Date: August 18, 2010
Author(s): Rob Williams
Some might say that “bigger is better”, but when it comes to today’s PCs, that doesn’t have to be the case. Rather, you can easily build a feature-rich and high-performance PC that can be entirely hidden from view. Mini-ITX motherboards exist to help with that, and where those are concerned, Gigabyte’s H55N-USB3 is well-worth looking out for.
The “media center” PC concept has been around for ages, but as I don’t consider myself to be a huge media buff, I haven’t built an HTPC in the past, or even thought to. But as you might have been able to tell from my recent “Ripping Your Blu-rays the Easy and Free Way” article, I’m beginning to see the light, as they say. If there’s one thing I enjoy, it’s convenience, and I’m starting to understand the major draw that an HTPC can offer.
A mere five years ago, or maybe not even, it wasn’t only me who pushed away the idea of an HTPC. After all, not too many people were keen on the idea of building a special PC simply for the sake of viewing media. Instead, people either stuck with their DVD players, or watched media on their PC. The latter option isn’t always the most comfortable.
Today, the ease of building an HTPC couldn’t be easier. Components of all sorts are more affordable than ever, from processors to hard drives, and as an added perk, our motherboards have continued to get smaller. While a popular move today when building HTPC’s is to use micro-ATX motherboards, a quickly-gaining standard is mini-ITX. That happens to be the form-factor of the board we’re looking at here.
mini-ITX boards measure at just about 6.7″ x 6.7″, which means they are roughly 43% smaller than micro-ATX models. Given the small form-factor, such boards generally don’t boast major features, but nowadays, companies are trying hard to pack as much of a punch into a small frame, and in the case of this H55N-USB3 from Gigabyte, I’d have to say the company’s done a fine job at that.
Though I normally equate mini-ITX motherboards with HTPC’s, if you’re a die-hard gamer that wants to build as small a PC as possible, mini-ITX is definitely an option. You’re going to have to give a bit to get a bit, but in the end, if you are equipped with a proper chassis, you could easily build a PC that allows gaming up to 1080p resolutions with good detail settings. Heck, in the case of this board in particular, there’s even a little bit for the overclockers to enjoy.
If you’re not familiar with mini-ITX boards, then the photograph below might come as bit of a surprise. As you can see, though, Gigabyte sure didn’t cheapen out on the design. It features colors we’re used to seeing from the company, and there are even multiple power phases lined up around the CPU.
In a mid-tower or full-tower chassis, the board design here isn’t all too convenient, because the SATA and power ports will be at the highest point of the chassis, but that’s of no surprise. These boards are not in any way designed for a large chassis, but rather for those designed around the mini-ITX or even micro-ATX form-factors. As I don’t have such a chassis on hand, I found out fast how difficult it is to install such a small board in a large chassis (in this “case”, it was SilverStone’s TJ10).
Similar to most motherboards though, the GPU slot is found at the bottom, as it pretty well has to be, while the DIMM slots are found to the right side. As just mentioned, the power ports, SATA ports and also the ATX chassis connectors are all found along the top. Although it’s a bit tough to tell from the below photo, there’s a capacitor beside the 4-pin power connector, which makes it impossible to plug in an 8-pin cord. Fortunately, most PSU’s will include both, or at least a cable that breaks apart to solve the issue.
As you might imagine, there isn’t exactly a copious amount of space to be found around the CPU socket, but there’s plenty for thin and light coolers, or even high-performance coolers that don’t take up too much room. For our testing, we used Corsair’s H50 liquid cooler, and it installed just fine. The board also features a 6+2 phase design for stability and improved overclocking. If it seems a little strange to picture overclocking such a small board, don’t worry… you’re not alone.
The H55N-USB3 might be a small offering, but it still packs a lot of functionality at the back. Being that the board uses both the H55 chipset and is designed for use with Intel’s Clarkdale processors, three different graphics ports are available – VGA, DVI and HDMI – along with a slew of other ports. Those include 6x USB, two of which are 3.0, eSATA, 1x LAN, a PS/2 keyboard/mouse, and also audio ports, including a S/PDIF.
Because I received a pre-release version of the board, I didn’t receive any accessories. But I’ve been told that the retail board includes the manual (board and “Smart6”), driver DVD-ROM, the back I/O port and also two SATA cables.
It shouldn’t be too surprising what’s capable nowadays with technology, but being that this was the first mini-ITX board I’ve ever dealt with, I was impressed with the H55N-USB3 before I ever installed it into our testing chassis. It’s small, full-featured, and if you want… can handle Intel’s top-end Core i7 Lynnfield quad-core. “Packs a punch” seems more appropriate now than ever.
I hate to keep harping on the fact that this is a small board, but it is. Being that it’s so much smaller than even an mATX board, I had wondered what the BIOS here was going to be like. But then I recalled how much Gigabyte prides itself on its BIOSes, and also their tweaking-ability. Well, it didn’t take long before I realized that the BIOS seen here was like… well, like every single other recent Gigabyte BIOS I’ve seen.
The menus are the same, and options-wise… nothing seems to be missing. In fact, the options are just as overwhelming as ever. There’s even the “Intelligent Tweaker” menu, which is used for both overclocking and checking up on system statuses. This to me is a great addition, and I’d love to see it available on all Gigabyte boards going forward.
In this “MIT” menu, you have five sub-sections to enter into. The first one gives an overview glance of frequencies and memory timings, while the other sections allow you to customize and tweak the board to your heart’s content. While I wouldn’t expect record-breaking overclocks to happen on this board, you’ll should definitely get your fill of 4GHz easily enough.
As usual, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:
At Techgage, we strive to make sure our results are as accurate as possible. Our testing is rigorous and time-consuming, but we feel the effort is worth it. In an attempt to leave no question unanswered, this page contains not only our testbed specifications, but also a fully-detailed look at how we conduct our testing.
If there is a bit of information that we’ve omitted, or you wish to offer thoughts or suggest changes, please feel free to shoot us an e-mail or post in our forums.
The table below lists the hardware for our current motherboard-testing machine, which remains unchanged throughout all testing, with the exception of the motherboard. Each motherboard used for the sake of comparison is also listed here, along with the BIOS version used. In addition, each one of the URLs in this table can be clicked to view the respective review of that product, or if a review doesn’t exist, you will be led to the product on the manufacturer’s website.
Intel LGA1156 Test System
|Processors||Intel Core i5-661 – Dual-Core, 3.33GHz, Stock Voltage|
ASUS P7H55D-M EVO – H55-based, 0503 BIOS (12/08/09)
Gigabyte H55M-USB3 – H55-based, F6 BIOS (02/12/10)
Gigabyte H55N-USB3 – H55-based, F5b BIOS (07/14/10)
Intel DH55TC – H55-based, 0026 BIOS (11/13/09)
Corsair XMS3 DHX 2x2GB – DDR3-1333 7-7-7-20-2T, 1.65v
ASUS Radeon HD 5850 1GB (Catalyst 9.12)
Intel HD Graphics (for non-gaming tests)
When preparing our testbeds for any type of performance testing, we follow these guidelines:
Because it gives a more realistic interpretation of motherboard/CPU performance, we leave all of the power-related options in the BIOS to their default selection. This means that for Intel boards, SpeedStep is left in tact, and Cool’n’Quiet for AMD-based boards.
Our Windows 7 Desktop for Motherboard-Testing
To aide with the goal of keeping accurate and repeatable results, we alter certain services in Windows 7 from starting up at boot. This is due to the fact that these services have the tendency to start up in the background without notice, potentially causing slightly inaccurate results. Disabling “Windows Search” turns off the OS’ indexing which can at times utilize the hard drive and memory more than we’d like.
To help test out the real performance benefits of a given processor, we run a large collection of both real-world and synthetic benchmarks, including 3ds Max 2010, Adobe Lightroom 2.5, ATTO, PCMark Vantage, Sandra 2010, 7-Zip and more.
Our ultimate goal is always to find out which processor excels in a given scenario and why. Running all of the applications in our carefully-chosen suite can help better give us answers to those questions. Aside from application data, we also run two common games to see how performance scales there, including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Crysis Warhead. For a synthetic point-of-view, we also use Futuremark’s 3DMark Vantage.
In an attempt to offer “real-world” results, we do not utilize timedemos in any of our reviews. Each game in our test suite is benchmarked manually, with the minimum and average frames-per-second (FPS) captured with the help of FRAPS 3.0.1.
To deliver the best overall results, each title we use is exhaustively explored in order to find the best possible level in terms of intensiveness and replayability. Once a level is chosen, we play through repeatedly to find the best possible route and then in our official benchmarking, we stick to that route as close as possible. Since we are not robots and the game can throw in minor twists with each run, no run can be identical to the pixel.
Each game and setting combination is tested twice, and if there is a discrepancy between the initial results, the testing is repeated until we see results we are confident with.
The two games we currently use for our motherboard reviews are listed below, with direct screenshots of the game’s setting screens.
Although the screenshots reflect a 1680×1050 resolution, we also test using 2560×1600.
Futuremark is no stranger to most any enthusiast out there, as the company’s benchmarks have been used to gauge our PC’s worth for many years. Although the company’s 3DMark Vantage (which we also use for testing) is arguably more popular than PCMark Vantage, the latter is a great tool to measure a system’s overall performance across many different scenarios.
Unlike SYSmark, PCMark is more of a synthetic benchmark, as very little is seen to the user during the run. However, each test tackles a specific and common scenario that’s typical of many computer users – enthusiasts and regular users alike – such as photo manipulation, gaming, music conversion, productivity, et cetera.
The main problem right now with PCMark is its inability (at least for us) to produce an overall score when being run under Windows 7. Even when run in compatibility mode (which is required by 3DMark), the application will crash during the Memories test, despite that particular test executing fine when run as its own suite. So, no overall score is produced, but the seven individual scores are.
While SYSmark uses modest numbers for their scoring, ranging in the hundreds, Futuremark opts for much higher scores with their entire suite, with the lowest being the TV and Movies, ranging around the 6,000 mark. On the high-end, our Intel SSD is capable of pushing the test’s HDD scenario well beyond 20,000.
As we’d expect, top scores are traded between all of the boards, so it’s impossible to call one an our-right winner. One oddity you might notice, though, is that on the H55N-USB3 board, the “Memories” test far surpasses the three other boards we tested. I thought I might have inputted the score wrong, but after a quick look at my screenshot backup, that wasn’t the case at all. I can’t explain why the H55N-USB3 flaunts itself so well there, but I’m sure Gigabyte won’t mind.
Photo manipulation benchmarks are more relevant than ever, given the proliferation of high-end digital photography hardware. For this benchmark, we test the system’s handling of RAW photo data using Adobe Lightroom, an excellent RAW photo editor and organizer that’s easy to use and looks fantastic.
For our testing, we take 100 RAW files (in Nikon’s .NEF file format) which have a 10-megapixel resolution, and export them as JPEG files in 1000×669 resolution, similar to most of the photos we use here on the website. Such a result could also be easily distributed online or saved as a low-resolution backup. This test involves not only scaling of the image itself, but encoding in a different image format. The test is timed indirectly using a stopwatch, and times are accurate to within +/- 0.25 seconds.
Autodesk’s 3ds Max is without question an industry standard when it comes to 3D modeling and animation, with DreamWorks, BioWare and Blizzard Entertainment being a few of its notable users. It’s a multi-threaded application that’s designed to be right at home on multi-core and multi-processor workstations or render farms, so it easily tasks even the biggest system we can currently throw at it.
For our testing, we use two project files that are designed to last long enough to find any weakness in our setup and also allows us to find a result that’s easily comparable between both motherboards and processors. The first project is a dog model included on recent 3ds Max DVD’s, which we infused with some Techgage flavor. This is rendered at an 1100×825 resolution.
As usual, it’s hard to pick a board from the pack, given the lead keeps flip-flopping from one board to the next.
When it comes to video transcoding, one of the best offerings on the market is TMPGEnc Xpress. Although a bit pricey, the software offers an incredible amount of flexibility and customization, not to mention superb format support. From the get go, you can output to DivX, DVD, Video-CD, Super Video-CD, HDV, QuickTime, MPEG, and more. It even goes as far as to include support for Blu-ray video!
There are a few reasons why we choose to use TMPGEnc for our tests. The first relates to the reasons laid out above. The sheer ease of use and flexibility is appreciated. Beyond that, the application does us a huge favor by tracking the encoding time, so that we can actually look away while an encode is taking place and not be afraid that we’ll miss the final encoding time. Believe it or not, not all transcoding applications work like this.
For our test, we take a 0.99GB high-quality DivX H.264 AVI video of Half-Life 2: Episode Two gameplay with stereo audio and transcode it to the same resolution of 720p (1280×720), but lower the bit rate in order to attain a modest file size. This test also utilizes the SSE instruction sets, either SSE2 or SSE4, depending on what the chip supports.
The results are once again close, but Gigabyte’s board comes out on top, but just barely.
Intel’s Clarkdale is built with HD content in mind, so it’s only right that we exercise that between our motherboards to see which one fares best overall. For all intents and purposes, Blu-ray or other HD playback on any of these motherboards won’t prove to be an issue, but our goal is to see overall which board performs better where overall CPU usage is concerned. Like with most of our other tests, we don’t expect huge variations here, but we again want to make sure that one motherboard doesn’t have a significant issue worth pointing out.
To help track our CPU usage, we use Everest 5 Ultimate Edition, from Lavalys. It allows us to keep track of the CPU usage on an overall and per core basis, with the former being the number we report below. For our testing, we use the Blu-ray movie Fast & Furious, which is encoded in VC-1. We begin recording our CPU usage with Everest as soon as we begin the main movie, and we stop recording after 30 minutes has elapsed.
|Fast & Furious|
Though the H55N-USB3 has been doing a bang-up job so far, it’s here that it falls behind every-so-slightly. The CPU load matches ASUS’ P7H55D-M EVO, but it sets a new record for the CPU average. Of course, these results are all super-low in the grand scheme.
In the world of benchmarking, there seem to be many tools that can accomplish the same thing as a hundred others, and where storage is concerned, that couldn’t be more true. Although we’ve used HD Tune Pro, HD Tach and others in the past, we’ve opted to begin using ATTO, as it’s incredibly lightweight (at less than 100KB), yet offers a fair amount of flexibility.
For our run with ATTO, we leave all options at default, except the Queue Depth, which is increased to the max value of 10. It’s also important to note that we’re benchmarking the OS drive, which happens to be Intel’s X25-M 80GB (Gen 1).
Thinking back about a decade ago, archiving applications were kind of scarce. Well, the free ones were. Applications such as WinRAR and WinZIP have been available for a while, but a free solution is going to appeal to a far greater audience, especially if you don’t need or want the extra features that come included with the aforementioned options.
While 7-Zip may not be the most robust archiver out there, in looks or in features, it’s free, and offers a great amount of functionality and performance given that fact. For our test with 7-Zip, we take a 4GB folder littered with just over 5,000 files and archive it to our secondary drive, the mechanical Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 500GB.
Like Futuremark, SiSoftware is another company that needs no introduction. As far back as I can remember using Windows, I was using Sandra to check up on my machine, and to stress it. Over time, the company has added in numerous ways to benchmark your PC, and there’s pretty much nothing it can’t tackle. The company even recently added in GPGPU benchmarking, so they’re really on top of things.
There’s nothing out of the ordinary here with any of the results, although it seems rather clear that when dealing with SSDs, the storage performance can vary quite a bit from board to board and situation to situation. As for memory latencies, the H55N matches its bigger brother’s 112ns.
When the original Call of Duty game launched in 2003, Infinity Ward was an unknown. Naturally… it was the company’s first title. But since then, the series and company alike have become household names. Not only has the series delivered consistently incredible gameplay, it’s pushed the graphics envelope with each successive release, and where Modern Warfare is concerned, it’s also had a rich storyline.
The first two titles might have been built on the already-outdated Quake III engine, but since then, the games have been built with improved graphical features, capable of pushing the highest-end PCs out there. Modern Warfare 2 is the first such exception, as it’s more of a console port than a true PC title. Therefore, the game doesn’t push PC hardware as much as we’d like to see, but despite that, it still looks great, and lacks little in the graphics department. You can read our review of the game here.
The level chosen is the 10th mission in the game, “The Gulag”. Our teams fly in helicopters up to an old prison with the intention of getting closer to finding the game’s villain, Vladimir Makarov. Our saved game file begins us at the point when the level name comes on the screen, right before we reach the prison, and it ends after one minute of landing, following the normal progression of the level. The entire run takes around two-and-a-half minutes.
As PC enthusiasts, we tend to be drawn to games that offer spectacular graphics… titles that help reaffirm your belief that shelling out lots of cash for that high-end monitor and PC was well worth it. But it’s rare when a game comes along that is so visually-demanding, it’s unable to run fully maxed out on even the highest-end systems on the market. In the case of the original Crysis, it’s easy to see that’s what Crytek was going for.
Funny enough, even though Crysis was released close to a year ago, the game today still has difficulty running at 2560×1600 with full detail settings – and that’s even with overlooking the use of anti-aliasing! Luckily, Warhead is better optimized and will run smoother on almost any GPU, despite looking just as gorgeous as its predecessor, as you can see in the screenshot below.
The game includes four basic profiles to help you adjust the settings based on how good your system is. These include Entry, Mainstream, Gamer and Enthusiast – the latter of which is for the biggest of systems out there, unless you have a sweet graphics card and are only running 1680×1050. We run our tests at the Gamer setting as it’s very demanding on any current GPU and is a proper baseline of the level of detail that hardcore gamers would demand from the game.
Although we generally shun automated gaming benchmarks, we do like to run at least one to see how our GPUs scale when used in a ‘timedemo’-type scenario. Futuremark’s 3DMark Vantage is without question the best such test on the market, and it’s a joy to use, and watch. The folks at Futuremark are experts in what they do, and they really know how to push that hardware of yours to its limit.
The company first started out as MadOnion and released a GPU-benchmarking tool called XLR8R, which was soon replaced with 3DMark 99. Since that time, we’ve seen seven different versions of the software, including two major updates (3DMark 99 Max, 3DMark 2001 SE). With each new release, the graphics get better, the capabilities get better and the sudden hit of ambition to get down and dirty with overclocking comes at you fast.
Similar to a real game, 3DMark Vantage offers many configuration options, although many (including us) prefer to stick to the profiles which include Performance, High and Extreme. Depending on which one you choose, the graphic options are tweaked accordingly, as well as the resolution. As you’d expect, the better the profile, the more intensive the test.
Performance is the stock mode that most use when benchmarking, but it only uses a resolution of 1280×1024, which isn’t representative of today’s gamers. Extreme is more appropriate, as it runs at 1920×1200 and does well to push any single or multi-GPU configuration currently on the market – and will do so for some time to come.
Like the vast majority of our benchmarks throughout this review, neither motherboard totally overcomes the other in terms of performance, and gaming isn’t much different.
Before discussing results, let’s take a minute to briefly discuss what I consider to be a worthwhile overclock. As I’ve mentioned in past content, I’m not as interested in finding the highest overclock possible as much as I am interested in finding the highest stable overclock. To me, if an overclock crashes the computer after a few minutes of running a stress-test, it has little value except for competition.
How we declare an overclock stable is simple… we stress it as hard as possible for a certain period of time, both with CPU-related tests and also GPU-related, to conclude on what we’ll be confident is 100% stability throughout all possible computing scenarios.
For the sake of CPU stress-testing, we use LinX. Compared to other popular CPU stress-testers, LinX’s tests are far more gruelling, and proof of that is seen by the fact that it manages to heat the CPU up to 20°C hotter than competing applications, like SP2004. Also, LinX is just as effective on AMD processors. Generally, if the CPU survives the first half-hour of this stress, there’s a good chance that it’s mostly stable, but I strive for a 12 hour stress as long as time permits.
If the CPU stress passes without error, then GPU stress-testing begins, in order to assure a system-wide stable overclock. To test for this, 3DMark Vantage’s Extreme test is used, with the increased resolution of 2560×1600, looped nine times. If this passes, some time is dedicated to real-world game testing, to make sure that gaming is just as stable as it would be if the CPU were at stock. If both these CPU and GPU tests pass without issue, we can confidently declare a stable overclock.
When I first received this board, I didn’t have to think too long before deciding not to overclock it. The reason was simply because most people don’t purchase mini-ITX boards with overclocking in mind, and I’d be quite surprised if even 0.5% of people who purchased such boards did that. But at the GO OC event two weekend’s ago, there was apparently a PC set up with this exact board and the CPU running at 4GHz.
Well, it was decided… I’d be overclocking this thing. Due to time though, I only managed to overclock a single CPU – the one used for testing – and even after being done, I’m still not quite satisfied. I felt like I could go much further, but with other pressing requirements, I had to stop and tackle other things. I did manage to get 4 hours LinX stable out of a nice clock, though:
As the Core i5-661 is 3.33GHz at stock, a 4.25GHz overclock isn’t that impressive. But, the fact that this board handled it like it was nothing impressed me, because once again, this is just a mini-ITX motherboard. You could fit almost three of these boards into a single ATX motherboard, and with results like these, you’re sure not giving up much.
The board includes 6 phases dedicated to the CPU, so I have no doubt that the board could handle a 4GHz overclock for any LGA1156 processor, as long as for some reason you won’t have to increase the voltage a great deal. Fortunately today, that’s rarely a requirement, and as the screenshot shows, I was using a safe 1.3v. With more tweaking, that might have even been able to be lowered a bit.
I still can’t imagine too many people wanting to overclock on this motherboard, unless as outlined in the intro, it’s to be used or a gaming PC. But, the fact that the ability is there is nice, and if you do want to OC for the sake of say, video encoding, the board will let you. If you’re using this board in a small chassis though, like those that it’s designed for, I highly recommend you be careful with your overclocks. Smaller chassis mean increased heat, so bear that in mind.
It goes without saying that power efficiency is at the forefront of many consumers’ minds today, and for good reason. Whether you are trying to save money or the environment – or both – it’s good to know just how much effort certain vendors are putting into their products to help them excel in this area. Both AMD and Intel have worked hard to develop efficient chips, and that’s evident with each new launch. The CPUs are getting faster, and use less power, and hopefully things will stay that way.
To help see what kind of wattage a given configuration draws on average, we use a Kill-A-Watt that’s plugged into a power bar that’s in turn plugged into one of the wall sockets, with the test system plugged directly into that. The monitor and other components are plugged into the other socket and is not connected to the Kill-A-Watt. For our system specifications, please refer to our methodology page.
To test, the computer is first boot up and left to sit at idle for five minutes, at which point the current wattage is recorded if stable. To test for full CPU load, LinX is run with 2560MB memory usage for a total of five minutes. During that run, the highest point the wattage reaches on the meter is captured and becomes our “Max Load”. Please note that for our H55 testing, no graphics card is installed. Instead, we use the IGP on the processor.
I expected slightly more impressive results than this here, but I guess for the most part, even though the board is much smaller than mATX, we’re not exactly ridding much functionality. Still, the H55N-USB3 did drop the wattages all around when compared to, well, any of the other H55 boards we’ve tested.
A couple of months ago, I took a look at a similar board from Gigabyte called the H55M-USB3, and overall, I was impressed. The board was full-featured, proved to be a good overclocker, and was priced right. In the end, I awarded the board one of our Editor’s Choice awards, and with the H55N-USB3, that feat has once again been accomplished.
When I first received this board, I wasn’t sure what to think. Alright… I did. I was bored just looking at it. But that’s because I was naive, and didn’t quite understand the potential of these things. I’ve reviewed many motherboards, and most of the time, they were either ATX or even eATX offerings. Whenever I found myself with an mATX, I’d consider it to be small. Then this thing hits my doorstep, and it almost felt like I could fit it into my pocket.
Once I gave the board a chance, though, I began to come around… and became a bit “inspired”, hence that article about the Blu-ray ripping. Now, I feel like I’m on the right path to building an HTPC, and I have full intention of using this board as the base. With a board like this, building a small PC with huge potential couldn’t be easier. If you think back to how things were just five years ago, thinking about what’s possible today should almost give us shivers.
If your HTPC goals match all of what I’ve said so far, then I heartily recommend this board. Currently, it retails for around ~$110, which puts it on par or makes it more expensive than an mATX board, but in the end, it’s a small premium to pay for the benefit of being able to build such a small PC.
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