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Zotac's H67-ITX motherboard

Sandy Bridge goes Mini-ITX

Via created the Mini-ITX form factor way back in 2001. The midget motherboard standard hit at the beginning of a small-form-factor craze fueled largely by Shuttle barebones rigs based on proprietary components. Mini-ITX promised a common standard for SFF systems that would allow enthusiasts to mix and match parts with the same freedom they enjoyed on the desktop. Unfortunately, the only motherboards VIA ended up pushing were EPIA models equipped with the company's anemic CPUs and integrated graphics chipsets.

Mini-ITX mobos became much more appealing when they started appearing with standard CPU sockets and expansion slots equipped to accept modern graphics cards. In recent years, Zotac has become the unofficial flag bearer for this new breed of munchkin motherboards. After flirting with the ATX form factor, the company focused its efforts on Mini-ITX and has since produced a couple of award winning models.

The tight integration and low power consumption of Intel's new Sandy Bridge CPUs makes them particularly appropriate for small-form-factor implementations, and all the big-name mobo makers have Mini-ITX gear in development. Zotac's H67 ITX has beaten them all to the punch—or at least to the Benchmarking Sweatshop. As its name implies, the board gets a dose of next-gen Intel HD Graphics thanks to its use of the H67 Express chipset. It also has all the goodies that made us smitten with previous Zotac designs: a PCI Express x16 slot for discrete graphics cards, the ability to accept standard desktop memory modules, and more integrated peripherals than one might expect from such a small motherboard.

If the H67 ITX is as good as previous Zotac efforts, it should have no problem keeping up with much larger desktop boards. What better way to test this new model's chops than by moving it up a few weight classes to face a batch of enthusiast-oriented ATX boards? Let's get started.

Introducing the H67 Express
The biggest challenge with the Mini-ITX form factor is squeezing everything onto a board that measures just 6.7" x 6.7" (170 x 170 mm). It's no wonder, then, that the recent trend toward platform consolidation has played a big role in Mini-ITX's resurgence. Just a few years ago, a CPU would need to be paired with a chipset that had separate north- and south-bridge chips. Today, chipset duties can be handled with a single chip—and quite a small one when the integrated graphics component lives on the CPU. Such is the case with Sandy Bridge processors, which incorporate Intel's latest GPU and require little more than a Platform Controller Hub (PCH) to handle I/O functions.

Despite hosting Intel's latest HD Graphics iteration on its die, the processor known as Sandy Bridge lacks a display controller. The IGP instead relies on display logic built into the H67 Express chipset. Graphics output is piped through the display controller over a pair of Flexible Display Interface (FDI) links—one for each supported display. DVI, DisplayPort, and HDMI output options are available, and the latter is capable of piggybacking a lossless multichannel digital audio signal. You have to be using Sandy Bridge's integrated GPU to get all that audio goodness, though.

Apart from its display controller, the H67 Express chipset is very similar to the P67 core logic we looked at closely in our Sandy Bridge motherboard round-up. Both talk to the CPU over a second-gen DMI interconnect that offers 4GB/s of bandwidth. The PCH's PCI Express implementation is also a gen-two affair, this time with full-speed links instead of the half-speed nonsense that afflicted Intel's 5-series chipsets.

There are upgrades on the storage front, too. The H67 boasts two Serial ATA controllers: one with a pair of 6Gbps ports and a second with four 3Gbps ports. As we learned when testing the P67, those 6Gbps ports are quicker than what AMD is offering in its SB850 south bridge.

USB 2.0 and Gigabit Ethernet controllers round out the H67. The lack of USB 3.0 in the H67 chipset is a little disappointing (though Zotac has a workaround in place), as is the fact that most motherboard makers ignore the integrated networking controller in favor of cheaper Realtek solutions. Much worse is Intel's decision to deny the H67 control over Sandy Bridge CPU multipliers, including those in otherwise fully unlocked K-series CPUs. In exchange, the chipset grants users the ability to overclock the processor's integrated GPU. Seems like a raw deal to me.