We've built countless gaming computers and the ones that are smaller in stature tend to impress us the most. We appreciate systems that manage to stand with full tower rigs in our benchmarks while maintaining a tiny footprint. For example, we managed to get an Asrock Z87M Extreme4 motherboard, Core i5 Haswell processor, a GeForce GTX 760, OCZ's 240GB Vector SSD and a pair of 2TB WD Red HDDs into Silverstone's 23-liter Sugo SG10 -- a chassis small enough that it could be carried under arm between LAN parties. What's more, that build cost just under $1,400, which is well within the realm of a typical self-built enthusiast machine -- because that's ultimately what it is, just smaller. Unfortunately, things get inflexible and unaffordable really fast if you want a brand name box, but that's not to say the splurge is never worthwhile.
Asrock's recently launched M8 barebones system, which we are reviewing today, may not be the best value for a Micro-ITX machine, but it may be one of the most attractive we've seen in years and that counts for something.
Even if the M8's style is not your thing, there's less room to argue that this is a unique gaming PC barebones kit and that was enough to earn our attention. We've been impressed with the looks of previous Asrock products -- including its mini PCs -- but the M8 is a clear step up having been designed by BMW Group DesignworksUSA, the driving force behind Thermaltake's Level 10 chassis, a case as overpriced as it is iconic. The Level 10 put aesthetics and novelty before affordability and practicality, and we could see a repeat showing with the M8.
"Our goal was to create desirability and iconic differentiation in a small gaming PC," BMW's Sonja Schiefer said. "Iconic differentiation" rarely comes cheap, especially not if BMW's involved, so it's not entirely shocking to see Asrock's new barebones chassis combo fetching $550, which gets you the company's priciest Z87 Mini-ITX motherboard ($150), a 450W SFX power supply (perhaps $50 to $100) and an optical drive ($15?). That suggests you'd be paying in the ballpark of $300 for the M8's enclosure, perhaps more.
Asrock could have a tough time justifying that price when cases like the Silverstone Sugo SG10 can set you back $120 or less, and while enthusiast backing remains to be seen, we wouldn't be surprised if the M8 receives due attention from well-funded system builders with a taste for the avant-garde. Without jumping to too many conclusions here, let's yank back the curtain and see what Asrock's flagship Mini-ITX offering is made of.
Asrock M8 Barebones Features
At the heart of Asrock's M8 is the company's Z87-M8 motherboard, which is armed to the teeth via Intel's chipset alone, but there are plenty of extras too. The Z87 supports half a dozen USB 3.0 ports, which are controlled by an xHCI (eXtensible Host Controller Interface), as well as six SATA 6Gb/s ports, a dramatic improvement over the two ports supported by the 7 series chipsets.
Asrock hasn't upgraded the Z87's standard storage features with third party controllers and we doubt any Mini-ITX board needs more than six SATA 6Gb/s ports. Said ports can also handle RAID (RAID 0, 1, 5, 10, Intel Rapid Storage Technology 12 and Intel Smart Response Technology), NCQ, AHCI and Hot Plug.
There is an eSATA port on the I/O panel which is handy, though keep in mind this port is shared with the first onboard SATA port using port multiplier technology. Both ports can be used simultaneously, but this could limit the performance of the drives if they are being accessed at the same time.
Along with the Z87's six USB 3.0 ports, the board also supports six USB 2.0 ports. Networking is provided by the new Intel I217V PHY (Physical Layer Device), which is a gigabit copper networking component for mobile, desktop, workstation, and value-server designs that have critical space and power constraints. It supports Intel Remote Wake Technology, Wake-On-LAN, Energy Efficient Ethernet 802.3az and PXE.
Out of the box, the M8 also supports Wi-Fi and Bluetooth thanks to the inclusion of a 2T2R 802.11ac Wi-Fi / Bluetooth 4.0 mini-PCIe module. Creative's Core3D audio solution is also present, supporting THX TruStudio Pro, CrystalVoice, EAX 5.0, Blu-ray 2.0 Audio. You'll also find Asrock's Premium Headset Amplifier (PHA) for up to 600 ohm high-end headsets.
The package also includes a Slim Slot-in Super-Multi Drive, a 4-in-1 Card reader (SD3.0 / MMC / MS / MS PRO) and 450W power supply with an 80 Plus Bronze-rating and two 8-pin PCIe power connectors which allows for discrete graphics cards with a TDP rating of up to 200 watts to be installed (note that the Z87-M8 motherboard includes DisplayPort and HDMI out via the Haswell chip's on-die GPU).