It has been a long time coming, but I think I can now safely say that PC component manufacturers are taking the mini ITX market a lot more seriously. All you have to do is look at how the market has progressed recently to see that the industry is now listening to gamers, and seeing that now they don’t want huge cases that take up half of their desk like they did in the 1990s and early 2000s. Gamers want to have a more discreet option but with the same power as the old larger alternatives.
I know that there are advantages to not going for the mini ITX option such as the ability to have more than one GPU, or not having to worry if the next GPU will fit inside your small case. Also, not having to worry about what hardware you are going to put in the one x16 PCIe slot.
I have seen a few fantastic cases that look and work great, such as the BitFenix Prodigy Mini-ITX Cube Case and the Cooler Master Elite 120 Advanced Case. We are now also seeing a variety of great boards with some fantastic feature, such as the one that I will be testing today which is the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe. This is the first in many new feature rich boards that are being launched not only by Asus but other manufacturers such as Gigabyte and ASrock.
As you can see the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe comes in a rather well presented deep but small box (a little like the board itself, small but feature packed). It comes with the following inside the box:
- User's Manual
- ASUS Q-Shield
- ASUS Q-Cable
- 2 x SATA 3Gb/s cable(s)
- 2 x SATA 6Gb/s cable(s)
- 2 x Wi-Fi Ring Moving Antennae
First off, you might notice that the Asus comes with 2 Wi-Fi Ring Antennas, this is because the board comes with wireless N on-board (Deluxe version only). As many of you might already know, the wireless N can have many antenna which allows for better speed and signal strength. The wireless capability is provided by ASUS/Broadcom Wi-Fi GO!.
The I/O panel sports an impressive amount of connectors for such a small motherboard. It comes with 4 USB 2.0 ports and 4 USB 3.0 ports, dual Wi-Fi antenna connections (as discuss in the previous paragraph), optical output, 3 Mini-stereo jacks, one RJ-45 LAN port, DVI-I, HDMI and DisplayPort connections, also not to forget the 2 eSATA sockets.
Another noteworthy feature with this board is the fact that it comes with Bluetooth 4.0 which is principally aimed at low-power and low-latency wireless devices, so such devices as Bluetooth keyboards and mice which I hope that due to lower latency and power will mean more Bluetooth gaming peripherals but we aware that Bluetooth 4.0 cannot carry voice so no headsets will be thrown into the mix.
You will also notice 2 buttons there as well, these two buttons are for clearing the CMOS and the BIOS flashback feature. I think that this is a great idea from Asus as working in little cases, which this board is designed for, can limit you finding such things as the BIOS reset switch when inside the case. I do like the fact that with the I/O shield on, there is no way that you can accidently knock either switch and you need something like a pin or pen to actually press either button.
Asus has done a fantastic job of laying out this motherboard given its an mini ITX design I found that the spacing between the RAM and GPU was fantastic and also the SATA ports look to have been given consideration as well.
As with most of these boards, and I don’t think that there is much that any motherboard manufacturer can do about this is that the DIMM slots are very close to the CPU socket, this will limit the CPU cooler that you can get. You will need to seriously consider if the CPU cooler will interfere with the RAM and also if any heat sink that you have on the RAM might interfere with the cooler.
The most ‘stand out’ physical feature of the board is the way that the VRMs (the board’s power phases) sit on what looks like a daughter board. This is to keep the Asus as a mini ITX board but to facilitate a large overclock with the board. If you look closely you will see that the VRMs have a small heat sink attached to them to help with cooling.
You will also notice, as with most mini ITX boards, there are only 2 DDR3 DIMM slots. I personally think that this is more than enough. You can now get up to 16Gb of RAM into 2 DIMM slots, and this is supported with the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe. I don’t think anyone can really use 16Gb realistically unless they are running multiple virtual machines on one computer.
The board also comes with 2 x SATA2 and, more importantly 2 x SATA3 internal ports, and 2 x SATA3 external ports. Yes, there is only 2 internal SATA3 ports, but if you are only using this for gaming its more than enough, 1 for the SSD with both the OS and programs that you may want on it and then another for your steam folder (you all know this is true). The other 2 SATA2 ports are more than enough for supporting other data such as documents or photos from your latest holiday.
The Asus also comes with 8+2 phase power support which means this little devil should overclock like no one’s business, something that I will go into great detail further on in the review, but this shows that Asus are really coming on strong in this market trying to create a board that will overclock with the power and features needed to have a stable overclock.
While I’m on the subject of overclocking features, the Asus also comes with Asus’s great uEFI BIOS which has its standard overclocking features. I’m not sure if most of you are aware that most modern motherboards now come with a new way of booting known as uEFI which is supported with Windows Vista, 7 and 8. uEFI booting computers are now shipped with most prebuilt systems such as CCL’s desktop range.
The Asus comes with a good but pretty standard 8-Channel HD audio CODEC made by Realtek. This comes with the standard Jack-detection, Multi-streaming, Front Panel Jack-retasking and also has Optical S/PDIF out port(s) in back panel.
As you might have guessed, the sound quality is pretty standard for an on board solution. It is not as good as a Asus Xonar but it is what you expect from a Realtek on board solution. Games sounded fine when I was in Battlefield 3. I had no issues with hearing anything. I also fired up Left for Dead 2 to use the microphone and again no issues communicating with my team mates (I was using a Roccat Kave 5.1 Kone gaming headset) The same with CDs, I put in the latest Muse CD and gave it a full listen through. I found no issue with the clarity that was coming from the sound card when listening to it.
Now, on to overclocking the motherboard to see what we can get out of it! Well after tinkering around in Asus’s great EFI BIOS, I managed to get an overclock of 4.1Ghz which sat at around 80-85c all the way through stress testing the unit.
This was a fantastic first overclock of the core i7 3770 and if you are thinking about watercooling this board, I think that you could get a lot more from the chip and motherboard as I have seen the i7 3770 amass an overclock of 4.8Ghz which is over a 1Ghz overclock.
If you put this in a Cooler Master Elite 120 (stocked by CCL) along with a nice GTX680 or Radeon 7970, a decent cooler and a nice SATA3 SSD you are going to get one fantastic little gaming computer which will play all the games that you can throw at it.
After looking at this motherboard, I see 2 sides to this motherboard.
1. It has got the potential to be a great overclocker, as you can see with a good overclock at 4.1Ghz with a pretty average cooler.
2. The other side of the coin is that it is loaded with features that make it great as a media centre, small and compact but packing such media features as optical out, and HDMI and DVI out (all you need is a GPU with onboard GPU) which leaves the PCIe slot available for a nice HD tuner and away you go.
The board performs great for either, I know that the price may put you off for such a little motherboard board but believe me when I say that at the moment there is no other motherboard that I would put in my mini ITX build, well done Asus for upping the game!
The P8Z77-I Deluxe is availalbe here.