Best Sandy Bridge motherboard: 8 reviewed
25th Sep 2011 | 11:00
Motherboards from £55 to £260 benchmarked
Best Sandy Bridge motherboard
Fact number one. Intel makes the finest PC processors on the planet and has done consistently ever since the first Core 2 chips rolled out way back in summer 2006.
Fact number two. It's still prone to occasional cock-ups. Look no further than the Sandy Bridge chipset debacle.
Funnily enough, we're not talking about the recall of the P67 chipset due to a broken SATA controller, though that was bad enough. Nor are we complaining once about Intel's addiction to pointless new CPU sockets.
Lest you've forgotten, the latest Sandy Bridge processors come a new socket that is different to its predecessor to tune of just one pin and exists, we believe, purely to force punters to upgrade their motherboards.
Nope, the real problems with the initial Sandy Bridge compatible chipsets: the P67 and H67, involve Intel's intriguing Quick Sync video feature and overclocking. In short, you could have support for one, but not the other.
Overclockers had to go with the P67 and discrete graphics, video encoders wanting to make use of Quick Sync needed H67 and had to give up on high-end 3D performance. Locking H67 owners out of most of the overclocking features we can just about understand. It's cynical as hell, but just makes commercial sense.
But not ensuring the Quick Sync transcoder hardware that's in every single Intel Sandy Bridge CPU is always enabled? Well, that's an utterly bizarre oversight.
Pretty soon after the release of the H67 and P67 chipsets, it became apparent Intel was painfully aware of the problems and details of a solution began to leak out. This new chipset was Z68 and on paper at least it brought together the best bits of P67 and H67 along with one or two extras.
The Z68 chipset has now been released, and offers support for both the unlocked CPU cores in the latest Sandy Bridge chips and the HD Graphics on-die GPU and with it Quick Sync video encode acceleration. Of course, none of this is much consolation if you already stumped up the cash for a P67 or H67 motherboard.
Likewise, Z68 boards come at a price premium. But then really good things don't come cheap from Intel. If the Z68 is the answer to all your Intel chipset needs, how exactly does it get the job done?
The most intriguing part of the Z68 package is how it fixes the Quick Sync problem. Quick Sync, of course, is the hardware 2D video acceleration engine found in the new 2000-series Core i3, i5 and i7 Sandy Bridge processors from Intel, the chips otherwise known as Sandy Bridge.
When it comes to number crunching, almost any job can be done quicker with some dedicated circuitry, so that's exactly what Intel has provided for transcoding video. The thing about Quick Sync, however, is that it uses both the dedicated hardware and the graphics processors in the integrated Intel HD Graphics integrated GPU to get the job done. That's important because it means the HD Graphics core must be enabled for Quick Sync to do its transcoding thing.
For the P67 chipset, that's out of the question. It doesn't support the on-die HD Graphics core at all. As for the H67, things are a little more complicated. As good as the HD Graphics 3000 is for an integrated graphics core, serious gaming requires a drop-in video card. Do that, however, and you lose the integrated graphics and in turn Quick Sync video. What a mess.
Enter, then, the angelic Z68 chipset, sent to save our computing souls. On paper, the Z68 does it all. It supports Sandy Bridge's integrated GPU but also has full access to the CPU multipliers that enable overclocking with Intel's latest chips.
However, what the Z68 doesn't immediately seem to deliver is a solution to the problem of keeping Quick Sync ticking over when using a dedicated graphics card.
The answer, remarkably, comes not from Intel itself but from Lucid, a relatively little known outfit that specialises in multi-GPU technology. We've known Lucid for a while thanks to the Hydra chip.
Regular readers will know the Hydra chip allows GPUs from different vendors to work together for better gaming performance. It's a nice idea, not least because it means you no longer have to be locked down to either Nvidia's SLI platform or CrossFire from AMD. It puts the choice and power back where it should be, in the hands of gamers.
Fortunately, however, the solution to the Quick Sync problem isn't the Hydra chip. We say fortunately because adding complexity and cost is never a good idea, especially when the aim is merely to get something working as it should have done in the first place.
Instead, Lucid has come up with a new technology known as Virtu and it's pure software. As the name suggests, the idea here is GPU virtualisation. Just like Hydra, it works by intercepting graphics API calls before they reach the GPUs. With Hydra, the task was load balancing between two data-hungry, high-performance GPUs, hence the need for dedicated hardware.
Virtu is actually somewhat simpler. It aims to match whole applications with GPUs for the best performance. Early versions of Virtu required the PC monitor to be plugged into the motherboard's video socket, presenting problems for people with monitors capable of resolutions beyond 1080p HD (the limit for the motherboard's output).
Lucid has since nixed that restriction, allowing gamers to plug directly into their performance GPUs while keeping Quick Sync enabled. The result is a setup that allows you to seamlessly play games on a powerful video card and code video files on the integrated Intel HD graphics core. Frankly, it's how the platform should have worked in the first place.
Given that Virtu is a software feature, you might wonder whether there's any reason why it shouldn't work with the H67 and also the budget-orientated H61 chipset. The answer is that it does, but there is a problem of software licensing.
To cut a long story short, it's up to motherboard makers to decide exactly how to license Virtu. But one thing is clear. Virtu doesn't work with the P67 chipset.
The Z68's other major new feature is SSD caching, known in Intel-speak as Smart Response Technology. Now, it's an absolute fact that solid state drives (SSDs) make for a faster and more responsive PC compared to ye olde hard drives with spinning magnetic platters. Of course, SSDs are still expensive and not terribly capacious.
But what if you could have the performance of an SSD and capacity of traditional drive for a much smaller premium?
Smart Response works by using a small SSD as a cache drive storing the most frequently accessed data. In theory, if you have all of the most performance-critical data accessible on a compact 20GB SSD, there's no need to pay full whack for a bigger drive. Instead you can plump for a dirt cheap magnetic hard drive for mass storage.
In practice, Smart Response does perform better than a conventional drive. But it's still significantly slower than a stand-alone SSD. So while Smart Response just about adds up with today's SSD pricing, it probably won't be too long before SSDs in the 60GB to 100GB range become affordable enough to make it redundant.
As it happens, Smart Response is also a little like Lucid's Virtu tech in so far as it's a software rather than hardware feature. But since Smart Response is a wholly owned Intel technology, it's not up to motherboard makers to decide which boards to bundle it with. Intel has decreed that it's reserved for Z68 boards regardless of the fact that it would work perfectly well with the existing P67, H67 and H61 chipsets.
All of which makes the Z68 a bit of a mixed bag. In simple hardware terms, it brings nothing new. It's effectively the same chipset as the H67. But courtesy of bringing P67's overclocking chops together with a little help from Lucid to get Quick Sync working properly, the Z68 is undoubtedly the best platform for Sandy Bridge chips.
It's the motherboard chipset Intel should have offered from the very beginning. Better late than never.
But what's the best Intel Sandy Bridge motherboard? We've put eight through their paces to find out.
Intel Z68 motherboard reviews
ASRock Z68 Extreme 4 - £120
ASRock has four Z68 boards in its mobo line-up from the all-singing, all-dancing flagship Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 to the quietly confident Z68 Pro3-M.
We've got two of ASRock's new boards based on this new chipset, the Z68 Pro3 and the fuller featured and newest edition to ASRock's extensive range of boards carrying the Extreme banner, the Z68 Extreme. This sits just under the Fatal1ty Z68 board in the family line-up.
Once everybody discovered the limitations of the Sandy Bridge's launch chipsets; namely the P67's lack of support for the new processor's integrated graphics but lots of overclocking potential and the H67's graphic support but no OC-ability, keen eyes were fixed on the Z68, the next enthusiast/mainstream 6 series chipset on Intel's roadmap.
The Z68 offers the best of both worlds with integrated graphics and overclocking support.
ASRock Z68 Pro3 - £95
ASRock has built up a reputation for building bullet-proof mobos with very competitive price tags and the Z68 Pro 3 certainly isn't a board to let the company down on either score.
It's a bit of a surprise to see a fairly well-featured, mainstream motherboard carrying the latest Intel technology for just over a hundred quid. In our bargain-hunting terms it definitely warrants further investigation. It's so well-priced that it's worth getting if you want a no-nonsense board to try out the Z68 chipset.
It's a board that's pretty hard to look beyond too; the overclocking support of the P67 merged with the integrated graphics support of the H67, Intel's Smart Response Technology (SRT) and Lucid's Virtu software are impressive. The bundled Virtu software lets you use Intel's impressive QuickSync video encoding technology even if you have a discrete graphics card in place, and includes some healthy power-saving functions too.
One look at the board shows you where ASRock has cut the Z68 Pro 3's feature set to get it to this price and its mainstream audience: there's only a single, solitary x16 PCI-e slot. Yes, no CrossFire or SLI support.
Asus RoG Maximus IV Extreme - £260
Should you see Foxconn's H61 as the Fiat 500 of this Sandy Bridge mobo group test then Asus's Maximus Extreme IV has to be the Bugatti Veyron. It's big, brash, crammed full of features and eyewateringly expensive. But then it also comes with blistering performance too.
To say the feature list of the Maximus IV Extreme is good is to do it a disservice. The list seems endless: dual channel DDR3 support up to 2,200MHz (OC), support for 3-way SLI and CrossFireX via four PCI-e slots, four SATA 6Gbps and four SATA 3Gbps and eight USB 3.0 ports on the rear panel – and that's just for starters.
You can run quad-SLI on this board if you fancy, but you'll have to pick up Asus' bizarre plug in daughter board.
Unfortunately, as the board uses the P67 chipset there's no way to access the integrated graphics of the Sandy Bridge processors but on the flip side it fully supports the overclocking capabilities of the K series Sandy Bridge CPU's. And that's what this board's all about: straight-line performance.
Asus P8Z68-V Pro - £147
One of the first Z68 boards to break cover was the P8Z68-V Pro and it's a typical Asus board, well-built and packed to the gills with features. Intel's Z68 is the missing link between the Integrated Graphics Processor (IGP) support of the H67 and the overclocking potential of the P67 chipsets, and is a neat hybrid of the two.
You'll still need a K series processor to do the overclocking bit, but you can now overclock and use Intel's rather good Quick Sync video encoding technology with a discrete GPU plugged in too.
It, therefore, seems a bit subdued of Asus to have only five board's based around the new chipset, with two of these being in the all-singing, all-dancing Republic Of Gamers family.
If you are familiar with Asus motherboard's you might be saying to yourself: "Hang on a minute, isn't that a P8P67 Pro?" Well, yes the boards are very similar in appearance but Asus has tweaked a few things here and there, and moved components around and bringing in new ones.
Foxconn H61MX - £56
At the top end of the Intel 6 series, Sandy Bridge-supporting, chipset range there's the mighty Z68 which powers some of the most powerful and expensive motherboards around, while at the other of the scale sits the lowly, value-oriented H61.
It may be low in performance and support less built-in features compared to its flashier siblings, but in the eyes of the mobo manufacturers it is the real star of the chipset line-up as it's pitched at the end of the market where boards are made cheaply and sold by the boat load.
The H61 is a seriously pared- and cutdown version of the H67 chipset. With only the elder-statesmen of interfaces on offer: SATA 3Gbps and USB 2.0 port support, it's an ideal low-cost platform for entry level PCs.
Foxconn's H61MX doesn't add many other features over what's supplied by the chipset, and what it has added looks like it's mostly looking to the corporate market rather than the home user.
This may explain why the board has the added cost of a header for a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) and a couple of straight PCI slots which need a third party controller (the chipset doesn't natively support PCI) rather than adding a couple more video outputs other than the VGA and DVI.
Gigabyte H67MA-UD2H - £95
The H67 chipset may not have the overclocking capability of its performance sibling, the P67 but with its full support for the integrated graphics of Sandy Bridge processors it makes an ideal base to build a powerful home theatre PC. This hasn't gone unnoticed by mobo manufacturers as most, if not all, have H67-based microATX form factor board ranges; the format most used in HTPCs.
There once was a time when the microATX format was seen as the poor relation to full-sized ATX boards, but one one look at the feature-rich Gigabyte H67MA-UD2H tells you that those days are long gone. With its full HD and Blu-ray movie playback support, thanks to an integrated HMDI 1.4 video output, and support for Dolby Home Theater sound, the H67MA-UD2H is an ideal candidate for that powerful media PC.
On the performance side of things the H67MA-UD2H is stifled somewhat by the lack of overclocking support on the CPU side, and the chipset only supports DDR3 memory up to 1,333MHz. But then again no one would buy a H67-based board for performance; it's all about the multimedia support the boards bring thanks to the chipset.
Gigabyte Z68XP-UD3-ISSD - £202
Gigabyte has wasted no time in producing boards using the new chipset, in fact you could say they have gone slightly overboard with the excitement of it all, as they have no less that 20 motherboards currently in their line-up.
That said it has almost entirely pulled out of the P67 platform, seeing the Z68 as its demise. The plan is to only produce one P67 mobo going forward.
Sitting amongst the awkwardly named Z68 line-up though are five boards (GA-Z68XP-UD3, GA-Z68XP-D3, GA-Z68AP-D3, GA-Z68P-DS3 GAZ68XP-UD3-iSSD) which all have one thing in common; they are the first desktop boards to be fitted with mSATA connections on the PCB.
This allows the mounting of a small form factor SSD to work alongside Intel's Smart Response Technology (SRT) and of the five, only the GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD comes with a drive already in place. The drive bundled with the board comes in the shape of one of Intel's new 20GB MLC 311 series SSDs.
MSI Z68A-GD65 - £150
No look at any new motherboard technology would be complete without at least one example from MSI. Strangely, when you look on MSI's global website there are seven boards using Z68 but on the UK site there's just this solitary example: the Z68A-GD65 (B3). It's just as well it's a well-featured board then.
Just like the Asus P8Z68-V Pro there is more than a passing resemblance to a previous MSI P67 board; in this case the P67A-GD65. It comes with all the goodies found on MSI's better equipped boards: OC Genie II, Military Class components in the power design, APS (Active Phase Switching) Click BIOS and MSI's UEFI BIOS with its large easy to use interface.
For the time being MSI has all its UK motherboard eggs in this one basket, so how's the weave? MSI defiantly had the enthusiast in mind when it designed Z68A-GD65.
It has some features on the board that only they could appreciate; for example there is a check point block to take direct measurements of various voltages the board is using via a probe. On the bottom edge of the board there are a couple of large power and reset buttons for use with an open case or test bench.
TechRadar Labs becnhmarks
With so much of the logic traditionally housed on the northbridge being shifting over to the CPU, the real-world performance differences between these motherboards can initially seem subtle.
Indeed, at stock speeds there's not a lot to separate them in gaming, video encoding or rendering. The devil, as ever, is in the details.
Take a look at the overclocking potential and power consumption and you'll see light between the best boards and those that are simply average.
And the best Intel Z68 motherboard is… ASRock Z68 Pro3
So was the Z68 worth waiting for? Well, in a word yes. In fact a very big yes. So much so that if the debacle over the SATA 3Gbps fault in the original P67 chipset was worth giving the last rites to the P67, then the Z68 has nailed the coffin firmly shut.
The new chipset is what the P67 should have been to start with: a high-end/performance chipset that supported both Intel's iGPU and some CPU overclocking chops too. The Z68 chipset though also brings with it a couple of interesting technologies.
Z is for za-za-zoom
As well as the Lucid Virtu tech there's Intel's Smart Response Technology (SRT) a fancy name for SSD caching. It's a great idea and it works well although it does take a while before the files get cached.
A bigger fly in the ointment is the availability of cheap, low-capacity SSDs which are pretty thin on the ground. That's where Gigabyte's Z68XP-UD3-iSSD settles into its own little niche outside of the rest of the boards in the test. Coming with a 20GB Intel SSD for just another £50, over equivalent Z68 boards makes it worth a look if the SRT tech floats your boat but the cost of SSDs doesn't.
Now with the arrival of the Z68 chipset the question is whether you should you even bother looking at a P67 board if you are in the market to upgrade? Unless you're a serious gamer then the answer is definitely no.
If you've been holding out against the switch to a Sandy Bridge board because of worries about the P67, then worry no more, go for Z68.
So which out the motherboards we've reviewed should stand on top of the podium?
Starting at the value end of things, the only thing we can say about the Foxconn H61MX is that it's a Sandy Bridge board for just £60. There's a good reason for that: it's very, very basic.
If you don't need overclocking then stretch the budget to get Gigabyte's H67MA-UD2H, which is £30 more but the user experience is much better.
If money is no object and integrated graphics aren't of interest but lots of overclocking options are and more features than you can shake a stick at then the mighty Maximus Extreme IV is the perfect choice. Until we get hold of Asus' RoG Z68 board this is still as good as it gets for the Sandy Bridge gamer.
All of which just leaves us with the Z68 boards. Gigabyte's Z68XP-UD3-iSSD is the most expensive but with a 20GB SSD built-in it's hardly surprising.
Both the MSI Z68A-GD65 and the Asus P8Z68-V Pro are well-featured, well-performing boards but we can't help but be drawn to the two ASRock offerings. The Extreme 4 has a decent feature list for not much money, but our bouquet winner is the ASRock Z68 Pro 3.
It may not be as feature-rich as some of the other motherboards, but if you want to try out Intel's new chipset, the Pro 3 will set you back just under a hundred quid. To show how good a deal that is, it's only a tenner more than Gigabyte's H67MA-UD2H.
First published in PC Format Issue 256
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