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Z68 Roundup: ASUS, EVGA, ASRock, GB, MSI, ZOTAC
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Date: Oct 18, 2011
Section:Motherboards
Author: Seth Colaner
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Introduction and the Z68 Chipset
Until Intel's next-gen, high-end Sandy Bridge-E and its companion X79 chipset, launch sometime this quarter, Sandy Bridge, Intel's second generation Core family of processors and the Z68 Express chipset remain Intel's current premiere desktop platform. It is with that in mind that we've just taken a look at several different motherboard offerings from manufacturers that cover a range of form factors, feature sets, and price points. If you’re on the market for a Z68 board for a new build, odds are one of the products in this round-up will meet your needs.

We’ve already covered the Z68 chipset in depth here, so we won’t get too heavy on the details again in this roundup, but an overview of the chipset is warranted. With the Z68, Intel has produced a successor to the P67 and H67 chipsets that takes the best of both and adds a few new features. In addition to support for the entire family of 2nd-gen Intel Core chips with Turbo Boost 2.0, the Z68 chipset supports Intel High Definition Audio, 8 PCI-Express 2.0 lanes (16 more in the CPU), 6 SATA ports (2 x 6Gbps, 4 x 3Gbps), integrated Gigabit MAC, 14 USB ports, and support for a smattering of audio/visual ports including HDMI and DisplayPort.


eVGA's Z68 FTW, just one of the Magnificent 7 we tested...

In the Sandy Bridge architecture, the CPU itself does a lot of the heavy lifting, with integrated graphics, 16 lanes of PCI-Express 2.0 connectivity, and a dual-channel DDR3 memory controller all on-die. The CPU communicates with the Z68 itself via a 20Gbps interface. dubbed DMI.

One obvious shortcoming of the Z68 chipset is the lack of native USB 3.0 support, although all of the motherboards in this roundup added it through one third party chip or another.

Two other features are at the forefront of most Z68-chipset related news: Intel Smart Response Technology and LucidLogix’ Virtu GPU software. The latter essentially enables Intel’s integrated graphics to work with a discrete GPU while still being able to take advantage of IIntel's Quick Sync video transcoding technology by virtualizing the GPUs. All but the ZOTAC board in this roundup included a copy of Virtu. You can read more in depth about the technology here.

Finally, one of the more exciting feature of the Z68 chipset is Intel Smart Response Technology, which lets users create a hybrid storage configuration with an SSD acting as a dedicated, low-latency cache for a slower bulk storage hard drive. The most frequently-used data blocks will reside on the SSD, giving the system an overall boost with fast random access. The SSD must be 18GB to 64GB in size, but the hard drive can be any capacity.
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ASRock Z68 Extreme7 Gen3
With seven motherboards to cover, we opted to run through them in alphabetical order by manufacturer. Thus, the ASRock Z68 Extreme7 Gen3 is first up.

At $289.99, it’s the most expensive board in our roundup, but it’s a beauty. The PCB is black, as are all the slots, ports, and most of the connectors. Even the heatsinks are black, but they’re topped with silver-colored plating. The lettering and other shiny components are gold, creating a stunning look overall. One knock on the color scheme, however, is that the memory slots aren’t color-coded, so it’s a little tricky figuring out where to put the DIMMs in a dual-channel setup.



ASRock Z68 Extreme7 Gen3

ASRock Z68 Extreme7 Gen3
Specifications & Features

CPU: Supports 2nd Generation Intel Core i7/i5/i3 in LGA1155 Package


Memory: Dual Channel DDR3 memory technology

Supports DDR3 2133(OC)/1866(OC)/1600/1333/1066/800 nonECC, unbuffered memory

Max. capacity of system memory: 32GB

Supports Intel Extreme Memory Profile (XMP)


Graphics: Intel Quick Sync Video, Intel InTru 3D, Intel Clear Video HD Technology, Intel HD Graphics 2000/3000, Intel Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX)

Multi VGA Output options: DSub, DVID, HDMI and DisplayPort


Audio:  7.1 CH HD Audio with Content Protection (Realtek ALC892 Audio Codec)

 Premium Bluray audio support

 Supports THX TruStudio


LAN:  PCIE x1 Gigabit LAN 10/100/1000 Mb/s

 Supports Dual LAN with Teaming function


Slots:  5 x PCI Express x16 slots

 1 x PCI Express 2.0 x1 slot

 1 x PCI slot

 Supports AMD Quad CrossFireX, NVIDIA Quad SLI


SATA 3:  2 x SATA3 6.0 Gb/s connectors by Intel Z68, support RAID (RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 10, RAID 5, Intel Rapid Storage and Intel Smart Response Technology), NCQ, AHCI and "Hot Plug" functions

 4 x SATA3 6.0 Gb/s connectors by ASMedia ASM1061, support NCQ, AHCI and "Hot Plug" functions (SATA3_A4 connector is shared with eSATA3 port)


USB 3.0:  4 x Rear USB 3.0 ports,  1 x Front USB 3.0 header (supports 2 USB 3.0 ports) by ASMedia


Smart Switch:  Power Switch with LED, Reset Switch with LED, Clear CMOS Switch with LED

 
Form Factor:  ATX Form Factor: 12.0in x 9.6in, 30.5 cm x 24.4 cm

This ATX board supports 2nd-Generation Core i7/i5/i3 LGA1155 chips, up to 32GB of DDR3-2133 (OC) RAM, and all the graphics outputs you could want, including D-Sub, DVI-D, HDMI, and DisplayPort. For expansion, you get five PCI-E x16 slots, a PCI-E 2.0 x1 slot, a legacy PCI slot, support for PCI-E 3.0, and graphics support up to quad CrossFireX, and up to NVIDIA quad SLI.

Of the ten SATA ports, six are SATA (6Gbps) and four are SATA (3Gbps). ASRock delivers five total USB 3.0 ports via an ASMedia ASM1042 chip as well as a pair of USB 2.0 ports. The board itself sports power, reset, and clear CMOS buttons, all lit by LEDs.

 
 
 
     

There were a couple of nice surprises in the box, including a front USB 3.0 panel and a bracket with a PS/2 port and two USB 2.0 ports.

The ASRock Z68 Extreme7 Gen3 also comes packed with a few unique features. It has an NVIDIA NF200 chip that enables you to run two graphics cards at PCI-E x16/x16 or three cards at x16/x16/x8. Other notables include Dual LAN with Teaming, which enables two connections to act in tandem for better data flow, and XFast LAN, XFast Charger, and XFast USB, which are designed to boost the performance of your LAN connection, attached device charging, and USB performance, respectively.

When it comes to overclocking on this board, ASRock couldn’t have made it simpler; we just switched on Advanced Turbo 50 in the UEFI, and the board overclocked the processor to 4.8GHz. You can also tweak overclocking settings easily with the included ASRock Extreme Tuning Utility. More on BIOS options later.

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ASUS P8Z68 Deluxe
Next up is the ASUS P8Z68 Deluxe, is a motherboard with cool metallic blue heatsinks in a sharp fin design and an impressive array of rear I/O ports. The specs are impressive, too.


ASUS P8Z68 Deluxe

ASUS P8Z68 Deluxe
Specifications & Features

CPU: Intel Socket 1155 for 2nd Generation Core i7/Core i5/Core i3 Processors
Supports Intel 32 nm CPU
Supports Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2
Chipset: Intel Z68
Memory: 4 x DIMM, Max. 32GB
DDR3 2200(O.C.)/2133(O.C.)/1866(O.C.)/1600/1333/1066 Hz Non-ECC, Un-buffered Memory
Dual Channel Memory Architecture
Supports Intel Extreme Memory Profile (XMP)
Multi-GPU Support: Supports NVIDIA Quad-GPU SLI Technology
Supports AMD Quad-GPU CrossFireX Technology
Supports LucidLogix Virtu Technology
Expansion Slots: 2 x PCIe 2.0 x16 (x16 or dual x8)
1 x PCIe 2.0 x16 (x4 mode, black)
2 x PCIe 2.0 x1
2 x PCI
Storage: Intel Z68 chipset:
2 x SATA 6Gb/s port(s), gray
4 x SATA 3Gb/s port(s), blue
Support Raid 0, 1, 5, 10
Support Intel Smart Response Technology on 2nd generation Intel Core processor family
Marvell PCIe 9128 controller:
2 x SATA 6Gb/s port(s), navy blue
JMicron JMB362 controller:
1 x eSATA 3Gb/s port(s), red
1 x Power eSATA 3Gb/s port(s), green
LAN: Intel 82579, 1 x Gigabit LAN Controller(s)
Realtek 8111E , 1 x Gigabit LAN Controller(s)
Dual Gigabit LAN controllers- 802.3az Energy Efficient Ethernet (EEE) appliance
Audio Realtek ALC889 8-Channel High Definition Audio CODEC
- Supports : Jack-detection, Multi-streaming, Front Panel Jack-retasking
Audio Feature :
- Absolute Pitch 192kHz/ 24-bit True BD Lossless Sound
- Blu-ray audio layer Content Protection
- DTS Surround Sensation UltraPC
- Coaxial and Optical S/PDIF out ports at back panel
USB Ports: NEC USB 3.0 controller :
4 x USB 3.0 port(s) (2 at back panel, blue, 2 at mid-board)
Intel Z68 chipset :
12 x USB 2.0 port(s) (8 at back panel, , 4 at mid-board)
Form Factor: ATX Form Factor, 12 inch x 9.6 inch ( 30.5 cm x 24.4 cm )


With the P8Z68 Deluxe, your $249.99 will get you a board that supports Intel’s Core i7/i5/i3 LGA1155 chips (2nd-Generation), up to 32GB of DDR3-2200 (OC) memory, and NVIDIA Quad SLI/AMD Quad CrossFireX.

There are seven expansion slots in total, including three PCI-E x16 slots, two PCI-E x1 slots, and a pair of PCI slots. The Z68 chipset provides six SATA ports (two 6Gbps, four 3Gbps), while a Marvell PCIe 9128 controller gives you two more SATA (6Gbps). There is also an eSATA (3Gbps) port and a power eSATA (3Gbps) port. There are four USB 3.0 ports (two on the back panel) thanks to an NEC USB 3.0 Controller as well as a dozen USB 2.0 ports provided by the Z68 chipset.

The ASUS P8Z68 Deluxe has on-board buttons aplenty as well. In addition to power and reset buttons, the board has an EPU (Energy Processing Unit) switch, a TPU (TurboV Processing Unit) switch, a MemOK button (which loads failsafe memory settings), and a clear CMOS button (on the back panel). The board also has an LED diagnostic code display.

ASUS played it cool with the accessories; aside from the standard fare (manual, utilities CD, rear faceplate, SATA cables, etc.) the only notable extra in the box is USB 3.0 front panel.

     
     

ASUS’ digital power design consists of its Dual Intelligent Processors 2--the aforementioned EPU and TPU--and DIGI+ VRM, which is designed to efficiently handle voltage in such a way as to promote excellent performance with minimal power loss. The EPU and TPU make for a sort of odd couple, with the former intelligently throttling power and the latter supporting ways to milk more speed out of the system.

Other notable features include BT GO!, which is designed to enable adapter-less Bluetooth connectivity; dual Gigabit LAN; and overclocking software in the form of Auto Tuning and TurboV.

The ASUS P8Z68 Deluxe isn’t overly flashy, and it isn’t loaded down with dozens of extraneous utilities and accessories. This is your classic “I’ll let my performance do the talking” kind of motherboard.
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EVGA Z68 FTW
EVGA motherboards are always fun to test; they’re usually big, with lots of extras, and the Z68 FTW certainly meets that criteria. Indeed, it’s an EATX board, it has its fair share of on-board buttons and switches, and the box was packed full of accessories (which we’ll discuss later).

EVGA Z68 FTW

EVGA Z68 FTW
Specifications & Features

CPU: Supports Intel Socket 1155 Processors Core i5/i7
Chipset: Intel Z68
Memory: 4 x 240-pin DIMM sockets
Dual Channel DDR3
Maximum of 16GB of DDR3 2133MHz+
Slots: 3 x PCIe x16/x8, 2 x PCIe x8, 2 x PCIe x1
Storage I/O: 0 x UltraDMA133
8 x Serial ATA 300MB/sec (6x Internal + 2x E-SATA) with support for RAID 0/1/0+1/5/10/JBOD
2 x Serial ATA 600MB/sec (2 Internal) with support for RAID 0 and RAID1
LAN: 2 x 10/100/1000 LAN Marvel 88E8057
Audio: 8 Channel High Definition Realtek ALC889
Multi-I/O: 10 x USB2.0 ports (6 external + 4 internal headers)
 4 x USB3.0 ports (2 external + 2 internal headers)
Audio connector (Line-in, Line-out, MIC)
FireWire 1394A (1 external)
Form Factor: EATX Form Factor, Length: 12in - 304.8mm, Width: 10.375in - 263.5mm


This board supports Intel Core i7 and i5 socket 1155 chips; don’t bother with a Core i3 here. Surprisingly, the Z68 FTW only supports a maximum of 16GB of DDR3-2133 memory as opposed to 32GB with other boards, and its graphics support is also limited to only 3-way SLI or CrossFireX.

One strength of the board is that even if all five of its PCI-E x16 slots are in use, they’ll run at x8. There are also two PCI-E x1 slots. The Z68 FTW sports 6 SATA ports (four 3Gbps, two 6Gbps), and two additional eSATA ports courtesy of the Marvell 88SE6121 chip as well as ten USB 2.0 ports and four VLI VL800-Q8-powered USB 3.0 ports. The back panel also has a FireWire port and dial Gigabit LAN ports.

Another positive for this motherboard is that it has no fewer than seven fan headers for ample air cooling possibilities; you might actually have to get creative to use them all up. On-board, the Z68 FTW has power, reset, and clear JCMOS buttons (and another clear CMOS button on the back panel), as well as a switch to toggle between BIOS configurations (the board supports up to three different profiles) and a CPU temperature monitor.

Overall, the layout is great, but one thing we didn’t like is that the 24-pin power connector is at a right angle instead of facing up. With such a large motherboard, your case has to be that much bigger to accommodate the connector sticking out to the side, which effectively prevents you from using some cases that would otherwise be adequately sized.

Unpacking the box was like pulling presents out of Santa’s bag--it was almost as if they were multiplying in there, and we couldn’t believe EVGA fit that much stuff into such a small box. Accessories include the installation disc, manual, installation guide, back I/O panel, SATA cables and power adapters, and SLI bridge cables. The board also comes with a very cool front panel ECP, an even cooler (but ultimately probably superfluous) EVGauge, two-port USB 3.0 bracket, two-port USB 2.0 plus one FireWire bracket, and a tiny I/O shield fan for good measure.

The EVGauge and ECP panel are arguably the coolest extras in the box. The former is a physical analog gauge--it actually uses a needle, like an RPM gauge on your car--that you can connect to the motherboard and see your CPU frequency in real time. It's ultimately not very useful, as it doesn't measure the frequency incrementally, but it's pretty sweet to have on your case nonetheless.

The ECP panel is far more useful and just as cool. It's a front-mounted panel that displays post codes and the CPU temperature and allows you to enable or disable PCI-E slots, clear the CMOS, and control voltages.

     
     

The Z68 FTW includes the EVGA E-LEET Tuning Utility for some desktop-based overclocking, but you’re still probably better off using the BIOS for fine tuning. The utility looks exactly like CPU-Z, which is kind of funny, but you have the option of adjusting some of the settings, such as Turbo Mode controls.

Other overclocking features include EVGA Vdroop Control, which ensures that the voltages you set in the BIOS are the ones that are actually used under load, and EVGA Dummy OC, which is a one-click overclock in the BIOS.

The Z68 FTW costs $264.99, although there’s a $10 manufacturer’s mail-in rebate.
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Gigabyte Z68XP-UD3-iSSD
We looked at a pair of Gigabyte boards in this roundup, and the Z68XP-UD3-iSSD is the first up of the two; the Z68XP-UD4 is on deck.

It’s safe to say that this is one of the least flashy motherboards we’ve ever seen. In a market where boards are packed with flashing LEDs, onboard buttons and switches, and themed color schemes and heatsinks (such as Gigabyte’s Sniper series), the Z68XP-UD3-iSSD sticks out like a sore thumb. It has virtually none of the above; even the color scheme is a dated royal blue PCB with cream and sky blue slots and ports.

All the above is not a knock on this board, as the complete lack of bling makes for a clean, uncluttered layout where everything is clearly labelled.

Gigabyte Z68XP-UD3-iSSD

Gigabyte Z68XP-UD3-iSSD
Specifications & Features

CPU: Support for LGA1155 Intel Core i7/i5/i3, Pentium, and Celeron processors
L3 cache varies with CPU
Memory: 4 x 1.5V DDR3 DIMM sockets supporting up to 32 GB of system memory
Dual channel memory architecture
Support for DDR3 2133/1866/1600/1333/1066 MHz memory modules
Support for non-ECC memory modules
Support for Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) memory modules
Onboard Graphics: Integrated Graphics Processor: 1 x HDMI port, supporting a maximum resolution of 1920x1200
Audio Realtek ALC889 codec, High Definition Audio, 2/4/5.1/7.1-channel
LAN 1 x Realtek RTL8111E chip (10/100/1000 Mbit)
Slots 1 x PCI Express x16 slot, running at x16 (PCIEX16)
1 x PCI Express x16 slot, running at x8 (PCIEX8)
3 x PCI Express x1 slots
2 x PCI slots
Multi-GPU: Support for AMD CrossFireX / NVIDIA SLI technology
Storage Interface: Chipset:
2 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors (SATA3_0~SATA3_1) supporting up to 2 SATA 6Gb/s devices
4 x SATA 3Gb/s connectors (SATA2_2~SATA2_5) supporting up to 4 SATA 3Gb/s devices
Support for RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, and RAID 10
1 x Marvell 88SE9172 chip:
2 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors (GSATA3_6, GSATA3_7) supporting up to 2 SATA 6Gb/s devices
Support for SATA RAID 0 and RAID 1
USB: Chipset:
Up to 14 USB 2.0/1.1 ports
2 x Etron EJ168 chips:
Up to 4 USB 3.0/2.0 ports
IEEE 1394: VIA VT6308 chip:
Up to 2 IEEE 1394a ports
I/O Controller: iTE IT8728 chip
Form Factor: ATX Form Factor, 30.5cm x 24.4cm

The Z68XP-UD3-iSSD supports not just the 2nd generation Core i7/i5/i3 chips, but also LGA1155 Pentium and Celeron processors. You can slap in up to 32GB of DDR3-2133 memory, but the board only supports up to two SLI/CrossFireX cards at x8 each.

For expansion, this motherboard has a PCI-E x16 slot, PCI-E x8 slot, three PCI-E x1 slots, and two PCI slots. It also sports a total of four SATA 6gbps ports (two apiece by the Z68 chipset and Marvell 88SE9172 chip) and four SATA 3Gbps ports, as well as up to fourteen USB 2.0 ports and four USB 3.0 ports (the latter available courtesy of a pair of Etron EJ168 chips). The board also has two FireWire ports. The back panel also offers a PS/2 port, HDMI port, and S/PDIF Out.

     
     

The Z68XP-UD3-iSSD has the old AWARD BIOS, but Gigabyte included its Touch BIOS utility to make adjusting BIOS settings easier, and its DualBIOS both enables support for over 3TB of storage and two BIOS ROM chips for easy recovery from any BIOS failures or corruption.

Other useful extras include On/Off Charge, which lets you charge USB devices even when the PC is off; USB Power Boost for better USB performance; Smart 6, which includes several sub-utilities for performance enhancement, recovery, and more; and Cloud OC, which lets you overclock the system with a different device over a Web connection.

The board includes its EZ Smart Response utility to automatically take advantage of Intel’s Smart Response Technology without requiring any tinkering in the BIOS, which is a good thing as the Z68XP-UD3-iSSD has one doozy of a surprise that you're going to want to spend time with: an on-board 20GB SSD.

This is a logical use of Intel’s Smart Response Technology, especially as it keeps the overall cost of the system down for those who want the speed of an SSD to complement a bulk storage drive but don’t want to pony up the cash. In fact, when you take that into consideration, its $224.99 price tag makes this board a steal.
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Gigabyte Z68XP-UD4
The second of our pair of Gigabyte boards is the Z68XP-UD4, which, unlike the XPZ68-UD3-iSSD, has a svelte black and charcoal gray color scheme. Actually, it looks quite a bit like the ASRock Z68 Extreme7 Gen3 we’re covering here, right down to the all-black memory slots that make it hard to tell where to put a pair of DIMMs.


Gigabyte Z68XP-UD4

Gigabyte Z68XP-UD4
Specifications & Features

CPU: Support for LGA1155 Intel Core i7/i5/i3, Pentium, and Celeron processors
L3 cache varies with CPU
Memory: 4 x 1.5V DDR3 DIMM sockets supporting up to 32 GB of system memory
Dual channel memory architecture
Support for DDR3 2133/1866/1600/1333/1066 MHz memory modules
Support for non-ECC memory modules
Support for Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) memory modules
Onboard Graphics: Integrated Graphics Processor: 1 x HDMI port, supporting a maximum resolution of 1920x1200
Audio: Realtek ALC889 codec, High Definition Audio, 2/4/5.1/7.1-channel
LAN: 1 x Realtek RTL8111E chip (10/100/1000 Mbit)
Slots: 1 x PCI Express x16 slot, running at x16 (PCIEX16)
1 x PCI Express x16 slot, running at x8 (PCIEX8)
2 x PCI Express x1 slots
2 x PCI slots
Multi-GPU: Support for AMD CrossFireX/NVIDIA SLI technology
Storage Interface: Chipset:
2 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors (SATA3_0, SATA3_1) supporting up to 2 SATA 6Gb/s devices
4 x SATA 3Gb/s connectors (SATA2_2~SATA2_5) supporting up to 4 SATA 3Gb/s devices
Support for RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, and RAID 10
2 x Marvell 88SE9172 chips:
2 x SATA 6Gb/s connectors (GSATA3_6, GSATA3_7) supporting up to 2 SATA 6Gb/s devices
2 x eSATA 6Gb/s connectors
Support for RAID 0 and RAID 1
USB: Chipset:
Up to 14 USB 2.0/1.1 ports
2 x Etron EJ168 chips:
Up to 4 USB 3.0/2.0 ports
IEEE 1394: VIA VT6308 chip:
Up to 2 IEEE 1394a ports
I/O Controller: iTE IT8728 chip
Form Factor: ATX Form Factor, 30.5cm x 24.4cm

Other than the difference in looks, the Z68XP-UD4 is strikingly similar the the Z68XP-UD3-iSSD. They offer the same CPU, memory, and SLI/CrossFireX support. The Z68XP-UD4 has one less PCI-E x1 slot, but they have the same number of SATA 3Gbps/6Gbps ports and USB 2.0/3.0 ports. The Z68XP-UD4 also has a second Marvell 88E9172 chip that provides two back panel eSATA 6Gbps ports.

     
     

The two boards even have most of the same extras and utilities. The major differences between the two are that the Z68XP-UD4 lacks the on-board SSD but has some power features that the Z68XP-UD3-iSSD lacks. This board also costs less at $199.99.

The Z68XP-UD4 has a 16-phase power design for better CPU power delivery and cooling; Dual CPU Power Technology, which enables better efficiency for the CPU power phases and promotes motherboard reliability; and Driver MOSFETs that are designed to deliver more efficient power by integrating the MOSFETs and driver IC.

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MSI Z68A-GD65 G3
Overall, the MSI Z68A-GD65 G3 is a solid motherboard with decent looks and a great price at $199. Although, we’re not in love with the layout. The board is really cramped over by the 8-pin power input, and if you have a large CPU cooler, it’s tricky to get everything connected.

However, the Z68A-GD65 G3 supports the gamut of socket LGA1155 chips, including Core i7/i5/i3, Celeron, and Pentium processors, as well as up to 32GB of DDR3-2133 RAM. The board also has a total of four SATA 3Gbps ports and four SATA 6Gbps ports in addition to six rear USB ports two USB 3.0 (courtesy of an NEC D720200 chip) and four USB 2.0.

MSI Z68A-GD65 G3

MSI Z68A-GD65 G3
Specifications & Features

CPU: Supports Intel Sandy Bridge processors in LGA1155 package
Chipset: Intel Z68 (B3) Chipset
Memory: Supports four unbuffered DIMM of 1.5 Volt DDR3 1066/1333/1600/2133(OC) DRAM, 32GB Max
Supports 1GB/ 2GB/ 4GB/ 8GB DRAM size
Supports Dual channel mode
Slots: 2 PCI Express gen3 x16 slots
3 PCIE x1 slots
2 32-bit v2.3 master PCI bus slots.
Supports 3.3v/5v PCI bus interface.
Storage: SATAII controller integrated in Intel Z68 (B3) chipset
- Up to 3Gb/s transfer speed.
- Supports four SATAII ports (SATA3~6) by Z68 (B3) PCH
SATAIII controller integrated in Intel Z68 (B3) chipset
- Up to 6Gb/s transfer speed.
- Supports two SATAIII ports (SATA1~2) by Z68 (B3) PCH
- SATA1~6 ports support RAID 0/1/5/10 mode by Intel Z68 (B3) PCH
SATAIII controller integrated in Marvell 88SE9128 chipset
- Supports two SATA 6Gb/s ports
LAN: Supports one PCI Express LAN 10/100/1000 Fast Ethernet by Realtek 8111E
Audio:  Chipset integrated by Realtek ALC892
- Flexible 8-channel audio with jack sensing
- Compliant with Azalia 1.0 Spec
- Meet Microsoft Vista Premium spec
USB Ports: 1 USB 3.0 internal connector by NEC D720200
2 USB 3.0 rear I/O ports by NEC D720200
Form Factor: ATX Form Factor, 30.5cm(L) x 24.5cm(W)

The board supports PCI-E gen 3 and has two PCI-E gen3 x16 slots in addition to three PCI-E x1 slots and a pair of PCI slots. If you’re looking for an SLI/CrossFireX setup, the best you can do here is three-way.

Like many of the motherboards in this roundup, the Z68A-GD65 G3 has its share of physical buttons and switches, including power and reset, but it also has an OC Genie button. This button is a great feature and lets you overclock the system just by pressing the button and booting. OC Genie automatically overclocked the system to 4.2GHz by bumping the CPU ratio up to 42. After you power down, push the button again, and reboot, you’re back to stock everything, just like that.

The OC Genie button, combined with the included Control Center software, makes overclocking incredibly easy. With the simple GUI, you can tweak pretty much any setting you’d want without ever using the BIOS.

   
 
     

The box contains just the basics, save for a USB 3.0 bracket that will give you two additional ports to work with.

If you like loads of utilities and included software, this board is for you. The Z68A-GD65 G3 is bursting with them. Some are more useful and welcome than others, but here’s the complete list: Norton Internet Security, Norton Online Backup, mufin player 2.0, MAGIZ Video easy SE, eSobi v2, Adobe AIR, Star Mission Game, Chicken Shake Game, MSI Q-Face, EasyViewer, Control Center, Live Update 5, Marvell Storage Utility, Teaming Genie, VideoGenie, AudioGenie, Click BIOS II, Winki, and Super-Charger. Note that many of these will arrive the first time you run MSI's Live Update.
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ZOTAC Z68-ITX WiFi
The last (but certainly not least) motherboard in our roundup is the ZOTAC Z68-ITX WiFi. If it’s possible for a motherboard to be adorable, this one is it. The Z68-ITX WiFi even has little rabbit-ear antennae for its included 802.11n WiFi module. In a tiny mini-ITX form factor--our sizable CPU cooler just about covered the entire board. This motherboard is an exercise in space efficiency; it's impressive that ZOTAC crammed so much onto such a small PCB.

We should note that because of the limited real estate, we had to rotate our CPU cooler 90 degrees to fit, compared to where it sat on the other boards we tested. Also, there wasn’t space enough between the cooler and the graphics card to fit our second CPU cooler-mounted fan. It’s just as well though, since there weren’t enough power inputs on the board for both of our cooler fans and our case fan.

ZOTAC Z68-ITX WiFi

ZOTAC Z68-ITX WiFi
Specifications & Features
CPU: LGA 1155
Chipset: Intel Z68 Express
Memory: 2 x 240-pin DIMM
 Up to 16GB DDR3
Slots: 1 x PCI Express x16
1 x Combo Mini PCI Express / mSATA (occupied by WiFi module)
Onboard Video: Intel HD Graphics 2000/3000 ready
Storage: 2 x SATA 3.0 Gb/s
2 x SATA 6.0 Gb/s
RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5
Networking: Onboard LAN
2 x 10/100/1000Mbps Ethernet ports
Onboard WLAN
802.11n (300 Mb/s) WiFi
Audio: 1 x HD Audio Port (7.1-channel)
1 x Digital Optical S/PDIF output
1 x Front panel audio header
USB Ports: 4 x USB 3.0 ports (2 on back panel, 2 via header)
8 x USB 2.0 ports (4 on back panel, 4 via header)
Form Factor: Mini-ITX Form Factor, 6.7in x 6.7in - 170mm x 170mm

The board supports up to 16GB of DDR3-2133 over a pair of memory slots as well as two SATA 3Gbps, two SATA 6Gbps, eight USB 2.0, and four USB 3.0 ports. There’s just one PCI-E x16 slot, but the board also has a combo Mini PCI-E/mSATA slot. On our board, that slot was occupied by the WiFi module.

On-board you’ll also find a PS/2 port, HD audio port, S/PDIF output, a pair of Gigabit LAN ports, two HDMI ports, and one Mini-DisplayPort.

Surprisingly, the Z68-ITX WiFi has some buttons on board (seriously, how did they fit those on there?), including power, reset, and a clear CMOS button on the back panel.

     
     

The box contains the usual offerings as well as a USB 3.0 header in case you need another couple of USB 3.0 ports. There are certainly overclocking options, but they’re somewhat buried under submenus in the BIOS.

At $178.99, the Z68-ITX WiFi is the least expensive board in our roundup, and for such a small board it really packs a punch performance-wise.

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UEFI/BIOS Comparison
An interesting thing happened in the not-too-distant past: a slick UEFI became de rigeur for most motherboard manufacturers. It’s easy to see why. First, it’s visually appealing for tinkerers, and frankly, the visuals are kind of a nice change of pace from the plain BIOS we all grew accustomed to over the years. Secondly, it gives motherboard makers the chance to pack in more features and capabilities in a way that differentiates a product, as opposed to just burying them in multiple sub-menus. Finally, let’s be honest--it’s really nice to navigate through BIOS settings and overclocking features with a mouse.

 
ASRock
 
ASUS (EZ)

ASUS (Advanced)
 
EVGA

Gigabyte (both)

MSI
   
ZOTAC
 

It’s interesting to see each manufacturer’s take on what the UEFI or BIOS can look like. The ASRock UEFI was arguably our favorite, as it’s attractive and easy on the eyes but also simple and straightforward to navigate. MSI and ASUS both opted for vibrant, flashy UEFI’s with different modes of operation. In MSI’s case, you can toggle between ECO, STANDARD, or OC Genie II modes to access the settings and features appropriate to each. ASUS did the mode thing a bit differently, offering an EZ Mode by default that assaults the senses with dials and graphic visualizations of temperature, voltage, and fan speed. However, you can click “Exit/Advanced Mode” at the top right corner of the screen to switch into an Advanced Mode. The Advanced Mode looks a lot like the ASRock UEFI--simple, clean, and attractive--and it's ideal for the overclocker.

You may note that although we included two Gigabyte boards in this roundup, we only provided one photo of the BIOS; that’s because the motherboards have identical BIOS menus and setups, which is the same BIOS you’ve seen on every Gigabyte board for years. This has pros and cons; on the one hand, it’s antiquated-looking compared to all the nice UEFIs out there, but on the other, it’s nice to use a BIOS where everything is located where you know it to be, rather than having to dig around each different new UEFI you encounter.

EVGA and ZOTAC have the oddest takes on their UEFIs/BIOSes of the seven motherboards we looked at. At first glance, it looks like ZOTAC took the Gigabyte route and went with a legacy-looking BIOS; then, you realize that you can use your mouse to navigate through it. We wonder why ZOTAC would go to the trouble of making a UEFI that’s mouse-navigable without dressing it up a bit; even a simple GUI skin would have gone a long way.

EVGA has a hipster UEFI; it ironically looks like an old BIOS, and you can’t use your mouse to navigate, but the company gave it a cool black-and-white color scheme and slick icons for the different areas of the UEFI.  Just in case there was any doubt, “UEFI” is stamped in the upper-left corner.
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Test Systems and PCMark Vantage
Test System Configuration Notes: When configuring our test systems for this article, we first entered their respective system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High performance Defaults". We then saved the settings, re-entered the BIOS and set the memory frequency to DDR3-1333. We updated the OS and installed the drivers necessary for our components. Auto-Updating and Windows Defender were then disabled and we installed all of our benchmarking software, performed a disk clean-up, defragged the hard drives, and ran the tests.

Our test system consisted of a Core i7-2600K (3.4GHz) processor, 2x4GB Kingston HyperX DDR3-1600 (@1333), ZOTAC GeForce GTX 260, WD 150GB Raptor HDD, and Windows Home Premium x64.

Preliminary Testing with PCMark Vantage
Synthetic Benchmarks
First up, we ran our test systems through Futuremark’s total-system performance evaluation tool, PCMark Vantage. PCMark Vantage runs through a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity.

Most of the sub-tests used to come up with the final scores in each category are multi-threaded as well, so the tests can exploit the additional resources offered by a multi-core CPU.



The Gigabyte Z68XP-UD3-iSSD scored the highest in PCMark Vantage, especially when Intel SRT was enabled using the board's integrated SSD. This test is especially storage subsystem performance sensitive. The scores of most of the other motherboards were relatively close together and actually formed a nice arc, from the ZOTAC Z68-ITX WiFi at the low end up to the ASRock Z68 Extreme7 Gen3 in third place. The ASUS P8Z68 Deluxe came in with the lowest score, surprisingly. In most of the other sub-tests, the scores were clustered closely, although the EVGA board tanked the Memories portion, the MSI board fell behind the group in the Music sub-test, and the ASRock board didn't keep up with the pack in Communications.
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Futuremark PCMark 7
Futuremark's PCMark 7 is the latest version of the PCMark suite, recently released this spring. It has updated application performance measurements targeted for a Windows 7 environment. Here's what Futuremark says is incorporated in the base PCMark suite and the Entertainment suite, the two modules we have benchmark scores for you here.

Futuremark PCMark 7
General Application and Multimedia Performance

The PCMark test is a collection of workloads that measure system performance during typical desktop usage. This is the most important test since it returns the official PCMark score for the system.


Storage
* Windows Defender
* Importing pictures
* Gaming

Video Playback and transcoding
Graphics

* DirectX 9

Image manipulation
Web browsing and decrypting

The Entertainment test is a collection of workloads that measure system performance in entertainment scenarios using mostly application workloads. Individual tests include recording, viewing, streaming and transcoding TV shows and movies, importing, organizing and browsing new music and several gaming related workloads. If the target system is not capable of running DirectX 10 workloads then those tests are skipped. At the end of the benchmark run the system is given an Entertainment test score.




For the most part, there’s little differentiation in the PCMark 7 scores, although the ASUS board stepped out a tiny bit by being the only board to cap 3900 in Entertainment, without using Intel Smart Response Technology. The ASRock and EVGA boards did outperform the others slightly in PCMarks, but the latter five produced very tightly-clustered scores
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LAME MT Audio Encoding and Cinebench
In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to the MP3 format, which is a popular scenario that many end users work with on a day-to-day basis to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. LAME is an open-source mid to high bit-rate and VBR (variable bit rate) MP3 audio encoder that is used widely around the world in a multitude of third party applications.

LAME MT
Audio Conversion and Encoding

In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a hallucinogenic-induced Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times are recorded below, listed in seconds. Shorter times equate to better performance.



The audio encoding test showed very little differentiation between the motherboards, although the MSI board posted a weak score on the single-threaded test.

Cinebench R11.5
3D Rendering

Cinebench R11.5 is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput. This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders and animates 3D scenes and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.


Again, these motherboards posted very similar scores, with little to distinguish one from another in Cinebench. The ASUS board did manage the top score, though not by much.
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Low-Res Gaming: Crysis and ET:QW
For our next set of tests, we moved on to some in-game benchmarking with Crysis and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. When testing processors with Crysis or ET:QW, we drop the resolution to 1024x768, and reduce all of the in-game graphical options to their minimum values to isolate CPU and memory performance as much as possible. However, the in-game effects, which control the level of detail for the games' physics engines and particle systems, are left at their maximum values, since these actually do place some load on the CPU rather than GPU.

Low-Resolution Gaming: Crysis and ET:Quake Wars
Taking the GPU out of the Equation (Well, trying to at least)






The scores for these games are a little odd; in ET:QW, ASUS once again owned the top spot (with the Gigabyte Z68XP-UD3 in second) and was the only motherboard to top 200, but in the Crysis test, it tested toward the middle of the pack. The MSI board did comparatively poorly in ET:QW but turned in one of the better scores in the Crysis test.

The rest of the scores showed a reasonably tight grouping, although in Crysis, the ASRock and ZOTAC boards failed to impress while the EVGA Z68 FTW was a good step faster than the rest of the field.
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Total System Power Consumption
Before bringing this article to a close, we'll take a look at power consumption of these motherboard. Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored how much power each was consuming with a power meter. Our goal was to give you an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling on the desktop and while under a heavy workload. Keep in mind, this is total system power consumption being measured at the outlet and not the the individual motherboards alone.

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet



At idle, most of the systems hung around 10W or so of each other, although the diminutive ZOTAC board stood alone at just under the 100W mark. When under a heavy load, however, the field separated quite a bit. The ASUS board topped out at 10W ahead of the next-most power hungy board (the ASRock Z68 Extreme7 Gen3). The ASRock, EVGA, and Gigabyte Z68XP-UD3 motherboards made up one cluster of scores, with all three maxing out within 10W of each other (from 174-184W). The most efficient group, comprised of the MSI, ZOTAC, and Gigabyte Z68XP-UD4 motherboards, were all within just a few watts of each other (from 158-162W).
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Performance Summary and Conclusion
With so many excellent motherboards to choose from in the Z68 arena, it’s tough to pick a favorite. Each of the boards we tested is unique in its own way, and users may be drawn to this or that feature that one motherboard has to the exclusion of the others. There wasn't a bad board of the bunch, but we had to rank them, so here goes:



Although it performed well in our benchmarks, for as much as the EVGA Z68 FTW costs, we expected a bit more in terms of features. For example, it lacks quad SLI/CrossFireX support and only supports 16GB of total system memory. We do love the extra accessories, though.

There’s nothing wrong with the Gigabyte Z68XP-UD4, and it’s a fine piece of hardware with a relatively low price tag, but there’s nothing in particular that makes us want this motherboard over the other Gigabyte board in our roundup. Why not just go with the Z68XP-UD3-iSSD instead?

Overall, the MSI Z68A-GD65 G3 delivered decidedly average performance compared to the other boards, and it lacked some compelling extra features save for PCI-E gen 3 support when Ivy Bridge arrives. However, we definitely liked the price, and the overclocking features are easy to use and very effective.



Despite the plain Jane looks and tired BIOS, the Gigabyte Z68XP-UD3-iSSD is an easy motherboard to work with, and it delivered solid performance in our tests. The ace in the hole is obviously the integrated SSD. It’s a smart feature, it saves users a lot of hassle if they're trying to take advantage of Intel's Smart Response Technology (SRT) built into Z68. Its price is also quite good considering what you get with its integrated SSD. The only knock against this mobo is that in terms of graphics, it’s limited to just dual SLI/CrossFire at x8 each.  That may or may not be an issue for you.

We admit to having an affinity for the ZOTAC Z68-ITX WiFi as well. It’s just a great all-around board for what it is. It’s laid out incredibly well, and it manages to boast impressive features in a tiny form factor. The low price is nothing to sneeze at, either. Further, it performed relatively well in our tests. It doesn’t have much room for expansion, and although that’s expected with this form factor, it’s something to keep in mind when making a purchasing decision.

The ASRock Z68 Extreme7 Gen3 is a gorgeous motherboard, and although its benchmark scores were mostly average, it’s one of only two boards in this roundup that supports quad SLI/CrossFireX. Additionally, it has easy-to-use yet powerful overclocking features, so you can infer that this motherboard’s performance can scale up rather well if you're the type to push the envelope.



In a field of boards that had a myriad of outstanding features, the ASUS P8Z68 Deluxe had enough of everything to warrant our top spot. In addition to its great looks, it has excellent specs and expandability, its benchmark scores were mostly above average, and it’s not even the most expensive in the group (although it is up there).

Additionally, the board has excellent overclocking features with enough granular controls to keep even the most fervent tweaker happy.

If you’re looking for a Z68 motherboard to build a high-performing system on, you’ll be in good shape with the ASUS P8Z68 Deluxe.


  • Quad SLI/CrossFireX
  • Solid benchmarks
  • Excellent overclocking tools
  • Good looks
  • Power hungry
  • Price

 




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