As a long-time reader, forum participant and now moderator at Tom's Hardware, I have eagerly devoured build articles and comparison pieces for years. When I was given the opportunity to address a particular market segment - one that has not always been well-represented - I jumped at the chance. Little did I realize how difficult it would be to find the proper focus. I wanted to provide another useful "data point" on which enthusiasts might base rational buying decisions. I have seen enough motherboard comparisons over the years to be skeptical of the value of standard benchmarks, such as would be used to compare graphics cards, CPUs or even storage devices. I know some of that matters, though, so I wanted to be sure to run the numbers that would turn up any anomalies. As you'll see, I found two. One may not matter much to most users and the other turned out to provide an excellent lesson, which wasn't even relevant to motherboards.
Aside from the benchmarks, though, what might set a handful of mini-ITX motherboards apart? This form factor offers limited surface area, so you won't find the wide variety of options found on larger boards. That doesn't mean there are no differences, however, as we will see.
Three boards made their way onto my test bench. Two were provided by ASRock and Tom's Hardware sent over a model from Gigabyte. It seems that vendors aren't too interested in this segment either, though I have a hard time understanding why. I live in the entry-level end of the build spectrum, and playing "what-if" is one of the fastest ways to bust a budget. It's been years since I needed a feature that wasn't available on one of these smaller boards. So, for whom might these specific boards be a good or bad choice? Let's find out.
All of these boards have decent audio codecs. The ALC892 has a 97 dB SNR on the outputs, and the ALC898 has a pro-quality 110 dB SNR. If you are building an HTPC, these boards should all provide good sound to your speakers or amplifier.