One of the best parts of this job is getting to watch technology progress from one generation to the next. Although fresh products aren't always better than the ones they replace, the overall trend is a positive one. The new hotness tends to offer better performance, lower power consumption, and more integrated features than last year's old and busted.
In the realm of build-your-own PCs, nowhere has the forward march of technology paid bigger dividends than among Mini-ITX systems. The industry's relatively newfound focus on power-efficient performance is perfectly suited to the shoebox-sized systems built around the form factor. Potent CPUs and graphics cards are now readily available with the sort of tight power envelopes needed for claustrophobic Mini-ITX enclosures. Thanks to core-logic chipsets with expanding peripheral payloads and motherboard makers that are always finding new ways to add connectivity options, the limited expansion capacity of the midget mobo standard isn't the impediment it once was.
At first glance, Asus' P8H67-I Deluxe looks to be the most advanced Mini-ITX motherboard to date. Despite a footprint that's smaller than 7" x 7", the Deluxe lives up to its name with a Sandy Bridge socket, a full-sized PCI Express x16 slot, built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, Asus' slick UEFI replacement for the BIOS, and a whopping four USB 3.0 ports. That's a lot to squeeze into such diminutive dimensions, but Asus manages to do a neat and tidy job.
The key to fitting everything on the board is Asus' decision to use notebook-style SO-DIMM slots. These puppies are a little more than half the length of full-sized DIMM slots, saving precious real estate for auxiliary peripherals. Regardless of what Apple's online store would have you believe, notebook memory is pretty cheap these days. You'll pay just $70 for a Kingston dual-channel kit loaded with 8GB of DDR3-1333 SO-DIMMs. Desktop DIMMs with the same speed, timings, and capacity will actually cost you a few dollars more.
Obviously, clearances are a big concern when building a Mini-ITX system. Cases often have restrictions when it comes to the height of CPU heatsinks and the length and width of discrete graphics cards.
On the Deluxe, you also need to worry about the socket's close proximity to the PCI Express x16 slot, which will prevent some CPU coolers from working alongside expansion cards. That's really the board's only potential pitfall on the clearance front. All of the surface-mounted components keep a low profile and should stay out of the way.
A generous six-phase power array graces the Deluxe: three are dedicated to the CPU core, plus one each to its uncore component, integrated GPU, and the DRAM slots. Asus covers the power regulation circuitry with a low-slung heatsink that looks like it's been poured onto the board. This finned piece of metal also covers the H67 Express platform hub, and I'm a little leery about the chipset getting warmed when heavy CPU loads spool up the VRMs. There don't appear to be heatpipes involved, so you can probably isolate the chipset's heatsink with a few minutes of Dremel work. Unless you're running loads of I/O through the PCH or a particularly power-hungry CPU (keep in mind that the H67 doesn't allow CPU multiplier adjustments for easy overclocking), I doubt such surgery will be required.
To the left of the heatsink's tallest point sit four Serial ATA ports that are color-coded by speed. The white ones are 6Gbps, while the blues run at half that speed. If you're thinking of building a small-form-factor storage server, note that Zotac's comparable H67-ITX takes advantage of all six of the H67's SATA ports. Asus taps one more, but sends it to an eSATA connector in the rear cluster.
Among other things, the rear cluster plays host to the antenna connectors for the integrated Atheros 802.11n Wi-Fi card. The Mini PCIe slot that hosts the card doesn't have clearance for anything longer. Just below it sits a front-panel connector for one of the two NEC USB 3.0 controllers that populate the board.
The second controller feeds a pair of SuperSpeed ports in the main cluster. In addition to a trio of video outputs for Sandy Bridge's integrated graphics, you also get a PS/2 throwback and a sadly unpowered eSATA connector. The purple nurple at the top of the red USB ports is a Bluetooth 3.0 radio, which seems particularly appropriate for a motherboard likely to be paired with wireless peripherals sitting across the room on the couch.
Audio is important for home-theater PCs, and the Deluxe could do better in this regard. Like everyone else, Asus is using a Realtek ALC892 audio codec. Pristine digital audio can be passed to a compatible receiver or speakers via the S/PDIF or HDMI outputs, but that'll only deliver surround sound with pre-encoded content like movies—not games. If you have a pair of stereo speakers or headphones, the Deluxe at least offers virtualization via DTS Surround Sensation.