CPUs. But we've already seen a notebook version of Sandy Bridge best those Gulftown-based chips in applications that use four or fewer cores. Desktop-oriented Sandy Bridge processors are available at even higher clock rates, and the K-series parts facilitate some pretty impressive overclocking results, too.
So it turns out that Z68 is suitable to at least some (actually most) enthusiasts. But what sets enthusiast-class Z68 boards apart from their mainstream counterparts?
|Enthusiast Z68 Motherboard Features|
|ASRock Z68 Extreme7||Asus P8Z68 Deluxe||Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD5||MSI Z68A-GD80|
|Chipset||Intel Z68 Express||Intel Z68 Express||Intel Z68 Express||Intel Z68 Express|
|Voltage Regulator||10 Phases||16 Phases||21 Phases||13 Phases|
|BIOS||P1.1 (08/25/2011)||0706 (08/05/2011)||F4e (08/25/2011)||V17.2 (07/18/2011)|
|100.0 MHz BCLK||99.8 (-0.2%)||100.0 (+0.0%)||99.8 (-0.2%)||99.8 (-0.2%)|
|PCIe 3.0 x16||1 (16 Lanes, Shared)||None||None||2 (x16/x0 or x8/x8)|
|PCIe 2.0 x16||4 (x16/x16/x0/x4 or x16/x8/x8/x4)||3 (x16/x0/x4 or x8/x8/x4)||3 (x16/x0/x4 or x8/x8/x4)||1 (x4, 3 Lanes, Shared)|
|PCIe x1/x4||1/0||2/0||2 (Shared w/x16-3) / 0||2/0|
|Legacy PCI||1||2||2||2 (Shared w/x16-3)|
|USB 2.0||4 (8 ports)||2 (4 ports)||2 (4 ports)||3 (6 ports)|
|USB 3.0||1 (2 ports)||1 (2 ports)||2 (4 ports)||1 (2 ports)|
|Serial Port||1||None||None||1 (mini)|
|SATA 6.0 Gb/s||6||4||2||3|
|SATA 3.0 Gb/s||4||4||4||4|
|S/PDIF I/O||Output Only||Output Only||Output Only||Output Only|
|I/O Panel Connectors|
|USB 2.0||2||8||6 (2, shared w/eSATA)||4|
|IEEE-1394||1||1||2 (shared w/USB 2.0)||1|
|Digital Audio Out||Optical Only||Optical + Coaxial||Optical + Coaxial||Optical Only|
|Digital Audio In||None||None||None||None|
|Video Out||VGA, DVI, Displayport, HDMI||None||HDMI||DVI-I, HDMI|
|Other Devices||None||Bluetooth Transceiver||None||None|
|Mass Storage Controllers|
|Chipset SATA||2 x SATA 6Gb/s 4 x SATA 3Gb/s||2 x SATA 6Gb/s 4 x SATA 3Gb/s||2 x SATA 6Gb/s 4 x SATA 3Gb/s||2 x SATA 6Gb/s 4 x SATA 3Gb/s|
|Chipset RAID Modes||0, 1, 5, 10||0, 1, 5, 10||0, 1, 5, 10||0, 1, 5, 10|
|Add-In SATA||ASM1061 PCIe||88SE9128 PCIe||88SE9128 PCIe||88SE9128 PCIe|
|USB 3.0||2 x AMS1042 PCIe||2 x D720200F1 PCIe||D720200F1 PCIe 2 x VLI VL810 Hub||2 x D720200F1 PCIe (Shared w/x16-3)|
|IEEE-1394||VT6315N PCIe 2 x 400 Mb/s||VT6315N PCIe 2 x 400 Mb/s||TSB43AB23 PCI 3 x 400 Mb/s||VT6308P PCI 2 x 400 Mb/s (Shared w/x16-3)|
|Primary LAN||BCM57781 PCIe||WG82579V PHY||RTL8111E PCIe||RTL8111E PCIe|
|Secondary LAN||BCM57781 PCIe||RTL8111E PCIe||None||RTL8111E PCIe|
|HD Audio Codec||ALC892||ALC889||ALC889||ALC892|
|DDL/DTS Connect||Not Specified||Not Specified||Not Specified||Not Specified|
Unlike some of the boards in our low-cost Z68 Express round-up, all of these enthusiast-class models are designed specifically for multi-card graphics configurations. MSI’s Z68A-GD80 is specifically intended to provide two installed cards the bandwidth benefits of PCIe 3.0 transfers, which will double the data rate once Intel’s next-generation LGA 1155 processors (based on the Ivy Bridge architecture) reach the market.
ASRock’s Z68 Extreme7 is even designed for three-way SLI, using the NF200 PCIe hub as a repeater (Nvidia Broadcast mode) to provide two of its cards with full x16 transfers.
Asus adds a Bluetooth transceiver, while Gigabyte doubles the number of available USB 3.0 connections. All four companies beef-up their voltage regulators for increased stability (especially when overclocking). Three of these boards include two network controllers, and Asus leans on Intel’s gigabit PHY in the hope of providing a more dependable connection.
But we can’t describe every detail of each motherboard on a single page, so let’s take a specific look at the details that make each of today’s motherboards special.