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|
|Row 0 - Cell 0||ASRock Z68 Pro3||Biostar TZ68A+||Gigabyte Z68XP-UD3||Intel DZ68DB||MSI Z68A-GD55|
|Chipset||Intel Z68 Express||Intel Z68 Express||Intel Z68 Express||Intel Z68 Express||Intel Z68 Express|
|Voltage Regulator||Five Phases||Five Phases||Seven Phases||Five Phases||Eight Phases|
|BIOS||P1.30 (05/19/2011)||F510 (05/10/2011)||F1 (05/19/2011)||0014 (04/13/2011)||M3 (06/10/2011)|
|100.0 MHz BCLK||99.8 (-0.2%)||99.8 (-0.2%)||99.8 (-0.2%)||99.8 (-0.2%)||99.8 (-0.2%)|
|Clock Generator||Z68 Integrated||Z68 Integrated||Z68 Integrated||Z68 Integrated||Z68 Integrated|
|PCIe x16||1||2 (x16/x4)||2 (x16/x0 or x8/x8)||1||2 (x16/x0 or x8/x8)|
|USB 2.0||2 (4-ports)||3 (6-ports)||3 (6-ports)||4 (8-ports)||3 (6-ports)|
|USB 3.0||None||None||1 (2-ports)||None||1 (2-ports)|
|SATA 3.0 Gb/s||4||4||4||3||4|
|SATA 6.0 Gb/s||2||2||4||2||2|
|S/PDIF I/O||Output Only||Output Only||Output Only||None||Output Only|
|CLR_CMOS Button||Jumper Only||Jumper Only||Jumper Only||None||Jumper Only|
|Diagnostics Panel||None||Pass/Fail LEDs||Pass/Fail LEDs||None||None|
|I/O Panel Connectors|
|Digital Audio Out||Optical Only||None||Optical Only||Optical Only||Optical + Coaxial|
|Digital Audio In||None||None||None||None||None|
|Video Out||DVI-D, HDMI, VGA||DVI-I, HDMI, VGA||HDMI||DVI-I, HDMI, DisplayPort||DVI-D, HDMI, VGA|
|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 3 x SATA 3Gb/s 1 x eSATA 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||0, 1, 5, 10|
|Add-In SATA||None||None||88SE9172 PCIe 2 x SATA 6Gb/s||None||None|
|Add-In Ultra ATA||None||None||None||None||None|
|USB 3.0||Etron EJ168A PCIe||ASM1042 PCIe||2 x Etron EJ168A PCIe||D720200F1 PCIe||2 x D720200F1 PCIe 2 x VLI VL810 Hub|
|IEEE-1394||None||None||VT6308P PCI 2 x 400 Mb/s||VT6315N PCIe 2 x 400 Mb/s||None|
|Primary LAN||RTL8111E PCIe||RTL8111E PCIe||RTL8111E PCIe||WG82579V PHY||RTL8111E PCIe|
|HD Audio Codec||ALC892||ALC892||ALC889||ALC892||ALC892|
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.