Today we're taking a look at the latest motherboard from Zotac. Based around the recently released Z68 chipset this is a seriously compact ITX form factor board with built in WiFi.
Indeed there are a few features on the Zotac that make it worthy of a second look as a potential board. There is Intel's HD3000 GPU, room for a full-on discrete GPU should the mood take you and all the normal things we'd expect out of a Z68 based motherboard.
What really raises our eyebrows is the overclocking potential, something that isn't always available on such tiny boards, but we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let's take a look at the specifications.
As you can see with support for 2133MHz DDR3, SATA 3, USB 3.0 and a x16 PCIe slot this isn't short of all the latest gadgets. It's especially nice to see the on-board WiFi is of the 802.11n variety so it should get a great signal wherever you choose to place it, vital as obviously ITX boards lend themselves to HTPC applications.
|GPU||Intel® HD Graphics 2000/3000 ready |
|Name||2nd Generation Intel® Core™ series|
2000 Series Intel® Core i3, i5 & i7 ready
Support up to 130-watt TDP
|Memory Speed||2133 MHz|
|Slots||2 x 240-pin DIMM|
|Capacity||Up to 16GB|
|Expansion Slots||1 x PCI Express x16|
1 x Combo mini-PCI Express / mSATA (occupied by WiFi card)
|Ethernet||2 x 10/100/1000 Mbps|
|WiFi||802.11n/g/b (300 Mb/s)|
|HDMI||2 (HDMI 1.4a)|
|SATA||2 (SATA 6.0 Gb/s)|
2 (SATA 3.0 Gb/s)
|USB Ports||4 USB 3.0 (2 on back panel, 2 on pin header)|
8 USB 2.0 (4 on back panel, 4 on pin header)
|Cooler||Passive (without fan)|
|Windows||Windows® Vista/7 premium ready|
|Package Contents||4 x SATA cables|
1 x I/O back plate
2 x WiFi antennas
1 x 8-pin power extension cable
1 x USB 3.0 header (full-size bracket)
1 x USB 3.0 low-profile bracket
1 x Vertical mini-PCI Express full height bracket (for mSATA SSDs)
1 x mini-DisplayPort to DisplayPort adapter
No the writing isn't huge, the box is a mere 8 inches square. It's a wonder of compactness. In fact when you see how much stuff has been squeezed into this we're surprised Zotac haven't won some kind of environmental award because there isn't even a twig wasted on creating the card for the box, much less a tree.
We've got the standard inclusions of power adaptors, SATA cables and IO shield, along with the driver CD and manuals. There is an 8-pin EPS12V extension cable included which is a boon if you've got an inflexible bunch of PSU cables.
And here is the board. It's not often that our photographs highlighting the various features of a motherboard cover the whole thing, but such is the excellent job in rearranging Zotac have done that's the case.
Starting with the PCIe x16 socket. This is phenomenally close to the CPU socket which creates a slight problem we'll see on the next page. For now though it shows that if you wanted to you could stuff a GTX590 in this and create a monster gaming rig from a 7" motherboard.
Memory capacity is only two DIMM slots, but with higher density RAM available this is plenty for 8GB and yet still get the dual-channel benefits. It's worth paying a little attention to the "Super Overclock" marking on the board, because all is not as it seems.
Like the EPS12V socket, the SATA ports have been relocated to help make the most of the tiny footprint. Being so much further from their normal spot it's worth double-checking you've got longer cables.
Round the back we have a lot of connection points. Four USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, 2 HDMI, a combi PS2 port, LAN, Audio and WiFi antenna.
The BIOS is capable of being navigated with a mouse, but that's the sole concession to modern BIOS UIs and because of that it's actually a ton easier to just use the keyboard as normal. Much is made of the 'overclocking' capabilities of the Zotac Z68-ITX. It's printed on the motherboard and mentioned in the blurb on the back of the box.
Yet when we enter the BIOS to see what overclocking options we have we find them to be scant indeed. Turning off Speedstep or Turbo Boost removes the ability to change the multiplier at all, so you can run 'full on' all the time. You also can't have varying multiplier levels for the amount of cores being used, something that all other LGA1155 motherboards we've reviewed have offered. But the option nonetheless is there to adjust the multi and therefore overclock.
Don't expect major results though. You can't input a steady voltage for the CPU, rather you can only input an extra amount that will be used when the CPU is in the Turbo state. How much extra voltage do you need? Well there is no way to tell how much is currently used without endlessly going back and forth to check. This applies equally to the RAM which doesn't tell you how much it's currently using, merely allows you to make an adjustment.
Finally, no we haven't missed any screens. This really is everything that the board has to offer in overclocking terms.
Memory overclocking claims support for 2133MHz RAM but despite using three different kits that have all happily run at 2133MHz on a swathe of other boards, none would do so here. 1866MHz was the most we could eke out, even running into 1.66v.
Small Ones aren't more Juicy
So there is some overclocking potential, but you'll need a calculator and plenty of anti-stress toys to achieve it. But hey it's a tiny ITX motherboard that you can turn into a monster gaming rig.
Oh wait, if I'm overclocking I want some good cooling on my CPU don't I? Well if you can find a single discrete GPU on the market that will fit into the PCIe slot once a tower cooler is inserted, you can win a prize*. We certainly couldn't think of one we've ever seen, much less have to hand.
* Prize only equal to the satisfaction of knowledge and has no actual value.
Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi Motherboard
Intel Core i5-2500K
8GB G.Skill RipjawsX 2133MHz @ 1866MHz
Corsair H70 CPU Cooler
Be Quiet Dark Power Pro
Samsung Spinpoint F1
Windows 7 x64
Despite wanting to keep to our standard setup the cooler issue obviously was something we couldn't avoid and so we dug the venerable old Corsair H70 out to enable us to fit our GTX570 in.
Despite the incredibly limited amount of overclocking options there is still a reasonable amount of performance to be squeezed from the little Zotac. Although we couldn't get our Memory to work at 2133MHz we could at least get just shy of 4.6GHz. Pretty impressive considering this isn't much bigger than some smart phones.
This wasn't stable in all our tests, once again that limited BIOS option problem appearing, and so for our bench runs we're at only 4.5 GHz.
At stock the Zotac is a little behind some of the other boards we've tested, although nothing shocking in any way at all. When overclocked it naturally is a good step behind the best because of the slower overclock we were able to obtain.
Memory performance at stock is understandably quite average, but then at 1333MHz we wouldn't expect banner waving highlights. However even though it's limited to 1866MHz here it still comfortably outperforms the Gigabyte Z68X UD5 so there clearly isn't much performance being taken away. In AIDA64 at least.
Onto SiSoft Sandra and in the Processor Arithmetic test the Zotac once again performs surprisingly well. Similarly to the Gene-Z the latest version of Sandra seems to have adjusted how the Dhrystone results are calculated which leads to a much higher score both in Dhrystone and Aggregate testing when compared to our earlier results. Nonetheless it's certainly not outclassed.
The Processor MultiMedia test gives the Zotac a good showing with the stock result being better than the highly regarded MSI Marshal, and when overclocked it's just shy of the very best by roughly what we'd expect given the lower clockspeed. If anything it demonstrates how pure the Sandra test is.
PC Mark Vantage
With the various synthetics out of the way it's time to look at how the system performs in tasks more akin to those it'll undergo. Stripped of the 'single-element' aspects of synthetic testing the Z68-ITX WiFi performs much closer to where our vast experience would have pegged it. The reduction in memory speed has a cumulative effect upon ever action and, when coupled to the slightly reduced CPU speed, the overclocked score reflects this. Defaulting the memory to 1333MHz definitely hinders the stock result which is fairly poor by any yardstick.
PC Mark 7
The much newer PC Mark 7 is far tighter in its testing and takes much greater advantage of the parallel computing possibilities of modern processors. Showing how the Zotac isn't easy to pin down the stock result suddenly leaps ahead of the competition and even overclocked it's not a mile behind the nearly-as-small Gene-Z.
Rendering is, as always, hugely demanding on a system and the Zotac Z68-ITX performs surprisingly well being on a par with similar stock results we've seen and only shaded in the overclocked scenario by the obvious smaller overclock it was able to deliver.
3D Mark 11
Finally despite the difficulties in getting the combination of cool overclocked CPU and discrete GPU to fit in the same board, the Zotac proves that big isn't necessarily better as it performs pretty well in 3D Mark 11, largely thanks to the full-fat PCIe x16 lane and the excellence of the GTX570.
The Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi is, for the second time in a week, not something that can be easily summarised but, contrary to HD6870X2 it's largely all the fault of Zotac themselves.
Let's put aside the marketing blurb and proclaimed overclocking capabilities for a moment and look at this just as an ITX board.
It's dead easy to set up. Despite it's small size it has enough of everything you could want as an HTPC solution. The maturity of the Z68 chipset and the brilliance of Windows 7 (which, as people who've suffered from the days of DOS 3 all the way to now, we still can't get over how stable it is compared to some earlier efforts) is highlighted by how quickly all the hardware can be up and running. HDMI outputs enable you to connect this to anything from a standard monitor to a monster flat-screen.
WiFi was equally easy to get up and running and the signal quality was fantastic throughout testing. The decision to use a 802.11n card rather than the cheaper g option is a wise one especially when the main bulk of these boards will find their way under the TV as a media server.
With plentiful USB sockets and the very fast SATA-III onboard this is an outstanding choice as a HD media centre and with the benefit of some light overclocking it proves a very good package.
There is, as ever with these matters, some lofty aspirations clouding initial expectations, namely the bold proclamations by Zotac about the overclocking capabilities of the Z68-ITX.
As with any overclocking endeavour there is a line that defines if you're going to go down the old DFI route of having every potential option available in the BIOS and a paucity of information about their use, or if you'll go down the MSI Genie route wherein a single button or setting provides a decent overclock with the minimum of fuss. Zotac seem to have straddled this line by having a lack of overclocking options and then obfuscated the ones that are there.
When you strip a BIOS bare of overclocking options you are clearly aiming at the Everyman rather than the Enthusiast, and so to not provide a "click here for 4.4 GHz" type option beggars belief. Especially the decision to have the voltages only be a modification of a value that isn't obviously apparent which is almost an invitation to fried components. In these modern times to have a BIOS that is both simplistic and complex yet in neither of the ways you'd wish it to be so is quite an achievement and most definitely one that Zotac deserves chastisement for.
Further demonstrating the feeling that the board was designed and then someone high-up said "hmm can we also make it a hardcore gaming board?" and features had to be crowbarred in is the placement of the PCIe socket. Sure on a ITX board there is very little room, but if you want it to be an overclocking board we need to keep our processor cool, and that renders the use of the PCIe socket nearly impossible. Even half-height HTPC cards are still way too big. Sure you could use a smaller cooler, but that negates the overclocking, which isn't very good in the first place. If only Zotac had just marketed it as a HTPC board like every other ITX we'd have been happy and all this would be merely a bizarre element of an otherwise good product.
So let's step away from all that hyperbole and schizophrenia and just look at the Zotac Z68-ITX WiFi for what it actually is, and that's a very capable ITX board with a raft of the latest technologies and some reasonable overclocking capabilities. So don't expect it to be all things to all men but rather a good ITX board and under those circumstances it's reasonable value at about £130 and therefore worthy of our OC3D Bronze award.
Thanks to Zotac for providing the Z68-ITX WiFi for review. Discuss in our forums.