05/25/2007 | 12:25 PM
We all know that the largest manufacturer of graphics solutions, Nvidia Company, doesn’t just launch new graphics chips into the market and let them float there freely, they do not leave the future of their solutions in the graphics card makers’ hands. The company is paying more and more attention to the life of their offsprings and has been working very actively together with the end product manufacturers. We all have seen a lot of graphics cards on Nvidia solutions that use reference PCB design without any modifications.
Since the launch of nForce 680i SLI chipset in the end of last year Nvidia started actively promoting the same work model with the mainboard makers, too. Only a few selected companies, such as EVGA, BFG, XFX, ECS and Biostar got the right to sell reference mainboards under their trade mark. And although they claim that Nvidia will not be selling any mainboards under their own brand name, the company is expected to continue selling reference mainboards. Note that Elitegroup Computer Systems (ECS) is also on this short list of trusted companies.
Since the nForce 650i SLI chipset is a less expensive and more mainstream solution, they didn’t really sell any reference mainboards based on it, but Elitegroup managed to get on the list of selected manufacturers who were allowed to develop their own mainboard designs. Moreover, this company is known to be the member of the “big five” – the world’s largest mainboard makers including also Asustek, Foxconn, Gigabyte and MSI. Of course, we very well know that Elitegroup has never been very overclocking-friendly: overclockers’ interests have never been the inspiration for their product designs. The Elitegroup products mostly attract customers’ attention with their low price-point. However, considering everything we have just pointed out we hope that ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard on nForce 650i SLI chipset may change this situation for the better.
Let’s see if our hopes turn out justified.
ECS NF650iSLIT-A is shipped in a small narrow box:
The reverse side of the package contains a brief list of major technical specification of this solution in several languages, and the photo of the mainboard inside illustrates all the things listed:
The box is not a thick one because the board boasts a truly Spartan accessories set. Among the things you will get with the mainboard from ECS are the following items:
Of course, rich accessories bundle is always a plus. However, not very numerous accessories are not always a bad thing, especially if they can reduce the price of the end product. When you buy your first mainboard, you read everything that’s written on the box, check out all the pictures, feel very pleased with every small accessory that the manufacturer has included “for free”. However, when you replace the mainboard, you don’t have to replace the FDD or HDD cables with it, so why would I want to pay for things that I don’t actually need over and over again? Even considering the tiny effect these cables and brackets have on the end price of the mainboard, I simply may not want to carry all that stuff home. I already have so many FDD and IDE cables that I could easily cover my entire office floor with them. And even though SATA cables are a relatively new thing, in the beginning all manufacturers included 4-8 cables with their mainboards, so now I can decorate a few tall Christmas trees. So, I am absolutely not upset that there was no FDD cable with my ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard.
It would be totally incorrect to say “if you saw one Elitegroup mainboard, you saw them all”, but there are still some distinguishing features typical of the solutions by this manufacturer:
Let’s start our discussion with the four-phase processor voltage regulator circuitry that uses solid-state capacitors – more advanced components than their giant predecessors that you can see in the background. The mainboard was manufactured with capacitors from different manufacturers: green ones from Sanyo, black ones from G-Luxon, brown ones from some unknown maker.
The mainboard features a four-pin ATX12V power supply connector instead of an eight-pin one, which we would consider a drawback for a mainboard that supports all LGA775 processors, including quad-core ones.
In case of a dual graphics card configuration you should use the connector close-by for additional power supply, however, the SLI implementation on this board is not that flawless altogether. Firstly, PCI Express x16 slots are located unusually close to one another that may prevent you from using large graphics card coolers and hinder cooling of dual-slot systems entirely. Moreover, there is no PCIE Lane Converter card typical of other Nvidia nForce 650i SLI based mainboards. The chipset features limited number of available PCI Express lanes compared with the nForce 680i SLI, and the converter card serves to switch between the operational modes of the PCI-E x16 slots. If there is only one graphics card in the system, the first slot works at its full speed of 16x (and the second one gets disabled). However, if there are twp graphics cards in SLI mode, then you use the converter card to set them both to work at 8x speed. Since there is no converter card at all, even a single graphics card on ECS NF650iSLIT-A will always work at 8x speed.
The funny thing is that this peculiarity, or drawback to be more exact, of ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard is listed on the reverse side of the package among other mainboard features, such as 8-channel sound and Gigabit network. This peculiarity even has a name of its own: PCI Express Lite. This name gave me an immediate positive association with light cigarettes containing less nicotine, low-fat butter, alcohol-free beer, diet foods… It is an excellent marketing move: “Are you still using heavy full-speed PCI Express x16? Why don’t you try our fast and easy PCI Express Lite!” :) However, we will discuss the performance and actual speed measurements later on in this article, and now let’s continue our investigation of ECS NF650iSLIT-A features.
One of the typical features of Elitegroup mainboards is the shape of the chipset cooler installed on the North Bridge. These coolers used to be quite of a nuisance because of their noisy operation on nForce based mainboards. This time, either the chipset cooler fan worked quieter, or the Zalman CNPS-9700LED CPU cooler was too, loud, but we couldn’t complain about the noise from the chipset cooler any more. Unfortunately, the fan rotation speed can not be adjusted depending on the conditions despite the three-pin connector on this fan.
Since we came to speak about cooling, we have to mention that ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard features four fan connectors. It is a good improvement for Elitegroup products.
The chipset South Bridge is cooled with a small aluminum heatsink. It doesn’t have any ribs but very short pins, more like bumps, I would say:
The location of IDE connectors is not the best one. Besides here is another distinguishing feature of all Elitegroup mainboards – black front panel connector set. The pins are not color coded and there is no marking on the mainboard textolite next to the connectors indicating their purpose.
We have recently started paying special attention to the reverse side of the mainboards’ PCB right beneath the processor socket. We discovered that sometimes the mainboard makers use simpler way of fastening the LGA775 socket, when the retention goes all the way through the PCB. In this case there are numerous pins and contact surfaces on the reverse side that may get closed if you are using a metal backplate for the processor cooler. This way the whole system may get out of order. Elitegroup ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard is free from this drawback. However, it has something else instead: large electronic components beneath the processor socket that will not allow you to install some of the cooler backplates at all.
As for the mainboard connector panel, it looks very decent:
The keyboard and mouse connectors, four USB ports, RJ45 network connector – these are the standard features already. It is very nice to see optical and coaxial SPDIF connectors besides the six audio-jacks, and a COM-port is a definite advantage, as well. The absence of a Parallel printer port as well as the pin layout for this port on the mainboard PCB may be considered a drawback, but obviously a very insignificant one.
The complete list of technical specifications of the ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard looks pretty standard for an Nvidia nForce 650i SLI based solution. Only the limited operation mode for a single graphics cards stands out here:
Before we started working on the BIOS Setup peculiarities, we made sure that the board features the latest BIOS version at the time of testing – version 1.0i. Unfortunately, the board doesn’t boast any integrated BIOS reflashing tools so we had to use WinFlash utility to update the BIOS from Windows. The new BIOS version supports Intel Pentium E2160 and Conroe-L 4x0 processors, Intel Core 2 Duo E6420 CPU and EIST Technology for Pentium D 930 CPUs. Although, the last two features should have already been implemented in the previous BIOS version. I wonder why they didn’t work…
The BIOS of ECS NF650iSLIT-A is based on Phoenix-Award code. There is no special section for all overclocker-friendly functions, so it took me a while to find them.
The Advanced BIOS page contained CPU Feature section, but there were no options I was looking for there.
Advanced Chipset Features page had a very promising section called System Clocks, but it only allowed increasing the PCI Express bus frequency and reducing the processor clock frequency multiplier.
Even we I got on the FSB & Memory Config page, I didn’t understand right away that it was the section I was looking for.
It turned out that if you set FSB – Memory Clock Mode to Linked or Unliked, then you get access to processor and memory frequencies.
Processor bus frequency is measured in quad-values and can vary from 400MHz to 2500MHz, which actually means from 100 to 625MHz in traditional values. The frequency setting in Linked mode depends on several dividers, in the Unlinked mode – you can set it to any value between 400 and 1400MHz.
The FSB & Memory Config page contains a link to the section with memory timing settings.
Nvidia nForce 650i SLI chipset differs positively from the popular Intel P965 Express not only by the asynchronous memory frequency setting, but also by the ability to support 1T Command Rate setting. Unfortunately, ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard has 2T set by default for this parameter and even if you manually set it to 1T, nothing will change: according to different utilities we used, the mainboard still works at 2T Command Rate, no matter what you set in the BIOS.
Advanced Chipset Features page gives you access to System Voltages where you can adjust the voltage settings.
I was surprised that this board allows to adjust the processor Vcore between 0.85V and 1.6V with extremely fine increment of 0.00625V. The CPU FSB voltage that is not that important during overclocking, can be set to 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4V. As for the chipset voltage adjustment, it is extremely useful for successful overclocking and on ECS NF650iSLIT-A, you can adjust the voltage of nForce SPP between 1.2 and 1.5V with 0.05V increment. As for the Vmem, you can only raise it to 1.95V with 0.05V increments. The voltage increase by only 0.15V is too low for good overclocking results. I am afraid that we will not be able to push the memory frequencies that far because of that and hence may lose one of the few advantages Nvidia nForce 650i SLI has over Intel P965 Express.
Now we only have to check out the PC Health Status page:
ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard can control system and processor temperature, processor and memory voltage and rotation speeds of two fans out of four that can be connected to it. if the processor cooler fan connector has four pins, its rotation speed can be set in dependence with the CPU temperature.
We were also pretty interested in the Load Performance Defaults parameter. The previous Elitegroup mainboards we reviewed would do different sophisticated tricks if this parameter was enabled. They would, for instance, reduce the processor clock frequency multiplier and at the same time slightly increase the FSB frequency, so that the end processor frequency could be close to the nominal. This time I couldn’t figure out how Load Performance Defaults parameter actually works, because the mainboard simply wouldn’t boot.
To test the overclocking potential of our today’s hero, ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard, we assembled the following open test stand:
Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 processor we used in our test session could work stably at 490MHz FSB. Unfortunately, even when the FSB frequency was set at not very high 400MHz mark, ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard refused to boot. In the process we revealed one more inconvenience with this board; it doesn’t know to restart with default settings in case of over-overclocking. So, we have to use the Clear CMOS jumper and reset all the BIOS Setup parameters anew. The maximum FSB frequency when the mainboard remained stable and reliable during our test session was 375MHz.
There is an opinion that successful overclocking of Core 2 Duo processors is determined by the board’s ability to work stably at 400MHz FSB, not more than that. It is true, if you get beyond this frequency level, high latencies may eat up the performance gain from successful overclocking. As for the CPUs, you can always go with the most economical solution - an Intel Core 2 Duo E4300. Their relatively high clock frequency multiplier of 9x will allow maximum overclocking in most cases without ever going beyond 400MHz FAB. More demanding overclocking fans may go with Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 with the same high clock frequency multiplier. The price for these processors has dropped to $250, which makes them very affordable these days. Unfortunately, ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard will not be powerful enough if you decide to go with any other Intel Core 2 Duo processors between E4300 and E6600, including the new and very interesting E6320 and E6420 models.
Considering the ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard didn’t do very well during CPU overclocking, didn’t show very good results during memory overclocking because of not very high maximum Vmem of only 1.95V and couldn’t really work at 1T Command Rate, it has very high chances of failing the comparison with any other mainboard. So, we decided not to perform any performance tests for that reason. There is only one question left that needs to be answered: how the graphics card working at half the nominal speed, as PCI Express x8, affects the performance of ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard?
To answer this question we took abit Fatal1ty FP-IN9 SLI. Since both mainboards are based on the same chipset we could emulate identical working conditions: overclocked the CPU to 375MHz FSB, set identical timings, graphics card working frequencies, 4x full-screen anti-aliasing mode and 16x anisotropic filtering mode set in the application properties. The only difference was the PCI Express speed: the graphics card on abit mainboard worked at PCI Express x16.
Frankly speaking, I didn’t expect to see any difference. In fact, you don’t really see it in the 3DMark06 total score and Shader Model 2.0 tests. However, in Shader Model 3.0 test and in F.E.A.R. XP game the performance differences are visible.
Although we have to admit that the difference is very small and may be consumed by the measuring error delta. If we have to really look for the performance difference in special benchmarks, then in real applications the users will hardly notice anything at all. So, we can consider it an insignificant drawback altogether.
Summing up the situation doesn’t look very rosy for ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard. Here is the list of drawbacks that we revealed during our test session:
As you can notice, there is nothing tragic or fatal in this list, and the majority of mentioned drawbacks are not the significant ones, but they are too numerous to leave us pleased with the product overall.
And what about advantages? I have to admit that I had hard time finding any. Even the expected low price of the ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard wasn’t that low at all. According to the price-lists, it is selling for $130-$140, which is also the price for ASUS P5N-E SLI on the same Nvidia nForce 650i SLI chipset. And judging by the results obtained in our recent review of this product called Nvidia nForce 650i SLI Chipset and only $130: ASUS P5N-E SLI Mainboard Review, this mainboard outpaces ECS NF650iSLIT-A from all standpoints. The situation for ECS NF650iSLIT-A mainboard may only change if its price will be much lower than that of the competitors’ solutions, so that it could make up for some of the above listed drawbacks. Although overclocking fans will hardly decide on this solution anyway.