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Intel Z68 Review - The Sandy Bridge Platform Expands

Author: SKYMTL
Date: May 11, 2011
Product Name: Intel Z68 Chipset
 
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Say Hello to Z68; Built for the Mainstream Enthusiast


Back when Lynnfield was launched, we were introduced to an all new chipset layout from Intel where many of the usual Northbridge functions were consolidated onto the CPU die. This P55 Express ďIbex PeakĒ chipset allowed for a more integrated layout and also moved away from the traditional two-chip layout of a Northbridge and Southbridge towards a single chipset design. Sandy Bridge on the other hand took things to the next level by introducing the Cougar Point family of 6-series chipsets. While there were surely some initial teething problems that culminated in a widespread product recall, things seem to be (hopefully) back on track.

When they were released the P67-based boards initially targeted the slightly higher end market and Intelís motherboard partners were more than happy to flex their muscles by coming to market with feature rich boards. Other chipsets like the H67 was destined for slightly lower-end product ranges. However, we now have a new wrinkle in the motherboard fabric: Z68.


The high-end Z68 Express chipset layout is nearly identical to the P67 Express but if you look closer, there are some changes. Like on the P67 the 16 PCI-E 2.0 lanes from the processor they can be used in one of two ways: either one slot operating at x16 or dual slots running at x8. This means both Crossfire and SLI are supported though not at their full theoretical bandwidth. In addition, the Processor Graphics can be potentially enabled and interfaces with the chipsetís display and audio outputs through an FDI (Flexible Display Interface).

The Cougar Point chipset (in this case Z68 Express) acts as the control hub for all of the peripheral, display and storage connectors on supporting motherboards. As with P67 it features eight PCI-E lanes and an Intel HD Audio module along with Intelís Extreme Tuning support. Intel Extreme Tuning wasnít available on past IGP-enabled chipsets and adds Windows-based overclocking if you have an unlocked K-series processor as well as some basic system monitoring tools.

Where things really change in comparison with the P67 chipset is the availability of rear-panel display outputs for the processor graphics hub. Unfortunately, not all Z68 boards will come with the necessary connectors and without these, the integrated GPU will remain disabled; effectively eliminating the GPU switching and Quick Sync abilities. The aforementioned Intel Smart Response Technology is another addition which the P67 boards wonít benefit from but otherwise, the external storage capabilities of Z68 mirror those of its sibling.


Many of you may remember this handy little diagram which illustrated the main differences between the H67 and P67 chipsetís abilities and features. The P67 allowed for the overclocking of unlocked K-series Sandy Bridge CPUs but didnít come equipped with an active display output so the onboard processor graphics controller (PGC) stayed dormant. Meanwhile H67 offered next to no processor overclocking Ėeven with K-series chips- but unlocked the onboard graphics controller so features like Quick Sync video transcoding and high efficiency HD video playback were accessible. In short, a customer was forced to make a choice between the PGCís capabilities and the ability to squeeze more performance out of their CPU through overclocking.

Z68 changes this Ėand will likely have some P67 buyers frustrated beyond belief- by incorporating the P67ís overclocking prowess alongside the potential for an active processor graphics hub. To many enthusiasts the image of an integrated GPUís limited gaming performance many not seem all that exciting upon first glance but in this case, Intel has sweetened the pot.


By far, the most interesting addition to the Z68 PCH is Intelís new Smart Response Technology that has been incorporated into Intelís Matrix Storage driver stack. RST Caching as itís called decreases system load times by caching frequently used files on a secondary solid state drive.

Quick Sync transcoding may be one of the predominant features brought about by the IGP being activated but Lucidís Virtu engine and NVIDIAís upcoming desktop Optimus technology also allow for seamless switching between the CPUís graphics processor and a dedicated graphics card. This may not sound particularly interesting for most users but it can potentially allow for a more efficient system while allowing for more operations to be done in parallel without impacting gaming performance.
 
 
 

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