The Z68 has been touted as “cougar point done right” and many other things. I have been asked if the Z68 is going to replace the X58 and many other things beside that ever since it came onto the scene. We have taken a theoretical and design look at one Z68 and now we are going to take a look at another. This one is from Gigabyte; the Z68X-UD3H-B3 (we are getting back to the long names again). This board has a more than its share of selling points. It features the new TouchBIOS (also called Hybrid EFI), the usual compliment USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports and of course SLI and crossfire. But there is more to the Z68X-UD3H than just this. We also see that it comes complete with the new VirtuGPU technology from Lucid Driver MOSFETs, and much more. So let’s see what we can find digging into the design and features before we get to the performance numbers in part II.
The Box and Goodies -
Gigabyte has made some great strides in changing their style. It was not that long ago that they were putting out boring old boxes with that terrible reflective coating on it. Now they are making boxes that, if not good looking, are at least easy to look at and read. They have gone a little overboard on the marketing on the front of this box though. The largest logo on the box is the TouchBIOS logo; this is what they are calling the newest version of the EFI BIOS these days. Oddly enough though, the one thing I would have expected to be prominent on the box is almost hidden. This is the Virtu GPU Virtualization technology from Lucid. We saw a demo of this at CES and it was quite impressive. But that is not the only feature that is almost hidden; there is the Intel Smart Response technology, an audio CODEC that is capable of 108db signal to noise ratio for Blu-Ray playback, and support for three terabyte and above hard drives.
The back of the box is even more detailed (pronounce that chaotic) than the front. It has a lot to take in (be happy there is no reflective coating). We have already covered most of the high lights on the front of the box but there are a couple of items that we want to point out. Up at the top of the box there is a small logo showing off the Intersil VRD12 power controller along with a Display Port logo down towards the bottom. Of course there is more, but we will let you have the joy of hunting around the box to find it all.
When we open the box up things look rather empty. I mean you get the things you need to get going; four SATA cables, an SLI bridge, I/O shield, drivers/utility DVD and the usual manuals (don’t forget the stickers).
Board Layout -
The layout of any motherboard is important. Even simple mistakes in component placement or the signal traces can cause major issued in performance and stability. With the ATX form factor we find that this is even truer; the devices we drop onto them demand more and cleaner power while the signal speeds push faster and faster. I love the new look of the Gigabyte motherboards. The flat black PCB along with the black slots and dark grey heat sinks just look cool. We have the same ATX layout that we complain about (but still works) along with the same basic component layout. But like many other things (especially computer components) the devil is in the details.
I guess the area around RAM slots is as good a place as any to start our walk around of the board (not to mention it is where we always start). There is not too much to see here with the exception of the TPM (Trusted Platform Module) header that is between the 24-pin ATX power connector and the RAM slots. This is still sort of funny to me as there are very few TPMs available on the market. In fact in a search for one I could only find two and they were on the pricey side.
Moving on, we head over the to the CPU socket area where we find an interesting array of components along the upper edge of the board. These are normally under better cooling (or in other areas of the board). However… as Gigabyte is using their new Driver MOSFETS (a new IC that combines the traditonal MOSFET and Driver IC) this is not suprising to see. Many things that normally would be lower on the board have been moved up here with the CPU as well. You can just make out two of these in the pictures of the RAM slots; these are the dual BIOS chips. Even with all of this moved up here (OK it is not a lot) Gigabyte still managed to keep things clean up in this area.
By now I am sure you are wondering what in the world that pink foam insert is for. We wondered the same thing and found out that it is there to protect a top heavy heat sink for the power regulation. There were also three capacitors and assorted components there as well. I also get to say that there is plenty of room to plug in the 8-pin aux power connector, Gigabyte even cut out a little from the heatsink to make extra room.
Dropping down to the bottom half of the board we find three PCIe x1 slots and two PCIe x16 mechanical slots. One is x16 electrical and runs at x16 when nothing is in the second slot. The other is x8 only no matter what else is populated. The two PCI 2.1 ports are powered by that giant VIA chip you see at the extreme left of the board. This design choice lets you populate almost all of the slots without losing access to any board level components. This is a very wise choice considering the number of accessories that you do have available on the Z68-UD3H.
Speaking of extras when we flip the board around we find the second of the USB 3.0 controller chips. It is right next to the header for this, now we just need a few cases that have a real front panel header and not the awkward USB cable. We also find another board with seven SATA ports. The two black 90 degree ports and the single vertical port are SATA 2.0 and run from the Cougar Point MCP. The two white ones are the SATA 3.0 ports that are also run from the B3 stepping Cougar Point. The two grey ones that are off to the side are controlled by a Marvell SATA 3.0 controller. This is a pretty cool choice as it gives you a good deal of options and also leaves a SATA II port available for all those cases with front panel eSATA ports.
Gigabyte also made some solid choices when it comes to I/O ports. You get four powered USB ports (that you can use the On/Off Charge with). Gigabyte also made sure they covered all of the video output choices.; you get VGA (15-pin D-Sub), DVI-D, HDMI and Displayport. They round things out with a firewire port, dual USB 3.0 ports, the typical LAN ports and also your fairly standard audio out ports.
In all I like the choices Gigabyte has made with the Z68-UD3H-B3. They seem to offer a good compromise in terms of performance options and available hardware features. Still even with good design choices we need to wait on the performance numbers before we make a final decision (those are in part II coming soon).
In the current market motherboard (and indeed almost all component) performance is very close. The days of a large performance advantage between boards using the same chipset are long gone. That is unless someone makes a HUGE mistake (like runs traces completely wrong). Now, the thing that differentiates different products is the features. These are things like power management, extra slots, better audio CODECs etc. It is these items that R&D teams work so hard to drop into what are really identical pieces of hardware at their most basic level.
Multiple Display options (including Displayport)
3TB Drive support
108db SNR for high quality audio
Virtu GPU Virtualization
Intel Smart Response
Here we have a nice listing of features. The Virtu GPU should be very cool and will offer the best blend of having a high performance GPU (like our HD 5870) and the power of the Intel GPU built into the Sandy Bridge CPU for things like transcoding. The high quality audio CODEC will be important as the market moves towards more and more HD Audio and Video. The Intel Smart Response helps with HDD and overall system performance. The last item that we want to talk about are the Driver MOSFETS; these help by reducing heat output and also reducing the board space needed to place these. This also helps to reduce the complication of the board tracing. Not too shabby really.
In the middle (sort of good) -
eXtreme Hard Drive (X.H.D)
Now here is a nice set of features for out mid-range set. The one that I am still on the fence about is the Cloud OC. I am thinking that if this is aimed at the mid-range market then when is the Cloud OC feature going to be used and by who?
Floor Mats -
Xpress BIOS Rescue
Dynamic Energy Saver™ 2
These are very typical across almost the entire line of Giabyte motherboards. They are nice but as they are part of a general feature set they are not that enticing.
Conclusion Part I -
The Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3 has my curiosity piqued. I like the design choices and some of the new features that they have put into the Z68X-UD3H while the look of the board is very compelling. I will be interested in seeing if we can overload this board with multiple peripherals, but really I am just very interested in seeing how fast the Z68 is. I will say that based on the design philosophy this will in no way be replacing the P67 series or the X58 series. It seems to more the upper mid-range crowd that is looking for a good blend of performance and features.
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