When Intel released the Sandybridge platform users had a choice of two different motherboard chipsets for their build. They could choose a platform that made use of the onboard graphics but was lacking in overclocking options and go with the H series or they could be forced to use discrete GPUs and gain better options with the P series. This choice BTW has been something we have seen for some time from both AMD and Intel with the user being forced to choose between these two levels of motherboards.
Intel however finally seemed to get a clue when it had this amazing epiphany, all of our new chips have graphics onboard! OMG how did they miss that!? Seriously folks if all your chips have graphics onboard does it not make sense to make sure that feature can come into play?
Thus, with this amazing realization in hand, enter the Z68 series. The idea is simple and one that I wish Intel would FULLY adopt and AMD would consider. Essentially you take the ability to use onboard graphics and then add the performance oriented features plus give the board maker the tools to add the luxury level features and now you have a single, full purpose platform for your PC.
Intel however, god bless them, was not content with just putting these features together, no they wanted this new breed to be more than the sum of it’s parts so they added a couple of extra.
First up we have Virtu, basically a system to allow the user to make full use of their powerful gaming video card when gaming but using the integrated graphics when not. There is a two fold purpose for this, the first was to allow the multimedia functions Intel built into the Sandybridge chips to continue to be used even with an add-on card in place. The second is the idea that when the user is not gaming the higher power usage of the discrete video card could be reduced and the integrated card used in it’s place.
Now I could show you a long list of benchmarks and give you lengthy explanations of the technology as so many have but lets face it, waiting through that crap is even more boring than watching Baseball or Golf. The simple breakdown is that this feature does not work as advertised. From a gamer perspective the Virtu system gives a performance hit, not a huge one mind you but a hit none the less, meaning less FPS during game play. From the “green”, power consumption perspective the effect is useless. Intel must not be paying attention to the discrete GPU world because these monsters already power themselves down to mere trickles of what they do under load and can work all day like this in basic tasks. The only area where this feature works as it claims is in allowing the use of the media functions on the Intel chip. This is nice if you use transcoding software a lot but seriously, NO ONE uses transcoding software a lot.
The second new feature is Intel Smart Response. The idea is simple, you take a smaller SSD, anything up to 64 Gig, and pair it with a regular HD, spay a nice 1 TB drive. Smart Response will use that SSD as a large cache for the most frequently used files to give your system a massive speed boost in everyday use. This sounds very neat and promises in the hype to give an experience similar to that of just using an SSD. Well lets not get carried away just yet.
For testing I used a Caviar Blue 320 Gig and a Kingston (Thank you Kingston for the drive) V100 64 Gig. I did an install of the system on the Caviar and did some work as well as run a few simple benchmarks. After a day of use I put in the Kingston and enabled Smart Response. Now this is not a plug and play operation, I mean seriously why would this be simple right? You have to go into the BIOS and enable the controllers to RAID and then use the Intel software to setup the Smart Response.
However this is where Gigabyte shines, making things easier. The EZ Smart Response that Gigabyte has included with the UD3H takes out all the work that you need to do and automates the process. I did my original testing doing the setup manually and then rebooted as it where and let Gigabyte do it for me the second go around, it was flawless and painless.
Now since this is in effect a massive system cache I did not test the performance right away, the cache needs time to fill. So I let the system get used normally for 24 hours and then started to take a look at performance.
Good news, the Intel Smart Response feature works as advertised, but I suggest reading the fine print. The system is a cache and so the speed up for operation will come into play with software you use a lot. For example IE opened instantly as did my email software. Champions Online, my current game of choice also opened much faster. However there was no speed increases for apps I opened less often. In fact in some cases it felt slower.
The reason for this is simple, some apps do not use all their features all the time. The cache does not cache everything, just what you use. So if a feature is seldom used but the program is often used what will happen is that during general use the program will have that hyper snappy feel that comes with using an SSD until that specific seldom used feature is put into play and then the system will seems to stall. For most users this will not be an issue but this does mean that while offering a huge system boost this does not match up to just using an SSD as a drive and not as cache.
This is billeted as an inexpensive way to get a performance boost similar to that of using an SSD. A quick look on Newegg shows that 30/32 Gig SSDs are going for around $80 and yet a 60 Gig can be had for about $100 and a 64 Gig for about $110. Anything smaller would not give enough room for any but the most basic user to get a meaningful level of cache and at these prices why by a 30/32 gig? So we are looking at about a $100 cost for using this feature over and above traditional costs. However for a lot of people a 60 Gig SSD will provide enough room to function as a primary drive. I refer you back to my article on SSDs in Laptops. I found in that article that a 60 Gig actually holds a lot of data, easily enough for most apps people use regularly as well as a few games.
In the end the 60 Gig drive provides a better performance boost used as a primary drive than as a disk cache system. Anyone with enough apps that 60 gigs will not hold them likely would not get the full effect of the Smart response anyway. This is NOT to say however this is a bad feature. This offers the ability to use the SSDs as an upgrade without the need to move the OS or do a complete system build again on the SSD.
Enough however about what features the Z69 offers, what about what Gigabyte brings to the table with this board. A full sized ATX board this product is prized at the high end of the “performance” line-up as we judge items here on the show. Like the P68 we reviewed before Gigabyte has forsaken the ugly light blue and gone with the sexy black board, trimming it with dark metallic grey heatsinks. The board has two PCIe full slots and is able to support Crossfire or SLI.
The boards construction is what we have come to expect from Gigabyte with full solid capacitor design as well as some great real world features, such as their On/Off USB power. There is the usual assortment back panel connections with 4x USB2 and 2x USB3 as well as a Firewire and ESATA. The driver CD includes the usual set of Gigabyte utilities for monitoring the hardware and software based overclocking. Overall just a well featured and build motherboard but then we have come to expect nothing less from Gigabyte.
Other companies have begun to move their BIOS interfaces over to a more graphical design, Gigabyte has not done this yet. The reason I have heard actually makes sense. Gigabyte feels that the people that use the BIOS are so used to and comfortable with the current design they should not play with it. However that does not mean Gigabyte is going to be left behind. In an effort to leave our comfortable text BIOS in place for us old school folks and still offer the graphical option for those who want it, Gigabyte has created their Touch BIOS.
This is a functional BIOS control interface that runs within Windows. You can make the BIOS adjustments you want while in Windows and then tell the system to reboot. It is not quite as full featured as the regular method of getting into the BIOS but the basic functions are there, even for some overclocking. You can even access the Hardware Monitoring section of the BIOS to get temperatures and fan speeds.
I am personally torn on this matter. As an old school tech I will admit to being comfortable with the old BIOS layout however I like new whiz-bang features like the graphic interface. However lets be real, NO ONE spends a lot of time in their BIOS. I mean once you get the system up and running you use it. Oh sure a few tweakers might think of the BIOS as a game but they are a minority. At the end of the day for me this is a who cares matter. I do however like the fact that Gigabyte has given me the ability to check a BIOS setting from within Windows.
Okay lets sum all this up. If I am building an Intel system I think there is no reason to use any other platform than the Z68 right now. Z68 based boards are going for as little as $90 and as much as $350. Gigabyte, as always is offering a huge range of boards with models ranging in price from $110 to $350 and all manner of features. The UD3H fits right in the middle of that pack with a price tag right now of $169. The board has a great feature set, is well made and looks nice to boot. If the Z68 is the only chip I will use for building an Intel system, the UD3H is currently at the top of my list for boards to choose.
Segment Aired 17 July 2011