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.
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.
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.
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.
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
|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
1 DVI-I (with VGA adapter)
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 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
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|
|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.
So, yeah, motherboards have little influence on application and game performance. Told you.
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.
The same Z77 Express SATA controller delivers equivalent performance on three different motherboards. Shocking, I know.
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
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.
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|
|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 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.
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.