iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






ECS PF22 Extreme — a Motherboard Based on Intel 955X

January 25, 2006

  • Intel 955X chipset (i955X northbridge and ICH7R southbridge)

ECS has been keeping i955X in reserve for a long time, never launching a single model on this chipset. Indeed, it's always difficult to sell the same product for the third time, you must have weighty arguments. To all appearances, the marketing department of this company decided to use certification of this chipset for two ATI video cards in CrossFire mode as such an argument. In this connection, boxes with a previously designed model got the "CrossFire Ready" logo and these motherboards officially appeared on sale. (In fact, a sample of this motherboard appeared in our test lab long ago, but it was announced on the official web site just a tad earlier than this review was published.)

In general, the PCB layout is typical, all recent ECS models look similar. Considering the brand exterior of the Extreme-series motherboards, the resemblance becomes complete. Fortunately, the i955X chipset has no modifications with redistributed PCI Express lines "for SLI", so the first PCIEx16 slot always works in x16 mode (it's connected to the Northbridge), the second one — always in x4 mode due to PCI Express lines of the Southbridge. There is no need to fiddle with bridges, though you'll still need SLI Bridge to organize SLI, if it's necessary. Functionality of this motherboard is on the excellent level, as rich features of the i955X are supplemented with two gigabit network controllers, FireWire controller, an additional SATA-II RAID (supporting one e-SATA device). A separate mention should be made of just a single PCIEx1 slot (which will most likely be blocked by a cooling system of the main video card) — thus the motherboard follows the fashion and offers at least three available sterling PCI slots. Everything would have been fine, but for one solution — no additional IDE controller. As a result, a user is left alone with a chipset connector just for two ATA100 devices, which will hardly satisfy even the most unpretentious owner of a PATA hard disk.

The PCB layout is good: nearly everything is convenient, except for installing/removing memory modules in case of an installed video card. Both system fans on our sample worked fine during our tests. But ECS Extreme motherboards often come with fans that start howling after several days of work. The only jumper on the board (Clear CMOS) is easily accessible even when the motherboard is installed into a PC case. Brief description of its functions is published on the PCB. The 4-phase switching voltage regulator of the processor incorporates two filed-effect transistors per channel and thirteen 1800 uF capacitors. The memory voltage regulator is reinforced with L-elements. Critical circuits of the motherboard incorporate capacitors from an unidentified manufacturer. There are no unsoldered elements on this motherboard, as usually happens with Extreme-series models. Motherboard dimensions — 305x245 mm (full-size ATX), nine-screw mount, the nearest edge is "poised in the air" on the level of storage drive connectors.

System monitoring (Winbond W83627EHG, according to BIOS Setup)

  • Processor, chipset, and battery voltages, +5 and +12 V, as well as +3.3 V Standby
  • RPM of 4 fans
  • CPU and two board temperatures (by the corresponding embedded sensors)
  • CPU fan speed control (automatic or manual).

In this case the motherboard not only offers configurable SmartFan (automatic CPU fan speed control depending on a CPU temperature), but also allows direct control of the rotational speed of this CPU fan (a number of active clocks in a cycle). SmartFan control is not the most functional on the market, but the majority of products from various manufacturers don't offer even such a function. ECS allows to specify a desirable CPU temperature and a maximum deviation, which does not lead to CPU fan acceleration, as well as a rotational speed in both modes.

Onboard ports, sockets, and connectors

  • Processor socket (Socket 775, supporting all existing Pentium 4 processors (up to the 570/570J/571 and 670/671/672 models), Pentium D (up to the 840 and 950 models), Pentium 4 EE (up to 3.73 GHz), Pentium EE (840));
  • 4 slots for DDR2 SDRAM DIMM (up to 8 GB DDR2-533/667 with/without ECC supporting dual-channel mode, which requires symmetric installation of memory modules)
  • 2 x PCIEx16 slots for video accelerators (the first one always works in x16 mode, the second one — always in x4 mode)
  • PCIEx1 slot
  • 3 x PCI (a yellow slot provides improved signal quality, it's intended for expansion cards, which are oversensitive to interferences, like TV tuners and the like)
  • Power connectors: standard ATX 2.2 (24 pins; you can plug a regular 20-pin connector, but in this case you had better not use modern powerful components, like top PCIE video cards, or you will have to use the additional connector, mentioned below), 8-pin EPS12V to power up a processor and a 4-pin (peripheral) additional connector for a PSU with 20-pin connector (it's mandatory for SLI/CrossFire mode)
  • 1 x FDD
  • IDE connector (Parallel ATA) for two ATA100 devices (chipset-based;
  • 6 x SATA-II (Serial ATA II) for six SATA300 devices — 4 of them are based on the chipset; connected hard disks can form RAID 0, 1, 10(0+1), 5, and Matrix RAID; another two connectors are based on an additional Silicon Image SiI3132 controller and support RAID 0 and 1
  • 2 connectors for brackets with 4 additional USB ports
  • Connector for a bracket with an additional FireWire port
  • 1 x CD/DVD audio connector
  • Connectors for analog audio ins and outs on the front panel
  • 1 x standard IrDA connector
  • Connector for a bracket with LPT port
  • Connector for a chassis intrusion sensor
  • 4 x fan headers, one of them is a 4-pin header, the other two are occupied by rear panel and northbridge fans; all the four headers (which is not typical) offer rpm control; CPU fan header also offers advanced automatic or manual rpm control.

Interestingly, the model description on the official web site and in user's guide mentions a usual 4-pin CPU power connector (ATX12V), while our sample has a 8-pin EPS12V connector (which is usually used in server solutions and only in the most powerful desktops). At the same time, it must not pose any problems, as you can easily plug a standard 4-pin connector to the 8-pin jack. In our case, it brought no stability problems.

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-In, 1 x mini-FireWire (4-pin, no power)
  • 2 x USB and 1 x RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet)
  • 2 x USB and 1 x RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet)
  • 5 x Analog Audio (Mic-In, Line-In, Front, Center/Sub, Rear) and optical S/PDIF-OUT (TosLink).

Package Contents

  • Package: a standard box of the Extreme series in a bright jacket, the box flashes the main characteristics and features of the motherboard, all the components are not arranged into separate boxes (as before)
  • Documentation: User's Guide in English that includes motherboard specifications in several languages (including Russian)
  • Cables: 4 x SATA (with a power converter for two devices), 1 x ATA66, 1 x ATA33, and 1 x FDD cable (all are "wide" cables — proprietary black cables with a logo and pull straps at each connector)
  • Rear panel bracket with a SATA connector for e-SATA devices (with its own power line)
  • Rear panel bracket with 2 x USB and 1 x FireWire

  • A special panel for the 3.5" drive bay, which can house the above-mentioned cable with two USB connectors and a FireWire connector, if you unplug the cable from the rear panel bracket and connect it to this module
  • Rear panel bracket with an LPT port
  • A small nameplate for a PC case with the company logo
  • 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
  • Rear I/O shield
  • Two CDs with drivers and utilities for flashing BIOS, proprietary utility manager ECSonic2 (a shell for launching applications: System monitoring Overclocking Replacement of the graphics logo at startup Flash BIOS under Windows, allows to search and download the latest version from the official web site), as well as a set of free third-party utilities:
    • DPU (Data Process Utility) — to restore deleted files
    • I’m InTouch — remote administration of a computer
    • Media Ring — to make regular voice calls over Internet
    • Pro Magic Plus — to create system restoration snapshots
    • ShowShifter — a multimedia center to watch TV and to play video, images/photos, music
    • WinCinema: WinDVD (to play back DVDs and other media formats), WinDVD Creator (to create and record DVDs), and WinRip 2 (to record, store/organize music collections and play back music files)

Integrated Controllers

  • Audio, based on the HDA codec Realtek ALC880 supporting 7.1 surround sound audio with front line-in/out and S/PDIF-In/Out jacks
  • 2 x Network, based on Intel PC82573V (PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet) and Realtek RTL8110S-32 (PCI Gigabit Ethernet) chips supporting 10/100/1000 Mbit/s
  • An additional SATA-II RAID controller based on the Silicon Image SiI3132CNU chip, supporting two SATA300 devices that can form RAID 0 and 1
  • FireWire, based on the VIA VT8307 chip supporting 2 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:
+0,14, -0,17
Very good
Noise level, dB (A):
Dynamic range, dB (A):
THD, %:
Very good
Intermodulation distortion + Noise, %:
Very good
Channel crosstalk, dB:
IMD at 10 kHz, %:
Very good

General performance: Very good (details).

Proprietary technologies and peculiarities

  • Dr. LED - a chain of LEDs near expansion slots lighting one by one. According to ECS, they indicate operability of devices in expansion slots, but in fact they are nothing but irritating (as Dr. LED cannot be disabled) illumination
  • 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.


Jumpers and switches Clear CMOS jumper  
In BIOS v2.58 from AMI Allows to disable specific CPU functions + Hyper-Threading, Execute Disable Bit, Internal Thermal Control, Enhanced SpeedStep, Enhanced Halt State, F75133 Function (? — it may be a counterpart of Cool’n’Quiet, implemented with the Fintek controller of the same name; enabling this feature brings no noticeable results)
Memory timings + RAS to CAS Delay, RAS Precharge, RAS Activate to Precharge
The motherboard does not allow to set CAS Latency and this timing is impossible to modify under OS, so you should pay attention to CAS Latency in your modules' SPD!
Memory frequency selection + Auto, 533, 667 MHz
Peripheral bus frequency control -  
PCI IRQ manual assignment -  
FSB frequency setup + from nominal to 500 MHz at 1 MHz steps
CPU multiplier - it's not available for processors that do not allow users to change the multiplier
CPU core voltage control + 1.2000—1.6000 V at 0.0125 V steps
Memory voltage control + +0.1—0.45 V at 0.05 V steps
Chipset voltage control + +0.05, +0.1, +0.15 V

We used BIOS dated 14.10.05, the latest available BIOS version at the time of our tests. After we had already completed out tests, the motherboard was announced on the official web site and a new BIOS version appeared (dated 16.11.05). We found no changes (according to the description, this BIOS version should fix the problems with dual-core processors). The mentioned BIOS parameters are available in the latest version, but the viability of non-standard settings hasn't been tested.

We had typical problems (for the latest ECS motherboards on i945/955 - they seem to have the same BIOS version) with booting up with modified memory settings. For example, an attempt to manually specify available memory timings (this motherboard does not allow to set the most important parameter - CAS Latency) resulted in rebooting and resetting CMOS settings, though we tried to set both the highest and the lowest timings (which must had worked with these modules). The motherboard refused to start up with a pair of our usual Corsair XMS2-4300 modules (4300C3PRO). In case of Corsair XMS2-5400 (5400UL and 5400C4) modules it agreed to work only at 533 MHz and only with SPD timings, setting the main timings to 4-4-4 (which are indeed written in SPD of these modules, but for 667 MHz). To all appearances, memory frequencies, specified manually, as well as the Auto option were ignored. It seems that CL3 is impossible, though SPD of our XMS2-4300 modules contains 3-3-3-8.

This BIOS offers some interesting features. Among them is remote administration of a computer, connected via COM port (unfortunately, the user's guide does not reveal details about this technology). There is also Q-Boot, traditional for top ECS motherboards — it calls a menu to select a boot device without changing this parameter in BIOS Setup.


Testbed configurations:

  • CPU: Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition 3.46 GHz
  • Memory:
    • 2 x Corsair XMS2-4300 CM2X512A-4300C3PRO (DDR2-533, 3-3-3) for the Intel D955XBK motherboard
    • 2 x Corsair XMS2-5400 CM2X512-5400UL (DDR2-533, 4-4-4) for the ECS PF22 Extreme motherboard

  • Video: ATI Radeon X800 XT, 256 MB DDR
  • HDD: Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (SATA), 7200 rpm
  • AC power adapter: HiPro W460GC31
  • OS: Windows XP SP2

For your comparison we have also published results of another i955X-based motherboard (Intel D955XBK), which is one of the fastest representatives of this chipset with the latest BIOS version.

Test ECS PF22 Extreme Intel D955XBK
Archiving with 7-Zip, min:sec 7:15 6:55
MPEG4 (XviD) encoding, min:sec 5:20 5:05
Doom 3 (Low@640x480), fps 104.4 109.6
Doom 3 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 59.5 59.8
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Low@640x480), fps 70.1 69.4
Unreal Tournament 2004 (Highest@1600x1200), fps 64.0 63.6

We can see the same situation as in the i945 Roundup: all ECS motherboards on i945/955 are noticeably slow with the current BIOS version, the reasons for this phenomenon are not clear. So we do not recommend models, based on this chipset, from this manufacturer, if performance is one of your most important factors for choosing a motherboard.

Bottom line: it's a functionally interesting model with a good PCB layout for a reasonable price. Its drawbacks include an awry BIOS version, which significantly reduces performance and poses some compatibility problems, and only one IDE connector.

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

The motherboard is kindly provided by the manufacturer

Sergei Pikalov (peek@ixbt.com)
January 25, 2006.

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