Intel Z68 - The True Sandy Bridge Chipset

By Vincent Chang - 12 May 2011

The True Sandy Bridge Chipset

The True Sandy Bridge Chipset

The criticism that Intel has too many sockets and chipsets, sometimes arbitrarily so, is about to get even louder today. For the chip giant is launching yet another chipset, the Intel Z68 Express, barely half a year after the debut of the Intel P67 and H67, (not to mention the lesser known, mostly OEM ones like the H61 Express).

Yet, the Intel Z68 Express could just be the best Sandy Bridge chipset you'll find this year. Ever since Intel debuted its second-gen Intel Core processors aka Sandy Bridge, the question on the lips of many enthusiasts has been the artificial segregation between the two accompanying chipsets - Intel P67 Express for those who require discrete graphics, and Intel H67 Express for those using the Intel HD Graphics that's present on every Sandy Bridge processor.

Now you must understand, Intel was touting the benefits of the Quick Sync video transcoding feature on Sandy Bridge, claiming that it can challenge even the discrete solutions from NVIDIA and AMD. Unfortunately, the design restrictions on the P67 and H67 chipset meant that you can either have discrete graphics or Quick Sync respectively, but not both at the same time.

On the Intel P67, there are no integrated display outputs and the Intel HD Graphics within the Sandy Bridge processor is basically dormant. With the Intel H67, you can enjoy the benefits of Quick Sync, but only if you're using the integrated graphics. For power users using discrete graphics on the H67 board, you would also have to manually switch the display option in the BIOS (and the physical display cable) to use the integrated graphics option; it's just not very convenient for the end user.

Additionally, the Intel H67 chipset locked the overclocking capabilities of Intel's 'K' SKU Sandy Bridge processors though it allows integrated GPU clock tweaking. The Intel P67 meanwhile allows CPU overclocking through unlocked multipliers, but there was no way of using and overclocking the integrated GPU. These decisions and limitations just mean that end users can't get the best of both worlds.

Enter the Z68 chipset, which merges the two - it has display outputs like the H67 and the PCIe lane configuration to support dual SLI/CrossFireX (the H67 only supports a single discrete graphics card by default). It also allows users to tweak the CPU (unlocked multipliers) and the GPU (core and memory tweaking) from the BIOS. Throw in a new feature that Intel is calling Smart Response (but is in fact a way of allowing users to install a SSD as a cache for recently used applications and files), and the Z68 chipset looks like what Intel should have released months ago.

The block diagram for the Intel Z68 Express bears much resemblance to the P67 chipset, with a touch of influence from the H67. Intel Smart Response Technology however is completely new.


Switchable Graphics for the Desktop

If that's not enough to tempt the enthusiasts, then there's Lucid's Virtu. Introduced originally as a technology to solve the limitations of the Intel P67/H67 chipsets, Lucid is now partners with Intel in disseminating this technology to selected H67 and Z68 motherboards. Two of the motherboards that we'll be testing in the review portion of this feature, the ASUS P8Z68-V PRO and the MSI Z68A-GD80 (B3), come with this software layer, which dynamically assigns the graphics workload according to performance and system load, similar to NVIDIA's Optimus. Hence for a task like browsing the web, Lucid's Virtu may decide that the integrated graphics is good enough, and put the the discrete graphics card to idle, saving some power. Most importantly, Quick Sync will work.

This implies that everything will be going through the integrated display outputs on the motherboard, and one has to connect the physical display cable to the HDMI, DVI or VGA outputs on the Z68 board. It's not the case. Doing so just means that for those more intensive applications where the discrete GPU is working, the rendered output is copied to the integrated frame buffer and then output via the integrated graphics display outputs.

You can still connect it to your discrete graphics outputs, but obviously, this means a higher power draw since the discrete GPU will be active. This is however unavoidable if you're doing a multi-GPU configuration like CrossFireX or SLI because Lucid Virtu support using the motherboard's display output can only work with a single graphics card. Like Lucid's other more well-known software technology, Hydra, users will also have to install both discrete and integrated graphics before they can install the Virtu software driver.

Given that this is after all, an additional software layer on top of your graphics, you can expect some minor performance penalties for using it. Gigabyte, which has decided not to offer Virtu on its highest end Z68 model, told us that there will be a slight performance difference of between 1 and 3% for enabling Virtu. In the end, it's up to the individual user to decide.

As you can see, you can control the iGPU settings in the BIOS for this ASUS Intel Z68 board, something you couldn't do on the Intel P67. Users have to enable the iGPU Multi-monitor option before you can install the Lucid Virtu driver.

The Virtu Control Panel allows users to toggle the software layer that automatically switches between the integrated and discrete (provided you have a discrete GPU installed). Do note that you have to also have installed Intel HD Graphics drivers before you can install Lucid Virtu. In the Games tab you can add your own list of games such that Virtu will recognize them, but a quick glance at the settings xml file revealed that there are already many supported games. 

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