Intel Z68: The Chipset Sandy Bridge Was Dying For?

Today Intel officially launched the Z68 chipset, complementing the current 6 series chipsets. The Z68 unifies the feature sets of P67 and H67, thus allowing for both overclocking and using the integrated GPU of the Sandy Bridge generation Core i3, i5 and i7 CPUs. On top of that it adds SSD caching dubbed Smart Response Technology (SRT) and switchable graphics using Lucid’s Virtu technology.

Intel Z68 Diagram

While it might look odd at first glance to be able to use the IGP in conjunction with overclocking, do note that the graphics unit even provides some uses when used in conjunction with discrete graphics. Namely we are talking about Intels hardware video encoder coined Quick Sync Technology that rapidly speeds up encoding of complex codecs like H.264. Also only with the IGP unit you are eligible to Intels Insider movie service. These benefits can even be used, if the Z68 board doesn’t come with a video output. This works courtesy of Lucid’s Virtu technology. Notably Intel is heavily involved with Lucid. Contrary to other GPU switching technologies like NVIDIA Optimus, the discrete GPU can’t be fully disabled using Virtu. It merely runs in low power mode when the other GPU is active which could have been the case anyway. So don’t expect power savings courtesy of Virtu, but only extended feature set.

Apart from the combination of H67 and P67 features, the main novelty of the Z68 chipset is Smart Response Technology, which hasn’t been available on any Intel chipset before. Basically it employs a smaller SSD as a hard disk cache to speed up data accesses. This should speed up boot-up time, application startup and general data fetch. It does this by keeping frequently used blocks in the SSD cache – which ones is decided by Intels Rapid Storage Technology software. Smart Response Technology has two operating modes – Enhanced and Maximized. In Enhanced mode a write-through policy is employed, which means data writes are synchronously made to both the SSD and the HDD. Thus write performance is limited by the HDD. In Maximized mode a write-back policy is used, which means you also get accelerated write performance at the expense of data integrity in case of a system crash.

Compared to using a SSD directly, SRT has one major drawback. For data to be able to quickly accessed it must already reside in the cache, so the first use of applications will be slow. When the cached data is evicted for newer data, once you access the old data it is slower as well. Intel also recommends reviewers to prepare benchmarks by running them first to be cached and then running them again afterwards to get the accelerated results. Note that the cached data also works after a reboot. The main advantage of SRT is, that more cost efficient smaller SSDs can be used for it. Intel specifically recommends their new SLC-based 311 series SSDs which come with 20GB and are connected via a SATA interface.

Expect various motherboard vendors to announce Z68-based motherboards today. A lot of vendors actually weren’t satisfied with Intels launch date as there have been announcements here and there starting two weeks ago. There can be a lot of reasons to do this, among them gaining unique coverage and trying to squeeze some time in between the Z68 board launch and the launch of the upcoming AMD 9 series Chipsets for the upcoming Bulldozer CPU. You can expect our Z68 review shortly.