For many years, ATX motherboards have dominated the enthusiast space. Back in the day, ATX was really the only rational choice. MicroATX boards weren't as amenable to overclocking as their full-grown counterparts, if they allowed the black art to be practiced at all. The limited expansion capacity offered by microATX models was also a detriment at a time when most systems featured discrete cards for audio, networking, and sometimes even storage controllers.
Today's microATX boards are considerably more evolved than the basic budget fare of yesteryear. Decent ones can offer plenty of overclocking headroom and tweaking options galore. Many are just as loaded with integrated peripherals as their larger ATX counterparts, as well. They still have fewer expansion slots than full-grown ATX models, but most folks seem happy enough with today's onboard audio, networking, and storage options. Even my own desktop is decidedly short on expansion cards. I'm running one video card and one sound cardthat's it.
Jettisoning unused expansion capacity is hardly a compelling reason to switch from an ATX board to a smaller form factor. However, the ability to move to an enclosure with a smaller footprint certainly has its appeal, particularly for PCs that will live in cramped dorm rooms, shoebox apartments, and even the living room. MicroATX mobos also tend to draw less power than their ATX equivalents, which is a bonus for anyone looking to conserve energy or reduce the amount of heat that must be expelled from an enclosure.
The latest batch of midget motherboards has hit the market equipped with a new chipset from Intel, the H55 Express. With LGA 1156-style sockets, these boards are capable of running not only quad-core Core i5-700- and i7-800-series processors, but also the latest dual-core models in the Core i3-500 and Core i5-600 families. And unlike microATX boards based on Intel's P55 chipset, H55-derived models have all the display output circuitry necessary to enable the Graphics Media Accelerator HD integrated into those new duallies.
There are numerous interesting specimens in this first wave of bantam H55 boards, and we've rounded up four examples to get a taste of the market. From firmly entrenched enthusiast territory, we have Asus' P7H55D-M EVO and Gigabyte's GA-H55M-USB3. Also included is Intel's DH55TC, which will give us a glimpse of how the other half lives. Finally, there's Zotac's H55 ITX, which snubs its nose at microATX and diets down to the even smaller Mini-ITX form factor.
Although quite different from one another on numerous fronts, all four of these boards share a common denominator in Intel's H55 Express chipset. This single-chip I/O hub is very similar to the P55 and H57 PCH chips. In fact, I suspect all three use the very same silicon.
The H55 slots in at the bottom of Intel's 5-series PCH lineup. To be fair, though, it loses little ground to the H57 and P55. Instead of 14 USB 2.0 ports, the H55 has a dozen. Rather than eight PCI Express lanes, it has six. RAID support is missing, too, but that's about it.
These minor cuts still leave the H55 with an integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller, six 300Gbps SATA ports, an HD audio interface, and the Flexible Display Interface (FDI) necessary to connect a Clarkdale CPU's embedded Graphics Media Accelerator HD to a DisplayPort, HDMI, or DVI output. Unfortunately, the H55 is also saddled with the same half-speed PCIe 2.0 lanes as the rest of Intel's current generation of Platform Controller Hub chips. The lower-bandwidth lanes are still adequate for most integrated peripherals and expansion cards, but they might starve future SATA 6Gbps or USB 3.0 controllers paired with sufficiently fast devices. At least the PCIe lanes built into Intel's Lynnfield- and Clarkdale-based CPUs are full-bandwidth PCI Express 2.0 implementations.
So ends our brief primer on the H55 Express. If you'd like to learn more about this PCH and how it complements the latest Clarkdale desktop CPUs, check out our review of Intel's Core i3 and i5 CPUs.
With the chipset out of the way, we can focus our attention on the motherboards at hand. The first thing that jumps out at me when I look at the quartet we've assembled today is difference between the two form factors represented: microATX, which measures 244 x 244 mm (9.6" x 9.6"), and Mini-ITX, whose dimensions are 170 x 170 mm (6.7" x 6.7"). For reference, ATX motherboards can occupy a footprint of up to 305 x 244 mm (12" x 9.6").
|Asus P7H55D-M EVO||Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3||Intel DH55TC||Zotac H55 ITX|
1 PCIe x16
2 PCIe x1
2 PCIe x16
1 PCIe x16
2 PCIe x1
|1 PCIe x16|
|Gigabit Ethernet||Realtek RTL8112L||Realtek RTL8111D||Intel H55||Intel H55|
|Auxiliary SATA||Marvell 88SE6111||Gigabyte GSATA2||NA||NA|
|USB 3.0||NEC D720200F1||NEC D720200F1||NA||NA|
|Audio codec||Realtek ALC889||Realtek ALC889||Realtek ALC888S||Realtek ALC888|
|FireWire||VIA VT6315N||T.I. TSB43AB23||NA||NA|
As one might expect, the larger microATX boards serve up more expansion slots than the lone Mini-ITX offering. The bigger boards also tend to sport more onboard peripherals, although none match the Zotac's Wi-Fi component.
Of the four boards, only the Asus and Gigabyte models offer USB 3.0 and FireWire support. They're also the only two to employ separate networking controllers; the Intel and Zotac boards use the Gigabit Ethernet controller built into the H55 chip. Realtek predictably sweeps the audio codec category, although none of the implementations supports real-time Dolby Digital Live or DTS encoding. That particular capability is an optional component of Realtek's ALC889A codec, which isn't represented in this group.
About $47 separate the most expensive board from the cheapest. Obviously, you're paying a premium for the H55 ITX's smaller statureand likely its built-in Wi-Fi. Intel just slips under the $100 mark with the DH55TC, which is a good $12 and $37 cheaper than the Gigabyte and Asus boards, respectively.
Of course, there's more to each board's personality than its price tag and a rundown of slots and peripherals. Let's take a closer look to see what makes each board uniqueor not.