Date: Wednesday, March 15, 2017
ASUS is one of the largest and certainly the most influential motherboard makers on the planet. ASUS launched its Republic of Gamers brand just over 10 years ago. This was a successful effort as other companies have followed suit with this idea. This brand caters to the gamer and PC enthusiast alike. ASUS has a lot of products in their lineup. Their motherboards cover a huge variety of configurations, price points, and form factors. Competition in this arena is usually very stiff but ASUS has managed to excel in the mini-ITX market with few models or brands remotely challenging their position in this area. I’ve used many of these motherboards in builds at home. They not only stand the test of time but ordinarily match or exceed the overclocking capabilities of models that are based on more traditional form factors. Before ASUS got in to the mini-ITX game, real enthusiast class motherboards in this form factor didn’t truly exist. ASUS brought hardcore overclocking capability in a small but powerful form factor. Rather than focus on HTPC builds or office work, ASUS brought the Republic of Gamers pedigree to the SFF world. This was done by not only including the higher end features gamers expect, but by creating a unique daughter board VRM implementation that allowed a robust power delivery system to be included in the design. In some cases, these earlier mini-ITX ROG motherboards could actually out-clock some of the larger form factor motherboards on the market at the time.
On the surface, the ROG Strix Z270i Gaming seems a lot more conservative than what we’ve seen from the ROG in the past. The most striking difference I see in the design is that it lacks the daughter board once used to house a massive array of VRMs found on earlier models. This is not to say that the electrical subsystem is substandard in anyway. The ROG Strix Z270i Gaming sports a high quality 8-phase power design that doesn’t seem to have any phase doubling. Make no mistake, this is an enthusiast’s motherboard through and through. This motherboard hosts an array of features found on the other ASUS ROG motherboards such as ASUS’ Pro Clock Technology. This is a dedicated, external base clock generator that allows for base clock adjustments up to 425MHz. This isn’t the most versatile clock generator on the market as GIGABYTE’s Turbo-B clock generator can go up to 500MHz or more on some models. This is one of those features I don’t think matters beyond being able to do significantly more than what the stock generator can do. The stock clock gen tops out under 200MHz to give you an idea of the difference.
ASUS’ Fan Xpert 4 feature offers full DC and PWM control over all three 4-pin fan headers. There are four thermal sensors onboard to provide user feedback on those monitored zones but to allow for controlling the fan solution based on thermal conditions. ASUS includes it’s RAMCache software for creating a RAM disk for faster game loading and disk performance. The included software is somewhat limited in its effectiveness here with many games reaching sizes beyond 50GB and having only two memory slots for a total of 32GB of DDR4 DRAM. With some games like EA’s upcoming Mass Effect Andromeda recommending 16GB of RAM, you’d have to install 32GB of RAM on this thing and there are very few titles that would "fit" in memory. ASUS’ LANGuard feature also makes a return on the ROG Strix Z270i Gaming. This feature allows for surge protection up to about 15kv. SupremeFX audio helps to round out the feature set which we will get into more detail concerning that shortly.
ASUS ROG Strix Z270i Gaming is based on Intel’s Z270 Express chipset which by itself isn’t all that different from its immediate predecessor. Z270 offers the same SATA port count as the older Z170 chipset and supports all the same technologies. In this case, you only get 4x SATA 6Gb/s ports due to the motherboard’s small foot print. New for Z270 is support for Intel’s Optane technology which isn’t usable at present due to the lack of Optane enabled devices on the market. You also get another 4x PCIe Gen3 lanes out of the Z270 Express PCH which frankly are nothing to be concerned with on this motherboard due to an almost non-existent expansion slot area. It’s the biggest trade off when switching to the mini-ITX form factor. That said, ASUS includes almost everything you could possibly want on the motherboard to minimize the impact the form factor has on the capabilities of the system. In addition to the aforementioned features you also get a wireless network controller and dual M.2 slots.
Main Specifications Overview:
Detailed Specifications Overview:
The packaging is minimal due to the motherboard’s physical size. The packaging is just a scaled down version of the standard ROG Strix boxes we are used to seeing. Artwork that seems to be inspired from the movie Tron adorns the packaging. This isn’t surprising given that this is the year of RGB LED lighting. Our sample arrived intact with the following accessories: User's manual, M.2 2242 mounting kit, I/O Shield, 4x SATA 6Gb/s cable(s), 2x M.2 Screw Package, 1x CPU installation tool, 1x Supporting DVD, 1x ASUS 2T2R dual band Wi-Fi moving antennas (Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac compliant), 1x ROG Strix stickers, 1x 10-in-1 ROG cable label, 1x Extension Cable for RGB strips (80 cm), 1x Panel cable, and 1x ROG coasters.
Given the lack of physical real estate on the PCB on any mITX solution, one must accept a few idiosyncrasies with the layout and placement of components or ports on the motherboard. The ROG Strix Z270i Gaming is no different. One concession is the lack of onboard power and reset buttons. Even the header for these is different in that you get a cable that plugs into the motherboard and then breaks out into male connections for you to connect your case wiring to. There are numerous ingenious design choices for making the most out of the layout and making this tiny motherboard easier to live with. The CMOS battery is nestled in between the WiFi antenna ports and the audio jacks in a vertical orientation. Perhaps the most innovative solution to the lack of space is the chipset cooling solution. It has a channel in it for an M.2 drive. ASUS calls it the "double decker" heatsink. Supposedly these are thermally insulated from each other but that’s not quite true. ASUS claims a 20% dissipation advantage for the M.2 drive which I’ll tell you now is a big stretch. Like a lot of things in life there is an element of truth to it but only in a way I find a little disingenuous. I’ll talk more about this in detail later. The short version is that I’d recommend either leaving this cover off or not using the M.2 slot if you don’t have to. The one on the bottom of the motherboard could be a better option.
Port placement for things like the front panel header, USB headers, and the RGB header are excellent with no real issues of note. The 3, 4-pin fan headers are spread out across the PCB and are located in what I’d consider to be sensible spots making fan power cable routing as painless as possible for most mITX builds. Again, despite the miniature size of the thing, the PCB is marked very well and thus identification of some ports or motherboard features is as easy as can be.
The CPU socket area is clean and free of any major obstructions. There are eight power phases using ASUS’ DIGI+VRM power controls. Solid, black electrolytic capacitors are found all through the motherboards construction. The MOSFET coolers are tall, yet take up very little space. These are properly screwed into place and do not move even if you handle the motherboard using them. There is a thermal interface pad between the MOSFETs and the heat sink which appears to conduct very nicely. These tend to keep temperatures around the 101F to 105F mark which is not only in-line with what we’ve seen on larger motherboards, but on the cooler side of the spectrum. Many motherboards run anywhere from 5F to 10F warmer than the Strix Z270i Gaming does. These have a gun metal gray finish that’s got a brushed texture to it. The machine work is nice and even with the hard edges, there aren’t really any rough spots to be concerned with. Large air coolers could be a potential problem but I wouldn’t be overly concerned with that as a mini-ITX case is more than likely going to restrict the size of your cooling before the motherboard heatsink clearances do.
Due to its small foot print, the ROG Strix Z270i Gaming has only two 288-pin DDR4 memory slots supporting 16GB modules for a total of 32GB of RAM. Speeds up to DDR4 4266MHz can be achieved through overclocking. These slots are configured for dual-channel memory mode operation but no color coding is provided as it likely isn’t necessary. More than likely, the lack of color coding comes down to an aesthetic design decision more than anything else. ASUS chose to use memory slots with a single locking tab. Given the small foot print of the motherboard this isn’t surprising. My biggest complaint about the design here is that there are SATA ports on both sides of the memory slots. If you need to use the ports between the chipset and the memory slot, you’ll have SATA cables draped over the RAM as I did on my test bench. I am not a fan of this at all. Often, I find myself using a Corsair memory cooler with the memory on these Z270 Express based motherboards. While this piece of hardware isn’t necessary, the lack of clearances and having only two slots prevents me from using that cooler and a discreet video card.
Ordinarily, the chipsets are cooled with a flat, passive heat sink that doesn’t get much attention. One of the more interesting aspects of this motherboards design centers around the chipset cooling. ASUS calls it the "double decker" heat sink. The heat sink in this case would be too tall to clear the expansion slots on other motherboards. Here, there is only one expansion slot so that’s not a problem as the chipset rides above it. The chipset cooler is passive aluminum heat sink with a gun metal gray finish and some decent if unspectacular machine work. What makes this interesting is that there is a trench in the heat sink and the top cover is removable. Inside you’ll find an M.2 slot. An M.2 drive can literally be placed inside the chipset cooler. ASUS makes some bold claims here which I’m going to call them out on. ASUS makes the following statement on it’s website: "The two heatsinks are thermally isolated to prevent the PCH and M.2 from affecting each other." Now, that’s an interesting statement. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an electrical or motherboard engineer so I could be wrong but heat rises and any heat generated by the heat sink is going to soak into the cavity where the M.2 drive resides. I tested this which I’ll talk about in some detail later. The inside of the top cover has a thermal pad affixed to it which supposedly aides in heat transfer. This solution runs very hot and I don’t think it works very good. Perhaps it will work better inside an actual chassis with more air flowing over it but in my testing, it just wasn’t that effective.
Speaking of M.2 slots, this little motherboard has two of them. The second is located on the underside of the motherboard and accommodates type 22110 (110mm) devices. I dare say the M.2 drive on this side is probably better isolated from heat and should be the first one used. Also, this one is harder to reach after the system has been assembled, so you might want to use this one first, to allow the installation of another one in the chipset cooler late on if you like. Alternatively, you could make a case for using the chipset one only due to being able to replace a failed drive more easily. Regardless, you can run an M.2 RAID array on this little motherboard and that’s just awesome.
There isn’t a lot to say about the expansion slot area given that only a single PCI-Express Gen3 x16 slot is present. The ROG Strix Z270i Gaming does feature the steel reinforcement on the expansion slot. This feature is of dubious value on full sized motherboards. The lack of PCB area means that there is less bending and flexing than you would get on an ATX motherboard of the same thickness. Again, I don’t see why this is here but it’s a nice touch. It shows that whatever standards are in place on other enthusiast motherboards are in the design of this motherboard.
The I/O panel is the usual thin, stamped piece of tin. At least it’s painted and marked. It looks decent even if it really isn’t much better than the cheaper reflective I/O shields. I’d like to have seen ASUS’ integrated I/O shield that only uses a bracket in the case. I suspect this was not done to keep this motherboard at a more reasonable price point. The SFF crowd isn’t by nature necessarily super frugal, but they probably aren’t the type who buy motherboards they want and damn the cost. Motherboards like the Rampage V Edition 10 are likely in that category where the ROG Strix Z270i Gaming just isn’t. I suspect cost cutting is why the daughter board covered in VRMs is no longer present.
In any case, there are a lot of connectivity options and one very large omission in my opinion. There are no USB 3.1 ports here. All the USB 3.1 ports are front panel only meaning you get just two. None of which are Type-C either. However, a Type-C port is provided but it’s USB 3.0 only which is a very odd and somewhat puzzling choice. 4x USB 2.0 ports and 4x USB 3.0 (1x Type-C) ports are provided on the back panel. You will also find a single DisplayPort and 1x HDMI connector. There are two connections for a wireless antenna. Thankfully, these aren’t the little micro connectors which are annoying to use. ASUS includes the Intel i219v Gigabit NIC via a standard RJ-45 LAN port with its LANGuard anti-surge feature. ASUS also went with a color coded 5x mini-stereo jack implementation for analog audio as well as a single optical output. I prefer the gold-plated connectors for audio with the color-coded plastic surround. Again, ASUS got a little cheap here.