Articles: Mainboards

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As there remain fewer players on the mainboard market, the ones that are left expand their product line-ups as if trying to make up for the limited choice of brands. It is no wonder then that ASUS offers quite a lot of mini-ITX LGA1155 mainboards. Even if we narrow our scope to Z77-based ones, we still find as many as three products. We've picked up the P8Z77-I DELUXE model for our review. The DELUXE suffix indicates an advanced modification, yet ASUS also offers a more functional version with support for WiDi.

Developing their P8Z77-I DELUXE, ASUS engineers must have decided that users interested in a mini-ITX mainboard with flagship Intel Z77 chipset would want to have as much functionality as with premium-class full-size mainboards. That’s why the P8Z77-I DELUXE is targeted at enthusiasts, and quite rightly so. The mainboard sports tangible advantages and original solutions that make it a valuable overclocking platform.

The key feature of this kind can be spotted right away as soon as you take the P8Z77-I DELUXE into your hands. It is the only mini-ITX product whose power system is implemented on an integrated daughter card located at a right angle to the mainboard itself. This solution has helped ASUS implement a rather advanced voltage regulator which has no counterparts among compact mainboards from other brands. The exclusive digital regulator DIGI+ installed on the P8Z77-I DELUXE incorporates as many as 10 power phases and seems to be designed for very high loads. In fact, we've seen similar voltage regulators on full-size ASUS mainboards for LGA2011 processors.

The daughter card solution has its downsides, though. The high number of power phases worsens efficiency at low loads which are actually quite typical of compact computers. The exclusive EPU technology doesn’t save the day since it only lowers power consumption by 1 or 2%. Then, the daughter card also takes space around the CPU socket and may conflict with some CPU coolers. ASUS developers should be given credit, though, for designing the P8Z77-I DELUXE in a very clever way. The mainboard is user-friendly and compatible with a number of CPU coolers including large ones which are going to hang undisturbed on their heat pipes above the power system. The CPU socket is placed rather far from the PCI Express x16 slot, the chipset being right between them.

The voltage regulator and the chipset are cooled with rather primitive passive heatsinks, so the mainboard's components may get very hot. That's why it is desirable to provide some active cooling for the P8Z77-I DELUXE. There are only two 4-pin fan connectors on the mainboards which only support PWM-based speed regulation (i.e. using a 4-pin connection).

The P8Z77-I DELUXE proves its premium positioning with its selection of interfaces, too. Besides implementing every interface provided by the chipset, it adds to them with an additional USB 3.0 controller ASMedia ASM1042 which, unlike ordinary USB 3.0 implementations, supports high-speed UASP mode.

To support wireless interfaces, the P8Z77-I DELUXE comes with a mini-PCIe card that carries a Broadcom BCM43228 controller and features Bluetooth 4.0 as well as dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n. The wired network interface is based on a high-quality Gigabit Ethernet chip Intel 82579V.

Well, the P8Z77-I DELUXE isn’t superior to its opponents in every aspect. It is sad that it lacks an mSATA slot that would be able to take in a compact SSD. The disk subsystem capabilities are limited to two chipset-based SATA 6 Gbit/s and two SATA 3 Gbit/s ports. There are also two dual-port USB 2.0 headers and one 19-pin dual-port USB 3.0 connector. The rest of the mainboard's interface connectors can be found on its back panel, which is normal for a mini-ITX product.

So, the densely populated back panel offers four USB 2.0 ports, two chipset-based USB 3.0 connectors and two additional USB 3.0 ports (based on the ASMedia controller), two chipset-based eSATA 3 Gbit/s connectors, a Gigabit Ethernet port and two Wi-Fi antenna connectors. A CPU-integrated graphics core can be utilized via digital interfaces: HDMI, DVI and DisplayPort, the latter supporting display resolutions up to 2560x1600.

There are only three analog audio sockets, although three more might have been fitted in nearby. This limits the mainboard's capabilities in terms of driving multichannel speaker systems. On the other hand, the Realtek ALC898 codec installed on the P8Z77-I DELUXE supports DTS Connect, so encoded eight-channel audio can be transferred to an external receiver via the back-panel optimal SPDIF output.

There are two buttons on the back panel. One is Clear CMOS and another is BIOS Flashback and can be used to update firmware in critical situations, e.g. when you don’t have a CPU or memory installed.

One more hardware button can be found on the mainboard’s PCB. It enables the MemOK! feature to revive the system in case of memory-related problems. The P8Z77-I DELUXE also carries ASUS’s traditional TPU switch for automatic CPU overclocking but lacks Power and Reset buttons typical of DELUXE products. That’s okay since compact mainboards are not normally used as testbed components.

The accessories aren’t particularly numerous. Besides four SATA cables and an I/O Shield, there are two antennas, a handy splitter to connect the buttons and indicators of your computer case, and two long screws. The latter have to be used instead of standard screws because two mounting holes in the mainboard’s PCB are combined with thick fasteners of the VRM daughter card.

The P8Z77-I DELUXE has a standard graphical BIOS interface you can see with every modern ASUS mainboard. The mini-ITX form-factor doesn’t seem to have limited the BIOS options, yet the P8Z77-I DELUXE still can’t match the setup flexibility of its full-size DELUXE counterparts.

It can offer a full set of CPU overclocking options. You can adjust both the base clock rate and the CPU frequency multiplier. The latter can be set to change flexibly depending on how many CPU cores are at work. CPU voltage can be set as an absolute or an offset value. There are also settings to change memory and system agent voltages. Besides increasing, you can also decrease voltages, which may come in handy for an energy efficient computer.

VRM settings can be found in a separate subsection. There are few of them here, but they include an option of multistep counteraction to voltage drop. You can choose from five Load-Line Calibration modes.

Another section allows you to control CPU-related technologies.

Memory subsystem settings are abundant but, fortunately, you don’t have to configure them manually. The mainboard supports automatic configuring as well as XMP profiles.

The BIOS also offers a handy firmware update utility, another utility for viewing XMP profiles, and tools to manage profiles with settings. In other words, it has everything an overclocker needs to experiment.

And yet, our impressions about the ASUS P8Z77-I DELUXE as an overclocker-friendly platform are not at all positive. It just has one unpleasant problem. The CPU frequency multiplier gets stuck from time to time, ceasing to react to the value you set in the BIOS. It is especially annoying that the mainboard’s lack of reaction to your tweaking the CPU cannot be spotted before the OS boots up because the mainboard’s startup screen shows wrong CPU frequency information, as is typical of all ASUS products. Unfortunately, the mentioned problem persists in newer BIOS versions as well, so it is quite a daunting task to find optimal overclocking parameters, especially as you have to regularly wake the mainboard up from its stupor by pressing Clear CMOS.

Another inconvenience is that the ASUS P8Z77-I DELUXE is too smart. When you overclock, it begins to increase the base voltage of the CPU, without even telling you about that. So when you need to reach a specific voltage, you have to do it by trial and error. The other method – setting CPU voltage by entering an absolute value – is not desirable because the mainboard stops to lower that voltage at low CPU loads. It’s no good for a mini-ITX platform to be uneconomical in terms of power draw.

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