Z68 Express, too much segmentation?
>> Motherboards

Written by Marc Prieur
Published on May 11, 2011


While the LGA 1155 processors were universally well received at launch in January 2011, they marked a new stage in Intel’s segmentation strategy. On LGA 1156 you could overclock all CPUs via the bus whatever the chipset. On LGA 1155 however, only the P67 chipset and a processor with Turbo (Core i5/i7 but not i3), what’s more in the K series, would enable processor-based overclocking (using the multiplier).

Impossible then to overclock on an H67 motherboard as you could with H55/H57. Indeed you absolutely had to choose between overclocking the CPU and using the IGP and this at a time when the IGP was becoming a more powerful piece of hardware with QuickSync, acceleration of H.264 transcoding.

Intel has now launched a chipset as part of the Intel Series 6 range, the Z68 Express which combines the qualities of the P67 and H67 Express, namely:

- P67: Overclocking CPU via multiplier
- P67: Option to use 2 PCI-E x16 (cabled at 2x8)
- H67: Access to the IGP (+ overclocking IGP)

As a way of really underling the enthusiast nature of the Z68 Express, Intel has allocated it the latest innovation introduced by the Intel Rapid Storage Technology 10.5 drivers, the Intel Smart Response Technology, which allows you to combine a hard drive and an SSD. Also rolled out on the mobile HM67 and QM67 chipsets, this technology isn’t available on the rest of the range, which is a purely software limitation.

The principle is similar to the one used for hybrid hard drives. Smart Response analyses hard drive accesses so as to place the most frequently used data on the SSD. This data is therefore placed on a separate physical peripheral but the two (HDD and SSD) make up just one peripheral, the size of the hard drive, as far as the system is concerned.

The gains announced in practice are impressive and the level of performance is close to what you get on an SSD, but as is often the case with hybrid drives, the gains aren’t necessarily representative. Of course, when you launch the same test several times, the data is placed on the SSD and accessing it is then a good deal faster.

The only thing is that it’s objectively difficult to say what sort of performance a user will get in practice apart from that it will be somewhere in the interval separating HDD and SSD performance, closer to the first if you’re processing a lot of data and closer to the second if you’re not processing all that much. In that case it will make more sense to go straight for an SSD for the system and most used applications, especially as the secondary hard drive could then be kept in standby mode. The advantage of Intel SRT therefore seems questionable… unless you already have a system SSD and a second SSD lying around unused which can then be recycled for this purpose, probably a pretty unusual situation.

Note that Intel has launched a new SSD for this technology, the 311 Series SSD. With a capacity of just 20 GB, it uses 34nm SLC flash which gives it excellent endurance and above all decent write speeds (115 MB/s) where a 320 Series 40 GB SSD will only give 45 MB/s. The only problem is it costs $110, which is what a 60-64 GB MLC SSD costs.

Underlining the high-end multifunction aspect of the Z68 Express, Intel is also highlighting its use of Lucid Logix Virtu technology. This additional software layer allows you to connect the screen to the IGP (i-Mode) or additional GPU (d-Mode) physically and move from one to the other on the fly, depending on the application, which allows you to benefit from the IGP’s features ( such as QuickSync) without being limited by its 3D capacities.

Note that Virtu has a 5 to 10% impact on PU performance in 3D if you’re using the IGP, an inevitable cost given that the rendering carried out in the IGP frame buffer has to be recopied before it’s displayed. Moreover, the application must have a profile in Virtu, otherwise it will run on the IGP! As this configuration doesn’t really give any gain in terms of energy consumption, given that during 2D processing on the IGP the graphics card won’t be completely turned off, it makes more sense to virtualise the IGP with the GPU for QuickSync encoding as the impact on performance is then negligeable and the encoding applications managing the MediaSDK less numerous than the games requiring a good GPU! d-Mode is also available in the absence of a graphics connector for the IGP on the motherboard, which will be the case for some models.

Whether they like it or not, motherboard manufactures, already heavily affected by the bug on B2 chipsets, will launch multiple Z68 Express motherboards. These cards will of course be more expensive than the existing P67 and H67 motherboards as the mark-up Intel is asking for on the Z68 will have to be added to the initial model price as well as costs linked to additional video connectivity as well as any charge for the Lucid Logix Virtu license and of course some margin to make up for the inherent launch costs. All said and done the Z68s are likely to cost €10 to €30 more than the H67s/P67s!

As you’ll have understood by now, our early feelings on the Z68 Express are pretty lukewarm. The old adage better late than never may come to mind but instead of simply correcting its abusive segmentation between plaforms, what Intel has done is add complexity to its range by positioning what is at the end of a day nothing more than an H67+ as the crème de la crème in Sandy Bridge chipsets. It would have been more elegant to release a new H67 chipset that allowed CPU overclocking and offer Smart Response Technology across all Intel Series 6 chipsets with a driver update.

Thankfully Intel seems to have decided to change its policy on the forthcoming Series 7 chipsets, codename Panther Point, slated for 2012. According to the latest rumours the three versions, H77, Z75 and Z77, should allow overclocking and benefit from IGP support, with the differentiations coming uniquely in terms of the Intel Smart Response Technology and the routing of the CPU’s PCI-E 3.0 lanes between 1, 2 or 3 graphics ports. It remains to be seen if QuickSync 2 included in the forthcoming Ivy Bridges will be accessible without going via the IGP or a third party software layer such as Virtu, as this really would be a plus. In the meantime, we’ll have to make do with the current state of affairs, which is far from satisfactory, and pay the not negligeable additional cost if you want to have access to the IGP for one reason or another at the same time as overclocking. Something worth thinking about and which means the “standard” P67 and H67 soluitions still have an important part to play!

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