Asus' P8Z68-V PRO motherboard
Asus' P8P67 PRO motherboard took home an Editor's Choice award in our initial Sandy Bridge mobo round-up, setting expectations high for the company's Z68 offerings. Today, we'll be looking at another shouty professional model, the P8Z68-V PRO.
This latest PRO looks virtually identical to its P67 brother, which is both a blessing and a curse. The color scheme is nicely understated, but it shares the same black-and-blue palette as just about every other enthusiast-oriented Sandy Bridge motherboard. Sometimes, I long for the days of garish motherboard designs, if only because there was more aesthetic variety.
Although the board's coloring might be unoriginal, the circuit board itself is a little different from what you'll find on competing products. ATX members of Asus' Sandy Bridge motherboard lineup employ a slightly rotated fiber weave designed to reduce the size of the gaps that copper traces must traverse. According to Asus, this change improves signal quality, which can lead to more stable operation when overclocking.
As is fashionable for enthusiast-oriented motherboards, the PRO is peppered with Japanese-made capacitors and fancy electrical components. Of particular interest is the digital power delivery system. Dubbed Digi+ VRM, this power scheme is governed by a separate EPU chip that scales the number of power phases based on system demand and VRM temperatures. Asus says that digital VRMs offer more efficient power delivery because they can switch phases faster than analog designs.
The artfully sculpted VRM heatsinks that flank the CPU socket shouldn't get in the way of larger aftermarket coolers. Standing less than 30 mm off the board, the heatsinks should be less of a clearance concern than a lot of aftermarket memory modules. That said, the heatsinks are closer to the socket than the DIMM slots.
Looking at the bottom of the board reveals a wealth of expansion and internal connectivity options. That grey PCI Express x16 slot can be configured with either one or four lanes of bandwidth. However, the x4 config will have to share bandwidth with the PCIe x1 slots, eSATA port, and front-panel USB 3.0 controller.
If you're looking to load up on Serial ATA drives, the P8Z68-V PRO has plenty of ports lined up along its edge. Two 6Gbps jacks are fed by the Z68 chipset, while another two are powered by an auxiliary Marvell chip. The secondary storage controller sits next to the chipset under a low-profile heatsink that dominates one corner of the board.
There are plenty more ports around back, including a trio of display outputs for Sandy's integrated GPU. That purplish nubbin over to the left is a Bluetooth module—a nice little treat that Asus has taken to including on a number of its recent motherboards. If only Asus had integrated USB power into the eSATA port. Fortunately, FireWire hasn't been forgotten. An external port didn't make the cut for the rear cluster, but there are a couple of internal headers onboard.
All three of the motherboards we're looking at today use Realtek's ALC892 audio codec. However, each one takes a different approach to speaker virtualization. The P8Z68-V PRO fakes surround-sound environments using DTS Ultra PC software.
Among all the motherboard makers, Asus has easily done the best job of adopting the new EFI BIOS framework. The next-gen BIOS interface supports mouse input and fancy graphics, and Asus has taken full advantage with a very slick interface. There are actually two interfaces: an EZ mode pictured above that looks a lot like Asus' old Windows tweaking software, and an advanced mode that resembles a reskinned version of the company's old-school BIOS interface.
EZ mode is too limited for serious tweaking, but it does offer a glimpse of what's possible with EFI. Seasoned enthusiasts will want to use advanced mode, which offers a wealth of tweaking and overclocking options through a snappy interface that's well-organized and easy to navigate with a keyboard or mouse. You can even scroll down a list of options with the mouse wheel.
Enthusiast boards have long passed the point of diminishing returns when it comes to new overclocking options. Sadly, few do a good job of implementing fan speed controls. Asus deserves credit for offering temperature-based fan speed control for the system and CPU fan headers, and for letting users set high/low temperature and fan speed limits.