by Ilya Gavrichenkov
08/01/2011 | 12:11 PM
Compact desktop systems in Mini-ITX form-factor become more and more popular. Systems like that have several advantages important for integration of computers into our living-room environment. And it is not only about the size. Yes, Mini-ITX form-factor allows saving some space due to its compact size. But besides that, computers using this form-factor boast home-friendly design, do not generate much noise and save power. As for the performance provided by these systems, in most cases it is sufficient to replace full-size computer systems with their compact analogues or to introduce small versatile computers in those spheres of life, where only specialized devices have been used before.
The launch of energy-efficient Intel Atom and AMD Zacate processors became a catalyst to this phenomenon, and even though platforms built around them do not boast the performance typical of the desktop systems, they are still fast enough for internet surfing or HD video playback. The introduction of these processors jump-started the spreading of miniature computer systems aka nettops positioned primarily for home users working mostly with online content. Besides that, the hardware HD video decoding support introduced in Intel Atom and AMD Zacate processors made them suitable for HTPC segment, where computer systems come to replace multimedia players. This is where Mini-ITX systems are dominating. Also, Mini-ITX computers are aggressively moving into home-server segment.
The advantages of compact form-factor are obvious, but in many cases small size limits the performance, because it doesn’t allow using complex cooling systems, powerful PSUs and top-of-the-line components. However, this problem becomes less and less acute. It happens mostly due to the fact that new processor generations with remarkable performance and heat dissipation ration start appearing in the market. The launch of LGA1155 Sandy Bridge CPU was a tremendous step in this direction. It brought high-performance desktop products with heat dissipation typical of a mobile solution – of 35, 45 or 65 W. These processors breathed life into the new kind of systems, which have the same performance and functionality as the regular desktops, but are built in small Mini-ITX cases.
It is not surprising at all that Mini-ITX systems with LGA1155 processors turned out extremely popular. Many mainboard makers saw their potential right away and quickly began production of corresponding platforms. And these platforms happened to be totally up to the task, as their functionality was just as good as that of the full-size solutions. However, Mini-ITX LGA1155 platforms do have certain unique peculiarities anyway.
The manufacturers usually pick Intel H67 Express for typical compact LGA1155 platforms. This chipset supports the same external interfaces as the top Intel Z68 Express, i.e. it allows using the Intel HD Graphics graphics core integrated into
A typical compact mainboards for LGA1155 form-factor not only allows using integrated graphics, but can also take in an external graphics accelerator. That is why there is always a PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot. Moreover, many mainboard makers provide their products with additional mini-PCI Express slots that can be used for extra expansion cards, such as Wi-Fi, TV-tuner cards, SSD, etc. As for the interfaces originally supported on miniature mainboards, among them certainly are SATA-600 and USB 3.0. In other words, if you have a Mini-ITX LGA1155 mainboard, you can build a pretty up-to-date high-performance universal platform with minimum compromises. That is why this particular topic is extremely interesting and deserves a close look.
Today we are going to talk about eight different Mini-ITX LGA1155 platforms from the leading mainboard makers. All of them are based on Intel H67 Express chipset and offer similar functions. However, we will do our best to find out which mainboard of the eight boasts the best combination of practical features.
ASRock is a unique mainboard manufacturer. However, they have managed to find a suitable market niche lately: they offer inexpensive products with maximum functionality. This approach helped ASRock to win many consumers who are eager to overlook certain engineering flaws, not the absolute best quality or shorter warranty periods than those offered by the market leaders for the sake of saving some money.
Among other things, ASRock currently has a Mini-ITX LGA1155 mainboard – H67M-ITX/HT. Just like many of the company’s other products, it is unique in its own way. Its functionality is truly impressive and the number of bundled accessories is even more extensive than the accessories included with some full-size mainboards. The distinguishing feature of this product is Wi-Fi support and a useful bonus in the form of a Windows Media center compatible remote control unit.
ASRock H67M-ITX/HT PCB layout is pretty typical of Mini-ITX mainboards for LGA1155 processors. The PCI Express x16 slot for the graphics card and two DIMM slots supporting dual-channel DDR3-1067/1333 SDRAM are located on two different sides of the PCB. Media drives on ASRock H67M-ITX/HT can be connected to two SATA 3 Gbps and two SATA 6 Gbps ports. Moreover, there are also a few internal onboard pin-connectors for four USB 2.0 and a serial port.
Despite pretty loaded PCB, ASRock engineers managed to allocate some space for a mini-PCIe x1 slot that can accommodate “half-size” expansion cards. On ASRock H67M-ITX/HT this slot is used for a Wi-Fi adapter, so it is already occupied on a standard mainboard model. This slot already holds AzureWave RTL8191SE module based on a Realtek chip with the same name. This module can work in 2.4 GHz range and supports 802.11b/g/n wireless network.
The mainboard back panel is not too busy. There are four USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports implemented using the not so popular EtronTech controller. However, ASRock is particularly proud of this controller, because they provided it with a special caching driver optimized for work with external drives. They call it XFast USB stressing that ASRock H67M-ITX/HT works with external USB 3.0 SSD and HDD faster than other mainboards.
Next to the back panel USB 2.0 ports there is an eSATA connector, RJ45 port for Gigabit network, PS/2 keyboard connector, Wi-Fi antenna connector, an optical S/PDIF out and five analogue audio-jacks. All corresponding interfaces are supported via additional onboard controllers: Realtek RTL8111E network controller and eight-channel Realtek ALC892 audio codec. And for the Intel HD Graphics core integrated into the
The chipset on ASRock H67M-ITX/HT is cooled with a small aluminum heatsink attached with spring push-pins. The processor voltage regulator circuitry has no cooling of any kind. It has four phases and according to the manufacturer is built with only high-quality Japanese components with extended MTBF.
Specification doesn’t impose any restrictions on the list of supported processors, which means that ASRock H67M-ITX/HT should work fine with 95 W Core i5 and Core i7 models. Unfortunately, there is not that much free space to accommodate large CPU cooling systems: the LGA1155 processor socket is pushed into the corner between DIMM slots and PCI Express x16.
The mainboard supports a standard number of cooling fans for a Mini-ITX platform. It has two corresponding four-pin fan connectors. The rotation speed of fans connected to both of them can be adjusted using PWM method.
I absolutely have to say a few words about the bundled accessories. Besides the user manual, a disk with the drivers, a pair of SATA cables and the back panel I/O Shield, ASRock added a few very nice goodies. The first thing is a pair of cardboard anaglyph glasses for watching 3D video. Although if you really want to be able to use them properly, you will need commercial software player with the corresponding support, such as Cyberlink PowerDVD, for example. Unfortunately, this player is not included with the mainboard. The second interesting accessory is a compact Wi-Fi antenna. Although its sensitivity leaves much to be desired and you shouldn’t really count on it too much. The third item is a remote control unit with infra-red receiver, which we already mentioned above. Unlike most of the other accessories, this Windows Media center compatible kit is a very useful bonus that will be great for an HTPC system.
ASRock is one of the companies who have successfully migrated to UEFI, so the mainboard BIOS has very attractive interface.
OC Tweaker, the most interesting section for advanced users, has a few surprises for us. For example, there is an option for adjusting processor clock frequency multiplier, which can be not only reduced to a smaller value, but also increased. But don’t get too excited, because in reality this parameter only allows lowering the CPU clock speed. If you set the parameter to anything exceeding the nominal value, nothing is going to happen even if you have a K-series CPU with an unlocked multiplier. At the same time, ASRock H67M-ITX/HT doesn’t offer any options for changing the BCLK frequency, which means that this mainboard doesn’t allow overclocking the processor even a tiny bit by raising the base clock.
The interesting ability of ASRock H67M-ITX/HT to lower the processor clock frequency multiplier is, in fact, not very practical. The mainboard has no tools for adjusting the CPU Vcore, so it doesn’t make much sense to slow down the CPU on this ASRock mainboard for the purpose of improving its energy-efficiency.
The memory frequency settings are pretty standard. ASRock H67M-ITX/HT allows choosing between two modes: DDR3-1067 and DDR3-1333. As for the memory timings, you can change them as you please. It also supports low-voltage memory modules.
The only type of overclocking that can be performed on ASRock H67M-ITX/HT is graphics core overclocking. Here you will find all the necessary options for frequency adjustment and for increasing the graphics core voltage.
A Deluxe mainboard in Mini-ITX form-factor is a pretty popular thing these days. There are several different manufacturers who currently offer solutions like that, and Asus is one of them. The idea is fairly simple: the platform developers try to load their products with as many additional controllers as possible, in order to create a multi-functional combine that will not need any additional expansion cards. Especially, since installing these cards into miniature Mini-ITX systems may be quite challenging.
Within this very concept Asus P8H67-I Deluxe turned out really great. Besides typical features delivered by the Intel H67 chipset and a standard set of controllers, it also support four USB 3.0 ports, Bluetooth interface and has an integrated Wi-Fi adapter. This combination of features makes Asus P8H67-I Deluxe one of the most complex mainboards in our today’s article.
Of course, Asus P8H67-I Deluxe doesn’t set any limitations when it comes to assembling a high-performance system. It supports all LGA1155 processors including 95 W models. It also has the PCI Express x16 slot, which has become almost standard on Mini-ITX mainboards for second-generation Core processors.
They use a NEC controller to implement USB 3.0 ports. Two of them are led to the back panel and two more are available as an onboard pin-header to be connected to the system case ports. Note that there are no brackets of any kind for connecting these ports included with the board, which is not surprising, as it is really hard to please the owners of different Mini-ITX cases.
The integrated Wi-Fi module is designed as a daughter card, which goes into the mini-PCIe slot on the board. The actual Wi-Fi adapter is AzureWave AR5B895 on Atheros chip, which supports 802.11b/g/n standards. However, this model works only in the 2.4 GHz range, which may be a problem for some users. Luckily, the Wi-Fi module can be replaced, since the mini-PCIe slot is compatible with any half-size expansion cards.
Asus engineers paid special attention to functionality of their solution that is why besides a pair of USB 3.0 ports and antenna connectors they also added to the back panel six USB 2.0 ports, eSATA port, Gigabit network implemented via Realtek RTL8111E controller, a PS/2 connector, an optical S/PDIF Out and three analogue audio-jacks supported by an eight-channel Realtek ALC892 codec. As for the monitor outs, there are three of them: HDMI, DVI-D and D-Sub.
Of course, a miniature mainboard had to pay its price for this diversity of features. First, there wasn’t enough space on Asus P8H67-I Deluxe for standard 240-pin DDR3 DIMM-slots. They had to be replaced with compact SO-DIMM slots supporting 204-pin notebook DDR3 SDRAM. Of course, it is not a big problem, because DDR3 SO-DIMM are widely spread and cost pretty much the same as the desktop modules, but nevertheless it does create additional inconvenience.
Secondly, the excessive number of onboard controllers forced Asus engineers to press the LGA1155 socket a little to the side. There is not that much free space around it, so far not every CPU cooler will actually fit onto this board. You should be guided by the size of a standard boxed heatsink – there is 104x104 mm spot allocated for the CPU cooler.
Asus offers two four-pin connectors for the fans. Both of them support PWM rotation speed adjustment.
Asus P8H67-I Deluxe is equipped with a solid aluminum heatsink of sophisticated shape covering processor voltage regulator components and the chipset. It is installed using secure screw-on retention and does its job very well.
The processor voltage regulator circuitry beneath this heatsink has four phases and is uses Asus EPU (Energy Processing Unit). It is a very useful component for a miniature mainboard designed for energy-efficient systems. By adjusting the number of active processor power phases, EPU increases the voltage regulator efficiency especially when S- and T-series processors with lower TDP are installed.
There are a few other smaller things that make this Asus mainboard a truly deluxe product. For example, it still has the MemOK button, which should eliminate POST issues when using new system memory, and the hardware GPU Boost switch. Intel H67 chipset doesn’t allow overclocking the processor, but the graphics core integrated into the CPU can in fact be overclocked successfully. Asus engineers made this procedure as simple as possible: the switch allows raising the GPU frequency by up to 30%.
Despite all the functions Asus P8H67-I Deluxe supports, its accessories are pretty scarce. Besides the user manual, a disk with software, back panel I/O Shield and a pair of Wi-Fi antennas, there are only two SATA cables. And the connector locks on these cables may be very difficult to work with inside small Mini-ITX cases, because all SATA connectors are located along the very edge of the PCB. It is a real pity that Asus doesn’t provide its compact mainboard with the famous Q-connector block, which could be extremely handy during compact system assembly.
Asus P8H67-I Deluxe uses the manufacturer’s standard EFI BIOS with graphics interface:
Its functionality is also quite typical of the Asus boards. The only disappointing thing being the absence of any overclocking-related options, which are available on all full-size Deluxe mainboards. However, it is the chipset that doesn’t allow increasing the processor clock frequency multiplier, so we shouldn’t really blame Asus for that. What we can actually complain about is the fact that developers removed all options dealing with processor core voltage adjustment. As a result, the mainboard doesn’t allow downclocking the CPU efficiently, even though there is a way of limiting the maximum value for it.
At the same time, all options dealing with graphics core and BCLK bus overclocking remained. So, you can still slightly overclock the CPU using the bus frequency approach. As for the graphics core, it can be overclocked quite substantially, since the board knows how to adjust its voltage. Note that GPU overclocking may be performed manually as well as automatically – using the GPU Boost function.
Moreover, there are all options for the memory frequency, voltage and timings adjustment. Although we failed to get this mainboard to work with DDR3-1600 SDRAM modules, Asus P8H67-I Deluxe is fully compatible with lower-voltage DDR3 SO-DIMM.
Asus wouldn’t be Asus if they only had one Mini-ITX mainboard for LGA1155 processors with very unique features and functionality, like Asus P8H67-I Deluxe. They also offer a solution for those who value more traditional design - Asus P8H67-I. This mainboard doesn’t require notebook memory modules and doesn’t foist off integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on the users. Of course, we absolutely had to check out this Mini-ITX mainboard modification, too.
Asus P8H67-I specification are practically standard. This board supports the entire range of contemporary interfaces including Gigabit network and two USB 3.0 ports and doesn’t offer any excessive extras. Its expansion capabilities are also pretty predictable: there is only one PCI Express x16 slot that can take either a graphics card or some other expansion card. Everything is just as great with the supported processors: Asus P8H67-I doesn’t set any limitations onto the maximum CPU power consumption.
At the same time Asus engineers provided their P8H67-I with a few truly unique features. The mainboard boasts six SATA ports, two of which support 6 Gbps interface. Intel H67 Mini-ITX mainboards usually have only four internal SATA ports and one external eSATA, but Asus laid out all six chipset ports on their mainboard. It means that Asus P8H67-I may become a good base for a home server, because it is the only mainboard in our today’s roundup that allows connecting up to 6 internal disk drives at once. I would also like to remind you that H67 chipset also supports RAID, which may be very useful in this case.
The number of SATA ports is the only aspect where Asus P8H67-I is superior to Asus P8H67-I Deluxe. And I am not talking only about the specifications here. For example, the processor voltage regulator circuitry is a little simpler on this mainboard. It has the same four phases, but there is no dynamic adjustment of the number of active phases. The voltage regulator components have no cooling of any kind on them.
The chipset heatsink is also not particularly efficient. Its effective surface is fairly small and it is fastened using plastic push-pins with springs. As a result, Asus P8H67-I has a few areas that need to be additionally cooled, so it may not be a good match for cases with no active internal airflow.
There are two fan connectors on Asus P8H67-I: one for the CPU fan and another one for an additional fan. Both of them are four-pin ones. The board supports PWM adjustment of the fans rotation speeds, but it is not very flexible in this respect: you can’t set the conditions for the fan rotation speed changes manually – you can only use existing preset profiles.
Although Asus P8H67-I doesn’t have as many additional controllers and connectors as Asus P8H67-I Deluxe, it suffers from the same design flaws as the latter. The main problem is the location of the LGA1155 Socket in the corner created by DIMM and PCI Express x16 slots. Of course, it eliminates a lot of choices when it comes to picking a CPU cooler, because its bottom part has to be no larger than a standard boxed cooler from Intel.
Although Asus P8H67-I doesn’t use any exotic additional controllers, its back panel is quite unique. For obvious reasons there is no eSATA port, but the spot is not wasted. Namely, there are six USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports. BY the way, they are implemented via Asmedia controller and not the NEC one as on a more expensive model. There is also a Gigabit network port provided by the traditional Realtek RTL8111E and three analogue audio-jacks connected to an eight-channel VIA VT1708S codec. Of course, the entire set of monitor outs including D-Sub, DVI-D and HDMI is also there.
You shouldn’t expect Asus P8H67-I to come with a rich accessories bundle. The board is only accompanied with a user manual, drivers, I/O Shield for the back panel and two SATA cables with connector locks.
All contemporary Asus mainboards use very similar BIOS and P8H67-I is no exception. It can be configured from Asus’s typical graphics UEFI interface. However, the users still get somewhat limited functionality because of the Intel H67 chipset that supports limited overclocking. That is why Asus P8H67- doesn’t allow increasing the processor clock frequency multiplier.
But Asus still gave us the opportunity to slightly overclock our processor. There is a special option for adjusting the base clock generator BCLK frequency, which allows speeding up the system by 5-7%. Moreover, you can also overclock the integrated Intel HD Graphics core by raising its frequency as well as voltage totally independently.
It is great that unlike Asus P8H67-I Deluxe, the BIOS of the P8H67-I model also supports the opposite process: downclocking. This mainboard model can lower the processor clock frequency multiplier as well as Vcore below the nominal value.
As for memory configuring, BIOS also offers great options here. You can flexibly adjust memory timings and select memory frequency from a very wide range. But our practical tests showed that the memory is actually operational only if its frequency is set at 1333 MHz or lower. At the same time the mainboard fully supports memory modules with the voltage set below the nominal 1.5 V.
ECS is one of those mainboard makers who offer consumers mostly a wide range of affordable products. It is this particular aspect that allows ECS to sell millions of mainboards and compete in sales volumes against the market leaders – Asus and Gigabyte. The consequence of ECS’ products low price is their not very rich functionality, and in particular, limited overclocking potential. However, these are hardly serious drawbacks for miniature Mini-ITX mainboards that is why the Elitegroup mainboard provided for this roundup seemed quite promising right from the start.
In the meanwhile, you shouldn’t regard ECS H67H2-I mainboard as an example of absolute minimalism. In fact, it is totally up-to-date. It supports all LGA1155 processors including CPUs with 95 W TDP. It is equipped with a PCI Express x16 graphics card slot. It has two 240-pin DIMM slots for DDR3 SDRAM. It features two SATA-600 and two SATA-300 ports, supports Gigabit network and latest USB 3.0 interface. In other words, ECS H67H2-I has everything necessary for a contemporary high-performance compact computer. But it does also offer more than just minimal requirements. ECS H67H2-I has a unique feature – integrated Bluetooth V2.1+EDR adapter.
Moreover, ECS ensured that the functionality of their H67H2-I could be easily expanded. That is why the main board has an additional empty mini-PCIe x1 slot. It is good that the location of this slot allows using not only half-size cards but also full-size ones. Moreover, it is compatible not only with mini-PCIe cards, but also with some mSATA SSDs, primarily from Intel. In other words, ECS H67H2-I is a very flexible platform.
The developers used the back panel space very efficiently, too. There are six USB 2.0 ports and two more USB 3.0 ports implemented via EtronTech controller. Besides, there is an eSATA port, different monitor outs (D-Sub, DVI-D and HDMI), RJ45 network connector, an optical S/PDIF out and five analogue audio-jacks. The components responsible for network and sound support are pretty standard: Realtek RTL8111E Gigabit network controller and eight-channel Realtek ALC892 codec.
In addition to everything we already mentioned, there are two pin-connectors for a COM-port and four USB 2.0 on the system case front panel. Note that internal USB ports also support EZ Charger technology, which delivers three times higher power for charging all sorts of gadgets. These connectors are always powered, even when the mainboard is off.
ECS H67H2-I PCB layout is overall pretty typical, and in this case it is not an advantage. Just like on many other LGA1155 mainboards, the processor socket has been shifted towards one of the corners, which sets certain limitations to CPU cooler size and configuration. If you are not planning to give up your external graphics accelerator, then you should go with a CPU cooler that fits Intel’s standard 104x104 mm square spot.
ECS engineers didn’t introduce any sophisticated cooling systems. The chipset is topped with a pretty common heatsink of average size fastened using push-pins with springs. The processor voltage regulator circuitry doesn’t have any cooling, even though it has three phases and heats up quite substantially during work.
The mainboard allows connecting two fans. The processor fan uses a four-pin connector, and a case fan that uses a three-pin connector. The mainboard can interactively adjust the rotation speed of both fans.
ECS H67H2-I accessories bundle includes a pretty typical list of items: a disk with the drivers, a user manual. I/O Shield for the back panel and four (!) SATA cables. Besides, there are two additional case brackets, which can be used to take antenna outs outside the case, if necessary.
The BIOS of Elitegroup mainboards is often one of their weak spots. And this time is no exception, either. Setup uses archaic text interface and has been significantly limited in a number of popular functions.
In particular, ECS H67H2-I only allows overclocking the graphics core that is why it features special options for frequency adjustment as well as for increasing the voltage of the corresponding processor unit.
As for the processor frequency, there is no way to change it even slightly. The mainboard provides no access to the multiplier or BCLK frequency. However, for some reason it does have options for adjusting the processor Vcore, though, unfortunately, it can only be increased. Memory sub-system configuring is even more severely limited. The mainboard doesn’t allow setting memory frequency manually as well as changing any of its timings. All parameters are read from the modules SPD. The only consolation here is the support of lower-voltage DIMM modules.
To be fair I have to say that ECS H67H2-I does support 3 TB hard drives. So, in this respect, the BIOS doesn’t have any unexpected surprises for us.
The presence of Foxconn Company is not that big in the today’s retail mainboard market. However, they do not have any intention of leaving and keep rolling out some very interesting products from time to time. Foxconn H67S is a great example of a product like that. This Mini-ITX LGA1155 mainboard stands out among other today’s testing participants due to its simplicity. Almost all of its features and functions are provided by the Intel H67 chipset and as for the additional controllers it only has a Gigabit network Realtek RTL8111E controller and an eight-channel Realtek ALC888S audio codec.
Foxconn engineers’ approach is definitely quite justified. And whether Foxconn H67S is a success or a waste depends solely on your overall goal. On the one hand, this mainboard doesn’t have many useful functions, such the USB 3.0 support, for example. But on the other hand, there is always a benefit to simplicity such as low price and lower power consumption than that of more complex solutions.
As for the key features of Foxconn H67S, everything here is in perfect order. The chipset functionality is revealed to the utmost level allowed by the Mini-ITX platform form-factor. The board supports all LGA1155 processors without any exceptions, has a PCI Express x16 slot and a pair of DIMM slots for dual-channel DDR3 SDRAM. However, they did put out fewer SATA ports: there are only three, and two of them support 6 Gbps interface. Although, I don’t think you will ever need more of those if you are building an HTPC or a miniature home system, and as for a min0-server, there are a few other reasons why Foxconn H67S cannot be used for this purpose.
Since Foxconn decided not to integrate any extra controllers onto their mini-mainboard, we didn’t expect to see anything out-of-the-ordinary on the Foxconn H67S back panel. However, what we saw was even less than we had expected to see. For some reasons, there is no analogue D-Sub out. So, you can only connect monitors via DVI or HDMI interface. It would seem logical in this case to see at least some kind of DVI-to-D-Sub adapter among the bundled accessories, but Foxconn didn’t do this. There are six USB 2.0 ports on the back panel. Besides, there is also one PS/2 keyboard connector, eSATA interface, six analogue audio-jacks and a network port.
Even if we assume that limited functionality is one of the weaknesses of the Foxconn H67S mainboard, then its PCB design definitely deserves a few compliments. The developers decided not to go with the reference components layout and moved the processor socket away from the PCI Express x16 slot and placed the chipset between them. As a result, there is additional free space in the around-the-processor area, which will allow using relatively large processor coolers with this Mini-ITX mainboard. For example, it is one of the few mainboards that can easily accommodate Scythe Big Shuriken CPU cooler even with a discrete graphics accelerator.
Nevertheless, it may be pretty difficult to build a quiet system on Foxconn H67S. The thing is that the rotation speed adjustment for the fans connected to this mainboard doesn’t work too well. There are two four-pin connectors on the board. The rotation speed of the fans connected to them may change, but there is no way to set the conditions for this change. And the default algorithm speeds up the fans too aggressively.
The chipset is cooled with a small heatsink fastened using plastic retention. It is not a very efficient solution, but the three-phase processor voltage regulator doesn’t have even that. So, the board does have very good reasons to speed up those fans rapidly.
The accessories bundled with the Foxconn H67S mainboard are just as modest as its features. It comes with a user manual, disk with the drivers, I/O Shield for the back panel and two SATA cables.
The BIOS of Foxconn H67S mainboard gives us another reason to criticize it. There is no graphics interface of any kind, but most importantly, the configuring options are extremely scarce. Namely, there is absolutely nothing for CPU overclocking or downclocking.
There are no options for adjustment of voltages and BCLK frequency, and the processor multiplier is locked both ways. The graphics core cannot be overclocked at all. There are no options for memory configuring: the board doesn’t allow adjusting the timings or changing the DDR3 frequency. Besides, Foxconn H67S doesn’t support memory modules with voltages other than the default 1.5 V.
Trying to appeal to the users, Mini-ITX mainboard developers work really hard to load their LGA1155 products with unique features. Some of them add Wi-Fi controllers, some offer Bluetooth, some allow broad expansion capabilities, and some set very low retail price. In this situation it may often be challenging to find simply a good well-built platform without anything over-the-top.
Luckily, Gigabyte comes to rescue with their compact LGA1155 H67N-USB3-B3 mainboard that has everything necessary and nothing excessive for a contemporary platform. This mainboard is compatible with any LGA1155 processors, supports discrete graphics accelerators and regular DDR3 SDRAM modules, has SATA 6 Gbps and USB 3.0 ports and features a Gigabit network controller. However, Gigabyte didn’t add any wireless interfaces and didn’t put an additional mini-PCIe slot onto their board.
Gigabyte mainboard has a different distinguishing feature: the manufacturer didn’t try to compromise on the quality of their components. GA-H67N-USB3-B3 ranks with Gigabyte’s top-of-the-line enthusiast products and belongs to the Ultra Durable 3 series, which means that it is built on a PCB with double copper layers and uses only highest-quality components. In other words, if you are looking for a regular Mini-ITX LGA1155 mainboard, then Gigabyte will be able to offer you a few good options at a very democratic price point.
The layout of GA-H67N-USB3-B3 is quite unique. Like on most other mainboards the processor socket on GA-H67N-USB3-B3 is located not in the best spot – close to the DIMM and PCI Express x16 slots, although the mainboard design is not too complex, Gigabyte engineers couldn’t move the socket even a few millimeters away from the graphics card slot. So, it may be incompatible with some of the large processor coolers.
The processor voltage regulator has a four-phase circuitry. And theoretically, the board can disable some of the phases in order to optimize power consumption. However, in reality you will need to install special software for this feature to work.
There is a pretty large heatsink responsible for cooling the chipset. It uses secure screw-on retention, so there is no need to worry about the chipset temperature: Gigabyte’s solution is by far more efficient than the heatsinks we saw on other manufacturer’s Mini-ITX mainboards. The processor voltage regulator, however, doesn’t have any cooling on it, but it doesn’t heat up excessively during work anyway.
Gigabyte GA-H67N-USB3-B3 has two fan connectors: a four-pin connector for the processor fan and an additional three-pin connector. The mainboard can adjust the rotation speed of both fans connected to it, even if there is a three-pin fan connected to the four-pin plug.
Besides fan connectors, GA-H67N-USB3-B3 has two SATA 6 Gbps ports, two SATA 3 Gbps ports and two pin-connectors for USB 2.0 ports on the system case panel. Note that one of these USB connectors doesn’t lose power when the system is off, so any ports connected to it may be used for charging gadgets at any time. By the way, I would like to remind you that USB ports on contemporary Gigabyte mainboards may deliver higher current than suggested by the specifications, so they can power and charge even very demanding devices.
Gigabyte GA-H67N-USB3-B3 doesn’t have too many additional controllers. There is an omnipresent Realtek RTL8111E Gigabit network controller, Renesas D720200 USB 3.0 controller and eight-channel Realtek ALC889 audio codec. Judging by this set of controllers we can imagine what the mainboard back panel is going to look like.
However, Gigabyte engineers managed to surprise us. There is no DVI Out in the back, and the monitors may be connected via D-Sub or HDMI, which are doubled in quantity on the back panel. I don’t think it is the best possible combination, but it looks like they are shooting for the HTPC segment in the first place, so it is more important for it to have an additional “consumer” port used in TV-sets. Of course, you can use an adapter to connect a DVI monitor to this board, but you will have to purchase an adapter like that separately.
Besides monitor outs, the mainboard back panel also has an eSATA port, four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a Gigabit network port and a lot of audio outs, including six analogue audio-jacks and an optical and coaxial S/PDIF.
While many mainboard makers have switched to UEFI BIOS with graphics interface, Gigabyte continues using time-tested solution enhanced with Hybrid EFI. It means that GA-H67N-USB3-B3 supports 3 TB hard disk drives, but uses the same BIOS with text interface.
Nevertheless, they still make some improvements that should make it easier to work with the mainboard BIOS. For example, the latest BIOS update provided this mainboard with Touch BIOS support – a Windows utility that allows configuring certain settings right from the operating system.
In terms of available functionality, Gigabyte GA-H67N-USB3-B3 is a good product. Although, some of the overclocking-related features have been removed after all. For example, this mainboard doesn’t allow changing the BCLK frequency. Instead, there is a parameter for the CPU clock frequency multiplier, which can only be lowered.
In fact, there is an advantage to this. Gigabyte took away overclocking, but enabled downclocking. The board can lower the CPU voltage, so Gigabyte GA-H67N-USB3-B3 owners can always adjust their BISO settings to turn a regular processor into an energy-efficient one.
It is also possible to play with the voltages of other system components. For example, you can lower the DIMM voltage, which may be useful if you are using energy-efficient memory modules. There is a setting for the GPU voltage, too. You can even access its frequency on Gigabyte GA-H67N-USB3-B3, so GPU overclocking is something you can definitely do.
Fine-tuning of the memory sub-system on Gigabyte GA-H67N-USB3-B3 is also not a problem. You can not only manually adjust all memory timings independently for each module, but also lock the memory frequency at a certain value despite the SPD records. However, it is not possible to overclock DDR3 SDRAM on this mainboard, because Intel H67 chipset doesn’t allow it. The maximum frequency for your DDR3 memory can be set at 1333 MHz.
The accessories bundled with Gigabyte GA-H67N-USB3-B3 are not particularly diverse. It comes with a manual, a disk with the drivers, I/O Shield for the back panel and two SATA cables with locks.
It has become common over years that many users do not take Intel mainboards seriously enough. And in fact, there was a very good reason for that: until recently any mainboards from the leading processor maker were very inconvenient to work with and offered less functionality than other makers’ solutions. However, things are turning around. Now Intel developers can design not only good enthusiast products, but also good mainstream mainboards.
Intel DH67CF – an H67 based Mini-ITX platform - may be considered a great example of their new approach to mainboard development. Of course, old habits sometimes die hard. For example, DH67CF specifications on the official company web-site do not mention its ability to work with Core i7 processors, which are also not listed among the supported CPUs. Nevertheless, this board works perfectly fine with Core i7 processors as well as with any other 95 W processors. Though, upon very first boot-up you will get a message warning you about making sure that the cooling system is efficient enough.
Other than that, Intel DH67CF specifications are perfectly normal. Like many other mainboards participating in our today’s test session, it has a PCI Express x16 slot and two DIMM slots for dual-channel DDR3 SDRAM. There are four chipset SATA ports, two of which support 6 Gbps protocol, and the total number of supported USB 2.0 ports has been increased to 10. They used additional controllers for Gigabit network and new USB 3.0 interface. In other words, Intel designed a very durable Mini-ITX platform with sufficient characteristics and without any added complexity.
Intel DH67CF PCB has very unique layout. All expansion slots and ports are located along the sides, while the CPU socket, chipset and voltage regulator circuitry are in the center. Just like on other similar mainboards, the LGA1155 socket is very close to the DIMM and PCI Express x26 slot, which sets certain limitations to compatibility with large processor coolers.
Processor voltage regulator has two phases and one more phase for the graphics core. This would be best with energy-efficient processors, but even if you are using a 95 W Sandy Bridge CPU, you won’t have any problems. Even though you can feel the voltage regulator components heating up, their temperature remains within reasonable limits, so no additional heatsink is necessary. The chipset, however, is topped with a small passive heatsink held in place with a spring-wire.
I have to say that we were surprised with the components used on the Intel board. This is the only mainboard in our today’s roundup that uses liquid electrolytic capacitors. Other manufacturers have long switched to solid capacitors, but Intel hasn’t yet done so, for some reason. However, the critical knots, such as processor voltage regulator circuitry, for instance, use more reliable capacitors with polymeric electrolyte.
There are two four-pin fan connectors on Intel DH67CF mainboard. I have to stress that DH67CF offers very extensive options for configuring and adjusting their rotation speed. You can specify not only the parameters describing the dependence of fan rotation speed on the temperature, but also determine which temperatures should affect the fan rotation speeds. By the way, DH67CF has as many as four thermal diodes: processor, memory, CPU voltage regulator and chipset. This is more than on any other Mini-ITX mainboard. So, it is safe to say that Intel’s product is truly exceptional when it comes to hardware monitoring.
When it came to selecting additional onboard controllers, Intel engineers didn’t do anything unusual. USB 3.0 ports are implemented using a traditional Renesas controller. Analogue sound is done via eight-channel Realtek ALC892 codec. And network support is provided by Intel’s own 82579V controller.
Taking into account the features of Intel H67 chipset and the additional functionality delivered by controllers, you can easily guess what ports and connectors are on the back panel. there are two USB 3.0 ports, six USB 2.0 ports, eSATA port, RJ45 network connector, five analogue audio-jacks and an optical S/PDIF out. However, in terms of monitor outputs Intel did do something unique. There is a very unusual combination of three: DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort. You can connect analogue monitors using DVI out, but there is no DVI-to-D-Sub adapter among the bundled accessories.
Intel DH67CF comes with a brief user manual, disk with drivers, I/O Shield for the back panel and two SATA cables with connector locks.
Intel DH67CF BIOS uses AMI microcode and has Intel’s standard text interface. It offers extensive options for configuring onboard controllers and supported interfaces and has a lot of other enthusiast-friendly options.
For example, Intel DH67CF mainboard has a complete set of options for changing memory work modes. If you are not happy with the memory settings taken from the modules SPD, you can adjust their frequency and timings manually. You can also change DIMM voltage, so it is possible to install energy-efficient DDR3 modules. Intel DH67CF also allows overclocking Intel HD Graphics core, also by increasing its voltage.
As for the CPU, you can’t overclock it at all. The multiplier cannot be increased because of the chipset limitations, and there are simply no options for adjusting the BCLK frequency in the mainboard BIOS. However, it is possible to slow the CPU down, since the mainboard limits the maximum multiplier setting only. Although, this option will hardly be any good in real life, because you can’t lower the processor core voltage, so after all Intel DH67CF is not a good option for effective downclocking.
Zotac can be considered one of the main ideologists of the Mini-ITX system concept. This company was one of the first to start aggressively promoting compact platforms and mainboards and up until now remains the leader in this market. For example, Intel H67 based Zotac H67ITX came out way ahead of the competition. But even despite this fact, this mainboard still remains one of the most fully-functional solutions in this class.
The secret behind Zotac H67ITX is in integration of a few additional controllers: a Gigabit network controller, a wireless Wi-Fi controller, an eSATA controller and a USB 3.0 controller. Together with the chipset, they not only make this small Mini-ITX mainboard one of the most loaded participants in our today’s roundup, but also allow it to compete against full-size mainstream products.
Just look at the list of slots and connectors that Zotac H67ITX has. For example, it has two pin-connectors for four additional USB 2.0 ports and a pin-connector for a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the system case panel. No other Mini-ITX LGA1155 mainboards can boast such luxury. Just as they can’t boast having six SATA ports, two of which support 6 Gbps protocol.
Moreover, expansion cards on Zotac H67ITX can be installed not only into a standard PCI Express x16 slot, but also into the additional mini-PCIe x1 slot. In the standard configuration, this slot is allocated for 802.11n Wi-Fi module – Azurewave AW-NE766 based on Ralink RT2790 chip. Of course, this Wi-Fi implementation is not the absolute best, especially, since this module doesn’t support 5 GHz range, but it can be easily replaced if necessary. Zotac H67ITX mainboard supports any mini-PCIe cards.
The back panel also looks cool. It is not completely packed with ports and connectors, but it has enough of external outs for a compact system. There are four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, an eSATA port, Gigabit network port, connectors for Wi-Fi antennas, PS/2 connector for mouse or keyboard and audio outs – optical S/PDIF and five analogue audio-jacks. So, Zotac H67ITX has more SATA (eSATA) and USB 3.0 ports than any other Mini-ITX mainboards, because they used an additional JMicron JMB360 controller and a four-port VIA Labs VL800 USB 3.0 controller. Analogue sound and network are delivered by Realtek chips: eight-channel ALC892 and Gigabit RTL8111E respectively.
As for the monitor outs, there are three of them: DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort. Analogue monitor should be connected via DVI. And there is a proper adapter for that among the included accessories.
Zotac engineers have definitely done a great job and deserve credit for that. They managed not only to find enough room on the small Mini-ITX mainboard for all additional components, but also to avoid any possible compromises. Namely, the mini-PCIe slot is compatible with full-size cards, and the memory goes into regular 240-pin DIMM slots.
The processor voltage regulator circuitry also didn’t suffer in any way. It has four phases and even has a heatsink. Zotac must be expecting the users to install mostly non-energy-efficient processors with 95 W TDP into their H67ITX mainboard. Another heatsink tops the chipset. It is smaller than the one over the voltage regulator components and is fastened with plastic push-pins with springs instead of screws.
Keeping in mind the remarkably rich functionality of the Zotac H67ITX mainboard, it would be naïve to expect it to have a convenient layout. Nevertheless, the developers were extremely creative and moved some of the components on the back of the PCB. This allowed moving the processor socket 2-3 millimeters away from the PCI Express x16 slot. Therefore, in terms of compatibility with large CPU coolers, the board is not that hopeless. Zotac H67ITX can easily accommodate some coolers larger in size than a boxed one from Intel, even if there is a discrete graphics card in the slot.
The accessories bundle is also very pleasing. It includes not only the absolute necessities such as a user manual, disk with the drivers, SATA cables and I/O Shield for the back panel. The manufacturer also threw in a couple of Wi-Fi antennas, a DVI-to-D-Sub adapter, an extender cable for the four-pin ATX power and a back panel bracket with two more USB 3.0 ports.
However, despite all these great things, Zotac H67ITX didn’t become an ideal mainboard. BIOS is its ultimate Achilles’ heel. It is based on AMI microcode and uses old-fashioned text interface. But it is not the appearance that ruins it for us: BIOS could use more settings.
For example, the board allows configuring memory sub-system timings, but doesn’t support manual frequency adjustment. Moreover, the supported DIMM voltage range is very small and the board is incompatible with low-voltage DDR3 modules.
Fan rotation speed adjustment is another problematic aspect. Zotac H67ITX can take two four-pin fans, but only the rotation speed of the CPU fan can be adjusted. The second fan will always work at full speed.
There are no options in the BIOS for overclocking with the base clock generator frequency (BCLK). Proper downclocking is also not possible on Zotac H67ITX. Although you can lower the processor clock frequency multiplier, there is no way to adjust its core voltage.
The only thing you can overclock is the graphics core. You can not only increase its frequency above the nominal value, but also set higher voltage for it.
When we tested LGA1155 Mini-ITX platforms, we did two things.
First, we assumed that potential buyers of compact systems will not use 95 W processors, but will go with more energy-efficient CPUs with lower power consumption. Therefore, for our tests we chose a quad-core S-series CPU with 65 W TDP. It was Intel Core i5-2400S working at 2.5 GHz nominal clock speed, which can be sped up to 3.3 GHz in Turbo mode.
Second, we didn’t use an add-on discrete graphics card and used the integrated Intel HD Graphics 2000 graphics core. Of course, this isn’t the best gaming solution, especially since all our today’s tested mainboard allow using an add-on graphics card, but we believe that integrated graphics will become a more popular choice for a Mini-ITX system after all.
Other than that, our standard test platform remained the same. It included the following hardware and software components:
To estimate the average platform performance PCMark 7 measures the speed of typical real-life algorithms that are very popular in every-day tasks.
The computational SuperPi test is a great way of checking the performance in single-threaded mode. This test calculates 32 million digits of the Pi:
To test the performance during data archiving we took a benchmark built into WinRAR 4.0 archiving utility.
Final rendering speed was tested in Cinebench 11.5.
The chess benchmark called Fritz illustrates the systems performance during multi-threaded computational load.
The x264 HD Benchmark 4.0 on the diagram below transcodes a small video clip in two passes and the entire process is then repeated four times. We are providing average results of the second pass.
We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from RetouchArtists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.
To check out the performance of Intel Quick Sync we measured the time it took to transcode a 3 GB H.264 1080p video clip (a 40-minute episode of a popular TV show) into an iPhone 4-friendly format in lower resolution. We used a popular commercial utility from Cyberlink called Media Espresso 6.5, which supports Quick Sync technology.
The block of 3D gaming tests will start with 3DMark Vantage used with the Entry profile.
To test the systems’ gaming performance in real games, we chose three: Far Cry 2, Dirt 3 and Starcraft 2. We selected these particular games, because they all demonstrate acceptable performance when running on Intel HD Graphics 2000 core built into the processor. Note that we ran all tests in 1280x800 resolution and set the image quality settings to Low.
It is fairly easy to explain the obtained results. As we saw, all LGA1155 Mini-ITX mainboards are almost equally fast. The performance differences are so minimal that it would be very difficult to notice them with a naked eye. And it means that performance, will not be the determinative factor when shopping around for an LGA1155 mainboard to be installed into a compact system.
However, for statistical purposes I have to say that among all mainboards we could easily single out those that are a little bit faster and those that are a little bit slower. Among the few faster products are Intel DH67CF, ASRock H67M-ITX/HT and ASUS P8H67-I, while the slower group includes ECS H67H2-I and Foxconn H67S.
Power consumption is a very important parameter for Mini-ITX systems. It directly affects the overall acoustic performance and energy-efficiency of the system. Moreover, in case of miniature systems even a small change in power consumption may have serious consequences, such as the need for an additional fan or a higher-capacity PSU. That is why we paid special attention to the boards’ power consumption in our today’s test session.
Mainboard makers have great influence over the power consumption of systems based on their products. The key here is the efficiency of the processor voltage regulator circuitry. This is exactly where the engineering expertise really pays off.
The graphs below show the full power draw of the computer (without the monitor) measured after the power supply. It is the total of the power consumption of all the system components. The PSU's efficiency is not taken into account. The CPUs are loaded by running the 64-bit LinX 0.6.4 utility. Graphics cores were loaded using FurMark 1.9 utility. Moreover, we enabled all power-saving technologies and Turbo Boost to ensure that computer power draw in idle mode was measured correctly.
The best results in almost all testing modes belong to two mainboards: Foxconn H67S and Intel DH67CF. Both companies’ engineers worked very hard on optimizing their CPU voltage regulator and really succeeded. In “heavy” modes they managed to save anywhere between 5 and 10 watts, and in idle mode the savings would be just as good. By the way, I have to remind you that Foxconn mainboard doesn’t have any additional onboard controllers, which lowers its power requirements even more. However, Intel platform has everything onboard, that is why its success is even more amazing.
ASRock H67M-ITX/HT also did pretty well, but unfortunately, it turned out very power-hungry in idle mode.
I would like to specifically draw your attention to the results demonstrated by Asus P8H67-I Deluxe. As we said before, this mainboard has a special EPU processor that adjusts the number of active voltage regulator phases and even has special BIOS options for selecting the energy-efficiency level. However, our tests showed that this technology has more marketing than practical effect. The mainboard becomes energy-efficient only under heavy computational load. In idle mode or when the graphics core does most of the work, Asus P8H67-I Deluxe can’t boast any remarkable power consumption readings.
Besides Asus P8H67-I Deluxe, Gigabyte H67N-USB3-B3 and Zotac H67ITX also didn’t do well in power consumption tests. The efficiency of CPU voltage regulators on these mainboards is definitely way beyond what’s need for their target application field, that is why a lot of power is dissipated into thin air. It is a shameful waste for a Mini-ITX system.
As we can see, systems miniaturization also touches upon desktop computer systems these days. Today’s computer users have already got used to the thin and light notebooks, which are just as functional as their full-size counterparts. Now we see a similar tendency in the desktop segment. Mini-ITX form-factor becomes increasingly popular and the number of solutions designed in this form-factor continues to grow rapidly.
I am very pleased to see that today Mini-ITX form-factor is no longer associated with limited functionality or low performance. All platforms we have just discussed in our roundup are good choices for a performance system. They all support contemporary high-speed Sandy Bridge processors, fully-functional graphics cards and popular interfaces.
At the same time it is particularly nice that miniaturization doesn’t lead to price increase, which is the case with the mobile platforms. In other words, if you are looking to buy a new computer, then Mini-ITX form-factor definitely should be considered as one of the worthy alternatives. Especially, since systems like that save a ton of space and fit seamlessly with home environment.
As for the LGA1155 Mini-ITX mainboards in particular, we can conclude that there are a lot of really great products in the market today. However, it won’t be as hard to choose the right one, as you may have thought in the beginning of this article.
There are two types of compact mainboards on Intel H67 chipset. The first type is a multi-functional combine with maximum of features. Mainboards like that are equipped with Wi-Fi adapters, have a lot of interface ports and often boast some unique features, like Bluetooth or larger number of USB 3.0 ports. The second type is a durable contemporary mainboard without any luxurious extras that supports all contemporary interfaces, like USB 3.0 and SATA-600, but at the same time is not overloaded with additional components.
It is totally up to the user in each particular case to decide which mainboard type would be a better choice. But in our opinion, it makes more sense to take solutions without Wi-Fi and other similar bonuses. You can always add a unit like that with PCI Express or USB interface at a later time. And in this case you can even have a better quality choice. The makers of overloaded mainboards rarely use the best controllers. For example, all Wi-Fi controllers on the mainboards tested (where available) today didn’t support 5 GHz frequency range at all.
So, in the end we decided to give the title of the best LGA1155 mainboards based on Intel H67 chipset and designed in Mini-ITX form-factor to Intel DH67CF. It receives our Editor’s Choice award for excellent manufacture quality, rich functionality and support of all contemporary interfaces, as well as brilliant energy-efficiency. We would also like to specifically stress that this mainboard offers extensive hardware monitoring options, which is an indisputable advantage.
We should also give due credit to Asus P8H67-I mainboard. We were almost ready to let it split the first prize with Intel DH67CF, but it suddenly vanished from retail. That is why we are awarding Asus P8H67-I with our Recommended Buy title, meaning that if you see it in stores, do not wait.
It is a great board, super high-quality, with everything a contemporary platform needs, beautiful and functional BIOS and even a few unique features. Firstly, it has six SATA ports, which allow using Asus P8H67-I in mini-servers, and secondly, it supports CPU downclocking and therefore can appeal to computer enthusiasts. However, it is not absolutely fault-free: it lacks an eSATA port and shows average power consumption.
If you are still looking for a mainboard with immediate Wi-Fi support, then we could definitely point out a leader among these products. We particularly liked ASRock H67M-ITX/HT mainboard, which received our Ultimate Innovation title.
It pleasantly surprised us with its extensive functionality, by adding not only an integrated Wi-Fi module but also a very useful remote control unit on top of the entire set of standard features. These could be great bonuses for a Mini-ITX system, so if you are planning on putting together a multimedia combine, then you definitely should consider ASRock’s solution. Especially, since this mainboard’s performance and power consumption are at least as good as those of the competition and its price doesn’t seem over-the-top.