Which Mini-ITX Z77-Based Board Is Right For You?
MSI has the least-expensive board in today’s comparison, its Z77IA-E53 selling for $145. But we still need to compare its features against products that cost more. Otherwise, it'd take a clear lead in performance-per-dollar, and I think we can all agree that the following chart fails to tell the whole story of what's going on in the mini-ITX market.
ASRock's Z77E-ITX suffers in that chart because the company chooses to use a pricier PCIe-based wireless adapter, which it doesn't derive any performance from in the benchmarks. However, it also lacks Bluetooth connectivity, and MSI's board does come with that. We’re not sure how many people necessarily have to have Bluetooth, but the feature is certainly worth something to those who can use it. The applications we can think of where Bluetooth might be important are wireless gaming control, which can now be accomplished via smartphone-based applications, music synchronization, which could be a key feature for media center PCs, and phone/tablet file transfers. Compact gaming and media centers are primary targets for both products.
Beyond that, ASRock's Z77E-ITX costs $5 more than MSI’s Z77IA-E53. Is it able to derive any additional value elsewhere? A higher-quality wireless adapter (with two receive antennas) isn’t ASRock’s only advantage over MSI, though. MSI’s board, for example, lacks the DVI and DisplayPort connectors featured on the Z77E-ITX, and ASRock gives you enough back-panel analog audio outputs to do 7.1-channel sound without involving a front-panel jack. Let's frame those features within the compact gaming and media center markets, though. Gamers typically don’t have more than six-channel sound systems. And if you're in a home theater environment, you can either use the board's HDMI output or the connector on a discrete card to bitstream high-quality audio to your AVR anyway. Thus, ASRock is going to have a hard time justifying the added expense of its extra connectors if they're typically not needed. We're willing to count the extra pair of USB 3.0 ports and higher-performing Wi-Fi controller as worth the Z77E-ITX’s $5 price premium.
With MSI and ASRock nearly tied, we have to decide whether Asus' P8Z77-I Deluxe is worth $30 more than MSI's board and $25 more than ASRock's. Asus starts off right in justifying its value with a PCIe-based dual-band Wi-Fi/Bluetooth combo card armed with two transmit and two receive antennas, an added pair of USB 3.0 ports, an extra eSATA connector, and a full set of on-board video outputs. The P8Z77-I Deluxe has the same analog audio connectivity issues as MSI, necessitating front-panel involvement if you want eight-channel sound. But DTS Connect addresses those issues by encoding simulated 7.1-channel audio and sending it through the optical output. Asus maintains a list of other technologies only found on its platform, including the ability to charge smartphones and tablets through its USB ports, more granular fan control, and the ability to flash the board's BIOS without a CPU or memory installed. The P8Z77-I Deluxe also has far more space for CPU cooling, since Asus places the Z77 PCH between the processor interface and graphics slot. The voltage regulator daughterboard is even short enough to fit under the bottom fin of most tower-style coolers. More aggressive tuning becomes the best reason to pay $30 more for Asus’ P8Z77-I Deluxe.
And so, the best value you can find for a media center-oriented Z77 Express-based motherboard turns out to be a tie between ASRock’s Z77E-ITX and MSI’s Z77IA-E53, depending on the features you need.
Asus unquestionably takes the recommendation as the best board to build a miniaturized gaming platform on, its P8Z77-I Deluxe able to deliver more wattage and accommodate a wider range of coolers. It also comes with a longer list of features, which you do pay for. But there's a lot more cool functionality included than you might expect to find on a mini-ITX motherboard.
What about EVGA’s Z77 Stinger? It's more limited in features, overclocking on it seemed to be hamstrung, and it's expensive. Those quibbles could be fixed if the company ditched its $20 mail-in-rebate in favor of a lower base price, added the missing Wi-Fi card, and worked on its under-developed firmware. Even then, this is the only board we’ve seen in many years without a front-panel audio header. That's simply a standard feature that every commercial builder uses, and any commercial builder would have a tough time explaining why a PC’s front-panel audio jacks are dead. And as do-it-yourselfers, most of us expect our machines to be more functional than those built commercially.