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?
MSI’s firmware interface is one of the most streamlined around. It doesn’t make extensive use of the mouse support offered by modern EFIs, but the cursor tracking is smooth and the GUI is easy to navigate.
All the essential overclocking options are there, including clock, frequency, and voltage controls. Most values can be keyed in directly, making individual settings quick to change precisely. Users also have access to multiple profile slots, and configurations can be saved to or loaded from USB storage.
A separate OC Genie profile is available for one-click overclocking from Windows. This profile contains a modestly overclocked config by default, but you’re free to make the settings more aggressive.
The firmware’s fan section is a little sparse, with temperature-based speed control limited to the CPU fan. Only static speed control is available for the system fan; the rotational speed can be set manually, but it won’t change in response to system temperatures.
Don’t get too excited about those browser and utilities shortcuts over to the right side of the interface. Although the integrated flashing utility works well, the live update, browser, and messaging software all reside outside the firmware. Those applications need to be installed on the system’s hard drive, where they run on top of a Linux distribution. The new EFI framework allows for robust applications within the firmware itself, and we wish motherboard makers would take advantage.
If you want to poke around in the firmware but would rather not reboot, MSI’s ClickBIOS software replicates the interface in Windows. Unfortunately, it takes forever to load—16 seconds on our SSD-equipped Core i7-3770K system, which is longer than the time required to launch Photoshop. Changes are saved slowly, as well, and they always seem to require a reboot. So much for convenience.
Fortunately, ClickBIOS isn’t your only option for tweaking within the comfort of the OS. MSI’s Control Center software is packed with overclocking controls that respond in real time. This app is also little slow to load, and it spits out an error message related to the Intel ME driver even when using the latest version available on MSI’s site. The error doesn’t appear to affect Control Center’s functionality, though, and the software offers a bunch of extra features not included in the firmware.
The monitoring pane tracks a range of system variables and allows users to set warning ranges for temperatures, voltages, and fan speeds.
Fan controls also make an appearance, this time with intelligent speed management for the system fan. Motherboard tweaking software is becoming an increasingly important differentiator, and it’s nice to see MSI making improvements on this front.
Oh, and one more thing. There’s also an app for that.
Control Center includes remote server software that talks to MSI’s Command Center Android and iOS apps. The Android app runs relatively smoothly on my Galaxy Nexus, and it sports a range of overclocking, memory tweaking, and system monitoring features. There’s even a CMOS clearing button and a remote for Windows Media Player.
Smartphone-fueled overclocking feels a little gimmicky, but there’s value in Command Center’s monitoring and media control functionality. The app is free, too, and the associated Windows software is unobtrusive. Control Center and its remote server component consumed less than 1% of CPU resources on our Core i7-3770K, and their combined memory footprint was a mere 23MB.
Unfortunately, all this fancy Windows and smartphone software comes with a catch. To use it for overclocking, you need to enable OS-based multiplier control in the firmware, which locks the CPU to a single multiplier and seems to disable all idle clock throttling. Savvy enthusiasts will probably want to craft their final overclocked configs in the firmware.
Speaking of overclocking, we turned up the clocks on the Z77IA-E53 twice: once with the default OC Genie profile and again using a mix of the Windows software and Android app. Before beginning, our Corsair H80 water cooler was kicked into high gear, and a triple-wide Asus Radeon HD 7970 graphics card was plugged into the PCI Express slot. Stability was tested with a combined CPU and GPU load consisting of AIDA64’s CPU stress test and the Unigine Heaven benchmark.
Overclocking via OC Genie proved quick and easy. The default profile pushed our CPU to 4.2GHz, a modest 300MHz jump over the Core i7-3770K’s maximum Turbo speed, and the system didn’t so much as hiccup under load. We know this particular chip can go much higher, so we started turning the screws manually.
The CPU made it to 4.5GHz before additional voltage was required to keep blue-screens at bay. Eventually, we got the CPU stable at 4.8GHz on 1.375V. The system did boot at 4.9GHz, but we couldn’t find a combination of voltage and power settings that kept it stable at that frequency.
We’ve had a couple of Mini-ITX Z77 boards reach 4.9GHz with the same hardware, so the Z77IA-E53 isn’t the best overclocker of the bunch. The fact that we pulled up only 100MHz shy of our maximum—and with very little drama—is a good sign, though.
So, here’s the deal with motherboards and system performance. They don’t have much of an impact. In the past few years especially, we’ve seen less and less difference between the application and peripheral performance of new mobos. The CPU and GPU largely define how well applications and games will run on a given machine, and whether there’s an SSD involved affects overall responsiveness. With more I/O moving to shared platform hubs, the gaps in our peripheral performance tests have also narrowed substantially.
Sometimes, there are exceptions—particularly good or bad implementations whose performance stands out from the pack. The only way to find these deviations from the norm is to run each board through an exhaustive test suite. We did that with the Z77IA-E53 and didn’t find too many surprises. Our full collection of results is detailed later in the review, but first, let’s look at the highlights.
As expected, our application and gaming metrics show little difference between the Z77IA-E53 and its peers.
Boot time is another matter, however. We tested each board with and without its fast-boot option enabled.
While not the fastest-booting board we’ve tested, the MSI beats some of its rivals by a few seconds. The other takeaway from these numbers is, wow, Windows 8 sure boots quickly from an SSD.
The results of our peripheral tests are largely similar to what we saw in the application and gaming tests: a lot of graphs with bars all about the same length. That said, there are meaningful differences in USB 3.0 performance. Our RoboBench tests, which read and write files using eight simultaneous threads via Windows’ built-in robocopy command, provide some insight on real-world transfer speeds.
Asus’ P8Z77-I Deluxe has special USB Boost software that accelerates transfers with certain hardware combinations. And it works, improving RoboBench throughput by noticeable margins. MSI doesn’t have comparable software for the Z77IA-E53, whose USB transfer rates are much lower.
Our USB testing is conducted with a wicked-fast Samsung SSD that’s well-equipped to handle multiple simultaneous transfers. You may see smaller gains with slower mechanical storage.
There’s usually some variance in power consumption between different mobos, so we measured power draw at the wall socket with our test system at idle, playing 1080p YouTube video, and under a full load combining Cinebench rendering with the Unigine Heaven demo.
The Z77IA-E53 consumed a little less power than the competition in our first two tests and turned in a middle-of-the-pack performance in the final one. MSI seems to have come up with a reasonably power-efficient board overall. Don’t read too much into small differences in power consumption, though. A few watts aren’t going to make a big difference for your utility bill or your cooling config.
That’s it for our performance highlights. If you’ve seen enough test results, feel free to skip ahead to the conclusion for our final thoughts on the board. Otherwise, flip to the next page for the full motherboard specs, details on our system configuration, and all of our benchmark data.
Most of the essentials have been covered already, but here’s a complete list of the Z77IA-E53’s hardware specifications and vital firmware options.
|Platform||Intel Z77 Express, socket LGA1155|
|DIMM slots||2 DDR3, 16GB max|
|Expansion slots||1 PCIe 3.0 x16
1 Mini PCIe/mSATA
|Storage I/O||2 SATA RAID 6Gbps
2 SATA RAID 3Gbps
|Audio||8-channel HD via Realtek ALC892|
|Wireless||802.11n Wi-Fi via Qualcomm Atheros AR9271
Bluetooth 3.0 via Qualcomm Atheros AR3011
1 PS/2 keyboard/mouse
2 USB 3.0 w/ 2 headers
4 USB 2.0 w/ 2 headers
1 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek XXX
1 analog front out
1 analog center out/line in
1 analog rear out/mic in
1 digital S/PDIF output
|Overclocking||Per-core CPU multiplier: 16-63X
Base clock: 0-655MHz
DRAM clock: 800-3200MHz
DRAM ref clock: 200, 266MHz
CPU voltage: 0.805-2.155V
CPU IO voltage: 1.07-1.55V
CPU PLL voltage: 1.0555-1.7265V
DRAM voltage: 1.5055-2.4655V
GPU voltage: 1.005-1.52V
System Agent voltage: 0.94-1.58V
PCH voltage: 1.0555-1.7265V
DDR ref voltage CA/DA, A/B: 0.775-1.15V
|Fan control||CPU: minimum fan speed, target temperature
System: static speed
Instead of posting booth babes galleries here at TR, we have the next best thing: hardware porn. Here’s a shot of our test system’s hardware for everyone who didn’t jump ahead 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, Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WiFi, and Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi.
|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: 220.127.116.116
| Chipset: 18.104.22.1686
| Chipset: 22.214.171.1246
| Chipset: 126.96.36.1996
| Chipset: 188.8.131.526
|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 184.108.40.20632 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.
Apart from the boot times, there’s no drama in this batch of results. We can’t tell you that motherboards have little impact on application and gaming performance without showing our work, though.
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 Z77IA-E53 finds itself at or near the front of the pack in a few of our SATA tests, but the boards are all very close overall.
Our USB results tell us the ASMedia controllers found on the Asus and ASRock boards are slower than the Z77 platform’s native solution. Software like the USB Boost application provided with the P8Z77-I Deluxe can improve USB performance substantially, as well. Too bad the MSI board doesn’t have turbo-charged USB software of its own.
Don’t put too much stock in USB Boost’s phenomenal throughput in CrystalDiskMark’s 4KB random I/O benchmarks. Sequential transfers are more typical for USB-attached storage, making our RoboBench results more indicative of real-world USB performance.
PCI Express performance
On the Z77IA-E53, our RevoDrive X2 PCIe SSD manages slightly higher read speeds than on the other boards. That said, the performance deltas work out to only single-digit percentages.
Realtek Gigabit Ethernet controllers can’t seem to get any love, despite the fact that they offer comparable throughput and CPU utilization to competing solutions from Broadcom and Intel. The MSI, Gigabyte, and Zotac boards all use Realtek chips, while the Asus and ASRock employ Intel and Broadcom silicon, respectively. Even in our multi-threaded file copy tests, the various solutions are separated by no more than 6%.
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|
Once again, we see nearly identical scores for all the contenders. RMAA signal quality is much higher at idle than it is when the systems are hammered with an admittedly gratuitous stress test, but all of the boards suffer in similar fashion.
For most folks, the features attached to each integrated audio implementation will be more important than these minute differences in analog signal quality.
Motherboards may no longer have a substantial impact on PC performance, but that doesn’t mean the differences between them have diminished. Manufacturers continue to find ways to make their hardware configurations unique, and there’s plenty of room for differentiation in the realm of firmware and software.
The MSI Z77IA-E53 hits most of those notes. Sure, it has a relatively run-of-the-mill collection of features, but it also packs a couple of twists you might not expect. The Mini PCIe slot is unoccupied, allowing a miniature expansion card or mSATA SSD to be added without sacrificing the integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. There’s also an old-school VGA connector around back, a feature you won’t find on any of the other Mini-ITX Ivy Bridge models we’ve reviewed.
On the firmware front, MSI has largely played it safe. The resulting interface may look a little simplistic compared to other offerings, but it’s easy to use and doesn’t pull any nefarious Turbo tricks behind your back. I’d like to see better system fan controls integrated into the firmware, though. Intelligent fan management is particularly important for Mini-ITX boards that will anchor home-theater PCs.
MSI at least offers better fan control via its Windows software. The Control Center tweaking utility has improved since the last incarnation we used, and the Command Center mobile app is a nice addition to the overall package. Even if overclocking via smartphone doesn’t have widespread appeal, there’s lots of potential for remote monitoring and management.
There’s also room for improvement. When I tried to take a final money shot of the mobo posed next to my smartphone running the Command Center app, the remote server randomly decided to stop working on our test system. The associated icon popped up in the taskbar and was quickly joined by a string of identical ones, all of which disappeared on mouse-over. The remote server process didn’t appear in the Task Manager, and the Command Center app couldn’t connect. Neither reinstalling the software nor resetting the firmware helped. Based on the predominantly negative user reviews of the Android app, it seems I’m not the only to encounter problems.
The apparent flakiness of the remote tweaking software is a real downer, because Command Center is easily the Z77IA-E53’s most distinctive feature. Without it, this a still decent board, with competitive performance, respectable overclocking chops, and well-rounded features. The $150 asking price is reasonable, too, and there’s a $10 rebate until the end of the month.
While the Z77IA-E53 is definitely a good value, I don’t think it’s quite polished enough for our TR Recommended award. I’m rather excited about MSI’s development direction, though. Next-gen Haswell boards can’t come soon enough.