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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  • Sabresiberian - Tuesday, January 1, 2013 - link

    Thanks for the great comparison review!

    It looks like there is a little mistake in the spec list for the Asus board, which shows it having a mini-PCIe connector. I would love it if it did, but I didn't see it on the board and it isn't mentioned in other spec lists.

    It is important to me because I would ideally need connection for both a graphics card and a sound card (which I believe I could do through a mini-PCIe to PCIe x1 adapter if needed). This makes the EVGA Stinger the choice for me here, though the Asus board is the one I would prefer to buy.

    I am truthfully a little disappointed in the EVGA board, which seems all too common with EVGA products in general these days. Great support is still there, but I'd rather they build bleeding edge components and not have to find out whether or not their support is as good as people say it is. The Stinger is a good board to be sure, and the Intel LAN alone puts it in the category of "will buy" for me, but I was hoping it would be something that would match or beat the Asus P877-I, and it just doesn't.
  • Foeketijn - Tuesday, January 1, 2013 - link

    When you take overclocking out of the equation, B75 has it all, for the price just a tiny bit north of the old H61 chipset. Support for IB features (1600Mhz DDR3, PCI-e 3.0), Native Sata III, USB 3.0.
    It wasn't intended for the DIY market but fits the bill perfectly in my opinion. Only the very very few who need to OC, +16Gb ram or multiple SSD's @ full 6 Gb/s need the Z77 chipset.

    The only thing is, that us mere mortals can't predict is, if a much cheaper chipset is used, did the OEM also cheapskate on the critical parts to? I would love to see some in-depth component analysis which I see for example, when a PSU is taken apart.
    Which components are used? how well is the soldering done, does it still work at a sauna lanparty, etc.
    I might be alone in this, but I would find that much more valuable information than all the performance benchmarks together (race to the bottom, be dammed!).
    Including the northbridge in the CPU made motherboard and CPU reviews so predictible (or borring).Since then, I'm only interested in stability, ease of installation (nicely covered) and practical use (fan controll, MEM compatibility ect).
    <offtopic> Oh I loved the XP-m 2500+ siverpainting 2001 era where you actually could get a noticeable improvement of performance and not necessarily have to sacrifice stability or risk bankruptcy</offtopic>
  • vanwazltoff - Tuesday, January 1, 2013 - link

    i picked up an asus p8z77-i deluxe/wd before christmas and made a beast gaming computer out of it with an i5-3750k OCed to 4.5ghz and a gtx670 =]
  • vanwazltoff - Tuesday, January 1, 2013 - link

  • Beaver M. - Tuesday, January 1, 2013 - link

    Loved the POST screen measurements and the DPC latency testing. Something you dont see every day. Actually Ive never seen it, and yet I always wanted to know those.

    However I am not really interested in the Z77s, since they have a horrible layout for my needs. Only the Asus one comes close to what I need, but I just dont buy Asus anymore because of several very bas experiences.

    So, I wish you would also test the B75 and H77s.
  • paksoy - Tuesday, January 1, 2013 - link

    I love the features of this Asus mobo, but i want to use it in a really small form factor case like the Antec ISK 110 VESA Case.

    I'm just worried that the height of the VRAM board would prevent it from using it with this case.
  • mi1stormilst - Tuesday, January 1, 2013 - link

    I still opted for the Gigabyte Z77N and love it...
  • Sivar - Wednesday, January 2, 2013 - link

    Does this refer to the ALC889 playing an audio file encoded at 192KHz?
    If so, does it really matter? Failing a test is never a good thing, but I know of no widely available 192KHz audio source, and such a source would have no benefit, nor would a 96KHz source.
  • cjs150 - Wednesday, January 2, 2013 - link

    I am a happy user of the AS Rock board in a silent HTPC. It works exceptionally well. However it is clear that some work still needs to be done on motherboard design.

    MSata on back is excellent - now can we have it as SATA 3 because the better MSata SSDs are all Sata 3.

    Placement of Sata connectors is often awkward on these boards. On edge and at right angles please.

    Similarly I would love it if someone either did the 24 pin ATX power connector at right angles or someone manufactured a right angled converter that did not require de soldering the motherboard connector. Cable management in Mini-OTX is very hard and that would really help.

    Finally, careful choice of RAM can eliminate issues Ian had about the closeness of the CPU socket preventing the use of many after market coolers. I use the Samsung green low profie memory, which is so low that any after market cooler can be used (and runs at 1.35v, is an unbelievably good overclocker and reasonably priced!)
  • romrunning - Wednesday, January 2, 2013 - link

    As has been mentioned previously, the H77 chipset is great for those who do not need overclocking. I've used the Intel DH77DF, and I heartily recommend it. Since the DH77DF has an eSATA port (not too common), I've even been able to keep an eSATA dock that I used before USB 3.0 was more readily available. If you install this board into a Fractal Design Node 304 case, you can use all of the SATA ports as well. I've used it with a Silverstone SG05 case, and the loudest part of my setup is the fan on the graphics card (Radeon 7850).

    One thing I've noticed, though, is the relatively low mic input from the front audio. Not sure if this is common to the Realtek ALC8xx chip series, but even after boosting the gain in Win7 to +30db, it still isn't quite as loud as an older AMD board I previously had (which didn't need a boost at all).

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