Build a PC 2013: ITX Gamer Motherboard
The part that truly makes an ITX build what it is, the motherboard. mITX is a form factor for motherboards that measures 17cmx17cm and was introduced in 2001 by VIA. These small motherboards have over the years evolved from a very basic computer for such things as signage control and simple, low powered computers to what we have today. A motherboard that can support a full featured gaming system.
For this build series we wanted to take a truly broad look at the possible build methods so we approached six different motherboard producers that made boards for the AMD F2 platform as well as the Intel 1155 platform. We had three of those companies promises us 1155 based systems, no one was interested in letting us review their AMD solutions. Of the three that actual told us they would take part only one sent a board, the others have all since stopped returning emails.
Our friends at Gigabyte were the first to express an interested in taking part and literally within a few days of speaking to them an H77N-WiFi board was at my door. We wanted to give you more than one sample so I went shopping at the local Microcenter and bought a Z77 solution so we could look at overclocking as well. While there I was surprised when the associates there steered me away from a more expensive solution to the less expensive board for my Z77 ITX needs, I was however happy to see our friends at Gigabyte are regarded as one of the best options and the most cost effective. So while our review sample may be limited it was not from lack of trying.
The H77N is a solid ITX motherboard to build from. Gigabyte has always taken the more budget oriented chips and delivered them on a board that packs some solid, high end features and this board follows that trend. The board is constructed using their Ultra-Durable design which means the board itself is very well made with a solid capacitor system in place and a great deal of general durability. Our experiences with the Ultra-Durable design over the years has been outstanding with boards that are stable and have never seen a failure to date.
The board is tiny, but that is just a fact of life in the world of ITX building. However, while it might lack some expansion options it is not lacking in features. the H77N allows for up to 16 gig of DDR3 using two sticks in dual channel. Has connections for 4 SATA devices, 2 of which are SATA 3. There is also an internal header for a front USB 3 port as well as USB 2. For video you have the choice of making use of the IGPU on the Intel chips or you have a full PCIe3 expansion slot for adding a more powerful video option or any other PCIe expansion you might want to make use of.
On the rear I/O we have four USB 2.0 ports along with two USB 3.0. We also find a PS2 port that can be used for a mouse or keyboard as well as sound jacks for up to 7.1 surround provided by the Realtek ALC892.
The onboard video comes with an interesting connection setup allowing for DVI and dual HDMI. You also some interesting networking options. The board comes with an Intel wireless solution that provides for B/G/N connectivity as well as makes use of Intel’s WiDi display system. This is a wireless display option to allow you to send your computers signal across the room or across the house. (We will be looking at this more closely in a future article) To this we also have Bluetooth connectivity and dual gigabit LAN that can be used as a team for some really incredible LAN transfer rates.
Of course with the motherboard you get your manuals, drives, SATA cables and so on. You also get a really nice I/O shield that is one of the new padded designs which makes it just nicer at every level to use. For our WiFi connection you get two antenna that connect via a coax connection. These come with some pretty long wires, a little over 3’ in length. This allows for a good size separation of the antenna and results in some strong signal reception ability. I tested in a few rooms in our home, including rooms that do not get good signal with out laptop and found no place that I did not get max signal. These antenna have a rubberized coating and a weighted base so they will not scratch surfaces and stand very stable.
No you are not seeing double, the H77 and Z77 are twins that were separated at birth it would seem. When I looked at the two boxes together I was amazed, they are identical, well with a few letters changed. When I pulled out the board I considered for a second returning it, figuring I got the wrong board in the box. The H77 and Z77 boards have identical feature sets, the same build quality, the same layout and even close to the same price with the Z77 only costing $20 more. The only difference in the two boards is that the Z77 allows for overclocking the H77 does not.
I can tell you that when I first saw this I was confused but after using the two boards I am not disappointed. Both boards have outstanding build quality and provided a very stable platform for our build.
For purposes of our build we used each but at the end of the day we spent a little more time with the Z77 so we could see what overclocking options it would allow. The two boards have solid power subsystems but they are not heavy duty so overclocking on the Z77 seems to top out quicker than most full size Z77 motherboards. This is shown as well in the HIOS which has no way, that I could find to easily overvolt the CPU. This means you will be limited in your overclocking to stock voltages but that is not a big deal as this also limits the heat increase of the overclock, a good thing for the ITX build. My own overclocking experience with a 3570 was getting to 4.3 GHz on stock voltage, I was able to max out a 3450 at 3.9 as well. This might not be sexy to the uber overclocking crowd but for the real world and for a gaming rig this is outstanding.
With a $20 price difference and the Z77N being the lowest priced Z77 ITX solution we could find the competition between these two boards is a bigger deal than anything brought on by another company. If you are not going to overclock then the H77N is the board to buy. It is in every way except overclocking identical to the Z77N and delivers identical performance along with features, stability and build quality. The WiDi offers a great option not found in other H77 based boards or anything close to it’s price point, other than the Z77N of course. In fact the H77N feature set is closer to that of much more expensive boards. So if you do not plan to overclock then save the $20 and invest it elsewhere in your build.
The Z77N comes in with a feature set as good as pretty much any other Z77 based ITX board out there. It is a bit limited in overclocking potential but the ITX form factor makes that less of an issue due to limitations in cooling options. With exactly the same feature set as the H77N it is full featured and well made, the $20 price bump is minor enough that you really wonder if it is not worth the extra money for the overclocking options. This was the thought that kept running through my head as I looked at these two boards.
In the end I think we will be going with the Z77N for our build. The ability to basically get free performance from our CPU is wroth the $20 to me. It allows me to go to a local microcenter and pay $150 for the 3450 and the crank it up to 3.9GHz with minimal effort. Now our own testing has shown that the increase is not really something that will have a heavy impact on our gaming but the geek in me does it because I can.
For anyone building an ITX based system either of these boards show why I have always made use of Gigabyte boards. The outstanding build quality, stability and feature set, even at the lower cost model.
Thank you to the folks at Gigabyte for sending us the H77N-WiFi for review.
Show segments from show airing the weekend of March 30th, 2013