10/20/2011 | 01:16 PM
Miniaturization is one of the key aspects of the technological progress. We don’t need a two-deck cassette- or CD player to listen to music, as gigabytes of music can now be stored and carried around on tiny MP3 players. You do not need a TV-set to watch a movie, as a compact video player will work perfectly fine on the road. We no longer use mobile phones only in cars: you have to check all your pockets before you find your small smartphone, and they tend to disappear without a trace in women’s purses… Of course, all of us would love to trade in their large and bulky system case for something small and stylish, but with the same or even better computing power. LGA1155 is today’s contemporary platform, and mini-ITX is the miniature form-factor. So, today it is fairly easy to find a lot of mainboards from many different manufacturers with very diverse functionality: take, for instance, our roundup of eight mini-ITX mainboards for LGA1155 processors. However, until recently there were no mainboards among them that would allow users to overclock processors, too. The first real mini-ITX product like that to start selling in retail became Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi based on Intel Z68 Express chipset. Today we are going to discuss its features, functionality and performance in our detailed review.
Zotac doesn’t share the common belief of many mainboard makers that the more logotypes are there on the packaging, the better the mainboard inside will turn out. I also think that it is very distracting, and the two most important things to be visible on the packaging are the manufacturer’s name and the mainboard model, which is done perfectly fine on the Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi box.
If the potential buyer gets interested in the product and picks up the box, there will be brief technical specifications on one of the sides, and an image of the board on the back of the box together with a short description of the board’s features and included accessories in several different languages.
The accessories inside the box were unexpectedly and pleasantly numerous and included the following items:
We are no longer surprised with the numerous SATA cables or different types of connector locks, but we really appreciated the manufacturer caring about user needs, the attention to little details, which is not only pleasant but sometimes even necessary. Far not every full-size mainboard comes with a back panel bracket with USB 3.0 ports, and here they even included an additional low-profile bracket for small system cases. The two antennas as well as the name of the board suggested that it is equipped with a Wi-Fi module. It is designed as a half-size mini-PCI Express card and is attached to the board with an additional bracket. If you decide to replace this module with a different full-size mini-PCIe card or a compact SSD drive, there is an additional frame for dull-size mini-PCI Express or mSATA cards included with the accessories for your convenience. I was truly impressed!
We are eager to put up with a lot of things for the sake of compact size mini-ITX mainboards have to offer such as certain inconveniences in the components layout as well as missing features. However, in case of Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi mainboard we could apply the same strict criteria that we use for full-size mainboards and still be more than happy with the outcome.
To save some space the developers usually implement four-pin ATX12V processor power connector, but here we see an eight-pin one. Significantly simplified processor voltage regulator circuitry is another popular and justified feature of many mini-ITX mainboards, but here we have a fully-functional eight-phase one, which is built with DrMOS transistors and tantalum capacitors! Moreover, the heating components are topped with a heatsink, which is designed in such a way that it reaches the mainboard back panel and therefore can dissipate some of the heat outside the system case. It is connected with a heatpipes to the chipset heatsink and both heatsinks are securely screwed on to the board PCB.
This tiny mainboard also had enough room not only for Power On and Reset buttons, but even for a two-digit POST-code indicator. The Clear CMOS button for resetting the BIOS settings is available on the mainboard back panel together with two USB 3.0 ports. Besides that, there is another internal USB 3.0 pin-connector, which allows adding two more ports to the system case front or back panel.
The complete list of ports and connectors on the mainboard back panel looks as follows:
I have never seen two Gigabit networks controllers on a tiny mini-ITX mainboard! But do not forget that besides them, there is also a wireless 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi module – AzureWave AR5B95. Another unique feature of this mainboard is that besides a PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot for an add-on graphics accelerator, it also has a combination slot that can accommodate a mini-PCI Express or an mSATA card, depending on the switch position.
Unbelievable, but I even found a COM port! The board is also equipped with two four-pin fan connectors that allow adjusting their rotation speed as necessary.
I was completely blown away by the superior functionality of the small Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi mainboard, which you don’t often see even on some full-size products in bright boxes loaded with all sorts of logos.
Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi mainboard uses UEFI BIOS based on AMI microcode. It looks like regular BIOS, but allows using both: mouse and keyboard at the same time.
Most settings are located in the “Advanced” section. For user convenience it is split into several sub-sections, which we are going to check out right now.
The main window of the “X-Setting” sub-section allows us to change the voltage on the processor core, memory and chipset. Other settings are available on separate pages.
“CPU Performance” page allows changing the processor clock frequency multiplier and base clock, and configuring processor technologies.
“GPU Boost” page turned out empty. I believe that later on they are going to add some options for overclocking of the graphics core integrated into the processor.
By default the mainboard sets the memory frequency and timings automatically, but we enabled manual configuration modes in order to show you the extensive functionality of the “Memory Timing Configuration” sub-section.
“H/W Monitor” sub-section allows monitoring current temperatures, voltages, fan rotation speeds. You can also configure the rotation speed settings for both your fans here.
“CPU Configuration” sub-section displays the basic information about your processor and allows to configure some processor technologies.
The next section called “Chipset” tells us how much memory we have in our system.
You can configure your integrated graphics core in the “Display Configuration” sub-section.
“OnBoard Device Config” sub-section allows us to set up our integrated controllers.
In the “Boot” section you can set up the order of boot-up devices and change some other options involved into system start-up process.
Administrator and user access are set up in “Security” section.
“Save & Exit” section has pretty common functions, but also allows you to save or restore one BIOS settings profile.
I have to admit that I didn’t really like this BIOS implementation because of its confusing and scattered structure. There is no single section with all the options and settings necessary for system overclocking and fine-tuning. Instead, there is a ton of small sub-sections and pages and you need a lot of time to check all of the parameters scattered over all of them.
We carried out our tests on a testbed that included the following components:
We used Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64 bit (Microsoft Windows, Version 6.1, Build 7601: Service Pack 1) operating system, Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility version 126.96.36.1990, Nvidia GeForce Driver 280.26 graphics card driver.
We didn’t experience any serious problems during system assembly on Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi. We use Scythe Samurai ZZ cooler for mini-ITX systems instead of our traditional Scythe Mugen 2. This cooler fit perfectly onto our board and even left enough room for DIMM modules with tall heat-spreaders. However, with default settings Intel Turbo Boost technology didn’t work for some reason, even though it was enabled in the BIOS. The processor clock frequency multiplier didn’t increase and remained at 33x at all times. However, it is already a second Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi mainboard in our lab and the previous one didn’t have any problems with Turbo. Therefore, after a few failed attempts to clear the settings and force the clock frequency multiplier to go up, we reflashed the BIOS several times and Intel Turbo Boost finally started working normally.
Our test Intel Core i5-2500K processor can be overclocked to 4.7 GHz frequency. We failed to go that far on our Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi based system, because the stability wasn’t there. First we started lowering the frequency and voltage trying to find the sweet spot for stable operation, but during one of the following stability checks Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi board burned down and took our processor with it. This is when we received a new Z68-ITX WiFi sample from Zotac. But this time we decided to change our overclocking strategy and move up from lower frequencies to higher and not the other way around, as we did before. Besides, we haven’t yet had a chance to check out the full potential of the new processor. Besides its maximum overclocked frequency we only know that it can work at 4.5 GHz without any Vcore increase but with the enabled technology for counteracting the core voltage drop under heavy load. We obtained the same exact result during our MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) mainboard review: we used this approach to ensure that all processor power-saving technologies will stay up and running on MSI board.
Zotac mainboard doesn’t have a BIOS parameter that would allow it to counteract the voltage drop under heavy loads. In this case, namely without VDroop or Load-Line settings in the BIOS and without increasing the processor core voltage, the maximum clock frequency attainable on our particular CPU was 4.3 GHz. However, unlike MSI mainboards, the Zotac ones have no problems with power-saving technologies that is why we can easily push the processor Vcore a little higher. However, it is also important to remember that our cooling system is weaker than usual, so it is crucial to monitor all temperatures very closely. As a result, when we increased the CPU Vcore by 0.1 V, Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi mainboard managed to overclock our processor to 4.5 GHz. Further voltage increase didn’t make any sense and was hardly possible, because even in an open testbed the CPU temperature under load rose to 88°C. Of course, inside a closed system case the temperature will most likely get beyond 90°C, so only a very well-ventilated system case can actually guarantee long-term stability even at this relatively low frequency. As for the memory, the board couldn’t get it to work stably at 1866 MHz, but had it running perfectly fine at 1600 MHz with 6-6-6-18-1T timings.
We always overclock our system so that it could be used in this mode for a long time. At the same time we do not try to make our life easier by disabling some of the mainboard features, such as additional controllers, for example. We also do our best to make sure that all processor power-saving technologies stay up and running normally. So, in this case all power-saving technologies were working fine even during overclocking, so the processor Vcore and clock multiplier were dropping in idle mode as they are supposed to.
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 simply choose the optimal BIOS settings and do nothing else. That is why we run a round of tests almost without interfering in any way with the default mainboard settings. For comparison purposes we are going to also include the results from our reviews of Asus P8Z68 Deluxe, P8Z68-V Pro and Asus P8Z68-V, as well as Asus Maximus IV Extreme, Biostar TZ68K+, Gigabyte G1.Sniper 2 and Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD, and MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3). The results are sorted out in descending order on the diagrams. The results of Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi are marked with darker color on the diagrams for your convenience.
We used Cinebench 11.5. 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 4.0 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:
We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.
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, Futuremark benchmarking software has become extremely popular and is used for comparisons a lot. To estimate the average performance of our test platform PCMark 7 test measures the performance in common algorithms that are frequently used on an everyday basis. The diagram shows the average of three test runs:
3DMark11 suite measures the graphics sub-system performance in the first place. The diagram below shows the average results after three test runs in 3DMark11 Performance mode with default settings:
Since we do not overclock graphics in our mainboard reviews, the next diagram shows only CPU tests from the 3DMark11 – Physics Score. This score is obtained in a special physics test that emulates the behavior of a complex gaming system working with numerous objects:
We use FC2 Benchmark Tool to go over Ranch Small map ten times in 1920x1080 resolution with 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 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings. The average of five test runs was taken for further analysis:
At first glance the performance of Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi in the nominal mode seems to be somewhat disappointing, because in most cases it is at the very bottom of the diagram, i.e. is slower than all the other comparison participants. It is particularly slow in Futuremark suites, where it is the very last one. However, this first impression is, in fact, deceiving: if we compare the results of Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi against those of one of the fastest mainboards – Asus P8Z68 Deluxe, then even in these applications the difference will actually be a little over 1%, and even less than that in all other benchmarks. This once again proves that related mainboards demonstrate very similar performance levels and work at practically the same speed in most tasks.
Now let’s run the same tests with the CPU and memory overclocked. You can see the difference in the system parameters in the following table:
This time it is quite logical that the Zotac board is always the slowest, because it only overclocked the CPU to 4.5 GHz, while most of the other mainboards reached 4.7 GHz. MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3) also hit 4.5 GHz frequency, but Zotac mainboard yields to it in memory speed, that is why it ends up behind the MSI board. If we compare it against Asus P8Z68 Deluxe mainboard again, the biggest performance difference between them will be reaching 5%, which is not dramatic, but quite noticeable.
We performed our power consumption measurements using an Extech Power Analyzer 380803. This device is connected before the PSU and measures the power draw of the entire system (without the monitor), including the power loss that occurs in the PSU itself. In the idle mode we start the system up and wait until it stops accessing the hard disk. Then we use LinX to load the CPU. For a more illustrative picture there are graphs that show how the computer’s power consumption grows up depending on the number of active execution threads in LinX (both at the default and overclocked system settings). The mainboards are sorted in alphabetical order on the diagrams.
Energy-efficiency is definitely something where Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi can’t be beat. In nominal mode as well as during overclocking this miniature mainboard consumes significantly less power than any of the other comparison participants.
At first the tiny Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi looks not just good, but absolutely mind-blowing. We were amazed with a very thoughtful set of accessories, very convenient and smart components layout despite the small PCB size. The board is manufactured with contemporary high-quality components and has extensive functionality. We were a little disappointed with not very convenient BIOS structure and not the best CPU and memory overclocking results. However, let’s not forget that Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi managed to get the CPU to work at 4.5 GHz, which means that a tiny mini-ITX system will in the end be much faster than most of the large system cases with previous-generation processors inside. Besides, another definite strength is the low power consumption of a system like that.
Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi mainboard became the first mini-ITX mainboard on Intel Z68 Express available in retail that is capable of successfully overclocking LGA1155 processors. However, at this point it already has the first competitor – ASRock Z68M-ITX/HT. ASRock’s mainboard can’t boast contemporary component base, has no combination mini-PCI Express / mSATA slot, no Wi-Fi, only one network adapter and only two USB 3.0 ports on the back panel. However, it also has a lot of unique advantages, such as an eSATA port on the back panel, a transmitter and a remote control unit and a significantly lower price. So, it looks like now Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi will be competing not against larger rivals, but against a similar mini-ITX mainboard from ASRock. It will be superior in some aspects, and in some it will fall behind, but the right choice for any user will in the end depend on his/her priorities and specific needs.