ASRock’s Z77E-ITX Mini-ITX motherboard reviewed

When you think of the top three retail motherboard makers, Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI probably come to mind. Those firms dominated the market for ages. Asus and Gigabyte still have the top two spots sewn up, but MSI is no longer on the podium. Starting as early as 2010, ASRock has been shipping more retail boards than the former number three. ASRock may crank out fewer than half as many mobos as Asus and Gigabyte, but its lead over MSI appears to be growing.

The rise of ASRock is particularly notable because the firm started out as an Asus subsidiary focusing on low-end products. ASRock was eventually spun off as part of Pegatron, an independent design and manufacturing company that makes a wide range of computing hardware. With independence came the freedom to expand beyond the realm of budget boards and into enthusiast territory.

One of ASRock’s most intriguing enthusiast boards is the Z77E-ITX, a Mini-ITX offering that combines Intel’s top-of-the-line Ivy Bridge platform with loads of features at a competitive price. We’re on a bit of a Mini-ITX kick, having recently reviewed comparable Z77 boards from Asus and Zotac. Now, it’s ASRock’s turn under the magnifying glass.

The Z77E-ITX looks a lot like a high-end ATX board downsized to Mini-ITX dimensions. At the center is an LGA1155 socket capable of accepting the latest Ivy Bridge processors. The socket connects to a Z77 Express platform hub responsible for much of the board’s integrated I/O in addition to a handful of key features.

Like some other Ivy chipsets, the Z77 supports SSD caching via Intel’s Smart Response Technology and GPU virtualization via Lucid’s Virtu software. What really sets this platform hub apart from its 7-series peers is robust overclocking support. The Z77 provides unfettered access to the CPU and memory multipliers on K-series processors, allowing folks to hot-clock their systems with little effort.

Overclocking typically requires aftermarket cooling, and finding something suitable for a Mini-ITX build can be especially challenging. The form factor’s tiny 6.7″ x 6.7″ footprint leaves little space between the socket and other onboard components. Also, Mini-ITX enclosures tend to have less internal volume than a shoebox. Since we can’t test compatibility with every hardware combination, we’ve taken a few key measurements to illustrate where the socket sits relative to other onboard components.

The socket is closer to the PCI Express x16 slot than on any other Mini-ITX Z77 board we’ve measured. ASRock puts the expansion slot right on the edge of the socket region, leaving no room for larger coolers that branch out in that direction. The DIMM slots are also rather close to the socket, but that’s true for all the Z77 boards we’ve tested. Using standard-height memory modules should avoid any potential clearance conflicts there.

Most of the Z77E-ITX’s onboard components stay close to the surface. The only exceptions are the VRM heatsink and vertical battery mount that sit to the left of the socket. At 25 and 22 mm tall, respectively, these parts are short enough to steer clear of typical aftermarket heatsinks.

Although most of the Z77E-ITX’s expansion capacity is found topside, the board’s underbelly hides an mSATA slot perfect for a mini SSD. This location isn’t the most convenient for quick upgrades, but there’s only so much real estate on the other side of the board. I do worry about mSATA SSDs overheating, though. Enclosures rarely ventilate the underside of the motherboard.

On the business side of the board, the mSATA slot is complemented by four Serial ATA ports. Note how the ports are oriented; they’re keyed so the locking tab on SATA connectors is always on the outside and easily accessible. Most boards stack SATA ports without changing their orientation, which means some locking tabs are impossible to reach without removing adjacent cables. ASRock has found a simple solution to what can be an annoying quirk.

The picture above gives us a nice view of the Mini PCIe wireless card, which offers 802.11n Wi-Fi connectivity but no Bluetooth support. We can also see onboard headers for two USB 3.0 ports and four USB 2.0 ones. The internal USB 3.0 ports stem from the Z77 Express platform hub, and there are four more in the rear cluster. Half of those rear ports come from the Intel chip, while the remainder are supplied by an auxiliary ASMedia controller.

There’s a little bit of everything in the rear cluster, including a trio of digital display outputs reserved for Ivy’s integrated graphics. The clear CMOS button is a nice addition, allowing the firmware settings to be reset without popping open the case. If you’ve ever poked around inside a fully loaded Mini-ITX enclosure, you’ll appreciate how difficult it can be to reach the onboard jumper that performs the same task.

Integrated audio is critically important for Mini-ITX systems, which have insufficient expansion capacity to run discrete sound and graphics cards side by side. The Z77E-ITX’s implementation isn’t too bad. There are enough analog jacks to avoid port sharing, and an S/PDIF output provides pristine digital output. Digital audio can be piped through the HDMI and DisplayPort outputs, too, but there are some limitations. Unless you’re watching a movie or other content with a pre-encoded multichannel track, digital output is limited to two-channel stereo. To get surround sound in games and other real-time applications, you’ll need to use the analog jacks.

The Realtek drivers that govern the integrated audio do support surround sound virtualization for stereo playback. ASRock also throws in some THX software that presumably does something useful if you cough up $25 for the full version. The free release does little beyond adjusting the system volume, though.

Apart from a VGA adapter for the DVI output, the Z77E-ITX is short on bundled extras. The Wi-Fi antenna is worth mentioning, if only because it’s a rather beefy specimen. The antenna isn’t the most attractive accessory, and it certainly doesn’t match the board’s bling-on-black aesthetic. However, the receiver does sit at the end of about 32″ of wiring. You should have no problem positioning the antenna for optimal signal strength.

Tweaking options

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.

Overclocking

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.

Performance highlights

If you’ve been following our motherboard coverage for the past few years, you’ll have noticed a lot of graphs with bars all about the same size. The truth is that mobos have little impact on PC performance. A system’s processor and graphics card are the real bottlenecks, and whether the storage is mechanical or solid-state plays a large role in overall responsiveness. With most motherboard I/O handled by common platform hubs and few choices for auxiliary controllers, even peripheral performance tends to be fairly consistent within a given class of products.

Occasionally, motherboards don’t measure up due to bugs or poor implementation choices. The only way to catch these problems is to test boards thoroughly, which we’ve done with the Z77E-ITX. We have loads of benchmark data that shows the board to be just as fast as the competition in most cases, but there’s no need for you to scroll through all the graphs. We’ve picked out the most interesting results for our performance highlights.

We’ve started with some application and gaming tests to illustrate the narrow performance gaps between modern motherboards. Whether you’re encrypting data, compressing files, encoding video, or even playing games, the Z77E-ITX is about as fast as the other Z77-based Mini-ITX mobos we’ve tested.

For the most part, the same is true on the peripheral front. Our USB testing did reveal some interesting info, though. The Z77E-ITX has USB 3.0 ports that stem from the Z77 platform hub and from an auxiliary ASMedia controller. On top of that, ASRrock includes an XFast USB software application similar to Asus’ USB Boost. This app is supposed to accelerate performance with certain controller and device combinations. We tested the ASMedia controller with and without the utility doing its thing.

Well, we tried to, anyway. The current version of the XFast app has issues with the ASMedia USB drivers posted on ASRock’s site. CrystalDiskMark runs just fine, and so does a normal file copy operation. However, changing the drive letter associated with connected devices produces blue-screen errors on our system. So does RoboBench, our multithreaded file copy test. We’ve been in touch with ASRock about the issues, and they’re working with ASMedia to address them. As it turns out, the XFast utility does work with Windows 8’s built-in drivers for the ASMedia controller, so that’s how we’ve tested the app’s Turbo mode.

The Turbo mode definitely speeds up the Z77E-ITX’s ASMedia controller, and the difference is especially apparent when writing large movie files. However, the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe’s USAP Boost mode delivers faster transfer speeds in each test. The Asus software has no issues with the latest ASMedia drivers, which may account for the delta.

Interestingly, the ASRock Turbo config is really no faster than the standard Intel USB controller in these real-world tests. You can certainly get by without the app installed, and we definitely wouldn’t use it in conjunction with the latest ASMedia drivers until the blue-screen issues are sorted out. We hope that happens soon, because it’s nice to see ASRock working to deliver a meaningful performance improvement for external storage.

System boot time is another area where we see the field spread out a little, even if only by a few seconds. Here, we’ve tested the boards with and without their fast-boot options enabled.

The Z77E-ITX boots faster than its rivals in the default configuration. Enabling the basic fast boot option shaves about a second off the boot time and still lets you get into the firmware interface on POST. There’s also an ultra-fast option with some additional baggage. This mode requires Windows 8 and needs a special application to get into the firmware interface; keyboard initialization is skipped on POST, which means input doesn’t register until you get into the OS.

Power consumption

As with performance, differences in motherboard power consumption tend to be pretty minor. The Z77E-ITX is no exception.

When idling and playing 1080p YouTube video, the Zotac-based system draws about 3-4W less than the others. That reduction won’t save you much on your power bill, though. A little more heat will need to be dissipated, of course, but it doesn’t amount to much considering system power draw peaks at close to 100W—and that’s without a discrete graphics card.

So concludes our look at the Z77E-ITX’s vital performance characteristics. If you’re curious about our testing methods or other benchmark results, click next and keep reading. Pages of graphs await. That said, we won’t be offended if you skip ahead to the conclusion for our final thoughts on the board.

Detailed specifications

Before diving into more test results, here’s a full accounting of the Z77E-ITX’s specifications and key firmware options.

Platform Intel Z77 Express, socket LGA1155
DIMM slots 2 DDR3, 16GB max
Expansion slots 1 PCIe 3.0 x16

1 mSATA

Storage I/O 2 SATA RAID 6Gbps

2 SATA RAID 3Gbps

Audio 8-channel HD via Realtek ALC898
Wireless 802.11n Wi-Fi via Realtek RTL8191SE
Ports 1 DisplayPort

1 DVI-I (with VGA adapter)

1 HDMI

1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse

2 USB 3.0 w/ 2 headers

2 USB 3.0 via ASMedia  ASM1042

2 USB 2.0 w/ 4 headers

1 eSATA

1 Gigabit Ethernet via Broadcom BCM57781

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: 16-63X

GPU clock: 1150-3000MHz

Base clock: 95-150MHz

DRAM clock: 1066-3000MHz

CPU  voltage: 0.6-1.7V

Turbo voltage: +0.004-0.996V

GPU voltage: 0.6-1.52V
DRAM voltage: 1.165-1.8V

VTT voltage: 0.981-1.559V

VCCSA voltage: 0.928-1.208V

Fan control CPU, system: target temperature, fan speed profile

We’ve covered the most important aspects of the board already, so let’s move on.

Our testing methods

We used the following system configurations for testing. You can read our full reviews of the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe here and the Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi here. 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
Bios revision 0801 1.70 229
Platform hub Intel Z77 Express Intel Z77 Express Intel Z77 Express
Chipset drivers Chipset: 9.3.0.1026

RST: 11.7.0.1013

Chipset: 9.3.0.1026

RST: 11.7.0.1013

Chipset: 9.3.0.1026

RST: 11.7.0.1013

Audio Realtek ALC898 Realtek ALC898 Realtek ALC892
Memory size 8GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair Vengeance DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz
Memory timings 9-9-9-24-1T
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4000 with 9.17.10.2932 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:

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.

Memory bandwidth

Since all our systems used the same 1600MHz Corsair DIMMs with identical timings, don’t expect meaningful differences in memory bandwidth.

Productivity

SunSpider JavaScript performance

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.

Video encoding

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.

Gaming

DiRT Showdown

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.

Boot 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.

So, yeah, motherboards have little influence on application and game performance. Told you.

Serial ATA performance

CrystalDiskMark

TR RoboBench

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.

The same Z77 Express SATA controller delivers equivalent performance on three different motherboards. Shocking, I know.

USB performance

CrystalDiskMark

TR RoboBench

Were it not for the auxiliary ASMedia controllers and additional software, our USB performance results would play out much like the SATA ones. Notice how the Asus board’s USAP Boost mode produces substantially higher 4KB random I/O rates than anything else, including the Turbo mode on the Z77E-ITX. Random I/O performance isn’t hugely important for the secondary storage devices typically attached to USB ports, but it does highlight a big difference between the software being offered by Asus and ASRock. Perhaps the gap will narrow if ASRock can get its Turbo mode working with the latest ASMedia drivers.

PCI Express performance

CrystalDiskMark

The PCI Express x16 expansion slots on all three of these Mini-ITX boards stem from the same CPU, so it’s no surprise that the performance of our RevoDrive X2 PCIe SSD varies little from one mobo to the next.

Ethernet performance

NTttcp

TR RoboBench

The Z77E-ITX’s Broadcom Gigabit Ethernet controller has about the performance and CPU utilization as the Intel and Realtek solutions used by the Asus and Zotac boards, respectively.

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
ASRock Z77E-ITX 6 5 5 5 4 4 5 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
ASRock Z77E-ITX 1 1 1 2 1 1 1 2 2
Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi 2 1 1 3 1 1 1 2 2

According to RMAA, the Z77E-ITX’s analog audio signal quality is comparable to that the competition at idle and under load, although the scores for the latter condition are much worse. Our load for this test is a particularly cruel combination of heavy CPU, GPU, and USB activity.

Conclusions

After spending some quality time with the Z77E-ITX, it’s easy to see why ASRock boards are becoming more popular. This is a good motherboard with a laundry list of features, including a number of thoughtful touches we haven’t seen elsewhere. Little things like the Internet-based flashing utility and carefully oriented SATA ports really do make system assembly easier, even if they’re not as flashy as the shiny gold capacitors, mSATA slot, and extra USB ports.

The additional USB connectivity is nice, but I’d trade it in a heartbeat for built-in Bluetooth. For most folks, support for wireless peripherals is likely to be more useful than the fifth and sixth USB ports, especially since those extras are no faster than the ones already provided by the Z77 platform. ASRock’s XFast software at least offers a speed boost for USB devices, although there are clearly some bugs that need to be squashed.

ASRock’s pre-baked overclocking presets could also use a little attention; the 4.8GHz Turbo mode would have worked perfectly with our CPU if the preset applied just a smidgen more voltage. Overall, the Z77E-ITX didn’t overclock quite as well as the other Mini-ITX boards we’ve tested. It’s tough to really ding the board for coming up only 100MHz short of its rivals, though. Considering the cooling challenges associated with miniature PCs, Mini-ITX motherboards aren’t ideal for pushing overclocking limits.

The Z77E-ITX’s $150 asking price seems reasonable given the board’s features and capabilities. For a limited time, Newegg will throw in 8GB of DDR3-1600 Crucial Ballistix memory at no extra charge. The RAM is worth $50 on its own, but it’s a single DIMM, so you’ll want to add another for a dual-channel config.

Even without the memory bundle, the Z77E-ITX is a solid value. I’m even tempted to bust out our TR Recommended award, but it’s difficult to give that strong of an endorsement when there are blue-screen-producing software bugs that need to be resolved. The Z77E-ITX will be easier to recommend once those issues are sorted.

Comments closed
    • kellybboxo32
    • 7 years ago
    • sarahsmith320o
    • 7 years ago
    • shaurz
    • 7 years ago

    I built my current PC on this board 3 months ago with a 3770K. I had some instability issues at first with the Radeon card I was using but those were fixed after a driver update so it wasn’t the motherboard’s fault. After that it has been very stable (Linux and Windows 7). My overclock is not as high as 4.8 GHz though.

    • Slinky
    • 7 years ago

    I’m a little worried about the auto updating flashing of the BIOS. What’s stopping someone spoofing as a Asrock firmware server and feeding malware infected firmware to the mobo? What kind of security measures are in place? Can it be disabled?

      • Dissonance
      • 7 years ago

      I’m not sure what’s in place to prevent spoofing, but updates aren’t entirely automatic. You have to launch the internet-based flashing utility manually. The process is only automatic after that initial step, so there’s no danger of the firmware trying to update itself without your knowledge.

        • Thatguy
        • 7 years ago

        Sounds very similar to what MSI uses, for my board at least, launch and search for updates. After you download the files you install them as you please.

          • Slinky
          • 7 years ago

          Thats alright then.
          It’s not like firmware updates are very frequent, not like Java or Chrome…

    • axeman
    • 7 years ago

    Good guy ASrock. Puts the mSATA under the board and it still doesn’t over heat.

      • cynan
      • 7 years ago

      Is overheating really a concern for mSATA SSDs (or really any SSD)? a micro SSD consumes less than 2 watts at load, some considerably less than 1 watt, this is probably at least 3 or 4 times, if not more, less power than a DDR3 dimm…

        • mocliamtoh
        • 7 years ago

        [url<]https://techreport.com/news/23944/intel-nuc-nicked-by-nic-heat-quirk[/url<] The SSD overheating was the cause of lockups on the Intel NUCs. So, yeah, possible overheating is a reasonable concern.

          • cynan
          • 7 years ago

          I suppose. But in the case of the NUC, the SSD was sandwiched against a particularly hot network card. As long as the ASRock mSSD location isn’t directly under the CPU bed, I’m skeptical that thermal overload issues will be a problem.

    • tanker27
    • 7 years ago

    Geoff,

    It’s nice to see your reviews are carried on Ars Technica. I guess a congratulations are in order.

    • Bensam123
    • 7 years ago

    “We’re on a bit of a Mini-ITX kick…”

    I have no qualms with that. These reviews are more exciting then the typical ATX motherboard reviews. It’d be great if you could test some AMD motherboards too, although they seem sorta sparse based on Neweggs listings. Trinity makes for a great HTPC.

    Honestly $150 is still too much though. You guys should see what you can find for under $100. There look like there are some quality boards with almost the same offerings for 2/3s the cost.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 7 years ago

    Why is Asus the only one able to make a board where the socket isn’t snuggled up to the PCIe slot? (Ok, there are probably others, but 99% of ITX boards are limited in this way.) The socket area measurements are fantastic to have in such detail.

    I am assuming the mSATA slot is SATA II not SATA III since there are two regular SATA III ports? That’s an important detail to know for all boards with mSATA slots, please include in the future. Also, some boards multiplex their mSATA slot with a SATA port, if that’s the case it’s very useful info for those who need to know for drive expansion options.

    A complete shot of the rear of ITX boards would be nice too, and maybe some commentary on components around the socket on the rear of the board. Components there can be an issue for aftermarket heatsink backplates.

    Finally, since you’re now testing with Windows 8, there needs to be a new name for BSOD. ‘The system sad-faced screened’? ‘Frowny-faced’? Or, to give readers an emotional attachment while being cryptic, ‘The system :(‘

      • stratosrally
      • 7 years ago

      Per their spec sheet on their website, it is a 3Gb/s mSATA slot…

      [url<]http://www.asrock.com/mb/Intel/Z77E-ITX/?cat=Specifications[/url<] more images here... [url<]http://www.asrock.com/mb/Intel/Z77E-ITX/[/url<]

      • willmore
      • 7 years ago

      Sames goes for any eSATA ports, too. It’s good to know what’s going to get disabled when you plug something in there.

    • jihadjoe
    • 7 years ago

    Re: RMAA results
    Why does the sound get worse under load?

      • Damage
      • 7 years ago

      This is the problem with packing so much stuff together on a motherboard. When the load is high, there’s lots of current flowing through all of the traces on that board and lots of EMI being thrown off by the various active components. The analog audio path (from the codec/DAC to the sound ports) is affected by all of this interference, and the audio quality drops.

      On some really bad boards, at least in the past, you could “listen” to your mouse movements via the speakers.

      This problem is why we recommend a discrete sound card, on a separate PCB, which provides some isolation from the motherboard. It’s also why a lot of solutions choose to use an external DAC, in something like a stereo amplifier, a TV, or even a set of USB speakers.

        • shaq_mobile
        • 7 years ago

        Good stuff, makes me want one really bad. They last forever as well. I had a turtle beach for… 4 or 5 years, through 3 computers. I had a nice SB audigy 2 or something for years as well. Shame I sold it with one of my computers.

        What’s the popular recommendation from TR on cards?

          • JohnC
          • 7 years ago

          I recommend trying the new SoundBlaster Z model – it has very good SNR and the driver/utility installation package for this card is pretty “compact” (compared to previous “bloatware” from Creative) and works perfectly stable under Windows 7. Its virtual surround sound mode (if you use headphones) is also much better than old CMSS from previous Creative cards, and it’s still “hardware accelerated” by on-board Recon3D chipset. There’s obviously no pointless EAX support (since it’s dead now, permanently). Not sure about its optical outputs since I have no use for these.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 7 years ago

        Is there any good way to measure the digital transport capabilities of these boards? I understand analog is much more susceptible to interference, but I would think digital is as well, even without getting into all the esoteric audiophile arguments.

          • Damage
          • 7 years ago

          Thanks to packet-based transport and checksumming, I’m pretty sure digital audio doesn’t get corrupted unless something is pretty much failing entirely–and then you’d know. Exact info about the protocols used is a little hard to come by, but it looks like S/PDIF uses a variant of this protocol:

          [url<]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AES3[/url<] ..which includes a CRC in byte 23.

            • Damage
            • 7 years ago

            Note: This is also why special audiophile optical cables are hilarious.

            • NeelyCam
            • 7 years ago

            Seriously?! They have those?!

            The most ridiculous thing I’ve heard all week

            • Damage
            • 7 years ago

            Yeah, they do, but I should have said “digital” rather than “optical,” since the hilarity goes beyond optical. Check this out, and note the prices:

            [url<]http://www.viablue.de/com/s900_hdmi_silver_ferrite_filter_triple_shield_cable.shtml[/url<]

            • NeelyCam
            • 7 years ago

            For HDMI cables, I can sort of accept the “premium” cabling, as for long cables the signal loss can be a make-or-break issue (e.g., my projector is 25ft from the receiver)… and once 4K becomes more common, this stuff starts to matter even more. But I certainly wouldn’t pay 300EUR for a cable I could buy from MonoPrice for some $50..

            For optical S/PDIF cables, though, there is practically no signal loss in the cable, so any audiophile premium is a complete waste of money

            • Damage
            • 7 years ago

            Ok, this is epic:

            [url<]http://www.locus-design.com/index.php/cynosure-usb-cable[/url<]

            • NeelyCam
            • 7 years ago

            [quote<]"It all starts with raw materials, I have a vendor partner who I have have taught (and wasted more money than I want to think about teaching them) to make my wire exactly like I want it made, and exactly to my specs, which I then treat with my CryoFreeze™ process as soon as I receive it. So, the raw materials are without peer."[/quote<] Did they use that dude's beard as the peerless raw material..? EDIT: LMAO... I found the punch-line: [quote<]"Starting at $3549 for 3FT."[/quote<]

            • eitje
            • 7 years ago

            link is dead.

            • NeelyCam
            • 7 years ago

            *sad*

            It was a funny link

            • Bensam123
            • 7 years ago

            You mean this?

            [url<]http://www.amazon.com/Denon-AKDL1-Dedicated-Link-Cable/dp/B000I1X6PM/[/url<] The fabled $10,000 'link' cable that makes unicorns come to life and rainbows spew from your ears. Don't believe me? Read the reviews.

            • Bauxite
            • 7 years ago

            Note: This is also why special audiophile [i<]digital[/i<] cables are hilarious FTFY, oscilloscope beats snake oil every time

            • cynan
            • 7 years ago

            Most “audiophiles” disdain optical (toslink) anyway. Apparently it has something to do over loss of information (unlikely) or introduction of jitter (?) upon conversion between optical and electron-based signal. Most audiophiles demand coax at the very least, with higher-end digital audio interfaces being BNC and AES/EBU.

            And recently, a lot of expensive external DACs are starting to include some pretty top notch USB receiver chips that are asynchronous (signal is reclocked by supposedly more precise, higher performing clocks at the DAC’s end, rather than just relying on the clock frequency generated at the computer end). Some of these USB receivers can deliver a direct I2S signal straight to the DAC chip, resulting in a more native PCM signal, rather than converting to a S/PDIF signal first, which must be then decoded by a separate S/PDIF receiver chip first, as older USB chips did.

            Those super expensive digital cables are 100% snake oil. No question. That said, some DAC chips can be a bit finicky with less robust digital signals and a high quality digital cable vs a cheap one can make a difference in some cases, especially if the cable length is more than a few feet. For example, the higher end Sabre ES9018 DAC chip incorporates a high frequency PLL (phase locked-loop) input , which (as I understand) while resulting in more rigorously clocked input signal (lower jitter) and allows a higher frequency output to the DAC itself, can present compatibility issues with lower quality input signals. But whether the benefit is simply less chance of signal dropouts or some more subtle improvement in precision of the output analog signal (due to jitter reduction or some other magic) is a debate left for somewhere else.

        • willmore
        • 7 years ago

        I remember when I used to debug by turning up the audio so that I could hear what was going on with my code. Different loops had different sounds and one could tell where in the code it was by what was heard over the speakers. Good times.

          • Bensam123
          • 7 years ago

          Sounds like something you could patent.

        • JohnC
        • 7 years ago

        Some Asus motherboards (the “Maximus” models) claim that they have more “isolated” audio paths (for on-board audio) for better EMI protection… Would be interesting to test those and see if such “isolation” does work better…

        • jihadjoe
        • 7 years ago

        Thanks.

        If the noise is coming from the analog part of the board circuitry, I’m guessing it shouldn’t be too much of an issue on an HTPC build if digital audio is being passed through via HDMI. Or is an external DAC or transport really necessary?

        I didnt think it would be that bad though. The results went from very good/excellent to downright appalling.

        • Sam125
        • 7 years ago

        Interesting as I’ve experienced such a phenomena on a computer with an integrated sound using an on-board DAC. I’ve switched to strictly laptops as I find desktops to be rather useless nowadays so a quality chip in a laptop is impossible to find so I’ve just had to live with inferior sound quality.

        Perhaps another audio review roundup is in order? As improved audio would be the sole reason for me to even consider switching back to a desktop.

    • DPete27
    • 7 years ago

    Nice to see tech report FINALLY reviewing AsRock mobos.

    • rhettigan
    • 7 years ago

    I’ve been running this board in my main gaming rig since December. No problems. I don’t overclock, so I can’t really comment on that. I love the mSATA on the back – one less drive to manage in the case!

    My biggest beef is the proximity of the CPU socket to the PCI-Express slot. I purchased a CM Gemini II CPU cooler for use with another board planned for the rig (Zotac Z77’s ITX) and was very disappointed that it doesn’t fit. The stock Intel cooler suffices, though, keeping the CPU around 43˚C.

    Details on the build here: [url<]http://forums.thinkcomputers.org/showthread.php?2173-2012-build-Legion-sparks-cad-cx-mini-ITX-gaming-rig[/url<]

      • hieu.noob
      • 7 years ago

      It’s a shame that you couldn’t fit in your aftermarket cooler since the Prodigy has so much vertical space for a beefy one. A true service of TR to measure the distances around the socket.

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