X299 on mini-ITX
ASRock’s new mini-ITX board can accommodate an 18-core Intel Core i9 CPU, and even quad-channel RAM.
e thought ASRock’s last effort at a high-end desktop (HEDT) mini-ITX motherboard was absolutely fantastic. While it had nearly all the hallmarks of an ATX X99 motherboard, though, it only had one M.2 port and didn’t support quadchannel memory either.
It also had an elongated cooler mounting mechanism, which was only compatible with a handful of waterblocks and very few air coolers. Thankfully, ASRock has returned to mini-ITX with LGA2066, and the X299E-ITX/ac aims to address some of its predecessor’s limitations. It now has two daughterboards – one adds an M.2 port on its side in front of the two networking ports. The other sports six SATA 6Gbps ports, as well as the USB 3 header, all of which the PCB lacks. Amazingly, ASRock has even managed to squeeze a further two M.2 ports onto the underside of the PCB. All these M.2 ports support 4x PCI-E NVMe SSDs, but only the top slot supports SATA-based M.2 SSDs, and they all lack heatsinks.
The fact that the top M.2 port, SATA 6Gbps ports and USB 3 header have all been moved off the PCB has freed up space, though, and ASRock has made the most of every square millimetre. It now uses a full-sized LGA2066 CPU socket, for example, so you can use most air and all-in-one liquid coolers. Also, waterblock manufacturer Bitspower has already launched a full-cover monoblock for the X299-ITX/ac.
The next change has proved rather controversial. ASRock has ditched the two DIMM slots of the previous board and switched to SODIMM slots – four of them. This setup allows the X299E-ITX/ac to offer quad-channel memory support. A server-orientated version of its predecessor also used SODIMMs for quad-channel support, but the issue for enthusiasts is that SODIMM memory is expensive and not readily available in speeds over 2400MHz.
Also, while the benefits of quad-channel memory are huge in terms of bandwidth, very few applications – even rendering and video editing – make much use of it. Games and other typical tasks also benefit little compared with dual-channel memory, meaning this is more of a token achievement than a necessity for most people.
You’ll also only have a very limited choice of memory kits from Corsair and G.Skill, with four 8GB 2666MHz Corsair Vengeances SODIMMs costing £360 inc VAT; the same speed and capacity in a dual-channel kit costs around £320. If you’re after fast RAM, both Corsair and G.Skill offer modules up to 4000MHz, with Corsair offering a quad-channel kit specifically designed for the X299E-ITX/ac, although it demands a huge price of £600 inc VAT.
Apart from this snag, and the fact you’re limited to just one 16x PCI-E slot, the X299E-ITX/ac is an engineering marvel. It supports Intel’s monstrous Core i9-7980XE 18-core Skylake-X CPU, offers seven CPU power phases, USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A and Type-C ports, plus dual Intel Gigabit LAN ports and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. You also get the full count of six audio ports, including an optical output for the Realtek ALC1220 codec, and there’s a clear-CMOS button on the rear I/O panel too. There are also three 4-pin fan headers, one of which offers up to 18W of power, which is enough for Laing DDC water-cooling pump. There’s no on-board lighting, but you at least get an RGB LED strip header. Performance ASRock’s EFI is a little dated-looking compared with MSI and Asus’ efforts, but the fan control section is exceptional, offering the ability to tweak fan curves and change the temperature sources. Its software is also similarly capable, enabling you to access many popular overclocking settings within Windows. We managed to overclock our Core i9-7900X to 4.6GHz using a vcore of just 1.24V, which is one of the lowest voltages we’ve needed to hit this frequency.
We used Corsair’s 32GB 4000MHz SODIMM quadchannel memory kit for testing, but for comparison purposes, we inputted a 3000MHz frequency and the same timings as our usual memory for X299 board testing. These settings saw the board perform roughly in line with other X299 boards, with a system score of 222,633, which was a little lower than other X299 boards we’ve tested. Switching up to 4000MHz saw 1,000 points added to the image editing score, but the other results were roughly the same.
ASRock has made the most of every square millimetre
Once overclocked to 4.6GHz, though, the CPU powered its way to similar scores as several other full-sized X299 boards. Audio performance was typical of Realtek’s AL 1220 codec too, with a noise level of -104dBA and dynamic range of 108.5dBA. Meanwhile, it was no surprise to see our Samsung 960 Evo SSD hit 70°C under full load without a heatsink, although that result is still below thermal limits, and our SSD produced solid read and write results of 3,129MB/sec and 1,845MB/sec respectively. Conclusion ASRock has yet again stepped up to offer the ultimate miniITX motherboard – if you want to build a mini system with more CPU grunt than Coffee Lake or Ryzen, then it’s a great feature-packed choice, despite its price. That price can also be excused given the extra legwork ASRock has made to create the X299E-ITX/ac.
ASRock has unnecessarily obsessed over quad-channel memory support though. The use of SODIMMs does free up PCB real estate, and grabs headlines, but the benefits are niche, and this choice also severely limits your choice of RAM. Thankfully, while SODIMMs are pricier than standard DIMMs, the price difference isn’t enormous, which means this isn’t a deal breaker. In most other ways, the X299E-ITX/ ac is a supremely droolworthy triumph if you want to build the most powerful mini system possible, whether you’re running games or workstation tasks.
Four SODIMM slots enable quad=channel DDR4 memory The LGA2066 socket can even house a monstrous 18-core CPU A daughterboard adds another M.2 port next to the CPU socket