MSI has introduced a pair of pint-sized products primed for small-form-factor gaming rigs. One is a Mini-ITX motherboard based on Intel's top-of-the-line Haswell platform, while the other is a stubby graphics card built around Nvidia's GeForce GTX 760 GPU. I've gotta admit, they look pretty good together.
The Z87I Gaming AC motherboard offers unrestricted overclocking support via Intel's Z87 Express chipset. It has fancy electrical components, of course, along with a nice assortment of onboard extras. Networking duties are split between a Killer NIC and an Intel controller with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. The integrated audio has a dedicated amplifier chip in addition to special capacitors, isolated PCB traces, and extra EMI shielding. On top of that, Creative's Sound Blaster Cinema software kicks in surround virtualization for stereo playback.
There's even something for folks with external DACs. The rear USB ports have extra circuitry to ensure precise, consistent 5V output.
Despite the Mini-ITX form factor's limited dimensions, the Z87I still squeezes in plenty of ports. Four USB 3.0 ports dot the rear cluster, and two more are accessible via an internal header. SATA connectivity includes five internal ports and one eSATA at the back. You're still limited to two full-sized DIMM slots and one PCI Express x16 expansion slot, though. Sacrifices have to be made to squeeze into a 6.7" x 6.7" Mini-ITX footprint.
Like the motherboard, the GTX760 Gaming ITX graphics card measures 6.7" long. The PCI Express connector really puts the size in perspective.
The stubby card uses a custom PCB lined with the requisite exotic electrical components. Nvidia's GeForce GTX 760 GPU is the centerpiece, and MSI has tuned the chip to run with 1033MHz base and 1098MHz boost clocks, up from the default 980/1033MHz frequencies. The GTX 760's 6 GT/s memory transfer rate is unchanged, and there's 2GB of RAM onboard.
To keep the GPU cool in smaller systems with limited airflow, MSI designed a new "RADAX" fan that combines axial blades with radial fins. It's basically a fan and a blower rolled into one. The hybrid air mover sits in a dual-slot cooler that exhausts hot air out the back of the chassis. There are fewer full-sized display ports as a result, but you still get four outputs. You also get a reinforcing metal plate covering the back of the circuit board. MSI says the metal plate helps to lower GPU temperatures, and it adds that the cooling system is effective enough ward off throttling even when running Furmark demo—a notorious GPU killer.
According to MSI, the GTX760 Gaming ITX graphics will sell for $269, a $10 premium over full-sized alternatives based on the same GPU. The Z87I Gaming AC motherboard will be priced at $199, putting it at the high end of the Z87 Mini-ITX market. I have a weakness for mini gaming systems, so I really like the look of these two products. We may have to stuff them inside a tiny case to see how they hold up.