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.
Gigabyte’s 3D BIOS looks pretty slick. The “3D” component of the UEFI-based firmware is attractive and original, with individual tuning sub-menus that pop up when the user clicks on specific regions of the board.
Too bad the board is a stylized microATX model rather than a Mini-ITX match for the Z77N-WiFi.
The semi-transparent sub-menus have easy-to-use tabs and mouse sliders, making navigation a breeze. There is some unsightly overlap with a few menus, though. For all its reliance on mouse input, the firmware’s cursor tracking is also surprisingly poor. Input with our Corsair M60 mouse feels jumpy, laggy, and imprecise—noticeably worse than on similar boards from other manufacturers. The transition between the 3D interface and the firmware’s more traditional array of tweaking options is a little choppy, as well.
Once in the “Advanced” interface, all appears to be well. Mouse tracking is still rough, but the UI can be navigated easily with just the keyboard. Changing variables is simple, too. Most values can be keyed in directly, saving users from wading through long lists of potential candidates.
Disappointingly, however, the firmware plays fast and loose with Turbo multipliers. If the motherboard’s memory speed is set manually, even to something innocuous like 1600MHz, the firmware takes the liberty of boosting the processor’s clock speed with multi-core loads.
According to Intel’s specifications, the Core i7-3770K should peak at 3.9GHz for single-core loads and 3.7GHz when all four cores are occupied. The Z77N-WiFi sneakily applies the maximum Turbo speed of 3.9GHz regardless of the number of active cores, a practice that Intel deems to be overclocking. Worse, the CPU Core Features menu suggests that the correct Turbo Ratios are being observed. You have to go a separate status screen for any indication that CPU clock speeds are being manipulated.
There are several problems with this behavior, which we’ve observed on motherboards from at least one other firm. First, there’s no reason the CPU clock speed should change if the user alters the memory frequency, a completely unrelated setting. Also, a motherboard should never overclock the user’s hardware without his explicit consent. I’ve yet to hear a defensible justification for this practice, and Gigabyte hasn’t provided us with an explanation.
If you want to bump up the memory frequency without pushing the CPU beyond stock speeds, the per-core Turbo multipliers can be locked to their default values manually. You’re free to overclock the CPU manually, too, but there is a serious impediment on that front. The firmware is devoid of CPU voltage options. Only the DRAM voltage can be tweaked, putting a major damper on CPU overclocking.
Despite the overclocking aspirations of its platform hub, the Z77N-WiFi has been designed with more sedate systems in mind. Temperature-based speed control is available for the CPU and system fans, which should help to keep noise levels nice and low. The array of “numeric PWM value divided by degrees Celsius” options will probably be a little confusing for uninitiated users, though. At least the manual tuning mode is accompanied by a “silent” preset that’s self-explanatory.
The fan controls in Gigabyte’s EasyTune6 software are easier to understand, with draggable points along the speed profiles for both onboard fan headers. They’re not as granular as the best implementations, but these fan controls are certainly adequate.
“Adequate” sort of describes the software as a whole. EasyTune6 has been around for a while now, and it works well enough for the basics. However, the app is showing its age. Gigabyte tells us a revamped software suite is in the works, and we hope to see it available for the Z77N-WiFi.
EasyTune6’s overclocking section provides a handful of tweaking options but still no CPU voltage control. Bummer. There’s no auto-overclocking mechanism, either, so you’ll be on your own when turning up the clocks. Speaking of which…
Without CPU voltage control, we didn’t expect to set any overclocking records with our Core i7-3770K. And we didn’t. With a Corsair H80 water cooler bolted to the CPU and a hot-clocked Asus Radeon HD 7970 riding shotgun, we pushed the CPU to 4.5GHz without any hiccups. That was as far as she would go.
At 4.6GHz, the system booted and occasionally made it to Windows, but the blue smilie of death was soon upon us, usually followed by a crash. Unable to give the CPU more power, we quickly gave up.
We’ve had the same chip running 400MHz faster on other Z77-based Mini-ITX boards, albeit with extra voltage, so the Z77N-WiFi clearly left some headroom on the table. That said, we did manage a respectable 600MHz jump over the CPU’s maximum Turbo speed.
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 length. The inconvenient truth for mobo makers is that their products don’t have a substantial impact on PC performance. A system’s processor and graphics card are the real bottlenecks for modern applications, while the storage subsystem—specifically, whether it’s solid-state—plays a role in determining overall responsiveness. Even motherboard I/O performance is relatively consistent from one product to the next, since the majority of ports stem from common platform hubs and a shallow pool of available peripheral chips.
Sometimes, there are exceptions to this general rule. The only way to suss them out is to test boards exhaustively, which we’ve done with the Z77N-WiFi. The resulting mountain of benchmark data tells us this board for the most part performs like its peers. We have a few pages of supporting graphs to back up that assertion, but you don’t need to scroll through them all. First, the highlights.
We’ll start with a quick confirmation. Whether you’re encrypting, compressing, or encoding data, the Z77N-WiFi is about as fast as rival boards based on the same platform and accompanying components.
There’s somewhat more variance between the boards in our gaming metrics, which combine a traditional FPS measure with a much more telling 99th percentile frame time. The Z77N-WiFi comes out ahead on both fronts, but only by modest margins.
We typically see bigger performance differences between motherboards in our boot time test. The results don’t disappoint.
Well, they might for Gigabyte. The Z77N-WiFi cold boots into the OS slower than its rivals, although it still gets to the Start screen in less than 17 seconds. Unlike on the other boards, the firmware lacks an explicit “fast boot” option. It is possible to tweak the initialization of certain devices, but we couldn’t speed up the boot process without sacrificing necessary features like boot-time USB and SATA support. There doesn’t appear to be a way to control the time delay for the initial POST screen, which adds a few seconds to the boot process.
In our peripheral tests, the Z77N-WiFi produced few surprises. For the most part, the performance differences between it and the other Mini-ITX mobos were within single-digit percentages. The only exceptions arose versus the Asus and ASRock boards, which employ special software to speed USB transfers.
RoboBench, our multi-threaded file copy test, nicely highlights the higher transfer rate enabled by Asus’ USAP Boost feature. ASRock’s Turbo equivalent is less effective, and it has some stability issues that need to be worked out. Even without turbo-charged software, though, the Z77N-WiFi’s USB performance is hardly slow.
Does motherboard power consumption play out like performance?
Mostly, but the Z77N-WiFi is among a cluster of three boards with notably lower power consumption at idle and under our light video playback load. Crank the system up to full load, and the tables turn. Suddenly, the power-hungry Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe pulls the fewest watts at the wall socket, while the Gigabyte Z77N-WiFi draws the most.
The Z77N-WiFi appears to have less efficient power regulation circuitry than its peers, at least under load. We’re only talking about a few watts, though; you’re unlikely to notice the difference on your utility bill.
That’s it for our performance highlights. If you’d like to peruse more detailed information on our system configurations and test results, please continue onto the next page. You can also skip straight to the conclusion for our final thoughts on the board.
Here’s a full run-down of the Z77N-WiFi’s key specifications and 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 ALC892|
|Wireless||802.11n Wi-Fi via Intel Wireless-N 2230
1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
2 USB 3.0 w/ 2 headers
4 USB 2.0 w/ 2 headers
2 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek RTL8111F
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
DRAM multiplier: 8-32X
GPU clock: 400-1600MHz
Base clock: 80-133.33MHz
DRAM voltage: 1.2-2V
|Fan control||CPU, system: speed/temp slope control|
We’ve covered the most important elements already, so let’s move onto a bonus shot we snuck in for everyone who didn’t skip to the conclusion.
Our testing methods
We used the following system configurations for testing. If you’re curious about the other boards, check out our full reviews of the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe, ASRock Z77E-ITX, and Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi. We’ll have similar coverage of MSI’s Z77IA-E53 soon.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-3700K 3.5GHz|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe||ASRock Z77E-ITX||Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WiFi||MSI Z77IA-E53||Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi|
|Platform hub||Intel Z77 Express||Intel Z77 Express||Intel Z77 Express||Intel Z77 Express||Intel Z77 Express|
|Chipset drivers|| Chipset: 22.214.171.1246
| Chipset: 126.96.36.1996
| Chipset: 188.8.131.526
| Chipset: 184.108.40.2066
| Chipset: 220.127.116.116
|Audio||Realtek ALC898||Realtek ALC898||Realtek ALC892||Realtek ALC892||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.
The Z77N-WiFi doesn’t really separate itself from the pack in our application tests. Only the board’s relatively sluggish boot time stands out in this first batch of results.
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.
All the boards are basically even through the bulk of our SATA tests, but the field spreads out a little when copying our mixed RoboBench file set. There, the Z77N-WiFi falls to last place in both the read and write tests. It’s still not far behind the leaders, though.
Even without fancy software to speed things up, the Z77N-WiFi’s USB transfer rates are still very fast. Credit the Intel USB 3.0 controller built into the Z77 platform.
I wouldn’t put too much stock in the substantially higher performance of Asus’ USAP Boost mode in CrystalDiskMark’s 4KB random I/O tests. USB 3.0 is used primarily for secondary external storage, and sequential throughput is more important for that mission. Performance with random I/O is more relevant for system drives, which are typically connected via Serial ATA.
PCI Express performance
Apart from a couple of outliers, the Z77N-WiFi closely matches the PCI Express performance of the other boards.
Some may scoff at Gigabyte’s use of Realtek Gigabit Ethernet controllers, but the chips are no slower—and no more resource-hungry—in these tests than the Intel and Broadcom equivalents on the Asus and ASRock boards.
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|
The Z77N-WiFi doesn’t distinguish itself from the competition in RMAA’s analog audio quality tests. Like the other boards, the Gigabyte scores much lower under our system-wide load than it does when idling.
Discrete sound cards strive to isolate the audio circuitry from board-level noise that can affect analog output quality. Unfortunately, Mini-ITX mobos have only one expansion slot, and it’s usually reserved for a graphics card. It would be nice if there were more PC audio solutions with USB interfaces.
Even before I cracked open the box, I have to admit to having a bit of a crush on the Z77N-WiFi. How could I not? I already knew the board was priced much lower than other Mini-ITX models based on the same Z77 platform. I’d also seen the spec sheet, so I knew Gigabyte hadn’t cut any obvious corners. This puppy has all the essentials for a modern PC, including a PCI Express slot for discrete graphics, USB 3.0 for external storage, and plenty of other connectivity options.
The built-in networking is particularly robust, with dual Gigabit Ethernet controllers complementing an Intel wireless card that boasts Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and WiDi support. Compatibility with Intel’s Wireless Display tech is a nice perk, even if it’s probably not a must-have feature for most users.
Like most crushes, my initial infatuation waned the more time I spent with the board. The firmware’s jumpy pointer tracking is annoying, especially since the graphical interface makes such good use of mouse input. Worse is the fact that the firmware sneakily overclocks the CPU when the memory frequency is changed. Despite this apparent eagerness to turn up clock speeds, there’s no CPU voltage control for voluntary overclocking.
Now, you don’t necessarily need higher voltages to overclock your CPU. We got our Core i7-3770K up to 4.5GHz without. If you’re building a small-form-factor desktop or home-theater PC, you may prefer to keep the processor at stock speeds so it consumes less power and can be cooled more quietly. In that case, though, you might as well use a cheaper board based on the H77 Express platform.
There are only two differences between the H77 and Z77 platforms. The first is the Z77’s CPU overclocking support, which the Z77N-WiFi’s lack of voltage adjustment severely limts. The second is the ability to fuel dual-x8 PCI Express configurations for multi-GPU graphics, a moot point for Mini-ITX boards with only one full-sized expansion slot.
As it turns out, the Z77N-WiFi has an H77 twin that’s identical apart from the platform hub. The H77N-WiFi sports the same Intel wireless card, the same port payload, and the same sexy circuit board. The two even share the same manual. And as an added bonus, the H77N-WiFi costs only $105—$25 less than the Z77 model.
Anyone looking to build a stock-clocked miniature desktop or HTPC should definitely have the H77N-WiFi on his short list. The Z77N-WiFi is more difficult to recommend. $130 is a bargain for a Z77 Mini-ITX board, but if you’re going to go that route, it’s worth shelling out a little more for greater overclocking potential.