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ECS KN2 SLI Extreme — a Motherboard Based on NVIDIA nForce4 SLI X16 (Socket 939)

May 10, 2006



SLI X16 DIY!

  • NVIDIA nForce4 SLI X16 chipset (nForce SPP 100 (C51D) northbridge and nForce4 SLI southbridge), it differs functionally from nForce4 SLI only in full-speed operation of both graphics slots in SLI mode

Frankly speaking, the new ECS product surprised our seasoned staff in the platform department of our web site so much that some of them expressed quite radical opinions — not to test this motherboard at all. You can see the troublemaker well on the photo — the proprietary slot, which is nearly as long as the board itself. An S.D.G.E card to be installed there (it's included into the bundle and is not sold separately; the card is not optional, as the motherboard does not start up without it) provides full-speed functionality of two PCI Express x16 slots. Right after the announcement of this product we assumed that ECS decided to cut down expenses and adapted a motherboard with a cheap nForce4-series bridge (probably nForce4 Ultra) to support two full-speed PCIEx16 slots instead of designing a "normal" model, having soldered the sterling nForce4 SLI X16 chipset. We assumed that the Duo-N card also houses a cheap nForce4-series bridge, which will support the second graphics slot. That is a customer will be offered an every-little-helps kit, which is only formally compatible with nForce4 SLI X16, but cheaper and problematic in assemblage.




Imagine our surprise when the motherboard was delivered to our lab and we found out that a heatsink on the expansion card covers the nForce SPP 100 chip and that the motherboard is equipped with nForce4 SLI, that is the nForce4 SLI X16 chipset in the true sense of this word! For an obvious reason, northbridge in chipsets for AMD64 is "tied" to a motherboard with fewer junctions than in case of the Intel platform. Very convenient Hyper-Transport bus, connecting in this case not only a northbridge and a processor, but also both chipset bridges, can do a lot of tricks, but we have never seen such "disregard" of the northbridge before! Last year ECS proved its skills to design all-purpose motherboards supporting various CPU types (using SIMA cards). But bringing out part of a chipset into a separate expansion card seems necessary only to support and demonstrate a creative potential of the R&D department. We can see no other reasons for such a violation of motherboard building canons — perhaps the company was planning to launch other models of such expansion cards, but what else can you add to nForce4 SLI X16 functionality?!




However, if we skip the aesthetic aspect of this issue (the absolute majority of users have motherboards hidden inside PC cases), this Duo-N card poses no serious arrangement problems. In fact, motherboard elements are shifted from the CPU socket edge, so there is room only for five regular expansion slots. Two of them are PCIEx16 slots, so we get only 2 x PCI (+1 PCIEx1), one of which will most likely be blocked by a cooler of the second video card. In other respects everything is OK: connectors for storage devices, fans, and brackets with additional ports are located along motherboard edges and are easily accessible when the KN2 SLI Extreme is installed into a PC case. The same concerns the only clear CMOS jumper.

ECS engineers didn't waste time on inventing an original cooling system for the chipset (unlike solutions with heat pipes, used in competing motherboards on nForce4 SLI X16): a cooler on the hot southbridge and a heatsink on the cold northbridge. The aluminum heatsink on the southbridge is almost finless, but it's equipped with a fast, audibly noisy fan (that's in the very beginning of its service life, these fans tend to start howling after some time). At the same time, northbridge on the expansion card is equipped with just a small pin-fin heatsink, placed so that it's blown on by the CPU cooler. Such a cooling system copes well with its task at standard operating frequencies and in a "non-extreme" overclocked mode. Besides, we have a brand feature of ECS Extreme motherboards - an additional fan with an air duct near the power converter that blows the air out of a PC case.

The 3-phase switching voltage regulator of the processor incorporates 3 field-effect transistors per channel, six 1800 uF capacitors and three 1500 uF ones. The memory voltage regulator is reinforced with L elements and includes several 1500 uF capacitors. Capacitors came from an unknown manufacturer as well as from OST — quite an expected choice for an ECS product. I guess there is no need to say that the PCB layout is unique in all respects, especially as the KN2 SLI Extreme motherboard is the only model in the series of motherboards on nForce4 SLI X16. Nevertheless, the motherboard contains an empty seat for Flash ROM with BIOS. An interesting fact - the retail version of this product lacks this chip (it's on the Duo-N card) — the KN2 SLI Extreme motherboard seems to have a mysterious origin. Motherboard dimensions — 305x245 mm (full-size ATX), nine-screw mount, all corners are firmly fixed.




Let's say a couple of words about the Duo-N card: its dimensions are dictated only by the necessity to lay out all input and output buses, the front side houses nothing but northbridge chips and Flash ROM, the back side is absolutely empty. The SDGE slot looks very interesting: we have already seen a similar slot - Elite Bus (PF88 Hybrid has it for installing SIMA cards). It was a combination of standard PCIEx16 and PCIEx1 slots in a single row. In this case it's PCIEx8, PCIEx1, and PCIEx16 — it again suggests an idea that it's a cunning ECS way to recover rejects.

System monitoring (ITE IT8712F-A, according to BIOS Setup):

  • Voltages on CPU core, battery, memory (+2.5 V), +3.3, +1.5, +1.2, +5, +12 V
  • RPM of 4 fans
  • CPU and board temperatures (by the corresponding embedded sensors)

Onboard ports, sockets, and connectors

  • Processor socket (Socket 939, officially supports all existing processors AMD Athlon 64/X2/FX and Sempron 3000+/3200+)
  • 4 x DDR SDRAM DIMM (up to 4 GB DDR200/266/333/400, dual channel mode supported)
  • 2 x PCIEx16 for video accelerators (both of them always work in x16 mode)
  • 1 x PCIEx1
  • 2 x PCI
  • 1 x SDGE slot for the proprietary Duo-N card
  • Power connectors: standard ATX 2.2 (24 pins, you can use a regular 20-pin connector), 4-pin ATX12V to power up CPU and 4-pin "peripheral" for powerful video cards (without on-board power connectors)
  • 1 x FDD
  • 2 x IDE (Parallel ATA) for 4 ATA133 devices — chipset-based
  • 6 x SATA-II (Serial ATA II) for six SATA300 devices — four of them are based on the chipset, connected disks can form RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5, and JBOD; the other two are supported by a Silicon Image controller (its disks can form RAID 0 or 1)
  • 3 connectors for brackets with 6 additional USB ports
  • 2 connectors for brackets with 2 FireWire ports
  • 1 x CD/DVD audio connector
  • Connectors for analog audio ins and outs on the front panel
  • Connector for a bracket with an LPT port
  • 1 x standard IrDA connector
  • 4 x fan headers with rpm control (no automatic rpm control even for the CPU cooler).

Back panel (left to right, blockwise)





Click the image to open the rear view of this motherboard
  • PS/2 mouse and keyboard
  • 1 x COM, 1 x optical (Toslink) S/PDIF-Out, 1 x coaxial S/PDIF-Out
  • 2 x USB and 1 x RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet)
  • 2 x USB and 1 x RJ-45 (Fast Ethernet)
  • 6 x Analog Audio (Center/Sub, Rear, Surround, Line-In, Line-Out, Mic-In).

Package Contents




  • Package: a large package of traditional ECS design for top motherboards with an additional box
  • Documentation: User's guide
  • Cables: 1 x LAN (2 meters long, twisted pair), 4 x SATA (with a power converter for two devices), 1 x ATA66, 1 x ATA33 (for CD-ROM), 1 x FDD
  • Top-Hat Flash module (a flash chip with a BIOS backup and a converter to install it on top of the main memory chip on the motherboard) with a brief instruction — it can be used for emergency restoration of damaged BIOS
  • SLI Bridge
  • SLI Bridge holder
  • Rear panel bracket with 2 x FireWire (6- and 4-pin) and 2 x USB (it can also be used to install ports on the front panel using a special module)
  • A special panel for the 3.5" drive bay, which can house the above-mentioned cable with USB and FireWire, if you unplug the cable from the rear panel bracket and connect it to this module
  • Rear panel bracket with an LPT port
  • Rear panel bracket with SATA connector for e-SATA devices (with their own power supply), it can be connected to any standard SATA ports on the motherboard; you'd better use one of the two ports of the additional Silicon Image controller
  • Rear I/O shield
  • 2 CDs with drivers and utilities.

In this case, the set of third-party utilities includes:

  • DPU — to restore deleted files
  • Pro Magic Plus — to create system restoration snapshots
  • ShowShifter — a multimedia center to watch TV and to play video, images/photos, music
  • I’m InTouch — remote administration of a computer
  • Media Ring — IP telephony (to make regular voice calls over Internet)
  • WinCinema — to watch and create DVDs.

Unfortunately, this bundle does not include a proprietary utility for updating BIOS and system drivers, which can also search for the latest versions on the manufacturer's web site. To flash BIOS under Windows, you are recommended to use the standard WinFlash utility from Award.

Integrated Controllers

  • Audio, based on AC’97 codec Realtek ALC850 supporting 7.1-ch audio, front line-ins/outs and S/PDIF-Out jacks (coaxial and optical)
  • 2 network controllers: one Gigabit Ethernet controller supporting 10/100/1000 Mbit/s, based on the chipset (with its own high-speed interface and firewall support) and PHY controller Marvell 88E1111-RCJ, as well as a Fast Ethernet controller supporting 10/100 Mbit/s, based on the Realtek RTL8100C chip
  • SATA-II RAID controller based on the Silicon Image Sil3132CNU chip (PCIEx1 interface), supporting two SATA300 devices that can form RAID 0 and 1
  • FireWire, based on the TI TSB43AB22A chip, supporting two ports.

The integrated audio quality was tested in 16bit, 44 kHz using the RightMark Audio Analyzer 5.5 test application and the Terratec DMX 6fire sound card:

Frequency response (from 40 Hz to 15 kHz), dB:
+0,19, -0,81
Good
Noise level, dB (A):
-75,9
Average
Dynamic range, dB (A):
76.8
Average
THD, %:
0.032
Good
Intermodulation distortion + Noise, %:
0.058
Good
Channel crosstalk, dB:
-78,3
Very good
IMD at 10 kHz, %:
0.190
Average

General performance: Good (Details).

Proprietary technologies and peculiarities

  • Top-Hat Flash — emergency restoration of damaged BIOS from a special flash chip (with a backup copy of BIOS), which is installed on top of the main chip on the motherboard
  • An additional fan to cool the voltage regulator that drives the hot air out of a PC case
  • Northbridge of the chipset is placed on a daughter board to be installed into a record-breakingly long slot.

Settings

Jumpers and switches Clear CMOS jumper  
BIOS is based on Award WorkstationBIOS v6.00PG Allows to disable specific CPU functions + K8 Cool’n’Quiet
Memory timings + 1T/2T Memory Timing, CAS Latency, Min RAS Active Time, RAS to CAS Delay, Row Precharge Time
Memory frequency selection + 100, 133, 166, 200 (you actually specify a multiplier to the HTT frequency)
HT bus setup + frequency (x1—x5 multiplier) for the northbridge-CPU bus and separate frequency settings for both data transfer directions along the northbridge-southbridge bus, as well as capacity (8 or 16 bit for the northbridge-CPU bus and 4, 8 or 16 bit for the northbridge-southbridge bus)
Peripheral bus frequency control -  
PCI IRQ manual assignment -  
FSB frequency setup + 200—400 MHz at 0.5 MHz steps
CPU multiplier + from x4, at half steps
CPU core voltage control + +0.025—0.375 V at 0.025 V steps
Memory voltage control + 2.55—3.11 V at 0.08 V steps

We used BIOS 1.0b dated 19.12.05, the latest available BIOS version at the time of our tests. The mentioned BIOS parameters are available in this version, but the viability of non-standard settings hasn't been tested. The motherboard cannot boast of abundant overclocking options (especially compared to competing models from ASUS and MSI on this chipset). We have no other gripes with it, the motherboard correctly detects memory timings (by SPD), including the 1T/2T setting.

Performance

Testbed configuration:

  • CPU: AMD Athlon 64 4000+
  • Memory: 2 x 512 MB Corsair XMS3200 TwinX (DDR400, 2-2-2-5)
  • Video card: ATI Radeon X800 XT, 256 MB DDR
  • HDD: Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (SATA, 7200 rpm)
  • Power supply unit: Chieftec GPS-400AA
  • OS: Windows XP SP2

We compared our model under review with the ASUS A8N32-SLI Deluxe motherboard, as a leader in performance tests (viz. a usual model without performance drops) among nForce4 SLI X16-based motherboards reviewed in our testlab.

Test ECS KN2 SLI Extreme ASUS A8N32-SLI Deluxe
Archiving with 7-Zip, min:sec 7:31 7:32
MPEG4 (XviD) encoding, min:sec 5:03 5:06
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Low@640x480), fps 67.6 67.6
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 61.7 61.5
Doom3 (Low@640x480), fps 117.0 116.9
Doom3 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 58.8 58.5

Conclusions are obvious: the ECS KN2 SLI Extreme motherboard demonstrates the same performance level as the other models — close to the maximum level for this configuration (processor/memory/video card).

Conclusions

Drawing a bottom line, we should say that the decision of ECS engineers to bring one of the chipset bridges into an expansion card is little different from a functional point of view (to be more exact, no different) from the traditional solution, when both chips are installed on a motherboard. We vaguely feared that motherboard performance would drop due to a complicated data path (composite design), but fortunately our fears proved wrong. On the other hand, customers gain nothing from this solution either. Cluttering a PC case with another card is hardly welcome, as it interferes with the common ventilation scheme. Besides, it looks so-so. Considering that this BIOS version does not shine in overclocking options as well as in brand features, we hope that ECS marketing specialists will use the most natural trump card for its promotion — a much more attractive price versus its closest competitors. And of course we expect ECS to carry on with its new trend and launch a motherboard with a processor socket on a separate card in a 5-inch bay (for upgrade convenience?) next year. No less!

This model on the manufacturer's web site (Russian mirror)

The motherboard is kindly provided by the manufacturer





Dmitry Vladimirovich (lpt@ixbt.com)
May 10, 2006


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