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.
Digging into the details
If you’re already familiar with our test methods and don’t need a detailed rundown of the Z68-ITX’s specifications and UEFI options, feel free to skip ahead to the performance results.
|Clock speeds||Base: 100-300MHz in 0.01MHz steps
IGP: 800-3000MHz in 1MHz steps
DRAM: 1066-2133MHz in 266MHz steps
|Multipliers||CPU: 34-59X in 1X steps|
Additional CPU Turbo: +0-1.02V in 0.001V steps
Additional GPU Turbo: +0-1V in 0.001V steps
DRAM: -0.1 – +0.16V in 0.02-0.04V steps
PCH: +0.03-0.15V in 0.03V steps
CPU start temp: 30-60°C in 5°C steps
CPU max duty cycle: 70-100% in 10% steps
CPU min duty cycle: 20-60% in 10% steps
System static speed: 20-100% in 10% steps
The UEFI’s overclocking options are pretty limited, but that didn’t stop us from turning the screws on a Core i7-2600K. More on our overclocking exploits in a moment.
|DIMM slots||2 DDR3-1333 DIMM|
1 PCIe x16
1 Mini PCIe
|Storage I/O||2 6Gbps SATA RAID
2 3Gbps SATA RAID
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC892|
1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
1 Mini DisplayPort
2 USB 3.0 w/ 2 headers via Via VL800
4 USB 2.0 w/ 4 headers
2 RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet via 2 x Realtek RTL8111E
1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog mic in
1 analog line in/surround out
1 optical S/PDIF output
Don’t let the length of the spec sheet fool you—if you don’t count expansion slots, the Z68-ITX is nearly as loaded as quite a lot of other Z68 boards.
Our testing methods
To see whether it can keep up with the desktop crowd, we’ve pitted the Z68-ITX against a range of Z68 and P67 motherboards from Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI. We’ve also thrown in a couple of 990FX-based AMD boards for additional flavor. The AMD results have been greyed out in the graphs to avoid confusion.
Before getting into those results, we should note that the Z68-ITX doesn’t follow Intel’s rules for Turbo multipliers to the letter. The Core i7-2600K is supposed to use a 38X Turbo multiplier when one core is engaged and a 35X multiplier when all four are fired up. However, the Z68-ITX applies a 38X multiplier whenever the CPU is under load—regardless of how many cores are in use. We’ve seen similar behavior from Asus’ recent Z68 and P67 motherboards, so it’s nothing new. I suspect mobo makers are loosely interpreting Intel’s Turbo guidelines to offer a little more performance. For what it’s worth, neither the Z68-ITX nor the Asus boards that exhibit similar behavior has had any problem maintaining a 38X CPU multiplier with all cores at full utilization for extended periods of time.
Because the higher-than-normal Turbo multipliers are a part of the default behavior of the Zotac and Asus boards, we haven’t taken steps to rein them in. As a result, you’ll see slightly better performance from those mobos in some of our tests.
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 i7-2600K 3.4GHz|
|Motherboard||Asus Sabertooth 990FX||MSI 990FXA-GD80||Asus P8P67 PRO||Asus Sabertooth P67||Asus P8Z68-V PRO||Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3||MSI Z68A-GD80||Zotac Z68-ITX|
|Bios revision||0138||E7640AMS.B0I||1502||1502||8801||F2d||E7672IMS V17.0B17||XXX|
|Platform hub||AMD 990FX/SB950||AMD 990FX/SB950||Intel P67 Express||Intel P67 Express||Intel Z68 Express||Intel Z68 Express||Intel Z68 Express||Intel Z68 Express|
|Chipset drivers||Catalyst 11.5||Catalyst 11.5||Chipset: 184.108.40.2065
| Chipset: 220.127.116.115
|Memory size||8GB (2 DIMMs)||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||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz|
|Audio||Realtek ALC892 with 2.59 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.59 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.59 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.59 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.59 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.59 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.59 drivers||Realtek ALC892 with 2.59 drivers|
|Graphics||Asus EAH5870 1GB with Catalyst 11.3 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 Intel for providing the CPU.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- TrueCrypt 7.0a
- x264 4.0
- 7-Zip 4.65
- 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.
Our memory performance tests ask what the motherboards can do with the same DIMMs running at 1333MHz and 9-9-9-24-1T timings.
Key takeaway: the Phenom II X6’s memory controller isn’t nearly as good as the one Sandy has tucked under her skirt. The bandwidth and latency results are very close among the Intel boards, with the Z68-ITX right up there with full-sized ATX models from Asus and Gigabyte.
The Z68-ITX is sandwiched between three Asus boards throughout. It just so happens that bunch of four uses a 38X Turbo multiplier whenever the processor is under load, while the others observe the official sliding scale, which steps down from 38X to 35X as the number of active cores ramps up.
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.
All the boards ship with power-saving features that can be enabled via the BIOS or Windows software. We tested each with these features enabled and disabled. The results with parentheses (which contain the name of each mobo maker’s power-saving mojo) refer to the configurations optimized for energy efficiency.
The Z68-ITX manages the lowest power consumption of the bunch. Most of the power savings come under load, where the pint-sized wonder asks for 46W less at the socket than the next-closest competitor. Even the best small-form-factor enclosures have substantially less airflow than ATX mid-towers, making low power consumption (and, in turn, having less heat to dissipate) an essential characteristic for any serious Mini-ITX contender.
These days, most new motherboards can be overclocked in numerous ways. Auto-pilot engage via BIOS options, onboard buttons, or Windows software provided by the mobo maker. Mobo makers also provide apps that offer manual overclocking and tweaking controls in Windows. Then there’s the BIOS or UEFI, where such settings can be changed more directly. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices, the Z68-ITX makes things much simpler. The only way to push this puppy beyond stock speeds is to get your hands dirty in the UEFI.
After increasing the Turbo power and current limits, we managed to get the Z68-ITX into Windows with a 45X multiplier, yielding a clock speed just shy of 4.5GHz. That speed wasn’t stable while running our stress test, an eight-way Prime 95 load alongside the rthdribl HDR lighting demo, until we added a smidgen more voltage for the CPU—100 millivolts, to be exact. However, no amount of extra voltage could coax the CPU into Windows.
Two of the other three Z68 boards we’ve tested hit 4.7GHz with the very same CPU, but the third only did 4.5GHz. The Z68-ITX isn’t quite as good an overclocker as some full-sized ATX boards, then. You won’t find a Mini-ITX enclosure that’s nearly as good at cooling an overclocked CPU (or accommodating aftermarket coolers) as the average desktop case, either.
Motherboard peripheral performance
Our last stop on the testing front is the wonderful world of onboard peripherals.
|HD Tach USB 3.0 performance|
| Read burst
| Average read
| Average write
| CPU utilization
|Asus P8P67 PRO||220.9||176.6||57.9||2.0|
|Asus P8Z68-V PRO||198.0||173.0||61.6||2.0|
|Asus Sabertooth 990FX||187.7||159.5||62.1||5.0|
|Asus Sabertooth P67||221.2||177.0||58.3||2.0|
Zotac pays perhaps unintentional tribute to the Mini-ITX form factor’s creator, Via, by using one of the company’s USB 3.0 chips on the Z68-ITX. Based on the results of our SuperSpeed performance tests, it looks like the Via controller is a little bit slow. That’s shocking for Via, I know.
|HD Tach USB 2.0 performance|
| Read burst
| Average read
| Average write
| CPU utilization
|Asus P8P67 PRO||35.1||35.0||25.2||2.0|
|Asus P8Z68-V PRO||36.4||34.2||24.1||2.0|
|Asus Sabertooth 990FX||35.1||30.9||25.8||4.0|
|Asus Sabertooth P67||35.1||35.0||25.2||2.0|
The Z68-ITX’s USB 3.0 ports are still way faster than their 2.0 counterparts.
|HD Tune Serial ATA performance – VelociRaptor|
|Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)||Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)|
|Asus P8P67 PRO||292.1||129.9||7.0||292.3||125.9||2.7|
|Asus P8P67 PRO (Marvell)||235.6||129.9||7.2||238.9||114.8||2.6|
|Asus P8Z68-V PRO||288.3||129.6||7.2||280.1||122.9||2.7|
|Asus P8Z68-V PRO (Marvell)||203.3||129.7||7.2||203.9||123.3||2.6|
|Asus Sabertooth 990FX||275.0||129.9||7.2||264.6||125.5||2.9|
|Asus Sabertooth 990FX (JMicron)||132.3||117.9||7.1||115.6||89.7||2.6|
|Asus Sabertooth P67||294.2||129.9||7.0||294.1||125.8||2.7|
|Asus Sabertooth P67 (Marvell)||235.4||129.9||7.2||234.4||127.2||2.7|
|Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3 (GSATA)||177.4||129.8||7.2||178.8||121.7||2.5|
|MSI Z68A-GD80 (Marvell)||195.0||129.0||7.2||197.5||85.5||2.6|
|HD Tune Serial ATA performance – Vertex 3|
|Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)||Burst (MB/s)||Average (MB/s)||Random 4KB (ms)|
|Asus P8P67 PRO||387.8||383.1||0.05||348.1||279.6||0.06|
|Asus P8P67 PRO (Marvell)||263.0||261.3||0.07||241.8||130.6||0.09|
|Asus P8Z68-V PRO||381.3||375.0||0.06||340.3||252.0||0.06|
|Asus P8Z68-V PRO (Marvell)||232.2||243.5||0.09||210.5||152.5||0.11|
|Asus Sabertooth 990FX||369.6||339.5||0.05||305.0||238.9||0.05|
|Asus Sabertooth 990FX (JMicron)||129.0||130.9||0.08||127.1||93.8||0.14|
|Asus Sabertooth P67||388.7||383.7||0.07||346.4||278.5||0.07|
|Asus Sabertooth P67 (Marvell)||261.3||258.8||0.08||238.1||167.9||0.10|
|Gigabyte Z68X-UD3H-B3 (GSATA)||193.9||194.5||0.06||175.2||136.5||0.08|
|MSI Z68A-GD80 (Marvell)||208.4||213.5||0.11||200.8||97.9||0.14|
Asus seems to have done the best job of mastering Intel’s 6-series Serial ATA controller. Zotac’s implementation is a little bit slower with sustained reads and writes, at least with an SSD. There’s really no difference in average read and write speeds with a mechanical VelociRaptor hooked up.
|NTttcp Ethernet performance|
|Throughput (Mbps)||CPU utilization (%)|
|Asus P8P67 PRO||934.6||1.8|
|Asus P8Z68-V PRO||940.6||1.9|
|Asus Sabertooth 990FX||947.7||9.8|
|Asus Sabertooth P67||938.3||1.8|
|MSI Z68A-GD80 (1)||943.9||3.7|
|MSI Z68A-GD80 (2)||937.1||3.4|
|Zotac Z68-ITX (1)||946.2||3.2|
|Zotac Z68-ITX (2)||940.5||2.7|
I’m a little puzzled as to why Zotac thought the Z68-ITX needed a second Gigabit Ethernet controller, but it’s every bit as quick as the first one. All of the Z68 mobos are pretty even when it comes to Ethernet throughput and 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|
|Asus P8P67 PRO||5||4||4||5||3||5||5||5||4|
|Asus P8Z68-V PRO||5||4||5||3||5||5||5||5||4|
|Asus Sabertooth 990FX||5||4||4||5||3||4||5||4||4|
|Asus Sabertooth P67||5||4||4||5||3||5||5||5||4|
Integrated audio quality matters more on Mini-ITX boards than it does with other form factors because one can’t add a sound card without sacrificing discrete graphics. The Z68-ITX’s RMAA scores put it near the back of a tightly bunched pack that sounds decidedly average overall. A USB audio device would be the first thing on my upgrade list.
The Z68-ITX is exactly the kind of motherboard we’d expect from a company whose Mini-ITX offerings have come to shadow ATX designs, matching their bigger counterparts nearly feature for feature. Thanks to slick power circuitry, an assortment of integrated peripherals that’s richer than ever before, and smart little touches like the POST code display and rear-mounted CMOS reset button, this latest release is Zotac’s finest yet. Factor in the board’s competitive performance and ample overclocking headroom, and the Z68-ITX looks like an ideal candidate for anyone looking to downsize their gaming rig.
That said, the UEFI is clearly the weakest link. Zotac has implemented the bare minimum when it comes to overclocking, tweaking, and fan controls. The lack of an integrated flashing utility is a glaring omission, and Zotac seems to have no answer for the competition’s auto-overclocking schemes and Windows utilities.
Those flaws would be almost impossible to excuse on a larger motherboard, for which better alternatives exist. No one else has a Mini-ITX board with a Z68 chipset, though—or a P67, for that matter. The Z68-ITX may be a little harder to set up and overclock than its contemporary counterparts, but its unique nature outweighs the inconvenience.
As is always the case with Mini-ITX boards, there’s a bit of a price premium involved. But not as much as one might expect. Zotac tells us the Z68-ITX will sell for $170 when it becomes available in early August. That’s only $20 more than the company’s existing H67 board and just $10 north of Asus’ Mini-ITX spin on the H67. For a diminutive desktop replacement or a gaming rig, I wouldn’t think twice about paying the premium for the Z68. I also wouldn’t hesitate to build a system around the Z68-ITX, which is why the board is TR Recommended.