Three Sub-$100 LGA1150 Mini-ITX Motherboards

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.

Technical Specifications

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.

MORE: Best Motherboards
MORE:
How To Choose A Motherboard: A Guide For Beginners
MORE: All Motherboard Articles
MORE: Motherboards in the Forums

This thread is closed for comments
43 comments
    Your comment
  • PaulBags
    Fix ya damn website tom's, why take up 60% of the screen with a "recommended article" while I'm trying to read this one, with a close button that doesn't work? Android 4.4.2, default browser, desktop mode.
  • Firion87
    Dear Tom's. I own the Gigabyte B85N Phoenix for 2 months. Never measured the power draw but I'm using an Intel m-sata 530 SSD and that thing gets hot! I build some sort of duct above it with a 40mm fan to try cooling that thing from 56 degree Celsius to at least 48 which still seems a lot to me. The duct extends and covers also the chipset which stays nicely around 28 degrees. There's nothing else negative to report from this board. Everything works.
  • DonkeyOatie
    Thanks for the validation.

    http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/id-2625445/build-log-consolidated-middle-school-builds.html

    My students have been building successfully with the ASRock H97 ITX/ac and it does everything you say. What challenges there are, like getting those tiny connectors on the WiFi card to fit into the sockets on the antenna wires, add texture, and frustration, to the building experience.

    All customers are satisfies at the moment and we are trying a Z97E ITX/ac build now.

    The i5 4460/GTX970 configuration is being updated to a GTX 980 and 4k monitor.
  • akula2
    Interesting article.

    Some folks may consider to pay a bit more for AsRock Rack boards if they are looking for personal or enterprise-grade storage (NAS server/box) based on ZFS. E.g., a typical home box config:

    1) Core i3 4360T (35W) + C226M WS uATX board + 8GB ECC RAM
  • Onus
    It looks like prices have changed again since I tested these boards.
    The more I think about it, the more I like the H97 chipset; the only thing you really give up is overclocking "K" CPUs. In the old days, you almost had to overclock to get good performance, but CPUs are so much faster today it seems less of a requirement unless you're down in Pentium territory; but that one can be overclocked on H97.
  • dvanburen
    1763175 said:
    Thanks for the validation. http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/id-2625445/build-log-consolidated-middle-school-builds.html My students have been building successfully with the ASRock H97 ITX/ac and it does everything you say. What challenges there are, like getting those tiny connectors on the WiFi card to fit into the sockets on the antenna wires, add texture, and frustration, to the building experience. All customers are satisfies at the moment and we are trying a Z97E ITX/ac build now.


    If you can justify the additional cost you should like the Z97E ITX/ac. I have both of these boards in different builds. While the H97M ITX/ac is a nice board, the Z97E ITX/ac is nicer all around. For me it is about a $30 USD premium.
  • Onus
    I built a rig on the Z77E-ITX, and it was my primary for months (its name was Gypsy, and true to form, it eventually wandered off to join the Circus; I sent it to some friends who have six minions). It was a nice board, and I could see buying another one for the i5-3570K from a different build that is now idle. It had a mSATA slot on its underside for a SSD. One gotcha: The mSATA screw was not included, and if whatever you used was long enough to short to the case, the board would not boot; a piece of electrical tape fixed that.
  • dvanburen
    It's interesting that their use in an HTPC was mentioned in the article. I'm using an H97M ITX/ac for just this purpose. However, I don't think most will use the onboard audio as I believe HDMI will be used in the majority of HTPC builds. To be honest, the only reason I went this route is because I already have a very nice case with a VFD, a decent PS, and drives. If I was to start from scratch I would probably use something like the MSI Cubi. That is, if I could live without the VFD...
  • Karsten75
    Could you only get boards from ASRock and Gigabyte? I'm not too sure I understand testing two much older chipsets against a more modern chipset. The price points are also way off. Why pay as much for a B85 chipset motherboard as for a H97??
  • Onus
    All the "big boys" were invited to send boards. Only ASRock sent any; two. Some specifically expressed disinterest. Tom's bought the Gigabyte board.
    I'm working on more boards now. Once again, ASRock has sent two. I bought one, and I believe Tom's is buying others.
    As to the prices, they've jumped around in the last month or so.
    One thing I think the article showed is that the price jump from H81 to another chipset buys quite a bit.
    As to B85 vs. H97, it depends on your uses. In this case, Gigabyte's superior network adapters are worthwhile if you don't care about specific H97 features like RAID.
  • de5_Roy
    nice review.
    glad to see vendors participating, for a mobo segment that usually gets less attention than it deserves.
  • Onus
    I agree, which is why I was eager to do this one. Mini-ITX is a lot more capable than most people realize.
    There is a small error in one chart though (correct in the text); the H81M-ITX only has two SATA 6Gb/s ports, not four. I'm sure this is my bad from copying parts of a template.
    I've seen commentary elsewhere urging higher OCs on a Pentium, and I'll be testing that. I'm also going to find out if my original sample is just a dud, or if the VRMs on these boards just weren't suited to overclocking, despite staying cool, and despite being rated for 84W chips, not just this little 53W one. I decided to buy another G3258 myself. Overclocking isn't one of my primary interests, but I think it's necessary to find out what was limiting me to a mere 4.0GHz. I could hit 4.2 and boot into Windows, but it was not Prime95 stable. Temps were not the issue. RedJaron got his I believe to 4.3GHz, so I tried voltages that bracketed his, and got nowhere. I'm hoping I got a dud chip, as one of these on a H97 would be a reasonable daily driver if I can run up the clocks a bit. That's why I also bought another Gigabyte B85 board though (not mITX); I could not return the one Tom's bought for my tests because it is the first motherboard on which I've ever mangled LGA pins, in this case badly fumbling the plastic CPU socket cover. I chose one specifically for weak VRMs; it appears to only have two phases on it.
    I've got a mere E8200 at work, with 4GB of RAM, and if it can handle layers of centrally-managed, GPO-enforced "stuff," MS Office, multiple browsers, remote access, and more, then for even older games, the G3258 with 8GB and a modest gaming card like a GTX650Ti or HD7870 ought to do quite well.
  • joex444
    It's unexpected for the wired LAN to perform worse than the WiFi. Is the testbed's network representative of the target audience (ie, a cable modem and router involving a short distance of Ethernet cable rather than a corporate LAN)?
  • Onus
    Quite possibly not, although some people may have similar setups at home, where the PC isn't near the router. The wired LAN in this case is provided by a Powerline adapter, as my test bench is nowhere near my router. It has proven fast enough for heavy surfing and online video (my wife is also on the PL, but was not active during my tests), so I think it is a testament to the quality of the wireless for that to be even faster. I put in the PL because a cheap PCI card I used originally in her PC really wasn't cutting it, although her machine is near the floor. Still, the router isn't thirty feet away, but it's through 2-3 walls (depending on exact positions).
  • dbyer
    Well, for me the only choice was the Gigabyte B85N Phoenix. What you did not mention was that it has a special gold plated USB port for which its power can be disabled. This is ideal for connecting to a high end audiophile USB DAC. The point of the motherboard is to build a high definition music streamer. That is why there is no RAID (music should be streamed from a NAS through the machine and out to a DAC) and that also might explain why the network throughput is so high. For this purpose, there is no other motherboard out there that is close.
  • DonkeyOatie
    47340 said:
    I built a rig on the Z77E-ITX, and it was my primary for months (its name was Gypsy, and true to form, it eventually wandered off to join the Circus; I sent it to some friends who have six minions). It was a nice board, and I could see buying another one for the i5-3570K from a different build that is now idle. It had a mSATA slot on its underside for a SSD. One gotcha: The mSATA screw was not included, and if whatever you used was long enough to short to the case, the board would not boot; a piece of electrical tape fixed that.


    My Z97E ITX/ac came with a mysterious short screw in its own little baggie, maybe that's what it is for.

    @dvanburen. My students are using locked i5s and the margin is a bit greater, my H97s cost just over $70, whereas the Z97E costs about $40 more expensive, only $40, but about 50%. I'd rather they spent the saving on PSU or GPU.

    At school we are not allowed to use wired connections for security reasons, so the WiFi is mandatory.
  • DonkeyOatie
    47340 said:
    I agree, which is why I was eager to do this one. Mini-ITX is a lot more capable than most people realize. There is a small error in one chart though (correct in the text); the H81M-ITX only has two SATA 6Gb/s ports, not four. I'm sure this is my bad from copying parts of a template. I've seen commentary elsewhere urging higher OCs on a Pentium, and I'll be testing that. I'm also going to find out if my original sample is just a dud, or if the VRMs on these boards just weren't suited to overclocking, despite staying cool, and despite being rated for 84W chips, not just this little 53W one. I decided to buy another G3258 myself. Overclocking isn't one of my primary interests, but I think it's necessary to find out what was limiting me to a mere 4.0GHz. I could hit 4.2 and boot into Windows, but it was not Prime95 stable. Temps were not the issue. RedJaron got his I believe to 4.3GHz, so I tried voltages that bracketed his, and got nowhere. I'm hoping I got a dud chip, as one of these on a H97 would be a reasonable daily driver if I can run up the clocks a bit. That's why I also bought another Gigabyte B85 board though (not mITX); I could not return the one Tom's bought for my tests because it is the first motherboard on which I've ever mangled LGA pins, in this case badly fumbling the plastic CPU socket cover. I chose one specifically for weak VRMs; it appears to only have two phases on it. I've got a mere E8200 at work, with 4GB of RAM, and if it can handle layers of centrally-managed, GPO-enforced "stuff," MS Office, multiple browsers, remote access, and more, then for even older games, the G3258 with 8GB and a modest gaming card like a GTX650Ti or HD7870 ought to do quite well.


    I have a G3258 my students are going to work with on the ASRock Z97E, but I could toss it into an ASRock H97 as well if the info would be of any use to you. I know I don't need the Z97E for G3258, but we plan to overclock a 4690 and a 4790 in the same system for comparison and Science Fair research, as well as test 4Gb, 8Gb, 12Gb, and 16Gb memory configurations at various XMP profiles.
  • Onus
    Yes, it appears to be an excellent media streamer, despite the increased power usage. Its wireless NIC is an Intel, not a cheap Atheros. To not give it an award would have been an undeserved slight, even though it doesn't fit my personal needs. If you use a mSATA SSD on it, you could build a very small, quick-booting entertainment machine with this board. I'm rather bummed about trashing the LGA pins, because it would have made a nice giveaway.

    Edit: DonkeyOatie, I'm sure there are a fair number of readers interested in how well you're able to [easily] OC that Pentium. Note that it's only good for RAM up to DDR3-1400 (essentially lightly-oc'ed DDR3-1333).
  • DonkeyOatie
    Yes, I know, but I'm hoping to XMP the secondary timings down to CL 7 at least. I have sets of Trident X that I want to use for the i5, and i7, but we are going to start with the G3258 so that mistakes will be cheap :).
  • Onus
    That sounds like a good plan.
  • Crashman
    A good time to learn what a pocket knife can do for trashed pins in skilled hands :)
  • RedJaron
    47340 said:
    RedJaron got his I believe to 4.3GHz, so I tried voltages that bracketed his, and got nowhere.
    One of my H81 boards hit 4.3, but only barely. It was borderline stable that most moderate tasks were fine, but Prime95 would crash after about 4-6 hours. It'd probably be enough for most uses, but it wasn't enough for me to call it stable in the review. The same voltage on a Z97 board hit 4.3 rock-solid. I can even get it up to 4.4 using a better cooler. I might have slightly better silicon, but the VRM quality on the board also makes a big difference.

    Also, I'll check when I get home, but I'm pretty sure H81 can overclock the K chips, and not just the Pentium, provided the BIOS supports it. The K chips do of course draw more power, so you'll have VRM limits, but a mild OC could be possible.

    Oh, and you can refer to me by name in the article, not just "a colleague." ;)

    8708 said:
    A good time to learn what a pocket knife can do for trashed pins in skilled hands :)
    I prefer a jeweler's screwdriver for that. I did the exact same thing to one of my review boards: the CPU socket protector snagged a few pins when I removed it. A steady hand and a little patience bent the pins back into place and I didn't have any problem with it.
  • TechyInAZ
    I agree 100% with Tom's Hardware on the Asrock Mini itx/ac. I built a PC with it and it has an astonishing amount of features. Super fast, simple bios, you can even let the bios update itself via internet (Ethernet only, couldn't get wifi to work).

    Awesome board! I'm glad I bought it. I only payed $85 for it.
  • Onus
    It was pretty bad. I took a look at it with my loupe and a dressmaker's pin, but gave up. I was putting a fair amount of pressure on the CPU cover when it slipped.