Mini-ITX motherboards have come a long way since their humble beginnings. The 6.7" x 6.7" form factor was introduced as a vessel for low-power Via processors that were suitable for only the most basic of computing tasks. People liked the smaller footprint, and before long, Mini-ITX boards started sporting the same sockets as full-sized ATX mobos. These diminutive desktop boards were somewhat obscure at first, but they've slowly become a staple of every major motherboard maker's lineup.
Most Mini-ITX boards still stick to the budget end of the spectrum. We've seen more and more enthusiast-oriented designs in recent years, though. Some of them, like Asus' Maximus VI Impact, even reach into premium territory.
Now, this is the point where some of our more frugal readers may be tempted to tune out. High-end mobos are typically no faster than cheaper alternatives, and their upgraded peripherals and fancy extras rarely justify their higher asking prices. Bear with me, though, because Mini-ITX boards have limited expansion potential; their integrated peripherals are therefore much more valuable than they would be a on a board with room for add-in cards. The ITX form factor presents some other challenges that a premium board like this one can help to overcome, as well.
The Maximus VI Impact looks promising on all fronts. Its integrated audio circuitry lives on a separate riser card that's isolated from board-level noise. Next to that riser sits a separate module with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity alongside an M.2 slot for mini SSDs. On top of those perks, the board and box are littered with thoughtful little extras that are particularly well-suited to Mini-ITX builds.
The Impact isn't all that expensive, either. I wouldn't call the $220 asking price cheap, of course, but it's much lower than the sticker attached to a lot of flagship Haswell motherboards. So you can see why we've been itching to give the Impact a closer look.
The first thing one notices when opening the Impact's box is that the Supreme FX audio riser and mPCIe Combo module are packaged separately. Some assembly is required.
Fortunately, the two components are easy enough to install. Both plug into onboard headers, and their unique pin configurations should ensure that folks use the right ones. Once attached, the modules are held firmly in place by screws.
The assembly process shouldn't intimidate folks who have already committed to assembling a PC from scratch. I'm a little surprised the add-ons aren't installed at the factory, though. Asus probably wants to avoid potential damage during shipping. Having the parts separate at least makes it easier to get a closer look at them, which we'll do in a moment. Before that, we should address the third riser card, which comes pre-installed.
Premium motherboards typically have elaborate power regulation circuitry feeding the CPU. Mini-ITX dimensions leave little room around the socket for that circuitry, so the Asus has put it on a separate board that rises up from the Impact's top edge. This piece hosts an 8+2 phase power delivery complex powered by digital PWMs and cooled by a slim heatsink. Higher-grade electrical components are found not only on the power riser, but also throughout the rest of the board.
The Impact's trio of vertical elements complicates clearances somewhat. So does the fact that the board is designed for Mini-ITX enclosures. Here's where the socket sits relative to various landmarks and the edges of the PCB.
Note the decent-sized gap between the CPU socket and the PCI Express slot. The other potential obstructions are much closer to the socket, and there are plenty of them. Thankfully, most of them are relatively short.
The vertical battery mount should be a non-issue, leaving the audio and power risers as the most likely sources of conflict. Those pieces are large enough to interfere with CPU coolers that branch out from the socket. They also cramp the area around the heatsink retention holes, making cooler installation somewhat more difficult for those of us with stubby, clumsy fingers.
Despite its tighter clearances, the Impact can still accommodate a wide range of memory modules, heatsinks, and liquid-cooling gear. It's also equipped to host the latest and greatest Haswell CPUs, including the recent refresh. Thanks to its top-of-the-line Z87 Express chipset, the Impact is primed to overclock Intel K-series CPUs.
Haswell's integrated PCIe controller gives the Impact enough Gen3 lanes to fuel a single x16 slot for discrete graphics cards. Two full-sized DIMM slots tap the CPU's dual memory channels, and four 6Gbps SATA ports hook into the Z87 chipset. To the right, a USB 3.0 header provides a pair of SuperSpeed ports for front-panel connectors. These ports are joined by four more in the rear cluster, which also houses another four USB 2.0 jacks.
There are more ports, of course, including DisplayPort and HDMI video outs and an eSATA connector for older external drives. Plenty of other motherboards offer those extras, but they don't have the Impact's cluster-mounted POST code display.
The diagnostic display is joined by a handful of buttons that control various functions. One button clears the CMOS, while another causes the board to boot directly into the firmware. Switches are also provided for ROG Connect, Asus' remote tweaking interface, and MemOK!, a feature that cycles through different memory profiles for finicky DIMMs. Having these functions accessible outside the case is a huge bonus for Mini-ITX systems, whose internals are often too crowded to poke around inside easily.
Of all the Impact's cluster-mounted goodies, the S/PDIF audio output is among the most important. This port passes pristine digital bitstreams to compatible speakers and receivers, neatly bypassing the pitfalls associated with onboard analog audio. The digital out natively supports stereo playback and surround-sound sources with pre-encoded tracks, such as movies. DTS Connect software adds on-the-fly encoding for multi-channel output, allowing surround-sound game audio to be piped through the S/PDIF out, as well.
The robust digital output implementation is only one element of the Impact's integrated audio, of course. On the next page, we'll take a closer look at the SupremeFX card that handles analog signals.