09/21/2011 | 09:47 AM
The Z68 Express still being Intel's latest chipset, we keep on writing our reviews of Z68-based mainboards. By the current moment we've already tested the top-end Z68A-GD80 (B3) from MSI as well as a number of such products from Gigabyte. Particularly, we first reviewed the four models from the Gigabyte UD3P to the UD7 which lacked video outputs, then took a look at the GA-Z68X-UD3H-B3 which had a large selection of video interfaces and finally discussed the unique Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD which featured an integrated 20GB SSD from Intel to enable Intel Smart Response. Our list lacks ASUS products so far, so we are going to test as many as three of them today: the top-end P8Z68 Deluxe, the midrange P8Z68-V Pro and the junior ASUS P8Z68-V. The LGA1155 mainboards from ASUS we tested earlier offered a number of benefits such as an integrated Bluetooth controller, EFI BIOS, broad functionality and good overclockability. The P8Z68 Deluxe, P8Z68-V Pro and P8Z68-V all match this brief description, too, so let's delve into details right now.
The P8Z68 Deluxe is shipped in a standard-looking box whose face panel shows the name of the mainboard and logos of the various features and technologies implemented in it. On the back of the box you can find a picture of the mainboard, its specifications and a brief description of some of its features. The only thing that betrays the high status of the product (besides the word Deluxe in its name) is that you can flip back the cover of the box and take a look at the mainboard through a large window without taking it out.
The mainboard comes with the following accessories:
We want to note one very useful accessory here. It is the USB 3.0 module with two ports that can be installed into a 3.5-inch bay of your system case. Newer system cases support USB 3.0 natively, but this module will help you endow your old system case with USB 3.0 as well.
The PCB design is familiar to us as it resembles the ASUS P8P67 Deluxe we tested earlier. We can only see some discrepancies in the CPU voltage regulator, which might be expected since the CPU-integrated graphics core calls for additional power. Otherwise, there is no difference between the two mainboards.
The CPU socket supports all modern LGA1155 CPUs. The four memory slots can take in up to 32 gigabytes of system memory and ensure dual-channel access at a frequency of 800 to 2400 MHz. Besides the two SATA 6 Gb/s and four SATA 3 Gb/s ports serviced by the chipset, there are two SATA 6 Gb/s ports based on a Marvell 88SE9128 controller. The two eSATA 3 Gb/s ports on the back panel are implemented via a JMicron JMB362 chip. One of them is Power eSATA and can power the connected device. The mainboard has two PCI, two PCI Express 2.0 x1 and three PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots. That's where the additional PLX PEX 8608 controller comes into play.
The 16 PCIe 2.0 lanes available in the CPU can be split up into two 8-lane groups by the chipset, so it is natural for Z68-based mainboards to have two graphics card slots. But when a third graphics slot is added, the CPU can't give any more PCIe lanes whereas the chipset's PCIe interface is needed for the rest of interfaces and controllers. Therefore the third graphics slot is usually allotted but one PCIe lane or four lanes at the expense of some other interfaces. The list of features that are disabled when the third graphics slot is used can usually be found in small print somewhere in the mainboard specs. These are usually onboard SATA or eSATA controllers, USB 3.0, IEEE1394 (FireWire), PCI or PCIe x1 slots. The P8Z68 Deluxe is different as it employs a PLX PEX 8608 controller to have an additional eight PCI Express 2.0 lanes so that you could use all the graphics slots without losing anything in other features.
We've mentioned some of the onboard controllers above. We will list the rest of them in the description of the mainboard's back panel:
Being a top-end and expensive product, the P8Z68 Deluxe has a lot of onboard controllers, extra features and technologies. A low-performance integrated graphics core doesn't fit into the concept of a powerful and feature-rich mainboard, so the lack of video outputs on the back panel could be expected. This mainboard is meant to be used with a discrete graphics card, or even several such cards combined into a CrossFireX or SLI subsystem. The place of the video interfaces is occupied by other connectors. However, the lack of video outputs doesn't mean that the mainboard cannot work with the CPU-integrated graphics core at all. Using LucidLogix Virtu technology, you can enable Intel Quick Sync to get hardware acceleration for video decoding.
The P8Z68 Deluxe has a number of features typical of other ASUS products such as the highlighted Power and Reset buttons. There is also a MemOK! button that helps start the computer up in case of some memory-related problems. The graphics slots are equipped with handy Q-Slot latches whereas the memory slots have Q-DIMM latches on one side only. In case of some problems, the Q-LED indicators report the step at which the boot-up process has been halted while the exact reason for that will be shown by the POST code indicator. The TPU switch can be used to overclock the CPU automatically while the EPU switch enables power-saving operation modes.
The next picture illustrates the mainboard's capabilities.
This mainboard's box is similar to the previous one but lacks the flip-back cover. The colors, overall design and logotypes are all the same. You can find a picture of the mainboard and a brief description of its features on the back of the box.
There are fewer accessories here. The previous mainboard had two more SATA cables. The front-panel USB 3.0 module is replaced with a back-panel bracket with two USB 3.0 connectors. Here is a full list of accessories included with the mainboard:
The ASUS P8Z68-V Pro is not a simplified variant of the senior model but uses an individual PCB design. There are a number of common traits between the two, though.
Let's talk about the differences. The cooling system is simpler here, but no less efficient. The central heat-spreader is missing but each of the hot components is equipped with a heatsink. The number and type of SATA connectors is the same but the two additional SATA 6 Gb/s ports are now provided by a Marvell 88SE9172 controller. The JMicron JMB362 chip is still here but it is now responsible for only one eSATA 3 Gb/s port; we'll explain you shortly why. There are no visible differences in the expansion card slots. The P8Z68-V Pro has two PCI, two PCI Express 2.0 x1 and three PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots. it supports CrossFireX and SLI technologies but if you use the third PCIe 2.0 x16 slot, which works in x4 mode, you lose the two PCIe 2.0 x1 slots, the extra USB 3.0 ports and the eSATA connector. By the way, the mainboard's USB 3.0 interface is implemented with two ASMedia ASM1042 controllers instead of the more popular Renesas (NEC) chips.
The reason for the lack of some connectors becomes clear when you take a look at the mainboard's back panel: it has video outputs which occupy quite a lot of space. Here is a full list of the mainboard's back-panel components:
FireWire could not be made available on the back panel due to the video outputs, but the mainboard still has a VIA 6315N controller that supports the two internal FireWire connectors. There is no POST code indicator but the reason for boot-up problems can be found with the help of the Q-LED indicators. The Clear CMOS button is missing but the MemOK! one is present. The highlighted Power and Reset buttons are available, too. The mainboard also features Q-Slot latches on the graphics slots, single-sided Q-DIMM latches on the memory slots, and TPU and EPU switches. It even offers more fan connectors than the previous model: six instead of five.
The next picture illustrates the mainboard's capabilities.
The packaging of this product follows the same design concept.
Stripped of the Pro suffix in its name, the mainboard didn't lose much in accessories. We only do not find the USB 3.0 bracket here. Otherwise, the accessories are the same as are included with the P8Z68-V Pro:
The P8Z68-V is based on the midrange model's PCB design with minor simplifications.
There are no differences at all in the top half of the PCB. As for the bottom half, we can note that the additional SATA 6 Gb/s controller is missing. The mainboard also lacks IEEE1394 (FireWire) and a Reset button but offers all the rest of the midrange model's capabilities.
As for the back panel, it is the same as the Pro model's. Here is a full list of the connectors:
So, you may want to prefer the P8Z68-V model if you are quite satisfied with two back-panel USB 3.0 ports, two SATA 6 Gb/s and four SATA 3 Gb/s ports and don't need the following: two extra USB 3.0 connectors, FireWire, an onboard Reset button. By refusing these features, you can save some money (the difference in price from the Pro version).
The next illustration highlights the mainboard's capabilities:
You can find all mainboard specifications on the official manufacturer web-site, but for your convenience we summed them up in the table below:
The three mainboards we're discussing today offer the same BIOS setup options except for the differences due to the lack or presence of additional controllers. Since the P8Z68 Deluxe has the fullest selection of BIOS options, we will use it in this section of our review as an example.
By default the BIOS opens up in EZ Mode which gives you a lot of information but offers almost no user-defined options. You can only choose one of three power-saving modes and define the boot device order by dragging the icons with your mouse.
You can make the BIOS open in Advanced Mode. In this case you will see the familiar Main section.
Most of the overclocking-related options are collected in the Ai Tweaker section. The new BIOS interface may seem unusual but its structure and setup options are quite recognizable as those of ASUS's older BIOS. There are a lot of new options, though, which are mostly related to power supply and the new digital power system called DIGI+.
Some of the setup options are available in individual subsections in order not to clutter the main section. One such subsection contains memory timings, for example.
CPU power supply options occupy a dedicated page, too. By the way, it is only mainboards from ASUS and Gigabyte that can automatically adjust to the user-defined settings and increase the allowable CPU power consumption range. This range has to be adjusted manually on other mainboards.
The options of the Advanced section should be familiar to you and their names are self-descriptive. We can only note that SATA disks work in AHCI mode on ASUS mainboards by default.
The CPU Configuration subsection reports you basic information about the CPU and allows to control some CPU-related technologies.
The Monitor section is where you can check out the current temperatures, voltages and fan speeds. You can select the speed regulation mode for the CPU and system fans: Standard, Silent or Turbo. You can also set them up manually except for the fans labeled as “PWR”.
System startup options can be found in the Boot section.
Next goes the Tools section.
The integrated BIOS update tool called EZ Flash 2 is perhaps the handiest and most functional among the utilities of its kind. It has changed with the transition to EFI BIOS. For example, the current firmware version is saved into the root directory of the connected drive by default.
Like on mainboards from many other brands, we can now see the information written into the memory modules' SPD unit.
ASUS mainboards allow you to store and load up to eight profiles with full BIOS settings. Each profile can be given a descriptive name.
The Drive Xpert subsection helps you set up the operation mode for hard disks connected to the onboard Marvell 88SE9128 controller. This section is missing in the BIOS of the P8Z68-V Pro as it uses a Marvell 88SE9172 chip which doesn't support RAID. The P8Z68-V lacks an onboard Marvell controller altogether.
The Exit section goes last. It allows you to save your changes, load default BIOS settings, or switch back to EZ Mode.
ASUS EFI BIOS is an excellent example of how the capabilities of the old BIOS can be expanded without making it harder to use. We guess the biggest problem that this BIOS presents is the sheer abundance of settings. However, the mainboard sets most of them at optimal values by default, so you can leave everything as it is and have your system running smoothly.
All performance tests were run on the following test platform:
We used Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64 bit (Microsoft Windows, Version 6.1, Build 7601: Service Pack 1) operating system, Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility version 18.104.22.1680, Nvidia GeForce Driver 280.26 graphics card driver.
We use this section to talk about any problems we meet when assembling our testbed components with the mainboard to be tested and then proceed to our overclocking experiments but this time around we’ve got a little more information for you. As for installation problems, we only had them with the senior model and we wrote about them in our review of the ASUS P8P67 Deluxe which is designed in the same way. One of the screws the mainboard’s central heatsink is fastened with prevented us from installing the back-plate of our Scythe Mugen cooler. This isn’t much of a problem, though. The central heatsink doesn’t cool anything by itself but only serves to increase the total heat dissipation surface of the mainboard's cooling system, so it doesn't need to be fastened firmly. It can be secured with a single screw just fine. This difficulty resolved, we ran our mainboards in their default mode and had no problems with them. Every mainboard worked flawlessly and we didn’t even have to adjust any settings except for the speed of the fans.
But here is the additional information we want to tell you about the P8Z68 Deluxe. Browsing through the user manual, we took note of the HyperDuo feature of the onboard Marvell 88SE9128 controller. This feature is not listed in the product specifications you can find at the manufacturer's website. ASUS doesn't really tell anything about that technology but we googled to find a lot of info on the Web. It turned out that last year Marvell carried out experiments on combining HDDs and SSDs similar to the Intel Smart Response technology later implemented in the Intel Z68 Express chipset. Marvell's concept was referred to as HyperHDD. This year they released the Marvell 88SE9130 controller which allows combining a slow HDD with a fast SSD to accelerate disk subsystem performance by caching frequently accessed files on the SSD. The final name for this feature is HyperDuo. There are two ways to join the drives together: Safe Mode and Capacity Mode. The former works as Intel Smart Response: frequently accessed files are mirrored from the slow HDD to the fast SSD, which ensures a considerable performance boost when a file is accessed repeatedly. The Capacity mode is somewhat less secure but makes use of the whole storage capacity of both the HDD and the SSD because there is no data mirroring.
What does it matter to us if the technology is announced for the special-purpose Marvell 88SE9130 controller and is expected to work on newer controllers but our ASUS P8Z68 Deluxe is equipped with the old Marvell 88SE9128? Well, it seems that you can enable HyperDuo by simply updating the controller's firmware. After that, our Marvell 88SE9128 (we even took off its heatsink to check out the marking) introduced itself as 88SE9130. Take note of the Device ID parameter in the next picture.
We must confess we were highly surprised. The Marvell 88SE9128 controller is very popular and can be seen on dozens of different mainboards from different brands. With this controller on board, you could use HyperDuo instead of Intel Smart Response which is limited to mainboards based on the Intel Z68 Express chipset. It was easy to combine the two drives with HyperDuo. We entered the controller's BIOS after starting our system up, selected both drives, and chose the desired mode in the list.
We preferred the Safe mode for security reasons. Besides, we wanted to compare the results with those of Intel Smart Response we obtained in our recent tests of the Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD mainboard. The OS booted up successfully and then we had to wait for data to be copied from the HDD to the SSD. However, the next reboot produced a blue screen of death which plagued us until we gave up HyperDuo altogether. The computer would hang up even as we tried to disable that technology in the controller's BIOS. The OS booted up normally from the single HDD but refused to work when we connected the SSD. Finally we left only the SSD connected to the controller and then managed to disable HyperDuo in its BIOS.
Despite the discouraging beginning, we still wanted to make HyperDuo work. Marvell offers a special tool called MRU (Marvell RAID Utility; it can be downloaded from the ASUS site under the name of MSU or Marvell Storage Utility). This tool helps combine the drives in an easier way than the controller's BIOS.
Having identified the HDD and SSD connected to the controller, the utility offered us to combine them into a HyperDuo subsystem. We agreed and waited for data to be copied from the HDD to the SSD. The long wait ended in a blue screen of death again, making us give up further attempts. The technology must be not ready yet for practical applications, but you may want to try to make it work.
As for overclocking, the ASUS P8Z68 Deluxe easily sped our CPU up to 4.7 GHz, which is the maximum clock rate our CPU can work at. The memory frequency was set at 1867 MHz.
Well, that's a top-end model which can be expected to have high overclocking potential, so we were even more pleased to see the P8Z68-V Pro deliver the same results as its senior cousin.
The P8Z68-V Pro and P8Z68-V are very similar and have the same design version but the junior model couldn't clock our memory at a high frequency. We had to drop the latter and make up for that by setting more aggressive memory timings. The P8Z68-V was just as good as the more advanced models in terms of CPU overclocking, though.
We always overclock mainboards in such a way that they could be used permanently in such mode. Therefore we do not disable any features, e.g. onboard controllers, and try to keep the CPU's power-saving features up and running. The ASUS mainboards were overclocked in this manner, too. When idle, they lowered the CPU's voltage and frequency multiplier to save power as you can see in the next animated screenshot.
As usual, we are going to compare the mainboards speeds in two different modes: in nominal mode and during CPU and memory overclocking. The first mode is interesting because it shows how well the mainboards work with their default settings. It is a known fact that most users do not fine-tune their systems, they simply choose the optimal BIOS settings and do nothing else. That is why we run a round of tests almost without interfering in any way with the default mainboard settings. For comparison purposes we are going to also include the results of the Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD mainboard. The results are sorted out in descending order on the diagrams.
We used Cinebench 11.5. All tests were run five times and the average result of the five runs was taken for the performance charts.
We have been using Fritz Chess Benchmark utility for a long time already and it proved very illustrative. It generated repeated results, the performance in it is scales perfectly depending on the number of involved computational threads.
A small video in x264 HD Benchmark 4.0 is encoded in two passes and then the entire process is repeated four times. The average results of the second pass are displayed on the following diagram:
We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.
In the archiving test a 1 GB file is compressed using LZMA2 algorithms, while other compression settings remain at defaults.
Like in the data compression test, the faster 16 million of Pi digits are calculated, the better. This is the only benchmark where the number of processor cores doesn’t really matter, because it creates single-threaded load.
There are good and bad things about complex performance tests. However, Futuremark benchmarking software has become extremely popular and is used for comparisons a lot. To estimate the average performance of our test platform PCMark 7 quite measures the performance in common algorithms that are frequently used on an everyday basis. The diagram shows the average of three test runs:
3DMark11 suite measures the graphics sub-system performance in the first place. The diagram below shows the average results after three test runs in 3DMark11 Performance mode with default settings:
Since we do not overclock graphics in our mainboard reviews, the next diagram shows only CPU tests from the 3DMark11 – Physics Score. This score is obtained in a special physics test that emulates the behavior of a complex gaming system working with numerous objects:
We use FC2 Benchmark Tool to go over Ranch Small map ten times in 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings in DirectX 10.
Resident Evil 5 game also has a built-in performance test. Its peculiarity is that it can really take advantage of multi-core processor architecture. The tests were run in DirectX 10 in 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings. The average of five test runs was taken for further analysis:
Quite expectedly, we don’t see much difference between related mainboards in terms of performance. They all deliver the same speed in most of the tests.
Now let’s run the same tests with the CPU and memory overclocked. The following table shows you the difference in the system parameters:
Again, the mainboards do not differ much except that the ASUS P8Z68-V and Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD fall behind in the 7-Zip and 3DMark 11 Physics Score tests. This is due to these mainboards having a lower memory frequency. The difference from the other mainboards isn't large, yet we can see that memory frequency is quite an important factor.
We performed our power consumption measurements using an Extech Power Analyzer 380803. This device is connected before the PSU and measures the power draw of the entire system (without the monitor), including the power loss that occurs in the PSU itself. In the idle mode we start the system up and wait until it stops accessing the hard disk. Then we use LinX to load the CPU. For a more illustrative picture there are graphs that show how the computer’s power consumption grows up depending on the number of active execution threads in LinX. The mainboards are sorted in alphabetical order on the diagrams.
Like in the performance tests, the mainboards do not differ much in terms of power consumption, yet we can note that the ASUS products need somewhat more than the average amount of power. The MSI disables power-saving technologies when overclocked, but the ASUS mainboards are comparable to it in this test. This seems to be the only disappointing fact we could find about the ASUS products in this test session.
Now that we've tested a number of different LGA1155 mainboards with different chipsets and from different brands, we are quite sure that the ASUS ones are among the best. They come in nice-looking boxes with good accessories, are very well made and have convenient component layouts. With their handy PCB design and user-friendly EFI BIOS, these mainboards support cutting-edge technologies and are overall up to today's requirements. Moreover, ASUS offers a very wide product variety allowing you to find the model for your specific requirements and needs. We wouldn't say that ASUS mainboards are superior to the competition in everything, but they are surely among the leaders when it comes to the winning combination of features, performance and other factors.