There are more and more mini-ITX mainboards that allow building high-performance PC configurations. This market has become highly competitive and the manufacturers have to try hard and come up with attractive and original solutions. The Z77-based product from MSI features a free combined mini-PCIe/mSATA slot which can accommodate SSDs as well as expansion cards. This slot is easier to use than the one on the ASRock Z77E-ITX. It is located on the face side of the PCB and has fasteners for half-length as well as full-size cards.
The addition of the mini-PCI/mSATA slot hasn’t affected the rest of the mainboard’s capabilities much. Like most of its opponents, it is equipped with both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth controllers but they are connected via USB and, designed in a compact form-factor, reside on the back panel. This implementation doesn’t affect the speed of wireless data transfer much. A Bluetooth module with USB interface is in fact a typical solution. As for the Wi-Fi module, it is original indeed. Based on an Atheros AR9271 chip, it supports 802.11n/g/b and works in the 2.4GHz frequency band. The implementation we see here implies only one antenna, so the bandwidth is limited to 150 Mbps. Well, if you don’t like the default wireless modules of the MSI Z77IA-E53, you can remove them neatly and replace them with a mini-PCIe card.
Unfortunately, the free combined expansion slot and the wireless USB adapters are all the extras the MSI Z77IA-E53 can offer. The rest of its capabilities are derived from its chipset. It has no additional chips for more USB or SATA ports. It is no wonder then that it only carries one onboard header for two USB 2.0 ports and one header for two USB 3.0 ports. The number of SATA connectors is limited to four: two 3 Gbit/s and two 6 Gbit/s ports.
Although the MSI Z77IA-E53 doesn’t carry too many components, its layout is rather inconvenient. Connectors that are supposed to be attached to the computer case’s I/O ports are located at the farther end of the PCB. The ATX power connectors are placed properly, though. The LGA1155 socket is too close to the PCI Express x16 slot, preventing you from installing advanced CPU coolers, especially if the graphics card has a heatsink or a stiffening plate at the back. So, the mainboard is only compatible with tower-design coolers for 80mm or 92mm fans and with compact water-cooling solutions. Proper air cooling is only possible if you use the integrated graphics core.
The back panel of the MSI Z77IA-E53 isn’t exciting, either. Unlike the rest of the Z77-based mini-ITX mainboards, it only offers two video connectors: D-Sub and HDMI. It means you cannot connect three monitors to the integrated graphics core and even may have problems connecting both a monitor and a TV-set at the same time. Then, there are only three analog audio outputs on the back panel. Although the mainboard employs an eight-channel Realtek ALC892 codec, you cannot output more than six audio channels. The ASUS P8Z77-I DELUXE solves this problem by offering an SPDIF output and the MSI Z77IA-E53 has an optical SPDIF too, but it doesn’t support DTS Connect.
The back panel also offers four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports and one eSATA 3 Gbit/s – all supported by the chipset. The Gigabit Ethernet connector you can see nearby is based on a Realtek 8111E controller. A PS/2 socket for mouse or keyboard and a Clear CMOS button, which has become a typical feature of modern mainboards for some reason, are also available. Take note that the mainboard’s Wi-Fi module has a not-very-popular MC antenna connector.
The MSI Z77IA-E53 features a six-phase CPU voltage regulator which is made of integrated DrMOS components, solid-state capacitors and ferrite-core chokes. A simple heatsink is secured on the hottest components with screws. The voltage regulator doesn’t get very hot at work, so this cooling solution is quite sufficient. A similar heatsink is mounted on the chipset and copes with its job just as well. There are only two fan connectors on the mainboard, one of which is for a CPU fan. Both are of the 4-pin variety and do not support speed regulation for 3-pin fans.
Included with the mainboard are a Wi-Fi antenna, two SATA cables, and an I/O Shield. No extras here.
Mainboard makers are prone to transfer their BIOS solutions to compact products with certain simplifications. The MSI Z77IA-E53 is an exception as its BIOS offers the same options in MSI’s standard graphical interface as you get with MSI’s full-size mainboards. The interface is not user-friendly because some settings are distributed among its sections in an illogical away, but it doesn’t limit your setup opportunities.
Most of the CPU and memory related parameters are grouped into a single section. You can adjust multipliers for CPU and DDR3 SDRAM frequencies and set up voltages in a rather wide range. The mainboard can counteract CPU voltage drop at high loads. However, you cannot set up CPU voltage by using an offset value, which is a typical downside of all MSI products. It means that by changing voltage you disable power-saving technologies, so overclocking and downclocking both become far less attractive.
There’s a separate section with memory timings. You can change any of them and use XMP profiles. Every setting can be configured automatically. You can change them independently for each DDR3 SDRAM slot.
CPU technologies are set up in a dedicated section, too, except for Turbo Boost and Enhanced Intel SpeedStep which are enabled on the main page.
MSI’s BIOS provides a good set of useful utilities so you can update firmware, manage settings profiles (also using an external disk) and get exhaustive information about your CPU and memory modules.
The MSI Z77IA-E53 isn’t actually as handy for CPU overclocking as it seems. Its inability to set CPU voltage using an offset value is a significant downside, especially for a mini-ITX product. Changing the CPU multiplier manually makes it fixed at the specified level. So, as soon as you overclock your Z77IA-E53, the CPU will always work at increased voltage and frequency even when idle, although most other mainboards can drop these parameters at low loads. The increased power consumption and heat dissipation are not appropriate for a mini-ITX mainboard.
Thus, the MSI Z77IA-E53 isn’t good for building a compact overclocking platform but we don’t have any complaints about its working at its default settings. On the other hand, if you don’t want to overclock, you can prefer a mainboard with Intel’s H77 chipset which is going to provide the same functionality, except for CPU overclocking options.