This isn't the ASRock motherboard review I thought I'd be writing. We were intent on checking out one of the company's ATX boards as part of our rolling coverage of Z87-based Haswell motherboards. Thus far, we've looked at trio of full-sized desktop offerings: Asus' Z87-PRO, Gigabyte's Z87X-UD3H, and MSI's Z87-GD65 Gaming. Something comparable from ASRock was supposed to complete the set, but a Mini-ITX mobo arrived instead.
Normally, the imperfect match would upset my OCD tendency toward apples-to-apples comparisons. After reviewing three ATX boards in a row, though, I could use a change of pace. Yeah, I know—#FirstWorldHardwareReviewerProblems.
Besides, it's not like the Z87E-ITX is outmatched. Despite fighting in a lighter weight class, it packs a heavy punch. The tiny circuit board boasts wicked-fast Wi-Fi, amplified audio, and extra expansion capacity. Overclocking options abound, and the firmware has the best fan speed controls we've ever seen. The question may not be whether this petite puppy can keep up with the big dogs, but why you'd ever want anything larger.
As its name implies, the Z87E-ITX is based on Intel's flagship 8-series platform for Haswell CPUs. The Z87 platform controller hub chip handles all of the board's I/O, along with the RAID and SSD caching support. It also unlocks the overclocking options available in K-series Haswell processors, including the CPU multiplier, base clock, and BCLK strap. Intel incorporates provisions for multi-card graphics configurations as part of the Z87 platform, as well, but the Z87E-ITX doesn't have enough expansion slots to take advantage.
The single PCIe x16 slot is complemented by full-sized DIMM slots, allowing the Z87E-ITX to work with common desktop components. Getting desktop parts to cooperate with each other inside smaller Mini-ITX chassis can be trying, though. Since we can't test every possible combination of parts, we've taken a handful of key measurements to give you a sense of where the socket sits relative to important landmarks.
Far too many Mini-ITX motherboards put the PCI Express slot right next to the CPU socket, making it difficult to combine expansion cards with larger, aftermarket coolers. That's not an issue on the Z87E-ITX, whose socket is about as far away from the PCIe slot as possible.
The DIMM slots are relatively close to the socket, just like on every other Intel board we've seen over the past few years. Be careful when pairing taller memory modules with wider CPU coolers.
Clearance for memory modules and chassis scaffolding will probably be your biggest concerns when using larger CPU heatsinks. The only other onboard components around the socket are too short to get in the way.
Moving to Mini-ITX necessarily entails some sacrifices. There are only two DIMM slots rather than four, for example. PCI Express expansion is also limited to a single slot, at least on this side of the board. The Z87E-ITX hides a Mini-PCIe slot on the other side of the PCB. This secondary slot can be used for tiny PCIe devices or mSATA SSDs.
Six internal SATA ports add to the Z87E-ITX's diverse array of storage options. There's even an eSATA connector in the rear panel. The Z87 chipset only supports six 6Gbps SATA devices at a time, though.
On the USB front, the Z87 serves up six SuperSpeed connectors. Two of these are accessible via an internal header, while the remainder populates the I/O cluster.
The Z87E-ITX has a fairly standard array of peripheral connectors. Buried among them is something we don't see all the time: a CMOS reset button. Hitting this external switch is much more convenient than popping open the system to access an internal jumper, especially within the shoebox-like confines of typical Mini-ITX cases.
Another nice touch is the S/PDIF audio output, which passes pristine digital bitstreams to compatible speakers and receivers. ASRock goes the extra mile by adding DTS Interactive support. The DTS tech encodes 5.1-channel audio in real time, allowing surround sound from games to be piped through the digital output. If you're stuck with only two speakers, DTS Neo:PC software provides surround sound virtualization. You could also opt for the virtual surround algorithm embedded in the Realtek audio drivers.
The onboard codec is Realtek's latest: the ALC1150. This chip boasts a higher SNR than Realtek's 800-series codecs, and it's paired with a Texas Instruments NE5532 amplifier powerful enough to drive headphones rated up to 600 O.
ASRock has loaded up on networking options, too. The Z87E-ITX's wired Gigabit connection is handled by an Intel chip, while 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 are supplied by an AzureWave Mini PCIe card. Built-in support for the latest Wi-Fi standard is a nice bonus given the board's limited expansion capacity—and given its suitability for home-theater PCs that may not have an RJ45 jack within reach. The antenna is reasonably discreet, and it has a long enough leash to be positioned for maximum signal strength.
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