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MSI's Z77IA-E53 Mini-ITX motherboard reviewed

Time for a comeback?

One by one, we've chipped away at the mountain of Z77-based Mini-ITX motherboards that has piled up in the Benchmarking Sweatshop. Really, it's more of a molehill. The form factor's diminutive 6.7" x 6.7" footprint means the stack of boxes consumes surprisingly little square footage in my office.

Each board has a different personality. We started with Asus' P8Z77-I Deluxe, a truly premium product with a price tag to match. Next up: Zotac's Z77-ITX WiFi, whose solid hardware is let down by a dated firmware interface. ASRock's Z77E-ITX lives up to the hype, but not without a couple of crash-inducing rough edges that need to be smoothed out. Then there's Gigabyte's Z77N-WiFi, a relative bargain ultimately overshadowed by its H77 twin.

Today, we meet MSI's Z77IA-E53. Say hello.

The Z77IA-E53 looks a lot more conservative than the Ferrari-red designs of MSI's past. I don't mind a more subdued style, but it would be nice if the board looked less generic. The whole blue-on-black motif is beyond played out. Then again, Mini-ITX cases rarely have windows. Even if they do, the systems are usually too stuffed to provide much of a peek at the motherboard once it's installed.

Our view is unobscured, exposing a lot of the features we like to see on an enthusiast-oriented Mini-ITX board. The CPU socket is flanked by a PCI Express x16 slot on one side and dual-channel DIMM slots on the other. In the top right, a Mini PCIe slot provides support for both expansion cards and mSATA solid-state drives.

Mini SSDs have a certain appeal for small-form-factor rigs. On the Z77IA-E53, they can be combined with Intel's Smart Response Technology to cache data for mechanical hard drives. The caching solution comes courtesy of the Z77 Express chipset, which also provides unrestricted access to the CPU multipliers on K-series processors.

Overclockers will want to use aftermarket cooling, and they'll need to be careful about choosing a heatsink that isn't too large. The Z77IA-E53's socket sits right next to the PCIe slot, leaving little room for oversized coolers. The memory slots are just as close, although low-profile modules could steer clear of most radiator fins and heatpipe plumbing.

Mini-ITX systems tend to be a tight squeeze all around, so we've measured the socket's position relative to the PCIe and DIMM slots and to the boundaries of the board. Those distances are all you need to worry about, because the other onboard components hug the surface.

The only exception is the vertical battery mount, which sits out of the way next to the port hardware. Overall, the Z77IA-E53 keeps a very low profile.

Thanks to a flush-mounted slot, even Mini PCI and mSATA cards stay low to the board. The combo slot resides next to dual 6Gbps SATA ports and a pair of 3Gbps plugs. Mini SSD users will have to make do with 3Gbps connectivity, and so will those with external drives connected to the rear eSATA port.

Of course, anyone shopping for a solid-state system drive is better off using 6Gbps, 2.5" SATA SSDs over mSATA drives meant for caching and notebooks. As for the eSATA port, most external storage is going to be connected via USB 3.0. There are dual SuperSpeed ports at the rear, plus an internal header for two more.

The port cluster's CMOS clearing button is a nice touch, but the collection of display outputs is a little weak. Only two video outs grace the board, and one of 'em is an old-school VGA connector. The HDMI output should be sufficient for a home-theater PC, though, and enthusiasts will probably be running discrete graphics cards with their own display connectors.

Only three analog audio jacks populate the rear panel, which also sports a digital S/PDIF output. There's no support for real-time multi-channel encoding for digital output, though. No surround-sound virtualization for stereo devices, either. The THX TrueStudio Pro software included with the board does provides a few perks, like surround enhancement, dialog amplification, smart volume adjustment, and a little extra pop for certain frequencies.

The Z77IA-E53's networking combines Realtek Gigabit Ethernet with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 3.0 stemming from Qualcomm adapters. Those adapters connect via USB 2.0, which is less than ideal but still provides sufficient bandwidth for speedy Wi-Fi transfers. The single wireless antenna can stretch up to two feet away from the motherboard, so you can position it for the best line of sight to your router or keep the antenna out of sight for your significant other.

While you won't find any truly exciting accessories in the box, I have to single out a couple of notable inclusions. The first is a tiny pin block for the front-panel connectors.

This ridiculously simple wiring aid should really be included with every single enthusiast board. It's particularly helpful in cramped Mini-ITX systems that leave little room to wire front-panel connectors once the motherboard is installed.

The second extra is something that already comes with every motherboard, just not in this size. MSI has cut down the Z77IA-E53's manual to match the smaller form factor. You can see the micro manual with a full-sized sibling in the shot above. Awww, isn't that cute?