Mini-Me crosses the Sandy Bridge
Zotac's H67-ITX motherboard is the first of its kind to arrive in the Benchmarking Sweatshop. It's so fresh that you can't buy one just yet. We're told Newegg will have stock starting next week and that you can expect to pay $139-149. At that price, the H67-ITX will cost quite a bit more than MicroATX mobos based on the same chipset. Of course, the MicroATX form factor has a footprint two times the size of Mini-ITX.
After seeing P67 motherboards from Asus, Gigabyte, Intel, and MSI follow the same basic black-and-blue color scheme, it's refreshing to find a smattering of other colors on the Zotac board. Color-coding identifies the 6Gbps SATA ports from the 3Gbps ones, although we probably don't need colors to differentiate between the PCI Express x16 and DIMM slots—not that any of these aesthetic concerns matter for a Mini-ITX motherboard. Tiny cases tend not to have windows, and once you add a graphics card, CPU cooler, and memory, you won't be able to see much of the board.
Things get a little crowded when you're working within the confines of Mini-ITX dimensions, so we've whipped up a handy guide to clearances around the CPU socket. Horizontal measurements were taken from the edge of the socket clip, while vertical ones start at the surface of the board.
Space is tight, and the close proximity of the DIMM and PCIe x16 slots may create problems for larger aftermarket coolers. The relatively low-profile heatsinks that cover the power regulation circuitry and the H67 chipset aren't as likely to create trouble. In case you're wondering, that power regulation circuitry uses four phases to feed the CPU's cores, an additional phase for its integrated north-bridge component, and one more for the IGP.
If you want an upgrade from Sandy Bridge's integrated HD Graphics, a discrete graphics card can easily be dropped into the H67-ITX's PCI Express x16 slot. There's also a Mini PCIe slot on the board occupied by an AzureWave 802.11n Wi-Fi card. The ability to pull the wireless card and add something like this Mini PCIe TV tuner gives the Zotac board more expansion potential than most Mini-ITX offerings.
Let's pause for a moment, zoom in, and give Zotac's board designers a polite golf clap for putting a handy CMOS reset switch on the board. We'll save the standing ovation for when this button migrates to the more accessible rear port cluster. At least you won't have to worry about fiddling with a jumper within the cramped confines of a small enclosures, though.
The H67 ITX ripples with just as many I/O ports as full-sized motherboards. Zotac has wisely picked up on the chipset's optional RAID support, giving the board potential as a closet file server, either in its first life or in subsequent reincarnations. The rear cluster is loaded with goodness, although I have to take issue with a few things. First, the eSATA port isn't of the USB-powered hybrid variety, which makes little sense considering that the chipset has USB ports to spare. Also disappointing is the lack of speaker virtualization for headphone output and real-time encoding for multi-channel digital audio. Adding these features would only cost Zotac licensing fees; it wouldn't take up any more space on the board.
Half of the H67-ITX's USB 3.0 ports sit in the rear cluster, while an additional pair lives on an included I/O back plate. Behind the ports sits a new VT800 SuperSpeed USB controller made by Via. This is the first alternative we've seen to the two-port NEC chip that has dominated USB 3.0 implementations since they started appearing on motherboards. However, the USB-IF governing body doesn't appear to have certified this Via controller just yet.
Like most of the Sandy Bridge motherboards we've seen thus far, the H67-ITX has one of those fancy new UEFI BIOSes. Except it's not really that fancy at all. Zotac hasn't created a slick GUI to take advantage of what UEFI brings to the table on that front. I could do without cosmetic flourishes if the BIOS had much to offer on the tweaking front, but that's still a work in progress. Control over memory timings was only just added in a beta BIOS, which still lacks options to tweak the command rate and memory clock. The absence of an integrated flashing utility is another major omission.
Zotac's initial BIOS was completely devoid of overclocking options, but the latest beta offers control over the base clock and the ability to tweak the IGP multiplier. Unfortunately, base clock control won't get you very far with Sandy Bridge CPUs, which tie everything to a single, internal clock. Raising this base clock by even a few MHz is enough to produce system instability, in our experience.
IGP and CPU voltage options were added with the latest beta, although it's not entirely clear how they work. More refinement is definitely needed on this front. The fan speed controls could use some attention, too.The menu offers basic options for the CPU fan, but there's no way to control fan speeds for the board's second fan header.