06/09/2011 | 11:24 AM
When it comes to mainboards from Elitegroup Computer Systems (ECS), the first thing that comes to mind is a small mainboard, usually in microATX format, often with integrated graphics – a typical office or budget PC platform. In fact, these associations are correct, but not quite complete. It is true, this company achieved tremendous success particularly in the simple and inexpensive mainboard segment, however, they have been producing “Black” series products for several years now, which are loaded just as much as same-class solutions from other manufacturers. Today we are going to talk about two mainboards from this series – ECS P67H2-A and ECS P67H2-A2. These are the top products in Elitegroup’s Intel P67 Express based lineup, which belong to the Black series.
ECS P67H2-A ships in a pretty large box with a carry-handle. You can open the flip-cover in the front and see the mainboard inside through a clear plastic window:
The back of the box is covered in numerous logos for the Elitegroup’s tools and supported technologies. There is also a photo of the mainboard and a brief description of its selected features.
The box is a little oversized because the mainboard inside sits in a protective casing made of clear plastic, and all accessories are carefully packed into a separate box:
We have already seen Asus and MSI mainboards bundled with an additional bracket for the internal USB 3.0 connector that adds to more USB 3.0 ports to the system back panel. We are going to see Asus and Gigabyte mainboards that offer an even more useful accessory – a front-panel bracket for the 3-inch system case bay with two USB 3.0 ports. However, Elitegroup’s approach to this matter seems to be the most universal and convenient for the user. The bracket included among the mainboard accessories is designed to deliver two USB 3.0 ports to the front of the system case. But it is also accompanied with an additional panel and a set of screws, which can help move these ports to the back panel, if necessary.
We should also explain what the USB set of brackets looks like. You may have seen that some contemporary mainboards or graphics accelerators have special brackets protecting them against damage and dust. “Connector Cap” is the same bracket for the USB ports. It is a small, but very neat accessory, which will come in very handy if some of the external USB ports are rarely used.
Now that all the introductory words have been said, we can finally take a real close look at ECS P67H2-A mainboard. The only problem that caught our eye right away was the reversed company name on the heatsink. Other than that, it is an impeccably designed mainboard with an extended features set.
At first, let’s check out the powerful processor voltage regulator circuitry that consists of 12 phases. The heating components are covered with a pair of heatsinks, which are connected via heatpipes into a single cooling system with the third heatsink in the center of the PCB. This heatsink hides the mainboard’s major distinguishing feature – HydraLogix 200 chip. It allows combining graphics cards from different makers and at the same time serves as a hub that enables two graphics card slots to work at their maximum speed. The mainboard is equipped with three graphics card slots: the first two can work at full PCI Express 2.0 x16 speed, while with the third graphics card installed their speed changes to x16/x8/x8. All three heatsinks are fastened using reliable screw-on retention, while the fourth heatsink on the chipset is installed using conventional plastic push-pins.
We can’t help pointing out a few other remarkable peculiarities of ECS P67H2-A mainboard that stress its high-end status. For example, we see a set of contact spots for manual voltage control slightly above the memory DIMM slots. A little to the left you can notice a row of multi-color LEDs, which should indicate the number of active phases in the processor voltage regulator circuitry. The POST-code indicator can also display temperature, besides performing its primary function. One of the onboard USB 2.0 pin-headers is of gray color, which indicates that it serves to charge mobile devices, including the ones from Apple. ECS EZ Charger technology allows it to generate three times more current than the regular USB 2.0 ports. There are Power On and Reset buttons, and the button for clearing the BIOS settings is conveniently moved to the back panel.
Here is the list of ports and connectors on the ECS P67H2-A back panel:
In conclusion we would like to say that all pins inside the processor socket and memory DIMM slots are covered with a 15 micron gold layer. Looks like we mentioned all important features and peculiarities of the ECS P67H2-A mainboard and it is time to bring up one issue that we uncovered. Three fan connectors will be sufficient for a small microATX platform, but is definitely not enough for a full-size flagship product, as they position ECS P67H2-A.
The box with ECS P67H2-A2 is much smaller. In fact, it is closer to standard size, but also has a carry-handle and similar design.
There is a photo of the mainboard on the back of the box with a brief description of a few distinguishing features as well as numerous logotypes:
The accessories bundle is even a little richer than in the previous case. The only difference is the number of SATA cables (eight instead of six) and the availability of a flexible SLI bridge for dual-card graphics configurations.
Here is the complete list of bundled accessories for your reference:
Despite very similar model names, ECS P67H2-A2 mainboard is not a simplified modification of the ECS P67H2-A. It is an independent product with its own unique design, which in some aspects is even superior to the flagship solution discussed before. At the same time, we can easily notice a few similarities, which isn’t surprising, since both these mainboards are made by Elitegroup.
The processor voltage regulator circuitry now consists of eight phases. The heat dissipating components of the voltage regulator are cooled with a pair of heatsinks connected via two heatpipes. Two PCI Express 2.0 x16 graphics card slots work typically for an Intel P67 Express based product: one card works at the full interface speed, while in a dual-card configuration the slots work at half the speed. You can build ATI CrossFIre as well as Nvidia SLI graphics configurations. The Power On, Reset and Clear CMOS (on the back panel) buttons are there, as well as the POST-code indicator that can also display temperature after the system has successfully booted. There is a special USB 2.0 connector for charging mobile devices. There are four fan connectors. They also added a second Marvell 88SE9128 controller, so the first one still provides support for two eSATA 6 Gbps ports on the back panel, while the second one is used to implement two internal SATA ports. This is probably the reason for having more SATA cables among the bundled accessories: the board has more ports, so it needs more cables.
The mainboard has two USB 3.0 ports on the back panel and one onboard pin-header that delivers two more USB 3.0 ports. It is pretty interesting that instead of the Renesas (NEC) D720200F1 controllers that have become traditional almost for all contemporary mainboards they used two EtronTech EJ168A controllers, which we haven’t yet seen before. EtronTech chips take up much more space than Renesas ones, while the performance seems to be identical. At least it is the case for our external Buffalo DriveStation HD-HX1.0TU3 drive, which we use as part of our testbed.
Here is the complete list of back panel ports and connectors on our ECS P67H2-A2 mainboard:
For your convenience we summed up the technical specifications of both reviewed mainboards side by side in the following table:
Both mainboards use BIOS based on AMI microcode and have almost identical functionality, except for a few minor differences, which we are going to point out below. The use of new graphics interface is the most noticeable, though not the only modification that was introduced in the latest BIOS version from April 8, 2011 available at the time of tests. Previously, the start-up section called “
Now this section has become somewhat dark and even frightening:
The mainboards’ “Advanced” sections have a few differences. For example, ECS P67H2-A2 mainboard has two additional Marvell 88SE9128 drive controllers, so you can select their operational mode in this section. Despite a few differences all sections look the same on both mainboards.
Here we should first check out the “PC Health Status” section.
I have to admit that I couldn’t find the separate page with fan control options right away.
ECS P67H2-A mainboard can manage only two fans out of three. Both these fan connectors are four-pin ones, so you won’t be able to adjust the rotation speed of the three-pin fans. ECS P67H2-A2 can manage three fans, including three-pin case fans.
Another page in the “Advanced” section worth checking out is called “CPU Configuration”. Here we can get basic data about the system CPU and configure some processor technologies.
The next section on the list is “Chipset”. Here you can select the initialization order for the graphics adapters and configure your audio settings.
The section with most overclocking-related settings is called “M.I.B. III” (Motherboard Intelligent BIOS) on ECS P67H2-A2 and “M.I.B X” on the top ECS P67H2-A model. We didn’t find any other differences here.
We can adjust the voltages in the main section screen. It is very convenient that you can see the current as well as desired values right here at the bottom of the same window. Both mainboards allow setting memory voltage below 1.5 V, which means they support low-voltage DDR3 DIMMs, but as for the CPU core voltage, you can only increase it. The multipliers and frequencies can be adjusted in separate sub-sections and unfortunately, it isn’t implemented that conveniently. For example, we have to go to “Integrated Clock Chip Configuration” page to change the base clock speed:
It won’t look like the screenshot above right away, though. At first, you need to enable frequency adjustment by changing the “ICC Enable” parameter. Now you go to “ICC Overclocking” page, but at this point you are still far from the destination, and it is very unclear, which of the six sub-sections is the one we need.
We check each of them one after another trying to find the right ones that will allow us to change the base clock frequency.
It is simply awesome that we don’t have to change the base clock when using a CPU with an unlocked clock frequency multiplier, because you won’t need to do all this. It is much quicker and easier to change the processor clock multiplier: you just need to make one extra move instead of half a dozen. Go to the “Performance Tuning” sub-section and select “CPU Configuration” page (do not confuse it with the one in the “Advanced” section, though), and you can change the processor clock frequency multiplier.
If you go to the “Chipset Configuration” page in the same “Performance Tuning” sub-section, you will get access to memory frequency and timings settings. The boards only allow adjusting basic memory timings. And don’t forget that the Command Rate parameter can only be changed in the main page of “M.I.B” section.
Luckily, the tricky functionality of the “M.I.B.” section ends here and we continue to “Boot” section, which is perfectly fine.
We don’t have any comments about the “Security” section, too.
The interesting thing about “Save & Exit” section is that it allows us to save only one BIOS settings profile and load it quickly, when needed.
I doubt anyone would argue that the BIOS of Elitegroup mainboards is quite usable, although not the easiest to work with. And it is not only because you may need to go over quite a few sections and open quite a few pages in order to change all the desired parameters. Even the color scheme of the interface is very difficult to work with. Which one of you could tell on the spot which of the screenshots shows exiting without saving and which has setting saving selected? I personally couldn’t do it right away: I have to focus every time and look carefully to figure out which option is selected.
Moreover, after completing the tests of both mainboards, when we were taking screenshots, we suddenly discovered that the mouse is supported in the BIOS. On the very last screenshot in the lower right corner you can see the cursor if you look really closely. The only reason why you can see it at all is because I left it against a slightly lighter background, and even though it is barely noticeable, you can still see it. The problem is that the slightly lighter background is in the lower right corner of the screen behind all the hints and info messages, where there is nothing adjustable. And in the left part of the screen where all adjustable settings are located, the background is very dark. It is much harder to find a black cursor against dark background than a black cat in a dark room, because the cat can at least make some noise. The mouse support in the BIOS is actually mostly formal, but we would rather have none altogether, because the current implementation of a black cursor against dark background is more of a mockery rather than a useful feature.
There also are a few issues with the company’s proprietary brand name software. In fact, the only utility that we had no problems with was eBLU (BIOS Live Update), which is used to search for new BIOS versions and reflash them.
The need for the next program called eDLU (Driver Live Update) is actually quite doubtful, because it simply opens the Elitegroup web-site page with the drivers for the current mainboard model in the new browser window. You have to select, download and install the drivers on your own.
ECS P67H2-A mainboard has a row of multi-color LEDs that should indicate the number of active phases in the processor voltage regulator circuitry. However, all of them were lit up at all times, blinking a little occasionally. We didn’t find any controls for this option in the BIOS, so we assumed that the eSG (Easy Green Saver) utility will provide them.
However, we didn’t notice any differences between the “Auto” and “
eSF (ECS Smart Fan Utility) program also turned out a bit of a disappointment, because it was capable only of adjusting the processor fan parameters, while the BIOS also allowed configuring the case fans.
eOC (Easy Over Clock Utility) left the least positive impression, because its latest version downloaded from Elitegroup web-site simply refused to install.
However, the CD disk that was included with the mainboard had a last year’s version 2.0.112 that agreed to work.
Unfortunately, this program is practically useless for LGA1155 processors overclocking, because it can only change the base clock and voltages, but cannot adjust the processor clock frequency multiplier.
Elitegroup mainboards have an alternative Linux-based OS called ECS eJIFFY. If you want to use it, you have to install it and enable it in the BIOS. In this case you will always get a window on start-up, where you will be offered to load the regular operating system (it will load in 10 seconds by default), enter the BIOS or load eJIFFY.
However, all our attempts to load eJIFFY stopped at the text or logo stage, but most often they ended with a black screen and a blinking cursor in the upper left corner. Recalling our previous experience with ECS software instead of the new OS version 2.5.79 downloaded from the company web-site we installed an older 2.0.35 version from the bundled CD disk. It turned out that all eJIFFY can offer is the browser, photo viewer and an instant messenger.
We ran all the benchmarks on a testbed made of the following components:
We used Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate SP1 64 bit (Microsoft Windows, Version 6.1, Build 7601: Service Pack 1) operating system, Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility version 188.8.131.525, Nvidia GeForce/ION Driver 266.58 graphics card driver.
Both Elitegroup mainboards discussed in this review didn’t cause any serious problems in nominal mode. The only thing I would want to bring up one more time is the fact that we didn’t see working dynamic adjustment of the active phases in the CPU voltage regulator circuitry on ECS P67H2-A. However, overclocking on this mainboard was quite fruitful and we managed to push our processor to 4.8 GHz frequency – the same as on most other mainboards we tested so far.
At the same time all processor power-saving technologies stayed up and running, lowering the processor clock frequency multiplier as well as core voltage in idle mode.
However, ECS P67H2-A2 failed to maintain stability at 4.8 GHz CPU clock rate, sow e had to stop at 4.7 GHz.
But even in this case all processor power-saving technologies remained intact.
Speaking of memory, we have to say that like on majority of other manufacturers’ boards, it worked at 1600 MHz with 6-6-6-18-1T timings on both Elitegroup mainboards. However, the boards took different ways to get to this point. For a while we believed that ECS P67H2-A mainboard would be able to repeat the achievement of MSI P67A-GD80 (B3) mainboard and get the memory to work at 1867 MHz. For example, it successfully passed a one-and-a-half hour test in Prime95. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that in this mode it is unable to run SuperPi test even for as little as three minutes, so we had to lower the memory clock. As for ECS P67H2-A2 mainboard, it started reporting errors at 1867 MHz memory clock right after we started the tests, so we were forced to drop the memory clock down to 1600 MHz.
Here we should also mention an error we uncovered in the mainboards BIOS. It turned out that if you modified the base clock, memory frequency or memory timings in any way, you would have to bring them back to default values manually: booting the system with all defaults didn’t affect these parameters in any way.
As usual, we are going to compare the mainboards speeds in two different modes: in nominal mode and during CPU and memory overclocking. The first mode is interesting because it shows how well the mainboards work with their default settings. It is a known fact that most users do not fine-tune their systems, they simply choose the optimal BIOS settings and do nothing else. That is why we run a round of tests almost without interfering in any way with the default mainboard settings. For comparison purposes we are going to also include the results from our reviews of Asus Sabertooth P67, Foxconn P67A-S, Gigabyte GA-P67A-UD4-B3, Intel DP67BG and MSI P67A-GD80 (B3). The results are sorted out in descending order with the numbers for ECS P67H2-A2 marked with darker color and the numbers for ECS P67H2-A with the darkest color on the diagrams.
We used Cinebench 11.5. All tests were run five times and the average result of the five runs was taken for the performance charts.
We have been using Fritz Chess Benchmark utility for a long time already and it proved very illustrative. It generated repeated results, the performance in it is scales perfectly depending on the number of involved computational threads.
A small video in x264 HD Benchmark 3.0 is encoded in two passes and then the entire process is repeated four times. The average results of the second pass are displayed on the following diagram:
We measured the performance in Adobe Photoshop using our own benchmark made from Retouch Artists Photoshop Speed Test that has been creatively modified. It includes typical editing of four 10-megapixel images from a digital photo camera.
In the archiving test a 1 GB file is compressed using LZMA2 algorithms, while other compression settings remain at defaults.
Like in the data compression test, the faster 16 million of Pi digits are calculated, the better. This is the only benchmark where the number of processor cores doesn’t really matter, because it creates single-threaded load.
There are good and bad things about complex performance tests. However, Futuremark benchmarking software has become extremely popular and is used for comparisons a lot. The diagram below shows the average results after three test-runs in 3DMark11 Performance mode with default settings:
Since we do not overclock graphics in our mainboard reviews, the next diagram shows only CPU tests from the 3DMark11 – Physics Score.
We use FC2 Benchmark Tool to go over Ranch Small map ten times in 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings in DirectX 10.
Resident Evil 5 game also has a built-in performance test. Its peculiarity is that it can really take advantage of multi-core processor architecture. The tests were run in DirectX 10 in 1920x1080 resolution with high image quality settings. The average of five test runs was taken for further analysis:
As we have expected, there is hardly any difference in performance between the boards. All mainboards work at about the same speed and both Elitegroup mainboards are just as fast as the others. There is only one significant difference: ECS P67H2-A for some reason turned out slower than the other testing participants in those tests where the influence of the graphics card is significant.
And now let’s run the same exact tests in overclocked mode, when both - processor and memory – work at higher frequencies. Remember, that ECS P67H2-A2 and Gigabyte GA-P67A-UD4-B3 overclocked our processor only to 4.7 GHz, on Foxconn P67A-S we forced overclocking without the increase in the processor Vcore, so we had to stop at 4.5 GHz, while on other mainboards the CPU frequency was increased to 4.8 GHz. The system memory worked at 1600 MHz with 6-6-6-18-1T timings on all testing participants except Micro-Star P67A-GD80 (B3). Here the memory frequency was increased to 1867 MHz and the timings were set at 7-7-7-20-1T. The table below shows the differences in system settings for each testing participant very clearly:
This time the results of ECS P67H2-A2 should be compared against those of Gigabyte P67A-UD4-B3, because both these mainboards worked in very similar conditions and overclocked the processor to 4.7 GHz. Elitegroup mainboard performs very well, running almost as fast as Gigabyte board. Moreover, both these mainboards are just a tiny bit behind the other participants which managed to push the CPU clock to 4.8 GHz. ECS P67H2-A is among them, too, and its speed is the same as that of others except for the 3DMark 11 and games. Just like in the nominal mode, the performance in VGA-dependent tests is so low, that ECS P67H2-A loses not only to the products in its group, but also to all other mainboards including Foxconn, where the CPU overclocked only to 4.5 GHz. So, it turns out that Lucid Hydra chip can do not only good. As a result, it won’t be optimal to use a single graphics accelerator on mainboards like that, because of the overall slowing down. Frankly, the performance difference is not too dramatic, and doesn’t exceed 3%, but it is obviously visible and undeniable.
We performed our power consumption measurements using an Extech Power Analyzer 380803. This device is connected before the PSU and measures the power draw of the entire system (without the monitor), including the power loss that occurs in the PSU itself. In the idle mode we start the system up and wait until it stops accessing the hard disk. Then we use LinX to load the CPU. For a more illustrative picture there are graphs that show how the computer power consumption grows up depending on the number of active execution threads in LinX. The mainboards on the diagrams are sorted out in alphabetical order.
Of course, we were ready that ECS P67H2-A mainboard would be the most power-hungry because of the additional Lucid Hydra controller. However, once you compare the results of both Elitegroup mainboards, you will see that this chip doesn’t contribute too much to the total system power consumption. It consumes only 6 watts of power, which means that it is not as power-hungry as Nvidia NF200, for example. However, both Elitegroup mainboards still turned out the least energy-efficient in all test modes and under all types of load. So, it would be unfair to blame the additional controller for this failure: it is installed only on one mainboard, but both of them are very uneconomical. Looks like there could be some issues with the processor voltage regulator circuitries on Elitegroup mainboards.
The results obtained during overclocking only once again back up the results in the nominal mode. ECS P67H2-A mainboard is again the least energy-efficient board of all testing participants leaving behind even the solution from MSI, which power-saving technologies do not work during overclocking. However, ECS P67H2-A2 also doesn’t look too good. It allowed overclocking the CPU to 4.7 GHz, the core voltage didn’t rise as greatly as it would when we overclock to 4.8 GHz on many other mainboards. However, this mainboard consumes more power than Gigabyte board working in the same conditions and even more than some other mainboards that could overclock the processor to the maximum, such as Intel, for instance. Unfortunately, energy-efficiency is not one of Elitegroup’s strengths.
I have to say that ECS P67H2-A and ECS P67H2-A2 mainboards look practically impeccable only in terms of exterior design and theoretical functionality. Among the minor drawbacks we only pointed out too few fan connectors, which is not a critical problem. However, the longer you work with a mainboard, the more issues you may uncover. Inconvenient BIOS with serious errors, not very useful or even completely non-operational software, increased power consumption of both mainboards… They took great care of users by providing additional connector brackets or USB 3.0 panel, but at the same time acted with great neglect by making the black cursor in the BIOS completely invisible against the dark background. Elutegroup’s traditionally low price could help these boards compete more or less successfully against the rivals, but the difference this time didn’t turn out as convincing as we had expected. Of course, with a price tag around $300 ECS P67H2-A looks quite competitive against a 400-dollar MSI Big Bang-Marshal (B3), but the direct comparison is hardly proper in this case, since these boards are way too different even though both have the same Lucid Hydra controller onboard. Besides, this super-high price point implies very limited user demand right from the start. As for ECS P67H2-A2, the situation here is even worse, because there are a lot of very appealing solutions from other makers in the $200 price range. On the spot I could list the following possible competitors: Asus P8P67 EVO, Asus P8P67 Pro, more exotic Sapphire Pure Black P67 or cheaper Gigabyte GA-P67A-UD4-B3 and MSI P67A-GD65 (B3). As a result, the success of ECS P67H2-A and P67H2-A2 mainboards may be quite a challenge, although e sincerely wish Elitegroup not to stop at this point and keep up the good work in developing their very promising Black mainboard series.