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Gigabyte's GA-Z77N-WiFi Mini-ITX motherboard reviewed

The little black dress

Over the past few weeks, we've covered a collection of Mini-ITX motherboards based on Intel's Z77 Express platform. All of them have been priced at $150 and up, making the next model to pass under our microscope a potential bargain. Gigabyte's GA-Z77N-WiFi has the same Ivy Bridge socket and Z77 platform hub as its rivals, but with a price tag that's 20 bucks lower, at just $130 online.

At first glance, it's hard to see why Gigabyte is charging less. This board has all the trappings of a modern Mini-ITX design, including a full-sized PCI Express x16 slot, plenty of USB 3.0 ports, multiple digital display outputs, and both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. The firmware is one of those newfangled EFIs, and Windows tweaking software is included, too. There are even dual Gigabit Ethernet jacks in the rear port cluster.

So, what gives?

Certainly not the aesthetics. The Z77N-WiFi is served on a matte black circuit board lined with matching components and a pewter-colored chipset heatsink. The tops of the capacitors provide a subtle splash of purple to an otherwise monochromatic palette. This is one good-looking motherboard, even if the green Mini PCI Express wireless card doesn't quite match.

From above, we can easily spot one difference between the Z77N-WiFi and most of its contemporaries: the auxiliary 12V power connector is a four-pin unit rather than an eight-pin one. Four-pin 12V power is sufficient for even a top-of-the-line Core i7-3770K processor, at least at stock speeds, but it's clear this board wasn't designed with headroom for extreme overclocking.

The underlying Z77 Express platform hub puts no limits on extra-curricular clock boosting, offering unrestricted access to the CPU multipliers on K-series processors. However, Mini-ITX systems are far from ideal for overclocking. The form factor's tiny 6.7" x 6.7" footprint crowds the socket, and most Mini-ITX enclosures leave little room for beefy coolers. You can get sense of the socket's proximity to other components in the picture below. We've measured the distance between the CPU retention bracket and several landmarks, including the PCIe slot, the closest DIMM slot, and the edges of the board.

All Ivy Bridge motherboards situate the socket relatively close to the DIMM slots, and this one is no different. The narrow gap between the socket and the PCIe slot is more worrisome. Folks with larger aftermarket coolers can avoid encroaching on the system memory by using shorter DIMMs, but even low-profile expansion cards are tall enough to interfere with CPU coolers that extend south of the socket region.

At least the PCIe and DIMM slots are the only potential sources of conflict. All of the other components stick very close to the surface of the circuit board. Gigabyte tucks the cabling for the wireless card neatly out of the way, too.

The wires run past a quartet of Serial ATA ports, two of which operate at 6Gbps speeds. You won't find an open mSATA slot onboard, which is a little surprising given Gigabyte's penchant for putting mini SSD slots on its full-sized motherboards. mSATA slots are usually limited to 3Gbps data rates, so you're better off using one of the 6Gbps ports with a 2.5" SSD.

Next to the SATA ports sits the front-panel connector array. The individual pins are color-coded but unlabeled, so the manual will have to be consulted when wiring the case. Since making front-panel connections inside a cramped Mini-ITX chassis can be a little awkward, Gigabyte ought to include a separate pin block to simplify the process. Front-panel pin blocks should really come standard with every enthusiast-oriented motherboard.

To its credit, Gigabyte has spruced up the I/O shield. A soft, foam-lined cushion sits between the external shield and the motherboard, banishing exposed edges that might slice your fingers. The little tab associated with the HDMI port in the top-right portion of the shield is nice and blunt, and it's short enough to avoid getting caught in the port when the shield is in place.

In a bit of a twist, the Z77N-WiFi has two HDMI outs accompanying its DVI port. There are also dual USB 3.0 ports linked to the Z77 platform, plus an internal header for two more. And dual Ethernet jacks backed by a pair of Realtek controllers. Noah took two crabs, too.

There's only one Realtek chip driving the integrated audio; it feeds a nice mix of analog jacks and a digital S/PDIF output. Surround-sound digital output is supported for content with pre-encoded tracks, like movies and music, but not for games, which require real-time encoding. The Realtek drivers can virtualize surround sound for stereo devices. However, this feature works only when paired with Matrix-compatible receivers. You can't just plug in any old pair of headphones and get pseudo-3D audio.

While the Z77N-WiFi's built-in audio is pretty basic, the integrated wireless is anything but pedestrian. An Intel wireless card provides not only 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, but also WiDi. Otherwise known as Intel Wireless Display, this tech can broadcast 1080p video to remote displays, a capability that might come in handy if you're running a projector or have no elegant way to string an HDMI cable to your TV. A compatible WiDi receiver is required at the display, though.

WiDi is pretty neat, but I wish it allowed mobile devices to broadcast content to home-theater PCs. The HTPC would need a WiDi-compatible adapter, of course, but it could be connected to any old display over a standard cable. Intel tells me this scenario is technically feasible, but it's unclear when or even if WiDi will provide such functionality.

Some of the Wi-Fi antennae that come with PC motherboards feel cheap and flimsy. Not the ones bundled with the Z77N-WiFi. The subtle black antenna pods each sit at the end of more than three feet of sturdy cabling, allowing placement for maximum reception and minimum visibility.