ASRock Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 Motherboard
By Gabriel Torres on July 19, 2011
So far, ASRock has released four motherboard models based on the Intel Z68 chipset. The Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3, which is the model we are taking a look at, is the highest-end model offered by ASRock. The manufacturer also offers a mainstream model, the Z68 Pro3, a top mid-range model, the Z68 Extreme4, and a microATX model, the Z68 Pro3-M.
The Intel Z68 chipset is basically a P67 chipset with two new features added. First, the Intel Smart Response Technology (SRT), 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. Click here to learn more about this technology.
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 at consumers who will have 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 instead of using your add-on video card. This allows you to save energy, since the CPU integrated video consumes less power than add-on video cards. For this feature to be available on a given Z68 motherboard, the motherboard manufacturer must have licensed the Virtu software, and the motherboard must have video connectors soldered directly on the board. All motherboards in the current line-up from ASRock support this technology.
The ASRock Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 comes with three PCI Express x16 slots, one PCI Express x1 slot, and two standard PCI slots.
The first two PCI Express x16 slots are connected directly to the CPU integrated PCI Express controller. When only one video card is installed, the first slot works at x16 speed, but when you install two video cards, each slot works at x8 speed. These slots support both SLI and CrossFireX technologies.
This motherboard is touted to have “PCI Express 3.0” (a.k.a. “Gen3”) slots. For a Z68-based motherboard to support PCI Express x16 3.0 slots, two prerequisites are necessary. First, since these slots are controlled by the CPU, you will need to have a CPU with an embedded PCI Express 3.0 controller. Second, the motherboard must use PCI Express 3.0 channel switch chips.
Intel CPUs with an embedded PCI Express 3.0 controller are not available yet. (The first CPU with this feature will be the “Ivy Bridge.”) So, even if you install the latest Intel CPU, the PCI Express x16 slots will still be 2.0, since the PCI Express controller embedded in the CPU is 2.0.
However, this motherboard uses PCI Express 3.0 channel switch chips (NXP L04083B). See Figure 3. This means that when socket LGA1155 “Ivy Bridge” CPUs become available, you will be able to explore the full potential of the PCI Express 3.0 connection – if you have a PCI Express 3.0 video card installed as well. (There are no video cards based on this standard yet.) Motherboards based on the Intel Z68 chipset that use PCI Express 2.0 channel switch chips won’t support PCI Express 3.0, and even if you install an “Ivy Bridge” CPU with a PCI Express 3.0 video card, the slots will work at 2.0 speeds.
The third PCI Express x16 slot always works at x4 speed. Because of the reduced number of PCI Express lanes provided by the chipset, several other motherboards have limitations of what devices can be used at the same time. For example, on some motherboards with three PCI Express x16 slots, the third slot will work at x1 if all additional features such as USB 3.0 ports and the second Gigabit Ethernet port are enabled. To solve this problem, the Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 has a PLX PEX8608 switch chip, which expands the number of PCI Express lanes available on the motherboard. It works by sensing which devices are not being used and freeing up the PCI Express lane attached to them to other devices.
If you install a dual-slot video card in the first PCI Express x16 slot, you will “kill” one of the standard PCI slots. If you install a dual-slot video card in the second PCI Express x16 slot, you will “kill” the other standard PCI slot; and to install a dual-slot video card in the third PCI Express x16 slot, you will need a case with at least eight expansion slots (cases usually have seven expansion slots), and you may block the headers and connectors located at the motherboard edge.
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.
Intel socket LGA1155 CPUs have an embedded memory controller, meaning that it is the processor, 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 DDR3 memories up to 1,333 MHz under dual-channel architecture, but ASRock says the Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 supports memory up to 2,133 MHz through overclocking.
The ASRock Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 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 black, while the second and fourth are red. 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 black sockets. Otherwise, your computer won’t turn on.
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 manufacturer added four additional SATA-600 ports, controlled by an ASMedia ASM1061 chip. There are some limitations here. The ASMedia ASM1061 chip provides only two SATA-600 ports, and there is only one chip but four ports. The manual and the product page don’t explain how this is possible. Since the SATA ports controlled by the chipset support RAID but the extra SATA-600 ports don’t, in our opinion the manufacturer should have used a different color on the SATA-600 ports controlled by the chipset (which are the SATA3_0 and SATA3_1 ports). Also, the SATA3_A4 is shared with the eSATA-600 port, therefore, they can’t be used simultaneously. The SATA ports are located on the motherboard edge rotated 90°, so video cards won’t block them.
Amazingly, this motherboard brings a floppy disk drive controller, which is located near the third PCI Express x16 slot, and one ATA-133 port, which is located beside the main power supply connector. This ATA-133 port is provided by a VIA VT6330 chip, which is also a FireWire (IEEE1394) controller.
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 six USB 3.0 ports, four available on the motherboard rear panel and two available through a front panel connector, controlled by three ASMedia ASM1042 chips. The motherboard comes with an adapter for you to install these two ports in an external 3.5” bay.
One of the USB 2.0 ports of the motherboard rear panel is a special “mouse port,” where you can manually adjust the port’s polling rate (i.e., how many times per second the port reads the mouse value) from 125 Hz to 1 kHz.
This motherboard has two FireWire ports, one available on the motherboard rear panel and one available through a header on the motherboard. These ports are controlled by the abovementioned VIA VT6630 chip.
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. We think this is one of the major drawbacks of this motherboard: it was designed as a high-end product, but uses a mid-range audio codec.
The Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 comes with an on-board optical SPDIF output, and you can add a coaxial SPDIF connector by installing an adapter on the available “HDMI_SPDIF1” header. This header can also be used to route digital audio to add-on video cards to have digital audio in the card’s HDMI output. (Some video cards don’t require this connection.)
The portrayed motherboard comes with independent analog 5.1 audio outputs, meaning that if you install an analog 7.1 speaker set, you will need to use either the “line in” or the “mic in” jacks.
This motherboard has two Gigabit Ethernet ports, controlled by two Realtek RTL8111E chips, supporting the “teaming” feature, which doubles the network transfer rate if you use a compatible switch.
In Figure 7, you can see the motherboard rear panel, with a keyboard PS/2 connector, four USB 2.0 ports, VGA connector, two HDMI connectors, clear CMOS button, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, four USB 3.0 ports (blue connectors), one FireWire (IEEE1394) port, one eSATA-600 port, optical SPDIF output, and shared analog 7.1 audio outputs.
The motherboard has on-board power and reset buttons, and a POST diagnostics display, which allows you to identify, through a two-digit code, which component is not working correctly if your computer is not turning on.
The motherboard has a legacy serial port on a header labeled “COM1.” You will need to buy an adapter if you want to use this port. It also has an infrared interface, making it inexpensive for you to add an infrared sensor to be able to use a remote control or to connect devices using infrared technology (IrDA).
As with several other products from ASRock, the Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 comes with holes for you to install socket LGA775 CPU coolers.
In Figure 10, you can see all the accessories that come with this motherboard.
The CPU voltage regulator circuit of the ASRock Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 has 12 phases for the CPU main voltage (Vcc a.k.a. Vcore), two for the CPU VTT voltage (integrated memory controller and L3 memory cache), and four for the CPU VAXG voltage (integrated video controller). Therefore, it uses a “12+2+4” configuration.
This motherboard uses solid ferrite-core coils, which present less energy loss than iron-core coils (i.e., they improve efficiency), solid Japanese capacitors, and low RDS(on) transistors (i.e., higher efficiency). The voltage regulator uses a digital design, with a CHiL CHL8328 controller.
If you want to learn more about the voltage regulator circuit, please read our tutorial on the subject.
The ASRock Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 offers some overclocking options, listed below (1.10 BIOS):
For a better understanding of what these options do, please read our Understanding All Voltage Configurations from the Motherboard tutorial.
The main specifications for the ASRock Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 motherboard include:
The ASRock Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 is going to attract a lot of attention, especially because of the support for PCI Express 3.0 video cards (if you install a forthcoming Intel “Ivy Bridge” CPU). The presence of six SATA-600 ports, six USB 3.0 ports, two Gigabit Ethernet ports supporting “teaming,” a very decent voltage regulator circuit, a special “mouse port” where the user can manually change the polling rate, support for Virtu technology, two HDMI outputs, three PCI Express x16 slots (working at 16x/0x/4x or 8x/8x/4x), and the presence of a PCI Express switch chip that allows the third PCI Express to work at x4 without the need to manually disable additional features, complete the package that all serious gamers are looking for.
However, this motherboard is not “perfect.” Being touted as such a high-end product, we think that it deserved a better audio codec, such as the Realtek ALC889, and not a mid-range solution. In fact, we’ve seen mid-range motherboards with a better audio codec. The second weak point, in our opinion, is the reduced number of overclocking options. Even though the motherboard allows the CPU base clock to be adjusted in 0.1 MHz increments, we believe the serious gamer is a tweaker by nature and will want more options. The reduced number of connectors for auxiliary fans (only three) can also be seen as a major drawback, depending on how many fans you plan to have connected directly to the motherboard.
If you are attracted to the several features this motherboard brings, have the money, and are not so worried about its small drawbacks, then go for it.