Can you believe more than a decade has passed since Via introduced the Mini-ITX motherboard form factor? Man, I’m getting old. Contemporary Mini-ITX boards bear little resemblance to the first examples, though. They may share the same 6.7″ x 6.7″ footprint, but the similarities end there.
Via created the Mini-ITX form factor to show off its own low-power processors, which were soldered on and really too slow to appeal to enthusiasts. The chipset-based integrated graphics weren’t very good, either, and there was nowhere to put a proper graphics card.
Then along came Zotac, which started building Mini-ITX boards that more closely resembled full-sized ATX models. Gone were Via’s weak-sauce processors, replaced by standard sockets capable of accepting the fastest desktop CPUs. Zotac also swapped out the PCI slots common of early Mini-ITX designs in favor of PCI Express equivalents ripe for discrete graphics cards. With the addition of a couple DIMM slots for dual-channel memory configurations, the basic template for the modern Mini-ITX board was born.
For a while, Zotac had the market for high-performance mini mobos mostly to itself. But the niche grew, fueled by shrinking processor platforms with ever-expanding peripheral payloads and new cases built to accommodate potent graphics cards and aftermarket CPU coolers. Slowly but surely, the big-name motherboard makers took notice and threw their own hats into the ring. Zotac now faces a much deeper field of competitors than ever before. But the PC Partner subsidiary also has experience on its side, which is why we were eager to check out its flagship Z77 board.
The Z77-ITX WiFi fits the formula to a tee. Its LGA1155 socket is compatible with Intel’s latest Ivy Bridge processors, including the top-of-the-line Core i7-3770K. That processor can be overclocked to your heart’s content thanks to the lack of multiplier restrictions in the Z77 Express platform. The Z77 also supports Intel’s SSD caching solution and Lucid’s Virtu GPU virtualization software. You could build yourself one muscular machine with this mobo.
Speaking of muscle, the Z77-ITX has the requisite PCI Express x16 expansion slot. Gamers shouldn’t have to go without a discrete graphics card, especially when the Mini-ITX form factor is so ideal for a LAN party box. Dual-channel DIMM slots run up one edge of the board, nicely completing the textbook template.
The Mini-ITX form factor’s limited real estate keeps components close to the socket, creating the potential for clearance issues with larger heatsinks that extend beyond the restricted zone, a 3.7″ x 3.7″ box surrounding the socket. Intel’s specifications forbid taller components from infiltrating this region, but motherboard makers have free rein outside the protected area.
Since we can’t test every combination of heatsink, memory, graphics card, and enclosure, we’ve taken some measurements to illustrate the distances between the edges of the CPU socket and notable landmarks, including the boundaries of the board.
The socket is much closer to the PCI Express slot than on the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe. This placement can be problematic with coolers whose heatpipes snake out and up into wide radiators. The DIMM slots are even closer to the socket, although the distance there is about the same as on the Asus board.
Note the location of the VRM heatsinks, which both stand 28 mm tall. You’ll also want to make sure you have clearance for the wireless card sticking out of the vertical Mini PCIe slot. The card rises 32.5 mm off the board and is about the same height as a standard memory module.
Vertical clearance definitely won’t be a problem for the second Mini PCIe slot, which orients cards parallel to the circuit board. This mSATA-compatible slot can accept mini SSDs for storage or caching, a nice perk for cases with limited storage bays. The slot sits just to the left of the SATA ports in the picture above.
Like the mSATA slot, the Serial ATA ports are fed by the Z77 Express platform hub. The same chip also provides four USB 3.0 ports: two accessible via an onboard header and two more in the rear cluster.
The port cluster contains a few surprises, including dual HDMI ports and a Mini DisplayPort out. While the HDMI outputs peak at 1920×1200, the DisplayPort connection can push resolutions up to the 2560×1600 supported by typical 30″ monitors. If you don’t have Mini DisplayPort hardware, worry not; the box contains a full-sized DisplayPort adapter cable for the miniature port. There’s no provision for straight DVI output, though.
Zotac doubles down on Gigabit Ethernet in addition to endowing the board with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support. The networking may be robust, but the integrated audio is a little weak. Sure, there are five analog jacks plus a digital S/PDIF output. But the drivers don’t support real-time multichannel encoding, restricting digital surround sound to content with pre-encoded tracks. That’s fine for movies but no help at all in games. There’s no provision to virtualize surround sound for playback on stereo devices, either.
Zotac scores points for putting a clear CMOS button in the rear cluster, making it much easier to reset the firmware after an overclocking misadventure. Buckling-spring aficionados rocking classic IBM Model M keyboards should appreciate the PS/2 port, as well.
For testing motherboards on an open rack, as reviewers tend to do, the integrated power and reset buttons are quite handy. These little extras impart admittedly little value to the average user, but the two-digit POST code display can be very helpful for troubleshooting issues with the boot process.
A few other items add to the overall package. The first is an extension for the auxiliary 12V power connector, which could come in handy if your PSU’s cables don’t reach. Zotac also throws in an expansion bracket for the internal USB 3.0 ports, including a half-height back plate for low-profile cases. Mini-ITX enclosures don’t always have SuperSpeed USB ports up front, but at least there’s a way to tap the board’s internal headers. That’s the Mini DisplayPort adapter at the bottom, by the way.
Most motherboards offer multiple ways to adjust system settings. The Z77-ITX is somewhat more limited, confining tweaking options to the firmware interface. This old-school approach has some merit, since Windows-based tweaking software can be cumbersome if it’s not done well. For this approach to succeed, however, the firmware has to be first-rate.
When I first loaded the Z77-ITX’s firmware interface, I saw the snazzy background image and assumed this was a modern UEFI. The firmware is indeed based on the UEFI standard, but don’t expect much in the way of modern conveniences. As far as I can tell, the background image and colored text are the only upgrades over Zotac’s older firmware. Navigating the interface feels like poking around in a BIOS from several years ago, and nostalgia isn’t a good thing in this case.
Unlike most modern UEFIs, this firmware is completely devoid of mouse support. Also missing is a built-in flashing utility and the ability to switch between multiple configuration profiles. Another worrying sign: the storage controller defaults to IDE rather than AHCI mode. The latter mode needs to be enabled for the system to take advantage of the command queuing functionality of Serial ATA drives. Zotac’s firmware engineers apparently aren’t keeping up with the times.
A basic array of overclocking controls is available, at least. There are enough multiplier, clock, and voltage options to squeeze some extra performance out of a willing CPU or memory. Still, modifying these settings isn’t as easy as it should be. Only a handful of variables can be keyed in directly, forcing users to scroll through lists of potential values to define things like system voltages and memory speeds.
Zotac deserves some credit for offering a handful of tuning options for the temperature-based CPU fan speed control. Users can set the temperature threshold that triggers the fan; they can also set the fan’s starting and maximum speeds. However, there’s no intelligence behind the system fan header. Your only option there is setting a single, static speed between 20 and 100%.
If you cut your teeth on the text-only BIOSes of old, you should be able to navigate the Z77-ITX’s firmware without too much trouble. Newbies are likely to find the interface intimidating compared to the more user-friendly implementations available on competing boards, though. Since Zotac doesn’t make a tweaking utility for Windows, there’s really no way to get around the firmware’s shortcomings.
Most enthusiast-oriented boards come with some degree of auto-overclocking support to help ease less experienced users into the process. Not the Z77-ITX WiFi, which leaves folks to their own devices. Good thing we have plenty of experience with manual overclocking. To probe the board’s limits on that front, we installed a Core i7-3770K and strapped on a Corsair H80 water cooler. We also added a hot-clocked Asus Radeon HD 7970 for good measure. System stability was tested with a combined CPU and GPU load consisting of AIDA64’s CPU stress test and the Unigine Heaven DirectX 11 demo.
The Z77-ITX WiFi had little trouble pushing the i7-3770K to 4.9GHz. That’s the same speed we reached on Asus’ P8Z77-I Deluxe, a similar Mini-ITX board. In fact, the default CPU voltage was sufficient up to 4.6GHz. After that, we had to bump up the voltage several times as approached our final, stable config. A CPU voltage setting of 1.45V was required to keep application crashes and bluescreen errors at bay at 4.9GHz. Surprisingly, though, the firmware reported a CPU voltage of only 1.376V with this setting.
4.9GHz represents the highest stable clock speed we’ve achieved with this CPU, but that didn’t stop us from attempting 5GHz. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. Even though were able to get into Windows at that speed, thermal throttling reared its ugly head and our stability tests crashed. Increasing voltages and fiddling with power limits didn’t help, so we called it a day.
Psst. I’ll let you in on a little secret: a system’s motherboard is rarely a limiting performance factor. The CPU, graphics card, and to a lesser extent storage (mostly whether it’s solid-state or not) largely determine application and game performance. The CPU’s accompanying platform hub is responsible for most onboard I/O, which means boards based on the same chipsets tend to deliver identical peripheral performance, as well.
Even though we know that motherboards tend to offer equivalent performance, we still test them thoroughly to be sure. To put the Z77-ITX’s performance into perspective, we’ve singled out a few results from the mass of test data we’ve accumulated. The board was tested against comparable Mini-ITX models from Asus and ASRock, both of which are based on the same Z77 Express platform.
There was a time when memory performance was an important differentiating factor for motherboards. Then the number of core-logic chipsets dwindled and the memory controller moved onto the CPU. As long as you’re using the same memory speed and timings, as we were, the Z77-ITX WiFi should offer comparable memory bandwidth to other platforms using the same CPU and DIMMs.
The Zotac board’s relative position versus the competition changes from one application test to the next, but the results are very close overall. You’re looking at performance differences of only a few percentage points at most.
We see similarly close scores throughout our peripheral testing, and for good reason. SATA and USB connectivity are provided exclusively by Intel’s Z77 Express platform hub—the very same chip used by every other Z77 board. However, there are a couple of exceptions worth noting.
The Z77-ITX WiFi’s USB 3.0 write speeds pull up short in both CrystalDiskMark’s sequential test and our real-world RoboBench test. (RoboBench invokes a multi-threaded file copy using Windows’ built-in robocopy command.) The CrystalDiskMark test uses 1GB files, and RoboBench’s movie set is filled with files in the 700-800MB range, so the problem appears to be confined to longer sustained writes. There’s no sign of issues when writing RoboBench’s mixed file set, which is loaded with much smaller documents, images, and MP3s. The Zotac board also matches the USB read speeds of its peers.
Well, it matches the other stock implementations of Intel’s USB 3.0 controller. Asus offers special USB Boost software that can accelerate performance with certain hardware combinations, including when a USAP-compatible device is plugged into ports associated with the ASMedia controller. Zotac doesn’t have anything comparable.
We’ll round out the performance highlights with a look at boot time, since the Z77-ITX sets itself apart from the pack a little, at least with its fast boot option enabled. This feature cuts down on device initialization during the POST process and shaves nearly five seconds off the board’s boot time, allowing it to slip into first place. The fast boot option is configurable, and users also have the option of setting a time delay for the initial POST screen.
Provided they’re based on the same form factor and platform, motherboards tend to exhibit reasonably consistent power consumption from one model to the next. Some differences can arise when boards start loading up on third-party peripheral chips and fancy power circuitry, though.
The Z77-ITX WiFi’s lack of an auxiliary USB 3.0 controller might explain why its power consumption is lower than the other two boards, both of which feature additional ASMedia chips. However, the Zotac-powered system only consumes less power when idling and playing 1080p YouTube video. When taxed with our full system load, which comprises rendering a scene in Cinebench 11.5 while running the Unigine Heaven DirectX 11 demo, power draw at the wall socket is actually higher than it is for the competition. Looks like Zotac’s power regulation circuitry is less efficient when the system is stressed.
If you’re in the mood for additional performance results, keep reading. There’s more benchmark data to come after the following page, which describes our test methods in detail while also providing a full rundown of the Z77-ITX WiFi’s vital specifications. We’ve covered all the highlights already, so we won’t be offended if you skip ahead to the conclusion.
Here’s a full accounting of the Z77-ITX WiFi’s specifications and firmware-based overclocking and fan control options.
Z77 Express, socket LGA1155
|DIMM slots||2 DDR3,
|Expansion slots||1 PCIe 3.0 x16
1 Mini PCIe/mSATA
|Storage I/O||2 SATA RAID 6Gbps
2 SATA RAID 3Gbps
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC892|
|Wireless||802.11n Wi-Fi via
|Ports||1 Mini DisplayPort
(Full-sized adapter included)
1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
2 USB 3.0 w/ 2 headers
4 USB 2.0 w/ 4 headers
2 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek RTL8111E
1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog side out
1 analog line in
1 digital S/PDIF output
|Overclocking||Per-core CPU multiplier: 16-59X
GPU multiplier: 10-60X
Base clock: 99.5-300MHz
DRAM clock: 1066-2667MHz
CPU voltage: 1.1-1.52V
Turbo voltage: +0.001-0.255V
GPU voltage: 1.1-1.52V
PCH voltage: +0.03-0.15V
|Fan control||CPU: start temperature, start/max fan speed
System: static fan speed
No surprises here. The mSATA slot and display output config are the two most notable deviations from the standard formula.
We used the following system configurations for testing. You can read our full review of the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe right here. Expect a similar treatment of the ASRock Z77E-ITX soon. We’ll be covering Z77-based Mini-ITX boards from Gigabyte and MSI shortly, as well.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-3700K 3.5GHz|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe||ASRock Z77E-ITX||Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi|
|Platform hub||Intel Z77 Express||Intel Z77 Express||Intel Z77 Express|
|Chipset drivers|| Chipset: 188.8.131.526
| Chipset: 184.108.40.2066
| Chipset: 220.127.116.116
|Audio||Realtek ALC898||Realtek ALC898||Realtek ALC892|
|Memory size||8GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz|
|Graphics||Intel HD Graphics 4000 with 18.104.22.16832 drivers|
|Hard drive||Corsair Force Series GT 120GB
Samsung 830 Series 256GB
OCZ RevoDrive 3 X2 240GB
|Power Supply||Corsair AX850 850W|
|OS||Microsoft Windows 8 Enterprise x64|
Thanks to Intel, Corsair, Samsung, OCZ, and Asus for providing the hardware used in our test systems. We should also thank the motherboard makers for providing their products for review.
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- 7-Zip 9.20 64-bit
- TrueCrypt 7.1a
- Chromium 20.0.1096.0
- SunSpider 0.9.1
- x264 HD benchmark 4.0
- DiRT Showdown demo
- CrystalDiskMark 3.0.2
- FRAPS 3.5.9
- TR RoboBench 0.1
- RightMark Audio Analyzer 6.2.5
Some further notes on our test methods:
- DiRT Showdown was tested with medium detail settings and a 1366×768 display resolution. We used Fraps to log a 60-second snippet of gameplay from the demo’s first race. To offset the fact that our gameplay sequence can’t be repeated exactly, we ran this test five times on each system.
- Power consumption was measured at the wall socket for the complete system, sans monitor and speakers, using a Watts Up Pro power meter. Our video playback load used this 1080p YouTube trailer for the movie Looper. The full-load test combined AIDA64’s CPU stress test with the Unigine Heaven DirectX 11 demo running in a 1280×1024 window.
- The Force GT 120GB SSD was used as the system drive for all tests. The Samsung 830 Series 256GB was connected as secondary storage to test Serial ATA and USB performance, the latter through a USAP-compatible Thermaltake BlacX 5G docking station. With RoboBench, we used the Samsung SSD as the source drive and the OCZ RevoDrive 3 X2 240GB as the destination for the read speed tests. Those roles were reversed for RoboBench’s write speed tests.
The Samsung/OCZ tag team also powered our Ethernet transfer tests. The RevoDrive served as the source and destination on the host system, while the 830 Series SSD performed those duties on the remote machine. That remote rig was based on an Asus P8P67 Deluxe motherboard with an Intel 82579 Gigabit Ethernet controller. The two systems were connected via a single Cat 6 Ethernet cable.
The Samsung and OCZ SSDs were secure-erased before each test that involved them. The Corsair drive was also wiped before we loaded our system image.
- Analog audio signal quality was tested using RMAA’s “loopback” test, which pipes front-channel output through the board’s line input. We tested with the boards idling and with a combined load consisting of AIDA64’s CPU stress test, the Unigine Heaven demo, and a CrystalDiskMark 4KB random I/O test running on the Samsung SSD attached via USB 3.0.
The tests and methods we employ are usually publicly available and reproducible. All tests were run at least three times, and we reported the median of those results. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Since all our systems used the same 1600MHz Corsair DIMMs with identical timings, don’t expect meaningful differences in memory bandwidth.
We tested the latest SunSpider release, version 0.9.1, in a special build of Chromium (the open-source version of Chrome) that we keep around for such purposes.
TrueCrypt disk encryption
TrueCrypt’s AES algorithm benefits from acceleration via Intel’s AES-NI instructions, which are supported by our Ivy Bridge CPU. We’ve also included results for another algorithm, Twofish, that isn’t accelerated via dedicated instructions.
7-Zip file compression and decompression
The figures below were extracted from 7-Zip’s built-in benchmark.
x264 HD benchmark
This benchmark tests one of the most popular H.264 video encoders, the open-source x264. The results come in two parts, one for each of the two passes the encoder makes through the video file. We’ve chosen to show them separately, since that’s typically how the results are reported in the public database of results for this benchmark.
We busted out our Inside the second methods to testing gaming performance. While we aren’t showing all of our fancy latency graphs, we have included results for FPS and the 99th percentile frame time.
Here, we measured the boot time after a full system shutdown. We used a stopwatch to time each test and stopped the clock when the Windows 8 Start screen finished loading.
In this first batch of tests, the Z77-ITX WiFi sets itself apart from the pack only when booting into Windows. Otherwise, its application performance closely matches that of the competition. Not even our frame time-focused 99th percentile gaming metric can tease out a meaningful difference between the three boards.
Serial ATA performance
TR developer extraordinaire Bruno “morphine” Ferreira created RoboBench, a scripted file copy benchmark that relies on Windows’ built-in robocopy command to execute eight parallel file transfer threads. The movie file set contains eight similarly sized files totaling 5.6GB, while the mixed set has a diverse collection of 14,000 files that adds up to 10.6GB.
Don’t put too much stock into the Z77-ITX WiFi’s slightly higher write speed with RoboBench’s mixed file set. That result is clearly an outlier given the board’s performance across the rest of our SATA tests.
The stronger USB 3.0 performance of the USAP-boosted ASMedia controller on the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe is no outlier, though. The board’s USB Boost software pays dividends in both synthetic benchmarks and real-world file copy tests. That said, for typical USB storage scenarios, sequential throughput is likely to be far more important than random I/O performance.
As we’ve already highlighted, the Zotac board’s Intel-based USB 3.0 solution pulls up a little slow in two of our write speed tests. The Z77-ITX WiFi hangs much closer to the competition in the other tests.
PCI Express performance
The Z77-ITX WiFi’s lone PCI Express slot is connected directly to the CPU, as is the case with all the other boards. No wonder they hit similar speeds with OCZ’s RevoDrive X2 240GB PCIe SSD.
Zotac relies on a pair of Realtek chips to feed dual Gigabit Ethernet ports. These controllers are just as fast as the Broadcom and Intel silicon used by the Asus and ASRock boards, respectively. The Z77-ITX WiFi’s CPU utilization is higher, but only by marginal, er, margins.
Analog audio signal quality
RightMark Audio Analyzer grades analog signal quality on a scale between “very poor” and “excellent.” We’ve translated those values to a numerical scale that starts at low of one and peaks at six. Higher values are better.
Our first set of results was gathered with the systems idling (apart from the RMAA app, of course). The second batch is based on tests conducted with the system under a combined CPU, GPU, and USB load.
|RightMark Audio Analyzer audio quality at idle: 24-bit/192kHz|
|Frequency response||Noise level||Dynamic range||THD||THD + Noise||IMD + Noise||Stereo Crosstalk||IMD at 10kHz||Overall score|
|Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe||6||4||4||5||4||5||6||5||5|
|Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi||6||4||4||5||3||4||5||5||4|
|RightMark Audio Analyzer audio quality under load: 24-bit/192kHz|
|Frequency response||Noise level||Dynamic range||THD||THD + Noise||IMD + Noise||Stereo Crosstalk||IMD at 10kHz||Overall score|
|Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe||2||1||1||2||1||1||1||1||1|
|Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi||2||1||1||3||1||1||1||2||2|
According to RMAA, the Z77-ITX WiFi’s integrated audio delivers comparable analog signal quality to the competition. All the boards score much better at idle than they do in our load test. The load consists of AIDA64’s CPU stress test running alongside the Unigine Heaven DirectX 11 demo while CrystalDiskMark hammers an SSD attached via USB 3.0. So, yeah, that’s a worst-case scenario.
The Z77-ITX WiFi is pretty much the Ivy Bridge motherboard you’d expect from Zotac. Heck, it looks virtually identical to the Z68-ITX WiFi from the Sandy Bridge generation. Zotac added a dedicated mSATA slot to the new model, giving the board an edge over most of its rivals. Support for mini SSDs is a nice touch, and it definitely adds more value than the unique display output config and dual Gigabit Ethernet connectors. The extra HDMI and GigE ports seem better suited to digital signage and NAS applications, neither of which require Intel’s flagship Ivy Bridge platform.
While not quite as flashy as extra ports and slots, some of the Z77-ITX’s subtler touches are ultimately more valuable. The CMOS reset switch is a godsend for cramped Mini-ITX cases. Enthusiasts and newbies alike can benefit from the POST code display, as well.
Unfortunately, the firmware is horribly behind the times. The interface may look different—or at least more colorful—but it feels dated and lacks features that have been present in competing boards for years. I’m not talking about features with questionable utility, like support for obscure voltages or obscenely high clock speeds. I’m talking about things people use, like integrated flashing utilities. And mice. The barebones firmware isn’t backed by Windows-based tweaking software, making the Z77-ITX more difficult to tune than competing solutions.
We still managed to overclock the pants off our Core i7-3770K, though. The 4.9GHz top speed we achieved matches our best efforts on other boards, including full-sized ATX models. You get competitive performance at stock speeds, of course, but where’s the fun in that?
Right now, the Z77-ITX WiFi costs $165 online. That price is higher than the ~$150 middle ground for Z77-based Mini-ITX boards, so you’re paying a premium for the extra features. If only there were a discount attached to the basic firmware.
The Z77-ITX is no doubt a solid board capable of anchoring a high-end mini PC. However, Zotac needs to up its game if it wants to compete with the big dogs now treading on its turf.