Tag Archives | z68 motherboard

SSD Caching – an Overview

So the Z68 chipset introduced the interesting addition of ‘ssd caching’ to the motherboard. I just wanted to take a quick look at the SSD caching and hopefully clarify it’s functionality and why you may or may not want to utilize it.

On RAM – as SSD caching and RAM is a similar functionality. The system uses RAM to temporarily store currently used programs – the reason is that RAM has a much much higher data transfer rate than a hard drive – but is vastly more expensive in terms of $/size. RAM is also not permanent – once the RAM no longer is receiving power, it loses the data. Solid State is a cross between a High Density Disk (standard disk based hard drive) and RAM. It has much higher transfer rates than an HDD, but keeps information after power is no longer being supplied.

So the standard operation of the system: Programs being accessed by the system are temporarily loaded into RAM, where the processor can quickly access information.

SSD Caching is in similar function to this, where the SSD sits between the HDD and the RAM. When freshly starting out, the SSD will be completely empty. Upon first load, the system will load the OS onto the SSD to be accessed directly from there. Unlike RAM, however, on restart and shut down the OS will remain on the SSD – so subsequent restarts will be much quicker. The same goes for the programs you use – upon startup of a program it will be first loaded onto the SSD and then subsequent access of that program will have SSD speed (as if it were installed on the SSD). So in general, your frequently accessed programs will be sitting on the SSD – depending on the size of the SSD they would only fall off if you have a habit of using a lot of different programs. If the SSD fills up, the ssd caching program will start clearing programs from the SSD.

This allows for the same loading speed in OS and programs as if you had everything installed on the SSD – after the initial load. The benefit being that you can get a smaller SSD (20-40GB) at a lower cost ($80-$100ish) vs acquiring a larger SSD (120-240GB) at a higher price ($250-$500). Going larger than 40 GB is not necessary, but it’s good to know that Intel has limited the max cache size to 64 GB. In any case, at this size and higher it may be better to simply have your OS and programs just installed on the SSD – depending on how much you have.

All that being said, the current trend of SSDs and pricing will probably see easily affordable SSDs in the 100GB+ range – making SSD caching obsolete.

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Choosing a Z68 Motherboard for Gaming

People will often ask, “what is the best motherboard?” That might seem like an obvious question to ask – and 10 years ago that was certainly a more important question to ask – but these days manufacturer quality has increased quite a bit, and figuring out the ‘best motherboard’ is not such a clear process. Aside from figuring out good manufacturers to purchase from, there are so many different options for different objectives that there is no one best motherboard. I definitely have a recommendation, but that doesn’t mean that making a different choice is going to be bad.

Now we are looking at the Z68 motherboard offerings, and we can see that there are a number of quality options. For the key elements of the Z68 chipset, see my previous article ‘The Z68 Chipset – What it Means to Gamers.’ In this article, I am going to go over some Z68 motherboard offerings from the three major motherboard manufacturers as they stand today. As you may have noticed from previous articles, I tend to prefer motherboards made by Asus. Not only do they consistently present a high level a quality in performance, they also present a high level of quality in workmanship – as well as customer service. Check out my article on motherboards – The Motherboard: Lifeblood of the Computer – as to why I think the way I do about this.

That being said, there are three major manufacturers today that provide high performance motherboards at high quality. You would not be making an error of judgment by choosing boards from any of these manufacturers, though I will still make one ultimate recommendation. The three manufacturers are Gigabyte, ASRock, and Asus. In this article, I will be looking at Z68 motherboard offerings in the $200 range – these will roughly correspond with the P67 motherboard offerings which are now in the $170 range. All of these boards utilize a UEFI over the traditional BIOS (basically a BIOS with a much more user friendly UI).

 

ASRock LGA1155/ Intel Z68/ DDR3/ Quad CrossFireX & Quad SLI/ SATA3&USB3.0/ A&V&GbE/ ATX Motherboard, Z68 EXTREME4 Choosing a Z68 Motherboard for Gaming
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  • Allows SLI/Crossfire at 8x/8x and 8x/8x/4x.
  • 12 phase voltage regulator is excellent for overclocking – and for the non overclocking means less stress from power over the lifetime of the board.
  • 2 year manufacturers warranty.
  • Less USB 2.0 ports than typical, to make space for video output – this is seen in the Gigabyte board as well, with Asus removing a PS/2 port.

Gigabyte Intel Z68 ATX DDR3 2133 LGA 1155 Motherboards GA-Z68X-UD3H-B3 Choosing a Z68 Motherboard for Gaming
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  • Gigabyte makes up for the reduced usb ports by adding more internal ports (so you can add expansion bays connecting to the internal connectors, if you have a lot of USB devices) – 8 usb 2 ports and 4 usb 3 ports internal.
  • Only supports SLI/Crossfire at 8x/x8, there is no third video card slot.
  • Seven phase voltage regulator – the least of the three.
  • Three year manufacturer Warranty.

ASUS LGA 1155 SATA 6Gbps USB 3.0 Supported Intel Z68 ATX DDR3 2400 Motherboards P8Z68-V PRO Choosing a Z68 Motherboard for Gaming
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  • No PS/2 port. If you still use a PS/2 keyboard, then you would have to get a cable to switch to usb (they are cheap) – I actually still use an old keyboard, because it just won’t break.
  • Allows SLI at 8x/8x, and 8x/8x/4x with a catch. With the one slot set at 4x, you have to disable the two 1x pcie slots and the two front panel usb3 ports. At first glance this sounds like a bum wrap, but there are a couple ways to look at this: if you intend on using three video cards, then I would recommend going for a much higher level of motherboard – also the chances of requiring two 1x pci slots, 4 usb 3.0 slots, and an x4 pcie slot is minimal – the only thing requiring an x4 pcie slot is going to be a 3rd video card, any other pci board can utilize 1x with no problems.
  • So why go with this board? Aside from being at the top of the benchmarks, this board comes with a 16 phase voltage regulator, which is quite impressive at this level.
  • Three Year manufacturer warranty.

So with the details aside, it comes down to the benchmarks. As you can see from Tom’s Hardware’s benchmarking reviews – all three of these motherboards are pretty much in line, and also in line with the Asus P8P67 Deluxe which was used for comparison. Gigabyte does well, but not as well as the other two. Toms recommends the ASRock, due to the Asus board requiring special settings for the third video slot. My opinion of that is previously stated, and I see the Asus Z68 motherboard as the best motherboard purchase – their history of quality and customer service brings them over top of the other two options. Again, the motherboard is the lifeblood of the computer, so it isn’t the place to sacrifice any level of quality just to save a few $$.

I’ve also updated my mid-range build page with the P8Z68-V Pro motherboard.  Before you make a decision, be sure to read my Z68 Chipset article, as it will make clear for you whether you should acquire a Z68 Board or a P67 board – you will see both options on the Mid Range page.

 

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The Z68 Chipset – What it means to Gamers

The Z68 chipset was the long awaited update to the Sandy Bridge offerings earlier this year. The Z68 chipset essentially combined both the P67 and H67 chipsets into one ultimate offering. How does this all stack up for the gamer however? I’ve taken a look at what Z68 has to offer and I am going to take this article as an opportunity to explain the two main new features that are available. There are two main components that come with the Z68 chipset – in conjunction with the ability to overclock – that are not available on either of the previous systems.

The first component is that of the onboard video. While this was avilable with the H67 chipset, there is a new interface available with the Z68 chipset. The problem with the H67 is that you were not able to overclock your system – this was limited to the P67, which is why that has been my recommendation for the mid range build. This proves to be problematic for the enthusiast, the gamer, and anyone who wishes to procure maximum value for their purchase. As you may know, I prefer to acquire systems which can be overclocked because it provides future value for the system – when your system finally starts to reach a wall in performance, you have the ability to expand upon it’s performance ceiling and increase the life duration of your system, which naturally increases the value of your purchase. The second component – which turns out to be the more important component for gamers – is SSD caching.

Lets first take a look at the onboard video, why it is important. Long story short, there is a 3rd party program made by Lucidlogix which comes with the Z68 motherboards called Virtu. This program acts as an intermediary layer between the video processes and the video cards, and delegates the video processes to either the discrete video card, or the on board video card depending upon which will be able to handle the process better (and your settings). Ultimately, in terms of 3D performance in games, this has no effect. There are different opinions that float around with regard to this feature. If you read about this being a detriment to 3D games, it is likely due to an early implementation of the technology which forced all video processing through this. The current implementation allows the processes only for applications which you designate (such as video watching applications or video processing applications).

Tom’s Hardware has done hard fact checking on this and the benchmarks go to show that Virtu, when set up properly, has no effect upon video game performance. What you may wish to have this feature for, however, is a marked increase in video WATCHING performance, and video processing performance. So if you use your system as a multimedia machine in addition to game playing – such as watching HD movies – then having those processes offloaded to the on board video (which is better at handling these types of video processing than a discrete 3d graphic card), then you will notice a better performance increase there.

The second main feature unique to the Z68 is SSD caching. This feature alone makes Z68 worth it – provided you are willing to invest an extra $120 into a decent SSD. In the short of it, the SSD caching feature turns your SSD drive into an intermediary between the RAM and the HDD. Instead of dropping $500 on a large SSD, you can pay only a fraction of that, and get most of the benefits. What SSD caching does, is it takes data chunks of the most often used programs and stores them on the SSD, to be referenced by the system – this drastically reduces loading times of often used programs).

In essence, this gives you the loading performance of having programs installed on an SSD, without the need to purchase a much larger SSD to accomplish this.

Anadtech did an excellent analysis by numbers of the benefits over a series of programs, from Adobe suite to games. Many of the programs – after being loaded into the cache – proceed to run just as fast as if they were installed on an SSD themselves. The only drawback is that they need to be loaded on the SSD initially by the caching system – and if you have a spate of running a dozen programs, you may knock some off the SSD (depending on the SSD size). This feature provides a significant mark of improvement in performance for a variety of games and overall system performance. You can see the charts by Anantech here, where you will notice the speed improvements for software loading, and especially in game level loading for games like Starcraft 2 and World of Warcraft.

The long and short of it all is that Z68 provides two very unique features which provide benefits that to some people will be a tremendous value, while to others won’t provide anything at all. The SSD feature for example, won’t provide you any benefit if you do not wish to purchase an SSD that is needed to act as the cache. While the overall savings can be easily be in the $400 range (over getting a large SSD), you still need to invest an extra $120ish to get a smaller SSD for the cache. The same sort of thing goes for the on board GPU with Virtu switching technology. IF you do not watch a lot of HD videos and you have no intention of doing any sort of video transcoding, then you wouldn’t see a marked increase in performance over a P67 system. As far as that feature goes, the performance difference of a 3d game between a P67 system and a Z68 system is negligible.

All in all, if you currently have a system built around the P67 chipset, I would recommend not upgrading unless that is something you can budget for. The performance increase in terms of the Virtu technology is not worth that upgrade, and as far as the SSD caching goes, one might as well buy a larger SSD (vs upgrading the motherboard and then purchasing a smaller SSD) and have good investment there – saving your motherboard upgrade for the next tech in a years time.

In terms of gaming, both of these features have little impact upon in-game performance – aside from significant load-time improvement (which can be desirable).

If however, you do not have a Sandy Bridge system built, and you are looking for ideas, I highly recommend looking at the Z68 chipset. Consider whether you would want to take advantage of SSD caching, or if you would rather purchase a full sized SSD – where you would have programs installed directly on the SSD and would have no need for the caching. If you do any kind of video work like I do, then the Z68 board could help you in other ways. As far as gaming goes, you cant go wrong with either the P67 or the Z68 – the choice will be entirely dependent upon your usage.

As an update to this article, on April 8th, 2012 we will be welcoming the Maho Bay platform, which features Ivy Bridge and the Panther Point chipsets.  The information as of this time indicates to us that the Panther Point chipsets all include SSD caching and on board video.  This opens up the options for these features.  In addition, the Z77 will fully support PCIe 3.0, and have native USB 3.0 (currently only certain Z68 motherboards support PCIe 3.0).  Check my most recent article featuring an overview on the Z77 chipset.

I hope that this article has given you the understanding to see how your system usage may or may not fit with the new Z68 chipset. In the next article, I will give a short summary of the different manufacturers main Z68 motherboard offerings, and my recommendation for the mid system build. On a separate note, the lapse in updates over this summer has been due to a change in career for me, along with some long term out of state projects and a move. I fully intend on keeping this site up to date from now going forth, and I hope that my views and interpretations help clarify the complex world of gaming pc builds. Thank you for reading!

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