Throughout the history of PC Hardware there have been various changes that have improved the overall usability of Personal Computers.
From the invention of DIMMs through the Plug and Play revolution it's become easier and easier to work with hardware. However, like many things about computers just because the hardware was the same it didn't mean that the results were. Even with the X58/AM3 Platform there is a lot of tweaking and fiddling in the BIOS to do before you could extract the maximum performance and stability out of your rig.
SandyBridge pretty much eliminated all that. The chipset had reached such a peak that, barring slight variances, it almost doesn't matter what motherboard you choose to use as the BIOS is dead simple to use and the reliability of the performance so easy to gauge. Whilst this is great for the average user it's a bit of a pain for both us, as we haven't got as many tools to play with to extract the maximum performance, and also for the motherboard manufacturers. If a bottom of the range motherboard can give similar performance to a top line one, then who would buy the top line ones? A rethink was needed and it's led to the major difference between a low-end and a high-end mobo being the bells and whistles that are supplied.
Bells and Whistles were most definitely evident in the Gigabyte G1.Assassin X58 motherboard we reviewed recently, and now we have its Z68 brother, the Gigabyte G1.Sniper 2. Replete with more additional technology than you can shake a stick at it's most definitely aimed at the premium end of the marketplace. Does it deliver enough to separate it from the pack?
There are three major upgrades on the Sniper 2 when compared to most Z68 motherboards. Firstly the PCIe x16 slot is marked as compliant with PCI Express 3.0 specifications. Secondly it comes with a Creative Soundcard built in, rather than the standard ALC889 Realtek audio. And finally we have the inclusion of the Bigfoot Killer NIC, for all your low-ping gaming needs.
|Onboard Graphics||Integrated in the Chipset: |
|Storage Interface||1 x Marvell 88SE9172 chip: |
|Internal I/O Connectors|
|Back Panel Connectors|
We've a lot to get through, so let's crack on.
Packaging and Contents
If you're branding your product line as the "G1 Killer", it's vital that you don't half-ass it. After all it would be easy to just have it as a cool sounding name. Gigabyte absolutely go the full monty with the packaging, looking just like a 50 cal ammo box and the standard skulls and things one would expect from something branded "killer".
Even the internal box is in keeping with the theme, supplied in a generic woodland variation of the widely used digital camouflage. It's nice to see that the branding has also extended to the driver CD. It's these little touches that make all the difference.
Accessories are fairly standard, four SATA cables, a SLI bridge and a very nicely designed IO Shield. Gigabyte also supply a USB 3.0 front panel which comes complete with a Turbo button. Suddenly those 486 memories come flooding back.
Design-wise there are a lot of similarities between the Sniper.2 and the Assassin. This is one seriously gorgeous board. Sure the green might not be to everyones taste, but it works so well. On the main heatsink are 5 LEDs that glow seriously green. They could double as a special effect in Fringe they are so bright.
Audio is one of the big selling points of the Sniper 2. Rather than go the standard route of including the Realtek ALC889, Gigabyte have mounted a full Creative soundcard to the board. In the right-hand picture you can see the shielding helping to keep the whole audio section as free from interference as possible.
In keeping with both the military theme and the premium design, Gigabyte have included a Bigfoot Killer NIC on the board. There has never been a consensus about whether the Killer NIC actually improves gaming performance, but it's a nice addition. The heatsinks themselves are amazing works of art, nicely replicating the business end of a sniper rifle.
It's a stunner isn't it.
Away from the aesthetic and into the practical. There are plenty of connections all across the Sniper 2, from 5 fan headers, through USB3.0 headers and the always excellent Gigabyte Front Panel. The OC_Button is where you plug the front panel into to allow a one-touch OC.
The main PCIe slot is labelled as supporting the PCIe 3.0 standard. As far as we understand this is purely a BIOS upgrade, but it's great to see the Sniper 2 supports it out the box, even if PCIe 3.0 GPUs aren't yet available.
Round the back we have all the standard connections one would expect to see, from a combined PS/2 port through USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports. ESATA, the RJ45 GigaLAN and an HDMI for the Lucid VIRTU or, if you've gone mad, integrated output.
SATA is provided by two chipset SATA 6Gbp/s, two Marvel 6Gbp/s and two 3Gbp/s SATAIIs. Intel Rapid Storage Technology is supported too if you really feel the need for speed.
One surprise about the Sniper 2 is the lack of on-board on and off buttons. These have become such a part of modern mobos that it was quite a shock to see the Sniper 2 without them. Not a massive thing of course, but there is so little to complain about with the design that it's worth noting.
Today we're using our standard LGA1155 test rig. The only changes are the latest WHQL nVidia drivers and we're running all of our tests with IRST set in enhanced mode.
Gigabyte G1.Sniper 2 Z68 Motherboard
Intel Core-i5 2500K
4GB Kingston Genesis 2133MHz
EVGA GTX570 with ForceWare 280.26 WHQL
Samsung Spinpoint F1
Corsair 80GB SSD as Intel Rapid Storage Technology cache
Thermalright Silver Arrow
Windows 7 x64
The Sniper 2 is a very easy overclocker. As usual with Gigabyte boards it's a standard BIOS we've all seen a million times with the EFI element solely contained in a Windows program. We could get our Core i5-2500K to run at 4.9 GHz for most of our testing but it consistently bombed during PC Mark 7 so we backed it off slightly and these are the settings that we're using throughout our benchmarks today.
Speaking of benchmarks...
AIDA64 CPU Benchmarks
AIDA64 (in v1.80 guise) has the Sniper 2 keeping apace with the rest of the Z68 motherboards we've tested. As we said in the intro the chipset is so bulletproof that variances are slight at best.
AIDA64 Memory Benchmarks
Despite running at the same 2133MHz as a lot of our boards the Sniper 2 doesn't quite pump out the same heights as some of the P67 boards in our graph. The Gene-Z has the edge in the Z68 boards, but otherwise the numbers for the Sniper 2 are good.
PC Mark Vantage
Whoa. Considering that both the UD3P and Sniper 2 were running identical specs (including the use of IRST), the Sniper 2 annihilates it in PC Mark Vantage. Every score makes a mockery of any other LGA1155 motherboard we've seen before and whilst a lot can be attributed to the raw pace the IRST provides, the UD3P didn't get close. Is this an aberration or will PC Mark 7 back us up?
PC Mark 7
The proof, as the old adage goes, is in the pudding. Once again the Sniper 2 scores a clean kill on its stablemate the UD3P and is the first Z68 board to break the 5000 point barrier. Mightily impressive performance in both iterations of PC Mark.
Sandra takes us back into the synthetic world and once again the Sniper 2 follows the well trod path, giving the score we'd expect from our i5. The Gene-Z still has the edge in the synthetic testing but it's all much of a muchness.
We get an odd result with the Processor Multimedia test. Although it's all fairly close this still is the lowest score we've seen. Compared to the heights of the PC Mark test this is a curious one.
Back in the real world, the Sniper 2 performs admirably in the CPU side of CineBench giving the highest score of our 4.8GHz clocked tests, and only beaten by the higher speeds available from the Sabertooth, Marshal et al. The OpenGL score, whilst not range-topping, is always varied greatly by the GPU drivers and, as this is the first v280 run we've done, there aren't many conclusions to be drawn.
As one would expect in the world of big number-crunching tasks, the Sniper 2 is a slave to the CPU clockspeed.
3D Mark Vantage
Hoorah we have a stunner. In Performance trim our GTX570 gets up near the 29000 mark, the best score we've seen. On High the perfect storm between GPU performance and available bandwidth on the PCIe x16 3.0 and the Sniper 2 hits everything else right between the eyes. As we move into Extreme, and therefore start to become limited by the GTX570 itself, things settle down again, although the Sniper 2 still puts up a dazzling number.
3D Mark 11
We were hoping this would carry over into 3D Mark 11 but, like the Vantage P and X tests, we're either using so little performance that the upgraded PCIe lane has no benefit, or so much performance that it's the GTX570 that's wheezing. Still it's up there with the best of them and so that's good.
There are many things we review that the numbers tell the whole story. You can look through the speeds of an SSD and know instantly if it's good enough or not. Graphics cards aren't so simple because you have the heat and noise issue to take into account. Input devices are largely a matter of personal taste. And so it goes on.
Motherboards fall in the middle ground. To a certain extent you can just look at the gaudy overclocking numbers, and also how much of that available power it can put to use. But there is also the accessories package, the aesthetics and the included features. To dig up a tired comparison, any car can pass 70MPH and provide space for your shopping, but do you really ignore the Mercedes S-Class because a Proton has the same basic bits and bobs? Of course not.
That segues us neatly into the Gigabyte Z68 G1.Sniper 2.
In pure overclocking terms it's right up there with every other Z68 around, capable of pushing our 2500K to 4.8 GHz. We saw a partially stable 4.9 GHz and with more time to get the voltages at the sweet spot we should have got it stable through all our tests. However 4.8 GHz was very easy to obtain and with greatly reduced voltages compared to most other Z68s we've seen.
So many of our benchmarks are heavily reliant upon the clock-speed of the CPU that the results seem pretty much on a par. The two major tests that really sort the chaff out from the wheat are both versions of PC Mark, and its graphics brother 3D Mark. Here the Sniper 2 stands like a Titan. The Z68A UD3P made good use of the IRST, but the G1.Sniper 2 is capable of maximising every ounce of power available to it and the results back that up. One of the biggest surprises was how well the extra bandwidth of the v3 spec PCIe can be utilised by our GTX570. Sure the GPU ran out of puff at serious image quality settings but with either a current dual-GPU card, or the inevitable next gen stuff, then we'll really see this thing fly.
Besides the next-gen benefits of having a PCIe 3.0 slot, the other two big features are the inclusion of a Creative soundcard and the Killer NIC. The Realtek ALC889 has been a stalwart of the onboard sound world for a long time and although it's better than a lot of earlier audio solutions the improvement from the Creative chip are clear. The Killer NIC we reviewed in its initial form a few years back and the gains were moderate. Now as we've all got fat broadband lines and seriously powerful computers the benefits of it are less obvious. As more and more games move towards server-side synchronization then the need to be a LPB is less apparent. However it's better to have it than not, and it's in keeping with the premium target audience.
Unfortunately that word Premium only means one thing. Yes the Sniper 2 comes with an eye-watering price-tag of £320. You might get a Creative soundcard and Killer NIC, but you pay for them too and not much less than they'd be if you purchased them as a separate addition to, for example, a UD5. It's harder to swallow the Premium market sector aim-point when, like all Gigabyte boards, they seem to be allergic to putting a EFI BIOS on them. We know that High-End boards command a high-end price, but sometimes it feels like they're charging such high prices because they can. However that's an argument for another day.
So really it all boils down to how much you like the design and if those expensive extra features are worthy of your hard-earned cash. We really do like it. It looks stunning, the package is excellent, performance is great too. The G1.Sniper 2 is a worthy winner of our Performance award. Just a shame about that enormous price for a few select features.
Thanks to Gigabyte for providing the Sniper 2 for review. Discuss in our forums.