In this day in age, you no longer need a massive full tower full of things to have a baller computer. Optical Disc Drives or ODDs are becoming less relevant, CPUs are more efficient to not warrant exotic cooling, SSDs are becoming more commonplace, ram comes in higher capacity dimms and dual GPUs on a single card provide SLI/Crossfire on a single PCB. Couple all that with a mad miniature motherboard and you have the recipe for an insane small form factor build that can easily keep the PC Master Race crowd pleased.
Powerful mini itx motherboards have been around for some time, but in ASRock fashion of doing things beyond what's conventional, we have something crazy. Check out the X99E-ITX/ac, this CPU socket is practically half the board!
In the world of Intel, there are typically two main platforms depending on the consumer. On the high end, we have what is basically the professional/prosumer level of hardware with the price tag to match. This level of platform is best suited for those who do a lot of rendering and other professional applications. Below this, we have our consumer line which has enough power for prosumers as well depending on which chip is being used. What is unusual, is to have an itx board using a chipset with the "X" moniker over the more mainstream "Z" or "H" set.
So, what are the drawbacks? Typically, Haswell-E boards have quad channel memory, but itx is limited to dual channel due to physical size limits on such a small platform. If you can overlook ram capacity being limited and a raw bandwidth reduction, that may not bother you. There are other trade offs that may concern you, however. Forget about reusing any previous CPU coolers, this socket is more narrow than typical LGA2011-3 to even fit the limited amount of circuit board space available for itx.
Although narrow-ILM CPU coolers are reserved for servers or OEMs, by the looks of things, ASRock will be providing a CPU cooler so the end-user will have less to worry about. In the off chance this cooling solution is loud, which it's bound to be given the small fan, you should be able to tweak fan settings in the BIOS and through ASRock provided software.
Limited memory capacity and compact cooler aside, ASRock is still providing a lot of power in a little package. You get 802.11ac wifi, dual Intel network ports, an M.2 slot, USB 3.1 via two Type-C ports and the usual fair. There's even a combo PS/2 port which is very handy to have just in case you need to troubleshoot. Of course, the star of the show is the chipset and the CPUs that become available with X99E. This socket may be modified, but it's also considered an O.C. socket due to the extra pins it contains. From supporting Intel’s latest HEDT (High-End Desktop) chips to being able to overclock them with ease, the X99E-ITX/ac will have no issue in cranking up the voltage (vcore) to maintain it. Probably best not to overdo it until the provided cooler is proven capable of a hefty overclocking or if some niche aftermarket coolers/adapters hit the market.
Who is this for? I'd say for those who render on the go that needs more rendering power than a laptop would be able to deliver. For many, they'll be better served with upcoming Skylake over Haswell-E simply based off cost and power requirements alone. This is hardware aimed at a very specific customer, a niche bit of kit such as this won't come cheap. An exact price is unknown, but other tech sites are estimating somewhere between the $200-$250 USD range. That sounds about right for an ultra high end motherboard such as this. Still, the potential this board offers to the SFF market is unreal. What was once a large, heavy tower could be easily replaced with a tiny shoebox with a handle.
Small form factor builds aren't for everyone. These builds require careful planning and patience with the amount of research required. Once you pull it off, it can be rewarding having a powerful compact system. Prepare yourself, it's not fun maneuvering around a small space if you have large hands. If ASRock garners enough attention, we may see other manufacturers joining the mini party.
If you're interested, more information will become available at this years CeBIT which begins next week!