ASRock, Asus and Gigabyte are the today’s leading mainboard manufacturers, who currently offer the most successful and interesting platforms. Therefore, many mainboards from these manufacturers may be very similar and sometimes it may be hard to choose the one. That is why we had actually expected the Mini-ITX Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI to be about the same as the compact mainboards from the competition, but it managed to genuinely surprise us. The thing is that Gigabyte engineers decided to stand out big time and created a truly unique product. Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI boasts an exclusive set of features, which you will not see on any of the existing alternatives.
Most miniature mainboards on Intel Z77 chipset boast similar specifications because it is very difficult to equip mainboards like that with additional onboard controllers in order to expand their functionality – they are just too small. Therefore, the engineers usually go with the most essential components only, which in most cases are wireless network controllers and additional USB 3.0 ports. However, Gigabyte had a different idea: the functionality of the Intel Z77 chipset in GA-Z77N-WIFI is expanded with a WiFi controller and two wired Gigabit network controllers. As a result, this mainboard may become an excellent platform not only for a compact PC, but also for a home mini-server functioning as a router and a NAS.
However, taking into account this unusual functionality Gigabyte engineers could also think about adding additional high-speed SATA ports onto their mainboard. But they didn’t, and just like other Mini-ITX mainboards, GA-Z77N-WIFI has only four SATA ports. Two of them work at 6 Gbps speed and the other two – at 3 Gbps speed. Other internal ports and connectors are also quite traditional for a mainboard like that: two onboard pin-connectors for USB 2.0 ports, a pin-connector for USB 3.0 ports and a connector for the front panel audio jacks. This standard set is enriched with a serial port pin-connector, which is a very rare occurrence in 2013.
The backpanel ports and connectors are overall quite traditional. Besides the two Gigabit network ports implemented via Realtek RTL8111F controller, nothing else stands out as rare or unusual. External devices can be plugged into a pair of USB 3.0 and four USB 2.0 ports (all implemented in the chipset), and into a universal PS/2 port that can work with either a mouse or a keyboard. Note that Gigabyte mainboard has no eSATA ports at all, i.e. two SATA ports out of six provided by the chipset haven’t been used at all. The graphics core integrated into the processor can be engaged via two HDMI ports or a DVI-I connector. Integrated sound implemented via eight-channel Realtek ALC892 codec goes into five analogue audio-jacks and an optical SPDIF out.
Besides everything mentioned above, there are two connectors for WiFi antennas on the mainboard backpanel. The wireless controller is designed as a daughter PCIe module that goes into an existing slot on the PCB. Unlike other mainboard makers, Gigabyte chose Intel Wireless-N 2230 card for their GA-Z77N-WIFI. It supports 802.11 b/g/n standard at 2.4 GHz frequency and offers up to 300 Mbps transfer rate. It also supports Bluetooth 4.0. But its primary distinguishing feature is the Intel Wireless Display (WiDi) support. As a result, GA-Z77N-WIFI boasts very interesting additional functionality: it can take on HDMI devices connected wirelessly to it. None of the other mainboards in this roundup can boast anything like that.
The accessories bundled with Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI quite expectedly include a pair of WiFi antennas, two SATA cables and an I/O Shield for the back panel. There is nothing else in the box.
Nevertheless, the functionality of the Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI makes it a very interesting and intriguing product, especially since it is the least expensive Mini-ITX mainboard on Intel Z77. However, inexpensive is not always absolutely impeccable. This little mainboard has a few areas of concern, one of which is its layout. For example, the power supply connectors are not in the most convenient spots, while the connectors related to the front of the system case have been moved all the way to the back of the PCB for some reason. If you really take your cable management seriously, then you will have to invest quite a bit of time and effort to make it happen. Moreover, the LGA 1155 processor socket on Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI is located side by side with a PCI Express x16 slot, while the chipset is at the very top of the PCB. This will not allow you to use high-performance coolers designed for 120 mm fans (or larger) on this platform. Just like with ASRock Z77E-ITX, you will have to go with something similar to a boxed cooler or with a tower supporting 80 mm or 92 mm fans.
But this isn’t all yet. I would also like to draw your attention to the design of the processor voltage regulator circuitry. It is powered by a four-pin connector and has four-phase design, but most importantly it has no cooling heatsink of any kind. As a result, the mainboards heats up a lot around the VRM area: we registered temperatures up to 95°C during our test session. GA-Z77N-WIFI doesn’t offer you much flexibility for organizing the cooling. It has only two four-pin fan connectors and they are unable to adjust the rotation speed of the three-pin fans connected to them. Therefore, it is great to see that they used textolite and electronic components capable of withstanding high temperatures.
The BIOS of GA-Z77N-WIFI turned out not so overclocking-friendly. Although it is based on the same exact architecture as the BISO of all other Gigabyte mainboards on Z77 chipset and has very familiar graphics interface, it is lacking many of the key settings.
The main configuration section where you can manage the frequencies of all major system components is impeccable. Here you can change the clock generator frequency, set the memory frequency or adjust the processor clock frequency multiplier.
Processor power-saving technologies and automatic overclocking are singled out into an individual page.
The memory settings configuration is also very easy and intuitive. All XMP profiles are fully supported and you can also adjust the frequencies and timings manually if you like. The mainboard supports a very wide range of settings, which can be adjusted for each channel individually.
However, the Advanced Voltage Settings section could use some work. The only voltage that can be increased or lowered is the memory voltage. The processor voltages cannot be changed, and there is no way to configure the Load-Line Calibration. We can see once again that GA-Z77N-WIFI is not an overclocker platform, even though it uses Intel Z77 Express chipset. Moreover, the BIOS doesn’t allow to lower the voltages in order to increase the board’s energy-efficiency.
Except the lack of overclocking-friendly settings, the BIOS of Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI is perfect. Gigabyte has been polishing off their BIOS interface, and by now it has everything a user may ever dream off: convenient viewing of the system info, BIOS updating utility, profiles management system including saving them on external media, etc.
Overall, the practical experience with Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI is ambiguous. Although the board doesn’t allow adjusting the processor Vcore, it does increase it on its own quite noticeably. This increase equaled a little over 0.1 V for our Core i5-3570K processor, which affects the board’s energy-efficiency quite substantially and causes the processor thermals to rise. Even though Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI has a voltage regulator with few phases, which should be quite efficient under low operational loads, it turned out to be the most energy-hungry of all Mini-ITX mainboards discussed today.
However, I have to admit that increase in the processor Vcore does work well during overclocking. Even though Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI NIOS doesn’t let the user to set any voltages, we managed to get our test processor working stably at 4.3 GHz frequency, which is just a little lower than the rest of the Mini-ITX boards in this roundup with a wide variety of fully-functional overclocking-friendly settings.