My very first car was an old Volvo 740 station wagon passed down from my parents. Despite its turbo-charged engine and rear-wheel-drive layout, the mid-80s box-on-wheels was highly contraceptive. That attribute ensured that I had plenty of time on the weekends to attend small LAN parties, and there the Volvo really came into its own.
In those days, we were all running full-sized tower enclosures and behemoth CRT monitors—not because we were overcompensating, but because we simply couldn't get anything smaller. Headphones weren't nearly as popular (the only pair I had belonged to a Sony Walkman), so speakers needed to be transported, as well. After adding a couple of friends, their rigs, and enough adult beverages to last an evening, the Volvo's capacious trunk actually made sense.
Land-barge station wagons have fallen out of favor with car manufacturers in recent years, but pimply teenagers need not fret, because they can now squeeze a LAN-worthy gaming system onto the back of a Vespa. Unlike early small-form-factor designs, which performed about as well as an underpowered Italian scooter, modern Mini-ITX rigs have more in common with a Ducati. Much of the credit goes to Zotac, which is largely responsible for the form factor's resurgence.
Take one look at the company's Z68-ITX WiFi, and it's easy to see why. This motherboard is small enough to fit inside shoebox-sized enclosures yet features Intel's latest Z68 Express chipset for Sandy Bridge CPUs. You know what that means: Smart Response SSD caching, QuickSync transcoding support, and the ability to fiddle with Sandy's core multipliers. Throw in a PCI Express x16 slot for discrete graphics cards, and you've got the basis for one very powerful breadbox.
Thus far, Zotac is the only Mini-ITX mobo maker using the Z68 chipset. Indeed, this appears to be the only Mini-ITX board that'll let you overclock a Sandy Bridge CPU. All the similarly sized alternatives listed online are based on H61 and H67 chipsets that lock you out of fiddling with the multipliers even on fully unlocked K-series CPUs.
Overclocking and Mini-ITX systems don't usually go together. However, Sandy Bridge is so power-efficient and its Turbo multipliers so easy to manipulate that running a hopped-up small-form-factor rig is a real possibility. Zotac clearly had overclockers on its mind, because it equipped the Z68-ITX with an eight-pin auxiliary 12V plug and an eight-phase power delivery system for the CPU—double what's offered on the company's H67-ITX, which has four-12V pins and four power phases.
Like other mobo makers, Zotac is using high-grade electrical components and digital PWMs. The firm hasn't bothered tying the fancier parts to an Ultra Military Xtreme branding exercise, though. In the words of one Zotac representative, who wished to remain anonymous, "we don't need to add a fancy name to what's common among the industry."
Zotac did, however, add tallish heatsinks to cool the chipset and power regulation circuitry. Although far from towering, these finned chunks of metal may complicate clearance for larger CPU heatsinks that extend beyond the boundaries defined by Intel's socket specifications.
The Mini-ITX form factor's 6.7" x 6.7" dimensions have always made for cramped quarters, so the close proximity of the DIMM slots and the lone PCIe slot should come as no surprise. Beware of memory modules with tall heatspreaders and graphics coolers that wrap around to the back of the card.
Excusing the tightly packed layout is easy when one considers just how much goodness has been crammed onto the board. Over to the left, there are power and reset buttons in addition to a two-digit POST code display. That little riser card in the middle of the shot is an 802.11n module sitting in a Mini PCI Express slot. Want to take advantage of the Z68's Smart Response SSD caching scheme but already have all four of the onboard Serial ATA ports occupied? The Wi-Fi card can be swapped out for an mSATA SSD.
Four SATA ports should be plenty for most Mini-ITX systems, though. My only complaint is that the chipset's remaining two 3Gbps ports haven't been routed to the rear cluster to provide eSATA connectivity. Zotac does score some bonus points for using a four-port USB 3.0 controller that offers two SuperSpeed ports at the rear plus another two via a front-panel connector.
Around back, the Z68-ITX has one of the most interesting port arrays we've seen in a while. The most striking feature is easily the trio of digital display outputs: dual HDMI ports plus a single Mini DisplayPort connector. We're big fans of the handy CMOS reset switch, too, but two Gigabit Ethernet ports seems a little excessive. You're not still using your PC as the router for your home network, are you?
HD audio is predictably piped through a Realtek codec, and as usual, support for real-time Dolby Digital Live or DTS encoding isn't included. Getting multi-channel audio with games requires using the analog outs or adding a USB audio device like Asus' Xonar U3. A discrete sound card could be plugged into to the PCIe x16 slot, but only at the expense of discrete graphics. At least the onboard audio implementation offers surround-sound virtualization for stereo speakers and headphones.
Zotac throws a handful of extras into the box, including an expansion slot bracket for the front-panel USB 3.0 connector. A low-profile back plate also makes an appearance alongside a Mini DisplayPort adapter and a mounting bracket for mSATA solid-state drives.
So far, the Z68-ITX looks like it has all the trappings of a modern enthusiast board. The BIOS has even been replaced with a UEFI. The only hint you'll get that this is a next-generation BIOS interface is the mouse cursor, though, and its implementation leaves a little to be desired. The cursor flickers on the fan control screen, and it seems to move several pixels at a time instead of tracking smoothly.
Lousy UEFI mouse implementations seem to be the norm, but we didn't expect the overclocking options to be so limited. CPU multiplier control is restricted to setting a maximum Turbo speed that applies to all four cores. The processor voltage options are also tied to Turbo; up to 1.02V can be added to the CPU voltage, but only when clock-boosting is engaged.
Zotac has a history of skimping on memory controls, and the Z68-ITX is still lacking. Despite offering numerous speed options and timings, there's no way to change the DRAM command rate. It defaulted to 1T with the modules we used for testing, but the option needs to be there in the UEFI. So does an integrated flashing utility. And a pony.
The UEFI's fan control options are predictably basic, but they at least include adjustable temperature-based speed control for the CPU fan. Only static speed control is offered for the system fan, which can be capped at as little as 20% of full speed. Ideally, we'd like to see temperature-based controls available for the system fan and more granular control over how aggressively the CPU fan responds to changes in temperature.