The mini-ITX motherboard market seems like a fast growing segment.  It has many applications in terms of small home servers, work machines, HTPC devices, mobile gaming desktop machines, and much more.  With most home users / non-enthusiasts using only one PCIe device and perhaps 1-2 SATA ports, a mini-ITX board makes perfect sense for a smaller system and perhaps a lower power footprint.  In this review, we take five of the Z77 mITX boards on the market today for a grand sweep using the HD 4000 enabled i3-3225.  Enter into the test bed the MSI Z77IA-E53, the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi, the ASRock Z77E-ITX, the EVGA Z77 Stinger and the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe.

I can haz mini-ITX?

Basic Design of a mini-ITX

When a motherboard manufacturer chooses to design a mini-ITX board, a lot of questions come in to play, as with any motherboard production.  Ultimately it comes down to the market they wish to target, where it may sell the most units, and how much of a margin can it make while still being a competitive product.  As we noted with the Gigabyte H77N-WiFi, sometimes a motherboard will be commissioned by a system integrator, then the design will be put on general sale.  In the case of Gigabyte, an Asian buyer had specific requirements regarding ports, controllers and socket location – Gigabyte made this motherboard and then decided to also sell it world-wide.  In this scenario, the intended market has already been sold to – any additional sales are a positive step for the product.

The mini-ITX form factor measures 17 cm x 17 cm (6.69” x 6.69”), thus PCB space is at a premium in order to put all the Z77 chipset functionality on board.  Some features are fixed, such as the socket and chipset area required on board.  The rest is up to the manufacturer.  Some questions to consider are:

- PCIe x16 or something smaller?
- Full sized DDR3 or SO-DIMM?
- How many SATA ports from the Chipset, do we add controllers?
- How many USB ports from the Chipset, do we add controllers?
- What choice of Audio/Network?
- What video connectivity for the IO?
- Where to put the battery?
- What are our core priorities?

These are not trivial answers.  Change one and you have an entirely different product which could be aimed at a different market.  As a result of these questions, we end up with a variety of different products in this review.

The Z77 chipset, by default, has the option to provide the following:

- Any three digital video outputs plus one analogue output (despite only certain combinations being usable in multi-monitor setups)
- Up to two SATA 6 Gbps ports
- Up to four SATA 3 Gbps ports
- Up to four USB 3.0 ports
- Up to twelve USB 2.0 ports

In many of the motherboards in this review, we will see different combinations of the video outputs, with some doubling up on HDMI, or others combining DVI-D and VGA to make a combined DVI-I port.  Every motherboard uses the two SATA 6 Gbps from the chipset, but at least one board uses a SATA 6 Gbps controller for a pair of eSATA ports on the IO panel.  Most motherboards use only two out of the four SATA 3 Gbps ports on offer – sometimes one of the extra ones gets partitioned into an mSATA.  Every motherboard uses all four USB 3.0 ports, sometimes in the form of an onboard header, or perhaps an extra controller is used to push the total up to six.  No motherboard uses all the USB 2.0 ports, and makes a conservative estimate as to how many headers would be considered reasonable usage in a mITX case.

No one board is a catch-all scenario.  There will be readers here that will have a different take on these motherboards than I do depending on how they want to use these products, and hopefully both opinions will be respected.  If you are in the market for a mITX motherboard, I highly suggest thinking of a list of features you cannot do without – such as network controller, audio codec, numbers of ports, what sort of CPU cooler or GPU you will be using, or how long your PSU power cables are, for example.  Each board has a different take, and the one that fits your scenario may not be one that I recommend, due to reasons XYZ that I found during testing.

A Side Note about Overclocking

While one of the features of the Z77 platform over H77 is overclocking, this is a little at odds with the mITX premise.  Small form factor scenarios do not often react well with heat, especially paired with inadequate cooling or large heat producing GPUs.  As detailed in several of Dustin’s ITX case reviews, sources of localized temperature may not always be a good thing, especially when paring it with smaller cases, or even hitting the high 90s Celsius with the Bitfenix Prodigy.  With the Antek ISK 100 case for example, only the integrated graphics will be of use.  There will be some users that will use a mITX with some epic cooling system with their i7-3770K or similar, I will admit.  But for this review, to keep in line with our previous 7-series mITX motherboard reviews, we are using the HD 4000 enabled i3-3225.  It offers direct competition to the A10-5800K in terms of CPU power, and should be a fun battle now we have more data points for comparison. 

It should be noted that I thoroughly enjoyed testing these motherboards and many thanks to MSI, Zotac, ASRock, EVGA and ASUS for participating in our roundup.  First up is the MSI Z77IA-E53.

MSI Z77IA-E53 Overview, Visual Inspection, Board Features
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  • IanCutress - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    Gigabyte wanted their H77 reviewed instead, which we reviewed recently:
  • Athelstan - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    Thanks for the review. I'm curious why you mention the audio chip on all of these board. For the intended purpose, wouldn't the audio be over HDMI, making the onboard audio unused in most cases? Even then, all of the boards have optical out, making the audio chip to have very little to do other than to pass along the bitstream from the media thought the optical connection.
  • IanCutress - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    The audio chip also controls the front panel audio, and even if the audio was going through the HDMI, external speakers for a HTPC may be used via the audio jacks. In my personal usage scenario, my video out is via DVI-D to a 2560x1440 Korean panel via a dGPU, meaning all my audio still goes through the normal audio jacks. The other reason is that if I did not mention it, someone in the comments would ask why wasn't the audio chip mentioned. There is a price difference between the ALC889, ALC892 and ALC898, though manufacturers obviously get these on bulk deals (or at a discount when bought with the Realtek 8111E/F) and I am not privy to that information.

  • Taft12 - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    Speaking of audio, could you let us know the differences between those 3 Realtek audio chipsets? Is there any sound quality difference, or is it only features?
  • mczak - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    The 892 has somewhat crappy ADC/DACs quality-wise (that said most likely signal routing etc. on the board will have a much bigger effect on sound quality than the quality of the DACs, so using a higher quality chip can still easily result in worse quality than using a cheap chip with more care taken). The 889 and 898 seem quite similar there on paper.
    I think just about the only thing you'd really miss is the dolby digital live / dts connect features (encode multichannel audio to digital if you're using the digital outputs). But these are pure software features, so you can get them with the 892 as well - I believe though the board manufacturers are more likely to license them with the more expensive chips (I don't know if you could "upgrade" your chip with unofficial means there...). Realtek actually seems to list different ordering numbers depending on these features - interestingly there while all 3 of these chips are listed as a version without any of DDL/DTS Connect, only the 889 has a version with both of them, while the 892 only has a version with DTS Connect, and the 898 only has the version without them - the datasheet still lists those features as optional maybe they just stopped using different ordering numbers (the 889 clearly is the oldest of the 3).
  • Athelstan - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    *grins* Good point. If you don't mention it someone else would be asking for it.
  • Stacey Melissa - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    I'm running the ASUS board, and installed the AI Suite for a different ASUS Z77 board in order to get access to Fan Expert 2, which has far better fan control than v.1. Wish I could remember which Z77 board it was, but all I did was check the download pages for various Z77 boards to find one that included AI Suite with Fan Expert 2.
  • IanCutress - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    MSI include a program as part of the package to update the software, making sure you have the latest available. ASUS and Gigabyte need to do this ASAP, so people can take advantage of things like Fan Expert 2 without having to visit the website. System integrators often just install the drivers and software on the CD when selling a system, and then the user never updates it unless told to by either (a) friends or (b) the software itself.

  • mfenn - Monday, December 31, 2012 - link

    Am I the only one who is getting tired of the liberal copy-pasting of content between motherboard (and SSD) reviews on this site? I don't need to waste my time reading about the MSI design competition in every single review.

    I understand the need to provide background information to readers who may not peruse every single review, but that's why Tim invented the hyperlink. Link to the old review or to a purpose-built "company profile" page.
  • Sabresiberian - Tuesday, January 1, 2013 - link

    Adding info some may be familiar with is preferable to leaving it out. If you don't want to read it, then I suggest you just skim or skip it entirely. :)

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