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Z68 Express motherboards from Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI

Sandy Bridge finally gets the chipset it deserves

As somewhat of a fast-food connoisseur, I can't help but find McDonald's Third-Pounder Angus lineup a little bit maddening. There are three options: a Mushroom Swiss with sautéed fungus; a Bacon and Cheese with onion, pickle, and what passes for cured pork belly; and a disappointing Deluxe with onion, pickle, tomato, and lettuce. To me, deluxe implies one with everything. If they've got mushrooms, bacon, and a salad's worth of vegetables in the back, you should be able to buy them all on one calorie-laced uber-burger.

I felt much the same way about the initial Sandy Bridge chipset lineup. When Intel's latest generation of CPUs launched back in January, they arrived on the desktop primarily astride three chipsets: the H61, H67, and P67 Express. The H61 is a castrated version of the H67 and not terribly interesting. However, the H67 and P67 each have something to recommend them. The H67 can tap Sandy's QuickSync logic for video transcoding, while the P67 holds the keys to CPU overclocking. You can't adjust CPU multipliers with the H67 or enjoy QuickSync with the P67, though.

Making matters even more frustrating is the fact that both chips are based on the same silicon—their limitations are entirely arbitrary. Fortunately, Intel has finally seen fit to roll back the restrictions with its Z68 Express chipset. This truly deluxe platform hub combines full support for Sandy Bridge's built-in GPU with unfettered CPU overclocking controls. Intel has also given the Z68 a little something extra in the form of an SSD caching scheme dubbed Smart Response Technology.

The latest member of Intel's 6-series core-logic family rides in on a wave of new motherboards from all the big names. To get a sense of what's about to wash up on shore, we've rounded up examples from Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI. We've also spent some quality time exploring the Z68's QuickSync support, switchable graphics capability, and Smart Response caching. There's a lot of ground to cover, so let's get started.

Same silicon, new capabilities
The first thing you should know about the Z68 Express is that it's based on the same silicon that powers the H67 and P67. All three chipsets share a common architecture and are fabbed on an identical 65-nano process. As a result, the Z68 chip captured below looks exactly like the P67 pictured in our first Sandy Bridge motherboard round-up.

As far as its core features go, the Z68 has everything you get in the H67 and P67 chipsets. There are dual Serial ATA controllers: one with a pair of 6Gbps ports and a second with four 3Gbps ports. Eight PCI Express 2.0 lanes provide ample bandwidth for expansion slots and peripherals, while 14 USB 2.0 ports highlight the lack of built-in SuperSpeed connectivity. Just like the P67, the Z68 Express also has an HD audio interface and a Gigabit Ethernet MAC.

The P67 connects to Sandy Bridge CPUs via a DMI interconnect that offers 4GB/s of aggregate bandwidth. However, there's no bridge between the chipset and the CPU's integrated graphics component. In the H67 Express, an FDI link connects the Sandy Bridge graphics core to display outputs located in the chipset. The very same link and display outputs appear in the Z68.

The Z68 block diagram. Source: Intel

Although Sandy Bridge's 16 PCI Express 2.0 lanes are built into the CPU and make no contact with the chipset, Intel won't let them be split evenly in a dual-x8 configuration on H67 motherboards. The P67 has no such limitation for CrossFire or SLI setups, and neither does the Z68. Intel really has combined the best of both worlds.

So, why didn't the firm just come out with this 6-series deluxe back in January? Because the Z68 was supposed to be a launch vehicle for Smart Response Technology, which wasn't ready at the time. In a moment, we'll take a closer look to see if that feature was worth the wait.

Three's company
Before diving into the Z68's switchable graphics and SSD caching capabilities, we'll tease you with the trio of motherboards that fall under our microscope today.

Asus P8Z68-V PRO Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3 MSI Z68A-GD80
CPU power 12+4 8+2 12+1
Expansion slots 2 PCIe x16 (x16, x8/x8)
1 PCIe x16 (x1, x4)
2 PCIe x1
2 PCIe x16 (x16, x8/x8)
3 PCIe x1
2 PCIe x16 (x16, x8/x8)
1 PCIe x16 (x4)
2 PCIe x1*
Gigabit Ethernet Intel Z68 Express Realtek RTL8111E 2 x Realtek RTL8111E
Auxiliary SATA Marvell 88SE9120
JMicron JMB362
Gigabyte GSATA Marvell 88SE9128
USB 3.0 2 x ASMedia ASM1042 2 x EtronTech EJ168A 2 x NEC D720200F1
Audio Realtek ALC892 Realtek ALC892 Realtek ALC892
FireWire VIA VT6308P VIA VT6308P VIA VT6308P
Warranty length Three years Three years Three years
Price $209 $160-180 $240

All three make full use of the Z68's capabilities, but each one pairs the chipset with a slightly different mix of expansion slots and integrated peripherals. Interestingly, only the Asus board taps the Gigabit Ethernet controller built into the chipset. Each board uses different USB 3.0 controllers, and there's a good mix of auxiliary Serial ATA options, some of which feed external ports.

Intel expects Z68 mobos to live in the top 40-50% of the price band currently occupied by P67 models, a range that's nicely covered by our Z68 trifecta. Interestingly, Intel says the Z68 and P67 will coexist until at least the end of the year. P67 boards that aren't cheaper than Z68 equivalents could be a tough sell, though.