The Z77 Express platform is designed for people who want to tweak their systems, and so is the Z77E-ITX. Between firmware and software, the board offers plenty of tuning options for both newbies and savvy enthusiasts.
We'll start with the firmware, which comes with a unique twist: the ability to update itself over the Internet. Built-in flashing utilities aren't new to motherboard firmware, but most implementations require that updates be downloaded manually and loaded off USB-attached storage. The Z77E-ITX's firmware can connect to ASRock's servers, download the latest update, and apply it automatically. Sweet! There's a standard flashing utility, of course, but the Internet-based option is much simpler to use. It's especially helpful when building a new rig from scratch.
Another neat feature is the system browser, which provides information on the components connected to the system's socket, slots, and ports. Admittedly, there isn't a lot here for seasoned enthusiasts. This firmware function should be more valuable to folks who are less familiar with piecing together their own PCs.
The system browser nicely highlights the mouse support and advanced graphics that are possible with the new UEFI firmware standard. Mouse movement is responsive throughout the firmware, and mouse wheels can be used to scroll quickly through options. The overall interface is easy to navigate and reasonably attractive, too, even if it doesn't match the board's blacked-out color scheme.
Like the firmware on the other Z77 boards we've tested, this one is brimming with overclocking options. Multipliers, clock speeds, and power limits can all be adjusted with ease by keying in values directly. Tweaking voltages is a little more cumbersome; values can't be entered directly and must be selected from long lists of available settings instead. You do have the option of deciding whether the CPU and GPU voltages are defined arbitrarily or as offsets of the processor's defaults, though.
Once you've settled on a stable config, you can save it using one of the three profile slots available in the firmware. We've seen motherboards offer as many as eight profile slots, but it's hard to imagine why most folks would need more than a couple.
ASRock does a reasonably good job with the firmware's temperature-based fan speed controls. Users can set a target temperature for the CPU and system fans, in addition to defining the speed profile of each one. The fan speed options are a little cryptic, though; you have a choice of "level" options between one and nine. The CPU fan also has a custom option whose values range from 1 to 255. Higher values and levels denote higher fan speeds, but the firmware could use more descriptive language here.
The firmware fan controls are largely replicated in ASRock's Extreme Tuning Utility for Windows. This utility is easy to use, and it also has a decent array of overclocking options.
The CPU multiplier and base clock speed can both be adjusted using the app, and so can a number of system voltages. Tweaking the load-line calibration and memory speed requires dipping into the firmware, however.
Surprisingly, the tweaking utility also includes RAM-drive functionality that can turn a portion of system memory into user-accessible storage. Configuring a RAM drive is easy enough, and the volume persists after a reboot. However, the backup function that's supposed to preserve the contents of the drive doesn't seem to be working, at least in Windows 8. As a result, any data stored on the RAM drive is gone after a reboot.
The Z77E-ITX's firmware offers pre-baked overclocking configs that scale up to 4.8GHz for our Core i7-3770K processor. These generic profiles aren't as slick as auto-overclocking schemes that attempt to determine the limits of your hardware intelligently, but they do provide an easy path to higher clock speeds. After affixing a Corsair H80 water cooler to the CPU and installing a Radeon HD 7970 graphics card from Asus, we gave the 4.8GHz preset a spin.
No dice. Booting into Windows wasn't a problem, but as soon as we started our stability test—AIDA64's CPU stress test combined with the Unigine DirectX 11 graphics demo—we got application errors and eventual blue-screens. CPU-Z told us the system was running with a 48X multiplier and a 100MHz base clock, with 1.264V flowing to the CPU. We've needed higher voltages to get this particular chip stable at 4.8GHz on other boards, so we ditched the preset and proceeded with manual tuning.
As it turns out, 4.8GHz was as far as we were able to push the processor on this board. We managed to get that speed stable with a CPU voltage of about 1.3V, just a smidgen higher than the pre-baked config. 4.9GHz proved elusive, however. Firing up our stability test at that frequency produced application and blue-screen errors until we upped the voltage. But adding voltage caused the CPU to overheat, invoking thermal throttling that lowered the clock speed. No amount of fiddling produced a stable 4.9GHz config that stayed at that speed.
4.8GHz is a perfectly good overclock for a Core i7-3770K. That said, we've had the same CPU and cooler combo stable at 4.9GHz on other Mini-ITX boards.