ASRock Q87TM-ITX and B85TM-ITX 'review'
So this is something totally different for once. I usually do electronic design engineering; I design things like VRMs and consumer electronics. I have even dabbled in computer hardware design since my previous blogs were so successful. But I never got early hardware - from anyone, really. Even hardware OEMs that ask me to do engineering for them never give me any preproduction hardware; they are extremely protective of everything they do. I realize that I am probably going to be phoned or e-mailed by ASRock today, because I am going to spoil their marketing somewhat. I have something they haven't announced yet. But who in their right mind wouldn't jump on this opportunity?
How this happenedEarlier this week one of my earlier builds - Fikki3 - started acting up. Well, it has been acting up for a while; it's now a pretty old Core i3 530 and it is struggling with modern video codecs (Youtube/Twitch playback) and has essentially zero graphical power. It's aging and needs to be replaced. Having much less time nowadays to do mods, I decided to make a stock system based on the ASRock B85M-ITX which I have tested about four months ago to be one of the most power efficient motherboards out there.
I was to combine this motherboard with a Haswell Pentium and Maxwell (Geforce 750/750Ti) graphics card to create a sub-15W (idle) gaming machine with muscle to spare.
So I looked around in the second hand market to see if I could score one of these boards for cheap; I succeeded. I found an advertisement with a B85M-ITX for €30+postage. That's a steal for such a nice board.
When I got the board in today I noticed the package was remarkably thin. Part of this was because it was quite badly packaged, but it was mostly down to the board not actually being a B85M-ITX. It was a B85TM-ITX. Note the extra 'T' in the name.
The TM-ITX is for Thin Mini-ITX, a motherboard specification for small, extra thin motherboards that fit inside one of those all-in-one chassis. I have a long-standing love for these boards. I was very excited.
But wait, I discussed about this board around about the writing of my Best Buy Guide (BBG) 4 months ago, and back then it was only just announced at CeBIT. Usually these boards don't come out until at least half a year later; it took the B85 non-thin ITX board more than half a year to arrive from the moment it was announced. So I did a quick Google search and yes, it isn't actually available yet. This motherboard does not exist. So what is it like?
Around the B85TM-ITX
I'm sorry for the slightly crooked photos. This is the board. It's very interesting. Not because of the particular components on it, or anything else immediately obvious. No, there's something more subtle going on. Look at the text on the board that says 'B85TM-ITX', just under the SODIMM slots. Doesn't that look.. off to you? The color is different. Is that a sticker?
Why yes it is. This is actually an H81TM-ITX PCB. And now that I look at them side by side - that doesn't seem far off. The H81TM-ITX is basically identical; the only differences are that:
- The DC/DC converter under the mPCIe slot is populated
- The USB 3.0 internal header is populated
- Slightly different MOSFET component choice (although this can just as well be a board revision change
Anyway, looking around the board I can't really spot any differences with the basic H81TM-ITX. It still sports the same ALC892 audio codec for sound, with it seems slightly lower quality coupling caps, although again this can be a revision change:
The network connection has an Intel i218-LM Gigabit Ethernet controller/PHY instead of the i217V on the H81TM-ITX. Wait, why? Why an LM chipset? Those are literally only used if you want vPro, otherwise the -V chips are way cheaper... Hm, this is a weird board:
HDMI/DVI is driven by the ASMedia ASM1442, which is the first chip I saw with a datecode: 1332, or the 32nd week of 2013. This indeed confirms that this is not a new design and they did just put a sticker over the H81TM-ITX and called it a day:
And the 'Super' I/O - jeez, these things are almost completely redundant now - is filled in by our good friend Nuvoton with their NTC5573D:
The CPU VRM is a Richtek RT8889A, which is a budget VR12.2 3-phase controller - kind of surprising for a low power board, but this is probably also why it's not actually power efficient at all:
On the bottom side, there's really not that much to see. Just a Chronotel LVDS driver (and an ST RS232 driver):
And a Realtek ALC109 headphone amp:
So... this is kind of a letdown. It's just a H81TM-ITX with extremely minor changes. Well, I was a bit disappointed until I took off the heatsink from the chipset and...
Around the B85TM-ITXQ87TM-ITX
So... ? Well, if you look up the S-spec on this chip - SR173 - you will find that this is a Q87 chipset. On a board with a B85 sticker over an H81 silkscreen. This just keeps getting juicier. Because whereas the B85TM-ITX was already announced, the Q87TM-ITX hasn't yet.
And now things start to fall in place. That i218-LM vPro ethernet controller doesn't belong on the B85 chipset. B85 doesn't support vPro, but Q87 does. This is actually a Q87TM-ITX board. Or maybe some weird Frankenstein board where they took a production H81TM-ITX and slapped on a Q87 chipset and i218LM - I don't know.
But what really stands out to me is the fact that the date codes on this board are all roughly the summer of 2013. Almost a year old. Why would they wait a whole year, wasting most of Haswell's release cycle, before releasing a board that apparently is so incredibly easy to make? So many questions!
Anyway, conclusions are for later. Now let's fire the board up and look at the BIOS. Yep, there it is. This is a Q87TM-ITX:
With UEFI version 0.0.1L, that's very beta. Interestingly though, it works pretty well. Like the H81TM-ITX, the board has fucked up ACPI tables that cause the CPU never to enter package C3/C6/C7, but this is a fairly widespread phenomenon with many motherboard vendors. I've had the same issues with a Biostar Hi-Fi B85N 3D; a friend of mine even tried to report the issue with them but this never really led to a BIOS update. Anyway, I'm rambling.
The only other slightly interesting thing I came across was a mention of wireless functionality; I assume this has to do with the miniPCIe slot and some UEFI-level support for wireless network functionality. No other remarkable things to be honest.
ConclusionI must say, I'm confused and intrigued. This is most of the reason why I am writing this blog post. I actually e-mailed the second hand seller of this motherboard to ask where it is from. He/she replied and said to have gotten it at an inventory auction following ASRock Netherlands B.V.'s pending move from Wijchen to... somewhere else. By the way, ASRock's Dutch office is moving (not sure if this is news, but I can't find it anywhere else).
One of the possibilities is that this board has been sent out a bit early to system integrators, much like the DH61AG was available more than two months in advance for system builders. That way, feedback on the particulars of these boards (especially driver support and electrical interfaces to the LVDS connector, as well as other power-related things) can be figured out before launch.
The board design itself shouldn't really be a surprise. All motherboard manufacturers basically make one PCB and then selectively populate it to create different skews. I am a bit surprised, though, that apparently they don't utilize any Q87 feature on this board other than vPro. No extra SATA ports, no TPM, no second gigabit. Kind of a missed opportunity.
This does, however, enable us to do some educated guesses on pricing. H81TM-ITX differs by the chipset (H81: $26, Q87: $47), ethernet (i217-v: $1.72, i218-LM: $1.92) , a USB 3.0 header (<$0.10) and a licensing cost for vPro. With the street price of H81TM-ITX at €65 currently or €54 without tax, and with about 40% gross margin on these kinds of products, I would expect the Q87TM-ITX to run about (54 + ((47-26)+(1.92-1.72)+0.1)x1.4->EUR) + tax = €92. Possibly a bit more because of the relatively low volume (and subsequent higher margins) on this skew and additional licensing costs. Awesome. I'd love a true DQ77KB-successor!
keep us updated if you hear something from ASRock
I don't think they are moving, just "redecorating"
This looks for all the world like a zero-series, i.e. a run of boards that is done before the actual mass manufacturing starts. These look exactly the same as the end product, use the same production technique and have all the manufacturing kinks worked out, but just need the final touches on UEFI and such.
I'm not the first person to use it in this context, anyway.
Im interested to hear the results and of cource ASRock's reaction