Last weekend, Demetrious Johnson and John Dodson fought for the UFC flyweight title live on Fox. These 125-pounders weigh less than I did in elementary school, and their prime-time bout was kind of a big deal. Most of the attention in mixed martial arts and other combat sports has traditionally been focused on the heavier weight classes, which involve more imposing athletes and, thanks to the laws of physics, more devastating knockouts.
Rabid fanboys excepted, the competition in the motherboard world isn't nearly as violent. There is, however, a similar focus on size—specifically, on larger form factors like ATX. Mini-ITX mobos are only beginning to get their due.
Just a few years have passed since the 6.7" x 6.7" form factor outgrew the low-power processors and lame enclosures of its youth. In that time, Mini-ITX systems have evolved into credible competition for their ATX counterparts, minus a few expansion slots, of course. Some boards, like Asus' P8Z77-I Deluxe, are even equipped to satisfy the needs of demanding overclockers and enthusiasts. This miniature monster has an Ivy Bridge socket fed by a 10-phase riser card, an auxiliary controller with extra USB 3.0 ports, wireless connectivity out the wazoo, and loads of thoughtful little extras.
Best of all, you can shove it into a chassis the size of a shoebox. We couldn't resist the urge to check out the board for ourselves.
True to its name, the P8Z77-I Deluxe is based on Intel's Z77 Express platform hub. This high-end chipset is responsible for much of the motherboard's I/O and includes the full suite of enthusiast-friendly features available in Intel's Ivy Bridge platform. SSD caching via Intel's Smart Response Technology? Check. Support for Lucid's Virtu software? Check. Unrestricted CPU and memory overclocking? Check.
Although overclockers have traditionally shied away from Mini-ITX motherboards, Asus hopes they'll give the Deluxe a second look. I certainly did a double-take the first time I saw the board. The feature that caught my eye was the riser card that sits north of the CPU socket. This vertical circuit board hosts an 8+2 power phase configuration that should offer more stable power delivery than less exotic solutions. Arranging the VRMs on a riser is a clever way to get around the form factor's limited board real estate, but it does create some complications.
The back of the riser features a rubber spacer to prevent the card's components and exposed solder points from making contact with the walls of an enclosure. This bumper just barely extends beyond the boundary of the motherboard, so it shouldn't limit case compatibility. The riser does crowd the area around the fan headers, though. It also effectively walls off one side of the CPU socket, leaving less room for larger CPU coolers.
Given the cramped nature of Mini-ITX motherboards and cases, the position of certain components is particularly important. Since we can't make sure there's room for every combination of cooler, memory, graphics card, and case, we've opted to take a few key measurements instead. The image below details the distances between the socket, various components, and the edges of the board.
Don't worry too much about the 30-mm gap between the socket and the vertical battery mount; the battery is only 22 mm tall, so it won't get in the way. However, the VRM riser is much larger, at 43 mm tall, and it's still relatively close to the socket. The DIMM slots are even closer, so you may need to avoid taller memory modules, depending on your choice of CPU cooler.
Apart from the riser and battery, all of the onboard components keep an incredibly low profile. The chipset heatsink is no taller than the SATA ports, which are admittedly a little awkward to access in a fully loaded system. Good luck finding a Mini-ITX motherboard without similar compromises, though. You can't put this many features on a board this small without making a few concessions.
Like pretty much every Mini-ITX motherboard we've seen, the P8Z77-I Deluxe has one PCI Express x16 slot and dual memory slots—enough expansion capacity to slap in a powerful graphics card and plenty of RAM. The four internal SATA ports are complemented by a pair of eSATA connectors in the rear cluster, and USB 3.0 ports abound. In addition to the four USB 3.0 ports provided by the Z77 platform hub (two of which are tied to an internal header), two more are included via an auxiliary ASMedia controller.
The I/O panel is peppered with display outputs for Ivy's integrated graphics and connectors for the included Wi-Fi antennas. One of my favorite elements is the subtle button panel over to the right. The button on the bottom allows the CMOS to be reset without cracking open the case. Pressing it is much easier than trying to get at the onboard jumper that performs the same task. The top button controls USB BIOS Flashback, a feature that allows the firmware to be flashed using only a USB stick and a power supply—no CPU or memory required.
These buttons don't leave Asus enough room to provide a full array of analog audio outputs, but the board does provide a digital S/PDIF output. Onboard audio is particularly important for Mini-ITX motherboards because they lack sufficient expansion slots to combine discrete graphics and sound cards in the same system. The Deluxe's implementation lives up to the name, supporting both surround-sound virtualization for stereo devices and real-time DTS Interactive encoding for six-channel digital output.
Motherboard accessories are rarely exciting, but they can be very valuable. Asus has included two little extras that probably cost only a few cents but definitely smooth out the system building process. The first is a wiring harness for the front-panel connectors, which makes hooking up a case's power button, reset switch, and activity LEDs much easier. The second is a simple strip of foam on the I/O shield. This little perk removes the need for pesky metal tabs that can get caught up in the ports when you slide the motherboard into a case. It's the little things that count.
Speaking of little touches, it's worth noting that the Deluxe's dual Wi-Fi antennas have magnetic stands and sit at the end of 32" wires. You should have no problem positioning the antennas for maximum signal strength regardless of where you tuck the system.