In this review, you will see how the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe packs just about every feature one would want when building a HTPC (or general purpose PC for that matter) into a very small mini ITX form factor. I will say this, ever since I received this board and opened it, my jaw dropped. ASUS fit every single feature I had wanted into one (or two depending on how you count it) small pieces of PCB. As a spoiler, the retail price on this board is around $200, which means this is not a budget board and we are used to the mini ITX premium where smaller motherboards cost more. On the other hand, it is packed so full of features that it is a board that can be used to replace a traditional desktop computer or HTPC with a very small machine. Let’s take a look.
The trend with Z68 and Z77 chipsets are that the integrated GPUs are more than adequate for basic 2D output. If you are looking for a workstation with a lot of CPU need but where 3D GPU performance was not needed, then Intel’s on-die graphics are going to be “good-enough” for many users one one can use the third-gen PCIe slots for more I/O performance. In the mini ITX scenario, on-die GPUs these days are preferred and PCIe slots are generally used for expansion.
Let’s see what the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe has under the hood, and it is going to be quite a bit.
The ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe is a mini ITX motherboard so it is relatively small, coming in at 6.7 in x 6.7 in which covers about half the physical area as a mATX motherboard. Typically we see two categories of mini ITX motherboards, those which are very sparse utilizing a minimum feature set and those that have a full feature set. The P8Z77-I Deluxe falls into the latter of those two categories. Just looking at the PCB, it is overflowing with features, so much so that ASUS needs to utilize a second PCB as will be seen later.
Normally we look at different areas of the motherboard, but with such a small form factor, this does not make sense. Instead, we can see quite a few features in a single overview. One will notice that the LGA 1155 socket is around the motherboard’s center. There are two DDR3 DIMM slots so one will get limited to 16GB of DDR3, about half as many mATX and full ATX motherboards allow for. Both the 8-pin CPU power connector and 24-pin ATX connectors are on the outside of the motherboard which helps from an access perspective as mini ITX cases tend to be very small.
One can also see that there are four internal SATA ports, two SATA III 6.0gbps ports and two SATA II 3.0gbps ports. Oftentimes, mini ITX boards sacrifice SATA ports for additional area. Four ports makes a lot of sense on this platform. Two SATA III 6.0gbps ports can be used for solid state drives or a SSD caching setup with a solid state drive and a large spindle disk, with the SATA II ports used for optical drives. Alternatively one can add two sets of mirrored RAID 1 drives or several other setups. A limitation of the Z77 platform is that one cannot use the Intel RAID features across SATA III and SATA II ports. With that being said, one can still use Linux mdadm , FlexRAID, Windows software RAID or others to span ports but it should be noted that there may be performance differences.
ASUS provides one PCIe 3.0 x16 slot which gives a lot of flexibility. If one is building a storage server, that slot can handle an add in controller card. Conversely, one can add a HDTV tuner or graphics card in that same slot so there is room to upgrade.
Another big feature that one can see on the board is the internal USB 3.0 header as well as dual USB 2.0 front panel headers. At first I wondered why ASUS would have legacy USB 2.0 ports onboard taking up valuable real estate. When my new Antec ISK110 VESA arrived, I found that it only had USB 2.0 front ports. Mystery solved!
Probably about half of the readers of this site do not recognize what the above photo is depicting. It is actually one of the coolest features of the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe, the Digi+ VRM for ITX. Here is the issue. In a mini ITX board a manufacturer needs a certain CPU socket footprint, and the associated space for a cooler. In addition, the manufacturer needs space for at least two DIMM slots for dual channel memory, a bunch of rear I/O ports, a platform controller hub, SATA II or SATA III port(s) and some type of expansion slot to meet what is generally considered the minimum passable product in the mini ITX segment. All of that takes some room, but can generally be accommodated easily. What often is sacrificed in mini ITX platforms is the ability to achieve high stable overclocks. After all 45nm and even 32nm CPUs heat up a lot when overclocked and overvolted and small mini ITX enclosures generally do not have extensive cooling solutions. The multi-phase complex power systems on enthusiast boards take up a lot of motherboard real estate, which is not something that the mini ITX form factor has to spare.
ASUS’ differentiator with the P8Z77-I Deluxe is that it puts a digital 10 phase power design (8 -phase for the CPU and 2 -phase for the iGPU) on a separate PCB connected at a right angle to the main motherboard to provide power. If one looks at Zotac’s Z77ITX-A-E which is competitive, one will notice that Zotac loses a ton of rear I/O space, and forces a awkward 8-pin CPU power connector placement, fitting heatsinks. ASUS’s design fits a more robust setup into less motherboard PCB area by using this riser design. To see what this lets you do, here is an ASUS TurboV EVO screenshot of the overclock.
Just to give an idea, the ASUS AI Tuner produced a stable 4.3GHz on my Core i7-3770K which I have not seen get over 4.4GHz on any platform. In the past, mini ITX boards were limited in overclocking in terms of maximum stable speeds. With the P8Z77-I Deluxe, ASUS more or less removes this restriction. Overall, a pretty good result for a button click and a few minutes of reboots to get a stable overclock, especially on a mini ITX board.
The rear port area is one that it is worth spending a bit more time than usual on. These smaller mini ITX platforms do not have as much room to expand, so built-in ports are more important. Remember, there is but one expansion PCIe slot allotted so there is not as much room to expand as one would find on even a micro ATX motherboard. The first stack of ports is a fairly typical stack of four USB 2.0 ports. Moving right one can see a S/PDIF optical out for audio more or less in-line with the analog audio I/O ports to the very right. In HTPC situations, one is usually going to use HDMI for sound these days, so I think this mix makes sense. Display outputs from the on-die Ivy Bridge GPU are handled by a HDMI, Displayport and DVI-I port on the rear I/O panel. In addition, one can find an Intel-based Gigabit NIC and 802.11 a/b/g/n dual band WiFi antennae posts to handle networking duties. ASUS’s wireless solution includes not just 802.11 a/b/g/n dual band WiFi, but also Bluetooth 4.0. For those with mini HTPC keyboards such as the Logitech diNovo Mini, wireless Bluetooth Skype headsets or Bluetooth phones, having onboard Bluetooth is a big help.
The USB 3.0 ports are a mix of UASP enabled ports as well as Turbo enabled ports. Four rear panel USB 3.0 ports along with the four USB 2.0 ports works fairly well. Just to give folks an idea prior to my UASP benchmark publication, the USB 3.0 ports with UASP enabled can push well over 300MB/s. Along with USB 3.0, the rear I/O panel also features two eSATA 3.0gbps ports from the Intel Z77 chipset. Between the USB 3.0 ports and the eSATA ports, a user has the ability to easily add several additional external media drives. The other two buttons one can see are for the BIOS flashback and CMOS reset buttons.
I took a quick photo of everything installed using some G.Skill memory I had free. Overall, this is a very compact setup. For building a HTPC, the high-level of integrated components means that one can plug in the CPU, memory, SATA II or SATA III drives, power supply and WiFi antennae and be ready to go. One thing to make sure of is that the chassis can fit both the CPU heatsink and fan assembly and also the ASUS Digi+ VRM for ITX PCB. Also, there are enclosures such as the Antec ISK110 VESA that have 90w max PSUs and that cannot power the full Ivy Bridge Z77 setup at full load, let alone when overclocked.
Probably the most interesting piece of software is the UEFI interface that ASUS provides. For those accustomed to standard BIOS that have been used for decades, the ability to use a mouse is welcome. I did find though that using a mouse was almost necessary as navigating by keyboard was not as slick as old AMI, Phoenix, and Award BIOS implementations. The UEFI interface provides a simple mode (called EZ mode) that shows things like boot order, and lets a user change profiles between a power saving profile, balanced profile, and performance profile.
Beyond the UEFI interface, ASUS provides a suite of software including AISuite II and ASUS Fan Xpert2. Plenty of details can be found on ASUS’s site, but the highlights from this software are the abilities to:
Monitor system information from fan speeds, temperatures, voltages, clock speeds and etc. and set alerts. This is often an overlooked feature but ASUS puts a lot of functionality into their Probe tool.
Automatically overclock the CPU if desired either manually or using a CPU auto tuning feature. The base clock can be increased too by a small amount as 100MHz to 103MHz base clocks are generally obtainable from a 100MHz base. One can also change the CPU multipliers. A view of the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe’s TurboV EVO overclock can be found above.
Set the EPU power saving profiles and features. The EPU is a feature of ASUS motherboards meant to intelligently reduce power consumption.
Set and test fan speeds using Fan Xpert+. This can be useful if one wants to set thresholds and test them for quieter idle fan speeds ramping up as the workload increases.
Use Network iControl to prioritize network traffic (great feature when multitasking.)
ASUS also provides a quick piece of software to control the WiFi card to allow the system to either join an existing wireless network or to act as an AP. If one has a wired Ethernet connection to the system, this provides a really useful way to add an access point for tablets and phones.
In addition, ASUS has a WiFi Go suite that allows a user, especially with an Android device, to have things like remote control capabilities. Essentially, this allows one to control the system from a mobile device which helps consolidate remote sprawl.
USB 3.0 and UASP
ASUS has been touting the benefits of an optimized USB interface called USB Attached SCSI Protocol or UASP for some time now and I think it is mature to the point that it is worth a serious look. I did a piece entitled USB 3.0 UASP Mode – Performance Benefit or Marketing Gimmick? recently and figured I would share the benchmark results there, as well as how one would turn the UASP mode on. Here is a quick example using AS SSD of the difference between standard USB 3.0 mode and UASP mode.
One can see that there is clearly a determinable difference in performance using UASP and I recommend it if one can purchase the necessary hardware for it.
As long time readers might see, the ASUS P8Z77-I Deluxe received the highest overall rating of any product reviewed thus far. This was not given lightly, and was not solely based on the hardware portion as ASUS is bundling relevant, useful software utilities with the motherboard. From an ease of use perspective, this board has virtually everything one could want with a mini ITX Ivy Bridge Z77 platform built-in. I have actually proposed to ASUS the idea that WiFi and Bluetooth should be standard on desktop motherboards today because of the fact that so many folks have mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Overclocking with the innovative Digi+ VRM for ITX plus the ASUS AI tuner is an excellent experience instead of a struggle for achieving both high and stable overclocks. ASUS delivers the hardware and software combination that meets market needs. With all of this being said, the street price is around $200 which is fairly reasonable. Overall, this board surprised me a bit as it exceeded my expectations for what the mini ITX platform would deliver earning it a Recommended Buy.