Can you believe more than a decade has passed since Via introduced the Mini-ITX motherboard form factor? Man, I'm getting old. Contemporary Mini-ITX boards bear little resemblance to the first examples, though. They may share the same 6.7" x 6.7" footprint, but the similarities end there.
Via created the Mini-ITX form factor to show off its own low-power processors, which were soldered on and really too slow to appeal to enthusiasts. The chipset-based integrated graphics weren't very good, either, and there was nowhere to put a proper graphics card.
Then along came Zotac, which started building Mini-ITX boards that more closely resembled full-sized ATX models. Gone were Via's weak-sauce processors, replaced by standard sockets capable of accepting the fastest desktop CPUs. Zotac also swapped out the PCI slots common of early Mini-ITX designs in favor of PCI Express equivalents ripe for discrete graphics cards. With the addition of a couple DIMM slots for dual-channel memory configurations, the basic template for the modern Mini-ITX board was born.
For a while, Zotac had the market for high-performance mini mobos mostly to itself. But the niche grew, fueled by shrinking processor platforms with ever-expanding peripheral payloads and new cases built to accommodate potent graphics cards and aftermarket CPU coolers. Slowly but surely, the big-name motherboard makers took notice and threw their own hats into the ring. Zotac now faces a much deeper field of competitors than ever before. But the PC Partner subsidiary also has experience on its side, which is why we were eager to check out its flagship Z77 board.
The Z77-ITX WiFi fits the formula to a tee. Its LGA1155 socket is compatible with Intel's latest Ivy Bridge processors, including the top-of-the-line Core i7-3770K. That processor can be overclocked to your heart's content thanks to the lack of multiplier restrictions in the Z77 Express platform. The Z77 also supports Intel's SSD caching solution and Lucid's Virtu GPU virtualization software. You could build yourself one muscular machine with this mobo.
Speaking of muscle, the Z77-ITX has the requisite PCI Express x16 expansion slot. Gamers shouldn't have to go without a discrete graphics card, especially when the Mini-ITX form factor is so ideal for a LAN party box. Dual-channel DIMM slots run up one edge of the board, nicely completing the textbook template.
The Mini-ITX form factor's limited real estate keeps components close to the socket, creating the potential for clearance issues with larger heatsinks that extend beyond the restricted zone, a 3.7" x 3.7" box surrounding the socket. Intel's specifications forbid taller components from infiltrating this region, but motherboard makers have free rein outside the protected area.
Since we can't test every combination of heatsink, memory, graphics card, and enclosure, we've taken some measurements to illustrate the distances between the edges of the CPU socket and notable landmarks, including the boundaries of the board.
The socket is much closer to the PCI Express slot than on the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe. This placement can be problematic with coolers whose heatpipes snake out and up into wide radiators. The DIMM slots are even closer to the socket, although the distance there is about the same as on the Asus board.
Note the location of the VRM heatsinks, which both stand 28 mm tall. You'll also want to make sure you have clearance for the wireless card sticking out of the vertical Mini PCIe slot. The card rises 32.5 mm off the board and is about the same height as a standard memory module.
Vertical clearance definitely won't be a problem for the second Mini PCIe slot, which orients cards parallel to the circuit board. This mSATA-compatible slot can accept mini SSDs for storage or caching, a nice perk for cases with limited storage bays. The slot sits just to the left of the SATA ports in the picture above.
Like the mSATA slot, the Serial ATA ports are fed by the Z77 Express platform hub. The same chip also provides four USB 3.0 ports: two accessible via an onboard header and two more in the rear cluster.
The port cluster contains a few surprises, including dual HDMI ports and a Mini DisplayPort out. While the HDMI outputs peak at 1920x1200, the DisplayPort connection can push resolutions up to the 2560x1600 supported by typical 30" monitors. If you don't have Mini DisplayPort hardware, worry not; the box contains a full-sized DisplayPort adapter cable for the miniature port. There's no provision for straight DVI output, though.
Zotac doubles down on Gigabit Ethernet in addition to endowing the board with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support. The networking may be robust, but the integrated audio is a little weak. Sure, there are five analog jacks plus a digital S/PDIF output. But the drivers don't support real-time multichannel encoding, restricting digital surround sound to content with pre-encoded tracks. That's fine for movies but no help at all in games. There's no provision to virtualize surround sound for playback on stereo devices, either.
Zotac scores points for putting a clear CMOS button in the rear cluster, making it much easier to reset the firmware after an overclocking misadventure. Buckling-spring aficionados rocking classic IBM Model M keyboards should appreciate the PS/2 port, as well.
For testing motherboards on an open rack, as reviewers tend to do, the integrated power and reset buttons are quite handy. These little extras impart admittedly little value to the average user, but the two-digit POST code display can be very helpful for troubleshooting issues with the boot process.
A few other items add to the overall package. The first is an extension for the auxiliary 12V power connector, which could come in handy if your PSU's cables don't reach. Zotac also throws in an expansion bracket for the internal USB 3.0 ports, including a half-height back plate for low-profile cases. Mini-ITX enclosures don't always have SuperSpeed USB ports up front, but at least there's a way to tap the board's internal headers. That's the Mini DisplayPort adapter at the bottom, by the way.
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