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Gigabyte G1.Sniper 2 Z68 Motherboard Review

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Eldonko

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A few months back, we saw Gigabyte take a huge step towards catering to the specific needs of gamers with three new LGA1366 X58 boards, the G1.Assassin, the G1.Sniper, and the G1.Guerrilla. With the success of these boards, the natural generational progression kicked into gear and the G1 series made the jump to the LGA 1155 platforms with the G1.Sniper2.

The G1.Sniper2 is a Z68 chipset board so in addition to having features we saw with the 1366 boards, it also things like Switchable Graphics and Intel’s SSD caching technology. This board is also as “future proof” as possible since it supports 22nm Ivy Bridge CPUs along with the PCI-E 3.0 capabilities included with upcoming GPUs. With this support, buyers that may want to upgrade in 2012 will simply have to buy a new CPU and pop it into the board for full functionality.

Priced at $360, the board is in a category with other flagship products such as the ASUS Maximus IV Extreme, MSI Big Bang Marshall, or Gigabyte’s UD7. The key difference is instead of having an NF200 chip and a top of the line VRM the G1.Sniper2 is built for gamers with an onboard Creative Soundblaster X-Fi Digital Audio Processor (20K2) and an onboard Bigfoot Networks Killer E2100 Game Networking Platform. Having a built in sound card and NIC saves gamers money on purchasing standalone cards. Unfortunately, this also means you are paying for built-in features without having a blank canvas for your own component choices. In addition to the soundcard and NIC, the board has multi-display support with 2-way SLI and CrossFireX, which basically covers everything a gamer would need.

One of the most pertinent questions about the G1 series has always been their target market. The “gamer” badge has been slapped onto and endless string of products, many of which fail to deliver what today’s gaming market wants: a well priced, fully featured device that will give them an edge over the competition. From the outside looking in, Gigabyte could have done just that.

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Eldonko

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Specifications and Features

G1.Sniper 2 Specifications and Features

Before jumping right into photos and testing, let’s take a look at the specifications for the G1.Sniper 2.

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A few notable features for the G1.Sniper 2 include:

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Eldonko

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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories


The G1.Sniper 2 uses a similar design to the other boards in the G1-Killer gaming series boards. The packaging has a military feel and is designed to look like an ammo box, rust spots and all. Highlighted on its front is the G1-Killer series logo, X-Fi audio and the Killer E2100 NIC which the back side has an in depth features explanation.

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Typical to most recent motherboards, the G1.Sniper 2 has a matte box inside the thinner cardboard box. This is likely to provide flexibility and cut down on print costs. Opening the top cover we see the board is in its own compartment on the top and beneath we find the accessories. In addition to typical accessories, the G1.Sniper 2 comes with a poster and full set of stickers.

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A few accessories of interest are the Front Access Control Panel and a branded I/O panel cover. The Front Access Control Panel allows quick access to a pair of USB 3.0 ports and Power eSATA. The Front Access Control Panel also features a Quick Boost button that allows users to instantly overclock their system with the press of a button.
 
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Eldonko

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Included Software

Included Software

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The first item in the Gigabyte software suite is the utility that an overclocker will use the most: EasyTune6. This is a very powerful tool and allows tweaking and monitoring of just about anything you will need. The first tab contains frequency, motherboard, and CPU information such as CPU clock, base clock, board model number, BIOS version, voltage, as well as details on the CPU itself. Tab 2 contains your memory information such as part number and SPD info.

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Tab 3 is your tuner which controls frequencies and voltages. An overclocker will go straight to the advanced area and adjust BCLK and memory dividers under Frequency and while the CPU multiplier can be controlled through the Ratio subsection.

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Also within the Tuner section is a voltage tab. Here you can control every voltage the Sniper 2 has to offer within an OS environment. This can be very useful if you are on the edge of a stable overclock and you want to try a slight bump in voltage to achieve stability.

Moving to tab 4, the video card overclocking options are available. There is a limitation here though: if you are running SLI, only the first card is available to overclock with ET6.

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Under tab 5, smart fan options are available. Here you can set up your fan speeds according to your desired temperatures. Meanwhile, the sixth tab houses the hardware monitor which charts CPU, RAM and power rails as well as fan speeds and temperatures.

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The next Gigabyte utility we will go through is SMART 6. SMART 6 contains six utilities in one which can save a user’s time when installing drivers and utilities. Contained in the SMART 6 combo pack are SMART QuickBoot, SMART QuickBoost, SMART Recovery 2, SMART DualBIOS, SMART Recorder, and SMART TimeLock.

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First up in the SMART 6 suite is the SMART QuickBoot. This utility does exactly what its name suggests: it speeds speeds up the system boot-up process and shortens the waiting time before entering the operating system. By setting the BIOS to only run through the start up hardware scan once, up to 5 seconds can be saved on the BIOS boot time alone. OS QuickBoot allows you to power down your PC into Suspend Mode (S3) and Hibernate Mode (S4) at the same time which is like putting your PC to sleep, allowing you to maintain your data, while at the same time, saving energy.

SMART Recovery 2 is a backup utility for system settings, applications, documents, photos, music, videos, etc. and allows users to retrieve their data, even if it has been deleted.

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Smart DualBIOS can store certain bits of data directly to the BIOS chip, so even if your hard drive fails and you have to reinstall the OS, the data will still be accessible. In order to accomplish this, the BIOS chip's onboard memory has been increased to 32MB to allow for extra storage space. Using SMART DualBIOS you can store up to 12 passwords along with a short description, making it much easier to manage passwords.

SMART Recorder monitors and records activity on your system such as the time when you turn off or on your PC as well as when any large amounts of data have been copied from your PC. Using this utility, you can always know if someone else has accessed your PC without your knowledge.

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Smart TimeLock is used for resource scheduling, allowing only certain access times. This is a great tool for parents who want to limit their children’s PC usage. You can allocate certain hours per day or specific times of the day that your PC can be used. Have a child staying up all night gaming or want to limit daily PC use? This is for you.

Gigabyte’s AutoGreen technology is a handy utility that automatically puts your PC into power savings mode when your Bluetooth mobile phone is out of the PC’s range.

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Gigabyte's Dynamic Energy Saver 2 (DES2) utility uses a proprietary hardware and software design to considerably enhance PC system’s energy efficiency, reduce power consumption and deliver optimized auto-phase-switching for the CPU, Memory, Chipset, VGA, HDD and even fans. Basically you just install the utility, and enable DES2 and save yourself some power.

@BIOS is a Windows-based BIOS flash utility which makes flashing your BIOS a quick and easy task and allows for updating BIOS from the Gigabyte server, updating BIOS from a file, and saving BIOS backups.

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LucidLogix Virtu GPU Virtualization utility, common with many Z68 boards allows users to dynamically switch between the built-in CPU graphics and their high-end, 3D discrete graphics cards. This is ideal for gamers who require high-resolution gaming and still want to enjoy the built-in media features of 2nd generation Intel processors.

Also on the Sniper 2 install disk you will find a utility called the Download Center. Using this, users can quickly and easily check if drivers and utilities are up to date without having to manually go through each one on the Gigabyte website. Although Gigabyte doesn’t really advertise this tool, we have to say that we love it.

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Exclusive to G1-Killer series boards, the G1.Sniper 2 features an onboard Creative Soundblaster X-Fi Digital Audio Processor (20K2) with X-Fi Xtreme Fidelity and EAX AHD 5.0 Technologies. In order to configure the audio settings the Creative Audio Control Panel has been included and has three modes: Audio Creation Mode, Entertainment Mode, and Game Mode. It also includes an AutoMode Switcher which automatically selects the appropriate mode for the task.

Since the Sniper 2 includes an onboard Bigfoot Killer E2100 Game Networking Platform, Bigfoot Networks Killer Network Manager has been bundled as well. This shows the health and performance of your online gaming experience and houses controls to optimize bandwidth, framerates, and ping as well as monitor many statistics relating to the network connection.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the G1.Sniper 2

A Closer Look at the G1.Sniper 2

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Above is a map of the G1.Sniper 2 motherboard layout with descriptions of the various parts.


The main heatsink which surrounds the CPU socket and rests on the DrMOS provides cooling for both the chokes and VRMs. However, the middle section just acts as extra surface area for the heatpipe since there is nothing beneath the heatsink.

Most people will either love or absolutely hate this weapon-like heatsink design but in reality, it fits with Gigabyte’s marketing for their G1 series.

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We were a little amused that Gigabyte added a disclaimer to the heatsink to tell users that the heatsink can’t be assembled as a firearm. Shoot, our fun is ruined but at least over eager customs agents won’t assume the worst.

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In the naked photo of the Sniper 2 we can seethere is simply an empty space in the center of the board which could be used for an NF200 chipset on future revisions.

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Gigabyte uses a VRM design typical to many of their other boards with DrMOS and a single choke per phase. In total we have a 12 phase VRM on the Sniper 2; split into 8 for the CPU, 2 for the System Agent/Uncore, and 2 for the iGPU.

The “cubes” in the VRM area are the ferrite chokes which clean up the high frequency signal noise and in turn produce heat which is removed by the heatpipe cooling system.

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The “brain” of the Sniper 2 is the PWM (Pulse Width Modulator) controller chip. In this case a Intersil ISL6364 is used which is a dual 4 + 1 phase unit which controls phase switching and output voltage to the CPU.

The small ICs that you see next to the chokes are Driver MOSFETs or DrMOS. DrMOS are a 3 in 1 package combining 2 discrete PowerMOS and a SOP-8 Driver IC into a single chip. Compared to a traditional MOSFET, Driver MOSFETs offer faster, smoother transfer of current while maintaining stable voltage and cooler temperatures under heavy loading. One DrMOS along with a choke makes a single PWM phase.

So why does the Sniper 2 only have 8 phases dedicated to the CPU when compared to 24 with a board like the UD7? Well it comes down to the target market for the board. A bencher will be pushing excessive voltages over time while using sub-zero cooling so a reinforced VRM is required and the UD7 fits that usage pattern best. On the other hand, a gamer is concerned with stability, sound quality, and FPS and generally will not be pushing the board past the limits of water cooling so a higher end (and expensive) VRM design isn’t needed.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the G1.Sniper 2 (p.2)

A Closer Look at the G1.Sniper 2

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Moving down to the upper right corner of the board we come to the DDR3 memory slots. Gigabyte recommends populating the green slots first but we tested both colour sets and each worked fine.

Directly below the memory slots are phase LEDs and a chip marked iTE IT8275E which is a general purpose I/O chip that controls phase switching and LLC.

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Just right of the memory is the 24-pin power connector and a USB 3.0 header for the the 5.25" front access control panel. The larger chip just above the USB 3.0 header is the Etron USB 3.0 host controller. To the left of that is a smaller chip: the Marvell 88SE9172 SATA 6Gb/s controller for the grey SATA ports on the board.

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The SATA ports are broken up into three colours: white, black and grey. The black SATA 3Gb/s ports connect directly to the Z68 chipset while the grey ports are run by the Marvell 88SE9172 and are capable of 6Gb/s. The white ports meanwhile are linked to the Z68 chipset but are capable of 6Gb/s To set up SSD caching, one must connect the SSD and HDD to links that originate from the chipset.

Above the SATA ports are two BIOS chips for the main and secondary BIOS. The second chip acts as a failsafe just in case the primary BIOS gets corrupted. Also in the area is the front panel connector as well as a clear CMOS jumper.

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Along the bottom edge of the Sniper, there are front audio, COMA, and 3 USB 2.0 headers. For video there are two PCI-E slots, one 16x and one 8x. The OCB is marked PCI Express 3.0 to alert users that the board is compatible with PCI-E 3.0 GPUs provided Ivy Bridge 22nm processors support this standard.

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If you were wondering how the Sniper 2 is able to support PCI-E 3.0, you need not look further than these Pericom PI3PCIE switches. These are compatible with future standards (Ivy Bridge) and can double the flow rates compared to PCI-E 2.0. If you heard any rumors that some boards will lack support for multi card PCI-E 3.0 due to not having the right switches, rest assured that the Sniper 2 will run PCI-E 3.0 SLI fine with an Ivy Bridge CPU.
 
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Eldonko

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A Closer Look at the G1.Sniper 2 (p.3)

A Closer Look at the G1.Sniper 2

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Gigabyte has built Creative’s Soundblaster Digital Audio Processor (20K2) alongside sound card components diregtly onto the Sniper 2’s PCB. Since this has its own processor and 128Mb of dedicated memory built in, it doesn’t eat up any system resources. The large chip marked CA20K2-2AG is the processor and the Hynix chip to the right is the memory.

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Nearby you will also find 5 high capacity amplifiers which are able to drive 150Ω loads. This allows users to enjoy a full range of dynamic sound with crisper details and less distortion when using high quality professional headphones. The amplifier used for front audio headphones is the chip marked 4556A.

The Creative Soundblaster also uses Nichicon MUSE ES series and MW series Bi-Polarized audio capacitors at each channel layout, delivering the highest quality sound resolution and sound expansion to create realistic sound effects. The Nichicon MUSE ES series caps are the green caps and the Nichicon MW series caps are the smaller yellowish ones.

You will also notice that there is copper EMI and power interference shielding around the audio components. This improves EMI shielding and protects against other power interference to maximize sound quality and provide a distortion-free audio experience.

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Next up we have the other key feature of the Sniper 2: the Bigfoot Networks Killer E2100 game networking platform which is essentially a network card built into the motherboard. The Killer E2100 features a dedicated Network Processing Unit (NPU) and 1GB of dedicated DDR2 memory which helps offload network traffic from the CPU, freeing it up to do other tasks. Also, with Advanced Stream Detect you can perform a variety of parallel network tasks such as downloading a large file, streaming a movie, running a video chat, and playing a game simultaneously.

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Having an integrated soundcard and NIC may help to avoid those annoying issues which are sometimes experienced when using add on cards like crackling, incompatibility, and so on. Also, as shown in the block diagram above, stand alone soundcards and NICs sometimes pull bandwidth from the GPU’s PCI-E lanes while on the Sniper 2 these devices connect directly to the chipset’s PCI-E lanes through a different PCI-E bus, thus eliminating the problem.

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Notable additions to the I/O panel on the Sniper 2 are the HDMI port and the OC button. The HDMI port allows users to utilize the graphics switching on the board (up to 1920 x 1080 resolution at 60Hz) while the OC button gives an on the fly 7x multi increase with the touch of a button. A full map of the I/O panel with descriptions is below.

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Eldonko

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Hardware Installation

Hardware Installation

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In order to test how different hardware combinations will fit onto the Sniper 2, we installed a Zalman CNPS10x Flex, a 4GB kit of G.Skill memory, and two GTX 470 video cards. The Zalman is an average-sized aftermarket CPU cooler so it should provide a good reference and the heatsinks on G.Skill kit are taller than most so we can see if there any clearance issues.

When it comes to the board’s heatsinks, things get a bit close but there are no clearance issues and we have to conclude that most coolers will fit without any problems.

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The only way there could be a clearance issue with the memory would be modules which use oversized heatsinks in combination with dual fan CPU coolers. This combination would however be quite rare and could be worked around by simply removing the fan on the side of the memory slots.

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After adding two GTX 470 video cards we didn’t find much that caused concern in terms of clearance. The SATA ports are side mounted and the one port which isn’t fits nicely between the two GPUs. The clear CMOS jumper and USB headers are also accessible but we recommend attaching your USB cables prior to installing the GPUs.

Overall, the only real issue we foresee with the Sniper 2’s layout is getting access to the clear CMOS jumper when a second video card is installed. A button would have been much easier to work with in this situation.
 
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Eldonko

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Test Setup and Testing Methodology

Test Setup and Testing Methodology

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Our test setup consists of an Intel i7 2600k Sandy Bridge CPU, Gigabyte G1.Sniper 2 motherboard, and a kit of G.Skill memory. Here are a few shots of the setup and hardware:

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First we have the whole test bench up and running. As you can see we used watercooling (Apogee XT) for the CPU along with two heatercores. A second GTX 470 was also added for SLI testing.

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Above you can have a closer look at the CPU and memory. The 2600k used for testing was from batch L040B165.


Overclocking Methodology

At Hardware Canucks, we understand we have a diverse reader base and to represent a variety of user types, so we put the G1.Sniper 2 through two types of tests.
  • Beginner Overclocker - To represent a beginner overclocker or a mainstream user that wants to have a quick and easy way to get some extra performance we used the Dummy OC setting found in the BIOS.
  • Experienced Overclocker - To represent an experienced overclocker that is looking for the optimal 24/7 overclock to maximize system performance while keeping voltage and temperatures in check we overclocked the G1.Sniper 2 manually and stopped when we started to get concerned with voltage levels.
We did stability testing a little differently for the Sandy Bridge platform than usual. The main stability test used was Linpack (LinX version 0.6.4) with memory usage set to 2,560MB and 25 loops run. In the enthusiast world, Linpack is a benchmark designed to measure performance on Intel CPUs in GFlops. However, it's also a very useful tool for checking the stability of a CPU and memory. LinX picks up very quickly and if you are able to complete a 25 loop test with the specifications above your system is likely stable or very close to it. Typically we would run LinX much longer than 25 loops and add in Prime95 and OCCT; however there have been reports of degrading Sandy Bridge CPU overclockability with running these types of torture tests for long periods.

To avoid risking damage to the processor, after LinX stability was achieved, 2 runs of 3DMark Vantage and 2 runs of 3DMark 11 were run to test 3D stability. Once an overclock passed these tests, this is the point deemed as “stable” for the purposes of this review.

Windows 7 Service Pack 1 was installed to take advantage of the Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX) with Sandy Bridge processors. Intel AVX is a 256-bit SIMD floating point vector extension of Intel architecture. The BIOS used for overclocking and benchmarking was version F4b, dated 08/12/2011.


Benchmarking Methodology

Benchmarks in the System Benchmarks section will be a comparison of the i7 2600k at stock speed, at auto overclock speed as set by the OC button, and at maximum 24/7 overclock to give an idea of how much performance a user can gain when overclocking the G1.Sniper 2. For SLI tests, the 24/7 overclocked speed was used to test performance between one and two GTX 470 video cards in 3D benchmarks and games.

For stock testing, optimized defaults were loaded putting the CPU at 3,501Mhz (35 x 100.3) and memory at 668Mhz and 9-9-9-24 1T timings. Optimized defaults enable Turbo by default hence the 3,501Mhz instead of 3400Mhz which is the stock speed of the processor. The auto overclocked speed on the i7 2600k for OC Tuner was 4,213Mhz (42 x 100.3) with memory at 668Mhz and 9-9-9-24 1T timings. The overclocked speed on the i7 2600k for 24/7 stability was 5,015Mhz (50 x 100.03) with memory at 936Mhz and 9-9-9-28 1T timings. Nvidia ForceWare 280.26 drivers were used for 3D along with Windows 7 Ultimate 64 bit SP1.
 
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BIOS Rundown

BIOS Rundown

2011 is the year of the UEFI BIOS but unlike many other Sandy Bridge motherboards, Gigabyte hasn’t included the full stable of UEFI features. Support for boot drives above 2.2TB and the potential for faster boot times through optimized code are there but the Sniper 2 doesn’t have mouse integrated mouse support within the BIOS. In addition, it is missing the sleek and user friendly user interface we’ve seen in some previous boards. The result is an experience we’re used to seeing from previous motherboard generations as is indeed a huge step behind the competition.

As a bone thrown to anyone feeling jilted by the exclusion of certain UEFI features, Gigabyte has created a Windows interface called Touch BIOS.

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Touch BIOS is a utility which contains all of the settings in the board’s BIOS and includes touch screen capabilities. Honestly though, who among the gaming public has a touch screen monitor and in the world would someone want to make BIOS changes in Windows? Messing around with your BIOS too much while in Windows can lead to crashes and some very frustrating experiences. So not only is this solution subpar but it feels like nothing more than a band aid being used to unsuccessfully cover a gaping hole in Gigabyte’s feature set.


The BIOS version used for this review is a beta version, F4b. The official version (once finalized) will be version F4 and will be available from Gigabyte’s website.

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The first and main BIOS screen in the Sniper 2 Award BIOS is an index page which contains a listing of the individual sections.

The first of these is the section that you will be in the majority of the time when overclocking: the MB Intelligent Tweaker (M.I.T.) section which contains essential information such as BIOS version, CPU and memory frequencies, temperatures and voltages.

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The Current Status shows more details such memory timings and Turbo Boost information while the Advanced Frequency Settings allows for adjustments of the BCLK by enabling BCLK/DMI/PEG Clock Control and the multiplier by adjusting CPU Clock Control.

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There is one submenu under Advanced Frequency Settings titled Advanced CPU Core Features where you will find the Internal CPU PLL Overvoltage option. When enabled, this helps with stability on higher BCLK overclocks. Enabling Real Time Ratio Changes in OS allows for BCLK adjustments in Windows using ET6 while Turbo Boost Ratios and Power adjustments are available in the screen as well. At the bottom of the page you can choose to disable some CPU cores or Hyperthreading as well as set energy saving features such as C1E and EIST.

The Advanced Memory Settings is quite straightforward: it houses X.M.P. profile options, Memory Multipliers, and Timing Settings.

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Within the Advanced Voltage Settings are all voltages that are available on the board along with the default setting on the left for reference. The Load Line Calibration has 10 levels you can select from and works to eliminate vdroop but be careful with this as you may get more voltage than you expect.

Dynamic Vcore (DVID) is greyed out in the shot above but you can adjust this instead of Vcore if you set Vcore to Standard. Meanwhile, in the next grouping are the CPU PLL and a variety of memory-related voltages.

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The last submenu under the M.I.T. screen is Miscellaneous Settings which contains only two subsets: Isochronous Support and Virtualization Technology. Going back to the main Award BIOS screen we move down to the second submenu which is Standard CMOS Features. Here you find system time and date as well as hard drive configurations.

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The submenu below Standard CMOS Features is Advanced BIOS Features for setting things like Hard Disk Boot Priority, Quick Boot, No-Execute Memory Protect, and Onboard VGA. Also, you can set up your boot device sequence under First Boot Device if you want to set the system to boot from a DVD or USB stick.

The next subscreen is Integrated Peripherals where USB, LAN, onboard audio, GSATA, and eSATA can be controlled. eXtreme Hard Drive enables or disables the X.H.D function for the SATA controllers integrated in the Intel Z68 Chipset. When set to Enabled, the PCH SATA Control Mode item below will be set to RAID (XHD) automatically. If you plan on setting up SSD caching, remember to install Windows with the PCH SATA Control Mode set to RAID.

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The next section is on Power Management Setup and contains things like sleep state setup and resume by alarm. You can set power to be by keyboard, mouse, or alarm here. Next in the main menu is PC Health Status. This page gives all of your temperatures, voltages and fan speeds as well as setup for warnings for a number of things from CPU temp to fans.

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BIOS Profiles allow for saving and loading up to 8 BIOS profiles. You can save either on the BIOS chip itself or as a file on a flash drive or hard drive to avoid losing profiles when a BIOS is flashed. The Q-Flash Utility is a safe and handy way to flash the BIOS to a later one. Download the latest BIOS, put it on a flash drive, and the utility does the rest.
 
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