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Intel Z68 Express with Smart Response Technology
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Date: May 11, 2011
Section:Motherboards
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction and Specifications

When Intel initially launched their second generation Core processor family, also known as Sandy Bridge, the processors were widely praised for their strong performance and power efficiency. Shortly thereafter, however, a defect in the processor’s companion 6-Series chipsets, which affected the reliability of some of its SATA ports, cropped up and forced Intel to halt production and recall the chipsets. A fix was relatively quick in the making and current chips based on the B3 revision of the silicon resolve the issue.  However, the recall and subsequent lack of availability surely forced many consumers to pause before taking the plunge on a Sandy Bridge-based system.

Although the 6-series chipset bug isn’t the kind of thing that instills confidence in potential buyers, the delays caused by the recall may have ultimately benefitted many enthusiasts. How is this, you ask? Because today’s launch of the Z68 Express chipset erases a few of the shortcomings of the original members of the 6-series chipset family and makes a Sandy Bridge system all the more attractive.

If you recall back to the Sandy Bridge launch, we tested the two premiere chipsets in the 6-series, the enthusiast-targeted P67 and mainstream H67. Fundamentally, the two chipsets were very similar (and are based on the same piece of silicon), but each had a specific feature set designed for its target audience. For example, the P67 offered CPU and memory overclocking and increased power and current limits, while the H67 gave users the ability to take advantage of Sandy Bridge’s built-in graphics and Quick Sync media-encoding engine. P67 users that wanted to take advantage of Quick Sync and H67 users looking to do some CPU overclocking were simply out of luck. With the Z68 Express, however, prospective Sandy Bridge users no longer need to compromise.

To put it simply, Z68 Express is an amalgam of the P67 and H67 chipsets. The Z68 offers all of the features of both, in addition to a few new ones, so users wanting to get in on Quick Sync and some CPU overclocking will now have the platform to do so.

 

The high-level block diagram above gives a good visual representation of the Z68 Express chipset’s main features. Like the P67, the Z68 chipset is essentially an I/O hub, as all of the traditional Northbridge functionality has been integrated into the processor itself. As you can see, Sandy Bridge processors offer 16 lanes of PCI Express 2.0 connectivity on-die and they feature integrated dual-channel, DDR3 memory controllers. The processors are linked to the chipset via a 20Gb/s interface and the chipset itself is outfitted with 8 more PCIe 2.0 lanes, along with various other I/O, like USB 2.0 (14 ports), SATA (II and III), an integrated Gigabit MAC, digital display outputs, etc. Notably missing from the chipset is native USB 3.0 support, but that can be added using a discrete controller.

One new feature represented above is Intel’s Smart Response technology. Smart Response technology gives users the ability to configure a solid state drive as a dedicated cache for a companion hard drive. The technology works much like a hybrid hard drive like the Seagate Momentus XT; commonly accessed data is striped to the SSD so it can be accessed more quickly than it could be from the hard drive alone—more on that later though.

Also coming with the Z68 Express is broad industry adoption of LucidLogix’ Virtu GPU virtualization software. Most, if not all, motherboard vendors will be including Virtu with their Z68 Express based motherboards. What the software does is allow users to install a discrete GPU into their systems and still be able to take advantage of Quick Sync. Before Virtu came along, H67 users, for example, had to either connect monitors to both the Intel HD Graphics and discrete GPU, or switch the monitor from the discrete GPU to the Intel HD graphics output on a Sandy Bridge system to take advantage of Quick Sync. If there was no monitor connection present and a discrete card was plugged into a Sandy Bridge system, the integrated graphics core would be disabled, taking Quick Sync along with it. With Virtu, that is no longer the case.

We have covered LucidLogix’s Virtu in depth in this recent article. If you’d like more details on Virtu and its capabilities, we’d suggest checking that article out. Although we should point out Virtu has been updated a few times since our initial coverage and a handful of the issues mentioned in that piece have since been fixed.

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Intel Smart Response SSD Caching

As we’ve already mentioned, the Z68 Express is basically a fusion of the P67 and H67 Express chipsets. The Z68 Express takes the best features of both and marries them into a single product. CPU, GPU, and memory overclocking are all supported, as are all of Intel’s visual technologies like QuickSync, Intel HD 2000/3000 series graphics, and InTru 3D, etc. But a new feature is also making its debut, dubbed Smart Response Technology.

 

Intel Smart Response Technology is a cache mechanism of sorts that uses a solid state drive to enhance overall system performance. The SSD can be paired to any standard hard drive, regardless of the capacity, and the SSD is used as a high-speed repository of the most commonly used data blocks (not necessarily complete files). The Z68 Express’ drive controller monitors usage patterns on the hard drive and copies the most frequently accessed bits of data from the drive to the SSD.

Like other SSD / HD hybrid storage technologies, the data on the hard drives has to be accessed multiple times before it is copied to the solid state storage volume. So, the contents of the SSD will dynamically and constantly change over time, based on usage. The most commonly accessed data on the platters gets copied to the much higher performing SSD, which results in a performance boost when that data needs to be fetched.

Knowing how Smart Response technology works, reveals one of the drawbacks of a hybrid setup such as this one—the SSD will offer little or no performance benefit to infrequently accessed or new data. So, with large file copies, application installations, and the like, a system with Smart Response enabled may perform much like it had only a standard HD.


Intel SSD 311 Series 20GB SLC-based Drive

To coincide with the launch of Smart Response Technology, Intel is also at the ready with a brand new SSD designed to exploit the feature. The SSD 311 series drive pictured here is a 20GB model that features 34nm SLC NAND flash. It will be available in 2.5" and mSATA versions for about $99 and is outfitted with an Intel storage controller. Smart Response Technology is designed to work with SSD volumes between 18GB and 64GB in capacity, which makes the 311 SSD a perfect candidate for Smart Response.

  
Intel SSD 311 Series Benchmarks, Click For Larger View

Although we use the SSD 311 series drive in a number of tests a little later in this article, we thought a couple of standalone benchmarks posted here would help paint a better picture of what this drive is all about. The tests show the drive offering write speeds slightly better then the X25-M G2 and reads that are a shade behind the G2.


Intel Smart Response Technology--Only a Click Away

Configuring an SSD for use in a Smart Response setup couldn't be any easier, provided the OS and storage controller were configured properly beforehand. The storage controller must be configured for RAID mode, with the proper Intel RST drivers installed (version 10.5 or later). Provided everything is installed properly, simply plug in the SSD, boot into Windows, and open the Intel RST GUI. Then click on the Accelerate menu option, enable acceleration, and select your desired mode--Enhanced or Maximized. There are two selectable modes: Enhanced, which is write-thru cache, and Maximized, which is write-back cache. Write-back cache provides the highest overall performance and system power savings. Write-thru caching reflects any writes to the hard drive and cache simultaneously, so write performance will be limited by the hard drive. If the entire capacity of the SSD is used, the system will appear to have only a single drive installed, with a single drive letter. However, if say half of the capacity of a larger SSD is used, the remaining portion can be configured as a standard partition.

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Z68 Motherboards: MSI and Asus

For the purposes of this article, we acquired a handful of enthusiast-class Z68 Express-based motherboards to give you all an idea as to what type of boards would be hitting the scene when the Z68 Express is first made available.


 
MSI Z68A-GD80

First up, we have the MSI Z68A-GD80. Like the other Z68 Express-based motherboards featured here, all of the Z68 chipset’s features are available on the Z68A-GD80, but MSI works a bit of their own magic as well. The MSI Z68A-GD80 features a mouse-friendly EFI BIOS that’s much easier to navigate than traditional text-based BIOS menus. The board is also in MSI’s “Military Class II” family and features super ferrite chokes, highly conductive polymer capacitors and / or solid capacitors throughout, which should offer increases stability and longevity.

The MSI Z68A-GD80 also supports “1 second overclocking” thanks to its OC Genie feature, but the BIOS sports all of the overclocker-friendly features we’ve come to expect from MSI for manual tweaking as well. MSI also includes their new Instant OC Control Center software which gives users the ability the monitor and control system parameters from within Windows, with no need to reboot when making changes.

Other features of the MSI Z68A-GD80 include USB3.0 and CrossFire / SLI support, along with “Super Charger” which allows users to charge USB devices even when the system is powered down. We found the layout of the MSI Z68A-GD805 to be quite good and also like the dark blue and black features on the board.



 
Asus P8Z68-V PRO

Next, we have the Asus P8Z68-V PRO. The P8Z68-V PRO is one of the more feature rich a motherboards we have come across. In addition to exploiting all of the features inherent to the Z68 Express chipset, the P8Z68-V PRO offers USB 3.0 support (with front panel USB 3.0 ports included), Bluetooth connectivity, additional SATA 6Gbps ports, and what Asus calls its “Dual Intelligent Processors 2”. The Dual Intelligent Processors consist of Asus’ EPU unit, which we’ve covered in the past, and the TurboV processing unit. The processors work together with the P8Z68-V PRO’s digital VRM (DIGI+ VRM) and give users the ability to monitor and adjust power delivery. According to Asus, the combination of the programmable digital VRM and Dual Intelligent Processors 2 results in superior efficiency and longevity.

The Asus P8Z68-V PRO Deluxe also supports SLI and CrossFireX, DTS Surround, and Asus includes a copy of their AI Suite II, which gives users easy access to all of the Asus-proprietary features mentioned here in a single software package. In addition to the aforementioned features, the P8Z68-V PRO also sports an EFI BIOS with one-click overclocking and tuning that’s navigable using a mouse.

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Z68 Motherboards: Gigabyte

Gigabyte also sent over a couple of Z68 Express-based motherboards, the Z68X-UD3H-B3 and the Z68X-UD5-B3.


 
Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3

The Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3 is a more straightforward Z68-Express based motherboard, with requisite display outputs, storage, and expansion slot configuration to support of the Z68’s features. Unfortunately, our particular board had already passed through the hands of some other editors, was missing all of its accessories, and didn’t want to boot, so beyond what you can see in the pictures, we don’t have much else to tell you about the Z68X-UD3H-B3.


 
Gigabyte Z68X-UD5-B3

The Gigabyte Z68X-UD5-B3 is a somewhat different animal. Although it too is based on the Z68 Express chipset, the board does not feature any display outputs. Users may not care if they plan to use a discrete GPU with the board, but not having display outputs also means the board cannot take advantage of Intel’s QuickSync technology. In essence, the Z68X-UD5-B3 has the features of an enthusiast-class P67 Express-based motherboard, but uses Intel’s latest chipset.

With that said, the Z68X-UD5-B3 is otherwise a very full-features board. It’s outfitted with USB 3.0 (front mounted ports included) and features a 20 phase CPU power design, Gigabyte’s “Ultra Durable 3” technology with two ounces copper layers within the PCB, 3-way CrossFireX and SLI support, DualBIOS technology, and On/Off Charge support.

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Test Setup 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 memory to DDR3-1333. The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows 7 Ultimate x64 was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, 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 then ran all of the tests.

HotHardware's Test Systems
Intel and AMD - Head To Head

System 1:
Core i7-2600K
(3.4GHz - Quad-Core)

Asus P8Z68 PRO
Gigabyte Z68X-UD5-B3
MSI Z68A-GD80
(Z68 Express Chipset)

2x2GB Patriot DDR3-1866
(@ 1333MHz, CAS 8)

GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD150 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows 7 x64
System 2:
Core i7-2600K
(3.4GHz - Quad-Core)

Asus P8P67 Deluxe
(P67 Express Chipset)

2x2GB Patriot DDR3-1866
(@ 1333MHz, CAS 8)

GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD150 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows 7 x64
System 3:
Core i7-975
(3.33GHz - Quad-Core)

Gigabyte EX58-UD5
(X58 Express Chipset)

3x2GB OCZ DDR3-1333
(@ 1333MHz, CAS 8)

GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD150 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows 7 x64
System 4:
AMD Phenom II X6 1100T
(3.3GHz Six-Core)

MSI 890FX-GD75
(AMD 990FX Chipset)

2x2GB Kingston DDR3-1600
(@ 1333MHz, CAS 8)


GeForce GTX 280
On-Board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD150 "Raptor" HD
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows 7 x64

Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance

First up, we ran a number of different test systems through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric, 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 tests are multi-threaded as well, so the tests can exploit the additional resources offered by a multi-core CPU.

 

The first few pages of benchmarks compare a trio of Z68 Express based motherboards from Gigabyte, Asus, and MSI to the P67 Express, with a couple of other platforms based on the X58 Express and AMD 890FX thrown in for good measure.

As you can see here, the Z68 Express based motherboards generally outpaced the P67 by a few percentage points, depending on the specific test being run. We should point out, however, that PCMark Vantage has a fairly large margin of error and the differences aren't very dramatic with that taken into account. Also note that motherboard vendors have had more time to optimize performance with the Z68, than they did with the initial P67 launch, so that can account for a bit of the increased performance as well.


Click For An Enlarged View

 

Futuremark's latest iteration of PCMark, PCMark 7 launched in the days leading up to the Z68's release, so we decided to run its baseline test to give you all an idea how the platform does in this specific benchmark as well. We don't have reference numbers at this point, but if you've run PCMark 7 on your machine, at least you'll be able to compare. The test above was run with Smart Response technology enabled, in Enhanced Mode.

 

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LAME MT and Cinebench R11.5

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 Encoding

In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a hallucinogenically-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 performance of our custom LAME MT benchmark on the various Z68 Express-based motherboards we tested was very similar. The platforms are separated by one second here and there, but since this benchmark doesn't breakdown encode times into fractions of a second, the actual deltas separating the platforms is likely less than one second, when there is a difference to speak of.

Cinebench R11.5
3D Rendering

Cinebench R11.5 is a 3D rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 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 a photorealistic 3D scene (from the viral "No Keyframes" animation by AixSponza). This scene makes use of various algorithms to stress all available processor cores. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.

Cinebench R11.5 also shows minuscule performance differences between the various motherboards we tested and between the Z68 and P67.

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Gaming: Crysis and ETQW

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 800x600, 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


The Z68 Express based motherboards we tested offered slightly better performance in the low-res gaming tests over the P67, especially in the Crysis benchmark. Due to the similarities in the chipsets, however, we suspect these small differences can be attributed to more mature drives and BIOS optimization on the newer Z68 boards, which had more time to bake than the initial batch of P67s did. If we had a newer B3-revision P67 Express based motherboard on hand, flashed to its latest BIOS, and used the same chipset and storage drivers that were used on the Z68 platforms, the deltas here would likely be non-existent.

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Smart Response SSD Cache Testing

We also ran a number of tests in an attempt to illustrate the performance impact of Intel’s Smart Response SSD caching technology. What we’re showing you here on this page are the eight tests that comprise the PCMark Vantage HDD benchmark suite. We ran these tests in four different configurations: with the system outfitted with a standalone, 10K RPM HD, with an Intel 311 SSD, and finally with Smart Response enabled using the HD and 311 SSD together, in both Enhanced and Maximized performance modes.

Benchmarking Intel's Smart Response Technology
PCMark Vantage HDD Test Suite


(Note: Intel Smart Response scores are an average of 4 runs of the benchmark)

The first thing that becomes immediately apparent is the gargantuan performance advantage the SSD has over the hard disk in these tests. If you have the funds, using a standalone SSD of sufficient capacity as a boot volume is absolutely the way to go if you seek all-out performance. Using a small SSD like the 20GB 311 model featured here in a Smart Response configuration, however, results in some huge performance gains for a relatively modest investment. With Smart Response enabled, the Z68 Express-based system offered data transfer speeds multiple times that of the HD alone.

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Smart Response SSD Cache Testing (cont.)

Although the higher transfer rates that come from enabling Intel’s Smart Response technology sometimes resulted in a many-fold increase in bandwidth in the PCMark Vantage HDD tests, the effect on overall system performance isn’t quite as dramatic.

The graph pictured above shows the overall PCMark scores of our Z68 Express-based test system when equipped with only a hard drive and with Smart Response technology enabled. As you can see, using either mode, the system performed significantly better, to the tune of 35% to 40%.


WD Raptor 10K RPM
 

Smart Response (Enhanced Mode)
 

Smart Response (Maximized Mode)
 

Intel SSD 311 Series
 

To further illustrate the effect Smart Response technology has on storage performance, we also ran a few tests with CrystalDiskMark. Once again, this test shows the huge increases in transfer speed realized when Smart Response is enabled. This test, however, also shows the write performance advantage “Maximized” mode has over “Enhanced” mode. Maximized mode’s write back cache mode offers significantly better writes, but as we’ve mentioned, the is a risk of data loss using this mode in the event of a power outage.

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Total System Power Consumption

Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we also monitored how much power our test systems consumed using a power meter. Our goal was to give you all an idea as to how much power each configuration used while idling and while under a heavy workload. Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption at the outlet here, not just the power being drawn by the processors alone.

Total System Power Consumption
Tested at the Outlet

Our tests showed the newer Z68 Express based motherboards consuming slightly more power than the P67 Express, under both idle and load conditions. The Gigabyte motherboard used the most power of the three Z68s we tested, followed by Asus, and then MSI--although the Asus board's idle power was lower than the MSI boards. The differences here are relatively small, however. Slight changes in voltage from board to board can easily account for the deltas in the graph above. For all intents and purposes, the Z68 Express consumes roughly the same power as the P67 Express.

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Performance Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: There are two aspects to the Z68 Express chipset’s performance to consider; its performance versus the P67 Express using similar configurations and the effect Intel Smart Response SSD caching technology has on performance. With regard to the former, the Z68 Express and P67 Express—when configured similarly—performs at essentially the same level. Our benchmarks showed the Asus, MSI, and Gigabyte Z68 Express-based motherboards we tested slightly outperforming the P67, but the differences were minor and can likely be attributed to the updated drivers and BIOS revisions used on the newer Z68 Express-based boards.

The effect Intel’s Smart Response SSD caching technology has on performance is much more exciting, however. Smart Response technology had a huge impact on performance, resulting in significantly increased data transfer speeds and ultimately better system-level performance. Simply plugging in a small SSD and enabling Smart Response acceleration (provided the storage controller is already configured properly for RAID mode) resulted in significant performance gains and will allow users on a somewhat limited budget to enjoy many of the benefits of a solid state drive, without having to spring for a higher-capacity model that can accommodate and entire OS installation and commonly used apps and data.


The Intel Z68 Express Chipset with Smart Response Technology

We really like the Z68 Express chipset and the new technologies it brings to Sandy Bridge. It really is a no compromise solution when compared to the first 6-series chipsets. With Z68 Express, Sandy Bridge owners no longer have to choose whether or not to use Intel HD graphics and QuickSync or a discrete GPU, and they don’t have to settle for CPU overclocking or support for Intel’s built-in visual technologies—Z68 Express can do them all. The effect on performance of Intel’s Smart Response technology is also a huge plus. It pulls from the concept of hybrid SSD / hard drives and takes things to another level in terms of flexibility and performance.

As much as we like what the Z68 Express has to offer, however, we can’t help but feel this is the chipset the P67 should have been. But, what’s done is done. The Z68 Express is here now and it is the chipset to own if you’re an enthusiast considering a Sandy Bridge purchase. The three enthusiast-class motherboards we tested all exhibited strong performance with rock-solid stability and would make for fine foundations of a new Sandy Bridge setup.

  • No Comprimise Solution
  • Great Performance
  • Relatively Low Power
  • CPU + GPU Overclocking
  • QuickSync + Discreet GPU Capable
  • Smart Response Technology
  • Price Premium Over P67
  • What the P67 Should Have Been In The First Place

 



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