We're not officially allowed to talk about a certain chip that Intel is due to launch at the end of the month. Let's just call it something random - 'Ivy Bridge' will do. This Ivy Bridge (IB) processor is due to supplant the incumbent Sandy Bridge (SB) range of chips that were launched just over a year ago. Compacting the manufacturing process down to 22nm and making general improvements, most notably to the integrated graphics, IB looks set to replace SB quite nicely.
And the one big advantage for the consumer of this Intel 'tick' is that, while silicon changes are clearly afoot, the chips themselves are to be packaged in the LGA1155 form factor most enthusiasts have become accustomed to. Keeping to the same socket and with due knowledge that there's not a huge difference in the SB and IB silicon means that Intel is going to continue with the extant 6-series chipsets as the primary backbone for the new processors, right? Wrong!
You see, Intel feels there is enough reason to debut IB chips with a raft of new boards that are to be based on the 7-series chipset, though the close familial relationship between IB/SB and 6- and 7-series chipsets makes it all wonderfully nebulous. We can't go into the nitty-gritty of the exact relationship between the various processors and underlying chipsets right now - Intel has a matrix with no fewer than 14 footnotes - but we can talk about these 7-series boards that have already been doing the rounds at trade shows for months.
Z77 chipset - the new Z68
Intel's preferred core logic for the upcoming IB chips is the Z77 chipset (aka Panther Point). This LGA1155-based logic is due to take over from the glut of Z68/P67 boards that are on the market today. It supports both SB and IB chips, naturally, though so do most Z68 boards with a BIOS update. The simplest method of discerning what's different between the two is to look at Z77's advantages.
All Z77 boards have PCIe 3.0 support for the new IB chips and very latest graphics cards from AMD (HD 7000) and NVIDIA (GTX 680). This provides double the bandwidth from PCIe 2.0 and is a good move when one considers that the PCIe lanes from the IB processors aren't as expansive as, say, on SNB-E chips sat on an X79 platform. Note that many Z68 boards purport to have this double-bandwidth feature too.
Integrated USB 3.0
It's about time that Intel integrated USB 3.0 into a chipset. This is not available on Z68, though the bevy of motherboard manufacturers have established relationships with companies such as Etron, VIA and ASMedia, all of whom make third-party controllers found on present boards. Expect to see the likes of ASUS, Gigabyte and MSI all use the four 'in-house' USB 3.0 ports and discrete controllers.
The Z77 chipset has the necessary routing to run three independent displays from one chip, and you can guess what that chip is. You'll need both the new chip and chipset for this feature; SB processors sitting on a Z77 will not be able to harness three independent screens - the iGPU doesn't support it.
Smart Connect and Rapid Start
Smart Connect has previously been seen on Intel-powered laptops. It's a technology that enables basic updates to be carried out while the computer is in sleep mode. Think of it as updating your Twitter feed without having to turn the computer on - silent updates, if you will.
Rapid Start, as the name suggests, brings the PC back to life in a few seconds from an hibernation state (Suspend To Ram) - Intel quotes 5-6 seconds, which is nice. While these two are primarily features aimed at the 7-series chipsets, ASRock, for example, has included them in an H61 board with a BIOS update.
There are a myriad of other changes, most of which are active once an IB chip is in the socket, and we'll explain them once the new processor is available. However, to reinforce what you have read thus far we can drill down on some of the new features by looking at a chipset diagram.
There you go, the high-level overview shows there's not that much new compared to Z68. Providing an inkling into IB usage, official memory speed is boosted from 1,333MHz to 1,600MHz though it remains dual-channel. We've talked about the PCIe 3.0 lanes and you can see they're bifurcated in the same way as Z68, that is, either 1x16 or 2x8. Interestingly, there's a third option, where four lanes are reserved for high-speed Thunderbolt-equipped devices.
The conduit between chip and chipset remains DMI 2.0, while the graphics connect through the same Flexible Display Interface as on Z68. USB 3.0 is shown on the left and the Smart Connect and Rapid Start technologies are bundled under the Responsiveness Technologies category, which is optional. No change in SATA support or PCIe lanes used for peripherals, mind.
What does this all mean for me?
Intel's Z77 provides incremental upgrades from the Z68 chipset available today. Users who own a 2nd generation Core chip, and there are plenty, can simply plonk it in to a Z77 board without any problems, though, obviously, some of the IB-specific features, detailed above, will not be available.
It is clear that the optimum combination is one of an IB chip and Z77 chipset, availing the widest-possible feature-set. But there's no harm in opting for Z77 if you can pick up, say, a Core i5-2500K on the cheap, for you will lose nothing by going for Z77 over Z68. Do understand that you probably won't see any meaningful benchmark performance improvements from one chipset to another, assuming the same 2nd generation Core chip and general settings are used.
Z77 makes Z68 and P67 boards largely redundant. This is just the way Intel and its motherboard partners want it, because it means a new series of boards can be launched, stimulating market demand. On that note Gigabyte sent us its Z77-D3H motherboard for perusal.