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Four Z77-Based Mini-ITX Motherboards, Reviewed


MSI’s Z77IA-E53 keeps its mini-PCIe slot open, and instead relies on a USB-based dongle for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, making it one of the most configurable boards in today’s review.

Leaning on Realtek's eight-channel ALC892 codec, the only way to get eight-channel sound from MSI's Z77IA-E53 is through the three 1/8" analog jacks on the rear I/O panel and one front-panel jack. Asus' P8Z77-I Deluxe supports the same implausible configuration. However, Asus licenses DTS Connect support to enable eight-channel output over a digital output too, while MSI does not. More realistically, you're simply limited to 5.1-channel audio on MSI's platform. We'd also be inclined to recommend a headset for gaming, or the HDMI output on whichever graphics card you install, should you deploy this board in an HTPC environment.

Alternatively, you could forgo discrete graphics altogether and simply lean on Intel's HD Graphics engine in your home theater. MSI exposes one HDMI output and one VGA output. Because HD Graphics is able to bitstream Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio to your receiver, that's a great way to get audio and video out of the Z77IA-E53 using just one cable. Notably missing are DVI and DisplayPort outputs. At the end of the day, though, this board's seemingly largest omissions end up appearing fairly insignificant.

With the Z77 Express PCH located on top, the Z77IA-E53’s processor interface crowds its third-gen PCIe x16 expansion slot. That means compact gaming systems will typically be limited to CPU fans no larger than 92 mm, or closed-loop liquid coolers, if your case of choice supports them. Check out Four Closed-Loop CPU Coolers Take On Noctua's NH-D14 for our recent take on some of the newest models.

As the least-expensive product in today’s comparison, the Z77IA-E53’s installation kit includes only two SATA cables, a Wi-Fi antenna and a pair of cable-bunching M-Connect extender blocks.