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From $100 To $160: Five Z68-Based Boards, Compared

Almost Affordable

Intel’s Z68 Express chipset represents the pinnacle of mainstream performance, with Quick Sync video transcoding times unmatched by any general-purpose graphics processor at the high-end.

Unfortunately, the contradiction of a mainstream platform capable of the fastest available performance divides some motherboard designers over how this market should really be divided up. In fact, there's one popular board vendor that doesn't even have a mid-ranged Z68-based offering; everything is intended for more enthusiast-oriented environments.

Z68's issue centers on value. The benefit of Quick Sync means you either have to use Intel's anemic integrated graphics core or Lucidlogix's Virtu software. And obviously, if there's a drop of power user blood running through your veins, you'd build a Z68-based machine using integrated graphics and Virtu. Otherwise, you'd simply go the H67 Express route. One of our engineering friends even gave us a specific price of $20, off the record of course, to upgrade the chipset from P67 to Z68 and add the Virtu license. That same $20 could be put towards a couple of extra controllers (USB 3.0 or SATA 6Gb/s) and a beefier voltage regulator on a P67-based model, undercutting a manufacturer’s ability to present Z68 as a more attractive implementation

On the other hand, Z68 Express sports a second unique feature that targets buyers who can’t justify the expense of a large solid-state drive. SSD caching allows small flash-based devices to act as nonvolatile cache for a larger hard disk, giving buyers on a budget a performance tease, as reads get accelerated over time, while writes aren't helped much at all.

What this means for Tom’s Hardware is that a market accustomed to sub-$140 P67-based motherboards must be asked to consider spending up to $20 more in order to retain the same on-board components, upgrade to the Z68 chipset, and gain access to a Virtu license. With that set as our target limit, all but one of the boards submitted for today’s comparison was completely qualified.

Z68 Motherboard Features
ASRock Z68 Pro3Biostar TZ68A+Gigabyte Z68XP-UD3Intel DZ68DBMSI Z68A-GD55
PCB Revision1.036.01.0Initial4.0
ChipsetIntel Z68 ExpressIntel Z68 ExpressIntel Z68 ExpressIntel Z68 ExpressIntel Z68 Express
Voltage RegulatorFive PhasesFive PhasesSeven PhasesFive PhasesEight Phases
BIOSP1.30 (05/19/2011)F510 (05/10/2011)F1 (05/19/2011)0014 (04/13/2011)M3 (06/10/2011)
100.0 MHz BCLK99.8 (-0.2%)99.8 (-0.2%)99.8 (-0.2%)99.8 (-0.2%)99.8 (-0.2%)
Clock GeneratorZ68 IntegratedZ68 IntegratedZ68 IntegratedZ68 IntegratedZ68 Integrated
Internal Interfaces
PCIe x1612 (x16/x4)2 (x16/x0 or x8/x8)12 (x16/x0 or x8/x8)
PCIe x1/x43/01/03/02/03/0
Legacy PCI22232
USB 2.02 (4-ports)3 (6-ports)3 (6-ports)4 (8-ports)3 (6-ports)
USB 3.0NoneNone1 (2-ports)None1 (2-ports)
Serial Port111None1
Parallel PortNone1NoneNoneNone
Ultra-ATA 133NoneNoneNoneNoneNone
SATA 3.0 Gb/s44434
SATA 6.0 Gb/s22422
4-Pin Fan21232
3-Pin Fan422None3
S/PDIF I/OOutput OnlyOutput OnlyOutput OnlyNoneOutput Only
Power ButtonNoneYesNoneNoneYes
Reset ButtonNoneYesNoneNoneYes
CLR_CMOS ButtonJumper OnlyJumper OnlyJumper OnlyNoneJumper Only
Diagnostics PanelNonePass/Fail LEDsPass/Fail LEDsNoneNone
I/O Panel Connectors
P/S 2111None1
USB 2.042864
USB 3.022222
CLR_CMOS ButtonNoneNoneNoneNoneYes
Digital Audio OutOptical OnlyNoneOptical OnlyOptical OnlyOptical + Coaxial
Digital Audio InNoneNoneNoneNoneNone
Analog Audio53656
Other DevicesNoneNoneNoneNoneNone
Mass Storage Controllers
Chipset SATA2 x SATA 6Gb/s 4 x SATA 3Gb/s2 x SATA 6Gb/s 4 x SATA 3Gb/s2 x SATA 6Gb/s 4 x SATA 3Gb/s2 x SATA 6Gb/s 3 x SATA 3Gb/s 1 x eSATA 3Gb/s2 x SATA 6Gb/s 4 x SATA 3Gb/s
Chipset RAID Modes0, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 10
Add-In SATANoneNone88SE9172 PCIe 2 x SATA 6Gb/sNoneNone
Add-In Ultra ATANoneNoneNoneNoneNone
USB 3.0Etron EJ168A PCIeASM1042 PCIe2 x Etron EJ168A PCIeD720200F1 PCIe2 x D720200F1 PCIe 2 x VLI VL810 Hub
IEEE-1394NoneNoneVT6308P PCI 2 x 400 Mb/sVT6315N PCIe 2 x 400 Mb/sNone
Gigabit Ethernet
Secondary LANNoneNoneNoneNoneNone
HD Audio CodecALC892ALC892ALC889ALC892ALC892
DDL/DTS ConnectNoneNoneNoneNoneNone

With production only beginning to ramp up, MSI had to do a little finagling with rebates in order to qualify its Z68A-GD55 for a $160 roundup. Currently listed at the same $170 upfront cost as the discounted Z68A-GD65, both motherboards are now available with an additional $20 rebate. The full price for the higher-model board is $190, so we expect to see a $20 price delta between these two models after Newegg's temporary discount expires.