09/06/2011 | 12:03 PM
The latest chipset to support the LGA1155 platform, Intel’s Z68 Express didn’t provoke any sensation. It just combined the overclocking capabilities of the Intel P67 Express with the integrated graphics support of the Intel H67 Express and similar chipsets. The resulting combination was only really interesting for a rather limited group of users. Overclockers do not care much about integrated graphics as they usually take fast discrete graphics cards to build top-performance computer configurations whereas people who are satisfied with the capabilities of an integrated graphics core are generally indifferent to CPU overclocking. So, the Intel Z68 Express wouldn’t be much of a success if it were not for a couple of software-based features Intel endowed it with, limiting the rest of the LGA1155 chipsets in this respect. The two features, LucidLogix Virtu and Intel Smart Response, are not useful for everyone, though.
In fact, LucidLogix Virtu was quite a disappointment as we wrote in our first review of the Intel Z68 Express. It allows you to run a discrete graphics card along with a CPU-integrated graphics core and to switch between them as necessary. When the monitor is connected to the mainboard's video output and the discrete graphics card is used for 3D applications (the so-called i-Mode), power savings are not very high because the discrete card is never turned off. At the same time, the performance hit compared to using just a single graphics card was quite conspicuous, so i-Mode can hardly be recommended for practical use despite its being interesting theoretically. So, it is only when the discrete graphics card serves as the primary GPU (d-Mode) that we can see some benefits thanks to Intel's Quick Sync technology that offers hardware acceleration for video decoding. This d-Mode may come in handy for people who often transcode videos for smartphones or tablet PCs which can only play video content at low resolutions and in special formats. The downside is that you have to additionally buy commercial software capable of utilizing Quick Sync.
The other technology implemented in the Intel Z68 Express chipset looks somewhat more useful and applicable for a larger user audience. We already discussed Intel Smart Response in our earlier review. Its point is in accelerating a disk subsystem built out of ordinary hard disk drives by utilizing a fast but expensive solid state drive as a cache. The downside is that caching can never match the speed of a true SSD and the technology will only be effective for repeating disk operations because the speed of the first access is still limited by the HDD's capabilities. Still, this is a rather affordable means of giving your disk subsystem a performance boost.
The interesting thing about this mainboard is that it features an mSATA connector with a compact SSD drive from Intel with 20 GB capacity, which is specifically designed for Intel Smart Response technology. We'll tell you about this and other features of the mainboard in our review.
The Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD box is designed in Gigabyte’s traditional style. There are a lot of logos of various technologies on its face side.
On the back of the box you can find a picture of the mainboard and a brief description of its key features.
The accessories to the mainboard are Gigabyte’s standard, too. The only new item is a booklet on preparing your system for Intel Smart Response. Here is a full list of the mainboard’s accessories:
The Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD would look like any other entry-level Gigabyte mainboard if it were not for the mSATA connector located below the CPU socket. There is an mSATA Intel 311 series SSD with 20 GB storage capacity already installed in it.
Otherwise, everything is quite familiar. The CPU voltage regulator, like in other recent Gigabyte mainboards, employs the so-called driver MOSFETs (two MOSFETs and a driver packed into a single chip). The additional heatsink on the voltage regulator components doesn’t do much cooling. It is fastened with spring-loaded plastic locks which cannot ensure proper contact, but the main reason for its poor performance is that the heatsink covers only some of the components while the rest of them have no cooling and get rather hot at work. The chipset heatsink is fastened more securely with screws. The four DDR3 slots can take in up to 32 gigabytes of memory; XMP (Extreme Memory Profile) is supported. The mainboard has three PCI Express 2.0 x1 and two PCI slots. Its two PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots allow combining a pair of AMD or Nvidia based cards into a single subsystem. A single graphics card will use the graphics slot in x16 mode. If you install two graphics cards, the slots will work in x8 mode each.
Thanks to the Intel Z68 Express chipset, the mainboard is equipped with two SATA 6 Gb/s ports (white) and four SATA 3 Gb/s ports (blue). If the mSATA connector is used, one of the SATA 3 Gb/s ports becomes unavailable as is indicated by a special sticker. To make up for that loss, there is an onboard Marvell 88SE9172 controller that adds two more SATA 6 Gb/s ports (the gray connectors). It is important to keep in mind that mSATA slot laid out on this Gigabyte mainboard is none other but a connector for SSDs, and unfortunately, it is incompatible with any PCIe x1 cards.
HDMI is the only video output available at the mainboard's back panel. We guess it's a good compromise. It allows using a CPU-integrated graphics core without detriment to the other interfaces available there. Here is a full list of the connectors available on the mainboard back panel:
The component layout chart from the user manual can help us see how handy the mainboard’s PCB design is:
The following table lists the key specs of the product:
The mainboard has a number of special features typical of Gigabyte products. Particularly, the Phase LEDs indicate the number of active phases in the CPU voltage regulator. The USB connector labeled On/Off Charge serves for recharging mobile devices. The mainboard also features two BIOS chips and copper interconnects of an increased thickness. Out of the four fan connectors the two 4-pin ones are controllable. These two can even be used to control the speed of 3-pin fans. Based on the Intel Z68 Express, the mainboard supports LucidLogix Virtu and Intel Smart Response. It allows using a CPU-integrated graphics core via an HDMI connector. Overall, the Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD has everything a modern mainboard is supposed to have, except for eSATA.
As opposed to many other mainboards that have transitioned to UEFI, Gigabyte implemented Hybrid EFI in this product. It is a traditional, polished-off and familiar BIOS based on Award code in which EFI technologies are used to support hard disk drives with a capacity of over 3 terabytes. To remind you, you can access the full selection of BIOS settings on Gigabyte mainboards by pressing 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). However, this disables the option of counteracting the CPU voltage drop at high loads. The Multi-Steps Load-Line parameter becomes unavailable; you can only use it when the CPU voltage is fixed at a certain level. 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, for example when clocking the CPU below the default frequency or to support low-voltage memory modules.
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. Besides the CPU fan, the mainboard can automatically regulate the speed of a 4- or 3-pin fan connected to the SYS FAN2 connector.
You can press some functional buttons in the main BIOS menu to reach extra features. For example, pressing F9 shows you system information.
The F11 button 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.
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 we don’t like is that the option for counteracting the CPU voltage drop under load is now incompatible with energy-efficient overclocking. We 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 Windows-based tool called Gigabyte Touch BIOS.
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 188.8.131.520, Nvidia GeForce/ION Driver 280.26 graphics card driver.
You won’t find any changes in the list of our testbed components compared to those that we used in our earlier tests of LGA1155 mainboards, but there is a difference. A Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi mainboard failed during our overclockability test, unfortunately. This happens once in a while but, what is a much rarer occurrence, it damaged our CPU, too. Therefore we had to take another sample of the Intel Core i5-2500K processor and examine its overclocking potential first. We did this with an MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3) mainboard which is good (even though not energy-efficient) at overclocking CPUs and memory modules. The second sample of the CPU proved to be inferior to the first one in terms of overclocking potential. It could work at 4.7 MHz whereas the first one at 4.8 GHz under the same conditions.
We've noticed in our earlier reviews that LGA1155 CPUs are rather easy to overclock but hard to make sure they are stable. Without stability, there is no point in overclocking. We used to run the LinX tool, a graphical interface for the Intel Linpack test, as a stability test for older CPUs. However, it wasn't good for LGA1155 CPUs because it ran smoothly where Prime95 would immediately produce errors. Prime95 is not a handy tool as it takes quite a lot of time to complete a stability test. Moreover, we eventually found out that Prime95 did not guarantee absolute stability, either. As a result, we now return to LinX version 0.6.4 but use modified Lanpack libraries. This modification is a much better stability test for overclocked CPUs, so we are going to use it in our reviews from now on.
This is to confirm that MSI mainboards are good at overclocking CPUs but do not do that optimally. They do not support energy-efficient overclocking: the CPU frequency multiplier is lowered in the idle mode but the mainboard still supplies a high voltage to the CPU.
The Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD mainboard is just as good as the MSI mainboard in terms of CPU overclocking. It made our CPU stable at a clock rate of 4.7 GHz. Unfortunately, it wasn't that good in terms of memory overclocking. The Gigabyte couldn't overclock our memory to 1866 MHz as some of the best mainboards we had tested, but we even had to set the timings at 7 to keep the memory modules stable at 1600 MHz. We have to admit we’ve only had such a poor result with some of Gigabyte's Z68-based mainboards.
Like most other modern mainboards, the GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD keeps all of Intel’s power-saving technologies up and running even when overclocked. In idle mode, it lowers not only the CPU frequency multiplier but also its voltage.
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 MSI Z68A-DG80(B3) mainboard working in the same exact testing conditions as Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD. 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. 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.
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 expected, the similar mainboards produce very close results in our performance tests, but we can note that the Gigabyte mainboard is somewhat faster than its opponent in each test save for 3DMark 11. MSI mainboards deliver unexpectedly high results in 3DMark 11 as we know from our earlier reviews.
Now let’s compare the mainboards when they are overclocked.
The Gigabyte mainboard falls behind here because it has a memory clock rate of 1600 MHz as opposed to the MSI mainboard's 1866 MHz. On the other hand, the gap is no larger than 4% in our tests. So, although memory speed is an important factor, it doesn't influence a computer's performance much in some applications.
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 (both at the default and overclocked system settings). The mainboards are sorted in alphabetical order on the diagrams.
The mainboards consume about the same amount of power in default mode but differ when overclocked. MSI mainboards do not support energy-efficient overclocking (they do not lower the CPU voltage in idle mode), therefore the MSI needs more power at low loads than the Gigabyte.
We performed the tests above using our standard testbed configuration with a Kingston Now V+ Series solid state drive (SNVP325-S2, 128 GB). However, this configuration didn't allow us to test Intel Smart Response technology the Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD is specifically optimized for. So we ran an additional round of tests using disk drives of various types and capacities. Gigabyte has several mainboard models equipped with an mSATA connector that can accommodate a drive with suitable storage capacity.
First we want to mention one handy tool called Gigabyte EZ Smart Response. Buying an SSD and connecting it to your system is not enough to enable Intel Smart Response. You will have an error message that the system doesn’t meet the minimum requirements. So, you have to first change the disk operation mode to RAID in the mainboard’s BIOS, install the driver and then use Intel Rapid Storage Technology to enable disk caching. Our case was even more difficult since we had the OS already installed and switching to the RAID mode produced a blue screen of death during boot-up.
The Gigabyte EZ Smart Response tool saves you the trouble of going through all these steps by yourself. You just launch that tool – it doesn’t even have a graphical interface because it doesn’t need one – and get Intel Smart Response up and running after a couple of reboots.
To check out the performance benefits of Intel Smart Response we used the integrated disk test from PCMark 7. First we ran the test on the MSI mainboard using a Kingston Now V+ Series SSD (SNVP325-S2) and scored 4494 points. We then ran the same test on the Gigabyte mainboard, switching the disk controller to AHCI mode. The score was 4503 points. Then we copied the test content to an ordinary hard disk drive (Seagate Barracuda 7200.10, ST3320620AS, 320 GB) and carried out the same test. The performance hit was terrible as we only scored 1664 points in PCMark 7.
Now let's turn on Intel Smart Response. During the boot-up process the controller reports which of the connected disks have been accelerated but you can turn off these messages in the mainboard's BIOS.
Besides the default Intel 311 series SSD (SSDMAESC020G2, 20 GB) shipped together with the Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD, we also tried two other SSDs with different storage capacities: an Intel SSDMAEMC040G2 (40 GB) and an Intel SSDMAEMC080G2 (80 GB). The first one uses SLC flash memory with higher write speed and an increased number of overwrite cycles compared to regular MLC-based SSDs. However, the larger two SSDs in our test session belong to the previous Intel 310 series and use MLC flash memory chips. You can see the results of the test in the next diagram:
The higher-capacity SSDs are somewhat slower than the default one, which can be explained by lower write speed, yet the difference is fairly small. Well, we only booted the OS up and launched the disk test from PCMark 7, so the capacity of the 20GB model was quite enough. In real-life scenarios the computer is used to run multiple applications and the size of the caching SSD is going to be a more important factor. Anyway, we can observe a 100% and higher performance growth compared to the ordinary HDD, so Intel Smart Response is surely a useful technology.
However, you should keep it in mind that it only works with repeating tasks such as the PCMark 7 test. When you launch an application for the first time, the speed of its loading is going to be limited by the speed of your HDD. Moreover, replacing your HDD with an SSD is going to give you an even faster disk subsystem without any reservations.
If it were not for the Intel series 311 SSD with a capacity of 20 gigabytes, which is included into its box, the GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD wouldn’t be much different from Gigabyte’s other entry-level mainboards. The mainboard is compatible with all LGA1155 processors, employs modern components, and features an easy-to-use and high-quality PCB. You can build a CrossFireX or SLI subsystem with it or use a CPU-integrated graphics core. It supports all modern interfaces save for eSATA, namely USB 3.0, SATA 6 Gbps and IEEE1394 (FireWire). The mainboard is as good as others at overclocking CPUs although our memory overclocking attempt wasn’t quite successful. It has a number of features typical of Gigabyte products: Phase LEDs showing the number of active phases in the CPU voltage regulator, an On/Off Charge connector for recharging USB-compatible mobile devices, two BIOS chips, and thick copper interconnects.
So, everything seems to be as usual, but the special mSATA connector with a 20GB Intel 311 SSD in it reveals the mainboard from a completely different angle. We know that Intel Smart Response technology helps make HDDs much faster and the Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD allows you to get that performance boost without any effort. You don’t have to look for, buy and install a caching SSD as you get one included into the mainboard box. Another bonus is the Gigabyte EZ Smart Response utility which makes it simple to enable the technology. So, if you need a modern LGA1155 mainboard and want to accelerate your HDD with Intel Smart Response, the Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD is quite an attractive option.