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Four Z77-Based Mini-ITX Motherboards, Reviewed

Mini-ITX And Z77: Go Small, Go Fast, Or Go Home

Originally developed for boring tasks like industrial PCs and point-of-sale terminals, AMD breathed new life into VIA’s single-slot mini-ITX form factor with its own dual-slot DTX version. Soon after, the combination of motherboards with one expansion slot and cases able to take dual-slot cards became the standard for portable gaming PCs. But Intel ironically appears to be the biggest beneficiary of AMD's efforts. After all, it sells the high-performance, low-heat processors needed in a fast, quiet platform with big-time thermal constraints. Ouch.

As a result, we demand a lot more from small gaming-oriented machines. It's no longer acceptable to simply build a system that excels at video playback, particularly when technologies like AMD's VCE and Intel's Quick Sync accelerate that workload right on the APU or CPU itself. And with system builders putting 4.3 GHz Core i7s and GeForce GTX 680s into mini-ITX-based platforms four inches thick (Meet The Tiki: Core i7-3770K And GeForce GTX 680 In A Mini-ITX Box?), enthusiasts will no doubt want to the ability to build similarly-potent boxes. 

But if it's possible to cram the goodness of Intel's Ivy Bridge and efficient graphics architectures like Kepler into mini-ITX using Intel's mainstream H77 Express chipset, why bother spending more on a Z77 Express-based board? Well, it wouldn't have been possible for Falcon Northwest to have hit 4.3 GHz in its Tiki using H77, for starters. Overclocking demands that you spring for the pricier core logic. Although we doubt you'd care too much about tuning up a home theater PC, we’re nevertheless intrigued by motherboards that can serve that market in addition to the performance-hungry gaming industry.

We see today’s motherboards with Intel's flagship mainstream chipset as enablers of the best from both worlds. Of course, if you disagree and only really want to build a stock-clocked media-oriented machine, simply step down to the H77-based versions of the boards we're testing today.

Z77 ITX Motherboard Features
ASRock Z77E-ITXAsus P8Z77-I DeluxeEVGA Z77 StingerMSI Z77IA-E53
PCB RevisionInitial1.041.02.1
ChipsetIntel Z77 ExpressIntel Z77 ExpressIntel Z77 ExpressIntel Z77 Express
Voltage RegulatorSix PhasesTen PhasesSeven PhasesEight Phases
BIOSP1.70 (12/17/2012)801 (12/04/2012)1.0 (11/08/2012)V10.1 (10/19/2012)
100.0 MHz BCLK100.39 MHz (+0.39%)100.30 MHz (+0.30%)99.78 MHz (-0.22%)100.00 MHz (+0.0%)
I/O Panel Connectors
PS/21NoneNone1
USB 3.04442
USB 2.02424
Network1111
eSATA1221
CLR_CMOS ButtonYesYesYesYes
Digital Audio OutOpticalOpticalOpticalOptical
Digital Audio InNoneNoneNoneNone
Analog Audio5353
VideoDVI-I, DisplayPort, HDMIHDMI, DisplayPort, DVI-Imini-DisplayPort, HDMIVGA, HDMI
Other DevicesWi-Fi AntennasWi-Fi/Bluetooth Antennas USB BIOS FlashbackBluetooth TransceiverWi-Fi, Bluetooth
Internal Interfaces
Expansion SlotPCIe 3.0 x16PCIe 3.0 x16PCIe 3.0 x16PCIe 3.0 x16
Mini PCIex1 (filled)x1 (filled)x1x1
USB 3.01 (2-ports)1 (2-ports)1 (2-ports)1 (2-ports)
USB 2.02 (4-ports)2 (4-ports)2 (4-ports)1 (2-ports)
SATA 6.0 Gb/s2222
SATA 3.0 Gb/s2222
4-Pin Fan2232
3-Pin FanNoneNoneNoneNone
FP-Audio11None1
S/PDIF I/ONoneOutput OnlyNoneNone
Internal ButtonsNoneMemOK, TPUPower, ResetNone
Diagnostics PanelNoneNoneNumericNone
LegacyCIRNoneNoneNone
Mass Storage Controllers
Chipset SATA2 x SATA 6Gb/s 2 x SATA 3Gb/s1x mSATA 1 x eSATA 3Gb/s2 x SATA 6Gb/s 2 x SATA 3Gb/s 2 x eSATA 3Gb/s2 x SATA 6Gb/s 2 x SATA 3Gb/s2 x SATA 6Gb/s 2 x SATA 3Gb/s 1 x eSATA 3Gb/s
Chipset RAID Modes0, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 100, 1, 5, 10
Add-In SATANoneNone88SE6121 PCIe2 x eSATA 3Gb/sNone
USB 3.0ASM1042 PCIe (2-ports) Z77 Integrated (4-ports)ASM1042 PCIe (2-ports) Z77 Integrated (4-ports)ASM1042 PCIe (2-ports) Z77 Integrated (4-ports)None
Networking
Primary LANBCM57781 PCIeWG82579V PHYWG82574L PCIeRTL8111E PCIe
Wi-FiRTL8191SE PCIe 802.11n/g/b1x2 Config, 2.4 GHzBCM43228 PCIe 802.11n/g/b BT Combo2x2 Config, 2.4/5 GHzNoneAR9271 UB94 USB 802.11n/g/b1x1 Config, 2.4 GHz
BluetoothNone(see above)BTA3011M01 USBAR3011 USB
Audio
HD Audio CodecALC898ALC898ALC898ALC892
DDL/DTS ConnectNot SpecifiedDTS ConnectNot SpecifiedNot Specified
WarrantyThree YearsThree YearsThree YearsThree Years

High-end chipsets represent only a small part of the mini-ITX market, so we weren’t surprised to find only a handful of available products. It was more surprising to us that there were two companies selling Z77-based boards that specifically asked not to be included. In some cases, it seems that vendors are using pricier Z77 Express platform controller hubs for segmentation, while focusing more intently on the markets typically served by H77's feature set.

  • 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