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

I can haz mini-ITX?

Basic Design of a mini-ITX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Side Note about Overclocking

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

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

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

    Interesting article, but I have to ask why would someone spend more for a Z77 chipset when using 'just' an i3? Surely a much cheaper H61 chipset could do the job admirably, and at much lower cost.

    Z77 makes sense if you're overclocking, which is excluded from this test...
    Reply
  • IanCutress - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    H61 has no chipset USB 3.0, no chipset SATA 6 Gbps, and you are limited to PCIe 2.0. H61 is also technically limited to one single sided DIMM per channel, and no SATA RAID. There's also SRT to consider, that would be advantageous with the ASRock and the mSATA on the rear.

    Ian
    Reply
  • mike_b - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    It might make an interesting comparison to see what net advantage is gained with the added features of the Z77 chipset compared with the H61. If budgets are limited the ~100 dollar cost difference between the Z77 and H61 mainboards makes a big difference; that money saved could be put into something which makes more of a performance difference (SSD rather than HDD for example).

    Anandtech is one of the best tech sites around, you guys do a great job. I do sometimes see though an emphasis on more expensive products when in terms of real-world performance you could get almost the same thing at a much cheaper price. Might be worth mentioning somewhere.

    Not least because with yet another new socket coming with Haswell all these 1155 boards will be seen as out of date soon anyway.
    Reply
  • IanCutress - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    Once we get into the swing with Haswell, we will hopefully covering the whole spectrum. Though it is worth noting that motherboard manufacturers, want to put their best foot forward, and would prefer their halo/channel boards get covered before their OEM / low end offerings. Hence this is why you rarely see many mainstream reviews that are not from forums dedicated to the market segment and users testing their own equipment. We are hoping to rectify the balance in due course. If there are any specific products you might want us to test or examine, drop me an email and I'll see what I can put in my schedule (as full as it is[!]) :)

    Ian
    Reply
  • StormyParis - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    This is a major issue, not limited to motherboards: whenever I'm looking for something middle of the road or outright cheap, I can't find reviews.

    These Z77 MBs are a nice example: even though I'm recommending/building PCs regularly, most of them mini-ITX, I never came across a use case for Z77. Nobody apart from teens that still have something to prove overclocks anymore. People who want to do multi-GPU get a big case, and a big board. Are we supposed the extrapolate that the makers of good Z77 boards also make good H77 and H61 boards ?

    I understand you've got to make do with what you're given by the OEMs. And that reviews was very good, as usual. Pity it is irrelevant ?
    Reply
  • Tech-Curious - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    That's an interesting observation. I have to say, I never noticed a significant lack of coverage for low-to-mid-range components (either in general or on Anandtech in particular), until this Fall, when I was in the market for a lower end motherboard.

    I guess I just always gravitated to higher end mobos before. Or maybe the coverage for such products was more comprehensive years ago. My memory's foggy, so it's hard to say.

    In any case, motherboards appear to be the exception. If anything, I think the internet has generally grown more bullish on low-to-mid-range CPUs and GPUs in recent years (probably, in part, as a result of the stagnating console situation, which results in stagnating system requirements for games).

    But all of that rambling aside, yeah. It'd be nice to see more diverse motherboard analysis. When I bought a b75 a couple of months ago, I literally couldn't find a review for that chipset. It wasn't a big deal; it's not like b75's features are any great mystery, after all -- but it is a little nettlesome to trip over sixty bajillion z77 reviews when there's nary peep about any other chipset.

    In other news, Ian's review is a good one -- and given that I've been a faithful user of Asus motherboards for the last 15 years, it's nice to see them take home the prize. :)
    Reply
  • Etern205 - Saturday, January 05, 2013 - link

    My guess would be, why review a cheap board when majority of the readers here won't even bother buying it?
    And as for Asus boards, I've heard, they do something called based-line features. This means all boards from the bottom of the range to the top (Intel B75-Z77) will have the same base-line features, other features are just added like BT, WiFi, extra lan, etc.
    Reply
  • Tech-Curious - Wednesday, January 09, 2013 - link

    Yes, I think the issue is that (at least with respect to Intel chipsets) low-end motherboards don't support overclocking. So they're both less interesting to review (fewer measurable differences in performance among different models), and they're less appealing to the presumed audience of sites like Anandtech.

    Still, the B75 is a perfectly good chipset. If you aren't heavily invested in overclocking, z77's advantages are likely wasted on you. Personally, I'm well beyond my overclocking days; I just don't have the time or the patience to go through the almost endless tuning process anymore. (Even if you find a stable OC at the outset, it can become unstable later, and/or a given application might expose instability that stress testing didn't, weeks or even months down the road).
    Reply
  • jonjonjonj - Friday, January 04, 2013 - link

    just cause you don't overclock doesn't mean other people don't. why wouldn't you? because you want to get the fastest cpu that you can afford means you have something to prove? some people are just idiots. Reply
  • Zap - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    But there isn't a $100 difference between H61 and Z77. There is a cheaper Gigabyte Z77 ITX board that's only around $60 more than the cheapest H61 ITX board, and it was even on sale recently for another $13 off making it less than $50 difference.

    Alternately one can go the H77 ITX route and get all the Z77 goodies except for overclocking, for around $30 less than the cheapest Z77 ITX. I think $30 more than H61 is reasonable for those extra features, plus guaranteed out-of-the-box BIOS support for Ivy Bridge.

    I do agree with your (mike_b) first post regarding the choice of CPU used. Ian Cutress, didn't you have a spare K CPU laying around? There are so many people building overclocked ITX rigs these days. I did in a Silverstone SG05 with low profile air cooler to hit 4.2GHz. Plenty of others use the Bitfenix Prodigy and liquid cooling to hit clocks normally reserved for ATX rigs. Another review site (Tweaktown) tested overclocking on Z77 ITX boards and the ASRock hit near 4.8GHz. THAT'S what I want to see.

    Of course this AnandTech roundup has some very useful information too, such as DPC latency tests and POST times. Keep up the good work there! But please, know your audience. Next time if the board is supposed to be overclockable, test that feature.

    Maybe there can be a companion article about overclocking and heatsink clearance? Would be a shame to not overclock this nice collection of Z77 ITX boards.
    Reply

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