07/01/2011 | 03:32 PM
Some time ago we checked out the capabilities of Intel’s Z68 Express chipset in one of our reviews. I must confess I personally was somewhat disappointed with it. Of course, there are some good things about that chipset like the opportunity to overclock CPUs without turning off the integrated graphics core. Up till now, it has been unclear why overclocker-friendly CPUs with the K index in their name had the most advanced version of the Intel HD Graphics 3000 core. And while the purpose of the integrated graphics in such CPUs is still rather questionable, it can at least be put to some use. The new technologies such as Lucid Virtu and Intel Smart Response are also a step forward, yet they are not without downsides, either.
I had expected the opportunity of switching between discrete and integrated graphics cores to appear a few years ago as part of Nvidia’s Hybrid Power technology. However, it didn’t ever make it to Intel’s desktop platforms and eventually ceased to be used with AMD CPUs, too. Therefore, I was interested the most in Lucid Virtu’s i-Mode when you connect your monitor to the mainboard’s video interface while your discrete graphics card is only used for 3D applications. However, I couldn't observe much benefit in terms of power saving since the external graphics card was not turned off completely. Meanwhile, the performance reduction compared to using the graphics card alone was quite noticeable, so I doubt that anyone will want to run his computer in i-Mode. As for d-Mode in which the discrete GPU serves as the primary one, the performance reduction isn’t that significant and you can also make use of the Intel Quick Sync technology for hardware-accelerated video transcoding. This mode will surely be appreciated by people who often transcode video, but you should be aware that you will need commercial software capable of utilizing this CPU feature.
Even the seemingly blameless Intel Smart Response technology which is supposed to accelerate your disk subsystem by using an SSD for caching does not look ideal to me because you will still need to invest into the SSD to make use of it. You may find that giving up conventional HDDs altogether in favor of SSDs would be an even better option for you.
I guess I've made the reasons for my disappointment with the Intel Z68 Express clear. It is not a versatile chipset that can be recommended for everybody's use. It does have certain benefits but they will only be appreciated by certain categories of users. You may want to consider buying a Z68-based mainboard if you need high CPU performance, if you want to overclock your CPU, and if you do not care much about your computer’s 3D performance. You may also be interested in such a mainboard if you often transcode video: Lucid Virtu's d-Mode is going to help you get higher performance by utilizing the Intel Quick Sync technology. And finally, if you've packed a lot of high-capacity HDDs into your system and do not want to give them up, you can make your disk subsystem more responsive by means of an additional SSD and Intel Smart Response. That's about all. For the rest of users and usage scenarios, it would be wiser to buy a mainboard based on Intel P67 Express or H67 Express chipset for your LGA1155 platform.
Anyway, Z68-based mainboards have been developed, announced and released, so we begin our tests of them. Gigabyte, in particular, has introduced a dozen products based on the new chipset and you should be aware that some of them do not support Lucid Virtu and do not even have regular video outputs, which means that they do not allow using the CPU’s integrated graphics. I am going to test as many as four such mainboards today. These are Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3, GA-Z68X-UD4-B3, GA-Z68X-UD5-B3 and GA-Z68X-UD7-B3.
The packaging of the Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3 is covered with various logotypes. A picture of the mainboard and a brief description of its features can be found on the back of the box.
The mainboard is shipped with the following accessories:
Gigabyte has retained its traditional blue-and-white color scheme for its junior mainboard models only. The rest of the company’s products have acquired a somewhat gloomy appearance due to the black color of the PCB and connectors. Color is not a parameter that’s usually counted among a mainboard’s highs or lows, but I think that the new color scheme makes it somewhat more difficult to assemble computers around Gigabyte's mainboards. For example, the memory slots are all the same black color now whereas earlier you could easily tell which slots belonged to the same memory channels without even looking up this info in the user manual because the first-channel slots used to be colored white and the second-channel ones, blue.
While not being an entry-level product, this mainboard is one of the junior models in its series. Despite this fact, it features a rather advanced CPU voltage regulator that incorporates as many as 12 power phases. The number of active phases can be dynamically changed depending on CPU load, which is indicated by the row of Phase LEDs (you need to install the Dynamic Energy Saver utility for this technology to work). The CPU voltage regulator features highly integrated components: a couple of MOSFETs and a driver are all packed into a single Driver MOSFET chip. Hot components of the regulator are cooled with two aluminum heatsinks. The mainboard is equipped with two graphics slots and supports CrossFireX and SLI technologies. One graphics card will work in full-speed PCI Express 2.0 x16 mode. When two graphics cards are in use, each will have half the 16 PCIe lanes. The chipset is responsible for the mainboard’s two SATA 6 Gbps and four SATA 3 Gbps ports. An onboard Marvell 88SE9172 controller adds two more SATA 3 Gbps ports. The mainboard has four fan connectors, two of which are of the 4-pin variety, and can regulate the speed of the connected fans (even 3-pin ones) depending on temperature.
Considering Gigabyte's vast experience in developing mainboards, it is no wonder that the GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3 is designed cleverly and is very easy to use. There is nothing to find fault with in the component layout. On the contrary, I did find a number of small things that make user's life easier:
These are small things indeed, but you will surely notice if they are missing, like on mainboards from some other brands.
Winding up this discussion, let's take a look at the mainboard's back panel:
All in all, the GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3 looks almost immaculate. I cannot find any serious flaws but there are a few things that might be improved even more. For example, the two SATA ports provided by the extra controller may be redundant considering the chipset's six, yet there is no eSATA port. The mainboard offers an optical S/PDIF but lacks a coaxial one, although the latter might be fitted into its back panel. Well, as a matter of fact, the next model in this review seems to be a GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3 improved in the way I’ve just mentioned.
The dimensions and design of the box with this mainboard are almost the same as the previous model’s, except that the letter Z is now highlighted in green rather than blue.
This model comes with exactly the same accessories:
The Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD4-B3 is visually similar to the previous model, too. However, we can spot a few significant differences between them.
First off, the number of power phases in the CPU voltage regulator is increased from 12 to 16, and one PCI Express 2.0 x1 slot is now missing as the consequence. This is the only deficiency compared to the previous model. The rest of the functions are expanded and improved. The two heatsinks on the CPU voltage regulator components are now connected with a heat pipe. For more differences, we should look at the mainboard’s back panel which now offers a coaxial S/PDIF and eSATA ports, one of which is an eSATA/USB combo and can power the connected device. The combo connector can also be used as an ordinary USB 2.0 port.
Here is a full list of the mainboard’s back-panel connectors:
That’s all the differences between the two models. Their bottom parts are identical in design as well as components.
The Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD4-B3 is an improved version of the previous model with some added features. So, you can refer to the summary I've given above about the GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3, subtract one PCI Express 2.0 x1 slot and add the extra power phases, coaxial S/PDIF, and two eSATA 3 Gbps ports (one of which is an eSATA/USB combo). The next model is significantly different from these two, though.
The box is bigger and is slightly different in design, but the overall style is the same. The product name and lots of logotypes are on the face panel. The back panel of the box shows you a picture of the product and provides a description of some of its features.
We’ve got more accessories here. Besides those included with the two previous models, there is now a back-panel bracket with two USB 3.0 ports to be installed into a 3.5-inch bay of the system case.
Here is a full list of the accessories included with the mainboard:
The Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD5-B3 is designed differently from the two previous models, yet it is as easy to use as them.
The CPU voltage regulator now incorporates as many as 20 power phases. Each cooling heatsink is secured with screws. They are all combined into a single whole by means of heat pipes. Take note that there are no hot components underneath the central heatsink. It just increases the total heat dissipation area of the cooling system deployed on the chipset and CPU voltage regulator. The mainboard is equipped with three graphics slots. The first two can work in 1x16 or 2x8 mode. The maximum speed of the third PCI Express 2.0 slot is x4 but it will work as x1 if there is an expansion card installed into either of the two PCI Express 2.0 x1 slots. There is no COM port which was present on the two previous models. The onboard controllers are different, too. USB 3.0 is now supported by a Renesas (NEC) D720200F1 rather than EtronTech EJ168A whereas the IEEE1394 (FireWire) ports are based on a T.I. TSB43AB23 chip instead of the VIA VT6308P we've seen on the two mainboards above.
The mainboard now has a highlighted Power button and barely visible Reset and Clear CMOS buttons. Its current status is indicated by the line of four ACPI LEDs. The CPU VTT Phase Indicator LEDs will warn you if the CPU VTT voltage is above the norm, and there are six more Diagnostic LEDs in the key points of the mainboard to report any problems with your CPU, memory, HDD or expansion cards. This looks like the Q-LED system deployed on many ASUS mainboards. There are five fan connectors now, but only the two 4-pin ones allow controlling the speed of the connected fans depending on temperature.
The back panel now offers more USB 3.0 and IEEE1394 (FireWire) ports. There are two eSATA/USB combo connectors which are as fast as 6 rather than 3 Gbps.
Here is a full list of the mainboard’s back-panel connectors:
So, the Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD5-B3 has more features and faster interfaces than the two previous products and I like it a lot except for the barely visible Reset and Clear CMOS buttons. I didn’t even make them out at first, so small and inconveniently located they are. Moreover, the Clear CMOS button would be more helpful on the back panel where it might be accessible without taking the side panel of the system case off.
The more advanced a Gigabyte mainboard is, the bigger its packaging. The GA-Z68X-UD7-B3 is even packaged in a different way. Instead of a simple antistatic pack, it is fixed in a rigid plastic case. You can flip back the face panel of the box to have a look at the mainboard through a window. The box has got a carry handle while its color scheme now includes pompous golden hues.
The accessories have become more numerous, too. Compared to the previous model's, the manufacturer has added a connecting bridge for 3-way SLI configurations and a set of brackets and cables for external SATA devices.
So, the full list of accessories looks as follows:
The PCB design is original and does not repeat any of the above-discussed products. Despite the numerous additional components, the layout is user-friendly.
The CPU voltage regulator has 24 power phases now. The four SATA 3 Gbps and two SATA 6 Gbps ports provided by the chipset are complemented with two more SATA 6 Gbps ports courtesy of a Marvell 88SE9128 chip. The cooling system is the same as installed on the Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD5-B3: four heatsinks with screw-based fastening are combined into a single whole with heat pipes. The central heatsink has to cope with higher load now as it is responsible for cooling the exceedingly hot Nvidia NF200 chip.
The number of graphics slots is increased to four. Thanks to the Nvidia NF200 controller, two graphics cards can now work in full-speed PCI Express 2.0 x16 mode simultaneously. It is only when you install a third and a fourth graphics card that the speed mode will be lowered to PCI Express 2.0 x8. The functions of the Diagnostic LEDs are now performed by a full-featured POST code indicator. There are two new LEDs reporting overvoltage for memory modules. The rest of the differences can be found at the back panel. Compared to the previous model, there is an extra LAN connector and some more USB 3.0 ports.
Here is a full list of the mainboard’s back-panel connectors:
The Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD7-B3 is obviously meant for those users who plan to run no fewer than two graphics cards simultaneously. On the downside are the same inconvenient Reset and Clear CMOS buttons.
For your convenience we summed up all the mainboards features and specs in the following table:
I am going to describe the BIOS of the Gigabyte mainboards using the GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3 as an example. This is possible because Gigabyte’s junior models do not differ much from senior ones in terms of their BIOS capabilities. The difference only boils down to the senior models having BIOS settings pertaining to extra onboard controllers the junior models simply lack. Let’s begin with the main screen. Gigabyte’s mainboards can show you the actual frequency of your overclocked CPU whereas other mainboards will usually report the default CPU frequency irrespective of the real one.
By the way, you can only access the whole set of BIOS options on a Gigabyte mainboard if you press Ctrl+F1 in the main BIOS screen.
It is handy that the first section is MB Intelligent Tweaker (M.I.T.) as it includes all the options for overclocking and fine-tuning your system. The main screen of this section contains a list of subsections and reports some basic system information.
Next goes the informational M.I.T. Current Status subsection which can tell you the current parameters of your computer.
The Advanced Frequency Settings are all about clock rates and multipliers. There are a number of informational parameters that help you keep track of the consequences of the changes you’re making.
The Advanced CPU Core Features page is where you can control CPU-related technologies.
To fine-tune your memory subsystem, go to the Advanced Memory Settings.
There are individual pages for the numerous memory timings. You can set up timings for the two memory channels simultaneously or individually.
System voltages can be adjusted in the Advanced Voltage Settings subsection. You can fix the CPU voltage at a desired level or add a certain value to it. In the latter case the mainboard will keep all the power-saving technologies implemented in Intel CPUs up and running even if you overclock your system (when idle, the system will lower not only the CPU’s frequency multiplier but also its voltage). By the way, the voltages can be not only increased but also lowered compared to the default level, which may be a useful option in some situations.
The name of the Multi-Steps Load-Line option speaks for itself. As opposed to mainboards from other manufacturers, Gigabyte’s BIOS has always offered an option for counteracting the drop in CPU voltage under load. However, we ceased to use this option, which may be most beneficial at overclocking, on LGA1155 mainboards because the resulting voltage would be too high. But now that we’ve got the opportunity of multi-step adjustment of the strength of that counteraction, we can easily set it the way we want. A similar feature was originally available in ASUS’s LGA1155 mainboards, and now we can use it with Gigabyte mainboards, too.
Alas, there is a hitch to this option which makes it less useful than I’d want. It turned out that the counteraction to the CPU voltage drop now works only if the CPU voltage is fixed at a certain level. If, on the contrary, you add a certain value to the default voltage level in order to retain Intel’s power-saving technologies – and that’s the way we do in our overclocking experiments – this option becomes unavailable.
The contents of the Standard CMOS Features section are indeed standard as its name suggests.
The Advanced BIOS Features section is where you can specify the boot device order and some other parameters.
The numerous options of the Integrated Peripherals section help you manage the mainboard’s additional controllers.
The Power Management Setup section offers a standard selection of options:
To learn about the current voltages, temperatures and fan speeds, go to the PC Health Status section. Gigabyte’s mainboards have retained the ability to regulate the speed of 3-pin CPU fans. The regulation used to be automatic but now the BIOS supports user-defined regulation as well.
You can press some functional buttons in the main BIOS menu to reach extra features. For example, pressing F11 allows you to save up to eight profiles with full BIOS settings. Each profile can be assigned a descriptive name. A warning is issued if you try to rewrite a profile. To load a profile, you press F12 and select one from the menu. Besides the profiles that you save manually, the mainboard automatically remembers BIOS configurations which have passed the POST procedure successfully and you can restore them, too. The BIOS profiles can be saved to and loaded from internal memory as well as external media.
System information is displayed after your pressing F9.
Pressing F8 evokes an integrated BIOS update tool called Q-Flash Utility.
Gigabyte’s BIOS is quite user-friendly and offers all the features you may need for overclocking and fine-tuning your computer. The only thing I don’t like is that the option for counteracting the CPU voltage drop under load is now incompatible with energy-efficient overclocking. I would also like to have some BIOS options for controlling the power-saving features implemented in the mainboard itself, such as the dynamic adjustment of the number of active phases in the CPU voltage regulator depending on its load. Most manufacturers have implemented such BIOS options in their products whereas Gigabyte mainboards make you install the Dynamic Energy Saver utility for that. As for the new-fangled EFI BIOS and mouse support, Gigabyte’s mainboards support 3-terabyte and larger HDDs thanks to Hybrid EFI Technology whereas their BIOS can be accessed via a new Windows-based tool.
There is a long list of programs that help you deal with Gigabyte’s mainboards: @BIOS, Xpress Recovery, EasyTune, Dynamic Energy Saver, Smart 6, Auto Green, ON/OFF Charge,
The main program window contains a few large buttons with descriptive captions.
Pressing the Overclock buttons displays the same screen as the BIOS’s MB Intelligent Tweaker (M.I.T.) section.
In the same way, the utility allows changing almost any parameters you can find in the mainboard’s BIOS. Boot Disk is the same as the Advanced BIOS Features. PC Status is PC Health Status in the BIOS. Integrated Hardware and Power Management correspond to the BIOS’s Integrated Peripherals and Power Management Setup subsections, respectively. There are a few additional options. Pressing the @BIOS button evokes a BIOS update tool.
The Quick Boost button is for overclocking your computer automatically.
The settings page allows removing unnecessary icons from the program’s main window.
You can also change the order of the icons by simply dragging them with your mouse where you want them to be.
Is this utility handy? Well, in some ways, yes, but it’s not good that its window is always 800x600 pixels large and you cannot maximize it to the entire screen. As a result, you have to scroll through its pages in order to see all the options whereas Gigabyte’s BIOS is mostly free from multi-page screens and shows all of the settings at once. For example, you can compare the visibility area of the BIOS’s and program’s Advanced Voltage Settings and see that Gigabyte Touch BIOS only shows about one third of the available options.
So, I would prefer the traditional BIOS interface if I wanted to change many parameters at once, for example to overclock my system, because that would be the quicker and easier way. On the other hand, the Windows-based utility is helpful when you've already performed your basic setting up and only need to adjust one or two options from time to time. For example, when looking for optimal overclocking parameters, you need to change the CPU voltage. If the computer hasn't passed a stability check, you may want to increase that voltage a little. You would do this by rebooting, entering the BIOS, accessing the necessary subsection, finding the appropriate parameter, changing that parameter, applying the changes and rebooting, waiting for the OS to boot up and going on with your tests. The Gigabyte Touch BIOS utility simplifies the process as it allows bookmarking the option you need. So, you open the utility right on the necessary screen, change the voltage, save the changes and click the restart button. You only have to wait for the computer to reboot. You can see that the second way is faster, therefore I used that utility in my overclocking experiments.
Does this program have any downsides other than the inability to be maximized to the entire screen? Yes, it has. It's not handy that you have to click a special Previous Page button in order to get back. Doing that with the Esc key or with the right mouse button would be easier. You also have to click the inconspicuous Save CMOS button to apply your changes. Your changes will be lost if you close the program without doing that. I guess there should be a warning message to remind the user about any unsaved changes before quitting the program. The color of the Save CMOS button might also be changed when there are unapplied changes in order to draw the user's attention to it. Changes are applied only after restarting, so it would be nice if the utility offered the user to reboot the computer when quitting. And finally, Gigabyte Touch BIOS does not allow to access the user-defined BIOS profiles and even does not allow to create its own user-defined profiles with settings.
Despite these downsides, I really liked the Touch BIOS tool. As for the second utility I've mentioned above, Gigabyte EZ Smart Response does not even have a user interface of its own. It doesn't need one, actually. In order to accelerate your disk subsystem by making use of Intel's Smart Response technology it is not enough just to buy an SSD and connect it to your computer. You'll get an error message telling you that the system doesn't meet the minimum requirements. You have to install the driver first, then switch your disk subsystem into RAID mode in the BIOS, and then enable caching by means of Intel Rapid Storage Technology. The Gigabyte EZ Smart Response utility saves you the trouble of getting through all these steps on your own. You only have to launch the program and get Intel Smart Response up and running in a couple of reboots.
We carried out our tests on a testbed that included the following components:
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 220.127.116.115, Nvidia GeForce/ION Driver 266.58 graphics card driver.
I experimented with the mainboards in the same way as they are described in this review: from the junior to the senior models. This is partially due to the fact that I had most problems with the first mainboard, Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3, although I must confess that some of the problems were due to my own mistakes. First off, Q-Flash, the BIOS update utility integrated into the mainboard’s own BIOS, refused to see my flash drive with a new version of firmware, so I had to update the BIOS with the @BIOS tool. Afterwards I realized that my flash drive had NTFS formatting whereas Gigabyte’s Q-Flash is still incompatible with that file system. The BIOS code was successfully updated using a firmware file from the hard disk, but later on I found out that the @BIOS utility didn't work very well. It could not find a BIOS update on any of the numerous Gigabyte websites. @BIOS has a very polite interface but I'd prefer the utility to be crude yet working.
Then I got down to my tests and wasn’t surprised to see the mainboard being unable to make the CPU stable at 4.8 GHz, like most other mainboards do. Well, I had had some mainboards which could only overclock the CPU to 4.7 GHz, so I went on experimenting. I sensed a problem when the mainboard and CPU could not pass a stability check even at a CPU clock rate of 4.5 and 4.4 GHz, and I have to confess the problem was in me. Whenever we give you our advice on CPU overclocking, we always say that each step must be completed successively, without changing more than one parameter at once. Otherwise, it may be unclear what exactly parameter is the cause of a problem. This time around, I failed to stick to my own recommendations. Trying to save some time on a stability test, I eventually lost half a day beating my brains out over the question why the mainboard could not overclock the CPU.
So, the fact is that even before trying to overclock the CPU I had found out that the mainboard would not allow my memory modules to work at 1866 MHz. Therefore I had set the memory frequency at 1600 MHz and timings at 6-6-6-18-1T. Every mainboard I had tested before could work with such settings, but the Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3 became the first exception. So it was the memory modules rather than the CPU that prevented the system from passing the stability test. To ensure stability, I had to increase the memory timings to 7-7-7-20-1T and the CPU could then be overclocked to 4.7 GHz. The clock rate of 4.8 GHz still could not be conquered.
I had to content myself with the same, rather unsatisfactory, results when overclocking my Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD4-B3. The odd thing was that I had to increase the CPU voltage somewhat more than on the previous mainboard, yet the resulting voltage turned out to be lower than expected. The CPU voltage was obviously set too high by the Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3.
It is the GA-Z68X-UD5-B3 that was most like Gigabyte’s earlier problem-free products. However, even this model could not overclock the CPU to 4.8 GHz and stopped at 4.7 GHz. The memory frequency was set at 1866 MHz, but, unlike the MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) mainboard which had been the first to prove the ability of my memory modules to work at 1866 MHz, the memory timings were set at 9-9-9-24-1T rather than 7-7-7-20-1T. You will see in the performance tests whether the increased memory clock rate can make up for the worse timings.
The Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD7-B3 pleased me as it supported the memory frequency of 1866 MHz with 7-7-7-20-1T timings without any fine-tuning. But, like the rest of the new Gigabyte mainboards, it could only reach 4.7 GHz in terms of the CPU frequency.
Every mainboard was overclocked without disabling Intel’s power-saving technologies. When idle, the mainboards would lower the CPU voltage and reduce the CPU frequency by lowering the multiplier. To keep the number of screenshots to a minimum, I will show you one animated picture with four screenshots proving the functioning of those technologies:
Summing up the results of the Gigabyte mainboards in my overclocking tests, I should confess I am disappointed as none of them could clock the CPU at 4.8 GHz. And while the Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD7-B3 should be given credit for clocking the memory modules at a high frequency with good timings, the GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3 and GA-Z68X-UD4-B3, unlike any other mainboard I’ve tested so far, are unable to work with normal timings even at a memory frequency of 1600 MHz.
By the way, each of these mainboards had a problem I hadn't seen before. The memory frequency would remain increased even if I restored the BIOS settings from a saved profile or by choosing the Load Optimized Defaults option. When this problem showed up occasionally, I had to manually set the memory frequency back to Auto. Unfortunately, this was not the single problem I had with these Gigabyte mainboards. Some more emerged during the performance tests.
It is a well-known fact that mainboards based on the same or related chipsets are usually similar in performance under identical conditions. However, when I launched SuperPi while benchmarking the Gigabyte mainboards in their default operation mode, I found them to deliver very low performance compared to same-class products. It was easy to find the cause of the problem because SuperPi is the only single-threaded application on my list. Intel’s Turbo Boost technology just didn’t work properly on at the default settings.
Let’s take a look at the Advanced CPU Core Features in the BIOS. The default clock rate of my Intel Core i5-2500K processor is 3.3 GHz. Easy to see, its clock rate will be increased to 3.4 GHz thanks to Intel’s Turbo Boost even when all of its four cores are under load. With three of the four cores loaded, the frequency multiplier will be increased to x35. With two loaded cores, it will be x36. The CPU will reach its maximum clock rate of 3.7 GHz when only one of its cores is under load.
However, the information in the BIOS of the Gigabyte mainboards is misleading. The CPU frequency multiplier is actually increased only to x34. Whatever the CPU load, the clock rate will be 3.4 GHz whereas other mainboards vary it from 3.4 to 3.7 GHz, which explains the lower performance of the Gigabyte ones. They can only rival others under high loads when all the four CPU cores are put to use. The problem is that when the C3/C6 State Support is set at Auto, the computer doesn’t switch into these deep power-saving modes and prevents Intel Turbo Boost from doing its best. Hence one more negative impression from the Gigabyte mainboards: they consume more power than others when the CPU is idle because they do not allow the CPU to use its power-saving features to the full extent.
As a matter of fact, this is a long-time problem that has plagued not only Gigabyte’s mainboards. Intel Turbo Boost was introduced with LGA1366 processors and was developed further in LGA1156 processors, but had to be enabled in the mainboard's BIOS at first. It would work only partially by default. This state of things has changed and modern LGA1366 mainboards enable Intel Turbo Boost by default without your having to tweak anything. The same goes for LGA1155 mainboards which support both power-saving features and Turbo Boost, but the new Gigabyte mainboards are an exception. Let’s now see how this affects their performance.
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. The only exception is Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD4-B3 mainboard: we enabled all power-saving technologies and Turbo mode on this model during our nominal mode tests, because they are not fully functional by default. For comparison purposes we are going to also include the results from our reviews of Asus Sabertooth P67, ECS P67H2-A and P67H2-A2, Foxconn P67A-S, Gigabyte GA-P67A-UD4-B3, Intel DP67BG and MSI P67A-GD80 (B3). 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 3.0 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. 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.
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:
As might be expected, there is almost no difference between related mainboards in terms of performance. They all have the same results in most of the tests. There are but a few notable exceptions. For example, the ECS P67H2-A is slower than the other mainboards in graphics-heavy tests, obviously due to its Lucid Hydra controller. However, this review is about Gigabyte mainboards, so what do they show us? Well, as I already noted above, they are slow in the SuperPi test due to Turbo Boost not doing its best. Besides, the Gigabyte mainboards have the lowest results in Adobe Photoshop, probably because some image-processing operations do not need all of the CPU cores. However, we do not see the Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD4-B3 model among the slower products. On the contrary, it is among the leaders in the SuperPi and Adobe Photoshop tests. Why? Because I deliberately enabled power-saving technologies and Turbo Boost for it. You'll see the power consumption results shortly, but we can see already that Gigabyte’s new products could be as fast as others if they were set up optimally by default.
I've mentioned tests with low CPU load where the Gigabyte mainboards are inferior in performance to their opponents, but I should also note one test, namely 3DMark 11, where they take top places. Is it not odd that the three models (with the exception of the GA-Z68X-UD4-B3 for which I enabled Turbo Boost) are so fast in that benchmark? It may be assumed that mainboards with a constant CPU clock rate are faster than average in this benchmark for some reason. However, you will see shortly that the Gigabyte mainboards take last places in 3DMark 11 when overclocked, i.e. when their CPU clock rate is constant, too. When not overclocked, with a 3.4GHz CPU and 1066MHz memory, these mainboards score about 5500 points in 3DMark 11, but when overclocked to 4.7 GHz for the CPU and to 1600 or even 1867 MHz for the memory, these mainboards score 100 points less! It seems to be the first time that I see a computer system getting slower when overclocked! This may be an indication of some problems with the benchmark itself. Many people do not like synthetic benchmarks as opposed to real-life applications. The latter can yield inexplicable results, too, but not as often and not as consistently as those produced by synthetic benchmarks.
Now I run the same tests with the CPU and memory overclocked. The difference in system parameters can be seen in the table:
The first three tests focus on the computing performance and depend on the CPU clock rate, so the mainboards split up into two groups depending on the CPU clock rate they reached, 4.7 or 4.8 GHz. The Foxconn stands apart from the others because it could only overclock the CPU to 4.5 GHz (a BIOS bug prevented me from increasing the CPU voltage). The Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD7-B3 takes an in-between position because its CPU frequency was 4.7 GHz, but its memory worked at 1867 MHz with 7-7-7-20-1T timings. The memory frequency of 1867 MHz did not help the Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD5-B3 model because I had to use high timings of 9-9-9-24-1T for it. As a result, its performance is the same as that of the mainboards with a memory frequency of 1600 MHz and lower timings.
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 power consumption grows up depending on the number of active execution threads in LinX. The results on the diagrams are sorted in alphabetical order.
However inefficient Elitegroup mainboards may be, we’ve got a new leader in terms of power consumption. It is the Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD7-B3 mainboard that sets a new record and quite expectedly so since the hot and power-hungry Nvidia NF200 chip adds about 20 watts to its result. The Intel DP67BG remains the most economical product whereas the GA-Z68X-UD4-B3 is the most energy-efficient among the Gigabyte mainboards. This is no surprise, either, because I enabled all of the power-saving features for this model, the ones that did not work by default on the other Gigabyte products.
The Foxconn P67A-S has the lowest power consumption when overclocked because it is the only mainboard that could not increase the CPU voltage. So, its low power draw comes at the expense of performance. The ECS P67H2-A is the most uneconomical mainboard among those that I’ve tested so far, beating the MSI which disables power-saving technologies when overclocked and even beating the Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD7-B3 with its NVIDIA NF200. On the other hand, the latter mainboard reached a CPU clock rate of 4.7 GHz at a lower voltage than what I had to set to overclock the CPU to 4.8 GHz on the ECS P67H2-A.
I am not impressed with the new Intel Z68 Express chipset. Its special features are not meant for the general public but rather for specific categories of users only. The Z68-based Gigabyte mainboards I have tested today also didn’t make me particularly happy. First of all, Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3, GA-Z68X-UD4-B3, GA-Z68X-UD5-B3 and GA-Z68X-UD7-B3 do not have video outputs and therefore do not allow using the integrated graphics. They support Intel Smart Response but lack any Lucid Virtu modes.
Their packaging, accessories bundles and PCB design are practically flawless. These mainboards are very well built, offer a full range of modern interfaces and features and on top of that offer a number of Gigabyte’s exclusive technologies. I would like to specifically point out an extremely successful new program called Touch BIOS utility. Although not without some minor shortcomings, this new Windows-based tool offers quick and easy way of accessing and adjusting BIOS settings.
Unfortunately, the new Gigabyte mainboards look so superb only from a distance, until you actually start working with them and come face to face with above pointed problems and shortcomings. Before this review, I could state with certainty that almost all mainboards could overclock my CPU to 4.8 GHz. From now on, I will be more reserved in my statements because these Gigabyte mainboards could only reach 4.7 GHz in terms of the CPU frequency. The success of the Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD7-B3 model which made my memory modules stable at 1867 MHz with good 7-7-7-20-1T timings was practically leveled by the results of GA-Z68X-UD3P-B3 and GA-Z68X-UD4-B3, which work with the memory worse than any other mainboards we tested so far. However, I wouldn’t be so disappointed if the problems were limited to overclocking only. After all, overclocking is a lottery in which some CPUs and memory modules are simply luckier than others. Besides, as you can learn from our tests, a small difference in CPU frequency, memory frequency or memory timings does not affect the resulting performance much. Of course, the drawback sum up, yet they do not usually add up to a critical mass. Moreover, many users do not overclock their computers at all and will never even know that such problems exist. However, the new series of Gigabyte mainboards have some problems beyond overclocking, in nominal mode, which is very frustrating.
The most serious problem is that they are not set up optimally by default even if you Load Optimized Defaults in the BIOS. When the C3/C6 State Support is set at Auto, these mainboards do not switch to these deep power-saving modes therefore Intel Turbo Boost technology works only partially. The consequence is that the Gigabyte mainboards are slower than others whenever the CPU is not under full load. Moreover, since the mainboards do not allow the CPU to use all of the power-saving features, it consumes more power in idle mode.
At this point I have only one big concern: that Gigabyte might return to where they used to be before. In the beginning and even in the middle of the first decade of this century Gigabyte's mainboards were good just formally, but had poor reputation among enthusiasts for their lower performance and overclockability compared to the competition. The company’s ambitious plans to overtake ASUS could hardly be taken seriously then, yet the situation changed greatly. I’m not a salesperson. I don’t know how many mainboards Gigabyte sells and how much money they make and if they have overtaken ASUS in this respect by now. But I test mainboards and do know that the latest Gigabyte products for LGA775, LGA1366 and 1156 processors were not only as good as other brands' but even better. I liked the simple and problem-free way of configuring those mainboards. It was very easy to find optimal overclocking settings with them. Moreover, once found, the settings could be transferred to another mainboard with the same great effect.
It's sad that Gigabyte’s LGA1155 products have changed in some not only positive ways. They have lost their stability and consistency. None of the mainboards I’ve tested for this review could overclock my CPU to its maximum. And to make it work at 4.7 GHz, I had to increase the voltage from 0.09 volts on the UD5 to 0.13 volts on the UD4, which is a rather large difference and a colossal one for Gigabyte’s older products.
I agree that UEFI BIOS is not a necessity. I’ve seen mainboards where there are almost no differences between the old-style BIOS and UEFI BIOS and even mainboards which have got worse with UEFI BIOS, but there are also good examples like ASUS’ implementation, for instance. ASUS mainboards with UEFI BIOS offer a working option for multi-step counteraction to the CPU voltage drop under load and give you the option of enabling and disabling exclusive power-saving features right in the BIOS menu. Their firmware can be updated from a flash drive as well as from a hard disk even if the latter has NTFS formatting. They support Bluetooth. Unfortunately, Gigabyte’s LGA1155 products have fallen behind their ASUS counterparts at this point. Hopefully, they will get things right soon enough and Gigabyte’s RND team hasn’t lost any of its leading men or resources. I mean that it doesn’t bode well when a manufacturer changes the color of the PCB instead of adding new features and correcting older defects because this indicates the dominance of marketing over engineering. As a result, users will be offered mainboards in eye-catching boxes, with various cute accessories, sophisticated names for simple technologies, etc, but uncompetitive against products from other brands. It won’t be good for all of us if Gigabyte’s mainboards get worse, so I do hope this will not happen.