Introduction and the Z68 Chipset
We’ve already covered the Z68 chipset in depth here, so we won’t get too heavy on the details again in this roundup, but an overview of the chipset is warranted. With the Z68, Intel has produced a successor to the P67 and H67 chipsets that takes the best of both and adds a few new features. In addition to support for the entire family of 2nd-gen Intel Core chips with Turbo Boost 2.0, the Z68 chipset supports Intel High Definition Audio, 8 PCI-Express 2.0 lanes (16 more in the CPU), 6 SATA ports (2 x 6Gbps, 4 x 3Gbps), integrated Gigabit MAC, 14 USB ports, and support for a smattering of audio/visual ports including HDMI and DisplayPort.
In the Sandy Bridge architecture, the CPU itself does a lot of the heavy lifting, with integrated graphics, 16 lanes of PCI-Express 2.0 connectivity, and a dual-channel DDR3 memory controller all on-die. The CPU communicates with the Z68 itself via a 20Gbps interface. dubbed DMI.
eVGA's Z68 FTW, just one of the Magnificent 7 we tested...
Two other features are at the forefront of most Z68-chipset related news: Intel Smart Response Technology and LucidLogix’ Virtu GPU software. The latter essentially enables Intel’s integrated graphics to work with a discrete GPU while still being able to take advantage of IIntel's Quick Sync video transcoding technology by virtualizing the GPUs. All but the ZOTAC board in this roundup included a copy of Virtu. You can read more in depth about the technology here.
Finally, one of the more exciting feature of the Z68 chipset is Intel Smart Response Technology, which lets users create a hybrid storage configuration with an SSD acting as a dedicated, low-latency cache for a slower bulk storage hard drive. The most frequently-used data blocks will reside on the SSD, giving the system an overall boost with fast random access. The SSD must be 18GB to 64GB in size, but the hard drive can be any capacity.