The mini-ITX motherboard market seems like a fast growing segment.  It has many applications in terms of small home servers, work machines, HTPC devices, mobile gaming desktop machines, and much more.  With most home users / non-enthusiasts using only one PCIe device and perhaps 1-2 SATA ports, a mini-ITX board makes perfect sense for a smaller system and perhaps a lower power footprint.  In this review, we take five of the Z77 mITX boards on the market today for a grand sweep using the HD 4000 enabled i3-3225.  Enter into the test bed the MSI Z77IA-E53, the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi, the ASRock Z77E-ITX, the EVGA Z77 Stinger and the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe.

I can haz mini-ITX?

Basic Design of a mini-ITX

When a motherboard manufacturer chooses to design a mini-ITX board, a lot of questions come in to play, as with any motherboard production.  Ultimately it comes down to the market they wish to target, where it may sell the most units, and how much of a margin can it make while still being a competitive product.  As we noted with the Gigabyte H77N-WiFi, sometimes a motherboard will be commissioned by a system integrator, then the design will be put on general sale.  In the case of Gigabyte, an Asian buyer had specific requirements regarding ports, controllers and socket location – Gigabyte made this motherboard and then decided to also sell it world-wide.  In this scenario, the intended market has already been sold to – any additional sales are a positive step for the product.

The mini-ITX form factor measures 17 cm x 17 cm (6.69” x 6.69”), thus PCB space is at a premium in order to put all the Z77 chipset functionality on board.  Some features are fixed, such as the socket and chipset area required on board.  The rest is up to the manufacturer.  Some questions to consider are:

- PCIe x16 or something smaller?
- Full sized DDR3 or SO-DIMM?
- How many SATA ports from the Chipset, do we add controllers?
- How many USB ports from the Chipset, do we add controllers?
- What choice of Audio/Network?
- What video connectivity for the IO?
- Where to put the battery?
- What are our core priorities?

These are not trivial answers.  Change one and you have an entirely different product which could be aimed at a different market.  As a result of these questions, we end up with a variety of different products in this review.

The Z77 chipset, by default, has the option to provide the following:

- Any three digital video outputs plus one analogue output (despite only certain combinations being usable in multi-monitor setups)
- Up to two SATA 6 Gbps ports
- Up to four SATA 3 Gbps ports
- Up to four USB 3.0 ports
- Up to twelve USB 2.0 ports

In many of the motherboards in this review, we will see different combinations of the video outputs, with some doubling up on HDMI, or others combining DVI-D and VGA to make a combined DVI-I port.  Every motherboard uses the two SATA 6 Gbps from the chipset, but at least one board uses a SATA 6 Gbps controller for a pair of eSATA ports on the IO panel.  Most motherboards use only two out of the four SATA 3 Gbps ports on offer – sometimes one of the extra ones gets partitioned into an mSATA.  Every motherboard uses all four USB 3.0 ports, sometimes in the form of an onboard header, or perhaps an extra controller is used to push the total up to six.  No motherboard uses all the USB 2.0 ports, and makes a conservative estimate as to how many headers would be considered reasonable usage in a mITX case.

No one board is a catch-all scenario.  There will be readers here that will have a different take on these motherboards than I do depending on how they want to use these products, and hopefully both opinions will be respected.  If you are in the market for a mITX motherboard, I highly suggest thinking of a list of features you cannot do without – such as network controller, audio codec, numbers of ports, what sort of CPU cooler or GPU you will be using, or how long your PSU power cables are, for example.  Each board has a different take, and the one that fits your scenario may not be one that I recommend, due to reasons XYZ that I found during testing.

A Side Note about Overclocking

While one of the features of the Z77 platform over H77 is overclocking, this is a little at odds with the mITX premise.  Small form factor scenarios do not often react well with heat, especially paired with inadequate cooling or large heat producing GPUs.  As detailed in several of Dustin’s ITX case reviews, sources of localized temperature may not always be a good thing, especially when paring it with smaller cases, or even hitting the high 90s Celsius with the Bitfenix Prodigy.  With the Antek ISK 100 case for example, only the integrated graphics will be of use.  There will be some users that will use a mITX with some epic cooling system with their i7-3770K or similar, I will admit.  But for this review, to keep in line with our previous 7-series mITX motherboard reviews, we are using the HD 4000 enabled i3-3225.  It offers direct competition to the A10-5800K in terms of CPU power, and should be a fun battle now we have more data points for comparison. 

It should be noted that I thoroughly enjoyed testing these motherboards and many thanks to MSI, Zotac, ASRock, EVGA and ASUS for participating in our roundup.  First up is the MSI Z77IA-E53.

MSI Z77IA-E53 Overview, Visual Inspection, Board Features
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  • Bullwinkle J Moose - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    Hey yeah, Ian haz a good point

    That Crappy Gigabyte H61n-USB3 doesn't have Chipset USB3

    But it does however boot just fine to a USB3 Windows to go drive at USB3 speeds

    It also boots to Linux and XP due to the Non-Locked down Bios so we wouldn't want that either would we

    and it takes a full 9 seconds to boot XP compared to the super de duper fast 7 second Windows 8

    So we should spend more money and get locked into a closed system

    After all, that is the future!

    Limitations are fun so be happy as we lock down the Internet as well

    After all, there are scarey Monsters out there

    A man has to know his limitations
    Clint Eastwood
    Reply
  • Bullwinkle J Moose - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    Ian haz a good point about the memory too

    That Gigabyte H61 board only takes up to 16GB of RAM

    How much do these Z77 boards take by the way?

    Was it this site or Maximum PC where the reviewers stated that in everyday use, you will notice no difference in speed between Sata 2 & 3 when you are using the latest and greatest SSD so I probably don't need the RAID capability on my H61 either

    Keep up the good work Ian
    Reply
  • Death666Angel - Wednesday, January 02, 2013 - link

    It seems that someone just discovered sarcasm. Good for you! Reply
  • mczak - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    H61 is not limited to one single sided DIMM per channel, double sided are just fine. It only accepts one per channel (at least it's specced that way) but since none of these mini-ITX boards have more than two memory slots this wouldn't matter at all here (max memory is still 2x8GB regardless).
    Frankly I'm not sure losing PCIe 3.0 is a big deal with mini-itx boards in any case but either way it isn't exactly true there are h61 boards supposedly supporting this (as it's got nothing to do with the chipset anyway all the pcie 3.0 signals coming directly from the cpu, though it would require bios support).
    This leaves us with losing SATA 6 Gbps - this might indeed make some minimal difference in real world, provided you use a SSD and not a HD.
    The major point imho (aside from overclocking) would be missing USB 3.0, which obviously makes a big difference when using external harddisks etc. Granted that could be done with separate usb controller but probably not a good idea since space is limited.
    H61 IIRC also will lose the possibility of using 3 display outputs simultaneously. Maybe something like H77 would make more sense for mini-ITX as it pretty much only loses overclocking (plus the ability to split the 16 x pcie 3.0 lanes into 2x8 though I guess this has nothing to do with the chipset itself really, but in any case it won't be missed on mini-itx). So if you don't want to overclock, you wouldn't miss anything at all with H77 on a mini-itx board.
    Reply
  • Etern205 - Saturday, January 05, 2013 - link

    I also notice that as well, most sites will only review Z77 mITX boards instead of H61 or H77. Not all will need a Z77, Z77 is mostly for enthusiast or for those who are into the technical stuffs. For the average Joe or Jane any mITX board will do. If you tell them it's H61 or Z77, they probably won't care too much on the difference. Reply
  • piroroadkill - Wednesday, January 02, 2013 - link

    You can't easily upgrade the chipset later. With a small up-front investment, you get the full feature set, and why not? Reply
  • Bullwinkle J Moose - Sunday, January 06, 2013 - link

    Oh Boo Hoo, I can't easily upgrade to an overclocking chipset or void the warranties of my hardware components

    I am just stuck with a totally stable system

    Boo Hoo

    How can I possibly break this ?

    What has the World become ?

    Poor me
    Boo Hoo
    Reply
  • Bullwinkle J Moose - Sunday, January 06, 2013 - link

    Why not?

    Because the H61 is exactly what I wanted

    and anything else is NOT !

    can you hear me now?
    Reply
  • sherlockwing - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    Where is the Gigabyte? Reply
  • IanCutress - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    Gigabyte wanted their H77 reviewed instead, which we reviewed recently: http://www.anandtech.com/show/6427 Reply

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