Z68 motherboard roundup: AsRock, Asus, Gigabyte and MSI - BeHardware
Written by Guillaume Louel
Published on September 27, 2011
Launched last May, the Intel Z68 chipset was introduced to complete the Intel LGA 1155 offer by unifying the capabilities of two previously launched chipsets, the P67 and H67. P67 chipsets had the particularity of allowing overclocking (henceforth implemented on the Sandy Bridge platform using the multiplier) and support for two PCI Express 16x (cabled at 2x8) graphics ports but did not support the video controller integrated in Intel processors. H67 chipsets supported the IGP to the detriment of overclocking and PCI Express. This segmentation from Intel was brought together, at least in terms of functionality, in the form of Z68 motherboards, something we have previously discussed.
Note that Intel does not allow you to benefit from the IGP technologty, QuickSync, unless the IGP is used for the display. There is a get-around for this however, with the Lucid Logic Virtu software that comes with most Z68 boards and uses d-Mode to virtualise the IGP via the GPU. In iMode the display is connected to the IGP and the GPU is virtualised and used for gaming loads, but this feature is based on profiles that aren’t necessarily updated, has a negative impact on performance and doesn’t give a notable gain in energy consumption… so to be avoided!
We wanted to come back to the motherboard offer from manufacturers on this new chipset, within the €140 to €170 price range and with full use of the Z68 Express features, whether this be in terms of the IGP (several video outs linked to the IGP) or the PCI Express (two PCI-Express x8 ports). We chose four models, one from each of the main manufacturers on the market (in alphabetical order!):
It’s also worth noting that these motherboards systematically share characteristics found on other P67/Z68 models from the same manufacturers, whether in terms of the main design points, components used, new BIOS interfaces or software suites. These features could be rolled out, at least partially, across the rest of the LGA 1155 range.
- ASRock Z68 Extreme4
- Asus P8Z68-V Pro
- Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3
- MSI Z68A-GD65 B3
For this roundup we looked at what differentiates these various models which often have a very similar base. From the spec to the EFI BIOS and the overclocking capabilities, energy consumption and performance of additional chips, we’re going to try and look as fully as we can at the offer available from each of the manufacturers.
Let’s start by introducing the models.
ASRock Z68 Extreme4
ASRock Z68 Extreme4
Based on the P67 Extreme4, the ASRock Z68 Extreme 4 has adopted the same design in general. The card’s PCB is fairly heavily charged, which isn’t a great surprise given that this is one of the best equipped motherboards in this report when it comes to controllers.
In terms of the processor power supply, there’s a relatively standard 10+2 phase regulation circuit, with the spools and regulation circuits covered by a radiator. There’s a CHiL 8328 controller that can run two voltages in parallel with 7+1 phases on each.
Like all the boards in this report, the first two PCI Express 16x slots share the 16 lanes from the processor between them, which gives you the choice between a single active slot in 16x mode or two in 8x. ASRock uses PCI Express ASMedia ASM1440 switches. Note that these ports support CrossfireX and SLI, once again a spec that is common to all our cards. A particularity with this board however is the molex connector to give extra oomph to the PCI Express power supply.
There's also a third PCI Express 16x port wired electrically at 4x, as well as two at 1x either side of the main graphics port. The Z68 chipset itself only supports 8 PCI Express lanes, which must be divided between these ports and the different on-board controllers (USB 3.0, drives…). For this purpose ASRock uses a PLX 8-lane PCI Express switch, the 8608. The 8 lanes can be configured as ins or outs and allow you to extend the number of controllers supported.
First of all there’s a PCIe to PCI bridge for the two PCI ports on the card. ASRock has used the ASMedia 1083 (which supports up to three ports natively). For the USBs, ASRock has gone for two EtronTech EJ168A controllers, each of which can support two USB 3.0 ports.
An original feature here, ASRock has introduced fixture holes for the Socket 775 coolers
Looking at storage, a Marvell 88SE9120 controller adds two Serial ATA 6 Gb/s ports as well as an eSATA port. In practice however the 9120 can only support two ports at any one time: one SATA port is therefore shared with the eSATA port, which isn’t really very practical.
In terms of networkwing capability, ASRock stands out from the rest for its Broadcom 57781 network controller connected in PCI Express 1x mode.
Looking at the ports at the rear panel, there are a few particularities. Apart from a PS/2 port, Gigabit Ethernet and four USB 2.0 ports, there’s a FireWire port (VIA controller connected at PCI Express 1.1), the previously mentioned eSATA port and the two USB 3.0 ports (one of the two EtronTech controllers). On the audio side there are five assignable jacks in place of the usual six as well as an S/PDIF out. A Realtek ALC 892 controller handles the audio here and is also widely used on the other motherboards in this report. In line with the Z68 spec, there are four video outs: DisplayPort, DVI (single link), VGA and HDMI. Two of the four can be used at the same time.
Note the inclusion of a switch on the back that allows you to reset the BIOS. Overclockers will perhaps appreciate this but those who reset it by mistake when struggling blindly to plug in a USB connector will probably be less enthusiastic.
The reset switch isn’t the only one on the card as you'll also find power and reset buttons, which are once again practical for those who mount their motherboard outside the casing. Note also that there’s an LED which displays a series of codes on start-up to inform you of any errors and allow you to isolate a problem if required. On the positive side, ASRock supplies an exhaustive list of error codes in the motherboard guide (4 pages!). Let’s finish with the connectors you’ll find on the motherboard itself. Firstly, for the fans, there are five connectors, two of which are 4-pin. The five ports can be set in the BIOS, though note that 2 processor cooler ports are linked together.
For the rest, you'll find connectors for six USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, one Firewire port, an RS-232 port and, more surprisingly, a disk drive port. The Super I/O Nuvoton chip which takes care of monitoring includes a disk controller. This is something ASRock is alone in including.
Lastly, a word on the bundle that comes with the card. It's pretty exhaustive and the guide is impressively thick (320 pages). The content doesn’t impress so much however, with only 45 pages per language. In practice all it covers is the installation and there’s no mention either of the BIOS or any software particularities. Both of these are covered in short leaflets that come with the motherboard.
For the rest the bundle includes four Serial ATA cables, a floppy cable, an SLI bridge, a USB 3.0 bracket with two ports, a flat angle PCI bracket and a 3"1/2 façade, a 3.5 mm audio cable and a 4-pin Molex to Serial ATA power supply adaptor.
Asus P8Z68-V Pro
Asus P8Z68-V Pro
Like most of its playmates, Asus uses a single overall design for most of its range of P67 and Z68 motherboards and this includes the P8Z68-V Pro. The processor power circuit is 12+4 phase.
The card has three PCI Express 16x ports, the first two of which share the 16 processor lanes via ASMedia ASM1440 switches. The second slot is connected in 4x mode via the Intel chipset lanes and there are also two 1x slots. In contrast to ASRock however, there’s no PLX bridge here to extend the number of available lanes. The result is that these slots share the lanes and although the third 16x port can run in 4x mode, by default it's in 1x mode! Using it in 1x mode deactivates the second 1x slot, the one under the main graphics port (you can also force the deactivation of the second USB 3.0 controller instead). In 4x mode, it will deactivate both 1x slots, one of the two USB 3.0 controllers and the eSATA controller. You have to wonder what the point of a 16x port is under these conditions…
Here two ASMedia ASM1042 chips power the USB 3.0 ports and although ASMedia chips are generally common on these motherboards, Asus is alone in using one for the USB ports. Each of them powers two ports.
In terms of additional storage, Marvell has a monopoly here with the 9172 which controls two additional Serial ATA 6 Gb/s ports. There’s also a second controller, the Jmicron JMB362. It’s quite an old PCI Express controller that can power two SATA 3 Gb/s ports at the same time. Only one of these ports is used here.
For the Ethernet Gigabit port however, Asus has brought out the big guns and is alone is supplying an Intel 82579 controller.
Asus is the only manufacturer not to include the PS/2 port on the rear panel, probably a good idea for most users. This leaves space for six USB 2.0 ports, two 3.0 ports and the eSATA and Gigabit Ethernet ports previously mentioned. Sound wise, there's an optical S/PDIF out and six assignable jacks powered by a Realtek ALC892 controller.
There are also three video outs: a VGA, DVI (single link) and an HDMI. Only two of the three (whichever you choose) can be used simultaneously.
The Asus card isn’t lacking in particularities, with, first of all, a series of switches. Apart from the Power/Reset buttons, there’s a MemOK button which allows you to resolve any memory conflicts automatically. If the system refuses to start because the SPD table is incorrectly defined, you can press on this button to force a resolution mechanism that allows you to start up the machine. In practice, this type of problem is now relatively rare.
More useful to our mind are the diagnostics LEDs which light up beside the processor, the memory and the graphics port. While not as thorough as the very exhaustive diagnostics system used by ASRock, these three LEDs are a low cost alternative which we reckon is worth a look. On the subject of particularities, note that Asus uses memory slots with asymmetric fixtures. Although you’ll find the traditional clip on top, it uses a catch system on the bottom. The idea is to make it easier to mount memory when a graphics card is already installed.
For the rest, you'll be able to connect up six USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports and two Firewire ports (through a VIA controller PCI). In terms of cooling, you'll be able to connect up to six fans (of which there are three 4-pin connectors). Two of these can be controlled in the BIOS.
In the bundle Asus supplies four good quality SATA cables, an SLI bridge, a Crossfire bridge and a PCI angle bracket exposing two USB 3.0 ports. Note that Asus also supplies two other interesting little accessories, firstly a variation of the traditional plate that is placed between the casing and the motherboard. It’s padded and, apart from limiting electromagnetic interference, this also stops you from cutting your fingers when you insert it into the casing.
The other is an extension of the different front panel connectors of the casing which allows you to connect the cables from the power and reset buttons as well as the different leds and speaker up to a single terminal that is inserted on the motherboard. A nice idea that facilitates mounting in the casing.
Gigabyte has one of the largest ranges of Z68s, cards which are based on a common base on the whole. The Z68X-UD3H is a mid-range model for Gigabyte, even if it does stand out from the rest due to its black PCB. There’s a 6+1 phase power supply for the motherboard that’s controlled using an iTE8725E chip that is compatible with the Intel VR12 standard (which includes Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge processors from an electrical point of view).
There are two 16x PCI Express ports, powered by Pericom 2415ZHE switches, which are only compatible with PCI Express 2.0 even though Gigabyte says on its site that its motherboards are compatible with the 3.0 standard. In contrast to ASRock's board, this model doesn’t use an additional PCI Express switch to multiply the chipset lanes. Here there are three 1x ports on the card, the five other lanes being distributed among the various additional controllers.
Like ASRock, Gigabyte has gone for EtronTech EJ168A controllers for the USB 3.0 connections. There are two on the card, making a total of four ports (two on the rear panel and two on the card).
When it comes to storage, Gigabyte has made an original choice as although there's the standard Marvell 9128 controller (the same as used by Asus) to add two additional Seria ATA 6 GB/s ports, only five of the six Serial ATA ports controlled by the Intel chipset are available internally. The missing SATA 3 Gb/s port has been moved to the rear panel, to pilot the mobo's eSATA port. This is an original solution, the level of performance of which will be carefully measured.
The Realtek RTL8111E controller powers the Gigabit Ethernet network.
There’s a PS/2 port on the rear panel and four USB 2.0 ports managed directly by the chipset (in red). The two blue USB ports are of course USB 3.0 and are managed by the two Etrontech controllers. Apart from the eSATA port previously mentioned, there’s a Firewire port powered by a VIA controller, the VT6308P (also included on the Asus mobo). To recap, this is a PCI controller (not PCI Express). There’s an optical out for the sound as well as six assignable jacks. Note that Gigabyte is the only manufacturer to use a Realtek ALC889, which is older than the 892 used on the other models. We’ll come back to their respective performance later in this article.
The display ports include VGA, DVI (single link), Display Port and HDMI. Only two can be used simultaneously.
The Gigabyte motherboard is the only one not to have switches for the Power and Reset functions. Nor is there any switch for the ‘Dual BIOS’ feature, which doesn’t start automatically.
Looking at internal connectivity, you’ll be able to add eight USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a Firewire port, an RS-232 port as well as a TPM module connector.
There are two 4–pin connectors for fans and two 3-pins. Only the processor header can be controlled via the BIOS.
The Gigabyte bundle is by far the most minimalist with just four Serial ATA cables and an SLI bridge.
There is however a good guide, particularly for the mounting section.
MSI Z68A-GD65 B3
MSI Z68A-GD65 B3
Once again, the MSI Z68A-GD65 is based on a P67 motherboard design, the P67A-GD65 by the same manufacturer. The design and features are relatively similar. The MSI mobo PCB is not as busy as the Asus motherboard PCB but is relatively well-aired, like the Gigabyte card.
There’s a 6+2 phase regulation circuit for the CPU power supply, under which there’s a radiator. It uses a UT257 controller (8 phases).
The two PCI Express x16 ports are controlled by ASMedia 1430 switches and there are also three PCI Express x1 ports connected directly to the lanes exposed by the Z68 chipset. Again, like the Gigabyte mobo, MSI don’t use any additional PCI Express switches. The two traditional PCI ports are managed by an ASMedia PCIe to PCI bridge, the ASM1083 that is also used on the Asus and ASRock motherboards.
For the USB connectors MSI has gone for the NEC/Renasas D720200A controllers. There are two on the board and they each power two USB 3.0 ports, making a total of four.
MSI is using a Marvell controller for storage to add two Serial ATA 6 Gb/s ports but the card does not have an eSATA port.
The network controller, relatively standard, is the Realtek RTL8111E connected at PCI Express 1.1.
The rear panel includes a PS/2 port and four USB 2.0 ports managed by the chipset. There are two USB 3.0 ports (from the same Renasas controller) as well as a Gigabit Ethernet connector. For your sound, there are six assignable jacks and two S/PDIF outs, one an optical and the other coaxial, which will be appreciated by audiophiles. As with the majority of other cards, the sound is managed by a Realtek ALC892 controller.
MSI supplies the following video outs: VGA, DVI (single link) and HDMI. You can use two of the three at the same time. Note, this mobo also has a button to reset the BIOS. It's much less accessible than the one used on the ASRock board and you’re therefore not as likely to press on it by mistake.
MSI is relatively generous when it comes to switches on its board, with, in addition to the power and reset buttons, there’s an OC genie button for MSI's automatic system overclocking which we'll come back to later in this roudup. Note also, the slightly gadgety series of leds which tell you the number of phases being used. Overclockers will however appreciate the voltage read points. You can read the processor, CPU_VTT, IGP, memory and chipset voltages.
For the rest the connectors included on the card allow you to add six USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, an RS-232 port and a TPM module connector. There are also five connectors for fans, of which two are 4-pin connectors. Three can be controlled from the BIOS.
The bundle that comes with the card is relatively minimal but contains the essential. There’s a manual with a guide for installation, the functioning of the BIOS and the additional software.
For the rest, MSI supplies four Serial ATA cables, an SLI bridge, a Molex 4 pin to SATA power supply adaptor. There’s also a PCI USB 3.0 bracket (2 port).
We have summarised all the specifications of the motherboards tested in this extensive table to allow you to compare them more easily.
Let’s now move on to the BIOS which implements the new UEFI standard.
BIOS/UEFI: ASRock & ASUS
Moving over to the Sandy Bridge platform has lead to the introduction of the UEFI BIOS on the Intel side. Originally developed by Intel (now by a forum), UEFI is a specification that replaces certain limitations of the older BIOS that still ran, among other things, in 16-bit mode on the processor side.
Another notable innovation is the change in the hard drive partitioning system, which is no longer based on the MBR format but rather GUID. MBR had several limitations, from the number of partitions to the number of sectors, stopping you from going beyond a capacity of 2.2 TB with sectors of 512 bytes. GUID increases the number of available sectors and also makes it possible to change the size of physical sectors, in time supporting drives with 4K physical and logical sectors (currently high capacity general consumer drives use 4K physical sectors and 512 byte logical sectors for compatibility reasons, as Windows still doesn’t support 4K native sectors).
The last advantage of UEFI is that drivers can be used for the various system components, enabling, for example, the initialization of a network controller (a BIOS that can check online if a new version is available) or a mouse. These drivers can then be passed to the operating system to authorise minimum functionality, which can be useful during and after installation of the OS and before installation of the drivers.
In practice, the UEFI BIOS has been generalised across most of the Sandy Bridge motherboard range, but not all. Although Asus, ASRock and MSI all have a 'modern' graphics interface that can be piloted with a mouse, this isn’t the case with Gigabyte, which has retained a traditional text-based interface. Using a graphics interface isn’t necessarily a panacea however. Most of the time the structure is the same as before and some hierarchical menus even make the task more complex.
ASRock provides a pretty good UEFI. Overall the design is based on previous BIOS designs with a list of icons at the top which allow you to go from one category of settings to another. The keyboard setup therefore remains similar to the previous high standards, with little shortcuts - pressing on the top button when you're at the top of the list sends you back down to the bottom. The mouse setup is okay though the scroll can't be used to scroll down lists. Those who are used to using the keyboard probably won’t bother with it.
The overclocking options are all on the OC Tweaker page. At the top you’ll find the two automatic overclocking options (a little bit redundant, we’ll come back to them). At the bottom you can save three overclocking profiles, which is practical.
The advanced menu setup groups all the standard motherboard setup options, with a few processor options too.
The monitoring page gives you the essential. For fans, the two CPU connectors (one 4-pin and one 3-pin) have thermostatic control that can be regulated according to the temperature of the processor. The 4-pin connector will however only regulate 4-pin (PWM type) fans.
The same goes for the two chassis fan connectors, one 4-pin and one 3-pin, both with thermostatic control though this feature only functions with fans of the corresponding type (3-pin fan on 3-pin connector, 4-pin fan on 4-pin connector). The two additional connectors, 3-pin type, are regulated by voltage (DC/3-pin type).
Even if it isn’t particularly ambitious in its use of the mouse, the ASRock implementation of UEFI is solid and easy-to-use, with room for improvement going forward.
The Asus UEFI can be accessed in both EZ Mode and advanced mode.
EZ Mode offers access to the essential features, including information on temperature, voltage and fan speed monitoring. Settings options are however limited as, apart from energy management, you can only change the boot order for peripherals or force startup on a given volume. With a nice graphics design, EZ Mode really only offers the strict minimum in terms of settings. While the design ideas are good, Asus would do well to extend them.
The other mode, the advanced mode, can be accessed from EZ Mode (which can be deactivated). No surprises here. The interface looks very much like those used on the traditional Asus BIOS. Moreover, implementation is reminiscent of the ASRock UEFI, even if there are some design differences. You can use the mouse to scroll down the lists here, though the keyboard setup isn’t quite as efficient (the up/down page keys don’t work).
While here it’s AI Tweaker and not OC Tweaker for overclocking, they work more or less in the same way.
The advanced menu groups the traditional motherboard settings and CPU options. The monitoring page allows you to check voltages, temperatures and fan speed, which can be regulated. Asus provides very fine fan speed regulation. The card has two 4-pin connectors for the processor, with thermostatic control as long as you’re using 4-pin fans. On the other hand, both the chassis connectors, one 4-pin and the other 3-pin are also regulated according to processor temperature, but only if you connect up 3-pin fans (DC type)! Note that in addition to regulating fan speed, you can also define a minimum threshold, which is practical to avoid having the fan stall on start-up. It is a shame however that you have to scroll down to see all the settings - EZ Mode is particularly limiting on this page.
Tool-wise, there’s a flash utility, you can save overclocking profiles (more than with ASRock but ported to another menu) and there’s a utility for reading the memory bar SPD table.
Overall Asus' UEFI implementation is solid and our main regret is that the fonts are too small. The various elements are excessively spaced out and this makes the advanced menu less legible. EZ Mode is what the UEFI BIOS should be, namely an easy-to-use interface redesigned for the mouse. Nevertheless, implementation is rather minimal here.
BIOS/UEFI Gigabyte & MSI
Gigabyte has implemented UEFI, but not graphically.
The menus are simply the same as those for the traditional Gigabyte BIOS’, no more no less. For its forthcoming X79 motherboards, Gigabyte is working on a graphical menu, the one glimpsed at IDF.
In terms of overclocking, the setup is in the M.I.T submenu, with clocks, voltages and memory settings separated in submenus.
The rest of the setup is more standard and only one fan can be regulated on the monitoring page, the 4-pin processor connector. This connector is regulated according to the processor temperature and can regulate 3 or 4-pin fans as long as you choose the correct control type in the BIOS. Instead of overclocking profiles, Gigabyte provides full BIOS setup profiles that can be saved.
Gigabyte has gone for as basic an implementation of UEFI as possible, something that isn’t a problem in itself but it is regrettable that they have tried to mask this fact, both on motherboard boxes and boot screens where you find mention of the ‘Touch BIOS’ in large letters. Touch BIOS is in reality a piece of software that runs in Windows and allows you to change certain BIOS settings. The tool has an interface that has been optimised for touchscreens. In practice, it doesn’t suit mouse control and, while a good idea, it's presented as a marketing ploy to attempt to mask the lack of graphical interface for UEFI!
MSI provides a graphical interface for UEFI.
It’s based on a series of menus with animated icons and is by far the most graphic of the four interfaces. The set-up pages are rather disappointingly designed. It's not comfortable to use either the mouse or the keyboard on the text interface. You have to double click to access a submenu and clicking once on an option to change it isn’t always enough. What’s more the interface flashes on and off rather disturbingly. You don’t get an impression of robustness at all and this really is a shame.
The organisation of the menus is rather peculiar. Green Power, for example, doesn't seem to bring much in the way of worthwhile options. The utilities section is better - there’s a practical memory bar test here. The Live Updates option is intriguing. Does this mean an automatic BIOS update via the network is in store? In theory, yes, but first you have to load (using a DVD!) a mini interface in Linux and then launch an update. We couldn’t get it to work in our tests however. The interface started to load but then the window disappeared immediately. You then find yourself on a desktop from which you can do nothing at all.
The overclocking section is pretty standard, though the keyboard/mouse design makes it complicated to use. A standard, Gigabyte style BIOS is much more efficient. Moving onto fan speed, there’s thermostatic control for the 4-pin CPU connector but this only works with a 4-pin fan (PWM). Like Asus, you can define a minimum threshold for fan speed and thus prevent it from stalling. There are also two settings for chassis connector voltages, of which the 3-pin connectors are not regulated according to temperature.
As with Live Update, you can load games straight from the BIOS. Here again, we do wonder how useful having this menu here is, in view of the fact that the real BIOS settings are hidden behind the settings menu on the right.
There are numerous standard setup pages. The M-Flash menu allows you to flash using a USB key, a useful alternative given that the automatic BIOS update utility in Windows didn’t work during our tests either, showing that the BIOS had been updated when the two most recent versions were available and not installed.
In the end, MSI's UEFI implementation is rather disappointing. Sure, you get animated menus and new Live Update and games features, but, like the design, it's all rather hit and miss. The randomness of the mouse doesn’t improve things and the organisation of the menus leaves lots to be desired. It's also hard to forgive the fact that the interface flashes on and off. MSI has come up with some good ideas but a serious update is required to knock this BIOS into shape.
Fans, boot time
We have summarized the fan control specs for each of the motherboards. Remember, PWM fans are 4-pin and DC fans are 3-pin.
Here, again, all the motherboards differ. Gigabyte is alone in providing both 4 and 3-pin control options on its processor port (thermostatic control works with a 3-pin fan connected to a 4-pin connector), but Asus and ASRock provide alternatives (additional 3-pin port with ASRock, connection to the chassis headers with Asus).
We also took readings for the motherboard start-up times. We measured the time between pressing down the button and the launch of the operating system. We measured two cases, the first at default BIOS settings, the second turning off unused peripherals.
ASRock clearly dominates in this test with by far the fastest boot stage. Asus takes the longest but Gigabyte and MSI aren't a great deal faster. The improvements promised by UEFI don’t seem to have been integrated by all mobo manufacturers!
ASRock & Asus software
The manufacturers deliver a certain number of utilities in Windows that allow users to manage their mobos better. Here’s a little summary of what‘s on offer:
A word on the ASRock drivers first of all. Note that ASRock only provides a fairly old version of the EtronTech drivers on its site. This version 0.96 is slower than the more recent versions and limits the use of USB 3.0 controllers to a single port. You can find a more recent driver from the competition, say from Gigabyte for example.
Some ASRock tools are particularly original, such as XFast LAN, a piece of software for prioritisation of network traffic based on cFos Speed (a paid application).
On the USB side, ASRock supplies another application, XFast USB. XFast USB allows you to accelerate USB 2.0 and 3.0 transfer speeds by replacing, port by port, the default USB driver. From the user’s point of view, you may criticise it for the fact that you must, for the driver to be changed, remove and then reinsert a peripheral into the port the first time you plug the peripheral in. We’ll come back to performance gains for this later on in the article. In respect of USBs, ASRock supplies a resident application which implements the USB Battery Charging spec, which means charging can run on 1.5A instead of the standard 500 mA (required for USB charging for certain pieces of hardware such as iPads and so on).
When it comes to overclocking, ASRock supplies an application which brings together fairly simplified monitoring features, fan control as a function of temperature (features equivalent to those in the BIOS), and overclocking features on which the multiplier, BCLK and voltages can be modified and which require you to restart your machine. The overclocking profiles we talked about in our discussion of the BIOS are also accessible in this utility, as is an energy economy module that works on the clock and voltage of the processor.
Finally, ASRock provides a sound utility, THX TruStudio Pro. Developed by Creative, it allows you to apply a certain number of effects, the utility of which every user will be able to decide for themselves (multichannel to stereo conversion, improvement of dialogues, dynamically adjusted volume and so on). Note this application must be activated online…
Most of the Asus software is grouped as part of a single 347 MB download called AI Suite, a suite of utilities that includes the tools required for BIOS updates (via Internet), overclocking and monitoring of the motherboard.
Note however that not all utilities are necessarily included. AiCharger, Asus’ implementation of USB charging, is a separate download though the tool can be integrated into the AI Suite interface. On the other hand, you can use the Asus suite to download an EPU tool that refuses to install, with a message saying that it is incompatible with your motherboard. An EPU version is however already included in AI Suite…
On launch AI Suite appears as an application launch bar. The independent Asus applications then appear above and they therefore all have a unified interface, which is a good idea. Launching certain applications can however sometimes be particularly slow; with TurboEVO for example.
TurboEVO allows you to overclock without having to reboot as long as you enabled the multiplier changes in the OS beforehand (a single multiplier for 1,2,3 and 4 active core modes). The options linked to power management are however ported to another ultility, DigiVRM+. Fan control also has its own dedicated treatment with FanXpert. In addition to these standard options, you can also define a curve from three different points. You can obviously make do with the standard options. Asus also supplies two monitoring utilities, one in real time and the other which allows you to read the data in the form of a graph. These tools could be fused…
There are two other points to note, first the fact that a diagnostics tool is included, allowing you to create reports that you can send to the manufacturer in case of a problem.
The other is that, on installation of AI Suite, an icon appears on the desktop and in the Windows bar which sends you to Zynga games, a promotional link we could have done without.
Gigabyte & MSI software
Gigabyte supplies a certain number of utilities, some of which are quite original.
For example, Gigabyte is the only supplier to include the Smart Recovery backup solution. It’s a fairly simplistic tool and you’ll no doubt want to go for an alternative solution.
Another very unusual piece of software is Cloud OC. It’s a mini Web server which allows you to overclock your machine remotely. The client HTML code is optimised for smartphones with a column style display.
Like ASRock, Gigabyte also supplies a network prioritisation tool: LanOptimizer. It’s a utility developed by Realtek and rebadged by Gigabyte which offers a simplified mode which adapts automatically to a type of activity (game, Internet and so on), but also allows you to manually control softwares using the network. It also allows you to block an application.
The most original application of those supplied is without question "TouchBIOS". It’s a utility that allows you to modify the BIOS settings - a good idea but one which hasn’t been well implemented. The tool window is particularly small and its fonts particularly large. This means you have to do a lot of scrolling to get to the parameters you’re looking for, which is rather impractical. These choices result from the fact that the interface has been optimised for touchscreens. Gigabyte would have been better off giving us a tool that had been optimised for the mouse, as navigating from one menu to another is very painful, there being no back/next mouse options here for example. The button that allows you to go back to the previous page confusingly uses the icon that is usually used to reload content. Modifications are of course only effected after the machine is rebooted. Above all, Gigabyte highlights the implementation of this tool to make up for the fact that there's no UEFI BIOS. We were entitled to better here.
You’ll find other more standard pieces of software such as an application to update the BIOS by Internet, an energy economy tool and XTU, the Intel overclocking utility that requires you to restart your machine after use. EasyTune 6, that we mentioned earlier, is a bit more practical.
The MSI software offer is relatively limited, but this is perhaps for the best.
While SuperCharger (the standard for charging by USB) works perfectly, the same can’t be said for other applications.
MSI supplies ControlCenter II, a tool which can be used both for monitoring and overclocking. It has been poorly implemented and, although we restarted our machine, changes to multipliers didn’t work in our tests.
Live Update, the automatic update tool, is based on a very good idea but is also somewhat badly implemented. Apart from detecting BIOS updates for your motherboard, it offers to download drivers which don’t really correspond to your card. This is most probably a model detection issue.
Note finally, that on each application installation, MSI offers to sign you up for their newsletter by default and redirects you to a web page. Like its UEFI BIOS, the MSI software offer is a definite minus.
With the integration of the memory controller onto the processor chip and the disappearance of the northbridge, the performance difference between motherboards has become almost inexistant. We did nevertheless want to check to see if performance levels were what we expected on all our test models.
PC Mark Vantage
We used PC Mark Vantage first of all. We used two tests, ‘Suite’ which uses extracts of different scenarios in the application and ‘Productivity’.
PC Mark Vantage isn’t very precise but a trend does appear with a very slight advantage to Asus. In practice the mobo BCLK tends to be a few tenths of a MHz above the expected 100 MHz, which partly explains this difference.
Next we used 7-Zip, in which we carried out a file compression in LZMA2 mode. We used a Vertex 3 Max IOPS SSD connected to a 6 Gb/s port on the Z68 to carry out the test on all the motherboards.
No surprises here, all the mobos performed as expected!
Hard drive performance (SATA / eSATA)
Hard drive performance
All the motherboards in this roundup have one or several additional controllers, as well as the hard drive controller integrated in the chipset, to add two Serial ATA 6 ports or manage an eSATA port on the back panel.
Serial ATA 6 Gb/s controllers
We measured the performance of the Intel chipset (in 6 and 3 Gb mode) as well as the performance of the various additional controllers. All the mobos use a PCI Express 2.0 x1 Marvell controller, but the model differs from one card to another. While Asus and Gigbyte both use the Marvell 88SE9172 (2x 6Gb/s), ASRock uses the 88SE9120 and MSI the 88SE9128. What differences are there? Let’s look with CrystalDiskMark which meansures sequential and random speeds of a Vertex 3 Max IOPS:
Hold the mouse over the graph to view random 4K QD32 scores
Although the performance level of the 9172 is more or less the same on the models using it, the 912X models are significantly down for write speeds. The Marvell 912X series is a controller that mixes the two Serial ATA 6 ports with an IDE interface (not implemented either by ASRock or MSI). The 9128 also has RAID support. More recent, the 9172 only has support for two Serial ATA 6 ports in RAID. In practice, it’s still quite a long way down on the native performance of the Intel controller. In random mode, the 912Xs are once again slower for writes though they do well in reads.
eSATA implementation differs quite a bit depending on the model. While MSI doesn’t include it, Asus uses a JMicron JMB362 controller (PCI Express 2.0, Serial ATA 3 Gb/s), Gigabyte sacrifices one of the Intel chipset Serial ATA 3 Gb/s ports, which is routed to the back panel. The ASRock implementation is the most original, with one of the two Marvell 88SE9120 ports mentioned above shared as an eSATA port. Again, we measured the sequential speeds of a Vertex 3 Max IOPS connected to the eSATA:
None of the solutions is ideal, but note the outstandingly poor performance of the JMicron controller chosen by Asus. Gigabyte's approach offers the most balanced read/write performance, though it does sacrifice one port on the motherboard.
USB 2.0 / USB 3.0 performance
USB 2.0 performance
We measured USB 2.0 performance in CrystalDiskMark with an SSD connected via USB. A particularity, we also used the ASRock application Xfast USB for this test. To recap, it allows you to activate, peripheral by peripheral, an alternative USB (2.0 and 3.0) driver. You have to unplug and then plug your peripheral back in the first time you use it. We measured the sequential speeds:
Unsurprisingly the motherboards are all on an equal footing when the Intel controller and default drivers are used. With Xfast USB, there’s a 22% gain for reads.
USB 3.0: Sequential reads
Next we measured USB 3.0 sequential speeds using our test SSD connected via USB 3.0. In addition to Xfast, we also tested the ‘Turbo’ option on the Gigabyte motherboard. It allows you to connect the EtronTech controller directly to the CPU PCI Express lanes, which means the graphics card, if you’re using one, moves over to x8 mode. Note also that we used the latest available driver version for the two cards with an Etron Tech controller. ASRock continues to supply version 0.96 of the driver on its Internet site, which only allowed us to activate one port at once in our tests.
Gigabyte’s Turbo mode didn’t have much of an impact in this test on reads but things changed when it came to writes, where the gains were clear. Without acceleration, the ASMedia controller dominated the EtronTech and Renasas controllers both in reads and writes. The Xfast driver allows you to increase read speeds in this test, but not writes.
USB 3.0: IOmeter
So as to test the capabilities of the USB 3.0 controllers fully, we used two SSDs at the same time to measure read and write speeds.
Without additional acceleration, ASMedia still remains in the lead with the best read and write speeds, followed by Renasas. EtronTech still brings up the rear but if you change the interconnect (Turbo mode on the Gigabyte mobo), speeds increase, or should we say explode! Is this only an interconnector issue? Yes and no, because if you change the driver with ASRock Xfast, read speeds also go up, with writes still being severely limited.
Network performance, audio
We measured network controller performance using the Microsoft application, NTttcp. We took readings of maximum speeds as well as processor usage. Gigabyte and MSI use a Realtek controller, ASRock a Broadcom and Asus uses an Intel. Which does best?
Hold the mouse over the graph to view processor times.
Fairly amusingly, the Realtek controllers do best on sending and the Intel does best on receiving. Only the Broadcom hasn’t made any progress in this test. In terms of CPU usage, the mobo with the Intel controller has a small advantage, but in the context of multicore CPUs, this isn’t necessarily an issue.
We used RightMark Audio Analyzer to measure analogue audio quality (the signal is identical in digital via the S/PDIF out). We used the loopback mode which uses both the analogue line-in and line-out on the motherboard. Realtek is the manufacturer’s preferred choice with two separate models, the ALC889 and the ALC892. While the 892 is used by three of our motherboard manufacturers, Gigabyte has opted for the 889. This is an older model, but does it have lower performance? Not really if we look at the specs:
Not all the differences in spec necessarily come into play. For example, there’s no S/PDIF in on the Gigabyte mobo, even though the chip supports it. The signal/noise ratio differences between the two chips is however significant.
Hold the mouse over the table to view results at 24 bit/192 kHz.
In effect, the ALC889 stands out in respect of noise, which is a positive in terms of Gigabyte's choice.
Memory, Automatic overclocking
We wanted to carry out some memory support tests on our motherboards using a G.Skill memory kit clocked at 2133 MHz. In practice, all the motherboards support the XMP profile of these modules (9-11-9-28 at 1.65V) but it was impossible to go any higher on any of them either by reducing the timings or increasing the clock (at the same time as bringing the timings down).
We also tried to reach the maximum clock at 1.5V and then obtained 1866 MHz with our memory bars, with 9-9-9-28 1T timings on all the boards. The Gigabyte mobo did however stand out in being able to support slightly more aggressive timings: 8-9-8-28-1T.
The Z68 platform enables Sandy Bridge overclocking but with the same restrictions as P67. To recap, the processor clock used for the processor is also used for the different buses. Changing the BCLK quickly makes the system unstable and it's preferable to use the multiplier to overclock with, something that is only fully authorised with the K versions of these processors. We used the Core i7 2600K for our overclocking tests. For cooling we used a Thermalright MUX-120 radiator.
Before beginning our manual tests, we wanted to take a look at the automated solutions supplied by the mobo manufacturers. Various automatic overclocking options are on offer, whether in the BIOS or using a specific application (sometimes both!).
Note also two important points with respect to Sandy Bridge overclocking. First on the multiplier, there are two possible strategies. Turbo mode on these processors varies the multiplier with respect to load. The individual Turbo values (1, 2, 3 or 4 cores in load) can be changed or you can change the multiplier in global terms (the same multiplier on all four Turbo settings).
The second point is in respect of the voltage applied. There's a marked difference between the voltage reading on the motherboard sensor and that reported by the processor VID. This difference of around 0.1V is significant when comparing overclocking values: the manufacturers don’t all use the same readings. MSI and ASRock, for example, report a default voltage of 1.176V, whereas Asus and Gigabyte report theirs at 1.245V. In practice however the processors are all clocked at the same voltage on all four motherboards. When we talk about voltages in this article, we will indicate whether the readings are taken with the sensor or the VID.
Note also that we check the overclockings in Prime95.
ASRock gives you two different overclocking options in its BIOS. Firstly it has preselected Turbo modes for different clocks (4.6, 4.8 GHz) which appear as profiles that are supposed to work on all processors. The other is an ‘Advanced Turbo 50' mode, the marketing hook for which is that it gives a performance jump of 50%.
In fact, Turbo 4.8 mode and Advanced Turbo 50 attempt to up the clock to 4.8 GHz with different voltages, though in both cases these modes were unstable in Windows with errors during a test in Prime95 to check stability.
Asus proposes two solutions, the first in the BIOS with an OC Tuner option in the A.I.Tweaker menu. Activating it reboots the motherboard (sometimes several times) which then looks for the processor and memory clocks automatically, as well as their voltages.
The second is an overclocking application called TurboV which offers two modes, the first a rapid mode which simply requires a reboot. The second attempts to increase the clock in Windows.
In practice the results are identical in the three modes, with a clock of 4429 MHz using a turbo (on all cores) pushed to 43x. The memory is then in 1866 mode (x103, which gives 1922 MHz) at 1.65V, but we don’t know what the XMP profile of the memory modules was. The processor voltage reading was 1.331V (VID).
There’s no automatic option in the Gigabyte BIOS, but the EasyTune 6 utility in Windows does have an auto mode.
In contrast to Asus, Gigabyte has opted for individual overclocking of the Turbo ratios: 45/44/43/42. The voltage reported in the tool is ‘only’ 1.296V, but this is a sensor type reading. EasyTune doesn’t alter the BCLK, which isn’t an issue, and the memory doesn’t change either but remains clocked at 1600 MHz (its SPD profile) by default.
MSI provides an overclocking switch, OC Genie, on the motherboard itself. It activates a fairly unaggressive automatic overclocking search.
The voltage is increased to 1.32V and the multiplier to 42. The memory isn't altered and nor is the BCLK, which is probably wise. This overclocking is of course stable, which is no surprise.
We attempted to check the overclocking capabilities of all the boards, trying to obtain the highest possible clock for different voltages.
It rapidly became clear that the notion of voltage varies a good deal from one motherboard to another. Apart from the requested voltage, there are two ways of reading processor voltage on the boards. First of all you have the sensor reading, which is generally considered as less precise. The other voltage reading is with the CPU VID. The difference between the requested voltage, the reading you get with the sensor and the reading you get with the VID varies form one mobo to another. Here you can see what 1.4V fixed in the BIOS translates to on the four models:
If we go by the sensor reading, there are two schools. With ASRock and Gigabyte we’re quite some way off the voltage requested in the BIOS (more than 0.1V), whereas the Asus and MSI sensor readings are a good deal closer.
We did nevertheless follow our test plan and checked the maximum multipliers attained at voltages given in 0.05V stages. We’re unable to compare the results of these boards line by line and have simply indicated for each case:
The first line of each table represents maximum overclocking attained at the 'base' voltage - on some boards (Asus) this is estimated. Note also that the cores have a mechanism to increase the voltage slightly when the multiplier is increased to improve overclocking. Here, for example, is what you get when you increase the multiplier at the same time as fixing the voltage at 1.165V in the ASRock mobo BIOS:
- The requested voltage
- The voltage as read on the sensor
- The VID voltage
The maximum multiplier attained
- The energy consumption at the socket for the platform in load in Prime95
We checked clock stability each time in Prime95. Before starting, we would like to thank Martin Malik (author of the excellent application hwinfo) for his help on the subject of voltages.
The ASRock board is, like the Gigabyte, in the category of cards which minimize the actual voltage supplied to the processor:
In practice we clocked it up to 4.7 GHz but we had to increase voltage in the BIOS to 1.5V! This is in theory truly excessive, though in practice the sensor reading was then just 1.368V. The energy consumption corresponded to the sensor reading voltage. The VID doesn’t change here but as you can see in our table at 1.165V, this isn’t always the case. In practice, you can clock up to 4.8 GHz at this voltage but there will be errors in Prime95.
Asus is more realistic in terms of voltage readings:
The VID is relatively high but, putting that to one side, we quite easily obtained an almost stable 4.7 GHz at a requested voltage of 1.35V. Moving up to 1.4V significantly increased the real voltage and energy consumption then shot up. Once again we couldn’t get a stable 4.8 GHz with our processor on this card.
Gigabyte is indeed in the minimalist school, in spite of the starting (requested) voltage which suggests otherwise…
No real surprises here. We managed 4.7 GHz, though somewhat laboriously - the ASRock or Asus motherboards managed a multiplier of 45 with a sensor reading of 1.296V (not the case here).
MSI is in the quasi realist school and you’ll see that voltage readings are a little lower than those for Asus.
Clocking up is fairly simple with the MSI mobo and the processor stabilizes at 4.7 GHz at a real voltage of 1.368V. This is a good result and is confirmed by energy consumption levels which are equal to those for the ASRock board at the same voltage.
We have summarized the various overclocking results in a graph along with the energy consumption increase at these clocks as measured at the socket in comparison to those for the default configuration.
Although you can get 4.7 GHz with all the mobos, the overclocking on the ASRock board uses least energy. At this clock, the MSI board is next in terms of energy efficiency, followed by the Asus. At 4.5 GHz the Asus mobo is more energy efficient than the MSI. Increasing voltage, even by 0.05V then, has a significant impact on energy consumption. Overclocking systematically results in highest energy consumption on the Gigabyte motherboard.
Energy consumptionFinally, we measured the energy consumption of the different motherboards. Each board was tested with a Core i7 2600K processor, which was also used for the graphics part. A single hard drive was plugged into the machine.
We measured the total energy consumption of the platform at idle, in processor load (Prime 95) and in processor +graphics card load (Prime 95 + Furmark).
Note that some motherboards offer energy economy modes which sometimes lower certain voltages. We have added them to our comparative below. Note however that we have only added the modes which have no impact on performance. For each mode we measured a Cinebench score equivalent to 6.91.
The motherboards that have the lowest number of additional chips are naturally those with lowest energy consumption. Gigabyte scores best, followed by MSI. The Asus board manages to equal it and in some setups outdoes the Gigabyte board (when the EPU switch is pushed to max). The ASRock motherboard is loaded with components and is quite some way down on the rest in terms of power efficiency. Its power saving mode is inefficient to say the least.
Here’s a representation of energy consumption against processor load at various clocks:
The healthy power saving results for the Gigabyte board don’t look as good when you clock the processor higher, whereas the ASRock is better positioned at higher clocks. The Asus and MSI boards are very hot on its heels at 4.5 GHz but only the MSI solution keeps pace at 4.7 GHz.
Here we are (finally !) at the end of this motherboard roundup, the sort of article we've been too long in getting round to publish. Such an exercise is long and difficult if you want to be at all exhaustive and we hope we’ve managed to answer most of the questions you might have on the models covered. As things stand, at least in our selection, there’s no perfect motherboard. Each model has its strengths and weaknesses and the one you go for will depend on your priorities.
The MSI Z68A-GD65 B3 differentiates itself on certain points. Overclockers will appreciate finding voltage read points on such a low-priced model and there are some other extras such as the inclusion of an S/PDIF coaxial port. Using NEC/Renasas USB 3.0 controllers is also a good choice. Sure they didn’t perform as well as the ASMedias in our tests but they were a good deal better than the EtronTechs. The efforts made with the hardware weren't followed up on the software side however and the UEFI implementation would benefit from being completely revisited. The mouse and keyboard functionality is really poor and even the menu organisation could be greatly improved. The incessant flickering when you move from one line to another is also particularly annoying, both visually and in terms of functionality, as any clicks you execute during this flickering are ignored! These are faults that you also find in the software in Windows, which could also be improved a good deal. MSI needs to work on this as it's spoiling the efforts made in terms of hardware. Note that like ASRock, MSI is also marketing a ‘G3’ version of this card. This model is compatible with PCI Express 3.0 which will be integrated into the forthcoming Ivy Bridge processors and comes with the new UEFI Click Bios II which should correct the faults of the version tested on the B3.
The Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3 is the most basic of the boards in the roundup, though it's the highest Z68 in the Gigabyte range that offers several video outs for the IGP. The fact that there aren’t many additional chips means, unsurprisingly, that the card scrores very well when it comes to energy consumption though of course this has an impact on functionality. The same goes for the UEFI, where, once again, Gigabyte does the strict minimum, giving us just the standard interface with, as on the MSI card, no thermostatic regulation of the casing fans. This is a definite minus for Gigabyte when it comes to the ‘Touch BIOS’ marketing, which it uses to attempt to mask these deficiencies. The rest of the card is solid though the choice of components isn’t always the best. While the chip is excellent, using the EtronTech USB 3.0 controller is very limiting. All in all, this board has little to give it the advantage over other mobos apart from being slightly cheaper.
For us, two of the boards reviewed here do actually stand out from the rest. The ASRock first of all, mainly for its use of a PCI Express PLX bridge. It’s the only motherboard in this price bracket which really enables a large quantity of PCI Express ports and additional components. If you’re looking for maximum functionality, the Z68 Extreme4 is easily top choice in terms of the functionalities you get for your money. The relative quality of the different components can be a brake on this however, with the Broadcom Gigabit Ethernet chipset, EtronTech USB 3 controller and the Marvell SATA 6G controller also the slowest in this roundup, even if ASRock does try to make up for this with the software for the EtronTech. These limitations are relative, with performance at a good level for most usage, but it is worth flagging them up. Implementation of thermostatic regulation of the casing fans will, as on the Asus board, be appreciated and startup is a lot faster here than on the other boards in the roundup. Note that for an extra ten euros or so, you can upgrade to a ‘Gen 3' PCI Express 3.0 compatible model.
Finally the Asus P8Z68-V Pro balances functionalities and performance quite well. Asus has made almost all the right choices in terms of performance, whether in terms of the Intel network controller, the ASMedia USB 3.0 controllers or the more recent Marvell controller. The sound chip used isn't however the best of the lot and it's also a shame that the third PCI Express x16 port isn't really of any purpose, except to make us think that the board has an additional PCI Express switch! It would also be good to see the JMicron chip banned for use as an eSATA controller. Asus does however stand out for its ample bundle, the addition of a Bluetooth controller and a good quality UEFI BIOS and software suite. If we were pushed, we’d opt for the Asus P8Z68-V Pro for its overall consistency. Note that there’s also a non Pro version with exactly the same base but without certain functionalities (IEEE 1394, SATA 6G Marvell, DTS support for audio): a good deal for those who won’t be using these features, especially as it costs between €20 and €30 less.
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