Articles: Mainboards

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Within the past year ASRock released a lot of very successful Intel Z77 based mainboards. Therefore, we were very excited to get our hands on their Mini-ITX product, especially since its model name doesn’t give away any exciting details other than the Mini-ITX form-factor. ASRock has established a very convenient naming convention for their full-size mainboards, where the models range from Extreme3 to Extreme11 allowing us to determine their positioning quite definitively. As for the positioning of the compact Z77E-ITX, it is pretty hard to outline right away. However, the combination of features allows us to assume that it belongs somewhere in the vicinity of Extreme3 ½, although any full-size ASRock mainboards do have a more powerful voltage regulator.

The design of the ASRock Z77E-ITX is based on a very simple principle. The functionality of this mainboard results from the combination of Intel Z77 chipset functionality and two additional controllers: USB 3.0 and WiFi. They used ASM1042 chip for the USB 3.0 controller, which supports UASP mode unlike the chipset USB 3.0 controller. WiFi is implemented using an additional mini-PCIe card installed into a special onboard slot. This card is built around the Realtek RTL8191SE controller, works in 2.4 GHz range and supports 802.11 b/g/n.

The variety of additional controllers on ASRock Z77E-ITX seems pretty modest, but it is important to remember that we are talking about a Mini-ITX mainboard here, so arranging any number of components conveniently on a PCB of this size is quite a challenge. Nevertheless, ASRock engineers managed to find room not only for the most critical and needed components and ports, but also for USB 2.0 two pin-connectors, one USB 3.0 pin-connector and two infra-red port connectors.

The number of SATA ports has been brought down to four: two of them work as 6 Gbps and two – as 3 Gbps. The two remaining ports supported by the Z77 chipset also didn’t go to waste. One of them has been laid out on the back panel, while the other became an mSATA slot. Since there was not enough room on the front of the mainboard, they moved this slot to the bottom side of the Z77E-ITX mainboard, which was a very smart move.

However, ASRock engineers did miss one thing. If you are using an mSATA SSD, it should be secured in place with a special screw. For example, the ASRock mainboard clearly has a special stand with the threading for this screw in it, but unfortunately, there was no screw included with the mainboard accessories. And this is actually a problem, because a screw like that is usually not included with the mSATA SSDs. So, if you are planning to use a compact drive with your Z77E-ITX mainboard, you may end up figuring out how to resolve the missing-screw issue on your own.

Since the mSATA slot is located on the reverse side of the PCB, it becomes perfectly clear that the front side of the PCB is literally packed with components. And we also have to admit that the components layout is not particularly convenient in this case. LGA 1155 socket has been moved too close to the PCI Express x16 slot, which means we can never use any of the powerful processor air-coolers. The best you can do is use a mini-tower with an 80 mm or a 92 mm fan. Moreover, when you are installing the cooler, you will have to keep an eye on the shape and positioning of the retention plate. Numerous SMD components on the back of the Z77E-ITX PCB as well as the mSATA slot pose serious obstacles for high-performance coolers with massive bakplates. Therefore, you are better off with a cooler that doesn’t have a backplate and uses plastic push-pin retention.

However, ASRock engineers do position their mainboard as a solution for computer enthusiasts. The clear indication of this intent is the use of a six-phase digital processor voltage regulator, which can be subjected to meticulous fine-tuning, including multi-step load-line calibration, and uses only high-quality electronic components. Namely, it is built with Japanese polymer solid state capacitors and has DrMOS chips for transistors. The voltage regulator is cooled by a very simple heatsink with a spring-screw retention, but this proves to be more than sufficient. The voltage regulator operates at comfortable temperatures.

The chipset is located right next to the voltage regulator heatsink, but it uses its own dedicated heatsink for cooling, which is not connected with the VRM heatsink next to it in any manner. Cooling was obviously not the primary focus for ASRock in this case, which also affected the number of fan connectors that Z77E-ITX has: there are only two fan connectors on this board – one for the processor, and another additional one. Both of them are four-pin fan connectors, but they do support three-pin fans, too. Moreover, the board is capable of adjusting the rotation speed of both these fans depending on the current temperature readings.

Overall, ASRock Z77E-ITX seems to have everything you can think of, even though it is a relatively inexpensive Mini-ITX mainboard on Intel Z77 Express chipset. For example, it uses a very good Broadcom BCM57781 Gigabit network controller and a popular eight-channel Realtek ALC898 codec. The only thing that we were not particularly happy about during this review, was the bundled WiFi antenna, which is not powerful enough for the job. But it can be easily replaced, if necessary.

The ports and connectors on the mainboard back panel are also quite impressive. There are two USB 2.0 ports, two chipset USB 3.0 ports, with two similar ports implemented via the ASMedia controller. They even remembered to add the gamers favorite PS/2 port (it is universal in Z77E-ITX allowing to connect either keyboard or mouse to it), which is still very popular among gamers these days. Also there is one of the chipset SATA 3 Gbps channels in the back, implemented as an eSATA port. There are DVI-I, HDMI and DisplayPort video outs, as well as five analogue audio-jacks and an optical SPDIF out for sound. There you can also find a Gigabit network port and two connectors for wireless antennas. The last but not the least is the Clear CMOS button.

The bundled accessories are pretty typical. Among them you can find an I/O Shield for the back panel, two SATA cables, a WiFi antenna and a DVI-to-D-Sub adapter.

Contemporary full-size ASRock mainboards started using graphics BIOS interface with the “starlit sky” background. The Z77E-ITX uses the previous generation blue and light blue colored interface, but the interface design doesn’t affect the functionality in any way.

The section dedicated to processor overclocking welcomes us with the preset profiles, but they will hardly be relevant for Mini-ITX systems, where performance is not the only focus, but power consumption and heat dissipation matter as well. Therefore, manual configuring seems to make much more sense in these circumstances, especially since ASRock has everything you could possibly need. The processor Vcore may be adjusted in absolute as well as relative values, there are options that allow adjusting the VTT and the system agent voltage. The load-line calibration functions are also right here: the digital VRM offers very granular approach to selecting the load-line calibration intensity and Vdroop levels.

The memory settings are singled out into a separate sub-section, even though you can automatically set the XMP profiles directly from the main overclocking section. The timings can be adjusted individually, and all the remaining timings may be left at Auto in this case.

You can configure Turbo Boost and Enhanced Intel SpeedStep processor technologies in the same section as the rest of the overclocking-related options, but all other similar settings are singled out into an individual page.

There are a few little things about the ASRock Z77E-ITX BIOS that make working with it a very pleasant and rewarding experience. The settings can be saved in profiles, and the BIOS can be updated from a file stored on an external storage device as well as via Internet without leaving the Setup interface.

CPU overclocking on ASRock Z77E-ITX produced very ambiguous results. On the one hand, it was pretty hard to find a suitable cooler, which could fit onto this mainboard and at the same time would be more efficient than a boxed one. We decided to go with a CoolerMaster Hyper TX3, but it was barely enough to cool our Ivy Bridge processor overclocked to 4.4 GHz. On the other hand, we managed to easily configure all the settings for this overclocking. Although we noticed that the mainboard automatically increased the processor Vcore when we raised its frequency above the nominal values. And it means that it is very difficult to achieve a desired and expected result by changing the processor core voltage in the offset mode: multiple system reboots will be necessary to ensure success.

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