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.
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.
Digging into the details
Before moving onto the results of our performance testing, I’m going to bust out a couple of
big, scary surprisingly small and manageable charts highlighting the H67-ITX’s BIOS functionality and hardware specifications. First, we’ll look at the BIOS.
|Clock speeds||Base: 100-300MHz in 0.1MHz steps|
|Multipliers||IGP: 0-65534 in 1X steps|
|Voltages||CPU: +0.001-0.256V in 0.001V steps
IGP: +0.001-0.256V in 0.001V steps
DRAM: -0.03-0.1V, +0.02-0.16V in 0.02-0.04V steps
PCH: +0.03-0.15V in 0.03V steps
Those are my best guesses for the IGP and CPU voltage options, since the BIOS isn’t clear and we’re still awaiting confirmation from Zotac. I have my doubts about the IGP multiplier, as well.
|DIMM slots||2 DDR3-1333|
|Expansion slots||1 PCIe x16
1 Mini PCIe x1
|Storage I/O||2 6Gbps SATA RAID via H67 Express
4 3Gbps SATA RAID via H67 Express
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC892|
|Wireless||802.11n Wi-Fi via AzureWave Mini PCIe|
1 PS/2 keyboard/keyboard
2 USB 3.0 w/ 2 headers via VLI VL800
4 USB 2.0 w/ 4 headers
1 RJ45 via Realtek RTL8168E
1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog line in/surround out
1 analog mic in
1 optical S/PDIF out
The specifications chart has quite a lot to say when you consider that we’re dealing with a Mini-ITX board.
Our testing methods
The H67-ITX is the only Mini-ITX Sandy Bridge board we’ve been able to get our hands on, so it’s a little short on direct competition. Really, we’re more interested in whether it can keep up with the performance of the enthusiast-oriented desktop boards we rounded up earlier this month. Because the H67-ITX can be run with or without a discrete graphics card installed, we’ve tested both configurations. It’ll be interesting to see whether the board loses any performance in non-graphics tests when Sandy Bridge’s IGP is pressed into service.
The graphs on the following pages have been color-coded by manufacturer to make things easier to read. You’ll also see some greyed out scores for P55 and 890GX platforms that are running different processors than what we’re using with the Sandy Bridge boards.
With few exceptions, all tests were run at least three times, and we reported the median of the scores produced.
|Processor||AMD Phenom II X6 1090T 3.2GHz||Intel Core i7-870 2.93GHz||Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz|
|Motherboard||Asus M4A89GTD PRO/USB3||Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD4P||Asus P8P67 PRO||Intel DP67BG||Gigabyte GA-P67A-UD4P||MSI P67A-GD65||Zotac H67-ITX|
|Platform hub||AMD 890FX||Intel P55 Express||Intel P67 Express||Intel P67 Express||Intel P67 Express||Intel P67 Express||Intel H67 Express|
|South bridge||AMD SB850|
|Chipset drivers||Catalyst 10.12||Chipset: 184.108.40.2069
|Memory size||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)||8GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz|
|Audio||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC889 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.55 drivers|
|Graphics||Asus EAH5870 1GB with Catalyst 10.12 drivers|
|Hard drive||Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB|
|Power Supply||PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750W|
|OS||Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate x64|
We’d like to thank Asus, Corsair, and Western Digital for helping to outfit our test rigs with some of the finest hardware available. Thanks to each of the motherboard makers for supplying their boards, too, and to AMD and Intel for providing the CPUs.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- TrueCrypt 7.0a
- x264 3.19
- 7-Zip 4.65
- Metro: 2033
- IOMeter 2006.07.27
- Stream 5.8 64-bit
- CPU-Z 1.41
- HD Tach 3.01
- HD Tune 4.01
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.2.3
The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at a 60Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
When encountering a new integrated graphics platform, I’m always curious to see how much system memory bandwidth is cannibalized by the IGP. We don’t usually see much difference in memory subsystem performance between motherboards using the same processor, DIMMs, and timings, but running the H67-ITX without a discrete graphics card installed could change that.
Or it could make no difference at all. Using the integrated graphics doesn’t cost the H67-ITX any memory bandwidth in Stream, and its score in CPU-Z’s latency test is only off by a nanosecond. That makes the Zotac board every bit as fast as the quickest P67 offerings we’ve encountered.
It’s been a long time since mobos had an impact on application performance. However, the Turbo functionality built into Sandy Bridge CPUs is somewhat reliant on a motherboard’s power delivery circuitry. Some implementations may be able to maintain peak Turbo speeds for longer than others. Throwing the IGP into the mix might alter things, as well, so we’ve taken a closer look at application performance to see how the H67-ITX stacks up.
We began our testing by probing the maximum Turbo frequency that the board can sustain with an eight-way Prime95 load. Like the P67 boards we’ve tested, the H67-ITX held the line at 3.5GHz for at least 10 minutes with all the cores at full utilization. It even maintained that speed while the IGP crunched the reasonably intensive rthdribl HDR lighting demo. Next, we fired up some real-world applications.
Sandy Bridge’s IGP is clearly outgunned in Metro: 2033, but it doesn’t cost the H67-ITX much performance elsewhere. 7-Zip decompression runs a little slower, as does the first pass of our x264 encoding benchmark, which doesn’t use the IGP’s QuickSync Video capability. The H67-ITX is otherwise just as quick with the IGP handling graphics output. With a discrete graphics card installed, it’s right in the mix with the top contenders across the board.
We measured system power consumption, sans monitor and speakers, at the wall outlet using a Watts Up Pro power meter. Readings were taken at idle and under a load consisting of a Cinebench 11.5 render alongside the rthdribl HDR lighting demo. We tested with Windows 7’s High Performance and Balanced power plans.
Motherboard makers usually ship their boards with energy-saving features that promise to lower power consumption without resorting to CPU throttling that might hinder performance. We’ve tested the Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI boards with their power-saving features enabled and disabled. The Intel and Zotac boards aren’t equipped with such features, so they’ve been tested only with Windows handling power management.
Obviously, the H67-ITX consumes a lot less power when you remove the Radeon HD 5870 that’s serving as our discrete graphics card. With the Radeon installed, the Zotac board registers the lowest idle power draw of the pack. Cranking up a combined CPU and GPU load changes the picture a little, sending the H67-ITX to the back of the class with the most power-hungry P67 configs.
Motherboard peripheral performance
Our last stop on the testing front is the wonderful world of onboard peripherals. Here’s how the H67-ITX’s most important ports perform:
|HD Tach USB 3.0 performance|
| Read burst
| Average read
| Average write
| CPU utilization
|Zotac H67 (IGP)||160.5||162.7||55.9||3|
The board’s Via USB 3.0 chip may have twice the ports of the NEC silicon on the others, but each of those ports appear to be a little bit slower. At least there’s no performance lost when switching to the IGP.
|HD Tach USB 2.0 performance|
| Read burst
| Average read
| Average write
| CPU utilization
|Zotac H67 (IGP)||37.5||33.7||24.1||1|
Although its USB 3.0 performance was a little slower than what we’ve seen from other boards, the H67-ITX’s USB 2.0 performance is more competitive.
|HD Tune Serial ATA performance – VelociRaptor|
|Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)||Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)|
|Gigabyte P55 (Marvell)||240.9||129.9||7.2||240.8||127.7||2.7|
|Asus P67 (Marvell)||201.8||129.7||7.2||203.0||92.3||2.6|
|MSI P67 (Marvell)||189.8||128.5||7.3||187.0||87.0||2.6|
|Zotac H67 (IGP)||286.1||129.6||7.2||263.8||124.0||2.7|
With a mechanical VelociRaptor hooked into one of its 6Gbps SATA ports, the H67-ITX offers faster disk subsystem performance than some of the P67 offerings.
|HD Tune Serial ATA performance – RealSSD|
|Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)||Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)|
|Gigabyte P55 (Marvell)||196.2||258.6||0.17||190.8||177.7||0.38|
|Asus P67 (Marvell)||172.2||258.5||0.18||172.6||116.0||0.39|
|MSI P67 (Marvell)||165.9||215.4||0.20||165.6||109.7||0.36|
|Zotac H67 (IGP)||193.4||288.7||0.16||195.3||209.4||0.37|
Things look good when we switch to a RealSSD C300, as well. The Zotac board isn’t the fastest option on the block, but it’s right in the middle of a pack of P67-based desktop offerings, which is a very good place to be.
|NTttcp Ethernet performance|
|Throughput (Mbps)||CPU utilization (%)|
|Gigabyte P55 (1)||936.8||2.7|
|Gigabyte P55 (2)||945.4||2.1|
|Zotac H67 (IGP)||935.8||3.7|
We have it on good authority that Realtek’s standalone Gigabit Ethernet controllers are cheaper than what it would cost to tap the GigE MAC built into Intel’s recent chipsets. It’s good thing the Realtek chip on the H67-ITX offers plenty of throughput with low CPU utilization.
|RightMark Audio Analyzer audio quality|
|Frequency response||Noise level||Dynamic range||THD||THD + Noise||IMD + Noise||Stereo Crosstalk||IMD at 10kHz||Overall score|
|Zotac H67 (IGP)||5||4||4||4||3||4||5||4||4|
Given the cramped nature Mini-ITX mobo layouts, it’s no surprise that the H67-ITX scores a little lower than the full-sized ATX competition in RMAA’s test of analog signal quality. Having components so close together surely generates more board-level noise than spreading things out. Here, and throughout our peripheral testing, we see little difference between the H67-ITX’s performance with and without a discrete graphics card installed.
The H67-ITX is a pretty good board. On the hardware front, Zotac has managed to squeeze an impressive array of integrated peripherals onto the tiny form factor. The PCI Express x16 slot is a real necessity, and it’s nice to be able to use full-sized desktop DIMMs. Having access to four USB 3.0 ports is an attractive perk, too, as is the fact that you can choose between integrated Wi-Fi and an empty Mini PCIe slot.
Zotac also deserves credit for rolling out a UEFI BIOS. However, much of that credit evaporates when you start to explore the BIOS and realize that it’s short on features and rather difficult to use. UEFI is an opportunity for motherboard makers to innovate, and even Zotac’s latest beta release is missing key ingredients we’ve come to expect from modern mobos.
Of course, the biggest blow to the H67-ITX’s overclocking potential is Intel’s decision to prevent H67 chipsets from ramping up Sandy Bridge core multipliers. That effectively limits the Zotac board to running at stock speeds and makes it somewhat less attractive for shoebox-sized gaming rigs. Any gaming rig based on the H67-ITX should at least be able to keep up with stock-clocked desktop systems, which is some consolation.
The fact that other Mini-ITX boards with Sandy Bridge sockets are due to arrive in short order has me a little hesitant to recommend the H67-ITX in its current state. If you’re contemplating a pint-sized gaming rig or a high-performance desktop, I’d hold off a little to see what the big dogs like Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI have to offer. Gigabyte has already confirmed plans for a Mini-ITX model based on the overclocking-friendly P67 chipset, and I expect we’ll see more BIOS refinement out of the big three motherboard makers.
That said, the H67-ITX looks pretty good if you want to slap together a tiny desktop or home-theater PC and have little interest in performance tuning. Zotac should be first to market with a Mini-ITX motherboard for Sandy Bridge CPUs, and we don’t yet know when alternatives will be available. Perhaps, by the time direct competition arrives, Zotac will have plugged the holes in the H67-ITX’s game.