Old-school firmware learns new tricks
With a brown circuit board and gold accents, the Z87E-ITX gives off a bit of a retro vibe. The firmware has an old-school feel, too. It's arranged much like a traditional BIOS, just with slightly improved graphics and mouse support.
This may not be the prettiest firmware interface, but it gets the job done. The mouse tracking is smooth, the menu transitions are quick, and navigating is a breeze. The only break in fluidity appears in the background image, whose flickering star animation stutters visibly. A static backdrop would have been a better choice.
As on all the other Z87 boards we've tested, the firmware is bursting with overclocking and tweaking controls. You'll probably only ever touch a small fraction of them. Everything is laid out logically, and most values can be entered directly using the keyboard. Mouse-centric UI elements are few and far between, though.
We can add ASRock to the list of motherboard makers sneakily increasing Turbo multipliers, but an asterisk is warranted. The Z87E-ITX shipped to us with firmware revision 1.21a, whose defaults effectively overclocked the CPU by 200MHz. Instead of observing the Core i7-4770K's prescribed Turbo speeds, which call for 3.9GHz with one- and two-core loads, 3.8GHz with three-core loads, and 3.7GHz with all-core loads, the firmware kicked the CPU up to 3.9GHz regardless of the number of active cores. This configuration is out of spec, according to Intel, and it'll void your CPU warranty.
Before putting the board through its paces, we discovered that a newer 1.4 firmware had been released online. That revision backs off on the illicit Turbo boosting, disabling the multi-core "enhancement" feature by default. We're happy to see that ASRock has changed its tune, but we wish the board came that way in the first place.
I've been trumpeting the importance of firmware-based fan speed controls for what seems like an eternity, and perhaps someone at ASRock has been listening. The Z87E-ITX's fan speed controls are the best I've seen incorporated into motherboard firmware.
The CPU and system fan each offer multiple presets in addition to a configurable profile—nothing we haven't seen already. What's new here is the degree of control over the custom profiles. Most motherboards let users adjust the high and low fan speed and temperature thresholds for custom profiles. On the Z87E-ITX, temperature and speed values can be set for four points along the fan profile. Make that 4.5 points; users also have control over the "critical" temperature at which the fan kicks up to full speed. The profile's minimum speed can be dropped to 0%, too, allowing the fans to spin down completely if temperatures are sufficiently low. To my knowledge, this is the first time such granular fan controls have been available outside a Windows-based utility.
Unlike the Windows-based software we've used, the firmware's fan profiles can't be manipulated by dragging points with the mouse. The values for each point are entered manually, and the illustration in the sidebar doesn't reflect your settings. At least the values available for each point change to ensure that the curve maintains an upward trajectory. The foundation is excellent, but the interface could use some work.
ASRock loads the firmware with a few other goodies, including a visual system browser that displays details on connected components. There's a guided tour that steps users through various functions, as well. I couldn't bring myself to sit through the whole thing, but the few minutes I watched conveyed valuable information for newbies. The interface isn't the most intuitive overall, so it makes sense to provide a little hand-holding for the uninitiated.
The integrated BIOS flashing utility is something that both newbies and experts alike should appreciate. As with most modern motherboards, new firmware can be loaded from USB-attached storage. On the Z87E-ITX, it can also be downloaded directly from ASRock's servers without even leaving the firmware. A working Internet connection is required, of course, but that's it. Firmware flashing doesn't get any easier.
The firmware's Internet connection is also used by a tech-support function that allows users to send configuration details directly to ASRock. Amusingly, the firmware makes a Ghostbusters reference when describing the feature. ASRock is apparently not without a sense of humor.