The majority of enthusiasts who build their computers themselves have a rather disparaging attitude towards microATX mainboards. Full-size ATX products are not only more functional as a rule but also offer more freedom. Designed in a user-friendly way, they let you easily change your PC configuration by adding or removing components whenever necessary. As opposed to that, building a microATX system involves a lot of problems. A large CPU cooler may get in the way of your discrete graphics card or tall memory modules. The graphics card itself may block your memory slot latches or SATA ports. You may run out of free expansion slots, so you have to compromise and limit yourself in some respects. All of this is largely due to the smaller dimensions of microATX mainboards, yet this reduction in size isn’t so dramatic in comparison with ATX products. The computer remains rather bulky, as contrasted with mini-ITX solutions which are even smaller but make up for their downsides by the attractive opportunity to have a full-featured computer in a tiny case.
Well, you’ll face all of the mentioned problems only when you want to enhance your configuration by means of graphics and other expansion cards. But you don’t have to use them, actually, since today's CPUs and chipsets provide a rich selection of basic features. A discrete graphics card is an indispensable component of a gaming PC but not all PC users are into heavy 3D games. Some people need a high-performance PC for computing and data processing rather than for gaming and limit their entertainment to casual games instead of the latest 3D shooters and simulators. Having low system requirements, casual games have become widespread on smartphones and tablet PCs, so they can easily run on a CPU-integrated graphics core.
So again, if you want a high-performance computer but don’t really need a discrete graphics card and other types of expansion cards, you can hardly notice any downsides about microATX solutions. Building a PC will then boil down to installing your CPU, CPU cooler and memory. All other functionality can be obtained from the mainboard. And you can enjoy the benefits of the lower price compared to a full-size ATX product with the same functions.
Taking this view on microATX mainboards, we decided to check out our theoretical reasoning in practice. Will it really be so easy and problem-free to assemble a microATX computer without a discrete graphics card? Will compact mainboards be as handy in terms of tweaking and overclocking as their full-size counterparts? Today, we are going to answer these questions by testing two regular microATX mainboards based on the Intel Z77 Express chipset from the two most popular manufacturers: ASUS P8Z77-M and Gigabyte GA-Z77M-D3H. They are junior models in their series, both manufacturers also offering more advanced microATX solutions, but they are comparable in terms of specifications and prices, so they are very easy to compare.