by Rob Williams on July 24, 2014 in Motherboards
“Big things come in small packages” might be cliche, but it applies well to mini-ITX motherboards – especially those like ASUS’ Z97I-PLUS. Featuring 802.11ac wireless, an M.2 slot, a common-sense design, and a fantastic software package, this is one board well worth considering for that next ITX build.
Of all the different types of motherboards out there, it’s the mini-ITX ones that tend to pique my interest the most. I say this as someone who’s never built a proper mini-ITX PC, or even has a need for one. I just find it intriguing to see what vendors can pull off with such a restrictive form-factor.
In recent years, the mini-ITX form-factor has really exploded, and ASUS was right there at the beginning of it all. Each generation, these boards get better and better, and the Z97I-PLUS, which I’m looking at here, is a perfect example of just how far along we’ve come. This board might be small in stature, but it’s huge in function.
For the Intel Z97 chipset generation, ASUS offers two mainstream models, the H97I-PLUS, and Z97I-PLUS. The company also has an option available for gamers, called the Republic of Gamers Maximus VII Impact, although it hasn’t been released to market as of the time of writing. ASUS’ H97I-PLUS retails for about $110, while the Z97I-PLUS is priced at $160. The to-be released Maximus VII Impact should be priced at about $200 when it’s released, if previous-generation pricing holds true for this one.
ASUS designed its Z87 mainstream boards with a golden color scheme, and overall, it looked quite good. For Z97, it’s dulled the colors a little bit, to give us more of a metallic or brassy look, which I actually tend to prefer. It’s classy-looking, in a way.
I’ll cover the board design and layout on the following page, but to help you gain an immediate understanding of what this board offers, you can refer to this specs table:
|Architecture||Intel Z97 (LGA1150)|
|Form-Factor||ITX (6.7″ x 6.7″)|
|Memory||Up to 2x8GB DDR3-3200|
|Expansion||1x PCIe 3.0 x16|
|Storage||4x SATA 6Gbps (Intel)|
1x M.2 Socket 3
|Network||1x Intel I218V Gigabit|
|Wireless||Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac|
|Audio||Realtek ALC892 8-channel|
Optical S/PDIF out
|USB||Back-panel: 4x USB 3.0 (Intel), 4x USB 2.0 (Intel)|
Internal: 2x USB 3.0 (Intel), 2x USB 2.0 (Intel)
|Back I/O||1x 1Gbps LAN, 4x USB 3.0, 4x USB 2.0, 1x Optical S/PDIF, 3x Audio Jacks, VGA, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort, Wi-Fi connector, PS/2|
|Features||DIGI+ Power Control, 5 Protection Features (Digital VRM, ESD guards, 5K capacitors, DRAM overcurrent, and stainless steel back I/O), EPU, Ai Suite III, USB 3.0 Boost, Q-Design, Wi-Fi GO!, EZ DIY, Ai Charger+, MemOK!, USB BIOS Flashback|
Like all other mini-ITX boards, the Z97I-PLUS includes just a single PCIe slot, which could be used for a discrete graphics card, or some other peripheral if you’re planning to use Intel’s IGP. When I installed this board into our test rig, I didn’t immediately appreciate the fact that ASUS placed the SATA and 24-pin power ports in a convenient location on the right side of the board. It took another board that I’ll soon be looking at to clue me into how complicated things can be when that simple design is not adhered to.
Speaking of that “other board”, that’d be MSI’s Z97I Gaming AC. Unlike the Z97I-PLUS, and more like ASUS’ RoG Impact, MSI’s board is targeted at the gamer. Therefore, it’s more expensive out-of-the-gate, but I’m including it in this comparison table to see if there are some notable advantages over ASUS’ Z97I-PLUS. Countering that, I’m including the H97I-PLUS as well to see what that extra $50 will get you.
The biggest advantage of the Z97I-PLUS, over the H97I-PLUS, is that it includes wireless capabilities. That includes both 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. While it’s not that uncommon on more “premium” options, it’s nice to see ac wireless supported here. You might not have an ac router now, but this board will be ready in the event things change.
A subtle difference between the boards is that the Z97 variant uses Realtek’s ALC892 audio chipset in lieu of the ALC887. As far as I can tell, these chipsets are nearly identical, but DTS support is exclusive to the Z97I-PLUS.
Past all that, the Z97I-PLUS includes an internal USB 2.0 header, and 2 power phases dedicated to DRAM.
MSI’s Z97I-PLUS doesn’t change things up too much over ASUS’ Z97I. It has a slightly-improved audio chipset, Killer NIC (which I don’t care for at all – give me Intel, any day), and 2 HDMI ports rather than just one (but there’s no VGA or DVI).
Given their individual prices, I’d say these are all spec’d quite well. But, that’s enough of the comparisons: We’re here to talk about the Z97I-PLUS, and will do so more on the next page.