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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  • Aikouka - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    Ah, if only I held off on building my silent HTPC for a little bit longer. The hardest part about working with a Streacom case (other than building it) is finding a good motherboard that doesn't put too much in the way of the heat pipes. That's one reason why I was considering going with a board with mSATA, and I'm pretty certain that I stumbled across that ASRock board. Unfortunately, I looked at the photos, and didn't see a mSATA port, so I passed on it. Who would have thought to look at the back? Boy, do I feel like a bit of a dummy now! =$

    Although, speaking of the back mSATA connector, I recall seeing you touch on it on the recommendation page, but do you think it would work well on most cases? If I remember correctly, mSATA drives are fairly thin, so it might be fine. Going back to the Streacom, it does look like the ASRock offering would work well in regard to clearance even disregarding the mSATA port as the light gray SATA ports should clear the heat pipes. The USB3 port won't though.
    Reply
  • philipma1957 - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    I built 2 asrock builds with the msata as the only drive. btw this z77 review with no regard to oc is pretty weird.

    I have a 3770k with a hd7970 gpu and an msata in a small case the cooler master elite it is a very fast powerful machine. I use the asrock and love it. it does have a flaw the msata slot is sata II
    Reply
  • Ananke - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    I have i3-3225 (the same as in the article). In my opinion, for the money, the best is ASUS P8H77-I.
    It does have 6 SATA ports - a must for a file server. So, basically install Windows 8 on a SSD, add HDDs and create Storage Space - 5 SATA will allow you to create software RAID 5, without the need of SATA extension controller. BIOS is nice and stable. The board is $100 on Newegg.

    The ASUS Z77 Deluxe is nice, if anybody needs all the additional functionality in a small form factor. However, only 4 SATA - means no good for video, file, backup server. You get the "overclocking" ability though. I doubt how practical is overclocking into so small space, probably to a handful of people. Teh board costs $185.

    So, I would say $100 is better than $185, plus you get all the 6 SATA ports - priceless.
    Reply
  • DarkStryke - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    Not everyone who games wants to have a huge tower. I've built more then one system based around the silverstone FT03-mini that runs a 3750k / Z77 deluxe-i and a GTX 670.

    I bring mine to lan parties and people are amazed at the power in such a small box, and it's just as fast as any desktop single GPU alternative.
    Reply
  • Ananke - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    ASUS P8H77-I is a mini ITX board - the cheaper variant of the reviewed deluxe board. It costs $100. Reply
  • ggathagan - Wednesday, January 02, 2013 - link

    I agree; the H77 makes much more sense for most ITX builds.
    I built a system with the P8H77-I, a GTX670 and the FT03-MINI.

    I don't think the daughter card of the Z77 Deluxe would have fit in the case.
    Reply
  • tramways - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    I registered here because the reviewer is lamenting that some boards use the ALC889 instead of the ALC892 codecs.
    The 889 like the 882 before it and the 898 after it is a much better codec than the 892.
    The 883,888,892 codecs are the cheaper low performance DAC/ADC chips.
    I would buy a board with the ALC889 or preferably the ALC898,but not with the ALC892.
    all the best in 2013
    Paul
    Reply
  • limki - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    too bad I already ordered mine last week ... MSI Z77IA
    to tell the truth, i don't really mind [ at 136€ its a bit pricier than asrock with my supplier]
    the conclusion for this board seems a bit biased to me
    but hey, if you're not looking for a tiny powerhouse, you don't need z77
    - in SUGO 05(and most small cases), MB is horizontally and PSU is above it, so cables and airflow will always be nasty
    - using a discrete GPU, you don't care about not having DVI or DP
    - no additional controller (USB/SATA) -> I don't plan on using more than 2(won't fit into case), so why bother?
    //btw is the SATA 6/3/m correct 2+2? shouldn't be also 2+2+1?
    - and if I'm to take the "military grade" stuff at least half seriously, ...
    Reply
  • EnzoFX - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    Do the post times include those pesky AHCI driver loading screen? I hate that it adds so much more to the boot process. Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Tuesday, January 01, 2013 - link

    Thanks for the great comparison review!

    It looks like there is a little mistake in the spec list for the Asus board, which shows it having a mini-PCIe connector. I would love it if it did, but I didn't see it on the board and it isn't mentioned in other spec lists.

    It is important to me because I would ideally need connection for both a graphics card and a sound card (which I believe I could do through a mini-PCIe to PCIe x1 adapter if needed). This makes the EVGA Stinger the choice for me here, though the Asus board is the one I would prefer to buy.

    I am truthfully a little disappointed in the EVGA board, which seems all too common with EVGA products in general these days. Great support is still there, but I'd rather they build bleeding edge components and not have to find out whether or not their support is as good as people say it is. The Stinger is a good board to be sure, and the Intel LAN alone puts it in the category of "will buy" for me, but I was hoping it would be something that would match or beat the Asus P877-I, and it just doesn't.
    Reply

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