One area I usually skimp when I build my PCs is the motherboard. I know I shouldn’t, but typically when building a new rig I’m operating on a limited budget and I need to cut costs somewhere. The last two times I’ve bought a new motherboard I’ve had to do it because of a CPU upgrade, so most of my money has gone into that part. With my last system overhaul, after picking up my new i7-8700K a few months back, I again skimped on the motherboard. I went with a Gigabyte Z370P-D3 motherboard because the 6th-Gen variant I used with my 6700K was decent.
When I was approached with reviewing the ASRock Z390 Phantom Gaming-ITX/ac motherboard, I was immediately interested. I was insanely intrigued to see exactly what kind of performance a true gaming motherboard provides and what I was missing. The fact the board is an ITX motherboard wasn’t an issue, as my case works for both ATX and ITX. One look at the specs also shows just how impressive this small little package is truly.
- Supports 9th and 8th Gen Intel Core Processors (Socket 1151)
- Supports DDR4 4500MHz+ (OC) (2 Channels)
- 1PCIe 3.0 x16
- Graphics output options: HDMI, DisplayPort
- 7.1 CH HD Audio (Realtek ALC1220 Audio Codec), Supports Creative Sound Blaster Cinema 5
- 1 Intel Thunderbolt 3 Type-C
- 4 SATA3, 2 Ultra M.2 (PCIe Gen3 x4 & SATA3)
- 4USB 3.1 Gen2 10Gb/s (rear)
- 4 USB 3.1 Gen1 (2 Front, 2 Rear)
- Intel Gigabit LAN
- Intel 2T2R Dual Band 802.11ac WiFi (2.4/5.GHz), supports up to 1.73Gbps wireless Network & BT v5.0
Here are the full specs, as listed on ASRock’s product page.
The small form factor does come with some compromises, though. There is only a single PCIe slot, meaning you cannot easily SLI or Crossfire GPUs. If you have any expansion cards, such as a sound card, integrated capture card (like an Elgato HD60 Pro), these too will not work alongside a GPU in the motherboard. Additionally, with only two slots for RAM and only support up to 32GB, this also feels like a compromise for space. However, 32GB for gaming is typically overkill, so only having two slots doesn’t hurt as much as the lack of additional expansion slots.
The ASRock Phantom Gaming does pack a lot into that small package, though. Two M.2 slots in addition to the four SATA3 slots means you don’t skimp on storage. The M.2 slots also come with a full coverage heatsink, ensuring that the M.2 drives stay cool while operating at peak efficiency.
The Z390 Phantom Gaming ITX/ac is also one of the first motherboards I’ve seen with a rear Thunderbolt 3 USB Type-C connector. This gives the ASRock motherboard incredibly functionality. Also, it allowed me to charge my Nintendo Switch at my PC with ease!
Design wise, I love the look of the Z390 Phantom Gaming motherboard. There is simply no wasted space on this motherboard. The sharp angles and the matte look to the motherboard gives it an evocative modern look, and it really sines especially when you have your board illuminated with RGB in the case.
The BIOS for the ASRock is incredibly easy to navigate and comes in two modes: a Basic overview and a more advanced overview. Enabling XMP on my RAM was a breeze and establishing a slight overclock to 4.7GHz on my CPU was simply a matter of clicking a button. You can tweak the individual voltage levels in the advanced view as well as set individual fan curves to compensate for the increased heat an overclock puts off.
As someone who has a checkered history with overclocking (I’ve fried three AMD CPUs years ago trying to overclock) I did opt to do all of the testing in this review with the stock clocks. However, the ASRock was the first motherboard where I felt comfortable with the overclock on my CPU to the point where I can find myself honing it in even more and keeping the overclock active. But for most users, overclocking a CPU isn’t something they are going to feel comfortable doing and so I wanted to provide more real-world benchmarks with the testing.
Additionally, living in a hot climate (Las Vegas!) I tend to be wary of heat in my PCs. I know full well my Corsair liquid cooler will keep things at proper temps, but I’m neurotic when it comes to my CPU temps. I was then, pleasantly surprised to see my temperatures stay right around 80C with the overclock in place. Under full load the highest I’ve seen the temps climb to is 81C, which is about 6 degrees hotter than my normal temps at stock clocks. This was also somewhat surprising since the ASRock did not support all of my case fans so I was only able to use the fans on my radiator during testing.
In both our Synthetic tests and our gaming tests, the goal was to see how well the ASRock performed over my budget Gigabyte board. Unfortunately, due to the nature of our outlet, I do not have a full roster of test bench motherboards to test this with, but I do think the results are pretty interesting overall. For testing purposes, here is the full test bench specifications used:
- CPU: Intel i7-8700K @ 3.7GHz
- RAM: 16GB Patriot Viper DDR4 @ 3200MHz
- GPU: MSI ARMOR RTX 2070 8GB
- PSU: Thermaltake Toughpower Grand RBG 750W
- Storage: Intel 760p 2TB M.2 SSD
When doing the testing, I also opted for the default settings on each test, except for the gaming tests. Gaming tests were done at my native resolution (2560x1440), the 3D Mark tests were performed at the default resolution of the benchmark. I have tested both Single core and Multi-core benchmarks when applicable.
Synthetic Gaming Tests
With our gaming benchmarks, each test was performed using the in-game benchmark tool. These were run three separate times with a cooldown period between each run. The framerate numbers are averages between the three tests. On Civilization VI, the game affords two separate benchmarks: graphics and the AI. The AI tests don’t give you full frames-per-second details, but instead gives you the average turn time the game takes for a multitude of AI turns. The ASrock averaged about 14 seconds a turn, while the Gigabyte averaged a slightly better 13 seconds. Additionally, the Civilization VI benchmark doesn’t spit out FPS numbers in the graphics test, instead opting for average frametimes. The FPS number listed on the graph below is the average of the three frametimes converted into the average FPS numbers.
It was interesting to see the differences between the two motherboards. While the Gigabyte had consistently a slight edge in multi-thread results, the ASRock dominated in the gaming benchmarks. However, in most of the straight CPU tests, the ASRock pulled ahead, specifically the CPU result in the TimeSpy Extreme and AIDA64 CPU Queen test.
In actual gaming numbers, the results were pretty close in CPU bound games such as Total War: Warhammer II and Civlization VI. However, the nearly 10 FPS difference in Rise of the Tomb Raider was incredibly interesting to see. In GPU-bound applications this difference was pronounced, especially in the Firestrike tests. Seeing that reflected in the gaming benchmarks only solidified those findings. To see that I’m leaving that much performance on the table by skimping on motherboard was an eyeopener.
CPU-bound games did pull ahead as well, but not by much. Only a single frame separates the Gigabyte and ASRock in Civilization VI, and an identical score in Total War Warhammer II was surprising to see, especially after running three separate tests on each board.
The ASRock Z390 Phantom Gaming ITX/ac is an impressive motherboard, but even with the data staring me in my face, I feel like the Gigabyte provides more utility for my everyday needs, especially since I use multiple expansion cards daily. The lack of multiple expansion slots and lower fan support makes me opt for the full ATX board I’ve been using for the past few months. However, from a performance standpoint, the ASRock is the better board. In the right environment, such as a media streaming PC or even building a smaller form-factor PC for a living room environment, the ASRock ITX board dominates. This has inspired me to build a smaller streaming PC using the ASRock motherboard for my downstairs entertainment center so I can play my PC games on my huge TV while keeping the Gigabyte in my work PC.
For $179.99, it does feel slightly overpriced, especially when the Phantom Gaming SLI/ac ATX is cheaper and provides overall more functionality on the board. But the ASRock Z390 has proven to me that skimping on the motherboard isn’t the way forward - ASRock have proven to me that their motherboards are worth the consideration when buying a high-quality board in the future.
- Great performance for the form factor
- No wasted space - every inch of the board is used to its fullest to cram as many features as possible
- 7.1 Audio really sings
- Heatsink covers both M.2 slots
- Outstanding gaming performance
- Only one PCIe Slot
- Expensive for an ITX board
- Only two case fan connectors (not including the CPU fan)