DFI unveiled the P55 MI-T36 to the public a couple of months ago. It's an exciting little board based upon the P55 chipset, cut back to the most desirable essentials in order to facilitate a shrink down to the mini-ITX form factor.
What DFI are attempting to do is bring near enthusiast level performance to a form factor that is associated largely with web-browsing and HTPC use. Teamed up with a suitable GPU, the prospects of having a compact multi-purpose PC capable of delivering a high-end gaming experience is rather compelling.
Unfortunately, there's not exactly an abundance of suitable PC cases on the market catering for such builds. Right now, you're limited to a couple of ITX offerings from Silverstone, namely the SG-05 and SG-06 models, while Lian-Li have the PC Q07. Obvious limitations in going such a route are related to PSU requirements. Once you team a board like this up with a hefty GPU, cooling and power demands throw minimum case dimensions towards M-ATX sizing, which defeats the attraction of going for mini-ITX in the first place.
Nevertheless, products like these create demands for innovation and we're sure the MI-T36 has given PC case and PSU vendors something to think about for the future. So although the MI-T36 seems like a bit of an outcast in certain scenarios at this stage of proceedings, it's still interesting to see what DFI have managed to cram into the mini-ITX form factor.
We've spent the past week or so running various benchmarks on the MI-T36 to see how it fares against regular ATX sized P55 offerings. Of course, boards from DFI usually feature overclocking centric BIOSes, so we've taken the time to explore what's possible on that side of things too...
Our board arrived with the P55MIB02 BIOS, which worked well within the context of stock processor speed testing. Onboard peripherals work as they should for the most part, although we have seen reports of the board failing to work properly with USB wireless adaptors. Our issues/niggles during testing were primarily related to overclocking.
First of all, some of the memory sub-timings don't respond to manual changes, so you have to work with what you get. Although, we should add that the default settings are more than adequate in most situations, unless you decide to push the board harder than you should.
One of the other niggles is that you don't get any report of the applied operating frequency in the BIOS other than BCLK. Failed OC recovery tends to be hit and miss too; our board frequently froze on the post screen after OC recovery had kicked in, leaving us needing to reset CMOS to get back into the BIOS. We also found that the board failed to recognize our hard drives on occasion when loading saved BIOS profiles or when the board recovered from a failed overclock. Lastly, S3 resume seems to be limited somewhere between 150-160BCLK on the current BIOS. Any higher than this and the board gets caught in a reboot loop.
All of the above issues have been reported back to DFI who are working on fixes as we speak. The new BIOS will also cap over-current protection to around 90 amps with a maximum VID of 1.40V (currently set to 110 amps). The reason is that onboard power delivery for CPU VCore does not respond kindly to being pushed under heavy loads. We've seen one reported case of a reviewer pushing the board over 3.8GHz with a HT enabled 4 core CPU running stress tests like OCCT and burning out a couple of FETs. Just a heads up to those who are thinking of pushing the MI-T36: it's not designed for it. We'd say you're better off teaming a board like this up with a 750 CPU, and keeping operating speeds below 4GHz. Cooling the PWM FET's actively may help a little, but given the location of some of them, we don't think it is going to be practical or easy. It's something that DFI should have addressed prior to release.
The alternative is to wait and see what the upcoming H55/H57 platform and processors bring to the table. The IGP makes it a more ideal candidate than P55 for mini-sizing, while the reduced core count of Clarksdale processors should allow for reasonable overclocking headroom without being too demanding of power delivery. We haven't heard of any upcoming M-ITX boards from other vendors yet, although we're sure it's a work in progress now that DFI have laid down the gauntlet with the MI-T36. A beefier VRM from the likes of Volterra would see a board like this upstaging everything priced above it for overclocking. FET's delivering up to 45 amps a piece are readily available, and can deliver buckets of current within a small footprint so long as cooling is taken care of properly. Don't be surprised if you see someone running with the concept.
What DFI have done is to pave the way for future products by giving vendors a glimpse of what needs to be addressed and catered for to make the mini-ITX form factor attractive for such use. As it stands right now on the current shipping BIOS, the MI-T36 has a bit of an identity crisis. You've got overclocking features on tap that are usually reserved for boards costing twice as much, while onboard power delivery imposes limitations before you'll really make use of them. Being able to deliver both would have been nice, but we guess compromises were made to work within a reasonable target price. We applaud DFI for pushing the boat out regardless. The execution may not suit everyone, but we think the MI-T36 deserves consideration if you're looking for a little work horse. Just be prepared to work within its limitations.