Group Test: Micro-ATX motherboards can deliver star performance in a diminutive package. We round up five of the best.
Reviews in this Group Test
I t might seem hard to believe, but the microATX motherboard standard has been around for almost twenty years. Originally launched way back in 1997, these petite motherboards must officially measure just 244mm x 244mm, but they can be even smaller if the manufacturer so desires. Despite existing for almost two decades, it’s only in recent years that the microATX format has become popular amongst the general computing community. Earlier models were as costly as they were limited in features, limiting their use to very specific industrial or commercial uses. How times have changed. Today’s microATX boards now feature most of their full-sized ATX cousin’s characteristics, while prices have plummeted.
Why use micro ATX?
The obvious benefit to using a microATX motherboard is its tiny dimensions. With the PC now a permanent fixture in many living rooms, owners want a PC that can fit nicely inside a standard AV unit. While it’s possible to buy HTPC cases that can squeeze a full-sized ATX board into the same space as an amplifier, microATX cases are the preferred choice for keeping living-room PCs trim, taught and tiny.
Gamers looking for a mobile gaming box are also an obvious target for the microATX format. While early models were extremely limited in their functionality, today’s gaming microATX boards deliver full multi-GPU support, along with quality onboard audio solutions, all in a package that will easily fit into a tiny case that can be carried with a shoulder strap.
Finally there are users who simply don’t want a hulking PC tower taking up precious space in today’s increasingly cosy abodes. With living spaces getting smaller as more Aussies move into apartment blocks and townhouses, being able to tuck your PC away behind the monitor frees up precious floorspace.
If there’s one audience that probably isn’t too interested in the microATX format, it’s the tweaking and overclocking crowd. It’s not that these pocket powerhouses can’t overclock, it’s just that the smaller cases they tend to be housed in don’t have the best thermal properties.
Which board is for you?
For those with money to burn, Asus’s Maximus VII Gene is hard to resist with its potent mix of ear-tickling audio, powerful graphics potential and excellent overclocking features. Those who just want the basics will find the ASRock Z97M Pro4 a capable solution for simple mini-PCs, while gamers and entertainers on a budget can’t go past the value-packed Gigabyte Z97MX GAMING 5.
How we test
This roundup sees PC and Tech Authority switch to our new suite of motherboard benchmarks. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we’re now using the formidable PCMark 8 suite, developed by the benchmark professionals at Futuremark. For this roundup we used the “Home” mode of the benchmark, which runs five different tests that aim to replicate normal household use. These include Web browsing, Word processing, Casual gaming, Photo Editing and Video Chat.
Our test components were comprised of an Intel Devil’s Canyon i7-4790K processor, cooled by CoolerMaster’s new Nepton 120XL water cooler. An NVIDIA GTX 760 provided the graphics processing power, while 2 x 4GB sticks of Kingston’s HyperX memory was run at the Z97 standard speed of DDR3 1600, despite most of these boards being able to run much higher, overclocked memory speeds. A Corsair Force LX SATA 3.0 128GB SSD rounded out the components, and a clean, cloned install of Windows 8.1 was installed for each motherboard.
To ensure a fair fight, we updated the BIOS on every motherboard, but this isn’t something we’d normally do for brand new motherboards. However, some of the boards in our test have been out for several months or more, and had their BIOSes updated by the supplier, forcing us to update all of them to deliver a clean race. This explains why the gap between the boards is so close; they’re all running the same Z97 chipset, and any launch quirks have since been ironed out by BIOS updates.
The following five boards cover a wide gamut of possible uses, from budget media box to high-end portable game machine. We asked each supplier to send a board in the $200 to $250 price range, which is why several of them feature entertainment and gaming-oriented features. Read on to see which microATX motherboard is the one for you.