This January saw numerous steps forward with regard to Intel microarchitecture. Nowadays, while we’re preparing for the next step and further size decrease in the existing production process, it’s finally time for Intel to show the full potential of the platform intended for use with the second generation of Sandy Bridge Core CPUs. It’s our belief that Intel’s plans weren’t really the way they were originally presented, and we’re referring to P67 and H67 chipsets primarily. First and foremost, overclocking capabilities, afterwards unleashed on the P67 chipset together with multi-GPU configurations, weren’t initially intended to be a feature of this chipset, until the decision came stating that P67 should be the compromise solution until the appearance of Z68. Consequently, Z68 lost much of its intended splendour intended for the cream of the crop of the LGA 1155 platform, as there was a clear déjà vu effect stemming from P67 and H67 chipsets. One thing is for sure, though - the enormous potential of Sandy Bridge CPUs that caused raving reviews from the critics wasn’t reflected in motherboards used to run them. The new Z68 is finally here, and supposed to improve this image drastically, finally giving the aforementioned CPUs a worthy platform.
This chipset was touted as the ultimate overclocking toy, as it offers the iGPU overclock as well as CPU overclock. Some would propose that this isn’t such a drastic improvement after all, as very few users who buy motherboards this expensive use the integrated GPU, but Intel’s been packing two other surprises for those users: first, SSD caching, and second, the additional Virtu software made in conjunction with LucidLogic, the company known for their Hydra chips that enable AMD and NVIDIA cards to work together; this time around, they’re enabling integrated Intel graphics to work in conjunction with discreet solutions. Although this isn’t something that’s come out of Intel’s kitchen, most manufacturers will include Virtu software onto their motherboards in order to distance them from P67-based ones. But first things first.
Overclocking has been entirely unleashed. This means that Z68-based motherboards offer the option of unlocking the CPU (previously only on P67) and iGPU (only H67) with no limitations whatsoever. In other words, if you buy an Intel Core i5 2500K or i7 2600K, you’ll be able to enjoy a high multiplier without messing with the BCLK in order to squeeze out additional megahertz, i.e. raise the frequency of the GPU and use HD 3000 to the max. Everything’s the same as on P67 motherboards as far as the CPU is concerned. The main overclocking section isn’t tied to BCLK, but to the multipliers, that go up to 57x in the case of “K” CPUs, enabling clocks up to 6 GHz - and these are actually achievable with a suitable cooling system. Expectedly, Z68 motherboards have stronger power units, and many manufacturers strive to provide separate voltage filtering for CPU, iGPU and memory, as is the case with the model that we’ve received for testing.
The integrated GPU, on the other hand, has a story of its own. As was the case with H67 motherboards, the HD graphics component can be overclocked, which is going to be very relevant to all those who make good use of hardware transcoding and other features in which Intel excels. If you recall, when first testing the Sandy Bridge platform some months ago, transcoding and video manipulation benefited heavily from the integrated GPU. Of course, the question was and is: “Who’s going to buy an expensive unlocked “K” CPU in order to use the integrated GPU?” Intel has yet to provide a clever answer to this question, but Z68 is the right solution for these purposes at least, as far as logic and justifiability go.
While Intel was busy ironing out their Z68 chipset, LucidLogix’s engineers were preparing their new invention - Virtu software. The combination of discreet and integrated graphics that we’ve been able to see in some portable PCs is somewhat simplified by the fact that everything is done via an internal connector and, once assembled, never has to be touched again. There’s a single output interface, a single display, and all that makes things simpler than they might be. When Intel first presented the capabilities of the Sandy Bridge platform, one of our first questions was whether a project that would enable integrated and discreet graphics to work as one unit was underway, and the reply was that the only thing that had yet to be solved was the common interface, which meant that Intel had been well aware of this feature and that it had been deemed very open and possible.
Thanks to the Virtu software, not Intel, this is now a legitimate possibility. The monitor needs to be connected to the H67 or Z68 video output, while the graphics card should simply remain connected to the PCI Express slot, and both will be used as far as possible. Virtu doesn’t care whether your graphics card is AMD’s or NVIDIA’s, or whether the integrated solution is Intel’s or AMD’s; all combinations are certified to be functional. Many would say that this is all just an accident and that the situation just happened to be as it is, Virtu coming out at the same time as Z68, but suffice to say that Intel Capital is one of LucidLogix’s biggest investors…
However, back to the topic. The software works using GPU virtualisation technologies, by adding an abstract (virtual) layer between the application being run and the operating system. In simpler terms: if you’re running a very demanding game, such as Crysis 2, it automatically loads certain DLL libraries after detecting your hardware. The same happens when you’re running on Intel integrated graphics or DX11/DX10 hardware - special libraries exist for every scenario and they enable the game to run properly.
The abstract layer inserted by Virtu enables the software section called “rendering assignment manager” to determine which graphics is used in any given moment according to the nature of the work being executed. This functions in a way similar to Optimus technology in portable PCs - when applications/tasks don’t require the performance of the discreet graphics card (surfing, Windows work, Office apps, video playback and similar), the primary card is the integrated one. When there’s need for extra power (games), the discreet graphics jumps in and takes over the workload, enabling good performance when necessary. Everything comes down to mapping frame buffer from one adapter to the other over PCI Express, in order to keep the display continual and unchanged. The transfer process itself has its downsides, as the use of PCI Express lines for communication may impact performance adversely, but this only goes up to 10%, the percentage increasing with the number of FPS; this is definitely the better variant, as you can’t really feel the impact on 100 FPS when it decreases to 90 FPS, while 30 FPS will only be dragged down to 28 FPS. Of course, have in mind that these are only the initial versions of this piece of software and that significant advances can be expected in subsequent updates.
Problems are most likely to appear due to several drivers versions that are simultaneously present on the market, all of which need to be kept under control; therefore, make sure your Virtu software is always up-to-date, as you may encounter anomalies with AMD’s or NVIDIA’s freshest drivers otherwise (usually solved by a hotfix). If LucidLogix’s press releases are to be trusted, 85 out of 100 tested games worked with no problems at all without any additional setup, which is fantastic for a piece of software like this, and further improvements are probably only going to improve on the situation.
The process of Virtu initialisation isn’t too complicated in itself. The only thing that’s required is that you force the integrated graphics card adapter driver to boot before the discreet graphics’ one in BIOS before you install Virtu software, then first install the integrated graphics’ driver, and then the discreet graphics’ one. In the case of using an NVIDIA card, everything works perfectly, while AMD cards will give a driver check error message during bootup which should simply be ignored by clicking the “OK” button.
After the installation of both driver packages, Virtu is cleared for installation; after rebooting, you’ll see its icon in the system tray, which can be removed upon request. You can also choose to display a Virtu watermark during games so that you’re sure when the discreet graphics card has kicked in. The second tab contains a list of games and .exe files that are currently supported, and their activation requires no user intervention - if you see the Virtu logo, your discreet graphics card is the one rendering the currently active application.
Announcements have surfaced that Virtu will enable connecting displays to the discreet graphics card’s outputs, but this type of connection would reduce the “green” aspect of this technology, as the discreet graphics card would no longer be able to “sleep” when unused, reducing consumption significantly compared to ordinary systems.
The problem of HDDs, which are still the primary solution for keeping data and operating systems, is that they’re still the bottleneck in many configurations. The problematic of high SSD prices and the lack of storage space on the so-called boot-optimised drives can be a major drawback and a complete turn-off for buyers choosing between different technologies.
Everything less than 64 GB for the operating system and applications can be bothersome, and requires constant data juggling, thereby preventing you from relaxing and peacefully install as many applications and games as you wish. Needless to say, SSD prices are still rather high, which turns more people to high-capacity HDDs as the only drive, not knowing that increasing the writing density reduces the number of I/O operations on the drive, and therefore the agility of the OS as a whole. Intel’s Z68 offers a compromise - SSD caching. This is a combination which makes a proper hybrid drive out of your HDD and small SSD (up to 64 GB is supported), called Intel Smart Response Technology. The limitation to 64 GB is quite logical, as larger SSDs can be freely used for OS and data, which makes it pointless to use them for this purpose.
Requirements are as follows:
- Hardware requirements: Core i3/i5/i7 Sandy Bridge CPU + Z68 chipset
- Supported operating systems: 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows Vista, 7 or Server 2008 (R2)
- Intel Desktop/Workstation/Server Express Chipset SATA RAID controller hub installed and activated (the controller set to RAID mode)
- RAID-ready system with support for the “Accelerate bit” feature
- SATA SSD with a minimum of 18.6 GB of available space
- Hard disk without a recovery partition
The OS has to be installed onto the HDD first, and then the SSD is inserted. Afterwards, the Intel Rapid Storage Technology application is run. The Intel application that leads the user through the process is very simple, and there are only a few things that you get to decide on - SSD size (18.6 to 64 GB) and Enhanced/Maximised work mode. The former enables you to copy all data from the SSD to the HDD, so that all data is backed up on the HDD in case of SSD failure, while the other one offers better performance, but without the data safety guaranteed.
The functioning is the same as with hybrid disks; applications that are used the most often are placed on the SSD, which means that they start up much faster, and the same goes for the boot files of the OS.
ASUS P8Z68-V PRO
The golden middle of ASUS’ current offer of Z68 chipsets, i.e. the model between “Deluxe” and no suffix according to their nomenclature, got to our office as the instrument to demonstrate everything that the new Intel chipset brings forth. Of course, at no time have we suspected that ASUS wasn’t the right choice for this occasion, on the contrary.
The design used for most models in this class, P67 included, was used this time around as well, which is a good call overall, as there was really zero need for experimenting with this element. The recognisable blue cooling bodies cover all vital elements: the voltage unit and the chipset itself (hub included). The rest of the elements on the black PCB were made in a blue/grey/black fashion, giving the final product an impression of elegance and overclocking potential. The vast majority of elements bear resemblance to P67 motherboards that we’ve already encountered on many occasions, which means, in short, that you’re getting: TPU and EPU chips, a digital power unit, MemOK!, power and reset buttons, as well as other things that we’ve got used to when receiving ASUS motherboards.
All components have an ideal layout, and particular commendations go to the power unit, which has 12 phases for CPU voltage filtering and 4 separate phases for the iGPU, giving a total of 16 phases, which is really fantastic as far as overclocking goes on this model. Four memory slots can house up to 32 GB DDR3 RAM with a clock of up to 2200 MHz, while the two assigned voltage filtering phases make for a simpler memory overclocking to go with the rest of the story.
Expectedly, the three full-size PCI Express slots offer both SLI and CrossFireX combinations of graphics cards. The first two slots work in x16 or x8/x8 mode, whereas the third, black one, works in x4, sharing PCI Express lines with two PCI Express x1 slots, USB3 and eSATA ports (the default mode is x1), which is the same setup previously seen on P67. The backplate section is very rich and contains an entire eight USB ports, two of which are 3.0, and accompanying them are eSATA, DVI, VGA, HDMI, LAN, optical and analogue audio inputs/outputs and a Bluetooth module. We’d love to have seen a Clear CMOS button on the back as well, but that would already be going over the line of decency. Extra ports on the motherboard itself enable two more USB 3.0 and six more USB 2.0 ports, while SATA connectors are aplenty even for the most demanding of users.
ASUS delivers LucidLogix Virtu software in the bundle, so it’s very much possible to combine the integrated graphics with a discreet one, and there’s also the ability to combine HDDs with SSDs in order to increase system performance. The rich software bundle includes the TurboV EVO application for overclocking within the operating system itself, while those who prefer the traditional way are at all liberty to do so to their hearts’ content from EFI’s BIOS, with all the tiny settings and tweaks that you can think of, and all in the tiniest of steps, as is tradition in ASUS.
|CPU @ default, RAM @ 1,333 MHz||CPU @ 4.8 GHz, RAM @ 1,866 MHz|
|7-Zip 9.20 x64 comp./decomp. [kB/s]||11,137 / 134,327||16,772 / 214,005|
|X.264 encoding [fps]||95.3||132.2|
|Blender 2.57b (less is better) [s]||205||151|
|Cinebench R11.5 x64, CPU score [pts]||10.93 / 5.42||11.54 / 7.64|
|AIDA64 1.5, memory read/write/copy [MB/s]||16,298 / 18,048 / 17,513||22,473 / 23,770 / 23,482|
|AIDA64 1.5, memory latency (less is better) [ns]||53.6||39.7|
|3DMark 06, CPU score [pts]||6.133||8.446|
|3DMark Vantage, CPU score [pts]||17.445||24.230|
|World in Conflict, 1280x1024 low, max/avg/min [fps]||169 / 68 / 30||192 / 85 / 29|
|Test machine: Intel Core i5-2500K @ 3.3 GHz, 2 x 2GB Kingston HyperX T1 2,333 MHz, WD Caviar Blue 500GB, CoolerMaster UCP 900W, Viewsonic VX2439wm, Windows 7 64-bit SP1|
As far as overclocking is concerned, we had an Intel Core i5 2500K CPU at disposal, the default clock of which we’ve been able to raise from 3.3 GHz to 4.8 GHz, with the memory obediently complying with the new settings, working at 1866 MHz at CL8 settings. With all clocks at default, memory was working flawlessly at its high 2133 MHz, but after CPU overclocking, the memory controller refused to go further than 1900 MHz. As these memories were made before the introduction of Sandy Bridge, it’s not surprising that they should have trouble coping with these CPUs, but we still believe that a Genesis version would’ve handled this situation better. Overclocking results were more than good, and we’ve left out the GPU overclocking results, as they were identical to the ones previously established on H67 motherboard.
P67 + H67 + a bit of Intel’s magic = Z68
All things considered, what we’ve tested is doubtlessly the best Intel chipset made for Sandy Bridge CPUs. The novelties it brings may not look very significant, but are in fact even more so than the ones proposed by P67 and H67. Open overclocking of both CPU and GPU, over a combination of discreet and integrated graphics, to the possibility of speeding up the system via an accessible hybrid disk, Intel shows that they’re fully recovered from the B2 revision’s motherboard fiasco and strolls in gallantly among the competitors, offering a wide-range solution for every enthusiast. A big fat Editor’s Choice from us to the cooperation between Intel’s Z68 and ASUS’ motherboard.
|ASUS P8Z68-V PRO|
|Form Factor||ATX (30.5 x 24.4 cm)|
|CPU Socket||LGA 1155|
|Chipset||Intel Z68 Express|
|RAM Memory Support||4 x DIMM DDR3 1066-2200 MHz, max. 32 GB|
|Graphics Adapters Supported||Intel HD 2000/3000|
|Expansion Slots||2 x PCI Express 2.0 x16 (x16 or x8/x8), 1 x PCI Express 2.0 x16 (x1 or x4), 2 x PCI Express x1, 2 x PCI|
|SATA/ATA Support||2 x SATA 6Gb/s, 4 x SATA 3Gb/s (Intel Z68 chipset), 2 x SATA 6Gb/s (Marvell PCIe SATA 6Gb/s), 1 x eSATA 3G (JMicron JMB362)|
|Audio Controller||Realtek ALC 892, 7.1 HD|
|Network Controller||Intel 82579 Gigabit Ethernet|
|Miscellaneous||2 x IEEE 1394 (VIA 6308P), Bluetooth v2.1+EDR|
|Internal Connectors||2 x USB 3.0, 6 x USB 2.0, 4 x SATA 6Gb/s, 4 x SATA 3Gb/s, 2 x IEEE 1394a, 2 x CPU Fan (4-pin), 2 x Chassis Fan (4-pin + 3-pin), 2 x Power Fan (3-pin), 1 x S/PDIF out, 1 x 24-pin EATX, 1 x 8-pin ATX 12V|
|Backpanel||1 x Bluetooth, 1 x DVI, 1 x VGA, 1 x HDMI, 1 x eSATA 3 Gb/s, 1 x LAN, 2 x USB 3.0, 6 x USB 2.0, 1 x Optical out, 6 x audio|