After transitioning to Microsoft Windows 8.1 and adjusting our testbed configuration, we set out on a second series of reviews of mainboards based on the Intel Z87 chipset and designed for LGA1150 processors. We've already tested over a dozen models, so we've surely covered the most interesting of them. Of course, it would be too presumptuous on our part to try and cover all Z87-based products just because every manufacturer keeps on expanding its product range and announcing new models. We must confess that there are quite a few original mainboards that have stayed out of our scope. For example, we've only tested one ASUS mainboard from the Republic of Gamers series which is targeted at gamers and overclockers although the series includes as many as five LGA1150 models. ASUS's TUF (The Ultimate Force) series, which features high reliability and extended warranty, has not been covered by us at all.
So we had planned to take ASUS’s TUF series Sabertooth Z87 model for our next review but, upon some consideration, changed our plans. The fact is we mostly write about full-size ATX or even large E-ATX mainboards, forgetting about the compact micro-ATX form-factor which has been gaining in popularity. A micro-ATX mainboard is normally as broad as an ATX mainboard (although can be smaller) but has a shorter length. In fact, a regular micro-ATX product is a 244x244mm square. The difference in length limits the number of expansion slots: up to 4 as opposed to 7 on full-size ATX mainboards. It may seem that the shorter length and the smaller number of slots is the only difference between micro-ATX and ATX mainboards, but that’s not exactly so. Today’s computers don’t often include more than two expansion cards, so four expansion slots is quite enough for the majority of configurations. Enthusiasts do not like the micro-ATX form-factor because they are not convenient when it comes to building and modifying computers.
The optimal component layout for mainboards has long been found out. Following well-established guidelines, the manufacturers just cannot produce ATX products with inconvenient design. But while the ATX form-factor only requires the manufacturer to place all the components in an optimal way, the micro-ATX form-factor poses the daunting task of placing components somewhere within the limited area. So, we have micro-ATX mainboards where the graphics slot is so close to the CPU socket that it is impossible to mount a large CPU cooler. Or it may be hard to replace or add memory modules as their slot latches are blocked by the installed graphics card. On such a mainboard, a large expansion card may cover SATA ports, a CPU power connector may be found right in the center of the PCB, and there's no talking about optimal placement of other components, such as fan connectors. The smaller size of the mainboard doesn’t help make the computer case much smaller, however. So an enthusiast could switch to the ATX form-factor without losing anything in terms of compactness.
The current situation is somewhat different, though. Today’s chipsets incorporate all basic functionality and support up-to-date interfaces, so there is no need to put a lot of additional controllers on the mainboard's PCB. And even if you do, the chips of network controllers and audio codecs have become much smaller due to improved manufacturing technologies. Large IDE, FDD and LPT connectors have disappeared whereas modern SATA and USB connectors are small and take less space. So, maybe it's time we changed our opinion about the micro-ATX form-factor. Could we just save some money by preferring a micro-ATX mainboard to an ATX one with the same functionality - without losing anything in terms of usability? To answer this question, we want to examine a few micro-ATX products from different brands. And since we’ve omitted to review a TUF series model, we decide to start with the ASUS Gryphon Z87 mainboard!