Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/6516/z77-mitx-roundup-five-of-the-best-msi-zotac-asrock-evga-and-asus



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

The MSI Z77IA-E53 retails for $145, the cheapest of the roundup, below the $160 for the Zotac and $150 for the ASRock.  For the money, we get a motherboard oriented such that the chipset is above the socket, an odd location for the CPU Power connector, and a novel combination of features on board.  We have access to the Realtek ALC892 audio codec and Realtek 8111E GbE NIC, a single HDMI video connection, a single VGA connection, no on/off buttons or debug LED, but an included WiFi module.  There are no extra SATA or USB controllers, with MSI deciding to forgo these additional features for the sake of a PS/2 combination port and a ClearCMOS button on the rear IO.

In terms of design, the orientation of the features gives rise for concern – especially the placement of the CPU power connector. As it is near the rear IO at the bottom of the board just above the PCIe slot, it stands to reason that some home builds of this machine will require a PSU cable to reach over most of the motherboard or the GPU – not an ideal solution.  One design choice I do agree with however is the placement of the onboard battery – rather than using PCB space in a flat configuration, or placement issues in an upright position, we have it stuck to the rear IO.  As long as the adhesive holds there should be no issues.  Ideally I guess it be better if it was fixed into the chipset heatsink.

Despite the size of mITX, MSI have gone with full length DDR3 instead of SO-DIMM, and these slots also exhibit a single sided latch system for easy placement and removal.  The socket location is right up against the memory and PCIe slot, meaning that CPU coolers have to conform to Intel’s x-y dimension specifications and any GPU with a back plate may have issues depending on the cooler used.

Performance wise, the only snag with the MSI board (as with any 7-series MSI board we have tested recently) is the USB 2.0 speed.  Despite this being part of the chipset, the peak speeds we achieve are only ~25 MBps read and write, rather than the 32+ we see on any other motherboard.  It also seemed odd that our POST times when running a stripped setup in the BIOS were actually 33% longer than normal POST – 12.68 seconds for a ‘stripped’ POST against 9.63 seconds for a default POST with a single GPU installed.

I still maintain that MSI have some design wins in the BIOS, especially by giving the information regarding the setup on the front screen and this information being continually present throughout what option in the BIOS you choose.  The BIOS options themselves could be laid out better, and the idea of a graphical and interactive interface has only been half-attempted.  In terms of software, MSI keeps a user up-to-date with their Live Update system which checks the servers for updates.  This can be useful if there is a minor patch needed to be pushed through for better performance, or an irritant if a user wants to just plug and play.  I rather like it when I can get it to work – I had to use the latest version of Live Update 5 from the website rather than the one on the install disk to get it to play ball.

All-in-all, the MSI board in terms of features and performance offers nothing above the grade, and if anything the USB 2.0 speed is a constant malady that needs sorting out.  The BIOS and software design though are in the top tier if you want a deep interaction with your product.

Visual Inspection

In the year 2012, we have seen a variety of motherboard designs to titillate almost all the colors of the rainbow – yellow, orange, green, gold, red and blue for the most part.  (I am still waiting on the pink, the white and the grey.)  Normally a specific color scheme is for a product range, such as ROG, G1 or Fatal1ty.  In the case of MSI, the normal scheme is the MSI logo blue combined with black.  To do such a scheme on a mITX board should be easy – a mITX board is a niche product after all with a lot of potential.  The downside comes when allocating colors for SATA connections, or trying to hide controllers and routing along with all the advertising and writing on board.  For example, if a company has bulk-purchased their plastic connections 12-18 months ago, and are at a stage in their stock pile that only two colors are left., rather than the expense of buying more, they reuse the older ones until the stock is gone.  Exceptions are made, such as the ROG and G1 lines of the other companies that are building brand names.  As a result on the MSI Z77IA-E53, we get an attempt at black and blue, but the presence of white/black SATA ports, a red USB header, and the silver from all the solder points detracts from the aesthetics.

Like many of the other Z77 mITX boards on the market, MSI have decided to place the socket below the center of the board.  This, as mentioned previously, has a couple of serious implications on the design.  Firstly, the socket is at the minimum specified distance away from both the PCIe slot and the memory slots, meaning that all CPU coolers must conform to the Intel specification in the x and y directions.  This limits large air coolers, and large GPUs with back plates may have trouble fitting in.  The second issue comes from the presence of the power delivery – having the socket in this area means that the 12V CPU Power Connector is in an awkward position.  In the case of the MSI Z77IA-E53, it is to the bottom left of the socket, and as such, any attempt to plug the connector in will need the cable to either stretch over the board, or stretch over a GPU.  Neither is ideal when trying to produce a clean system build.  A final issue is the location of the IO – as the chipset is near the top of the board, so are all the connections for USB and SATA ports.   Due to the limited space to place components and features, the inclusion of a mini-PCIe/mSATA comes at the loss of a USB 2.0 header and two SATA 3 Gbps ports.  This is up to the manufacturer, but at least MSI moves the on-board battery out of the way with some adhesive and places it on the rear IO.

Back into the board itself, we have two fan headers to use – one CPU 4-pin just above the socket, and a SYS 4-pin below the 24-pin ATX power connector.  The power delivery uses a small bulky heatsink that hugs the IO panel, and we find the 8-pin CPU power connector just below this. The chipset heatsink by comparison is very small and flat, but should still be designed to dissipate the 7-8W that the chipset can produce.  From the top left we get a red USB 2.0 header, a blue USB 3.0 header, the connection and wires for the on-board battery, two SATA 6 Gbps in white, two SATA 3 Gbps in black, the 4-pin CPU fan header to the right of the chipset, and an mSATA/mini-PCIe connection next to the memory slots.  This mSATA/mini-PCIe will take any standard device for those two protocols, with the option to switch between the two found in the BIOS.  The Fintek F71889AD chip underneath the spot where a mPCIe device would be is a SuperIO chip designed to add in the PS/2 functionality as well as hardware monitoring.  Also to the right of the memory slots is a TPM header.  This space between the memory and the edge of the board would be perfect to put power/reset switches or a debug LED (like on the Zotac mITX), but unfortunately all we get are components.

The rear IO is a little bleak due to the large gap in the middle.  Other mITX boards we have reviewed have tried to do something a little different on the rear IO, such as dual HDMI + VGA, but here MSI have decided to remain a little basic.  From left to right we have a VGA, HDMI, a Realtek 8111E GbE NIC, two USB 3.0 ports, a ClearCMOS button, optical S/PDIF output, a combination PS/2 port, a WiFi connection, four USB 2.0 ports, an eSATA port, a Bluetooth 3.0+HS module and a trio of audio jacks.

Board Features

MSI Z77IA-E53
Price Link
Size Mini ITX
CPU Interface LGA-1155
Chipset Intel Z77
Memory Slots Two DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 16 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1066-2800 MHz
Video Outputs HDMI
VGA
Onboard LAN Realtek 8111E
WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC892
Expansion Slots 1 x PCIe 3.0 x16
1 x mSATA/mini-PCIe
Onboard SATA/RAID 2 x SATA 6 Gbps (Chipset) RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
2 x SATA 3 Gbps (Chipset) RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
USB 4 x USB 3.0 (Chipset) [2 back panel, 2 onboard]
6 x USB 2.0 (Chipset) [4 back panel, 2 onboard]
Onboard 2 x SATA 6 Gbps
2 x SATA 3 Gbps
1 x USB 3.0 Header
1 x USB 2.0 Header
1 x TPM Connector
1 x Front Panel Audio
2 x Fan Headers
1 x Mini PCIe/mSATA
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX Power Connector
1 x 8-pin CPU Power Connector
Fan Headers 1 x CPU (4-pin)
1 x SYS (4-pin)
IO Panel 1 x PS/2 Combination Port
4 x USB 2.0
2 x USB 3.0
1 x Realtek 8111E GbE NIC
1 x HDMI
1 x VGA
1 x Clear-CMOS Button
1 x Wi-Fi Antenna Connector
1 x eSATA
1 x Optical S/PDIF Output
3 x Audio Jacks
Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link

As mentioned in the visual inspection above, there are no real extras in terms of the MSI board – we arguably get the minimum we expect from a mITX product at this price range.  There is perhaps scope to bump up the audio/Ethernet controllers to ALC898/8111F, or organise the layout to include more SATA ports onboard.



MSI Z77IA-E53 BIOS

In the land of the evolving BIOS, one everlasting memory of MSI will stick with me always – the propensity for MSI to include games in the BIOS.  Back on the initial launch of graphical interface BIOSes (UEFIs) on the P67 chipset, MSI’s initial design was to offer a series of options using colors, but also to include a section involving simple games like Breakout, Pairs, and some Snake derivative.  While a baffling situation for any reviewer to be in, it did point out the obvious nature of what a graphical BIOS should be – interactive, appealing and easy to use.  As a technical exercise, the games did their job, but the games were clearly not going to stay.

Since then, MSI have taken two steps forward is aesthetics, but two steps back in accessibility and design.  What we have had since X79 is literally a ‘winning’ design – technically the third place in an internal competition at MSI to design the next BIOS (those that came first and second were apparently not suitable for implementation).  This BIOS is great for information – at the front screen we get vital information that should be in any BIOS: the motherboard and BIOS version, the CPU and CPU speed, the memory count and speed, and the CPU temperature.   We also have access to some secondary important characteristics such as boot order, time and date.

The downside in the BIOS lies in the selection of options.  Choosing a menu on the side of the BIOS merely gives a textual list of all there is to offer.  It does not embrace the spirit of interaction, and when faced with a wall of text (such as the OC menu), it is not pleasing to decipher.  To use a baseball analogy, the MSI system is neither a hit nor a strike out/pop-fly – I see it more as a 4-ball walk: enough to get to first base and potential to develop, but could do better.

The options available in the BIOS seem to come from two different sides of the development team.  In the Settings Menu we get access to several sub-menus, each relating to their corresponding target – USB Configuration, Hardware Monitor, Power Management et al.  In the OC menu however, as shown above, we are presented with the aforementioned wall of text.  Each option is on a new line, and no separation between the CPU options, the OCP options, the LLC options, the memory options, and so on.  Not only this, some of the options could be construed as confusing at first glance (such as Digital Compensation Level, which may well be VDroop, LLC, or some other term) unless you are completely au fait with MSI terminology.  The BIOS does not offer any assistance in learning what each of these commands mean, or whether an extreme overclocker needs 0% or 100% for a particular command as different manufacturers have different interpretations.  I would instigate a redesign if I got hold of this BIOS code.

Being a motherboard, controlling the fans is important.  As mentioned before, our fans are controlled through the Fintek SuperIO chip – on the MSI Z77IA-E53 this gives our CPU and SYS fan headers two different types of option.  The CPU header is a ‘Smart’ target, which allows us to specify a simple gradient between two optimal temperatures.  The SYS fan header in comparison is limited in its speed range, leaving it with a fixed RPM.

Most of the options in this BIOS are no different than options in other vendors’ BIOSes – AHCI is enabled by default, as are the WiFi and Bluetooth modules.  The mSATA/mPCIe slot defaults to automatic and should detect any device attached correctly.  There are no automatic overclocking options except ‘OC Genie II mode’, clickable at the top.  In the Utilities menu we can activate a BIOS update via a USB stick, or offer a Live Update via the internet if a suitable network configuration is supported.



MSI Z77IA-E53 In The Box

In the past, $145 MSRP motherboards used to offer something special – back in the P67 era I remember getting a USB 3.0 front panel device with a motherboard around this price, making the deal all a bit sweeter.  In recent months I have noticed a decline in this generosity – whether this is to bolster profit margins or recoup losses due to the global economic situation I am not sure.  With a mITX product there is little that could be added to make it beneficial – I would hope that the most expensive mITX boards would come with a full array of SATA cables as a bare minimum, or with a video converter to maintain compatibility with connections not present on the system itself.

In our MSI Z77IA-E53 box, we get:

Driver CD
Manual
Quick Start Guide
Rear IO Shield
Two SATA Cables, Locking
Antenna base + Antenna

There is not much to get excited about unfortunately.  The antenna base is not magnetic like the ones found on the ASUS models, leaving obvious room for improvement.

MSI Z77IA-E53 Software

If the BIOS section of a motherboard is currently focusing on interaction, the software side of the package should be focusing on consolidation.  When it comes to software, we do not need separate software for the fan controls, for the Ethernet options, for the overclock options, for the power options, and so on.  Having everything in one interface reduces cluttering icons on the desktop and start menu in exchange for one or two extra clicks on an interface.  It is true that some companies do not care at all for their software, leaving it blank or not updated in several years – MSI have a somewhat mixed approach to the software system.

Starting with the installation disk, while there are no instructions as to what to do, the main command is the ‘Total Installer’ in each menu.  For the drivers, we can get everything installed at the click of a button after an options menu comes up for users to deselect unwanted drivers.  Similarly for software, except as per our normal testing we disable any installed anti-virus or firewall included in the package.

MSI split their software package across multiple programs in an attempt to cover all the bases.

MSI Control Center

If any piece of the software package sounded like sitting in the Captain’s chair of the Enterprise, then the Control Center has the name down to a tee.  Control Center gives several menus including Overclocking, the OC Genie, Green Power (includes fan controls), recording and mobile control.

The overclocking part of CC gives the user access to the basic clock and voltage controls for the CPU, and the voltage controls for the memory.  These options are also paired with detailed screens about the features of the motherboard, the CPU and the memory as shown above.  If a change is unable to be completed in the OS, the software requests a system reboot to make the change.

The OC Genie part of CC is the automatic overclocking center of the motherboard.  One click of it being enabled and the next boot will offer a default overclock based on the system at hand.  Rather than the probing OC solution used by ASUS’ Extreme mode or Gigabyte’s Auto Tuning, this calls up a table of reasonably safe OC settings based on the hardware used and implements it.  While it may not be the best overclock possible from the kit the user has, it does provide a one button OC.

The Green Power option is one I find particularly interesting, as shown below:

Here we get a basic two point gradient for the fan in terms of temperature against RPM. Whether this is the true fan RPM as a function of the fan profile, or as a PWM value it is unsure.  There is no active testing of the fan profiles, so one would assume it works on the assumption that 0-5% power is ~0 RPM and the RPM value rises linearly with power (i.e. the wrong way to assume fan profiles).  Nevertheless, I like the fact that the software plots the current fan speed as a function of time – this allows the user to see the course the fan takes based on load.  What would be good is if this bit of software also had an option to apply load to allow the user to see the differentiation.

The recording section is a rather well laid out bit of software that automatically plots any temperature sensor, fan sensor, voltage or CPU utilization against time, along with options to define warning limitations.

The Mobile Control menu is something we are seeing more of from the motherboard manufacturers – letting users adjust settings on the fly via their mobile device or tablet.

Teaming Genie

MSI are a big fan of link aggregation – i.e. using two compatible NICs to act as a single connection.  While this will not speed up your internet speed, it may allow a user to speed up file transfer over a network when dealing with two hosts, or if the machine is on a 10 GbE network.  There are clearly possibilities in the SOHO NAS arena, although with the Z77IA-E53 we are limited to a single Realtek NIC to begin with.  Users wanting to take advantage of Teaming Genie will need to purchase a PCIe NIC add-in card.

Live Update 5

Every motherboard in this modern area should be bundled with software that allows it to check with online servers for updates.  It seems a simple idea in principle – allow the users to have the best up-to-date experience with their hardware to take advantage of updates.  This has become the de-facto standard in the graphics card area, with both AMD and NVIDIA building in update systems for their drivers - but yet very few motherboard manufacturers actually do this.  MSI do, in the form of Live Update 5.

This software does a scan of the local drivers, the BIOS on the motherboard, and software present.  It correlates this to the online database at MSI, and then offers potential downloads.  All the options can be downloaded and installed at the click of a button under Total Installer, making the processes almost painless.  The only malady with this approach is that MSI fail to tell the user how big these updates are going to be – meaning if you have to download 150 MB of audio codec, you will only be able to tell with guess work.  A minor update will make Live Update 5.1 a little easier to handle.

MSI Suite

In order to get the best of MSI software, we have the option to install MSI Suite.  This gives the user a small drop down menu on the desktop filled with MSI relevant icons to the other software installed.  It is a neat idea, if a little invasive on normal usage.  The best bit is that it essentially keeps tabs on Live Update for you, telling when updates are available.  There are perhaps better ways to offer these options, but it is something that no other manufacturer is doing.

Easy Viewer

Are you fed up of the basic Windows image viewer?  No, me neither.  Though MSI have decided it needs a bit of an upgrade, and provide users with Easy Viewer as shown below.

There are basic options for rotation, resizing, brightness and so forth.  Personally I actually use FastStone Image Viewer (one of the benchmarks in our testing methodology) which does this a lot better and is a free download.

Click BIOS

Most motherboard manufacturers are aware that the BIOS is actually a seldom used interface in the majority of systems.  While enthusiasts are likely to go around and probe the options, or the odd gamer wanting a bit more performance, the majority of users will not know that it exists.  I would only just about trust my father or brother to modify their BIOSes correctly, but only because they have been trained.

MSI have decided it is time to bring the BIOS to the user, rather than the other way around.  By having some official looking software that can alter the BIOS options, as well as look like the BIOS, it can offer the potential to feel safer than modifying the BIOS directly.  Enthusiasts may disagree, but MSI is not targeting enthusiasts with Click BIOS – they are targeting people like my father or brother.

Other software included in the disk comes by the name of Super-Charger (quick USB charging utility) and Network Genie (the Realtek NIC management software with an MSI skin).



Zotac

If you ever wanted small form factor, then Zotac has always been an option, sprouting mITX products for every platform and chipset.  With Ivy Bridge and 7-series platforms, Zotac has announced three products so far – two H77 motherboards (-A-E and -B-E), and this motherboard, the Z77-ITX WiFi (also known as the Z77-A-E). 

Historically Zotac has not had the ability to innovate as much as the key players in the motherboard industry.  Part of this is down to the 'real estate on the PCB of a mITX' factor – the chipset specification deals with a significant amount of the actual hardware on board, but part of it is also due to the size of the company in correlation to their R&D.  In this context Zotac fit in the same niche as Biostar – whatever we do see in terms of innovation is few and far between.   However every now and again we are pleasantly surprised, as long as it fits into the correct price bracket.

With that, let us start with the Z77-ITX WiFi.

Zotac Z77-ITX WIFI Overview

When testing the Zotac Z77-ITX, I initially ran through the benchmark suite with a high end i7-3770K, and again recently with an i3-3225.  In terms of performance, there were several key factors worth noting, such as the slightly slower times in our WinRAR testing compared to other Z77 products.  This test relies on the motherboard to apply turbo multipliers given varied load – it is a test that top tier manufacturers seem to do well in, but the lesser manufacturers fall behind.  On the plus side, we get a fast POST time (9.18 seconds with a discrete GPU installed), low power usage (20W long idle on a 500W Platinum PSU with a discrete GPU installed, 32W idle) and a sub-200 microsecond DPC Latency test.

Hardware wise, Zotac take a different tack to the video outputs compared to the rest of the Z77 crowd.  The Z77 platform with an Ivy Bridge processor allows for 3 digital display outputs and one analogue; most motherboard vendors take this to mean ‘we want one of each output’.  Zotac, like Gigabyte, decided to make two of these outputs HDMI to cater for the majority of dual screen home setups (or to supply audio out of one and video out of the other).  Rather than give a combination DVI-I port, Zotac also equipped the board with a mDP port and placed in the package a mDP to DP adaptor.  If you want a modern digital connection from a Z77 mITX board, Zotac has you covered.

Also relating to hardware, Zotac have given this board a dual NIC as well as WiFi on board, giving network connectivity a high priority.  On the downside, we only get a Realtek ALC889, which also failed our RMAA 192 kHz test.   The USB 2.0 copy times were quite low, but improved while the CPU was under load, suggesting that some of the BIOS default options are not optimal for USB transfer.  The big BIOS option faux pas however is the reluctance for Zotac to move into 2012 and enable AHCI on their SATA ports by default.  Also, if you were looking for software for OC or fan control software, unfortunately you will not find them on a Zotac board.

The Zotac Z77-ITX is currently fluctuating wildly in price.  When I started the testing for this review, it was at $130.  I now see it on Newegg for $163.  For the former, it warrants a consideration when weighing up the pros and cons between which Z77 mITX motherboard to choose – having all those extras in the box helps sweeten the deal if you can overlook some of the possible issues.

Visual Inspection

As one of the first Z77 ITX motherboard on the test bed, it is hard not to notice the arrangement of the motherboard as a whole.  The location of the socket is very close to the PCIe connector – with the limitations of the mITX platform, the Intel minimum specified distance of components away from the socket (marked by the white box around the socket) is adhered to but only just.  This comes into play when we deal with different air coolers on such a platform.

Typically with a Z77 motherboard we see the chipset and additional IO chips to the south of the memory slots, but there is no such luxury on the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi – we have the chipset located above the CPU, along with our SATA connectivity.  In terms of SATA ports, Zotac uses the two SATA 6 Gbps and two SATA 3 Gbps from the chipset for direct SATA connections – another of the SATA 3 Gbps from the chipset is used for the mSATA port to the right of the SATA ports.  This should leave one more for an eSATA port on the back IO, but we find no eSATA port.

Fan headers on board are oddly positioned – with a mITX platform I would expect at least two, if not three, and we get two 4-pin headers here.  We find a CPU header on the right hand side below the 24-pin ATX power connector and a 4-pin SYS header between the chipset heatsink and the SATA ports.  A lot of the space on the right hand side is taken up by the full length DDR3 memory slots – in the past we have seen Zotac switch them out for SO-DIMM memory ports, which could always be an idea for this platform (or if possible, angled SO-DIMM on the back of the board (?)).

The heatsink arrangement for the Zotac covers the chipset above the socket, and the VRM.  Zotac have decided to extend the heatsink over the IO panel due to their back panel port arrangement.  Even with the fan headers, this should help with cooling if the system were to be pushed with a high wattage chip and an overclock.

The location of the 8-pin CPU power connector is a little odd – we find it on the bottom of the board below the heatsink for the power delivery.  This means that any power supply would need to reach over parts of the board in order to connect in.  Zotac get around this by including an 8-pin CPU power extension cable in the box, but that still leaves the fact that a cable is somewhere potentially blocking airflow.

Other features directly visible on the board are the mSATA port and the WiFi module, both located above the CPU socket and to the right.  The WiFi card is perpendicular to the board itself, and runs two small cables to antenna ports on the back panel – I personally found these cables a little annoying when trying to plug peripherals in to the ports when the board was fixed in a case.

The mSATA port is something that will crop up on mITX boards from now on, providing the possibility of running a smaller form factor if you want to pick up an mSATA SSD.  As mSATA densities get higher, this will become more viable for Windows users (where Windows 7 x64 Ultimate requires a drive more than 32GB).

Also on board are various headers for the front panel, the front panel audio, two USB 2.0 headers, a USB 3.0 header (found near the IO), a two-digit debug LED and power and reset buttons.  The location of the USB 3.0 header is strange, as in a mITX platform it would more likely be for a front case connector or a separate USB 3.0 panel.  It is nice to see a debug LED on board however – I did have to use it a couple of times to determine why the board was failing to boot.

On the back panel, the IO is slightly odd compared to other Z77 motherboards we have encountered.  First up is a block of four USB 2.0 ports (I like blocks like this as it gets a lot of USB connectivity sorted), a pair of antenna slots, a ClearCMOS button, a PS/2 combination port, two USB 3.0, dual Realtek NIC, dual HDMI, mini-DP, optical S/PDIF output and audio jacks.  The dual HDMI is an interesting addition, as it involves in internal conversion from the DVI port to a HDMI.  I wonder if there is scope for this on more mainstream Z77 motherboards, whereby video output is organized in a single IO stack of HDMI, mDP/DP, HDMI.  Given our past reviews, the Gigabyte H77-ITX certainly has an inkling with their dual HDMI setup.

Board Features

Zotac Z77-ITX
Price Link
Size Mini ITX
CPU Interface LGA-1155
Chipset Intel Z77
Memory Slots Two DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 16 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1066-2133 MHz
Video Outputs 2 x HDMI
mDP
Onboard LAN 2 x Realtek 8111E
1 x WiFi Module
Onboard Audio Reaktek ALC889
Expansion Slots 1 x PCIe 3.0 x16
1 x mSATA
1 x mini-PCIe (occupied by WiFi module)
Onboard SATA/RAID 2 x SATA 6 Gbps, Supporting RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
2 x SATA 3 Gbps, Supporting RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
1 x mSATA / mini-PCIe
USB 4 x USB 3.0 (Chipset) [2 back panel, 2 onboard]
8 x USB 2.0 (Chipset) [4 back panel, 4 onboard]
Onboard 2 x SATA 6 Gbps
2 x SATA 3 Gbps
1 x USB 3.0 Header
2 x USB 2.0 Headers
2 x Fan Headers
1 x mSATA / mini-PCIe
1 x Front Panel Audio
Power/Reset Buttons
Two-Digit LED Debug
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX Power Connector
1 x 8-pin CPU Power Connector
Fan Headers 1 x PWR (4-pin)
1 x SYS (4-pin)
IO Panel 4 x USB 2.0
2 x Antenna
1 x Clear CMOS
1 x PS/2 Combination Port
2 x USB 3.0
2 x Realtek 8111E GbE
2 x HDMI
1 x mDP
1 x Optical SPDIF Output
Audio Jacks
Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link

On the pure hardware side, apart from the arrangement of the socket area, we could call Zotac out on one or two design issues.  The lack of an analogue output, even in the modern era, could be an oversight – this all comes down to the design of the package.  We also only have the Realtek ALC889 audio codec, rather than the ALC89x series, and for some reason it fails the RMAA 192 kHz test.  It is worthy of note however to mention the dual NIC + WiFi which is rare on a mITX board, as well as the presence of power/reset buttons in conjunction with a two-digit debug LED, useful for troubleshooting.



Zotac Z77-ITX WIFI BIOS

Since the inception of a graphical interface for a BIOS, we have had several attitudes towards the design by motherboard manufacturers:

a) Do Nothing
b) Change the colors and reorganize menus
c) Create a different feel, make the changes easier to comprehend
d) Embrace a graphical BIOS and shift the paradigm to an interactive experience

Ideally, we would want all motherboard manufacturers to take to option (d), allowing all users to have a prod and a play with what could be a very interesting interface.  Only two experiences I have had ever come close to (d) – the games given in the early MSI P67 BIOSes, and my brief foray into an Intel Z77 BIOS.  Apart from this, we are stuck with (a) to (c) for the time being.

For Zotac, writing a novel BIOS can be tough.  Zotac is a relatively small player in the motherboard industry with a single-digit percentage in terms of market share, and I would not be surprised if they employed more than a handful of BIOS engineers that actively upgrade the BIOS.  If anything, they are more than likely stuck writing code for new models or releasing patches rather than updating.  As a result, Zotac fits firmly in the (b) menu of the list above.

Being in the (b) section is not all bad – Biostar have had a fair crack at it in a similar position and have come out with something just about useable but looks nice (as a personal subjective opinion).  For Zotac, and this Z77-ITX WiFi, we get a selection of different colored text on a JPEG/PNG style background:

(Apologies for the quality of the images – Zotac are also one of the few motherboard manufacturers without a ‘F12 – Screen to USB’ button which optimizes this part of the review.)

My main issue with a multicolored background stems from my slight level of colorblindness.  It deeply affected my ability to select options in an ECS BIOS a few months back, and while it does not affect me here to the same extent, the effect of having white text over a yellow background without a text border can sometimes make text difficult to see.  I would chalk this up as a basic design error (like red text on a green background) systemic of an engineer being told to ‘give the BIOS some style’.  It certainly has more style than a white-on-black or white-on-blue BIOS of old, but it is not executed as perfectly as one may have imagined.

As for the functionality of the BIOS itself, the main screen above does a good job of informing the user when they enter the BIOS and land on the ‘Main’ page.  We get the motherboard model and BIOS version, CPU information and memory size/speed.  All that is missing is perhaps a temperature or voltage (or two).

For overclocking, we get the X-Setting menu:

Rather than an endless list of options, Zotac have decided to place overclocking options in separate menus.  Everything voltage related gets placed out in this main menu, but frequency settings are partitioned off into separate CPU, iGPU and Memory menus.

A good thing about the Zotac BIOS is that each option has an associated help description in the top right, and each setting will make sense to any user who has overclocked before.  Raise the multiplier, perhaps raise the voltage, adjust LLC + power settings as necessary.

Unfortunately there is a little element of confusion in the Zotac BIOS.  Some of the CPU overclock settings listed above are duplicated poorly in the Advanced -> CPU Configuration menu.  As you can see below, despite the Core Ratio options being part of this menu, they are not configured properly to take into account the values found in the X-Setting section:

In the Advanced menu, we get the usual array of controller options and configuration sub-menus.  The important thing to note is the default setting for SATA ports.  In 2012 (and for most of 2011) it has become the de-facto standard to make the SATA Mode for the ports to be AHCI as every HDD and SSD sold today can take advantage of AHCI and a new OS is often installed on a newer system.  Either Zotac did not get that memo or someone at HQ is not in the loop with modern system construction, because we get IDE as standard.  Please make sure you remember to change this on your new build (and each time you might have to clear the CMOS).

Due to the two fan headers on board, we get a small about of fan control in the BIOS:

The fan control allows for a basic type of gradient to be defined, although as shown above the ‘final’ temperature is not possible to be chosen, suggesting that the BIOS uses the TJMax value of the processor to fully ramp up the fan.  The system fan header gets a straight forward constant fan speed at the users’ discretion.  [Insert my consistent rant regarding fan settings here.]

The last thing to mention in the BIOS is the boot override feature, which is becoming the norm on most motherboards and I am glad to see Zotac use it.  With this feature we can select a single device to boot from as a one-time-only situation – useful for booting from USB.



Zotac Z77-ITX WIFI In The Box

Zotac packages, in terms of dimensions, rarely go beyond the width and length of the motherboard itself – approximately 17cm x 17cm.  As such, all the additional gear has to be piled on top of the board.  In previous reviews of Zotac products, more often than not we do get a good selection in the box to play with.  In terms of the Z77-ITX WiFi, we get:

User Manual
Driver CD
Rear IO Shield
Four SATA Cables
Two WiFi Antenna
mDP to DP Connector
8-pin CPU Extension Cable
USB 3.0 Rear Bracket

For a mITX package, this is a substantial amount in the box – the four SATA cables take care of all the SATA connectivity on board, and the USB 3.0 bracket allows the onboard USB 3.0 header to be used in the event of no USB 3.0 in the case.  The mDP to DP cable is also beneficial such that users do not need to go out and purchase their own.  The 8-pin CPU power extension cable is rather a necessity given the location of the 8-pin CPU power port positioning.

Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi Software

Motherboard manufacturers can put similar hardware to each other on their products, but what separates the top tier from those chasing the pack is the software package on board.  At a bare minimum, we usually expect a form of fan control software and a BIOS update tool.  With a little more time and effort we may get a series of overclock options, and then we can spiral off into enhancements on current software or bring in more features as required.  Unfortunately Zotac falls down on all accounts, by virtue of the fact that there is no software. 

Starting with the install disk, we have no option to install all the drivers necessary for the board in one fail swoop.  Each option has to be selected individually – even the Intel drivers which have a switch that allows for a silent install. 

Under ‘Utility’ we get USB Charger, and while clicking this does install ‘software’, we get nothing in the way of an interface to tell us what it does or if it is working.  What amazes me with this package is that despite the use of Realtek NICs, we do not even get any Realtek ‘Network’ software included in the box in order to manage our network connections. 

It is hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the software issues.  Either the person in charge of making these decisions just is not aware of the competition, or more than likely there is not enough staff to make all the changes.  They could be too busy with new products to keep the company going, rather than build a strong foundation with which to build future products on.



ASRock Z77E-ITX Overview

Before I even started testing the ASRock Z77E-ITX, I could see murmurings online in the various forums I use about it.  For the interests of remaining unbiased, I steered away from those threads.  The ideal scientific test of a motherboard would be a double-blind study – the board can be reviewed and tested, but any tell-tale signs or markings on the product pointing it towards a single manufacturer would be removed.  Unfortunately testing is not always scientifically perfect, but we can at least be as thorough as possible in our analysis.

The ASRock Z77E-ITX presents the user with a novel way (in the consumer desktop space) of solving the issue of limited PCB area – moving components to the rear of the motherboard.  We are not talking just resistors – ASRock have moved the mSATA port to the rear.  This frees up the main topside of the PCB for a mini-PCIe with 802.11b/g/n WiFi, a proper location for the 8-pin CPU connector, an easier-to-remove BIOS chip, and a lot more components on the board.  This thing looks filled.

Other functionality on board gives us a Broadcom BCM57781 network controller, the Realtek ALC898 audio codec and an ASMedia ASM1042 USB 3.0 controller.  The two 4-pin fan headers are found on the top left of the board, although on closer inspection the power delivery chokes may give cause for concern.  Their open top design suggests iron core chokes, similar to those used on low end motherboards, rather than the iron powder or alloyed chokes on their higher end models.  However after talking to ASRock, these are actually iron ferrite chokes, used for small space / high power systems such as servers.  This should lead to reasonable temperatures under severe stress, and typically server parts are rated to be more than adequate for that severe stress.

The BIOS of the Z77E-ITX uses the older UEFI design of white on blue, compared to the new starry background design and distribution of options.  We still get access to the System Browser, which cunningly gives a peak of the back of the board due to that mSATA placement, the Online Management Guard and Internet Flash for BIOS updates through the internet.  We also get the dehumidifier functionality for equilibrating high-moisture situations inside and outside the case to reduce condensation in those climates.  Software is standard ASRock, with ASRock always wanting to promote their XFast 555 system of RAM, LAN and USB.   The latter may not be of use under Windows 8, and the chances of RAM cache use in a mITX are slim, but access over the network priority is a useful tool to have.  While the fan controls are not the best, they did work in my testing over the range of tools available.

The ASRock Z77E-ITX sits at the low end in terms of cost in our review at $150 – significantly cheaper than the EVGA at least.  With a weird orthogonal antenna in the box, DVI-I to D-Sub adaptor too, and performance which is not too far off from what we expect from the platform, the ASRock does pull at the wallet waiting for a build.

Visual Inspection

Like most motherboard manufacturers at the minute, ASRock has their color scheme – in this case we the aim is for a gold and black combination, however the way ASRock designs its motherboards means that we also get a lot of white.  This is due to the placement of the components via SMT – in order to guide the automated process which places the components on board, each component has a small white box around where it should be.  All these boxes printed on the board means that technically ASRock has less space to place components, and it alters the aesthetic perception of the product in the end.

Starting with the socket placement, ASRock like others in this review have placed the socket underneath the chipset and up against the memory/PCIe slots.  This restricts coolers to the x-y dimensions specified by Intel, unless one invests in low profile memory.  As always with mITX gaming builds, I would recommend an all-in-one liquid cooler.  The socket area has access to both of the CPU fan headers on board – the 4-pin CPU header is above the mini-PCIe slot, and the 4-pin chassis header is to the top right of the memory slots.  Arguably placing the two fan headers close together may not be the best idea in terms of placement.

The rear of the board is where we find this mSATA port.  Now that mSATA drives are below the $1/GB, they become a wonderfully viable option in the motherboard space for those wanting to save space or who are not going RAID-0. (Even though there could be scope for two mSATA on motherboards in the future.)

North of the socket we have the chipset heatsink, which ASRock have decided not to connect to the power delivery heatsink.  As mentioned previously, the style of the chokes used in the power delivery seems to suggest that simple iron cores are being used.  Simple iron cores are the current low end and cheaper implementation of chokes, leading to lower efficiency and high heat loss, especially when compared to iron powder chokes, alloy chokes, super ferrite chokes, or PowIRstages.  Talking with ASRock points these chokes towards the iron ferrite versions used in servers, meaning that they should still be able to provide enough power during overclocks, even if the mITX motherboard is not the ideal place to start overclocking a motherboard to the fullest – especially given that Ivy Bridge processors can get very hot in correlation to their voltage.

Around the chipset heatsink we get the SATA ports – two SATA 6 Gbps and two SATA 3 Gbps.  The motherboard battery is stood straight out of the motherboard in order to save space, and below this we have the 8-pin ATX power connector.  This is still in the middle of the board but perhaps not as bad as other implementations which require the power cables to stretch over everything in order to get to it.  To the right of the chipset we have a USB 3.0 header, as well as the mini-PCIe port with a 2.4 GHz 802.11b/g/n WiFi module already strapped to it.

The rear IO panel looks more like a standard ATX build rather than a mITX oriented one.  From left to right we have a combination PS/2, two USB 3.0 from an ASMedia ASM1042, the two antenna ports, a DVI-I, HDMI, DisplayPort, a Clear_CMOS button, two USB 2.0, an eSATA, a Broadcom BCM57781 network port, two USB 3.0 from the chipset and audio jacks containing an optical SPDIF output.

Board Features

ASRock Z77E-ITX
Price Link
Size Mini ITX
CPU Interface LGA-1155
Chipset Intel Z77
Memory Slots Two DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 16 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1066-2800 MHz
Video Outputs HDMI
DisplayPort
DVI-I
Onboard LAN Broadcom BCM57781
802.11 b/g/n WiFi
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC898
Expansion Slots 1 x PCIe 3.0 x16
1 x mSATA
1 x mPCIe
Onboard SATA/RAID 2 x SATA 6 Gbps (Chipset) RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
2 x SATA 3 Gbps (Chipset) RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
1 x mSATA 3 Gbps (Chipset)
1 x eSATA 3 Gbps (Chipset)
USB 4 x USB 3.0 (Chipset) [2 back panel, 2 onboard]
2 x USB 3.0 (ASMedia ASM1042) [2 back panel]
6 x USB 2.0 (Chipset) [2 back panel, 4 onboard]
Onboard 2 x SATA 6 Gbps
2 x SATA 3 Gbps
1 x mPCIe (Used by WiFi b/g/n)
1 x mSATA 3 Gbps (on rear)
2 x USB 2.0 Headers
1 x USB 3.0 Header
2 x Fan Headers
1 x Front Panel Audio
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX Power Connector
1 x 8-pin CPU Power Connector
Fan Headers 1 x CPU (4-pin)
1 x CHA (4-pin)
IO Panel 1 x Combination PS/2 Port
2 x Antenna
1 x DVI-I
1 x HDMI
1 x DisplayPort
1 x Clear_CMOS Button
2 x USB 2.0
1 x eSATA 3 Gbps
1 x Broadcom NIC
4 x USB 3.0
1 x Optical SPDIF Output
Audio Jacks
Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link

Compared to the other boards in the review, the use of a Realtek ALC898 is good to see, whereas the Broadcom BCM57781 NIC is an unknown factor.  I like the mSATA and mPCIe combination, and putting the mSATA on the rear of the board is a great idea – it means that in the future other items such as the battery or SATA ports may migrate there as well.  Price wise the ASRock board comes in as one of the cheapest in this review, and given the inclusions in the package (shown later), it makes it a nice product all around from a technical standpoint.  The only additions I would have liked to have seen onboard is a two-digit debug, and if possible, power/reset buttons.



ASRock Z77E-ITX BIOS

As already mentioned in the overview to the Z77E-ITX, its BIOS is a step back from the most recent implementations of the BIOS we have seen on the X79 Extreme11 and FM2A85X Extreme6 – instead of that starry background we get the older blue on white indicative of the earlier Z77 products.  This is mostly likely due to the mid-2012 release of this motherboard, but going through the history of the ASRock BIOS, there is an evolution taking place:

ASRock H67M-GE/HT

ASRock Z77E-ITX

ASRock X79 Extreme11

Despite the evolution, ASRock have kept the general design constant.  This means information like the motherboard model, BIOS version, processor installed, processor speed, memory installed and memory speed are right there on the front menu – useful for anyone wanting this information without loading an OS or opening up the case.  All that is missing is perhaps the CPU temperature and CPU fan speeds.  If this was all wrapped up in an aesthetic and interactive scenario we would be on to a winner.

With the Z77E-ITX BIOS, the Main screen has access to two functions – the System Browser and the Online Management Guard.

The System Browser shows the motherboard with all the changeable ports highlighted.  By rolling the mouse over each of them, it will tell the user what it detects in that port.  Thus if a SATA device suddenly stops working, users can check this to make sure the BIOS still recognizes it.

The Online Management Guard is an interesting way to get around the ‘how to keep the kids off the internet when they should be doing schoolwork’ issue – users can select hours of the day at which the network controller will be disabled.  Unfortunately the system is easily disabled by going back into the BIOS and either changing the BIOS clock or changing the OMG setup itself.  Yes, OMG is an odd name for this feature – “OMG, it’s so easy to disable!”

The main bulk of the options are found in the OC Tweaker menu:

The OC Tweaker menu is arranged into lists of features relating to separate parts of the system.  First is the CPU configuration, relating to CPU ratio, BCLK and power limitations.  We also have overclocking support for the integrated graphics.  Underneath this is the DRAM timing options, which give XMP support or a manual adjustment of the timing ratios.  The voltages are further down, and we are given Load Line Calibration options as well with diagrams to show how LLC varies with ‘Level’.  Finally there are options to save the current settings for future usage.

The Advanced menu deals with the non-overclocking options: we have access to our SATA/USB configurations, as well as the extra controllers on board and the NB/SB options.  In order to flash the BIOS via USB or the Internet, the options are in this menu.

The fan settings are found in the H/W Monitor option along the top, and in keeping with previous ASRock motherboards, the fans are set to 100% by default.  This is by no means the best way of presenting the motherboard out of the box, resulting in high noise levels unless the options are changed.  The fan options on the Z77E-ITX allow for both fans to have a ‘maximum’ temperature after which the fans are on full, and a target fan speed which sets the fans to that speed below the target temperature.

Elsewhere in the BIOS are boot options and security options.  Annoyingly missing is a boot override function, useful for those one-off USB installation scenarios.



ASRock Z77E-ITX In The Box

When I reviewed the ASRock P67 Extreme4 in January 2011, for ~$150 we got an amazing box bundle – SATA cables, molex to SATA power cables, SLI bridges, a front USB 3.0 panel, a rear USB 3.0 bracket and a floppy drive cable.  Almost nothing I have reviewed since has ever come close in terms of value or sheer amount (the ASUS ROG motherboards and an EVGA Z77 box have been similar).  So when I see a smaller motherboard on offer for around the same price, part of me is secretly hoping that the box contents match that of the P67 I reviewed all that time ago. 

In the box we get:

Manuals
Rear IO Shield
Driver CD
Two SATA Cables
WiFi Antenna with Stand
DVI-I to D-Sub Adapter

While there is not much in the box compared to those early days, I am glad to see an included DVI to D-Sub adaptor given the DVI-I onboard.  The WiFi antenna is a different to the norm – typically in these packages we get a single pair of antennas, but ASRock have decided to mount them into a small plastic device at a near 90º angle for better multi-directional coverage.

ASRock Z77E-ITX Software

For a number of motherboards and motherboard packages, ASRock have stuck to their guns on the software package they include with the product.  The main philosophy behind their software package is plastered over the motherboard box itself in the form of the ‘XFast 555’ methodology.  This relates to the main three parts of the software – XFast USB, XFast LAN and XFast RAM, each of which we will go through.  ASRock claims that each element of the software can increase performance by 5x (hence the 555 nomenclature), however the benchmarks are cherry picked to show a performance gain, and it is arguable if those benchmarks are relevant in a real world context.

The driver install disk is very good – we get a one button option to install the drivers or pick the drivers we want.  Other specific software is included in this ‘install all’, like Google Chrome and an anti-virus (this anti-virus software is part of a bundling package with a particular virus scan company, which I disable for the purposes of testing).  Other utilities can be installed on a case-by-case basis in the Utilities menu:

Both the XFast USB and XFast LAN utilities on the disk are actually licensed versions of other software but with an ASRock skin.  For example, the XFast LAN software is a skinned version of cFosSpeed (http://www.cfos.de/en/cfosspeed/cfosspeed.htm), which normally costs 15.90 Euro.  ASRock clearly get it on a bulk licensing deal in order to pass savings onto the user.

XFast USB

The waters of XFast USB have been muddied with the integration of Windows 8.  Simply put, there are multiple ways to talk (protocols) to a USB device, depending on whether the one doing the talking and the USB device supports the protocols.  For Windows 7 there are three main protocols to choose from – normal (from the Windows Drivers), BOT (Bulk Only Transfer, increases speed at the expense of latency) and UASP (USB Attached SCSI Protocol).  In all usual situations, the normal protocol has priority as it works in any configuration with any device.  The BOT protocol can be achieved by injecting a different driver into the system (this is what XFast USB does) which gives better peak transfer rates by reducing the overhead in talking to the device.  UASP is used by ASUS to get better speeds for low transfer sizes – sometimes up to two orders of magnitude better than normal or BOT protocols.

When I say the waters have been muddied, it means that Windows 8 automatically implements UASP on any device that can support it on any USB 3.0 port.  This makes software like XFast USB on ASRock and the ASUS UASP null except on Window 7 systems.  If Windows 7 is here to stay until Windows 9, then elements like XFast USB will still be included in software packages.

XFast LAN

In my home user experience, there has never been much of a need to monitor and adjust how a machine communicates with the internet.  Living with a substantial broadband speed helps, but even as a student there was no software way of stopping someone abusing the internet of the house without setting up an ICS type system and implementing something like XFast LAN, assuming the ICS could interpret what each machine was doing.  XFast LAN is the ASRock skinned version of cFosSpeed, and allows users to monitor as well as prioritize certain programs over others for network usage.  Thus when gaming and downloading, the game can have priority, or using VOIP over gaming, the VOIP gets ahead of the stack for gaming.

This software is designed to work with any outgoing network implementation – either Realtek, Intel, Atheros, or a WiFi connection.  The downside of software usually consumes some CPU cycles rather than gunning for a NIC with routing options part of the specification, such as Intel server NICs.

ASRock eXtreme Tuning Utility (AXTU)

AXTU has been a part of the ASRock package since before I starting reviewing their motherboards, and not a lot has changed since the inception.  Most manufacturers have an interface for overclock settings and fan controls, and for ASRock, this is AXTU.  Over the months and chipset generations, a couple of new features have been added on to the default framework – Intelligent Energy Saver and XFast RAM.

The Hardware Monitor for AXTU does a similar job to the HW Monitor in the BIOS – we get lists of speeds, temperatures and voltages.

Fan control is also similar to the BIOS options, giving the CPU fan and the chassis fan options to set a target temperature then a target speed (from Level 1 to Level 10 which makes little sense).  It would not be too hard to offer a multi-scale graphing system so users can accurately change the fan speed in relation to temperature, given that ASRock have control over what PWM value they set for each fan header.

XFast RAM is part of the 555 software package, although it simply is a glorified RAM Disk generator with some simple options for adjusting temporary files to the RAM Disk.  There are situations where this is useful – making 16 GB RAMdisk if you have 64 GB of memory could provide the perfect solution in the read/write speeds of your array are the limiting factor in production.  However this is not a perfect scenario in a mITX build unless some higher density non-ECC memory comes into the mainstream.



EVGA Z77 Stinger Overview

For the fourth motherboard of this review, the design philosophy of the Z77 mITX board takes a turn on its head – almost literally.  We find the socket moved to the top, and the chipset placed underneath.  This ultimately gives more freedom when it comes to placing CPU coolers, albeit the EVGA Z77 Stinger is still limited in one dimension due to the close proximity of the memory slots.  Users can happily place a longer cooler in the other direction though.

As a price of $200, it certainly raises the asking cost for a mITX board to new heights.  A good number of great ATX sized motherboards are already at this price, including a few we have awarded.  This instantly makes the EVGA a tougher sell, but in order for a little compensation, EVGA get heavy handed with some of the features. 

We get an Intel NIC on board unlike the other mITX so far, but on the downside it is coupled with the Realtek ALC889 which failed our 192 kHz testing.  We get a mini-PCIe slot, though with no WiFi module like with some of the other boards.  EVGA have decided to up the total USB 3.0 count to six with an ASMedia controller powering the onboard header as well as upping the SATA 6 Gbps count with a Marvell controller powering the two eSATA 6 Gbps on the rear IO.  The EVGA is also one of few boards to have the power/reset button combination with a debug LED that changes to a CPU temperature monitor after POST. If anything the rear IO looks a little sparse, with HDMI and mini-DisplayPort being the only options for video output.  It looks like some of the connectivity had to be lost in order to fit a couple of the controllers on board.

EVGA are still not completely on the bandwagon with a graphical and interactive BIOS, showcasing a white text on black scenario.  To make matters worse, XMP is not properly implemented in the first BIOS release, and returning to optimized defaults changes everything back to normal except the BCLK.  On the software side, the driver install is a one-by-one affair which requires user interaction despite the fact that these driver installs when sent to EVGA offer silent install modes.  The only software we get is EVGA E-LEET which allows the user to adjust the overclocks and priority of programs on the fly – it is for all intents and purposes an advanced version of CPU-Z.  Fan control is not in the software – that is solely for the BIOS.

Performance of the EVGA is on par with the other motherboards tested – nothing comes out as overly great or bad.  This makes a $200 mITX a tough sell – it has the socket position I prefer and an Intel NIC, but the support behind the motherboard in terms of the BIOS or Software pale in comparison to the cheaper models.  One upside of purchasing an EVGA board is that all RMA requests are direct with EVGA rather than the supplier, which may add to that additional cost as well.

Visual Inspection

As noted in the overview, the main comparison with the previous motherboards and the EVGA is the location of the socket area.  Here the socket is above the chipset, which changes a lot to do with port location.  Our 8-pin CPU power connector is now at the top edge of the board with a pair of four-pin fan headers.  As the chipset is underneath the socket, so are the USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 headers and the SATA ports.  The result is a mixed bag, with USB cables having to stretch over components in order to fit into the board.

Unlike most of the other mITX boards, we get three fan headers – two located to the top right of the socket (both 4-pin) and another on the rear IO side of the power delivery heatsink (also 4-pin).  The socket area still caters in the left-right direction to the Intel minimum specifications, meaning that coolers that conform to at least one of the dimensions should be placed such that any full sized memory does not interfere.

With the chipset below the socket, our SATA ports are in the bottom right area between the memory slots and the PCIe device.  The orientation of the SATA ports is going to give issues if any need to be taken out, requiring most of them to be removed each time.  To the left of the chipset is a mini-PCIe (not mSATA) port for a WiFi/WiDi module, which is not included in the package – this is in contrast to the other mITX motherboards tested which do have one.

Along the top right of the motherboard are a pair of power/reset buttons which I always find useful in testing.  To the right of these is a two-digit debug LED, also useful for diagnosing issues.  This two-digit debug LED turns into a CPU temperature readout after POST, which is an awesome feature to have.  Unlike some other mITX builds, the Front Panel connector is found at the bottom right of the motherboard in an ideal location for most orientations.

The rear IO panel is a little different to the previous motherboards tested.  Normally the rear IO is fighting for space to fit in all the different connectors wanted on the product, but EVGA have decided to cut some of the fluff and stick to components they think most of their users will want to use.  From left to right we have a BlueTooth module, two USB 2.0 ports, a Clear_CMOS button, a mini-DisplayPort, HDMI, four USB 3.0, two eSATA 6 Gbps, an Intel NIC, and audio jacks from the Realtek ALC889.

Board Features

EVGA Z77 Stinger
Price Link
Size Mini ITX
CPU Interface LGA-1155
Chipset Intel Z77
Memory Slots Two DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 16 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1066-2133 MHz
Video Outputs HDMI
mDP
Onboard LAN Intel 82574L
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC889
Expansion Slots 1 x PCIe 3.0 x16
1 x mPCIe
Onboard SATA/RAID 2 x SATA 6 Gbps (Chipset) RAID 0, 1, 5, 10, 0+1
2 x eSATA 6 Gbps (Marvell) RAID 0, 1, 5, 10, 0+1
2 x SATA 3 Gbps (Chipset) RAID 0, 1
USB 4 x USB 3.0 (Chipset) [4 back panel]
2 x USB 3.0 (ASMedia ASM1042) [2 onboard]
6 x USB 2.0 (Chipset) [2 back panel, 4 onboard]
Onboard 2 x SATA 6 Gbps
2 x SATA 3 Gbps
1 x USB 3.0 Header
2 x USB 2.0 Headers
1 x Front Panel Header
3 x Fan Headers
Power/Reset Buttons
Debug LED
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX Power Connector
1 x 8-pin CPU Power Connector
Fan Headers 1 x CPU (4-pin)
2 x PWR (4-pin)
IO Panel 1 x Bluetooth Module
2 x USB 2.0
1 x Clear_CMOS Button
1 x mDP
1 x HDMI
4 x USB 3.0
2 x eSATA 6 Gbps
1 x Intel NIC
Optical SPDIF Output
Audio Jacks
Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link

For the large $200 price tag for the Z77 Stinger, the lack of a WiFi module on board is a little disappointing, as well as the use of the Realtek ALC889 rather than anything higher up the Realtek order catalogue.  On the plus side we do get an Intel NIC, an additional USB 3.0 controller, an additional SATA 6 Gbps controller (for eSATA ports) and, in my opinion, a better oriented mITX motherboard.  Also that third fan header is one more than most mITX motherboards.



EVGA Z77 Stinger BIOS

Now that 2012 is almost over, it has been a full two years since the initial implementation of graphical BIOS systems, and the paradigm shift towards interactivity and engagement in the BIOS.  It has been a keen topic of mine to discuss with the manufacturers about the true nature of how interactive a BIOS should be, how it should engage the user, and how there are a million and one (hyperbole not withstanding) ways in order to improve the current generation of BIOSes.

Implementing these graphical BIOS systems is easy for the bigger motherboard manufacturers – ASUS, MSI and ASRock were all on the bandwagon from Day One.  Gigabyte took a little longer with their different implementation, but even Biostar, ECS, Zotac and Intel managed to skin something up to make the BIOS more appealing in terms of menu options and aesthetics.  For EVGA, this is a task they still have to do.

While we have not got the white text on blue that marked out BIOSes pre-2011, the white on black with little EVGA icons for different sections is not really a step forward.  I apologize in advance for the quality of the following images – EVGA does not have a screenshot button in their BIOS, and even when taking pictures with my DSLR, white text on a black background without a tripod is a tough task.

The main Overview screen actually does a lot of what I like when I first go into a BIOS – we get the name of the motherboard (in this case, Z77 Stinger = E692), the BIOS version, the processor installed, speed of the processor, the memory installed, the speed of the memory, some voltages and temperatures.  If EVGA were to hire another BIOS engineer or two to wrap this up into a design, it could be a winner.

In the ‘Advanced’ menu is where the normal onboard device configuration, SATA configuration and hardware monitor options hang out:

Thankfully EVGA resort to enabling AHCI by default on the SATA configuration.  The more important menus in the Advanced section is the H/W Monitor, which holds the fan speed controls.  As there is no fan speed control in the OS, all control comes through the BIOS.  Opening the H/W Monitor menu gives the following:

The Temperature Monitor and Voltage Monitor screens give pure information, whereas the Fan Speed Monitor allows the user to adjust the fan settings.

For the three fan headers on board we have two different styles of options.  The main CPU header gets a full multi-point gradient in its design – users can specify the amount of power to the fan header as a function of temperature over several points.  The downside of this is the assumption that fan speed is a linear function of power, which is not always the case – at <5% power any particular fan will do one of two things: (i) not start up, or (ii) run at a minimum RPM.  This is why certain controls on other boards do a pre-test to find how a fan reacts as a function of applied voltage.  The other two fan headers are offered at configurable duty speeds.

For overclocking, we head to the overclocking menu.  This menu is very similar to previous EVGA boards we have tested in the past:

On the main Overclocking screen we have multiplier control, VDroop control, options for OCP and performance tweaks as well as voltage options.  The OC Mode is a fun setting to have on a motherboard, as it automatically disables all the additional ports not used in extreme overclocking, like audio, NIC and so on. 

The memory configuration screen allows users to adjust the multiplier and subtimings on their memory.  Despite having an option to enable an XMP profile, none of my memory kits I use in testing would work – no option was offered to enable XMP.  As a result I had to go in and manually adjust timings.  But as there are so many timings to change and only extreme enthusiasts would know exactly what every setting would be on their memory.

The CPU settings deal with additional options such as Turbo modes, CPU power limits, Hyperthreading and cores used, whereas the BCLK menu gives the user BCLK control.  There is an issue with the BCLK menu however – when adjusted (in either the OS or the BIOS), this setting is not changed back to 100 MHz when the Optimized Default option is chosen.  This is rather a large oversight, as when recovering from a bad overclock, you ideally do not want the board still booting at 105 MHz or something the processor cannot handle.

Elsewhere in the BIOS are options to adjust the boot order, security, and a handy Boot Override feature to allow a one-time boot from a detected device – a useful tool for installing OSes or testing software.



EVGA Z77 Stinger In The Box

So far in this review the box bundles have been varied.  Some have offered a full set of SATA cables, others go for dual antenna for the included WiFi module.  As the EVGA has no WiFi module, chances are we will not get an antenna – but one thing to note is that EVGA package their add-ons like no other manufacturer.  Each one is sealed in an EVGA labeled plastic bag.  While not the most thrilling of results, it must add a little to the cost of the product.

In our EVGA Z77 Stinger box, we get:

Manuals
Driver CD
Rear IO Shield
Molex to 2x SATA Power Cable
Sleeved Molex to 3x SATA Power Cable
4 x SATA Cable

The additional SATA power connectors are a nice touch, but let us look at it from a different angle.  No USB 3.0 add-on is included because chances are in this modern era that users will have a case with USB 3.0 ports and they can plug that into the board.  Chances are the same users will be buying power supplies with SATA power connectors.  It just makes an odd combination to not have one but have the other.

EVGA Z77 Stinger Software

When installing the software for a motherboard, the manufacturer can take multiple routes.  Most manufacturers have a one-button install which allows the user to select/deselect what they want installed and then it installs it all-in-one, sometimes with reboots.  Other manufacturers only offer a one-by-one route, requiring the user to click through each of the drivers and go through the installers manually, even if the installer does come with a silent mode from the manufacturer (e.g. Realtek drivers).  EVGA meet half-way: they use a one-button install which goes through all the drivers, but none of the installs are silent and the user has to sit there for a few minutes (up to 10) clicking Yes, OK or next throughout the whole sequence.  Seems a lot of bother given that the software could have just used the silent install switch for everything.

On the driver CD, the option to install the drivers is in the front menu, and the software is in the next.

The sole software that comes from EVGA is the E-LEET Utility.

EVGA E-LEET Utility

Enthusiasts and overclockers will be familiar with the freeware CPU-Z utility.  It is used to help identify the system being used, from motherboard to CPU to memory and GPU.  It is also used to validate the processor speed when competitively overclocking.  E-LEET is essentially a skinned version of CPU-Z, with a few little tweaks.

E-LEET gives the option of a few more tabs than CPU-Z does.  These are specific to EVGA – we get a monitoring tab for voltages, temperatures and fan speeds:

An overclocking tab which allows CPU Multiplier and BCLK adjustment on the fly:

A tab to adjust voltages, also on the fly:

The graphics tab gets a revamp compared to CPU-Z, with options to overclock if you have a compatible graphics card:

A tab for a user to adjust the affinity of certain programs based on a hot-key.  This is sometimes useful for overclockers when a benchmark actually decreases in performance when there are too many threads on offer:

Finally the options menu which allows for a CPU-Z validation as well as saving particular overclocking profiles for various usage scenarios (e.g. downclocking after a benchmark has finished to keep the system stable):



ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe Overview

Consumer grade motherboards are for the most part two dimensional affairs – the only PCB related paraphernalia that would impinge on the z-direction are the modular components that enhance the experience, such as memory and graphics.  Now take the original point and turn it on its head, and we get the P8Z77-I Deluxe.  In order to save space on the mini-ITX sized motherboard for controllers and added features, ASUS have taken a leaf out of the server space and placed the power delivery for the motherboard perpendicular to the motherboard.  As crazy as it sounds, the setup is tastefully done by careful planning and precision engineering.

Alongside the funky VRM placement, ASUS are also one of the few Z77 mITX manufacturers with the socket and the chipset the more ‘common’ way around when put alongside full sized ATX boards.  This should give the socket more room when dealing with larger air coolers, however we are still up against the memory slots (as expected) and it is only a short distance to the rear IO panel and the power delivery daughter board.  But the plus side is also in the 8-pin CPU power connector placement, which is on the other side of the memory slots.  There is also room to fit a TPU switch, a MemOK button, two USB 2.0 ports, a USB 3.0 port, a 2.5/5 GHz WiFi module and a pair of fan headers on board.  The WiDi version of this motherboard looks identical apart from WiDi capabilities for around $15 more.

Connectivity and controller selection are an important aspect for a mITX design, and ASUS have furnished the P8Z77-I Deluxe with more USB ports and connectivity at the rear IO than most boards in this roundup.  A total of eight USB ports on the rear (four USB 2.0, four USB 3.0), as well as DVI-I, HDMI, DisplayPort, eSATA, BIOS Flashback, an Intel NIC and Realtek ALC898 audio (via three jacks rather than the standard six). The front panel audio header is in a really odd place, and easily interferes with a large gaming GPU.

Followers of my reviews will see a familiar face in the ASUS BIOS and Software departments.  The BIOS is an easy mode front screen with additional advanced mode, giving overclock options as well as DIGI+ Power configuration details.  Previous experience often tells me that ASUS BIOSes are often the more configurable and compatible with my memory kits than most, and I have nothing to say that the mITX board would contradict that.  The software package comes in the form of AI Suite and covers all the bases software should cover – overclock options, monitoring (warning when things get too hot), fan controls with RPM detectors, energy saving options, WiFi controls, fast charging utilities, USB 3.0 Boost, Network iControl, USB BIOS Flashback options and BIOS updating.

In terms of benchmark performance, the P8Z77-I Deluxe takes an extraordinary win in our WinRAR test, beating the other mITX Z77 boards by 5-20%.  I redid this test after a reboot, a fresh install, a re-flash of the latest BIOS and it remained consistent.  Whatever ASUS put in the BIOS, WinRAR seems to fly.  The other CPU benchmarks were more ballpark, but the gaming results seemed to swing towards the ASUS.  With the USB 3.0 boost functionality, we got great results in our USB 3.0 testing as well under Windows 7.  Power delivery for the ASUS P8Z77-I was also favorable in our setup.

For an all-in price of $185 for the normal version of the P8Z77-I Deluxe and $200 for the WiDi enabled P8Z77-I Deluxe/WD, we are stretching near the top of our mITX range pricing bracket – only the EVGA Z77 Stinger is more expensive, and the others are circling around the $150-$160 margin.  This ASUS board pulls ahead on performance, usability and software, and the design is new and exciting.  Consistent functionality from ASUS products such as USB BIOS Flashback, USB 3.0 Boost, MemOK! and numbers of ports should not be overlooked lightly, and if you are looking for one of the best all-around mITX board for a build, the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe pulls out a big lead.  However, the positioning of that front panel audio header gives cause for concern. 

Visual Inspection

All eyes on the P8Z77-I Deluxe immediately focus on the VRM add-in board.  It is hard to miss, and makes the motherboard aesthetically different to its rivals.

There are some questions that come up from this sort of arrangement – connectivity, power delivery, electrical losses, electrical noise, stability, and so on.  Crucially the path of the power is most interesting – the 8-pin CPU power connector is on the top right of the motherboard, and this power is taken up into the daughterboard, filtered, and then passed back through into the motherboard for the processor.  On the left of the daughterboard we have a series of normal pins used for control of the power delivery – issuing commands for the ‘DIGI+’ part of the system.  The rest of the daughterboard is connected firmly with thicker copper pipes – mostly for rigidity but behind this is hiding the transfer of power to the board.  The capacitors in front of the power delivery provide the final filtering mechanism before the CPU gets the power.  The result is essentially a custom power solution, allowing ASUS to add in any height of daughterboard for any number of phases or power delivery capability.  We may see something similar if ASUS ever decide to bring out a mITX Republic of Gamers product, but I would not expect a 32 phase monster to arrive in similar fashion any time soon (and it is debatable if 32 phases is even needed).  There is also scope for adding something similar on mATX and ATX boards.

On close inspection readers may notice the ‘lack’ of mounting holes for the motherboard at the top.  In order for everything to go as planned, ASUS use the two normal top holes to fix the power delivery daughterboard in place.  The screws holding the board in can be removed, and ASUS has included two longer threaded screws in the box such that users can fasten the board into case standoffs.  It is a little trickier if users have the push-pin type standoffs, such as those used in test beds.

The rest of the motherboard uses the extra space to add in all of ASUS’ favorite controllers.  We have two four-pin fan headers at the top left of the board, suitable for a CPU fan and a case fan, as well as the TPU/EPU controllers and the motherboard battery is raised out of the board at right angles rather than the typical flat scenario.  Below the battery is the MemOK! button, used when a memory overclock goes AWOL rather than a blanket Clear_CMOS button.  Two USB 2.0 headers lie to the side of the WiFi module which itself is connected by a pair of wires to the rear IO panel for the magnetic antenna included in the box.  The USB 3.0 header is hiding below the WiFi module, as well as the Realtek ALC898 audio codec chip.  The location of this USB 3.0 header could be of concern due to either the location of the USB 3.0 case ports (typically on the front), or if a GPU with a backplate is used.

The chipset is underneath the electric blue heatsink in the middle of the bottom of the board, and on the right of this are our SATA ports – two SATA 6 Gbps and two SATA 3 Gbps.  With the SATA ports all facing the same way we get the issue that if the bottom one needs to be removed, the ones above have to be taken out and put back in again.  This is not an ideal scenario, and apart from spacing out the ports a little more, I cannot think of a better solution.

The PCIe slot at the bottom board is where we expect to find it, although front panel audio is to the left of this and would quite easily get in the way of any installed graphics card.  This a really odd placement for the audio header, it baffles and confuses me in a number of ways, as someone at ASUS after designing the rest of the motherboard turned round and said that this placement was a good idea. It would have never got past my stamp of approval that is for sure.

On the right hand side of the board are our power connectors, a TPU switch and the front panel header.  All that is missing here is a two-digit debug, and perhaps a power/reset switch.  While not 100% necessary, for anyone used to building or debugging computers, they are a god-send when dealing with potential issues.  At least a two-digit debug would be appreciated.

As mentioned in the overview, the IO of the P8Z77-I Deluxe is one of the more fruitful bounties in this mITX roundup.  From left to right we have four USB 2.0 ports, an optical SPDIF output, HDMI, DisplayPort, two antenna placements, a combination DVI-I, an Intel NIC, four USB 3.0 ports (two from the chipset, two from an ASMedia controller), two eSATA 3 Gbps, a USB BIOS Flashback button, a Clear_CMOS button, and a trio of Realtek ALC898 audio jacks.

Board Features

ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe
Price Link
Size Mini ITX
CPU Interface LGA-1155
Chipset Intel Z77
Memory Slots Two DDR3 DIMM slots supporting up to 16 GB
Up to Dual Channel, 1066-2400 MHz
Video Outputs DVI-I
HDMI
DisplayPort
Onboard LAN Intel 82579V
802.11 b/g/n WiFi 2.5 GHz + 5 GHz
Onboard Audio Realtek ALC898
Expansion Slots PCIe 3.0 x16
mini-PCIe
Onboard SATA/RAID 2 x SATA 6 Gbps (Chipset), RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
2 x SATA 3 Gbps (Chipset), RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
2 x eSATA 3 Gbps (Chipset), RAID 0, 1, 5, 10
USB 4 x USB 3.0 (Chipset) [2 back panel, 2 onboard]
2 x USB 3.0 (ASMedia 1042) [2 back panel]
8 x USB 2.0 (Chipset) [4 back panel, 4 onboard]
Onboard 2 x SATA 6 Gbps
2 x SATA 3 Gbps
2 x USB 2.0 Headers
1 x USB 3.0 Header
1 x MemOK! Button
2 x Fan Headers
1 x mPCIe with WiFi Module
1 x TPU Switch
Front Panel Audio Header
Power Connectors 1 x 24-pin ATX Power Connector
1 x 8-pin CPU Power Connector
Fan Headers 1 x CPU (4-pin)
1 x CHA (4-pin)
IO Panel 4 x USB 2.0
1 x Optical SPDIF Output
1 x HDMI
1 x DisplayPort
2 x Antenna
1 x DVI-I
1 x Intel 82579V NIC
4 x USB 3.0
2 x eSATA 3 Gbps
1 x Clear_CMOS Button
1 x USB BIOS Flashback Button
Audio Jacks
Warranty Period 3 Years
Product Page Link

An interesting distinction to make between all the mITX boards in this roundup is that those on the higher cost end of the spectrum are using Intel NICs, whereas the cheaper models all go with Realtek.  The same thing cannot be said with audio codec, with some low end models using the ALC898 and a high end model using the ALC889.  Thankfully though the ASUS here is using the ALC898, and also has access to 6 USB 3.0 ports overall on top of 8 USB 2.0 ports.

Downsides start with the front panel audio header placement, the lack of mSATA (compared to some of the cheaper models) and no two-digit debug (but that may just be a personal preference).  The use of the daughterboard for the power delivery should have opened up a little more opportunity in terms of placement of these headers, but even with the extra space it is a tight squeeze with all the ASUS features such as the TPU and USB BIOS Flashback to take into consideration.  Perhaps the two-digit debug could have been on the daughterboard?



ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe BIOS

The BIOS from ASUS has been a rock solid part of their motherboard package since the advent of graphical BIOSes on mainstream motherboards hit a couple of years ago.  ASUS divides functionality at the top level, providing an easy mode with images and bars to help identify the main points of the product, as well as a one button click for greater performance and boot priority.  The other side of the coin is in advanced mode, where the feature sets are laid out to make sense to the user, and all options take the form of the old text-based BIOS.  This lays the plans down for other features of the system, like USB BIOS Flashback.

While the BIOS from ASUS is one of the best on offer out of all the motherboard manufacturers today, there is room for improvement in all of them.  The beating heart of a graphical BIOS should be functionality, representation of those functions, and usability.  Very rarely do I ever see all three meshed together.  Part of this is down to the size of the BIOS – even ASUS limit themselves to a 64 megabit BIOS chip, meaning 8 MB of storage to play around with for all the initialization procedures and protocol.  It makes efficiency important in BIOS coding, and vendors are unwilling to double the size of the BIOS because of the additional cost.  With the motherboard market in decline, innovation in this area is unlikely any time soon, but with bulk buying deal, ASUS could lead that charge.  Then all would be left to do is to encourage the BIOS engineers and developers to create something.

The ASUS BIOS however is one of the best available today.  The front ‘easy’ mode screen is full of information that a system builder or diagnostician needs before opening up a case – we get access to the motherboard model, BIOS version, CPU installed, the size of the memory installed, CPU and system temperatures, fan speeds, voltages and the boot order.  There are options to apply a basic turbo mode, a power saving mode, a Boot Menu to select which device to boot from and shortcuts to advanced mode features.

Stepping into the advanced mode gives us a tabbed interface of options.  When first entering we are presented with the Main screen, which offers similar data to the easy mode, as well as security options.

The next tab along is the AI Tweaker, where all the cool stuff happens.  Users can choose to overclock their system through this menu, with options for CPU multiplier, CPU base frequency, MultiCore Enhancement, XMP on the memory, separate memory straps, and associated voltages.  There are separate menu options as well to deal with memory timing, power management, and the DIGI+ VRMs.

The Advanced menu is for enabling and disabling the functionality on board – this extends to processor functionality (to disable sleep states), SATA functionality, USB functionality, Rapid Start, Smart Connect, integrated graphics, PCIe configuration and onboard devices such as audio, network, WiFi and Bluetooth.

Fan controls are hidden in the Monitor tab, which gives us details on temperatures, fan speeds and voltages.  The fan options are relatively basic compared to those offered in the OS, despite the fact that the graphical BIOS way of thinking should offer some form of stepped graphical control over fan speeds.  I look forward to seeing it on future BIOS designs.

The Boot tab allows users to adjust the boot order or select a device for a single boot override.  Users of Windows 8 can also take advantage of the Fast Boot option which reorganizes the initialization procedure at POST in exchange for not being able to get into the BIOS without a BIOS reset or selecting an OS software option.

The ASUS BIOS also supports BIOS flashing if the correct file is on an attached storage device, although not directly from the internet.  A newer feature in ASUS’ offering allows users to save BIOS profiles direct to a USB stick as well.

Another feature to mention is USB BIOS Flashback, which allows users to update a BIOS without having a CPU, memory or a graphics device installed.  With the correct BIOS file and filename on a USB stick, by pressing a button on the IO panel, it will update the BIOS onboard (exact procedure is listed in the manual).



ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe In The Box

Out of the motherboards tested in this roundup, the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe comes near the top in terms of cost – only to be outdone by the EVGA Z77 Stinger.  Technically there is not much scope for additions in the box, for example no USB 3.0 bracket is needed unless a vendor decides to put a second USB 3.0 header on board – which is a limited possibility with the lack of PCB space on offer.  Typically ASUS kit out their high end motherboards quite well, and as this is the ‘high-end’ mITX product, we hope for the best.

In the P8Z77-I Deluxe box, we get:

Driver Disk
User Guide
Rear IO Shield
Four SATA Cables
Two Antenna
ASUS Q-Cable

The WiFi antenna in the box use ASUS’ magnetic ring design, with part of the aerial designed to be perpendicular to the rest of the ring.  Using two of these attached to a metal case usually provides ample opportunity for maximizing 2.5 GHz / 5 GHz WiFi reception.  In the case of the WiDi model of this board, it would also help with video streaming.

The Q-Cable is a handy way of extending out the front panel connectors so both save space and make them easier to attach.  Four SATA cables fill our complement, one for each internal SATA port on the board.

ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe Software

When reviewing a motherboard, having a nice software install and selection to choose from puts me in a good mood.  I want to install XYZ and then let the machine do its thing – if I have to sit around and press OK/Yes repeatedly, it zaps my energy and good hearted cheer, especially when most of the installers used have silent install options.  Thankfully, we get the easy option with ASUS.

Now one thing that should be brought to light is the concept of licensing deals with installation packages.  Some manufacturers go out and organize bulk licensing deals for useful software with the motherboards.  Other bits of software are used as advertising, wherein the user gets a ‘free 30 day trial’ to some software as part of the installation package.  This one technically generates revenue to help bring the cost of the product down, at the annoyance of the user trying to install the package.

ASUS does the latter by a factor two: we get Google Chrome and Norton Internet Security as part of the package.  I am a big advocate of Chrome, and given that it is free to download I am hoping that ASUS added it on to the install disc out of kindness rather than as a money driven exercise.  I am not a fan of Norton products though, and often disable the install.

ASUS wrap their OS software into one install package with multiple options – they call this AI Suite II, which we have seen on ASUS motherboards for at least the past couple of years, with minor incremental updates over time.

AI Suite II

The main bar of AI Suite splits the sub-programs up into groups, with major utilities having their own buttons.  In the case with the P8Z77-I Deluxe, this is the Auto Tuning option for overclocking. We will go through these utilities in turn.

TurboV Evo

TurboV Evo is the operating system based overclocking tool provided.  It allows for changes of all the important voltages and frequencies onboard, as well as providing the Auto Tuning options for ‘Fast’ and ‘Extreme’ overclock settings.  I usually find TurboV Evo a good bit of kit when overclock testing, though I would like to put in some values by numbers rather than having to fiddle with sliders all the time.

DIGI+ Power Control

In order to give users better control over the power delivery, ASUS implements their DIGI+ Power Control on the mITX boards as well.  There are fewer options here than on some of their higher end motherboard offerings, but if a user wants to give more current capabilities or adjust load line calibrations through the OS for overclocks, the options are here for the CPU (but not the RAM like on the larger boards).

In a similar vein, we also have the EPU (Energy Processing Unit) menu and settings, designed to adjust and power gate different parts of the motherboard to save energy.

Fan Xpert

ASUS are well known in the motherboard space for using better fan controllers than most of the motherboard industry – typically one per fan header which is configurable within the BIOS and in software.  The beauty of these fan headers lie in their independent control – the system has access to the RPM output and can adjust the speed on the fly.  Pair that up with some software that actually can manipulate such a system and we have a nice fan configuration.  The software behind this is Fan Xpert – bundled as part of AI Suite, it will test all the fans in the system and provide RPM vs. Power applied values (as this relationship is rarely linear).  This allows users to adjust the temperature/RPM curves as required – the only thing missing is the ability to apply hysteresis.

WiFi Go! and WiFi Engine

Much in the same way that Dropbox or Google Drive is used to synchronize files between devices, ASUS has its own non-cloud solution for use between a PC and a mobile device in the form of WiFi Go!

WiFi Engine allows the user to configure the PC as either a normal client, or as an access point for other computers to connect to.  This allows users to install a WiFi access point in their property if they do not already have one, or extend the range of an existing connection – as long as the machine is switched on of course.  If the motherboard was used in a HTPC/NAS type environment via Ethernet cable, then setting up the motherboard as an access point would actually be very useful.

Ai Charger+ and USB Charger+

These two fast charging utilities are used to force more current though one USB port for fast charging of compliant devices.  A USB port might only send 100 mA (USB 2.0) or 300 mA (USB 3.0) while in ‘data’ mode, but these utilities allow certain ports to go into a ‘Battery Charging Specification’ mode, which depending on the version that ASUS are using, might result in up to 900 mA with data or 1500 mA without data in S3.

It should be noted that this solution fast charges all smartphones and tablets that are compliant while under S1, S3 and S4, whereas other charging features on other motherboards are limited to Apple devices currently.

USB 3.0 Boost

As part of the ASUS methodology, we have onboard an ASMedia controller which can take advantage of the most up to date USB 3.0 transfer protocols.  By attaching a compatible USB 3.0 device, and a click of the USB 3.0 Boost interface, the software will apply a driver over the standard ASMedia driver in order to enforce these under the hood commands.  As we have shown in previous reviews, this affords a nice bump in the speeds provided at low transfer size workloads, making a USB device more tenable for everyday random access use rather than just storage.  USB 3.0 Boost can also apply a modified driver to the chipset USB 3.0 ports for a similar boost using BOT protocols rather than UASP.  (Note, this is fairly moot for Windows 8, where UASP is part of the standard driver package for all compliant devices, and BOT for non UASP-compliant ones.)  Standard Intel USB 3.0 ports also get a boost under Windows 7 with a slightly different modified driver.

Network iControl

For the past couple of years it has been clear that users in the motherboard industry would prefer the ability to manipulate the network ports onboard their system.  While doing some epic downloading while playing a twitch FPS online is a little bit of an odd combination, using software tools in the OS to manage the priority of these programs is never a bad thing.  On the ASUS side this comes in the form of Network iControl, and within this software the user can adjust the software that uses the Ethernet connections and rank them in order of priority.  Alternatively the system can be left on automatic, and the program will use a series of pre-defined rules to prioritize a lot of the well known programs that typically rely on low-latency throughput.

USB BIOS Flashback

Rather than update the BIOS through the BIOS or OS, users can opt to flash the BIOS using USB BIOS Flashback.  This utility is also handy as the BIOS can be flashed without a CPU, memory or GPU present – the ultimate fallback if the BIOS is corrupted or unrecoverable.  The USB BIOS Flashback utility in AI Suite allows users to set up a USB with the correct files for USB BIOS Flashback if they do not wish to use the OS utilities. 



Many thanks to...

We must thank the following companies for kindly donating hardware for our test bed:

OCZ for donating the USB testing SSD
Micron for donating our SATA testing SSD
G.Skill for donating our memory kits
ASUS for donating AMD GPUs
ECS for donating NVIDIA GPUs
Rosewill for donating the 500W Platinum Power Supply

Test Setup

Test Bed
Processor Intel Core i3-3225 @ 3.3 GHz
2 Cores, 4 Threads
Motherboards Gigabyte H77N-WiFi
MSI Z77IA-E53
Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi
ASRock Z77E-ITX
EVGA Z77 Stinger
ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe
Cooling Intel Stock CPU Cooler
Power Supply Rosewill SilentNight 500W Platinum
Memory GSkill RipjawsX 2x4 GB DDR3-1600 9-9-9
Memory Settings XMP
Video Cards ASUS HD7970 3GB
ECS GTX 580 1536MB
Video Drivers Catalyst 12.3
NVIDIA Drivers 296.10 WHQL
Hard Drive OCZ Vertex 3 240GB
Optical Drive LG GH22NS50
Case Open Test Bed - CoolerMaster Lab V1.0
Operating System Windows 7 64-bit
SATA Testing OCZ Vertex 3 128GB
USB 2/3 Testing OCZ Vertex 3 240GB with SATA->USB Adaptor

Power Consumption

Power consumption was tested on the system as a whole with a wall meter connected to the Rosewill SilentNight 500W Platinum power supply, while using a single 7970 GPU.  This power supply is Platinum rated, and as I am in the UK on a 230-240 V supply, leads to ~90% efficiency > 100W, and 94%+ efficiency at 250W, which is suitable for both idle and GPU loading.  This method of power reading allows us to compare the power management of the UEFI and the board to supply components with power under load, and includes typical PSU losses due to efficiency.  These are the real world values that consumers may expect from a typical system (minus the monitor) using this motherboard.

For a mITX board, 500W is potentially a little overkill, even with the efficiency values listed.  As each of the motherboards tested are in the same environment, the qualitative differences between them are more  important than the quantitative values themselves.  Thus the board that is using the least power in our setup should also use the least power if a 120W pico PSU is used.

Power Consumption - One 7970 @ 500W Platinum

Out of the boards tested today, the ASUS uses the least power during loading, whereas the ASRock draws a little more than others while using a discrete GPU.

POST Time

Different motherboards have different POST sequences before an operating system is initialized.  A lot of this is dependent on the board itself, and POST boot time is determined by the controllers on board (and the sequence of how those extras are organized).  As part of our testing, we are now going to look at the POST Boot Time - this is the time from pressing the ON button on the computer to when Windows starts loading. (We discount Windows loading as it is highly variable given Windows specific features.)  These results are subject to human error, so please allow +/- 1 second in these results.

POST (Power-On Self-Test) Time

All motherboards hit under the 12 second mark which is great to see.



Rightmark Audio Analyzer 6.2.5

In part due to reader requests, we are pleased to include Rightmark Audio Analyzer results in our benchmark suite.  The premise behind Rightmark:AA is to test the input and output of the audio system to determine noise levels, range, harmonic distortion, stereo crosstalk and so forth.  Rightmark:AA should indicate how well the sound system is built and isolated from electrical interference (either internally or externally).  For this test we connect the Line Out to the Line In using a short six inch 3.5mm to 3.5mm high-quality jack, turn the OS volume to 100%, and run the Rightmark default test suite at 48 kHz, 96 kHz and 192 kHz.  We look specifically at the Dynamic Range of the audio codec used on board, as well as the Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise.

RightMark Audio Analyzer: Dynamic Range

RightMark Audio Analyzer: THD + Noise

In each of our tests we can clearly see how the better codec outperforms the lower models.  In this case, the ASUS and ASRock have the edge over the others.

USB 3.0 Backup

For this benchmark, we run CrystalDiskMark to determine the ideal sequential read and write speeds for the USB port using our 240 GB OCZ Vertex3 SSD with a SATA 6 Gbps to USB 3.0 converter.  Then we transfer a set size of files from the SSD to the USB drive using DiskBench, which monitors the time taken to transfer.  The files transferred are a 1.52 GB set of 2867 files across 320 folders – 95% of these files are small typical website files, and the rest (90% of the size) are the videos used in the WinRAR test. 

USB 2.0 Sequential Read Speed

USB 2.0 Sequential Write Speed

USB 2.0 Copy Test

As mentioned in the bulk of the review, the MSI Z77IA-E53 struggles with USB 2.0 speed.  The XFast implementation by ASRock puts it on top, however without the XFast software the ASUS gets top honors.

USB 3.0 Sequential Read Speed

USB 3.0 Sequential Write Speed

USB 3.0 Copy Test

Bars in orange indicate non-chipset USB 3.0 ports coming from controllers.

For USB 3.0, both ASUS and ASRock have utilites at their disposal to increase throughput.  As mentioned in previous reviews, the ASRock implementation prioritises bulk transfers, whereas the ASUS implementation significantly boosts small file transfers.  Without these features, the ASUS tops the copy chart, but only just.

DPC Latency

Deferred Procedure Call latency is a way in which Windows handles interrupt servicing.  In order to wait for a processor to acknowledge the request, the system will queue all interrupt requests by priority.  Critical interrupts will be handled as soon as possible, whereas lesser priority requests, such as audio, will be further down the line.  So if the audio device requires data, it will have to wait until the request is processed before the buffer is filled.  If the device drivers of higher priority components in a system are poorly implemented, this can cause delays in request scheduling and process time, resulting in an empty audio buffer – this leads to characteristic audible pauses, pops and clicks.  Having a bigger buffer and correctly implemented system drivers obviously helps in this regard.  The DPC latency checker measures how much time is processing DPCs from driver invocation – the lower the value will result in better audio transfer at smaller buffer sizes.  Results are measured in microseconds and taken as the peak latency while cycling through a series of short HD videos - under 500 microseconds usually gets the green light, but the lower the better.

DPC Latency Maximum

Our magical number for DPC Latency with modern technology is 200 microseconds, which every board manages to do except the EVGA (and the EVGA does not miss by much).



3D Movement Algorithm Test

The algorithms in 3DPM employ both uniform random number generation or normal distribution random number generation, and vary in various amounts of trigonometric operations, conditional statements, generation and rejection, fused operations, etc.  The benchmark runs through six algorithms for a specified number of particles and steps, and calculates the speed of each algorithm, then sums them all for a final score.  This is an example of a real world situation that a computational scientist may find themselves in, rather than a pure synthetic benchmark.  The benchmark is also parallel between particles simulated, and we test the single thread performance as well as the multi-threaded performance.

3D Particle Movement Single Threaded

For single threaded performance, all the motherboards perform within sight of each other fairly easily.

3D Particle Movement MultiThreaded

When it comes to the multithreaded though, the difference between top and bottom is as much as 2.4%.

WinRAR x64 3.93 - link

With 64-bit WinRAR, we compress the set of files used in the USB speed tests. WinRAR x64 3.93 attempts to use multithreading when possible, and provides as a good test for when a system has variable threaded load.  If a system has multiple speeds to invoke at different loading, the switching between those speeds will determine how well the system will do.

WinRar x64 3.93

WinRAR is a test that is dictated by memory speed.  The better the automatic sub-timings of the motherboard, the better the test result.  When we apply XMP on a motherboard, the motherboard still has to interpolate some of the extra timings to best suit the kit – this is why verification of some kits on some motherboards might take longer than expected.  It is also a measure of how aggressive a motherboard manufacturer is, and it is clear that top tier manufacturers have enough staff and time to be aggressive.

FastStone Image Viewer 4.2 - link

FastStone Image Viewer is a free piece of software I have been using for quite a few years now.  It allows quick viewing of flat images, as well as resizing, changing color depth, adding simple text or simple filters.  It also has a bulk image conversion tool, which we use here.  The software currently operates only in single-thread mode, which should change in later versions of the software.  For this test, we convert a series of 170 files, of various resolutions, dimensions and types (of a total size of 163MB), all to the .gif format of 640x480 dimensions.

FastStone Image Viewer 4.2

With all things being equal, the performance increase seen by the ASUS is confusing but welcomed.  This test result was highly repeatable, suggesting that ASUS have gone to some lengths to optimize work flow.

Xilisoft Video Converter

With XVC, users can convert any type of normal video to any compatible format for smartphones, tablets and other devices.  By default, it uses all available threads on the system, and in the presence of appropriate graphics cards, can utilize CUDA for NVIDIA GPUs as well as AMD APP for AMD GPUs.  For this test, we use a set of 32 HD videos, each lasting 30 seconds, and convert them from 1080p to an iPod H.264 video format using just the CPU.  The time taken to convert these videos gives us our result.

Xilisoft Video Converter 7

x264 HD Benchmark

The x264 HD Benchmark uses a common HD encoding tool to process an HD MPEG2 source at 1280x720 at 3963 Kbps.  This test represents a standardized result which can be compared across other reviews, and is dependant on both CPU power and memory speed.  The benchmark performs a 2-pass encode, and the results shown are the average of each pass performed four times.

x264 HD Pass 1

x264 HD Pass 2



Metro2033

Metro2033 is a DX11 benchmark that challenges every system that tries to run it at any high-end settings.  Developed by 4A Games and released in March 2010, we use the inbuilt DirectX 11 Frontline benchmark to test the hardware at 2560x1440 with full graphical settings.  Results are given as the average frame rate from 4 runs.

Metro2033 - One 7970

Metro2033 - One 580

For Metro 2033, the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe rates highly under both an AMD and NVIDIA GPU.  The Zotac and ASRock are found near the bottom, although one could argue that a top to bottom difference of 4.5% for AMD and 2.7% for NVIDIA might be within statistical variation.

Dirt 3

Dirt 3 is a rallying video game and the third in the Dirt series of the Colin McRae Rally series, developed and published by Codemasters.  Using the in game benchmark, Dirt 3 is run at 2560x1440 with Ultra graphical settings.  Results are reported as the average frame rate across four runs.

Dirt3 - One 7970

Dirt3 - One 580

The differences in AMD results for Dirt3 are larger than for Metro2033, but still ASUS takes the top spot and ASRock/Zotac are near the bottom.  Tables are turned with an NVIDIA GPU, but top to bottom the difference in NVIDIA results is 2.1%.



MSI Z77IA-E53 Conclusion

My main criticism with the MSI Z77IA-E53 is similar to many of the other mITX motherboards on the market – the location of the socket on the board is a little insane.  By being right up against the memory slots and the PCIe slots, it means that we are restricted to the Intel specifications for coolers in the x-y directions, and we cannot have large GPUs with a backplate for a mITX gaming system.  Trying to fit the latest MSI Lightning GPU as well as an overclocked CPU that is not on an All-In-One liquid cooling system would seem like a tough ask.  The location of the socket leads to another issue – the placement of the CPU power connector.  As seen on other mITX boards with this configuration, the CPU power is found in an awkward place above the PCIe and near the rear IO.  This means any cable has to either stretch over the mITX board (bad for airflow) or stretch over a GPU.  Unless the PSU is coming from above, it can cause issues in building a system.

Socket placement aside, MSI have made other design decisions – by placing the on-board battery onto the back of the IO panel with adhesive should leave some PCB free for extra controllers or placement, but yet we get just the chipset standard.  One of the SATA ports is partitioned off into an mSATA/mPCIe slot, leaving the gap open from some additional functionality at the discretion of the user.  In terms of audio/network, we get a Realtek combo in the form of an ALC898 and the 8111E.  The rear IO is also a little baffling – MSI have gone with a HDMI and VGA port, compared to some other manufacturers going dual HDMI and DVI-I to cover all the bases.  Instead we get a ClearCMOS button on the IO, but no power/reset buttons or debug LED like on the Zotac.

Performance wise, the MSI stands up with the rest of the mITX boards in most of the tests.  Normally we see a motherboard with monitoring software fail in the DPC Latency test, but the MSI Z77IA-E53 kept under 200 microseconds easily.  The only serious downfall is an issue systemic with all MSI 7-series boards I have tested – the USB 2.0 speed.  For whatever reason, we get only 25 MBps read/write on this board, compared to the 30-34 MBps we expect and get on every other manufacturer.  This is not a deal breaker though.

In buying the MSI we get a nice looking BIOS and a good software package, but there needs to be something more to take my hard earned green – the wow factor of mITX is not enough, as every other manufacturer has that as well.  When I compare connectivity against the other motherboards that have dual HDMI, personally I sway over to them rather than the MSI.  The MSI is a nice board to play with, but it has one issue – the competition.



Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi Conclusion

At the time of writing this conclusion, each 7-series mITX motherboard I have tested has used the same layout in their design – the CPU socket goes near the bottom and the chipset is at the top.  I am beginning to wonder who thought this was a good idea – having everything this way round means that the socket presses up against the DRAM and PCIe slots, restricting cooler size and compatibility.  It means that the CPU Power connector is in an awkward place onboard and power cables will have to stretch over the board to reach it – this is less of an issue on the Zotac board due to the included 8-pin extension cable in the box.  The argument for this layout is usually a robust ‘well it puts the IO on the edge of the motherboard’.  But the IO usually has the long thin cables designed to go anywhere – I have no issue stretching my SATA cables over my RAM to fit, or a front panel audio cable.  However, big bulky power cables across the board and restrictive cooling due to socket area placement are not enticing prospects.

Enough of socket placement aside, the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi has a number of good points to be mentioned.  The video outputs on board are a novel interpretation of the ‘three digital output’ allowances.  Normally we get a DVI-D, HDMI and a DP on almost all other mainstream channel Z77 motherboards – however Zotac have shaken up the market.  We get two HDMI outputs (for dual screens, or sending video one way and audio the other), and a mini-DisplayPort.  The mDP port is bolstered by the mDP to DP cable found in the motherboard box, meaning every modern digital display (except Apple’s Thunderbolt display) is covered.  Kudos to Zotac on this design choice.

Also in hardware, we get dual Realtek 8111E GbE NICs alongside integrated WiFi, making sure all networking options are open.  Unfortunately we do not get any network management software in the box to complement this design choice, despite the fact that Realtek has some proprietary software which should be almost free to include.  We also get the perennial favorite of reviewers, system builders and troubleshooters alike – the power/reset switches (kind of rare for a mITX board) as well as a two-digit debug.  Despite the extra cost these afford, I believe they are well worth the money on every motherboard in the market.  Other hardware features onboard are an mSATA, two fan headers and an extended heatsink covering the power delivery.

There are also some poor hardware choices in this build, such as the Realtek ALC889 audio which failed our RMAA 192 kHz test.  Almost all motherboard options I see are Realtek ALC892 or above, which should offer a better audio experience.  It should also be mentioned we do not get any Realtek audio software included in the package either. 

On the software side, the driver CD requires a manual installation of all the drivers rather than the painless silent install we are becoming used to.  There are no software utilities to speak of for overclocking or fan controls – the only way to control the fans is via the BIOS.  For the BIOS itself, we really only have a colored skin on top of the normal BIOS options, rather than anything embracing the graphical BIOS concept of interactivity.  As a downside as well, SATA configuration on the BIOS tested defaulted to IDE rather than the preferred AHCI.

In the modern motherboard industry it is very hard for a smaller manufacturer like Zotac to get a design win.  In certain aspects Zotac have achieved it, plugging in some functionality into this mITX board that no other manufacturer has.  But it gets let down by other design decisions and the lack of interoperability between the user and the system itself.  Putting a Zotac motherboard in a build all comes down to price, and given that I have seen it on Newegg for $130 one week then $163 the next means that you may have to pick and choose the best moment if you want this board.



ASRock Z77E-ITX Conclusion

As part of this Z77 mITX review, I have been secretly hoping for a killer product.  Something which is going to sweep the board in terms of price, performance, additional features, BIOS, and software.  It is a bit optimistic for sure, and before I had started this review I had heard there were many positive comments coming from the forums regarding the ASRock Z77E-ITX.  In order to remove bias from the equation, I tried to shun those threads and attempt to find out for myself why the ASRock was making the noise in all things Z77 and small form factor.

The ASRock Z77E-ITX does one thing different to any other product I have tested or used in a private capacity – putting useful functionality on the reverse of the motherboard.  This essentially makes the motherboard a dual-sided affair, similar to that used notebooks.  Specifically, ASRock move the mSATA port in their design to the rear of the board, freeing up space on the top.  I can see many arguments for this especially in terms of saving space, although there could be some arguments against, such as design complexity moving traces through PCB layers resulting in interference, or the fact that adding z-height on a motherboard rear could restrict case fittings.  Personally I think it is a great idea, especially if a case like the Bitfenix Prodigy is used.  (Whether mSATA itself is useful in this scenario is another discussion altogether.)

There are other design choices which can differentiate the ASRock Z77E-ITX from the rest of the motherboards tested in this review.  The 8-pin CPU power connector is in a better place than most, although the front panel audio is still in an obscure position near the rear IO panel.  Integrated on board is a WiFi 802.11b/g/n module in a mini-PCIe slot, with cables going to the rear IO panel – the antenna for the WiFi are paired with a DVI-I where the analogue and digital outputs are combined into one port.  To help with D-Sub users, a connector is provided in the box to convert the DVI-I to D-Sub.  In contrast to the other models in the review, we have a Broadcom BCM57781 network controller rather than a Realtek, and also a Realtek ALC898 audio codec.

While ASRock would like to promote a ‘Digi Power Design’ on this motherboard, the chokes used for power delivery look a little suspect.  The design suggests an iron core choke, similar to those used on low end motherboards, rather than iron powder chokes or alloyed chokes seen on other ASRock models. Despite the look, speaking with ASRock pointed to iron ferrite chokes – the ones used in their server solutions designed to save PCB area.  While in the grand scheme of things this should not make much difference in output, one could come to the conclusion that there is potential for higher temperatures under stressed load as server systems are typically in high air flow scenarios.  On a more negative note, ASRock do use what seems the common layout of chipset and socket on the motherboard, placing the socket in the bottom right corner and the chipset above the socket.  As mentioned in the other boards (except the EVGA and ASUS who do it differently), this limits the CPU cooler to Intel specifications in the x-y plane if normal memory and GPUs are used.

In terms of the BIOS, we get a graphical interface using the older version of the ASRock UEFI rather than the newer ‘starry background’ shown in the latest Z77 and FM2A85X models.  As a result, some of the newer features are in their older positions.  Nevertheless, we still get the System Browser, Online Management Guard and the ability to update the BIOS via the Internet through the BIOS itself.  It still does not take to heart the idea of an ‘interactive’ interface though, and feels like a skin over basic functionality – but most BIOSes do that anyway.

Software comes in the XFast format, with ASRock always keen to promote their XFast LAN, XFast USB and XFast RAM combination.  All three software points have their merits, and no doubt enthusiasts would abuse all three for maximum benefit.  My family would readily abuse the XFast USB, although the changes it makes should not make much different if Windows 8 is used (more about this in the review).

The bonus box add-ins are also of note, given that the WiFi antenna come in a somewhat orthogonal orientation plastic bracket ready to be stuck to the outside of the case (assuming you provide your own sticky tape).  The inclusion of a DVI-I to D-Sub adaptor is smart thinking given the video options used on board as well.

In our testing, the ASRock Z77E-ITX performance is only stellar when it comes to the USB ports, although we have a reasonably ok Win7 POST time (11 seconds) and the ALC898 audio codec proves to have the range over lower versions.  CPU and GPU performance is there or thereabouts but does not pull ahead of other boards.

The ASRock Z77E-ITX is currently available for $150 on Newegg, making it cheaper than the Zotac ($161) and the EVGA ($200) but slightly more expensive than the MSI ($145).  The overall package and design layout makes a lot of sense to the kind of build I would have in mind, making the bang-for-buck meter swing well into the green. 

Out of the boards tested today, the ASRock hits more of the primary points wanted in what I would consider a home/work mITX system, as well as a lot of secondary points too.  The price competitive nature of the motherboard with a more unique design than most justifies the positive murmurings coming from forum users.  As a result, I would like to give the ASRock Z77E-ITX an AnandTech Editors’ Recommended.  With a little more performance, a debug LED and the update to the latest form of ASRock BIOS, it may have even pushed for a bronze award.



EVGA Z77 Stinger Conclusion

EVGA has a reputation for being something a little special.  The fan base is loyal, and despite the size of the company they have upgrade paths for their hardware (the EVGA Step-Up program) and deal with all RMA requests personally rather than through the reseller.  The forums are always full of posts, and a lot of members also contribute their hardware and spare time for distributed computing projects such as Folding@Home or BOINC.  EVGA’s main product line is in NVIDIA graphics cards, and their high end models, although expensive, are often pre-overclocked and sell like hot cakes.  They hire top well-known overclockers to showcase how capable their products can be in the right hands.

The motherboard side is less lucrative.  EVGA’s market share in the motherboard segment is tiny compared to ASUS and Gigabyte, and still small compared to MSI and Biostar.  For a given chipset they rarely release more than three motherboards (e.g. X79 SLI, X79 FTW, X79 Classified or Z77 FTW, Z77 Stinger), and those motherboards are often late to launch and come with some easy-to-spot issues.  Every so often they come out with something special (EVGA SR-2) which is hard to ignore.

When I approached EVGA to request a review sample of the Stinger, I had seen the leaked images online and it looked like a good product.  I even posted them on AnandTech.  When the sample came through the door and I saw the price, I was a little taken aback.  $200 puts it as the most expensive mITX board on the market, even more so than the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe which uses a daughter PCB for power delivery.  At the $200 price point, it was going to be a tough sell to all but EVGA enthusiasts.

For the green we get some ‘extra’ compared to most other mITX boards on the market.  This means an Intel NIC, a total of six USB 3.0 ports, two more SATA 6 Gbps (in the form of eSATA), the socket placed at the top rather than the bottom, three fan headers and power/reset buttons with a debug LED.  Unfortunately, most of the cheaper boards offer better audio than the Realtek ALC889, they offer a WiFi module included in the product, more video output connectivity, some offer an mSATA, a mini-PCIe, and substantially more IO on the back panel.

BIOS wise EVGA is at a disadvantage due to the size of the company, but the lack of XMP options in the release BIOS does not help much.  Despite the two years since graphical BIOSes came into force, I have been told that an implementation may be coming with Haswell (and hopefully with a print screen option).  The software side with EVGA also falls against the same hurdle, with only one utility that offers little – no BIOS update feature, no fan control, no network control, no power delivery control. 

In terms of performance, all is right with the EVGA Z77 Stinger.  We got a fair representation across the range of benchmarks with no out-of-the-ordinary bursts or dips apart from the 192 kHz audio test fail due to the ALC889.

As mentioned before, the EVGA Z77 Stinger is a hard sell, and at $200 it is not really doing itself any favors when compared side-by-side with the competition.  There are motherboards out there that offer a lot more in terms of usability and experience, but with EVGA we do get that Step-Up program and direct dealing with RMA.  Are these differences worth the $50-$55 jump up from an ASRock or an MSI?  If the Z77 Stinger was around the same price as the Zotac, it might be worth a punt.



ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe Conclusion

In an industry that is losing overall sales globally and no new markets opening up, gaining market share involves taking it from your competitors.  One way of doing that is by undercutting the competition, which reduces profit margins and generates a race to the bottom.  The other is by innovation, but again it is hard to innovate if that occurs at great cost and there is no return in a shrinking market.

Nevertheless, ASUS has innovated.  On the P8Z77-I Deluxe, the most striking feature is the motherboard layout which uses a daughter board to provide the power delivery.  Using this extra z-height PCB gives extra space on the main PCB for functionality, at the downside of restricting the motherboard usage is some very-low profile cases.  One of ASUS’ raison d’être is to provide a customer with something no other manufacturer can provide, and options like the TPU and USB BIOS Flashback are part of that equation.

The ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe gives us, inter alia, a regular socket arrangement, a nicely placed 8-pin power connector, onboard WiFi (or WiDi with the corresponding model) with a pair of magnetic ring antenna, options for all four of the main video outputs, a total of eight USB ports on the IO panel (four USB 3.0), a total of six USB 3.0 ports altogether, a pair of fan headers with top-of-the-line fan controls and a pair of eSATA 3 Gbps on the back panel.  This goes on top of a rock solid BIOS and software package.

There are a few issues worth mentioning, such as the positioning of the front panel audio header which will be blocked by a big GPU unless the z-height of the connector is minimal.  Also there is no mSATA like on some other boards, and the SATA arrangement would require all the locking SATA cables being removed if the one at the bottom needs changing.  If a GPU with a backplate is used, it could also obstruct the USB 3.0 port.  On a more personal (and system debugger) note, I would have liked to see a two-digit debug as well.

Performance from the ASUS ranks among the highest, with one test pulling out a repetitive 5-20% lead over the rest.  Among the gaming benchmarks it also scores very highly in the face of the competition.  Power draw on our test bed was qualitatively lower, and Windows 7 POST times sat around the 11 second mark with a discrete GPU installed.

Honestly, if I were constructing a mITX build today, out of the boards tested, it would easily be with the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe.  It comes in at $185 for the normal version and $200 for the WiDi version, which may be pricey compared to the others tested in this review, but in return we have a solid package that is easy to use and well featured.  There may be a different winner if you look at price/performance in the strictest sense, but having the ASUS on the test bed and using it for my testing brought a fuller sense of ease in mITX computing.  

As a result, I would like to give the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe an AnandTech Editors’ Choice Bronze Award, for a combined effort in motherboard innovation and as an overall package.

ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe
AnandTech Editors’ Choice Bronze Award

 



Final Words

Despite being a motherboard reviewer for the past couple of years, my foray into the world of mini-ITX based products was initially into the realm of the unknown.  I am by no means a HTPC specialist or enthusiast by virtue of circumstance (the small amount of color blindness and a large dollop of tone deafness does not help either), until I decided to fork over some money for a mITX gaming case and get to work.  On posting some mITX news regarding a couple of the boards reviewed in this article, the responses I received from the readers of AnandTech pointed towards a request for large mITX review, and thankfully all the big players came to the table with their offerings.

Trying to fit everything on a 17cm x 17cm PCB is not easy.  Some manufacturers (MSI, Zotac, ASRock) opt for placing the chipset above the socket for more space along the edges of the motherboard, although this compromises the position of the CPU 8-pin power connector and the size of the CPU heatsink that can be used.  Others (ASUS, EVGA) place the socket on top like more typical ATX offerings, with ASUS going a step further and actually removing the VRM off the main motherboard altogether.

We also see a mixture of network, audio and video output offerings along the range.  The Zotac offers a pair of Realtek NICs, whereas as all other offer either a single Realtek (MSI), a single Broadcom (ASRock), or a single Intel (EVGA, ASUS).  The lower tier manufacturers (EVGA, Zotac) slump a little in the audio codec with an ALC889, MSI has the ALC892, and ASUS/ASRock get the ALC898.  EVGA fail to offer a WiFi module, whereas all the others give a standard 802.11 b/g/n except ASUS, whom also enable 5 GHz compatibility.  Readers wanting WiDi either have to look at the Gigabyte 7-series mITX or the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe/WD model.

Manufacturers differ wildly in their package, BIOS and software offerings.  Few packages arise above a few SATA cables and antenna – Zotac add in a mDP to DP connector, a USB 3.0 bracket and an 8-pin extension cable, whereas ASRock throw in a DVI-I to VGA converter and EVGA think best to supply molex to SATA power cables.  Almost everyone has a graphical BIOS interface except EVGA, who are hoping for one with the 8-series and Haswell.  Software also varies from near nil (Zotac, EVGA) to a myriad of programs (MSI, ASRock) to a complete all-in-one package (ASUS).

  Gigabyte
H77N-WiFi
MSI
Z77IA-E53
Zotac
Z77-ITX
WiFi
ASRock
Z77E-ITX
EVGA
Z77
Stinger
ASUS
P8Z77-I
Deluxe
Price $120 $145 $161 $150 $200 $185
CPU OC No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
PCIe 8-Pin Middle-Left Bottom-Left Bottom-Left Middle-Left Top-Left Top-Right
LAN 2 x Realtek
8111E
Realtek
8111E
2 x Realtek
8111E
Broadcom
BCM57781
Intel
82574L
Intel
82579V
WiFi 802.11 b/g/n WiFi/WiDi 802.11 b/g/n WiFi 802.11 b/g/n WiFi 802.11 b/g/n WiFi - WiFi 2.5 GHz
+ 5 GHz
Audio Realtek
ALC892
Realtek
ALC892
Reaktek
ALC889
Realtek
ALC898
Realtek
ALC889
Realtek
ALC898
SATA 6/3/m 2 + 2 2 + 2 2 + 2 + 1 2 + 2 + 1 2 + 2 2 + 2
USB 3/2 4 + 6 4 + 6 4 + 8 6 + 6 6 + 6 6 + 8
Fan Headers 2 2 2 2 3 2
Video Outputs HDMI x 2
DVI-I
HDMI
VGA
2 x HDMI
mDP
HDMI
DP
DVI-I
HDMI
mDP
DVI-I
HDMI
DP
PS/2 Port Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
In The Box 2 x SATA Cables
2 x Antenna
2 x SATA Cables
1 x Antenna
4 x SATA Cables
2 x Antenna
USB 3.0 Bracket
mDP to DP Connector
8-pin CPU Extension
2 x SATA Cables
2 x Antenna
DVI-I to VGA
4 x SATA Cables
Molex to 2x SATA Power
Molex to 3x SATA Power
4 x SATA Cables
2 x Magnetic Antenna

Performance does not show any clear winner, though there are some noticeable results.  The ASRock draws more power than the rest under discrete GPU loading and is significantly slower on our WinRar testing. The MSI suffers in USB 2.0 speed quite dramatically, especially when compared to the USB boosting techniques used by ASRock for USB 2.0 – ASUS use different techniques to boost their USB 3.0 speed, which we have tested in the past to provide a better benefit under small transfer sizes.  ASUS scored significant wins in WinRAR and FastStone, and the discrete GPU performance is also noteworthy.

As a result of all the testing, I have decided to give one recommendation and one bronze award to the following:

ASRock Z77E-ITX: Recommendation

The ASRock Z77E-ITX provides a solid package that hits the price/performance ratio square on the jaw.  Their BIOS and software packages provide a better all around experience than most of the competition, and the ease of use ticks all the boxes.  Placing the mSATA on the reverse of the motherboard is a great idea.  Where some companies are trying to innovate on the hardware, ASRock are attacking both hardware and software, with perhaps some room for improvement.  But at $150 (or in the sales) it is definitely worth a look.

ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe: Bronze Award

While the ASUS may not strike bang-for-buck, it does hit the target of being the best board in this roundup without hitting the prize for being the most expensive.  With a daughterboard for the VRMs, the P8Z77-I Deluxe willfully expands the available PCB area without an ounce of regret, paving the way for future designs of a similar nature on other products.  We get the best audio codec out of the bunch, the best Ethernet NIC, a (personally) preferred socket/chipset orientation, stellar performance in selected benchmarks, and one the best BIOS/Software combinations available.  Also, USB ports and video outputs galore, with perpendicular ring antenna combined with a 5 GHz WiFi module.  Minor defects are what separate the great from the supreme products, but the great ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe should be in the back of your mind no matter what Z77 mITX you decide to purchase.

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