As part of our on-going investigation into the best Home Theatre PC hardware for our all-new HTPC section in our buyer's guide, we're currently delving into the latest AMD Socket FM2 and Intel LGA1155 budget offerings. Today we're investigating just how cheap you can go with Intel's current mid-range CPU socket when it comes to motherboards, and the sacrifices you'll probably have to make.
We've picked one Mini-ITX and one Micro-ATX motherboard that represent the cheapest examples we we could find at time of writing. They're the sizes most popular with HTPC builders too, and we'll be seeing which is worth considering or whether at this price, they're just too feature-needy to be of any real use.
Despite both sporting Intel's H61 chipset, they're both compatible with the latest Ivy Bridge CPUs. However, as with most motherboards at this end of the market, they each have limitations. We'll be taking a look at MSI's MSI H61I-E35 - a HDMI-equipped Mini-ITX motherboard that costs less than £45, and also ASRock's H61M-VS, which retails for a little closer to £50 but thanks to the fact it's of the Micro-ATX form factor variety, sports both 16x and 1x PCI-E slots.
Click to enlarge
MSI H61I-E35 (B3) Manufacturer:MSI UK Price (as reviewed):£43.93 (inc VAT) US Price (as reviewed):$79.89 (ex Tax)
MSI's H61I-E35 (B3) has probably popped up in Google searches if you've been searching for fantastically cheap LGA1155 motherboards.
It costs half the price of even the cheapest Ivy Bridge LGA1155 CPU, and combined with its dinky Mini-ITX size and the fact it has an on-board HDMI port, it can make for an interesting option if you're just after a basic board to hook up to your TV, making use of your CPU's on-board graphics.
It has four SATA ports, but none of these are SATA 6Gbps, and only two DIMM slots, although slapping in a 2 x 4GB £30 set of RAM is probably going to meet your HTPC needs for the next decade.
At less than £45, the lack of features extends deeper than this though. There are no USB 3 ports or an on-board header, and the only means of expansion is a single 1x PCI-E slot. This will, however, mean that you can add USB 3 ports using a PCI-E card, so long as it's 1x, and there are a few options when it comes to TV tuner cards too. It also supports Ivy Bridge CPUs, albeit after a BIOS update. The BIOS itself is useful enough, but you can't adjust the CPU voltage, which some people like to do to trim power consumption and keep heat down to a minimum.
Click to enlarge - quite a lot of space here isn't there?
Layout is is a bit of a mixed bag. The PCI-E slot lies slap-bang in front of the four SATA 3Gbps ports, meaning if you use a long expansion card, this can interfere with the ports. Using angled SATA connectors just about allowed us to slot in a USB 3 card we had laying around, but it wasn't exactly straight. Still, once screwed to the case, it worked fine. There's also not a whole lot of room around the CPU socket, with the Intel 'keep out' zone only just catered for.
Click to enlarge
The I/O panel is as sparse as they come - there's no optical output, only four USB 2 ports and no DVI or DisplayPort connectors as we're used to seeing on other Mini-ITX boards. But there's enough here to keep most people happy - if you're connecting it to your TV, the lack of audio outputs will be superfluous anyway as you can just output the audio over HDMI, and four USB ports is more than enough for a wireless keyboard and maybe an external hard disk.
Chipset Intel H61
CPU support LGA1155 Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7
Memory support 2 slots: max 16GB DDR3 (1,333MHz)
Expansion slots one 1x PCI-E, one PCI
Sound 6-channel HD audio via Realtek ALC887
Networking Realtek 8111E Gigabit Ethernet
Ports 4 x SATA 3Gbps, 8 x USB 2, 1 x LAN, audio out, line in, mic, VGA, DVI-D, HDMI