ASRock Z68 Extreme4
Likely the best-equipped motherboard in today’s roundup, the Z68 Extreme4 uses a PLX PCIe bridge to keep all of its features active simultaneously. Five onboard interface controllers and two PCIe x1 slots share four of the Z68’s eight PCIe 2.0 lanes, while the other four are directed to a single x16-length slot at the bottom.
Those controllers include dual Etron USB 3.0, Marvell SATA/eSATA 6Gb/s, VIA IEEE-1394, and a Broadcom gigabit Ethernet IC. ASRock sees the reputable BCM57781 as an unusual strength, while we still spot the sharing of one SATA and eSATA connector on a single port as an unusual weakness. Those who wish to keep eSATA available must view this as a seven-internal-drive design.
Those eight lanes originating from the Z68 PCH are, of course, in addition to the sixteen provided directly by the CPU, allowing one graphics card full x16 lane width. The second card borrows eight lanes from the first via automatic pathway switches, allowing x8/x8 SLI and CrossFire at the lowest possible latency.
ASRock keeps its USB 3.0 port at the bottom edge, in spite of our previous protests, but its engineers did work to slide it forward to allow the included two-port bay adapter easier cable reach from any enclosure's mid-mounted 3.5” bay. Power and reset buttons make bench testing easier, a Port 80 diagnostics display makes it easier to figure out the origin of a boot failure, and a replaceable BIOS IC makes it easier to repair the board in case an overclocker does something terribly wrong.
Encouraging those over-the-top overclocking efforts is a 12-phase voltage regulator with fairly large chokes. ASRock has been providing overcurrent protection with its boards for a while, and has more recently increased the capacity of these components to a size where we no longer bump up against its limits.
ASRock’s Z68 Extreme4 comes with four SATA cables, the minimum we require of mid-range-or-better installation kits. ASRock’s big bonus is its dual-port USB 3.0 to 3.5” drive bay adapter, which includes a 2.5” drive tray in its frame and a card slot bracket for optional rear mounting. An SLI bridge and stereo mini-jack bridge add finishing touches.