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So far, ASRock has released three motherboards based on the new Intel Z68 chipset, two for the mainstream market (Z68 Pro3 and Z68 Pro3-M, which is a microATX version of the Z68 Pro3), and one for the high-end market (Z68 Extreme4). While the Z68 Extreme4 offers three PCI Express x16 slots, the Z68 Pro3 has only one. Let’s take a look at this model from ASRock.
The Intel Z68 chipset is basically a P67 chipset with two new features added. First is the Intel Smart Response Technology (SRT), which allows you to speed up disk performance by using an SSD unit as a cache unit for your conventional (i.e., mechanical) hard disk drive. This technology works by storing in the SSD the programs and data you access the most.
The second technology that was added is a video connection between the CPU and the chipset, called FDI (Flexible Display Interface). This connection was previously available on the H67 and similar chipsets but not on the P67 chipset. Socket LGA1155 processors have an integrated video processor, but the P67 chipset won’t allow you to use it since it is targeted to users who will use a physical video card. With the Z68, the use of an integrated video processor is possible if the motherboard manufacturer added video connectors on the motherboard. This way, Intel won’t be releasing an “H68” chipset.
The big reason for this change was that Intel licensed a software from Lucidlogix called Virtu, which allows the computer to dynamically switch video cards depending on what you are doing with your computer. In a typical scenario, this software will make the system use the CPU’s integrated video engine when you are not playing games, turning your add-on video card completely off, and then turning on your add-on video card and turning off the CPU integrated video when you run games. By keeping your video card completely turned off when you are not playing games, you can save a lot of energy. For this feature to be available on a given Z68 motherboard, the motherboard manufacturer must have licensed the Virtu software.
All three models currently offered by ASRock support Virtu, which is great.
The ASRock Z68 Pro3 is a full-ATX model, and ASRock offers a microATX version of this product, called Z68 Pro3-M.
The ASRock Z68 Pro3 comes with one PCI Express x16 slot, three PCI Express x1 slots, and two standard PCI slots. The presence of only one PCI Express x16 slot makes this motherboard clearly targeted to the mainstream user.
If you install a dual-slot video card in the PCI Express x16 slot, you will “kill” one of the PCI Express x1 slots.
It is important to understand that Intel chipsets no longer support standard PCI slots, and the PCI slots are provided by an ASMedia ASM1083 bridge chip.
[nextpage title=”Memory Support”]
Intel socket LGA1155 CPUs have an embedded memory controller, meaning that it is the processor – and not the chipset – that defines what memory technologies and the maximum amount of memory you can have. The motherboard, however, may have a limitation as to how much memory can be installed.
The integrated memory controller from socket LGA1155 processors supports only DDR3 memories up to 1,333 MHz under dual-channel architecture, but ASRock says the Z68 Pro3 supports memory up to 2,133 MHz through overclocking.
The ASRock Z68 Pro3 has four memory sockets and, since DDR3 memory modules can now be found in capacities up to 8 GB, you can have up to 32 GB with this motherboard, if you use four 8 GB modules.
The first and third sockets are white, while the second and fourth are blue. In order to achieve the maximum performance, you should install two or four memory modules in order to enable dual-channel architecture. When only two modules are used, install them in the white sockets; otherwise, your computer won’t turn on.
[nextpage title=”On-Board Peripherals”]
The Intel Z68 chipset is a single-chip solution, and is also known as PCH (Platform Controller Hub). This chip supports two SATA-600 ports and four SATA-300 ports, supporting RAID (0, 1, 5 and 10). The SATA ports are located at one of the corners of the motherboard, so a video card won’t block them. Being a mainstream product, it doesn’t come with additional SATA-600 or eSATA ports.
There is no support for a floppy disk drive controller or an ATA-133 port.
This motherboard has eight USB 2.0 ports, four soldered on the rear panel and four available through two headers located on the motherboard. It also has two USB 3.0 ports, available on the motherboard rear panel and controlled by an EtronTech EJ168A chip.
There are no FireWire ports.
This motherboard supports 7.1+2 audio format, i.e., eight channels plus two independent channels for audio streaming. On this motherboard, the audio is generated by the chipset using a Realtek ALC892 codec. Finally, Realtek is disclosing the specifications of this chip, which include 97 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog outputs, 90 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog inputs, and up to 192 kHz sampling rate for both inputs and outputs. These specs are good for the mainstream user, but if you are looking into working professionally with audio editing, you should look for a motherboard that provides an SNR of at least 97 dB for the analog input.
The portrayed motherboard comes with shared analog audio outputs. This means that if you install an analog 7.1 speaker set you will have to use the line in or the mic in jack, “killing” one of these inputs. An analog 5.1 speaker set can be used without “killing” these inputs. The board has a digital SPDIF output, and digital audio is also available through the on-board HDMI connector. You can either install a coaxial SPDIF jack or route digital audio to your video card to have digital audio in the HDMI connector using the available “HDMI_SPDIF1” header.
This motherboard has one Gigabit Ethernet port, controlled by a Realtek RTL8111E chip.
In Figure 5, you can see the motherboard rear panel, with PS/2 keyboard connector, four USB 2.0 ports, VGA output, DVI-D output, HDMI output, two USB 3.0 ports (blue), Gigabit Ethernet port, optical SPDIF output, and shared 7.1 analog audio outputs.
[nextpage title=”Other Features”]
The ASRock Z68 Pro3 has other smaller yet important features. It has an infrared circuit, so if you want to have infrared communication (e.g., install a remote control), you will only need to buy the receiver/transmitter module and install it on the available header on the motherboard.
The Z68 Pro3 comes with a legacy serial port, available on the “COM1” header. You will have to buy an adapter if you want to have this port available.
On this motherboard, you can install CPU coolers originally designed for the socket LGA775 platform, thanks to the presence of supporting holes compatible with this kind of CPU cooler. See Figure 6.
In Figure 7, you can see all the accessories that come with this motherboard.
[nextpage title=”Voltage Regulator”]
The CPU voltage regulator circuit of the Z68 Pro3 has four phases for the CPU main voltage (Vcc a.k.a. Vcore), one for the CPU VTT voltage (integrated memory controller and L3 memory cache), and one for the CPU VAXG voltage (integrated video controller). Therefore, it uses a “4+1+1” configuration. This is a very basic configuration, matching the market segment to which this motherboard is targeted.
Although the number of power phases is reduced, the ASRock Z68 Pro3 uses good components, including solid capacitors, ferrite-core coils (lower energy loss, which improves efficiency), and low RDS(on) transistors (higher efficiency). The voltage regulator for the memory and chipset voltages also uses these better-quality components.
If you want to learn more about the voltage regulator circuit, please read our tutorial on the subject.
[nextpage title=”Overclocking Options”]
The ASRock Z68 Pro3 offers some overclocking options, listed below (1.0 BIOS):
- CPU ratio: From x16 to x60 in x1 steps (for unlocked CPUs)
- CPU base clock: From 95 MHz to 110 MHz in 1 MHz steps
- CPU core voltage: From 0.725 V to 1.520 V in 0.005 V steps
- CPU core voltage offset: From -0.300 V to +0.500 V in 0.005 V steps
- CPU VTT voltage: From 0.768 V to 1.634 V in 0.009 V steps
- CPU PLL voltage: From 1.548 V to 2.310 V in 0.008 V steps
- GPU voltage: From 0.600 V to 1.520 V in 0.02 V steps
- GPU voltage offset: From -0.150 V to +0.300 V in 0.005 V steps
- System agent voltage (VCCSA): From 0.925 V to 1.200 V in 0.093 V steps
- Chipset voltage (“PCH”): From 0.780 V to 1.646 V in 0.010 V steps
- Memory voltage: From 1.201 V to 1.800 V in 0.015 V steps
For a better understanding what these options do, please read our Understanding All Voltage Configurations from the Motherboard tutorial.
[nextpage title=”Main Specifications”]
The main specifications for the ASRock Z68 Pro3 motherboard include:
- Socket: 1155
- Chipset: Intel Z68 Express
- Super I/O: Nuvoton NCT6776F
- Parallel ATA: None
- Serial ATA: Four SATA-300 and two SATA-600 ports controlled by the chipset (RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10)
- External SATA: None
- USB 2.0: Eight USB 2.0 ports, four soldered on the motherboard rear panel and four available through two headers on the motherboard
- USB 3.0: Two ports soldered on the motherboard rear panel and controlled by an EtronTech EJ168A chip
- FireWire (IEEE 1394): None
- On-board video: Yes, controlled by the CPU, HDMI and DVI-D connectors supporting Lucidlogix Virtu technology
- On-board audio: Produced by the chipset together with a Realtek ALC892 codec (eight channels, 24-bit resolution, up to 192 KHz sampling rate for both the inputs and outputs, 90 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the inputs and 97 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the outputs), on-board optical SPDIF output
- On-board LAN: One Gigabit Ethernet port controlled by a Realtek RTL8111E chip
- Buzzer: No
- Infrared interface: Yes
- Power supply required: EPS12V
- Slots: One PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot, three PCI Express x1 slots, and two standard PCI slots (ASMedia ASM1083 bridge chip)
- Memory: Four DDR3-DIMM sockets (up to 32 GB, up to DDR3-2133)
- Fan connectors: One four-pin connector for the CPU cooler, one four-pin connector for an auxiliary fan, and four three-pin connectors for auxiliary fans
- Extra Features: Support for socket LGA775 CPU coolers, legacy serial port
- Number of CDs/DVDs provided: One
- Programs included: Motherboard utilities
- More Information: https://www.asrock.com
- Average price in the US*: USD 130.00
* Researched at Newegg.com on the day we published this First Look article.[nextpage title=”Conclusions”]
The ASRock Z68 Pro3 is a great mainstream motherboard based on the new Intel Z68 chipset. It has everything the average user needs today, including Virtu and Smart Response Technology, at a terrific price.
Of course, if you want more SATA-600 ports, USB 3.0 ports, PCI Express x16 slots, and overclocking options, and/or a better voltage regulator circuit, you will need to pay more and get a more expensive product.