ASUS Z97I-PLUS ITX Motherboard Review
ASUS’ Z79I PLUS represents a solution to a relatively new problem: how do you cater to the feature expectations of enthusiasts while delivering a motherboard that fits into a diminutive ITX chassis? While larger enthusiast-grand motherboards steal most of the attention, there’s a quickly expanding market for small form factor solutions and ASUS has been at the forefront of their development. Take the Z87-era Maximus VI Impact for example. It is still considered one of the best ITX motherboards available even after the introduction of Z97-based boards like today’s example. Granted, the Z79I PLUS’ goals are a bit more pedestrian when compared against any RoG alternative but that doesn’t mean it won’t satisfy pretty much everyone.
The trick to creating an appealing ITX motherboard is to finely balance features, performance capabilities and the components necessary for sufficient overclocking headroom and shoehorn these into as small an area as possible. All of that has to happen without completely blowing cost out the window. In principle this actually sounds much easier than it really is but ASUS has distilled their engineering down to a precise science. There’s no better example of this mantra than the Z79I PLUS’ price $160 price in relation to the feature set it offers. They even threw in WiFi connectivity through an included antenna.
The Z79I PLUS is fairly well appointed with features, but as is befitting of an ITX board its compact layout tends to make things a bit cramped which can hamper installation in some cases. There is certainly more than enough space for slightly longer graphics cards without any interference with the SATA ports (though routing the SATA cables from the two supplementary ports over memory modules could look pretty messy) and the all-important MemOK! button for DRAM troubleshooting is perfectly accessible. The inclusion of two chassis fan headers alongside the usual CPU fan control is a welcome addition as well.
Like other ASUS Z97 motherboards the Z97I-Plus makes use of a flat PCH heatsink without any temperature-reducing fins. Since the Z97 is a relatively cool running chipset, this shouldn’t come as a surprise but this flimsy little heatsink uses only two push-pins which results in a uneven application of mounting pressure. Ours was only partially hitting its target area.
For an onboard audio solution ASUS has chosen the decent if not stellar RealTek ALC892 controller. Given the more value orientated nature of this board, bypassing the high end ALC1150 does make sense. ASUS haven’t isolated the audio circuitry like they do on larger boards due to the limited amount of space being offered here but they have opted for extremely high quality Nichicon capacitors.
The 8-pin power connector is directly located next to the large heatsink and while turned 90° from the typical orientation is easy to use and is clear of obstructions. The same cannot be really said of the single 4-pin CPU fan header and dual 4-pin chassis fan headers which are difficult to access with larger low-slung CPU cooling solutions like Noctua’s NH-L12.
The 24-pin ATX power connector is in its usual spot near the RAM and directly to the left is front panel and audio header. ASUS does include a long Q-Connector which will make installing the proper cables much easier than it otherwise would be. Next to these is the single USB 3.0 front header.
Unlike most ASUS ITX boards where there is always a few millimeter of gap between the RAM slots and the Intel-specified cooler mounting locations around the CPU socket, things are extremely tight here. As we will show in the Installation section this means larger air based CPU cooling solutions may cause issues with some RAM modules. Luckily, the stock Intel heatsink or a single-bay water cooling unit won’t have any problems here.
One thing we do want to call out is the lack of ASUS’ WiFi Go! module in the I/O area. It has been replaced with a space-hogging Bluetooth / WiFi module which is mounted to an mPCIe connector. Typically that slot would be used for storage duties provided there is enough space (which there isn’t) but instead the Z97’s M.2 slot is positioned…
…..on the back of the board. This seems like a last minute “we have to put it somewhere” move which just beggars belief given ASUS’ strong track record of class-leading board design. This slot is simply inaccessible and given the tight confines in a typical ITX case, you’ll need to give your system a full frontal lobotomy to install something into it or swap out a dead drive. No thanks.
There are a few other oddities here as well. While the previous generation Z87I-PLUS boasted six SATA ports, its replacement has only been graced with four. SATA Express, one of the Z97 series’ premier points of differentiation, is completely missing in action as well. It almost makes you wonder if these things will somehow miraculously show up on the more expensive Deluxe version while PLUS buyers are left with the short end of the stick.
Some may look at the SATA ports and wonder why they’re not placed at right angles like on other boards. The simple fact of the matter is that 90° ports take up more horizontal space, something that’s in short supply within most ITX chassis. This placement will actually help installation rather than hinder it.
The lone PCIe 3.0 x16 slot has massive locking lever which seriously comes in handy when trying to maneuver within the tight confines of a small case.
One of the ASUS Z97I-PLUS’ primary selling points is its power management subsystem. In previous generations of the value-oriented PLUS series never had what we would consider an optimal VRM for overclocking. For example the H78I-PLUS used a pretty underwhelming 3-phase design whereas this version utilizes an all-digital DIGI+ VRM 6-phase power layout consisting of Lower RDS(on) MOSFETs and 5K-hour solid electrolytic capacitors.
The two DDR3 memory slots are also fed by a digital 2-phase power design and support overclocked memory frequencies up to DDR3-3200. This might sound pointless, but Haswell and Devil’s Canyon processors are insanely capable at handling high memory frequencies.
Turning the board around to the back we can see that the ASUS Z97I-PLUS' rear IO panel is very well appointed. There are four USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, a combination PS/2 keyboard and mouse port. There is also one DVI-D port, one analog D-Sub port, a HDMI port, and a full sized DisplayPort output.
Rounding out the rear IO panel's features are a single Intel 218v powered wired Ethernet connector, a S/PDIF optical out port and the three AUDIO I/O ports. Unfortunately while ASUS have opted for an 8-channel capable controller these three ports make 7.1 configurations impossible through analog connections.
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