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Distinctly different experiences — continued

Intel's DZ77GA-70K is the only board of the bunch that doesn't have an automatic overclocking system. We've actually seen auto-tuners on Intel boards prior to the Sandy Bridge generation, but the company's recent efforts seem focused on a sort of auto/manual hybrid accessible via the firmware. The main interface offers a CPU clock speed slider that users are free to drag up to 4.5GHz. The slider increases the multiplier without touching the base clock or the voltage. It does, however, ramp up the current limit so the CPU isn't starved for amperage.

For our pseudo-auto overclock, we dragged the slider all the way to the right and rebooted. The system returned at 4.5GHz, and it remained BSOD-free for the extent of our stress test. Hitting higher speeds would require getting our hands a little dirtier.

I really like Intel's new motherboard firmware, and its advanced overclocking options offer plenty of multiplier headroom to hit higher speeds. The drop-down menus for the voltage settings are a little cumbersome due to the sheer number of options, though. Intel would do well to allow users to key-in voltages directly. It would be nice to see an "auto" setting that increases the CPU voltage automatically as the frequency rises, too.

Ultimately, most of our time was spent overclocking the Intel board using its Windows software. The Extreme Tuning Utility is very slick, offering just enough options along with a nice monitoring panel. There's also an integrated stress test, although we elected to use our own.

Pushing higher than 4.5GHz at stock voltage proved impossible, but an extra 100 millivolts got the CPU to 4.7GHz without issue. 4.8GHz required another 100mV, which produced a 1.336 CPU voltage according to CPU-Z. That was enough juice to get the CPU to load Windows at up to 5GHz. However, the system crashed under load. Applying more voltage resulted in throttling, which struck again when we ran our 7-Zip and x264 tests at 4.9GHz. We had to sacrifice another 100MHz to get a rock-solid system.

Finally, we come to the MSI Z68A-GD65, which has the easiest auto-overclocking mechanism of the bunch. All the user has to do is hit the OC Genie button in the corner of the board. When the button is depressed, the board boots using an MSI-optimized overclocking profile. Users can tweak this profile themselves, but we went with MSI's defaults for this leg of the overclocking journey.

OC Genie proved very conservative, taking the Core i7-3770K up to 4.2GHz by adjusting only its multiplier. The system endured our stress test without breaking a sweat, so we started tweaking settings manually.

MSI's ClickBIOS II firmware is a big improvement over the company's initial efforts, and I like the fact that it has an accompanying Windows application with an identical interface. There's something to be said for maintaining consistency between the firmware interface and Windows utilities. Unfortunately, the Windows app takes forever to load up and apply changes. Modifying the multiplier requires a reboot, which isn't the case for other Windows tuning apps, including MSI's own Control Center software.

Control Center still takes longer than it should to load, but changes are applied almost instantly. Multiplier tweaking was all it took to get the Core i7-3770K up to a stable 4.5GHz. Higher frequencies required more voltage, exposing an issue with Control Center. Setting 1.2V in the app produced 1.192V in CPU-Z, but bumping up to 1.3V resulted in a reported voltage of only 1.208V. Assigning a 1.3V CPU voltage in the firmware produced 1.304V in CPU-Z, so we dropped Control Center for the remainder of our testing.

The system was stable up to 4.7GHz on 1.2V, and it hit 4.8GHz on 1.3V. Adding another 100MHz required 1.35V and seemed to be throttle-free. However, 7-Zip wouldn't run for more than a minute without producing an error. Upping the CPU voltage didn't help, and neither did fiddling with the other system voltages and power settings. In the end, we had to drop to 4.8GHz to banish the 7-Zip errors.