05/26/2010 | 05:39 PM
There is no point in arguing which mainboard form-factor is better as you can just choose whatever suits you best. Notwithstanding a rather large number of standardized formats, ATX and microATX are the most familiar ones for the majority of users. ATX enjoys a wide following because the large dimensions (305 x 244 millimeters) make it possible to place each individual component in its proper place and endow the mainboard with extra functionality by means of onboard controllers. Full-size ATX mainboards also allow installing more expansion cards but this advantage has lost its importance nowadays. It is only if you want to assemble a multi-GPU configuration that you will definitely need an ATX mainboard. In most other cases a compact microATX one (244 x 244 millimeters) will do just fine. Modern microATX mainboards have also shattered one more stereotype. They are not limited in capabilities and functions anymore. I know of microATX mainboards that are just as good as (or even superior to) full-size ones in terms of specifications, overclockability and fine-tuning options. This explains why compact mainboards have become quite popular.
On the other hand, many users still stick to the ATX form-factor even if they do not intend to install add-on cards or overclock the system. Functionality being the same, it is just easier to deal with a full-size mainboard. It is simpler to replace memory modules or graphics card without taking the entire system apart. There are fewer limitations concerning large CPU coolers. The PCB design is generally more user-friendly, too.
Given the above, it may seem that miniature mainboards of the mini-ITX form-factor (170 x 170 millimeters) have no chance at all, but that’s only the first impression. The much smaller size leads to dramatic qualitative changes when we switch to this form-factor. A tiny mainboard with an integrated energy-efficient processor allows doing without active cooling and a small noiseless system case with it can be easily hidden behind your monitor or among the other electronic devices near your TV-set. Such a computer would be enough for watching movies, listening to music, processing documents and browsing the Web. It can be occasionally used as a second, auxiliary computer but won’t have enough performance to work as a main one.
This is how things stand in general but there are always exceptions to established rules. Zotac H55-ITX WiFi mainboard I am going to discuss today is based on Intel H55 Express chipset and supports modern top-performance LGA1156 processors. Its mini-ITX form-factor allows assembling a fast computer in a compact system case. Despite its small size, the mainboard is equipped with a number of extra controllers and can even overclock the CPU and memory if necessary.
A small box with H55-ITX WiFi is painted Zotac’s traditional corporate colors.
You can find a picture of the product on the back of the box along with the specs and brief description of its features.
The box is small and all covered with text. For example, a list of technical parameters can be found on its side.
Besides the mainboard, the box contains the following accessories:
A mini-ITX mainboard is indeed a tiny, toy-like thing. You can find a popular photo on the Web that shows a pile of mainboards of various formats with a mini-ITX one on top, yet even that photo cannot give you the true notion of how small these mainboards are. Its size is comparable to a PCI Express x16 slot or memory module. It is but a centimeter longer than the I/O shield!
Despite its small size, the mainboard is quite a grownup device in its capabilities. Knowing beforehand that it is based on Intel H55 Express, I had expected it to use only a few of the chipset features. I wouldn’t have even blamed it for that, the small PCB area being a valid excuse. However, H55-ITX WiFi turns out to be different from full-size mainboards based on the same chipset only in the number of expansion slots. For example, it has six Serial ATA ports, exactly as supported by the chipset. And what I did not expect at all, the mainboard adds to the chipset functionality with extra controllers. Take a look at the back panel and you can count as many as ten USB ports! You don’t often see so many USB connectors even on full-size ATX mainboards. And if you take mainboards with integrated graphics support, I have not seen any of them to offer 10 ports at the back where they have video outputs instead. The typical amount is six or eight USB ports. Biostar TH55XE and MSI H57M-ED65 have only four such ports each, but the tiny Zotac H55-ITX WiFi has as many as ten!
Besides, there are two onboard pin-connectors for four more USB ports to make a total of 14 although the chipset supports only 12. This is possible thanks to a USB hub implemented with an additional Genesys Logic GL850A controller. Another additional controller, JMicron JMB360, supports the eSATA port you can find on the mainboard back panel. Here is a full list of what you can see there:
It is important to remember, that besides a PCI Express x16 slot, the mainboard has a mini PCI Express one which is occupied by default with AzureWave AR5B91 Wi-Fi controller, which supports 802.11 b/g/n and makes a very useful addition to the mainboard functionality. A small computer with a Zotac H55-ITX WiFi inside is not a notebook, yet you can easily take it to your kitchen or patio or some other place in your home where there is no Ethernet cable. In this case, the ability to connect wirelessly at a speed of up to 300 Mbps will come in handy. But if you don’t need that Wi-Fi adapter, you can replace it with, for example, an SSD or some other expansion card with mini PCIe interface.
The component layout scheme provides a different view of Zotac H55-ITX WiFi mainboard.
The full product specifications look as follows:
I must admit I am really amazed with the broad functionality of such a compact mainboard. But this is not the last surprise H55-ITX WiFi has got in store for us. Let’s move on to exploring the BIOS of this amazing product.
Like the majority of modern mainboards, Zotac H55-ITX WiFi uses BIOS code from AMI. I will show you the most interesting setup options.
The majority of parameters and subsections are contained within the “Advanced” section. The names make the contents of the subsections clear enough, so I will take a look at only a few of them. The options you can find there are standard but I could not find the “EuP Ready” option among them. To remind you, this technology helps limit the power consumption of a computer when it is turned off but not disconnected from the power source. Power efficiency is a crucial parameter for compact systems, especially as they are often used as a second home computer which works from time to time but spends most of its time in turned-off state.
Let us now take a look at the “PC Health Monitor” subsection which provides unexpectedly detailed information about the current system voltages. The speed of the fans is not reported but you can control it using specialized monitoring tools. And you can even set up the speed right in the BIOS without using any other utilities. You can make the speed of the CPU fan vary depending on the CPU temperature or lock it at some constant value.
The “CPU Configuration” subsection offers as many options as similar subsections in full-size mainboards.
The “Boot” screen is where you can specify the boot devices order as well as some other boot-related parameters (in the “Boot Settings Configuration” subsection).
The “Chipset” section contains a subsection with setup options related to the CPU-integrated part of the North Bridge, i.e. to the memory controller and the integrated graphics core.
Using the DRAM Frequency parameter, you can choose the memory frequency you need, but the adjustment of memory timings is implemented in a clumsy way. If you refuse to set them up according to the SPD information of the memory modules, you have to specify each value manually.
There is no option to change the clock rate of the CPU-integrated graphics core but that’s not a problem as such overclocking is generally unrewarding. Intel HD Graphics is quite enough for watching video and playing simple games but cannot do anything more, even if overclocked. If its performance is too low for you, there is no other solution but to install a discrete graphics card. Moreover, we discovered a lot of other parameters, which I have not seen before.
For example, you can set the “Flat Panel Type” at Type 1 through Type 16. I really wonder what the difference between those types is. It is also unclear what the “Backlight Control Support” and “BIA Control” options do. The “TV Standard” parameter is easier to comprehend. It seems to allow choosing an appropriate television standard if you connect the mainboard to a TV-set rather than to a computer monitor.
Now we’ve got to the “Perform Setting” section which leaves an ambiguous impression. On the one hand, a tiny mainboard cannot be expected to offer broad overclocking and fine-tuning options, while theoretically we can increase its base frequency up to 500 MHz and change the voltages. On the other hand, some parameters are missing. Particularly, you cannot increase the voltage on the CPU-integrated part of the North Bridge, which is going to be a limiting factor during overclocking.
It is handy that you can see the current value of each voltage next to the corresponding setting but the memory voltage is suspiciously low at 1.2 V. As I found out, this parameter does not work at all. The voltage remained the same when changed in the BIOS and could not be controlled in the monitoring utilities. I guess it is set at 1.5 V after all, which is the standard value for DDR3 SDRAM.
I like that every voltage can be not only increased but also decreased below the default level. Some users don’t care about overclocking, especially about overclocking a compact computer, but may appreciate the opportunity to lower the voltages to reduce the power consumption, heat dissipation and noise of the system without compromising its stability. The voltage adjustment increment is rather wide, e.g. 0.025 V for the CPU voltage, which is four times the adjustment increment you get with regular ATX mainboards.
The “Exit” section reminds you of the existence of the “Load Failsafe Defaults” parameter which is missing in most modern mainboards. Here, the failsafe and optimal parameters differ a lot, so do not forget to enable “Load Optimal Defaults” after you reflash the new BIOS or clear the CMOS memory.
Thus, Zotac H55-ITX WiFi offers unexpectedly good (for such a compact mainboard) overclocking and fine-tuning BIOS options. It allows changing frequencies, timings and voltages. On the other hand, a few important parameters are missing and some others look redundant or unclear. I also found options that did not work correctly.
All performance tests were performed on the following test platform:
We used Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate 64 bit (Microsoft Windows, Version 6.1, Build 7600) operating system, Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility version 22.214.171.1245, ATI Catalyst 10.2 graphics card driver.
Before talking about how Zotac H55-ITX WiFi works, I want to dwell upon the specifics of assembling a computer based on it. This mainboard offers two memory slots for a total of 8 gigabytes, which is quite enough for today’s as well as tomorrow’s computer systems. But you must be aware that the slots are too close to the CPU socket and to the 24-pin power connector. Besides, they are too close to each other. This means you have to choose modules with compact heatsinks, or with a heatsink plate on one side of the DIMM only, or with no heatsinks at all. You should also take into account the dimensions and retention mechanism of the CPU cooler. If the cooler is secured to some frame or mounting plate, the electronic components in the area around the processor socket may get in the way.
Running the mainboard in its default operation mode, I was surprised to find its CPU voltage to rise under load up to 1.16 V whereas the default voltage of my Intel Core i3-540 is only 1.025 V.
The CPU voltage was actually supposed to go down under high loads, but instead it grew up, and quite high up. I did not find any BIOS option to counteract the voltage drop on the CPU under load but it looks like the mainboard has this feature working all the time but hides it from the user. Or perhaps the mainboard cannot correctly identify the default CPU voltage and applies a higher one, which is also not good.
Another thing I did not like was the CPU fan control system. The speed of the fan begins to increase with a considerable delay after the CPU load and temperature rise. The option for controlling the CPU fan in the BIOS without any tools and utilities is an advantage of this mainboard but the available parameters do not allow limiting the maximum speed (which you may want to do to reduce the noise).
Not expecting the Zotac mainboard to be any good at overclocking at first, and trying to avoid any compatibility problems, I used a simple boxed CPU cooler which has a primitive aluminum heatsink (no taller than 2 centimeters) and a rather noisy (at full speed) fan. I increased the CPU voltage by 0.025 V and raised the base frequency to 161 MHz, achieving a CPU clock rate of 3.7 GHz. Alas, this was the maximum I could get with that mediocre cooler and with the inefficient fan control system. The CPU would get as hot as 93°C before the fan began to speed up. And although the temperature was not higher than 82°C during the tests, I thought it would be too dangerous to continue.
To make sure that the cooler didn’t limit the overclocking potential of the mainboard, I decided to replace the boxed one with something else. As a matter of fact, H55-ITX WiFi supports a number of various cooling systems, including highly efficient models with heat pipes. Such coolers are generally more compact at the bottom than those without heat pipes, so the only problem is that they are usually rather tall whereas a mini-ITX mainboard is supposed to be installed into a compact system case. After some deliberation, I chose Scythe Samurai ZZ. It fits nicely into system cases that allow installing full-size expansion cards as it is shorter than Radeon HD 5850 graphics card I used in my tests.
Scythe Samurai ZZ did not do particularly well in our comparative review of four CPU coolers that will be posted shortly on our site, but proved to be good in my tests. Although its airflow does not seem strong, the chipset heatsink was but slightly warm during overclocking. With the boxed cooler, that heatsink was very hot even when the mainboard was working in its default mode. The Samurai ZZ is rather noisy at high speed, though. Quite expectedly, the temperatures lowered, but the CPU voltage dropped down as well. It was still higher than necessary under load, but not that much: 1.152 V instead of 1.16 V.
The same goes for overclocking. With the boxed cooler, when I increased the CPU voltage by 0.025 V, it was as high as 1.192 V under load. The maximum CPU temperature was 93°C but stabilized at 82°C during tests. And with Samurai ZZ, the voltage would only rise to 1.176-1.184 V and the CPU was never hotter than 55°C, the average temperature being a mere 50°C. With such improvements, I moved further in my overclocking experiments. The system began to pass tests at a base frequency of 178 MHz with the CPU clocked at 4.1 GHz!
Unfortunately, at these (or even slightly lower) frequencies, the system was not absolutely stable. It might refuse to start up or show a BSOD when booting the OS. I guess this must have been caused by the lack of an option to increase the voltage on the CPU-integrated part of the North Bridge. By the way, the mainboard monitors over-overclocking and restarts in safe mode, but neither halts nor warns the user that the settings have been reset. It just goes on booting the OS, which is not very convenient.
I eventually found the stable parameters at which the system passed the tests, started up and restarted without problems: a base frequency of 170 MHz and a CPU voltage of 0.075 V. The CPU clock rate grew from the default 3.07 GHz to 3.9 GHz, which is an excellent result for a mainboard which is not supposed to be able to overclock CPUs at all.
And I also have no doubt that this mainboard might even do better during overclocking if it had all the setup options necessary for that.
As usual, we are going to compare the mainboards speeds in two different modes: in nominal mode and during CPU and memory overclocking. The first mode is interesting because it shows how well the mainboards work with their default settings. It is a known fact that most users do not fine-tune their systems, they simple choose the optimal BIOS settings and do nothing else. That is why we also run a round of tests without interfering in any way with the default mainboard settings. For the sake of comparison, we are going to also include the results obtained on Asus P7H55D-M EVO, Asus P7H57D-EVO, Biostar TH55XE, EVGA H55, Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3 and GA-H57M-USB3, Intel DH55TC and MSI H57M-ED65 mainboards. The mainboards are listed on the diagrams according to their performance (from high to low). The results of Zotac H55-ITX WiFi mainboard are marked with a darker color for your convenience.
We started using the recently released Cinebench 11.5 program version. All tests were run five times and the average result of the five runs was taken for the performance charts.
We have been using Fritz Chess Benchmark utility for a long time already and it proved very illustrative. It generated repeated results, the performance in it is scales perfectly depending on the number of involved computational threads.
A small video in x264 HD Benchmark 3.0 is encoded in two passes and then the entire process is repeated four times. The average results of the second pass are displayed on the following diagram:
In the archiving test a 1 GB file is compressed using LZMA2 algorithms, while other compression settings remain at defaults.
Like in the data compression test, the faster 16 million of Pi digits are calculated, the better. This is the only benchmark where the number of processor cores doesn’t really matter, because it creates single-threaded load.
There are good and bad things about complex performance tests. However, 3D Mark Vantage has become extremely popular. The diagram below shows the results after three test runs:
Since we do not overclock graphics in our mainboard reviews, the next diagram shows only CPU test from the 3D Mark Vantage suite.
We use FC2 Benchmark Tool to go over Ranch Small map ten times in 1280x1024 resolution with medium and high image quality settings in DirectX 10.
Resident Evil 5 game also has a built-in performance test. Its peculiarity is that it can really take advantage of multi-core processor architecture. The tests were run in DirectX 10 in 1280x1024 resolution with medium image quality settings. The average of five test runs was taken for further analysis:
We performed the same tests during processor and memory overclocking. The CPU was overclocked to 4.5 GHz almost on all mainboards, and the memory worked at 1564 – 1570 MHz frequency with 6-6-6-18-1T timings. The only exception is our today’s hero, where the CPU could only reach 3.9 GHz and the memory worked at 1360 MHz with 6-6-6-16-1T timings. This is a very fortunate situation, as EVGA H55 mainboard did exactly the same before. Now we have the opportunity to compare mainboards’ performance during overclocking in equal testing conditions. I have to remind you that Intel DH55TC mainboard didn’t participate in this test session at all, because it doesn’t overclock processors at all.
The results suggest that the mini-ITX mainboard from Zotac is just about as good as its larger opponents in both default and overclocked modes. When overclocked, it cannot outperform any other mainboard save for EVGA H55, which is not a good reference point as it falls behind all the other boards. However, we can look at the obtained results from a different aspect. When I began my tests, I didn’t expect Zotac H55-ITX WiFi to be any good at overclocking at all. So, let’s see what performance benefits you can get by overclocking the CPU and memory on this mainboard as compared to the nominal operation mode.
The excellent results are somewhat spoilt by those of 3DMark Vantage which depend a lot on the performance of the graphics card which worked at its default frequencies. Anyway, I achieved an average 25% performance boost in performance, which is a highly rewarding outcome.
We measured power consumption using Extech Power Analyzer 380803 device. This device was connected before the system PSU, i.e. it measured the power consumption of the entire system without the monitor, including the power losses that occur in the PSU itself. When we took the power readings in idle mode, the system was completely idle: there were even no requests sent to the hard drive at that time. We used LinX program to load the Intel Core i3-540 CPU. For more illustrative picture we created graphs showing the power consumption growth depending on the increase in CPU utilization as the number of active computational threads in LinX changed in nominal mode as well as during overclocking. The boards are sorted out in alphabetical order on the diagrams below.
The power consumption of the full-size ASUS P7H57D-V EVO is far higher than that of most other mainboards, but we can put up with it because this LGA1156 mainboard is a unique product with ultimate functionality. ASUS P7H55D-M EVO and EVGA H55 are not economical when idle irrespective of whether they are overclocked or not, although the power draw of the EVGA mainboard is lower than that of most other mainboards during overclocking since it overclocks to a lower level. The power efficiency of the rest of the mainboards is similar. We can only note that Intel DH55TC and MSI H57M-ED65 are more economical than the others in nominal mode.
As for Zotac H55-ITX WiFi, it is highly economical when idle or under low load, but this changes as soon as the CPU is fully loaded. The power draw is lower than with most other mainboards during overclocking because the frequencies and CPU voltage are lower than those of the others, too. It is comparable to the power consumption of EVGA H55 but the latter is a full-size mainboard and besides, it is very power-hungry anyway.
What I don’t like at all is that Zotac consumes a lot of power under full CPU load when working in its nominal mode. It needs more power than any other previously tested mainboard, reaching as high as 130 watts. This is all due to exceedingly high CPU voltage. Power efficiency is one of the priorities for compact mainboards as it helps reduce heat dissipation and noise, so this is indeed a serious problem.
My tests of Zotac H55-ITX WiFi mainboard left me with mixed emotions. At first, I was amazed with the capabilities of this tiny mini-ITX product which matched or even surpassed those of its full-size counterparts. It can be used to assemble not only a humble HTPC but also a full-featured computer capable of running calculations-heavy tasks and modern 3D games (if you add in a discrete graphics card). The mainboard proved to be able to overclock the CPU and memory and you can also adjust the memory frequency and timings. Why would anyone overclock a mini-ITX mainboard? Well, this makes little sense if you use such a system for watching movies, working in office applications and browsing the Web. But if you not only watch your videos, but also do some video editing, overclocking can be helpful in reducing the video processing times. If you don’t need high performance and only use the system as an auxiliary computer, the noise level becomes an important factor. This mainboard allows lowering the voltages, which will help reduce the noise. By the way, Intel DH55TC mainboard, for example, does not allow changing any settings at all.
Being excellent in many respects, Zotac mainboard is not absolutely free from shortcomings, nearly all of which are caused by some mistakes or flaws in its BIOS Setup. If the mainboard permitted to limit the maximum rotation speed of the CPU cooler fan, it would be much more comfortable to deal with. If it allowed increasing the voltage of the CPU-integrated part of the North Bridge, the overclocking results would be higher. And if it could save multiple profiles with settings, it would be easier to switch between different operation modes, e.g. default settings, reduced voltages, overclocking. But the biggest problem of all is that the CPU voltage rises high under load, leading to a terribly high level of power consumption. Such power inefficiency is unacceptable for a small and otherwise economical mainboard.
Today, when chipsets incorporate nearly all necessary features, eliminating the need for lots of additional controllers, the benefits of compact form-factors, such as mini-ITX, become apparent. Zotac H55-ITX WiFi is a vivid example of how a small mainboard can be a foundation of a full-featured multifunctional modern computer if its developer wants to fully meet the requirements of a potential user. This particular model is very good but not perfect. Some of the problems can be eliminated with BIOS updates or will be corrected in new product revisions, but it is already clear that mini-ITX mainboards are not impractical toys anymore. Moreover, they are not even limited to quiet, compact, power efficient but low-performance computer systems. This highly promising form-factor deserves more attention from users. I am sure there is going to be a lot of interesting products in this market sector soon.