When you think of the top three retail motherboard makers, Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI probably come to mind. Those firms dominated the market for ages. Asus and Gigabyte still have the top two spots sewn up, but MSI is no longer on the podium. Starting as early as 2010, ASRock has been shipping more retail boards than the former number three. ASRock may crank out fewer than half as many mobos as Asus and Gigabyte, but its lead over MSI appears to be growing.
The rise of ASRock is particularly notable because the firm started out as an Asus subsidiary focusing on low-end products. ASRock was eventually spun off as part of Pegatron, an independent design and manufacturing company that makes a wide range of computing hardware. With independence came the freedom to expand beyond the realm of budget boards and into enthusiast territory.
One of ASRock's most intriguing enthusiast boards is the Z77E-ITX, a Mini-ITX offering that combines Intel's top-of-the-line Ivy Bridge platform with loads of features at a competitive price. We're on a bit of a Mini-ITX kick, having recently reviewed comparable Z77 boards from Asus and Zotac. Now, it's ASRock's turn under the magnifying glass.
The Z77E-ITX looks a lot like a high-end ATX board downsized to Mini-ITX dimensions. At the center is an LGA1155 socket capable of accepting the latest Ivy Bridge processors. The socket connects to a Z77 Express platform hub responsible for much of the board's integrated I/O in addition to a handful of key features.
Like some other Ivy chipsets, the Z77 supports SSD caching via Intel's Smart Response Technology and GPU virtualization via Lucid's Virtu software. What really sets this platform hub apart from its 7-series peers is robust overclocking support. The Z77 provides unfettered access to the CPU and memory multipliers on K-series processors, allowing folks to hot-clock their systems with little effort.
Overclocking typically requires aftermarket cooling, and finding something suitable for a Mini-ITX build can be especially challenging. The form factor's tiny 6.7" x 6.7" footprint leaves little space between the socket and other onboard components. Also, Mini-ITX enclosures tend to have less internal volume than a shoebox. Since we can't test compatibility with every hardware combination, we've taken a few key measurements to illustrate where the socket sits relative to other onboard components.
The socket is closer to the PCI Express x16 slot than on any other Mini-ITX Z77 board we've measured. ASRock puts the expansion slot right on the edge of the socket region, leaving no room for larger coolers that branch out in that direction. The DIMM slots are also rather close to the socket, but that's true for all the Z77 boards we've tested. Using standard-height memory modules should avoid any potential clearance conflicts there.
Most of the Z77E-ITX's onboard components stay close to the surface. The only exceptions are the VRM heatsink and vertical battery mount that sit to the left of the socket. At 25 and 22 mm tall, respectively, these parts are short enough to steer clear of typical aftermarket heatsinks.
Although most of the Z77E-ITX's expansion capacity is found topside, the board's underbelly hides an mSATA slot perfect for a mini SSD. This location isn't the most convenient for quick upgrades, but there's only so much real estate on the other side of the board. I do worry about mSATA SSDs overheating, though. Enclosures rarely ventilate the underside of the motherboard.
On the business side of the board, the mSATA slot is complemented by four Serial ATA ports. Note how the ports are oriented; they're keyed so the locking tab on SATA connectors is always on the outside and easily accessible. Most boards stack SATA ports without changing their orientation, which means some locking tabs are impossible to reach without removing adjacent cables. ASRock has found a simple solution to what can be an annoying quirk.
The picture above gives us a nice view of the Mini PCIe wireless card, which offers 802.11n Wi-Fi connectivity but no Bluetooth support. We can also see onboard headers for two USB 3.0 ports and four USB 2.0 ones. The internal USB 3.0 ports stem from the Z77 Express platform hub, and there are four more in the rear cluster. Half of those rear ports come from the Intel chip, while the remainder are supplied by an auxiliary ASMedia controller.
There's a little bit of everything in the rear cluster, including a trio of digital display outputs reserved for Ivy's integrated graphics. The clear CMOS button is a nice addition, allowing the firmware settings to be reset without popping open the case. If you've ever poked around inside a fully loaded Mini-ITX enclosure, you'll appreciate how difficult it can be to reach the onboard jumper that performs the same task.
Integrated audio is critically important for Mini-ITX systems, which have insufficient expansion capacity to run discrete sound and graphics cards side by side. The Z77E-ITX's implementation isn't too bad. There are enough analog jacks to avoid port sharing, and an S/PDIF output provides pristine digital output. Digital audio can be piped through the HDMI and DisplayPort outputs, too, but there are some limitations. Unless you're watching a movie or other content with a pre-encoded multichannel track, digital output is limited to two-channel stereo. To get surround sound in games and other real-time applications, you'll need to use the analog jacks.
The Realtek drivers that govern the integrated audio do support surround sound virtualization for stereo playback. ASRock also throws in some THX software that presumably does something useful if you cough up $25 for the full version. The free release does little beyond adjusting the system volume, though.
Apart from a VGA adapter for the DVI output, the Z77E-ITX is short on bundled extras. The Wi-Fi antenna is worth mentioning, if only because it's a rather beefy specimen. The antenna isn't the most attractive accessory, and it certainly doesn't match the board's bling-on-black aesthetic. However, the receiver does sit at the end of about 32" of wiring. You should have no problem positioning the antenna for optimal signal strength.
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