SuperSpeed USB goes Mini-ITX
While Gigabyte is widely regarded as one of the top-two motherboard makers in the business, it only recently dipped into Mini-ITX territory. The company's first efforts were released earlier in the year with Atom CPUs and old-school PCI slots—not the sort of thing you'd want for a gaming rig or even a proper desktop PC. But it didn't take long for Gigabyte to expand its Mini-ITX range to the GA-H55N-USB3, which has an LGA1156 socket ripe for a whole host of cutting-edge duallies and quad-core processors. With a street price of only $105, or $15 less than Zotac's comparable H55 ITX WiFi, we just had to check out the H55N for ourselves.
The Mini-ITX form factor's 6.7" x 6.7" (170 x 170 mm) dimensions leave little real estate available for ports, slots, and other surface-mounted components. Fortunately, Intel's desktop Core 2010 platform has a much smaller package footprint than the company's previous efforts, which paired the CPU with separate north- and south-bridge chipset components. Intel has moved traditional north-bridge functionality like the memory controller, PCI Express, and integrated graphics onto the processor package, leaving a single PCH, or platform controller hub, as the CPU's only sidekick.
As one might expect, the GA-H55N-USB3 features Intel's mid-range H55 Express PCH. You can read more about this chip's particulars in the four-way H55 motherboard roundup we published back in April.
No doubt thanks to the small footprint of the H55 Express and its accompanying socket, Gigabyte was able to squeeze a PCI Express x16 slot and a pair of full-size DDR3 DIMM slots onto the board. All the Mini-ITX boards that I've seen with chipsets that have separate north- and south-bridge components have had to resort to smaller SO-DIMM slots and notebook memory.
The CPU socket sits right next to the PCIe slot, which could create clearance problems with larger aftermarket coolers that fan out from the CPU. On its website, Silverstone also notes that this socket placement is less than ideal for use with the SG07. The case maker prefers DFI's approach with the LANParty MI P55-T36, which puts the chipset directly adjacent to the x16 slot and the socket closer to the top edge of the board. For mobos like the H55N and Zotac's H55 ITX (which shares a similar layout), Silverstone recommends Thermalright's AXP-140 CPU cooler. Don't worry about clearance for the stock cooler that comes bundled with retail-boxed LGA1156 CPUs; there's plenty of room for it.
Gigabyte makes no mention of any limitations to the H55N's CPU support, suggesting that the board's 4+2 power phase configuration is capable of keeping even the fastest members of the Core i7-800 series fully juiced. Expect the rest of the motherboard's components to keep up. The H55N-USB3 is a part of Gigabyte's Ultra Durable 3 lineup, which means it's peppered with fancy electrical components and sandwiching heavier copper layers than typical motherboards. To be fair, though, higher-grade components and extra copper are quickly becoming typical for motherboards from big-name manufacturers.
Amusingly, there's so much connectivity built into the H55 Express PCH that Gigabyte hasn't been able to find space to make use of it all. The chipset has six Serial ATA ports, for example, but you only get access to four of them internally and one more via an eSATA port at the rear. More USB 2.0 ports are left on the table, with the chipset offering 14 and the board only making four available in the rear cluster and another four accessible via onboard headers. Here's how the rest of the H55N's specifications stack up:
|CPU support||LGA1156-based Core i3, i5, i7 series processors|
|Chipset||Intel H55 Express|
|DIMM slots||2 DDR3-1333|
|Expansion slots||1 PCIe x16|
|Storage I/O||4 SATA 3Gbps w/ RAID 0/1/10/5|
|Audio||8-channel via Realtek ALC892R|
1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
4 USB 2.0 w/ headers for 4 more
2 USB 3.0 via NEC D720200F1
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek RTL8111E
1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog surround out
1 analog line in
1 analog mic in
1 S/PDIF out (TOS-Link)
Now that we've listed all the ports, let's take a closer look at them in their natural habitat.
The port cluster is one area that Mini-ITX offers every bit as much space as its larger siblings, so you get a full complement of connectivity options here. I should point out that the USB 2.0 ports are capable of delivering three times the normal current to speed charging with compatible devices. It's also possible to configure the USB ports to continue charging attached devices when the system is sleeping or powered off.
On the SuperSpeed front, the H55N uses the same two-port NEC controller as everyone else on the market. Competing USB controllers have yet to be certified by the USB-IF, so Gigabyte didn't have much choice. It did, however, employ a nifty bit of PCI Express switching that connects the SuperSpeed controller directly to the CPU's PCIe lanes when the x16 slot is empty. Plug in a graphics card, and the USB 3.0 controller gets switched over to one of the
half-assed half-speed lanes in the PCH, limiting bandwidth to 250MB/s in either direction. At least that's not a huge limitation given the speed of current devices, but it's still a bit of a drag.
Before you get too excited about putting together a Lynnfield rig with integrated graphics, I should clarify that the board's video outputs will only work if you're running a Clarkdale-based Core i3 or i5 CPU with Intel HD Graphics. Anyone can tap the combination of analog and digital audio outs, though. The H55N uses an ALC892R HD audio codec that isn't listed on Realtek's site. I'm not sure whether to fault the chip or Gigabyte's implementation, but there's no support for on-the-fly DTS or Dolby Digital Live encoding. Real-time encoding allows gamers to pipe multi-channel audio to compatible speakers or receivers using a single optical cable, neatly dodging onboard DACs while also cutting down on wiring; it would've been a nice feature to have in a system that offers little expansion capacity for a discrete sound card.
Base: 100-600MHz in 1MHz
GPU: 0-2000MHz in 1MHz steps
PCIe: 90-150MHz in 1MHz steps
CPU: 9X-22X in 1X steps
DRAM: 6X, 8X, 10X
QPI: 12X-48X in 4X steps
CPU: 0.5-1.9V in
DRAM: 1.3-2.6V in 0.02V steps
QPI: 1.05-1.99V in 0.02V steps
IGP: 0.2-1.8V in 0.05V steps
PCH: 0.95-1.5V in 0.02V steps
|Monitoring||Voltage, fan status, and temperature|
|Fan speed control||CPU|
The H55N's BIOS is loaded with a lot more clock speed, multiplier, and voltage options than one might expect from a Mini-ITX mobo. A full suite of memory timing controls is also available, as is an embedded flashing utility, support for multiple configuration profiles, and a secondary DualBIOS backup chip. Rudimentary fan speed controls are included, too, although they amount to little more than an on/off switch and a toggle between modes for three- and four-pin CPU fan headers. Temperature-based fan speed control for the system fan header isn't available at all.
As I've said in just about every Gigabyte motherboard review over the last few years, such limited fan speed controls are an abomination in this day and age. Balancing noise levels with cooling performance is a key step in any DIY build, and forcing users to rely on Windows software to tweak fan behavior simply isn't good enough when the competition—Asus, MSI, Zotac, and others—offer better and in some cases vastly superior BIOS-level fan speed options. Gigabyte, it seems, would prefer to develop gimmicky Windows software, such as applications that allow remote overclocking over the web or automatically put a PC to sleep when an associated mobile phone strays too far away. Ugh.