by Ilya Gavrichenkov
04/28/2013 | 06:22 AM
Take a look inside your computer case. You most likely have a mainboard with a processor and memory, one graphics card, one or two storage drives and no additional expansion cards. And it means that it doesn’t really need a large system case. You can easily put together a system with almost the same performance and functionality inside a compact MINI-ITX form-factor, which will also offer you a number of unique advantages. For example, Mini-ITX systems will not only take very little space and collect less dust, because they will be sitting on the desk and not on the floor, but they are often more energy-efficient and fit more seamlessly into contemporary design.
Just recently Mini-ITX platforms were associated with lower performance and lack of any overclocking. However, progress keeps going on. Today we have highly energy-efficient processors and single-chip core logic sets, which encouraged the arrival of miniature systems with full functionality even from the computer enthusiasts’ point of view. So, today’s Mini-ITX systems are not just nettops, micro-servers and media centers, but also high-performance gaming computers, even though it may sound somewhat paradoxical. A great illustration of this evolutionary development is the Falcon Northwest Tiki gaming PC, which is built inside a Mini-ITX case with a quad-core Core i7 CPU and a flagship GeForce GTX graphics accelerator. And if professional system builders have already started putting together systems like that, why cannot we, regular users, do the same?
The release of the Intel Z77 chipset that combines all the LGA 1155 functionality in a single chip stimulated the development of numerous Mini-ITX mainboards, which could easily compete against their full-size counterparts in terms of functionality and features. Today products designed in Mini-ITX format even offer a complete range of overclocking-friendly functions, not to mention the previous accomplishments such as support of top processors and high-performance graphics accelerators. And I am not talking about a few unique mainboards, but about the overall growth of the market of Mini-ITX solutions like that. All major players in the mainboard market are currently offering products like that.
This is one of the reasons we put together this roundup in the first place. Here we will compare the existing LGA 1155 Mini-ITX mainboards that could be used to build an advanced gaming computer that will also allow overclocking the processor. And I have to admit that we uncovered quite a few mainboards like that. Of course, if you choose to build a compact high-performance gaming computer like that, you will need to find a suitable Mini-ITX system case with a PSU powerful enough and the internal cooling organization efficient enough to handle a high-performance system. But, frankly, this isn’t a problem these days. The key element of a system like that is still the mainboard and we are going to find the best possible choice among the existing products from ASRock, Asus, EVGA, Gigabyte, MSI and Zotac.
If based on the same platform and chipsets, mini-ITX mainboards from different brands tend to have a lot in common, largely due to the restraints of the form-factor itself. There’s not much room on a 17x17cm PCB for an engineer’s imagination to unfold, especially as there are a number of obligatory requirements.
Any mini-ITX LGA1155 mainboard which is based on the Intel Z77 chipset and targeted at high-performance configurations must have at least one PCI Express x16 3.0 slot for a discrete graphics card and two DDR3 SDRAM slots for a dual-channel memory subsystem. It must be full-size memory slots, by the way, because high-speed DDR3 modules are not manufactured in the SO-DIMM form-factor. Every compact LGA1155 mainboard must also be equipped with video outputs to enable a CPU-integrated graphics core.
Some of the common features of the mainboards we’re discussing here stem from the Intel Z77’s capabilities. Every mainboard has two SATA 6 Gbit/s ports, two SATA 3 Gbit/s ports, at least four USB 3.0 ports, and a few USB 2.0 connectors. On the other hand, their developers can flexibly choose any network and audio controllers and can add onboard controllers for more SATA and USB ports. They can install mini-PCIe and mSATA expansion slots or not. And they can also choose if they want to bundle Wi-Fi/Bluetooth controllers with their products or leave that to the user.
Mini-ITX mainboards are quite different in terms of their overclocking capabilities. The compact form-factor doesn't allow to implement a multiphase voltage regulator with advanced cooling, so the developers have to look for compromises of some kind or another. Some of them limit the mainboard's BIOS options while others hope that extreme overclocking will be limited naturally, i.e. by the parameters of the employed CPU cooler. There are mini-ITX products that look very similar to the full-size enthusiast-targeted mainboards and even feature Power and Reset buttons and POST indicators.
Thus, there are wide variations in mainboards' specs. To help you compare the Z77-based mini-ITX products we've included into this review, we've put their basic specs together into a single table.
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.
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.
We’ve had difficult relationships with EVGA mainboards. We’ve tried to test them a number of times throughout the last year but had to give up the idea after various problems emerged. Meanwhile, EVGA mainboards are quite enticing. They are cleverly designed and well-made products in attractive packaging, so every new model seems to be interesting. That’s why we want to give them another try.
As usual, an EVGA mainboard seems perfect at first sight. The Z77 Stinger features an almost perfect component layout. Although it’s often hard to place every component properly on a compact PCB, this mainboard is a good illustration that miniaturization doesn’t have to be inconvenient. The Z77 Stinger also looks a perfect overclocking platform since there’s a lot of free space around the CPU socket, meaning that you can easily install massive CPU coolers. The recipe is simple: like on the ASUS P8Z77-I DELUXE, the chipset is placed in between the LGA1155 socket and the PCI Express x16 slot.
The mainboard is overclocker-friendly in other respects, too. For example, it has hardware Power and Reset buttons, so you can use it as part of an open testbed. Its full-featured POST indicator is quite a rare thing to see on a mini-ITX product. The indicator does double duty, reporting CPU temperature after the mainboard has started up.
The CPU voltage regulator incorporates seven power phases, using IR3550 PowIRstage integrated circuits and solid-state capacitors. It features high efficiency, which is confirmed by the low temperature of the regulator’s components at work. Anyway, EVGA installed a rather massive heatsink, securing it with screws. A similar heatsink is mounted on the chipset, so the Z77 Stinger is blameless in this respect.
The mainboard offers not two but three 4-pin fan connectors, which is more than enough for a mini-ITX mainboard. Unfortunately, they only support PWM-based regulation, so 3-pin fans will work at their full speed always.
For all these advantages, the Z77 Stinger is not really perfect. There are some minor flaws in its design. First of all, the DIMM slots are too close to each other. Overclocker-friendly memory modules like Corsair’s Dominator Platinum may feel cramped and will be pushing each other with their plump heatsinks. Secondly, the onboard USB headers are placed at the mainboard’s back panel, so the cables are going to trail through the entire computer case from the latter’s front-panel connectors. And thirdly, the Z77 Stinger lacks a connector for the computer case’s audio sockets. These are all but minor downsides, though. The good news is that the ATX power connectors are placed in such a way that you can easily access them while assembling your PC configuration.
We felt more disappointed when we looked through the mainboard’s detailed specs. The Z77 Stinger is positioned as a premium solution, priced at $200. That’s more expensive than any other Z77-based mini-ITX product. But the EVGA mainboard doesn’t offer anything special. It doesn’t even come with a bundled Wi-Fi controller, offering an empty miniPCIe slot instead. Otherwise, the Z77 Stinger is comparable to regular mini-ITX mainboards you can see in this review. Its capabilities are determined by the chipset and two extra controllers: an ASMedia ASM1042 for additional USB 3.0 ports and a Marvell 88SE6121 for eSATA 3 Gbit/s.
Despite the extra SATA controller, the Z77 Stinger has only four SATA ports: two 3 Gbit/s and two 6 Gbit/s ones. It has two USB 2.0 headers and one USB 3.0 header. All of these ports are implemented via the chipset.
The back panel looks kind of empty because the mainboard lacks DVI and Wi-Fi antenna connectors. It only offers two video outputs: HDMI and mini-DisplayPort. The following can also be found on the back panel: two USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports (two of which are based on the ASMedia controller), a Gigabit Ethernet port (based on an Intel 82574L controller) and two eSATA ports (based on the additional Marvell controller whereas two of the chipset’s SATA channels remain unused). Analog speaker systems can be connected to the mainboard’s five audio sockets. An optical SPDIF output is available, too. Finally, we can see a Clear CMOS button and a miniature Bluetooth adapter BTA3011M01 with USB interface.
The accessories to the EVGA Z77 Stinger include four SATA cables and two SATA power adapters. The included I/O Shield has unneeded openings for Wi-Fi antenna connectors.
It is the mainboard’s BIOS that’s the main disappointment, though. Even its user interface doesn’t bode well. While the rest of the manufacturers have already switched to a graphical BIOS Setup, the Z77 Stinger offers an archaic text-based one with just a few graphical icons.
The list of settings isn’t impressive, either. The Overclocking section contains CPU configuring options, but the voltage can only be set as an absolute value. It means you cannot overclock in an energy-efficient way. The fixed voltage cannot be changed, so the CPU loses its ability to enter power-saving states at low and zero loads.
Memory configuring is done in a special section where we can see a lot of options but no XMP support. The top memory mode supported is only DDR3-2133.
CPU technologies are controlled from a dedicated section, too. Everything’s normal here. Like any overclocker-friendly platform, the mainboard supports multistep counteraction to CPU voltage drop under high loads.
The Z77 Stinger is inferior to its opponents in terms of extra BIOS tools. It cannot update its firmware without booting the OS, for example. The BIOS doesn’t provide any information about the memory modules’ SPD or XMP profiles.
All of the mentioned downsides are pale before the Z77 Stinger’s behavior in practice. We must confess we couldn’t test it normally at its default as well as overclocked settings.
At its default settings the Z77 Stinger refused to set the CPU clock rate up properly. As we used an unlocked Core i5-3570K, the mainboard increased its frequency multiplier by one step without our intervention. We couldn’t turn off this feature, so the mainboard imposes this overclocking on you without asking. Another problem is that the Z77 Stinger is unstable with any memory faster than DDR3-1600. In other words, this rather expensive and enthusiast-targeted mainboard only allows using slow entry-level modules of DDR3 SDRAM.
New problems emerge when you try to overclock. Increasing the CPU multiplier above the default level disables all power-saving technologies, so the CPU works at a constant clock rate irrespective of load. Of course, its voltage remains constant as well. This is true until a certain load, though. In heavy applications the CPU multiplier drops back to its default level for some reason and we can’t check out the mainboard’s stability at overclocked settings because every stability test is a heavy application.
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.
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.
Zotac is not a major brand on the mainboard market, the company’s main business being concerned with graphics cards and nettops. It is the mini-ITX form-factor which is Zotac’s favorite, though. The company doesn’t miss new platforms and is always present in our comparative reviews of compact mainboards. Based on the Intel Z77 chipset, the Z77-ITX WiFi is a second enthusiast-targeted solution from Zotac. But can it compete with products from brands that are far more experienced in designing overclocker-friendly mainboards?
The exterior design of the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi suggests that it can. It looks most impressive with its massive heatsinks on the chipset and the VRM which are secured with screws and connected to each other with a heat pipe. The cooling system does its job well, the temperature of the voltage regulator being the lowest among all the mainboards in this review. The eight-phase VRM features solid-state capacitors, ferrite-core chokes and integrated DrMOS components.
Enthusiasts will surely appreciate a number of things about the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi. Despite its compact size, it offers a full-featured POST indicator, Power and Reset buttons and a replaceable BIOS chip.
And still, the component layout is not good enough to make the mainboard compatible with massive cooling systems. As on many other LGA1155 mini-ITX mainboards, the CPU socket is too close to the PCI Express x16 slot, although it would be more convenient for the user if the chipset were placed between them, like on the ASUS P8Z77-I DELUXE or EVGA Z77 Stinger. As a result, you can only install a tower-design cooler with an 80mm or 92mm fan or something like a standard boxed cooler. The Z77-ITX WiFi provides two fan connectors, both of the 4-pin type. 3-pin fans will not be regulated by this mainboard.
We didn’t like that most of the mainboard’s headers for the computer case’s I/O ports are closer to the back panel. The cables are going to trail through the entire case. The ATX power connectors are placed properly, though.
As for functionality, the Z77-ITX WiFi boasts separate mini-PCIe and mSATA slots, both on the face side of the mainboard. The engineers could implement this solution by installing the mini-PCIe slot upright – there’s a special metallic frame for securing an expansion card in it. The slot is already occupied by a Wi-Fi controller. It is based on an Atheros AR5B195 chipset that supports 802.11 b/g/n at 2.4 GHz. The same card is responsible for Bluetooth. The mSATA slot is free, so you can install an SSD, but you should be aware that the slot is connected to a chipset’s 3 Gbit/s port.
Most of the other features are implemented via the Z77 chipset, the Z77-ITX WiFi offering a standard selection of four SATA ports (two of them can work in 6 Gbit/s mode), two headers for four USB 2.0 ports, and one header for two USB 3.0 ports.
The rest of the interfaces are available on the back panel which is largely blocked by the massive VRM heatsink. Anyway, we can see four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a universal mouse/keyboard PS/2 socket, and two wired network connectors. Like Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI, the Zotac has extended networking capabilities thanks to two Gigabit Ethernet Realtek 8111E controllers. The Z77-ITX WiFi has no eSATA connector, though.
Besides everything else, there are two Wi-Fi antenna connectors, three digital video outputs (two HDMI and one mini-DisplayPort), five analog audio sockets and an optical SPDIF output on the back panel. The audio subsystem is based on a midrange 8-channel Realtek ALC889 codec. The overclocker targeting of the Z77-ITX WiFi is emphasized by the Clear CMOS button.
It must be noted that this mainboard comes with the richest accessories among all products in this review. Its box contains not only four SATA cables, a couple of Wi-Fi antennas and an I/O Shield, but also an extension cord for an 8-pin power cable, a mini-DisplayPort->DisplayPort adapter, and a back-panel bracket with two USB 3.0 connectors.
Zotac seems to have designed a very attractive product but our impression is significantly spoiled by its BIOS. We’ve come to take graphical interfaces for granted whereas the Z77-ITX WiFi has a text-based BIOS Setup with eye-straining colors, no mouse support, incomprehensible setup options and some other downsides. So, there’s no talking about easy configuring here.
That said, the Z77-ITX WiFi does offer everything necessary to overclock your system. Most of CPU and memory options are collected under the X-Settings section. You can specify CPU and memory voltages and enable the technology that counteracts voltage drop at high loads. As opposed to the other mainboards, Zotac’s Load-Line Calibration can only be enabled or disabled. You cannot flexibly choose the level of counteraction. The mainboard doesn’t allow to change system agent voltage whereas the lowest CPU voltage is 1.1 volts, which is rather too high, especially if you want to maximize your computer’s power draw.
CPU-related parameters can be found on a separate page. You can change all CPU technologies and change its frequency multiplier here. Overclocking is rather unusual with this mainboard. It is impossible to increase the base multiplier above the default level, so you have to specify higher Turbo Boost multipliers or lower Turbo Boost thresholds. You can also increase CPU voltage here by specifying the offset that is added in Turbo mode.
Memory settings aren’t numerous but you can tweak the basic timings. The mainboard can only configure all of the timings automatically. XMP is supported.
Some more CPU settings can be found in the CPU Configuration subsection of the Advanced section. It also shows some basic information about the installed CPU.
The BIOS of the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi is not just ugly but also not very functional. It lacks information, has no integrated firmware update tool, doesn’t support multiple setup profiles, and offers no automatic overclock feature.
During our tests we noticed this mainboard to be somewhat slower than its opponents, especially at gaming loads. We don’t know why but we also noticed that our CPU switched to the Turbo mode less eagerly on the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi than on the other mainboards. Another notable downside is that it sets CPU voltage too high at the default settings – and the 0.1V addition makes it the least economical of all of the mainboards in this review.
Well, this didn’t prevent us from getting good results from the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi at overclocking. We easily made our Core i5-3570K stable at 4.4 GHz and 1.3 volts, so the Zotac is no different from the other mainboards in this review in this respect. However, the Load-Line Calibration feature would cause significant fluctuations in CPU voltage at high loads. It may show up badly in some situations.
Since we are focusing on Mini-ITX mainboards, which want to be considered an alternative to full-size platforms, we didn’t make any special allowances during our test session. It means that our testbed was equipped with an overclocker Core i5 processor – Core i5-3570K, and a high-performance discrete graphics card – GeForce GTX 680. Moreover, during this test session we also paid special attention to practical overclocking.
However, we did have to make one small change. Unfortunately, many Mini-ITX mainboards impose restrictions on the size of the processor cooler that they can accommodate. Therefore, in a number of cases we had to replace our traditional NZXT Havik 140 with a considerably smaller CoolerMaster Hyper TX3. Otherwise, our standard platform remained the same. It included the following hardware and software components:
All mini-ITX mainboards based on the Intel Z77 chipset provide some overclocking settings and we’ve focused on them in our descriptions above. And while the basic features (CPU multiplier and memory frequency adjustments) are available in every mainboard’s BIOS, their voltage regulation capabilities may vary. That’s why we’ve summarized them in the following table.
The ASRock Z77E-ITX and ASUS P8Z77-I DELUXE offer as much flexibility as possible, providing a full selection of overclocking options. The other mainboards allows increasing CPU and memory voltage too, but have no such flexibility and you should be aware of their limitations. The only exception is the Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI which offers but basic overclocking capabilities and doesn’t allow to change any voltage save for memory voltage.
A mainboard’s CPU overclocking capacity is not limited to its voltage management. Its VRM design and stability at high loads are important as well. That’s why we want to test our mini-ITX mainboards at overclocked settings.
Our testing method is somewhat different from what we normally use in our mainboard reviews. Mini-ITX systems have certain limitations concerning their cooling. That’s why we don’t increase CPU voltage above 1.3 volts and try to make the CPU work at 4.4 GHz. Our Core i5-3570K should be perfectly stable at that clock rate. We also try to change CPU voltage by using an offset rather than an absolute value to keep power-saving technologies up and running.
Every mainboard can keep the Core i5-3570K stable at 4.4 GHz, except for the Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI which is limited to 4.3 GHz. We had to use an absolute voltage value for the EVGA Z77 Stinger and MSI Z77IA-E53, so their power-saving technologies were turned off. Besides, the EVGA Z77 Stinger was unstable with our DDR3-2133 SDRAM, so we had to lower the memory frequency to DDR3-1600 to let the mainboard pass through all of our stability checks. The results are shown in the following table.
We measured the temperature of the VRM components during our stability tests to see how efficiency they are and how they can sustain CPU overclocking. It is undesirable for mini-ITX systems to have too hot components.
The EVGA Z77 Stinger and Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi have the lowest VRM temperature, both mainboards featuring massive heatsinks on their hot components. The Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI has no VRM cooling at all, so its DrMOS chips get very, very hot. The ASUS P8Z77-I DELUXE is surprisingly hot, too. This mainboard has a 10-phase VRM on a daughter card and its temperature is above average for some reason.
We compared the performance of the mainboards twice: at the default settings and at the overclocked settings (as detailed in the previous section). The EVGA Z77 Stinger wasn’t benchmarked at its default settings because it couldn’t clock our Core i5-3570K processor at the latter’s standard frequency.
First we run the SuperPi benchmark which calculates 32 million digits of Pi. It is the only single-threaded test where the number of CPU cores doesn’t affect performance. The diagram shows the time it takes to do the calculation (in seconds).
Cinebench 11.5 benchmarks the speed of final rendering. We run the CPU test five times and calculate the average.
We have been using Fritz Chess Benchmark utility for a long time already and it proved very illustrative. It generates repeatable results, its speed scaling up perfectly depending on the number of execution threads.
The x264 FHD Benchmark v1.0.1 (64bit) test benchmarks system performance while transcoding HD video with the popular x264 codec. The diagram shows the average of five runs of the benchmark:
The speed of data compression was measured with the WinRAR 4.2 benchmark.
We measured performance in Adobe Photoshop CS6 using a modified Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test. It includes typical processing of four 24-megapixel images captured with a digital photo camera.
The next diagram shows the results of 3DMark Fire Strike. We focus on the physics test that emulates the behavior of a complex gaming system working with numerous objects:
The overall 3DMark Fire Strike scores open our gaming test section.
Besides 3DMark, we used games: Metro 2033, F1 2012 and Hitman: Absolution. We ran the benchmarks at 1920x1080 with full-screen antialiasing and maximum visual quality settings.
Our mainboards split up into two groups in terms of performance, the ASUS P8Z77-I DELUXE being always the fastest of all. It is closely followed by the ASRock Z77E-ITX and MSI Z77IA-E53. The Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI looks good at the default settings but falls behind at the overclocked ones because it cannot make our CPU stable at 4.4 GHz. The Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi is for some reason slower than the leaders, especially in games. Something’s wrong with it, but we couldn’t find out what exactly. The EVGA Z77 Stinger has some performance issues too, but we can’t explain it: this mainboard isn’t stable with fast memory, so we had to test it with DDR3-1600. That’s why it is slower than the others in our tests.
Power consumption is a highly important factor for mini-ITX mainboards because it directly affects how quiet and economical the compact computer will be. A small difference in power consumption may be crucial for compact PCs because it may call for an additional fan or a higher-wattage PSU. Mainboard developers can have a serious effect on the power draw of the assembled PC by designing an efficient CPU voltage regulator.
So, we carried out a special test to check out the power consumption of the Z77-based mini-ITX mainboards using our Corsair AX760i PSU with its monitoring capabilities. The diagrams below show the full consumption of each system (without the monitor) as measured at the PSU’s output. It is the sum total of the power draw of each system component. The PSU’s efficiency is not counted in.
The CPU was running a 64-bit version of the LinX 0.6.4 utility. We enabled C1E, C6, Enhanced Intel SpeedStep and Turbo Boost to correctly measure the systems’ power consumption in idle mode and at low loads. As in the performance tests, we checked the systems out at their default and overclocked settings.
The Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi is highly economical when idle. The other mainboards need more power, especially the ASUS P8Z77-I DELUXE and ASRock Z77E-ITX. The MSI Z77IA-E53 and EVGA Z77 Stinger disable the CPU’s power-saving technologies and thus require even more juice when overclocked.
The single-threaded load evens out the results, yet the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi is still superior in terms of energy efficiency. The MSI Z77IA-E53 is the only mainboard that can match the leader at the default settings.
At full CPU load the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi loses its leading position. The ASUS P8Z77-I DELUXE is now the most economical at the default CPU settings, even though the Zotac is quite economical, too. The overclocked Zotac-based system consumes less power than the Gigabyte-based one which has a lower CPU clock rate. By the way, we want to remind you that the EVGA Z77 Stinger is missing in the diagram because that mainboard drops the CPU clock rate to the default level at full load.
It is very rewarding to realize that we were right when we assumed that Mini-ITX platform can easily replace a fully-functional personal computer in standard ATX form-factor. Our today’s test session showed that contemporary LGA 1155 Mini-ITX mainboards has everything the enthusiasts may need. Therefore, they may be used for high-performance machines with discrete gaming graphics accelerators and may even be overclocked. The only real limitation for Mini-ITX platforms is probably their inability to support multi-card graphics configurations as well as the lack of unique and rare onboard controller, but the need for that doesn’t occur often. So all in all, compact systems have every chance to compete with their full-size counterparts.
However at the same time, we should also point out that the market for miniature mainboards for enthusiasts is still somewhat raw. As we have discovered today, there are not that many options available currently for high-performance systems. Moreover, even the very best compact Intel Z77 based mainboards have some issues. When assembling a large computer we have several different mainboard choices without noticeable drawbacks and with very good potential. However, it may be quite a challenge with Mini-ITX platforms. Formally, some of the Mini-ITX mainboards on Z77 reviewed today may seem like a great choice, but once we get to know them a little better from a practical standpoint, we uncover some concerns with settings and configuration, layout, performance or overclocking. So far there is no ideal product out there, so we can only hope that after Haswell and eight series chipsets launch the situation takes a turn for the better.
So what should we do if we really want to build a high-performance LGA 1155 computer on a Mini-ITX platform today? Our recommendation would be to start from the contrary. First of all you need to exclude those mainboards that limit the overclocking. These are Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI, that doesn’t have any functionality to adjust the voltages, and EVGA Z77 Stinger, which doesn’t work with the memory and has several issues in the BIOS. Then we need to eliminate those mainboards, which cannot save power when the CPU is idle and disable all processor power-saving technologies during overclocking. This will take MSI Z77IA-E53 off the list. Finally, we will exclude slower mainboards, which will mean the end of the race for Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi.
As a result, the only two choices remain ASUS P8Z77-I DELUXE and ASRock Z77E-ITX. Asus product boasts very well thought-through design, high performance and a WiFi controller supporting 5 GHz frequency range. However, it suffers from some frustrating issues in the BIOS, heats a lot and is quite expensive. ASRock mainboard, on the contrary, is very affordable, comes with a well-balanced BIOS and an additional mSATA slot, but doesn’t support Bluetooth and has somewhat awkward layout.
Having considered all cons and pros, we will have to give our vote to ASUS P8Z77-I DELUXE, which will be awarded our “Recommended Buy” title. Especially since the locking of the processor clock frequency multiplier will most likely be fixed in the upcoming BIOS updates.
But it is important to keep in mind that other products discussed in this roundup may be a better choice in certain specific situations. For example, if you are not planning to overclock your processor, then Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI or MSI Z77IA-E53 will be great options to consider. Gigabyte board is unique due to two network controllers, while MSI board offers a free mini-PCIe/mSATA combination slot. However, if you are not into overclocking at all, then you should also take into consideration Mini-ITX mainboards on H, B and Q series chipsets, which will cost less and may also offer you the functionality you are looking for.