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Four Z77-Based Mini-ITX Motherboards, Reviewed

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.

  • anxiousinfusion
    Years ago, decent mITX boards were slim pickings.
    Reply
  • where are the dtx mobos for those that want a gaming graphics card as well as a dedicated sound card that isnt onboard crap?
    Reply
  • tarkhein
    Asus maintains a list of other technologies only found on its platform, including the ability to charge smartphones and tablets through its USB ports
    That technology is available from MSI and Asrock (and Gigabyte, but that's irrelevant in this roundup). Look up MSI i-Charger and Asrock App Charger.
    Reply
  • Crashman
    tarkheinAsus maintains a list of other technologies only found on its platform, including the ability to charge smartphones and tablets through its USB portsThat technology is available from MSI and Asrock (and Gigabyte, but that's irrelevant in this roundup). Look up MSI i-Charger and Asrock App Charger.All three companies have similar high-current charging features, but Asus extends them to non-Apple devices. The comment was originally left out due to the similarities and added later due to the differences.

    There was a big discussion between editors over whether or not the P8Z77-I Deluxe should get an award. The only award for "best features" is Tom's Hardware Approved, and that award is reserved for products that are clearly and obviously superior. The P8Z77-I Deluxe was a better board, but we had to look fairly hard to see it (it wasn't clear or obvious).
    Reply
  • amuffin
    So many variations between each board when it comes to OC......
    Reply
  • Crashman
    amuffinSo many variations between each board when it comes to OC......LOL, welcome to Windows 8.
    Reply
  • abbadon_34
    "We retained most of the hardware from our previous Z77 motherboard round-ups, but were not able to reach the same CPU clock speeds. A shift over to Windows 8 was our biggest change, and services crashing under that operating system appeared to limit what we could achieve compared to Windows 7."

    CrashmanLOL, welcome to Windows 8.
    How about using Windows 7? Was a reason you HAD to use 8 despite encountering issues? Is there some contractual obligation or monetary incentive to use the lastest version regardless of performance issues? Or at least test them both, it's only 4 motherboards.
    Reply
  • enewmen
    I think Mini-ITX will be the new standard size.
    It's not like the 80s/90s where you needed a full size AT/ATX motherboard with many slots for the ST-506 controller, floppy disk controller, serial port, parallel port, Sound Blaster card, VGA card, token ring card, and an extra cooling fan.

    EDIT:
    I will later get a Mini-ITX later & Silverstone case, stick in a Noctua NH-C12P & Haswell i7, and my Nv 680. That will have very high power density and worthy of being my "main" PC. (and it will OC)
    Reply
  • abbadon_34
    One issue I see is the PCI-E x16 slot is at the very bottom of these boards, and most video cards use two slots, requiring a larger case than one that simply supporting the motherboard based on ITX/mini-ITX dimensions. I'd be interesting in exploring the limitations of such configurations, and whether these boards are effectively limited to single slot video cards (and performance), require larger cases than is assumed, or specific case configurations.
    Reply
  • Crashman
    abbadon_34Was a reason you HAD to use 8 despite encountering issues?Standardization. The thought of having a spare drive on hand simply for testing O/C never even crossed my mind after hearing the "s" word.abbadon_34One issue I see is the PCI-E x16 slot is at the very bottom of these boards, and most video cards use two slots, requiring a larger case than one that simply supporting the motherboard based on ITX/mini-ITX dimensions. I'd be interesting in exploring the limitations of such configurations, and whether these boards are effectively limited to single slot video cards (and performance), require larger cases than is assumed, or specific case configurations.It's called DTX, it's mentioned in the article's FIRST paragraph, and Tom's Hardware even has DTX case reviews. Since most people don't know what DTX is, most case manufacturers have changed the label to read "Mini ITX". Still, there are a bunch of DTX cases out there caring the Mini ITX label.

    Reply