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.

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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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