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[nextpage title=”Introduction”]

Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPUs have breathed new life into the computer industry by providing an incredibly fast and smart processor that can appeal to mainstream users by condensing and simplifying a lot of options. The biggest barrier to entry in the PC realm has been the complexity issue, and this was definitely a step in the right direction. However, this was not something everyone was too happy about, as many enthusiasts disliked the way Intel had limited overclockability by only allowing K-series CPUs to be modified, and even then, were limited to the very basic of options.

(My personal opinion is that Intel has brought overclocking down to a wider audience – and this is good news for those of us in the motherboard industry, as we can widen the demographic and present enthusiast options in a ‘step-up’ process that can keep us in business. This will be the subject of my next editorial.)

The biggest notable change to the Intel CPU is the addition of the on-chip GPU, eliminating the need for some users to purchase a separate card just for display purposes. Unlike previous iGPUs which were a part of the motherboard, Sandy Bridge’s integrated GPU is actually quite good (equivalent to a Radeon 5xxx) and provides a few practical benefits for most users, such as being optimized for HD playback, transcoding and casual gaming. Going forward, expect all CPUs to have some form of integrated GPU, eliminating the low-end graphics card segment completely (and being a serious threat to some companies’ bottom line!).

The only limitation on this is that you cannot use this feature with the higher-end P6x boards and MUST use the H6x series, which are typically mid-range at best. Generally speaking, this makes sense as an enthusiast would rather use a discrete GPU to provide additional performance, while the microATX form factor of the H6x allows a bit more flexibility.

[nextpage title=”A Surprising Addition”]

When Intel announced the Z68 chipset on their roadmap, I remember being extremely confused on the purpose of the platform and why someone would need the ability to use the onboard GPU and discrete GPU – especially after all the reviews and testing showed they could not switch from one to another. Z68 was essentially just an ‘unlocked’ chipset that provides the benefits of both P67 and H67 boards – little did I know they had more in store.

LucidLogix (the company known best for their HYDRA technology) recently announced their new VIRTU software, which provides a switching capability from iGPU to discrete (based on what you are doing). I’ve personally loved this idea from where it was introduced on laptops by NVIDIA, called Optimus. It allows your laptop to generate less heat and save on battery life by DYNAMICALLY switching between the two graphics sources to provide the best balance. Now, I don’t know about you guys, but my PC is pretty powerful yet it radiates heat like crazy. I don’t want my GTX 480 doubling as a heater for my room, so I’d love to see this ability available to desktop users. It just seems like a logical solution, right?

Well, it looks like we’re going to be getting it – on the latest Z68 motherboards that should be rolling out about the time you read this. So that answers my concern regarding the whole purpose of Z68 (or rather, why even bother with P67 when Z68 does that AND more) – but the benefits of this new chip don’t just stop there.

[nextpage title=”What on Earth is SSD Caching?”]

I found myself asking that above question to many people to no avail around the first time I was doing my research on Z68. I had assumed just from the name alone, this was a feature that meant having a Z68 board would probably benefit more from having an SSD drive over a traditional platter drive. And hey, I was half right; but you just need one SSD (bootable drive) and then your traditional huge storage drive for your data.

SSD Caching is officially named Intel Smart Response Technology (henceforth named SRT), which is used to cache frequently used applications on your SSD to improve system performance and responsiveness by up to 4x the speed of traditional HDD-only systems. That was literally me cutting and pasting the official wording, so I will just break it down to laymen’s terms.

Your PC will cache your most commonly used applications from your HDD to your SSD in order to load up faster. The SRT is supposed to monitor what programs you load most and prioritize them accordingly. This works excellently for games, Photoshop, or any other program that requires access to a lot of HDD files in a short period of time. So utilizing this hybrid setup along with SRT is the closest thing to “overclocking” your hard drive. Due to SSD size limitations, and most people already using this SSD+HDD setup, this technology just makes it even better.

(Side note: If you have not experienced the difference it makes to use an SSD as a bootable drive, I highly suggest you invest in a 64 GB one and use any other combinations of HDDs for data. It is ridiculously fast and the most notable upgrade you’ll see in a long time.)

[nextpage title=”How Do I Know Which Z68 Board is Good for Me?”]

I work for a motherboard manufacturer and have learned there is no point in trying to persuade one user who is a fan of brand X to switch over to brand Y. All I want people to do is research with an open mind and ensure they buy what is best for them – not everyone needs to spend USD 200 on a motherboard, but all the added features could provide you value you won’t find elsewhere! With that said, always look at the specs for what you will use – and for the Z68 that will come down to the display ports (for VIRTU).

Does the board you may be purchasing have the correct outputs? We’ve seen some upcoming Z68 boards from competitors who do not have ANY video outputs on their high end boards, which not only completely diminishes the value of the platform, but more importantly causes confusion for the end user. You will read reviews of the chipset, go buy a mid- to high-end board and find that you cannot take advantage of all the great new technologies that were advertised. So, check the specs and then do some research on the features (and that they are even included!). With performance being a non-factor between individual boards, it all comes down to what individual features will benefit you. And if you ever need help on that, just ask – I can provide you all the links you need to help you on your way.

Feel free to ask any questions or leave comments – I will gladly answer them and look forward to hearing your thoughts on this editorial.