8 best micro ATX and Mini-ITX motherboards
2nd Feb 2011 | 10:40
The latest small form factor boards pack a big punch
Marvellous mini mobos: Overview
Big power in a small box. It's a seductive idea that's driven sales of small-form factor (SFF) PCs for centuries. Well, it has done for at least the last decade or so. Shuttle, for instance, does a brisk trade in barebones rigs that promise the performance of a full ATX tower in something the size of a two-slice toaster.
The only problem, of course, is that you'll pay handsomely for the privilege. A high performance Shuttle case typically costs around £300.
That's before you drop in a CPU, some RAM, a graphics card and storage. A normal ATX tower with motherboard and PSU can be had for as little as half the cost. Unless, that is, you take a hands-on approach and build a SFF system from scratch.
Small-form factor motherboards, such as microATX and Mini-ITX boards can often be cheaper than full-feature ATX models with the same chipset. Meanwhile, compatible cases are not as expensive as you might think.
Using a smaller board inside a standard ATX case can also make for a simpler, cooler running and easier to manage setup. All of which just leaves the minor matters of performance and features. Surely there must be downsides to downsizing?
Perhaps, but the drawbacks may be less acute than you imagine. The big issue here is increased feature integration in the latest CPUs. Put simply, with more and more features from memory controllers to graphics cores being integrated into the CPU, motherboards are becoming gradually less critical to performance.
Every feature that moves onto the processor is one less component on the motherboard, freeing up space and reducing complexity and cost. In other words, squeezing a full feature set into smaller boards is only getting easier.
Of course, there are limits. Mini-ITX motherboards, in particular, tend to be thin on features and expansion options. Multi-card graphics solutions, for instance, are not an option. There are also question marks regarding outright performance and overclocking headroom.
Smaller motherboard dimensions give the manufacturer's engineers fewer options in terms of electrical layout and in turn current management and signal integrity. Ultimately, a full ATX board is always going to be the best option for any self-respecting extreme overclocking enthusiast and absolute performance nutcase.
For everyone else, however, small-form factor is probably the future. If we've sold you on the big idea of going small, your first task is getting to grips with the different motherboard form factors.
For the record, the ATX standard officially measures 305mm by 244mm while the larger extended ATX or EATX form factor weighs in at 305mm by 330mm. The two most common SFF sizes are microATX and Mini-ITX. Standard MicroATX boards are 244mm by 244mm but can be as small as 171mm by 171mm.
GIGABYTE H55N-USB3:Astonishingly good H55 board. A high-end performer in a tiny package
In practice few microATX boards diverge from the larger format, effectively making them an ATX board with the section furthest from the CPU socket sliced off. If you're familiar with normal ATX boards, you'll know the amputated area typically houses expansion slots in the form of PCI and PCI Express ports. Normally, therefore, microATX boards offer less flexibility when it comes to catering for add-in boards.
Inevitably there will be fewer PCI and PCI Express slots. However, that doesn't mean you have to compromise performance. Any decent microATX board will have at least one 16-lane PCI Express graphics port and a full-on desktop CPU socket. Some, such as Asus's Rampage III Gene, have a pair of 16-lane ports enabling high performance multi-GPU graphics solutions.
Elsewhere, you'll be forced to make few if any compromises with a microATX board. There's absolutely no reason why it shouldn't have decent chipset cooling, plenty of USB headers and SATA ports as well as a pukka BIOS menu with a full set of overclocking options.
Likewise, a well designed microATX mobo should have ample space around the CPU socket for fitting high performance cooling kit and also provide at least two DIMM slots per channel for the system memory. Just like a standard ATX board, in other words.
That's not, however, something you can say about the Mini-ITX standard. Sometimes known simply as ITX, the definition is a clearer than microATX with fixed measurements of 170mm by 170mm. That, if you hadn't already realised, is ridiculously small for a desktop motherboard and means some features are inevitably for the chop because of it.
Most obviously, system expansion options with Mini-ITX boards are a bit borked. Typically, you'll find a single PCI Express 16-lane slot is your lot. There simply isn't any space for further PCI Express or PCI ports.
Another area where limited space causes a crunch involves the DIMM slots. One per channel is the maximum, which can make it trickier to implement upgrades or make the most of old memory you have lying around. Other features that typically get the chop compared with larger boards are SATA ports and USB headers. You'll have some, just not as many as you're used to.
Then there's the BIOS menu. Mini-ITX boards are often aimed at the embedded or industrial markets. Think information kiosks, factory control units and the like. Not, in other words, applications where cranking up the clockspeed or running ultra-fast RAID arrays is a high priority. Overclocking and other fine tuning options can therefore be overlooked.
That said, it's worth noting that Mini-ITX boards normally do not require specialist components. With a few exceptions, off-the-shelf memory, graphics cards and CPUs are usually fully compatible.
However, what you probably won't be able to bolt on is a high performance cooler for the CPU. At least, you won't be able to fit both a fat cooler and a beefy graphics card at the same time. With space at a premium, the CPU socket on Mini-ITX boards is often too close to the PCI Express graphics port to allow both a discrete video card and a large aftermarket heat sink for the CPU.
One final area where Mini-ITX boards sometimes skimp in the name of space is sound: Full 6.1-plus connectivity may not be present. That said, if you're really serious about sound, you'll prefer to use the S/PDIF interface that some motherboards provide.
Marvellous mini mobos: Chipsets and Sockets
If that's a general guide to the size and feature sets of microATX and Mini-ITX boards, what about the specifics of chipsets, sockets and CPU support?
The key distinctions here are between AMD and Intel platforms and in turn the differing limitations of the two form factors. Broadly speaking, when it comes to AMD CPU choice is not critical. That's because AMD has just one desktop CPU socket known as AM3. In terms of platform architecture, too, the choice of AMD-compatible chipsets doesn't really make a great deal of difference.
Consequently, whatever form factor you go for, any of AMD's current desktop CPUs should work. That includes everything from a weedy dual-core Athlon chip to AMD's finest six-core powerhouse. The latter is certainly an intriguing prospect in combination with a tiny Mini-ITX board.
It's also something that isn't currently possible with Intel platforms. The proportions of Mini-ITX are simply too small to cater for Intel's top LGA1366 socket, the triple-channel memory configuration it requires and other extras that are part of the X58 chipset including voltage regulators designed to cope with the six-core Gulftown CPU.
However, the slightly simpler LGA1156 socket is a goer in Mini-ITX format. That restricts the options and makes the top Intel option for the smallest form factor the Core i7 880 CPU. It's a quad-core chip with eight threads and significantly more processing power than AMD's fastest six-Core Phenom II X6 model.
Despite the incompatibility of its top six-core chips, therefore, Intel still offers the fastest performing processors for Mini-ITX.
MicroATX, however, is a very different story. Here there are almost no limitations in terms of CPUs, sockets and chipsets. Asus, for instance, will sell you a microATX board based on the X58 chipset and LGA1366 socket. In fact, the Asus Rampage III Gene also supports both AMD CrossFireX and Nvidia SLI in dual-card trim, has excellent cooling and packs a full range of overclocking options.
Speaking of chipsets, one of the reasons why modern SFF boards are even possible is the ever greater level of feature integration in the latest PC processors. Slowly but surely, everything from the memory controller and northbridge to the graphics processor is being assimilated by the CPU. Apart from making boards simpler and more space efficient, it also means that chipsets are becoming less critical.
Figuring out features
However, there are a few chipset related foibles specific to Intel and AMD that are worth noting. The AMD half of the equation is simpler with 785G and 880G integrated chipsets being the weapons of choice for both Mini-ITX and microATX boards.
There's little to choose between the two in terms of the main northbridge chip and integrated Radeon HD 4200 series graphics core. In fact, the 880G is nothing more than a minor revision of the 785G. Instead, it's the southbridge chip that tends to be critical for AMD platforms.
Motherboard makers do have the option to mix and match. However, you'll typically find the 785G chip paired with the SB710 southbridge while boards based on the 880G can be had with the newer SB850 model.
The key difference between the two is support for the latest SATA 6Gbps storage interface, a feature that will be increasingly important as ever faster solid state drives appear. The SB850 has it, the SB710 does not.
In the Intel camp, things are a little more complicated. For microATX boards, you have the full range of Intel chipsets on offer. The two discrete chipsets are the X58 for LGA1366 socket CPUs and the P55 chipset for LGA1156.
The former is Intel's flagship platform and offers high-end features, such as a triple-channel memory interface, more PCI Express lanes than you can shake a DX11 graphics card at and generally more bandwidth than you are ever likely to need.
The P55 chipset is less bleeding edge, but only slightly. It still delivers oodles of bandwidth for both the CPU and peripherals. What neither chipset can provide, however, is support for Intel's so-called Fusion CPUs and their integrated Intel HD graphics cores. These chips are currently sold under the Core i3 500 series and Core i5 600 series brand names.
In plain dual-core processor mode, they will tango with the P55 chipset. Exposing their graphics capabilities, however, requires an H55 or H57 motherboard wired up with video outputs. There's not much to choose between these two, but the H57 does come with a few extras.
For starters, you get a couple of additional PCI Express lanes for peripherals. On a full-sized ATX board, that might come in handy. But for an SFF system, it's arguably less irrelevant. More useful is the H57's native support for RAID configurations courtesy of Intel's Rapid Storage Technology. The H57 also offers a few more USB 2.0 connections.
What no current Intel chipset offers is native support for USB 3.0 or SATA 6Gbps. If you want either feature, you'll need to hunt down a motherboard with additional controller chips, pushing up the price.
Speaking of money, you may be surprised to learn that building your own system based on an SFF motherboard can actually be remarkably cost effective. Part of the reason is that smaller boards provide less opportunity for feature creep. Put another way, there's no space for board makers to add pointless features you're never going to use.
A good microATX board will have everything you need for a powerful PC but cost less than a full ATX board. You can take direct advantage of that by fitting a microATX board to a full ATX tower case. A smaller motherboard certainly makes for an easier build process and a less crowded case, too.
But we think it makes more sense to take advantage of the smaller board dimensions and go for compact SFF case. MicroATX cases complete with 450W PSUs can be had from as little as £25. If you want something with more firepower, it's best to buy the case and PSU separately.
Given the price of Shuttle systems, you might expect Mini-ITX cases to be much more expensive. But scan.co.uk, for instance, will currently sell you a Mini-ITX toaster case complete with 300W PSU for just £28. Add a motherboard and that's around £100 all in for a package that should match a £300 Shuttle for performance even if it's not quite in the same ballpark for build quality.
The sense of small
An SFF system, then, needn't be expensive or miss out on features that actually matter. But will it perform on a par with a full ATX rig? The simple answer is yes. Thanks again to the greater level of feature integration in the latest CPUs, small boards are capable of delivering big performance.
In our testing, there's literally nothing to choose between a full ATX board and a tiny Mini-ITX mobo if you are comparing, for instance, an Intel Core i7 870 processor running on the H55 at stock clock speeds. The smaller system will be just as fast. The same goes for AMD's chips.
What's more, given the bargain basement pricing of AMD's six-core chips, the idea of dropping a Phenom II X6 into a tiny toaster case certainly sounds like fun. What's more, even storage shouldn't be an issue. A dualdrive solution with an SSD boot drive for speed and a monster conventional hard disk for mass storage is the perfect SFF solution.
SUPERCOMPUTER: Looking to build a super triple SLI rig? MicroATX isn't for you.
What's more, even overclocking isn't off the menu. Gigabyte's H55N-USB3 Mini-ITX board will happily run Core i7 chips at 4GHz with the proviso that you have an adequate PSU and can find a decent CPU cooler compatible with the space constraints.
The one area where smaller systems arguably lose ground, however, is graphics. Most microATX and all Mini-ITX motherboards and cases lack support for SLI and CrossFireX multi-GPU graphics. That said, for most people a single, powerful 3D board is the best solution. Frankly, there are few situations where the likes of a Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 doesn't get the job done.
So, there you have it. A smaller board can make the basis of a compact, cost effective rig without compromising on performance or key features. Going small really is a very big idea.
Marvellous mini mobos: 8 of the best
1. Asus M4A89GTD Pro/USB3
Pity AMD's current CPUs aren't a bit more competitive, because there are some cracking AMD-compatible motherboards available. They really do stick it to Intel in terms of features and value. Asus's new M4A89GTD Pro/USB3 is a prime example.
The big news is the arrival of the 890GX chipset from AMD. With it come a number of upgrades – some significant, some less so.
Of course, a pair of PCI-e x16 ports await the insertion of proper graphics firepower. But if that's what you have in mind, what do you need the integrated GPU for in the first place?
2. Asus Rampage III Extreme
The Republic of Gamers motherboards from Asus have always been the performance kings of its product catalogue, and as such have always had a fairly hefty price premium slapped on top of them. They're not just great performing items, they also come with all the bells and whistly things you could want in a board.
In short, the ROG mobos are the money's-no-object parts you throw in your machine if you never have to ask how much they cost. At £330, the oversized X58- based Rampage III Extreme (R3E) definitely fits then, but it's not a board that you can just throw into a PC to instantly make it faster.
3. Gigabyte 880GMA-UD2H
AMD doesn't make the fastest PC processors on planet Earth. We can all agree on that. But in terms of bang for your British buck, the world's second-string CPU maker still has plenty to offer.
Put simply, you get a lot for your money if you go with an AMD platform. Take this Gigabyte 880GMA-UD2H microATX motherboard. It's based on AMD's latest 880G integrated chipset and also sports the SB850 southbridge chip.
4. Gigabyte H55N-USB3
Slide the latest PC processors under a microscope and you'll discover transistors measuring just 32nm across. So ludicrously tiny, in other words, that 500nm would fit inside the width of a human hair.
Thus, enquiring minds might wonder why anyone needs a hulking great PC system based on the ATX motherboard form factor. Instead, why not go for a much smaller system based on a Mini-ITX board, such as the Gigabyte H55N-USB3?
5. MSI H55M-ED55
Mega money mobos with features to match are all very well. But most mere mortals want a mobo that ticks all the important boxes without threatening their mortgage payments.
At £70, the MSI H55M-ED55 is competitively priced for a board with Intel's LGA1156 socket. Thanks to the H55 chipset, it gives you plenty of options too.
6. Sapphire IPC-AM3DD785G review
Workhorse motherboards aimed at embedded and commercial applications tend not to make fine fillies in the context of home PCs. With that in mind, what chance has the Sapphire IPC-AM3DD785G in the Mini-ITX motherboard stakes?
7. Zotac H55-ITX WiFi
Stuffing Intel's desktop-class H55 chipset into a miniscule Mini-ITX motherboard is hardly a standard procedure.
However, the Zotac H55-ITX WiFi can't hope to get by based on nothing more than novelty. It must beat the likes of Gigabyte's identically proportioned and similarly specified H55N-USB3.
8. Zotac IONITX-P-E
We're big fans of Nvidia's plucky little ION motherboard chipset. What we haven't enjoyed is the feeble Intel Atom processor it's been saddled with. But what if you could have all the yummy graphics goodness of ION combined with a tastier CPU? Luckily, that's the very meaning of the Zotac IONITX-P-E's existence.
Liked this? Then check out our Graphics card buying guide
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