ASRock X99E-ITX/ac LGA 2011-v3 Motherboard Review

There is a small subset of computer enthusiasts that have been asking for an X99 option in the mini-ITX form factor. Ask and you shall receive, right? ASRock steps up to the plate to provide small form factor enthusiasts with just such a motherboard. We evaluate the X99E-ITX/ac and experience the good, the bad, and the ugly...if any.

Introduction

ASRock is a brand that most of our readership is probably familiar. I won’t bother recounting the brands complicated origins. ASRock has been around for a number of years. ASRock’s initial claim to fame was always offering decent motherboards at cut rate prices. Initially ASRock’s offerings often felt like cut rate copies of ASUS motherboards although that was never all true. As time passed ASRock offered far more premium options which were good enough to gain a following. Today ASRock is considered by many to be as viable and desirable a choice as ASUS, MSI and GIGABYTE. In fact ASRock is now the #3 motherboard manufacturer world-wide surpassing MSI in volume shipments.

We have often been critical of ASRock’s offerings here at the HardOCP and for good reason. We have had a sorted history of variable experiences with its products, most of which we purchased directly out of retail, as we were not convinced that samples are retail products were the same. In recent months we have had mostly positive experiences with ASRock’s offerings. With that said we have often always thought of ASRock as being innovative at the very least. Some of its motherboards have offered features like SAS controllers or motherboards with 10GB LAN ports. The X99E-ITX/ac truly represents its most innovative move yet.

On our own forums I’ve seen a number of members asking for a small form factor mini-ITX motherboard based on the X99 chipset. At first this seems like a waste of time and effort on the part of the manufacturer. Much of what X99 brings to the table is lost when transitioning to the mini-ITX form factor. One of the draws of the platform is the increased amount of PCI-Express lanes as compared to Z97. Another is the quad-channel memory support offering more than double the available memory bandwidth that Z97 offers. Support for 64GB or more of system memory is lost as well. You also lose the integrated GPU thus necessitating the need for a discrete GPU card. As a result the one expansion slot you get to retain has to be used for graphics. As a result you have potentially less expansion capability or versatility with add-in devices compared to Z97. So why would anyone desire an ultra-compact X99 based motherboard? The only thing you gain is the ability to support more than 4 cores and 8 threads in a compact platform. As a gaming platform the benefit to doing so is arguable. There are a few games that can leverage more than 4 cores under any circumstance and few that ever could. One would often argue that more GPU power is desirable over CPU power. LGA 1150 based systems give you a more modern core architecture. Though you only have four cores and eight threads, those CPUs are more efficient per clock cycle and offer higher base speeds and greater speeds through overclocking.

If the build is for gaming and the system build has a hard budget that can’t be exceeded, we’d always argue going for a more powerful GPU and sticking with a 4790 rather than going with a lesser GPU and a 5960X. If a compact form is desired for the purpose of workstation applications and there is less concern for budget, an X99 based system even in m-ITX form becomes more appealing. Those extra cores do pay off in some areas, not the least of which is virtualization. Photoshop, professional 3D applications and encoding apps all benefit from the extra cores. As a workstation type solution for productivity a mini-ITX based X99 system will never be the equal of a full sized system, but you do gain an important advantage over Z97. You do gain the ability to run more CPU cores with support for far more threads than the Core i7 4790 can offer at present. On the other side of the coin making an X99 motherboard that small seems next to impossible without some drastic changes. The physical foot print of the LGA 2011-v3 socket is a problem in itself which has to be overcome as a necessary first step toward creating a small form factor X99 based machine.

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The X99E-ITX/ac is the only X99 Express chipset based motherboard we’ve ever seen. The merits of such a configuration are somewhat debatable but even the creation of such a thing requires giving credit where credit is due. ASRock’s X99E-ITX/ac uses a 6 phase power configuration with Fairchild 60A DrMOS MOSFETS similar to what you would see on an MSI motherboard. Super alloy chokes and 12k platinum capacitors from Nichicon are used to handle the power demands of the LGA 2011-v3 CPUs. The thing about bringing X99 down to this size is thermal considerations. The TDP of an LGA 2011-v3 CPU can far exceed that of LGA 1150 based CPUs with half as many CPU cores. As a result ASRock had to tread carefully. There are two ways of handling the electrical needs of a motherboard. You can use lots and lots of average or even low quality CPU phases or you can use fewer, higher quality phases. ASRock fortunately chose the latter although the choice is practically made for it as you have little to no room on a m-ITX PCB. You can’t throw 32 power phases and a sea of chokes on a motherboard that’s about a third the size of a standard ATX motherboard.

When it comes to features you have to sacrifice to some small degree with a motherboard of this size. Because you have to use your one expansion slot for graphics ASRock had to make sure that everything you could need or want would be integrated into the motherboard. Dual Intel NICs are provided along with a wireless 802.11/ac based solution. Full speed generation 3.0 x4 M.2 is offered as is SATA Express. The X99E-ITX/ac even offers USB 3.1 support via an added ASMedia controller.

Main Specifications Overview:

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Detailed Specifications Overview:

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Packaging

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The packaging for the X99E-ITX/ac is relatively small. It isn’t as small as you’d imagine but that’s because of the massive amount of included accessories. Inside the box you’ll find: Quick Installation Guide, Support CD, I/O Shield, 2x SATA Data Cables, 1x CPU Cooler, 1x Water Cooling Mounting Plate, 1x WiFi-802.11ac Module, 2x SMA WiFi Antenna Cables, 1x ASRock WiFi 2.4/5 GHz Antenna, 1x WiFi Module Bracket, 2x Screws for WiFi Module, 1x Screw for M.2 Socket, and 1x ASRock U3 to U2 Converter.

Of course the most interesting accessory as far as I’m concerned is the CPU cooler. The reason why it is included is due to the modified LGA 2011-v3 socket. A standard CPU cooler for this socket type wouldn’t normally fit due to the amount of PCB real estate it would take up. The water block mounting plate is nice in theory but it’s hardly universal. There is a note on the ASRock website concerning compatibility of the water block mounting bracket. According to the ASRock site: "Compatible with Cooler Master Seidon 120V Plus/120V CPU Coolers." The CPU cooler is a small unit with embedded heat pipes and a thermal interface material already applied. The mounting screws and installation is really easy. The fan simply clips in place on a plastic retention mechanism already attached to the heatsink. The problem is that the fan is very small and spins very fast. It is loud to say the very least. The first time I fired up the X99E-ITX/ac test system it scared the crap out of my cat and sent her running out of the room.

Board Layout

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The layout of the X99E-ITX/ac is good for a motherboard of this type despite how much is integrated into it. Still there are a few issues. The fact that the front panel headers are poorly labeled is another. In fact the front panel connector looks like a USB header and I actually had to consult the manual to figure out where the power switch actually was. The CMOS battery is actually located in a nice spot on the inboard side of the PS/2 keyboard mouse combination port.

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ASRock uses an OC Socket design just like many other motherboard makers do. This socket features extra pins which allow for better voltage delivery. The CPU socket takes up a huge amount of real estate. This necessitates the need for custom cooling as the mounting holes normally associated with this socket type would be spaced further out making this form factor impossible to use. Fortunately the CPU cooler is very easy to install so long as you don’t put the fan on the heat sink first. You can barely see the power phases. These are located under a very simple heat sink in front of the CPU socket. The heat sink is anemic in nature and it gets very hot. There are huge problems mounting any CPU cooler not designed expressly for this motherboard. As you can see from the picture below, mounting my water block took a fair amount of redneck ingenuity to make work.

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I used a bunch of washers and extra springs to hold the waterblock down so it didn’t move around. The large washers at the top helped me clamp everything down. Even so I had to position things just right or the CPU temperatures would be out of control. The second pic is from Kyle’s setup. Looks like he had to do something similar. (Kyle - I actually had very good mating with my makeshift mounting system.)

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The motherboard has only two 288-pin DDR4 DIMM slots. Naturally quad-channel memory support isn’t available. Fortunately ASRock had the good sense to use one slot per channel allowing for dual channel memory mode operation.

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The motherboard’s chipset is covered by a basic, passive heatsink. Several headers can be located around the chipset including four SATA ports and the SATA Express header. The motherboards other headers actually aren’t marked well so it’s difficult to tell what each of them is without a manual. The expansion slot area is well, barely existent. You have one full speed G 3.0 PCI-Express x16 slot. Given that the CPUs you have to use with this motherboard the only PCIe slot you have will have to be used for graphics cards alone.

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The I/O panel has two USB 2.0 ports on it, 2x RJ-45 ports, 1x combination PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, 1x eSATA port, 4x USB 3.0 ports, 2x USB 3.1 ports, 1x optical output and 5x mini-stereo jacks for analog audio. There is also a clear CMOS button on the back panel which is also great considering how difficult SFF systems can be to work on.