ECS KA3 MVP Extreme Motherboard Review
By Gabriel Torres on June 7, 2006
KA3 MVP Extreme is a high-end socket AM2 motherboard from ECS, targeted to the new Athlon 64 CPUs supporting DDR2 memory. It is based on ATI Radeon Xpress 3200 chipset, supporting CrossFire technology, and should reach the market pretty soon. Let’s see how the performance of this latest release from ECS is.
Its design follows the same standard used on other motherboards from ECS Extreme series – which is the high-end series from this manufacturer –, using a metallic purple lacquer layer on its printed circuit board, and several different colors for the plastic components located on the motherboard, as you can see in Figure 1.
But what really catches the eye when looking to this motherboard for the first time is its active cooling duct located right above the motherboard voltage regulator. This device pulls hot air produced by the motherboard and by the CPU to outside the PC case, preventing your PC from overheating – which is simply great. Its color choice – UV-sensitive yellow – is questionable, though, and we will talk more about this on the Conclusions section.
This duct is located where on other motherboards the parallel port is. This motherboard still has a parallel port available through an I/O bracket that comes with it.
What we think is very good about this duct is its position, right on the exit of the hot air produced by the CPU, see Figure 4.
Even though this duct has a fan inside, the heatsinks used to cool down the chipset don’t have a fan on them. The passive heatsink used on top of the south bridge chip is the same used by other motherboards from ECS Extreme series: its fins make the word “extreme.”
Since Radeon Xpress 3200 supports CrossFire technology, this motherboard has two x16 PCI Express slots, each one truly running at x16 transfer rate. This motherboard has one x1 PCI Express slot and two standard PCI slots. One of these PCI slots (the yellow one, see Figure 5) is called PCI Extreme and has a better filtering circuit (it uses a better electrolytic capacitor, the silver one between the white and the yellow PCI slots in Figure 5), being recommended for the installation of audio boards or any other PCI device that needs a better filtering circuit.
As all other motherboards from Extreme series from ECS, KA3 MVP Extreme also has some high-brightness blue LEDs next to the expansion slots. These LEDs, called Doctor LED, indicate if the PCI slots are working correctly or not. The problem, in our opinion, is that the motherboard indicates that the busses are working correctly by blinking the LEDs – and they blink in a random order! So when this motherboard is working fine it looks like a nightclub!
On the storage side, this motherboard has a lot of HDD ports. The south bridge used by Radeon Xpress 3200 – SB600 – brings one ATA-133 port and four SATA-300 ports, supporting RAID0, RAID1 and RAID10. The additional Jmicron JMB363 chip brings one more ATA-133 port and two extra SATA-300 ports, supporting NCQ, Hot Plug, Port Multiplier and RAID (0, 1 and 0+1).
Even though it has two parallel IDE ports, since the second one is attached to this Jmicron JMB363 chip, it becomes operational only after you install its driver on the operating system.
As for port multiplier, it is a technology targeted to external hard disk drives, allowing you to connect up to five Serial ATA hard disk drives to a single SATA-300 port. This motherboard comes with one I/O bracket that allows you to use one of the SATA-300 ports controlled by Jmicron JMB363 chip this way. In order to use five SATA HDDs on this port you need an external port multiplier bridge, which is an external device sold separately. The hard disks are connected to this device, while this device is connected to this port multiplier bracket, which, in turn, is connected to one of the SATA ports controlled by this extra chip.
In Figure 7 you can also see VIA VT6308 chip, which provides two FireWire (IEEE 1394a) ports to this motherboard. This motherboard, however, comes with an I/O bracket for only one port. This board also has 10 USB 2.0 ports, four soldered on the motherboard back panel and six available through I/O brackets (this motherboard comes with a bracket for just two USB ports).
KA3 MVP Extreme has two LAN ports, one Gigabit Ethernet produced by the chipset together with Agere E1310I chip, which is in charge of making the physical layer interface, and one Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps), controlled by Realtek RTL8100C.
This motherboard has an eight-channel on-board audio solution, produced by the chipset with the aid of Realtek ALC883 codec, which has an 95 dB signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) for its output and an 85 dB signal-to-noise ratio for its input, which is fair enough for the average user but not the best for audiophiles and people that work professionally with digital audio editing. On the other hand, this codec supports a 24-bit resolution. This board also has coaxial and digital SPDIF outputs soldered on the motherboard back panel and also independent outputs for each pair of channels, which definitely helps a lot setting up a 7.1 analog speaker system.
On the memory side, KA3 MVP Extreme has four DDR2-DIMM sockets, supporting up 32 GB up to DDR2-800. On this motherboard sockets 1 and 2 are orange and sockets 3 and 4 are purple. To use DDR2 dual channel mode just install each module on sockets with the same color.
In Figure 9, you can see all cables and adapters that come with this motherboard: four SATA cables, two 80-wire IDE cable, one floppy disk drive cable, one SATA power adapter for two SATA devices, one port multiplier I/O bracket (to use with one of the extra SATA ports controlled by Jmicron JMB363), one LAN cross-over cable (for connecting two PCs without using a hub/switch/router), one I/O bracket containing two USB ports and one FireWire (IEEE 1394a) port, one I/O bracket for the parallel port and an front panel module for installing the USB and FireWire ports on the front panel of your PC case.
ECS KA3 MVP Extreme main features are:
During our benchmarking sessions, we used the configuration listed below. Between our benchmarking sessions the only variable was the motherboard being tested.
We adopted a 3% error margin; thus, differences below 3% cannot be considered relevant. In other words, products with a performance difference below 3% should be considered as having similar performance.
We measured the overall performance of this motherboard using SYSmark2004, which is a program that simulates the use of real-world applications. Thus, we consider this the best software to measure, in practical terms, the system performance.
The benchmarks are divided into two groups:
The software delivers specific results for each batch and also an overall performance result, all in a specific SYSmark2004 unit.
Since socket AM2 was just released, we got only another socket AM2 motherboard for comparison, ASUS M2N32-SLI De Luxe. You can see the results on the graph below.
On this test both motherboards achieved the same performance level.
We measured processing performance using PCMark05 Professional program. PCMark05 Professional measures the system performance by running several tests. The System batch, which was the one we used, performs the following tests: HDD XP Startup, Physics and 3D, 2D Transparent Window, 3D Pixel Shader, Web Page Rendering, File Decryption, 2D Graphics Memory – 64 lines, HDD General Usage and three multithreading tests. The results are given in a PCMark05 specific unit.
In this program both motherboards achieved the same performance level.
You may be asking why we are using Quake III, an old game, to evaluate motherboard performance. When we have a high-end video card installed, like was our case, newer 3D benchmarking software measures only the video card performance, and other components – the motherboard, in particular – don’t affect much the measurement taken by these programs. Since we were willing to measure the performance impact the motherboard would have on the system, such programs wouldn’t fit our needs.
Quake III, on the other hand, is very sensitive to any changes on the hardware configuration. So we decided to use this program instead of newer ones.
We used the demo four available on version 1.32 of Quake III to make our benchmarking with this game. We ran this demo three times at 1024x768x32 resolution and all image quality settings on their default configuration and we picked the middle value for our comparisons, i.e., we discarded the highest and the lowest values.
Check the results below.
Here ASUS M2N32-SLI De Luxe was a little bit faster (4.13%) than ECS KA3 MVP Extreme.
ECS KA3 MVP Extreme offers several options for tweaking the memory access, as you can see in Figure 10. The main overclocking options can be seen in Figure 11 and listed below.
On ECS KA3 MVP Extreme (1.0b BIOS) you will find the following overclocking options:
With this motherboard we increased the base clock of our CPU from 200 MHz to 220 MHz but the system wouldn’t boot. We increased the processor voltage to 1.325 V and the system started loaded the operating system. We could go stable up to 221 MHz (2,873 MHz internally), a 10.5% increase on the CPU clock. The performance measured by PCMark05 increased 6.44%.
We could configure higher clocks, but the system was unstable. Since the only setting we played with was the CPU voltage, you will probably achieve better results than we did with more time and patience.
Traditionally there is almost no performance difference between motherboards targeted to Athlon 64 CPUs, since processor based on AMD64 architecture have an embedded memory controller, so the chipset doesn’t play any drastic role on performance. Because of this the decision on what socket AM2 motherboard one should buy must be based on extra features, price and overclocking capability.
We are reviewing this motherboard before it reaches the market. If it keeps the tradition of other members from ECS Extreme series, it will be cheaper than its main competitors, bringing an excellent cost/benefit ratio – i.e., it will bring the same performance and the same features found on more expensive motherboards based on the same chipset, but costing less.
This motherboard brings several features that will prevent you from upgrading your PC for at least a couple of years, like six SATA-300 ports supporting port multiplier, eight-channel audio, digital audio outputs, FireWire ports, two LAN ports, including one Gigabit and CrossFire technology. Of course if you prefer SLI technology from NVIDIA, you will probably think of buying another motherboard.
ECS is trying hard to enter the high-end market and we have a lot to say to ECS as a constructive criticism. On the positive side, we can clearly see an evolution on overclocking capability and, of course, pricing, which makes ECS Extreme series probably the best cost/benefit motherboards for the enthusiast market.
But even then a lot of work still has to be done to improve overclocking. Just to give you an example, our CPU was running at 1.29 V and this motherboard brought only three voltage configurations above that (1.300 V, 1.325 V and 1.350 V).
As for the features, everything looks fine, but we think a better audio codec could be used. Even though it supports 24-bit resolution, an 85 dB for analog audio capture is simply not good for professional audio capture and editing.
And a lot of work needs to be done on the aesthetic side. The motherboards from Extreme series lack a decent visual design, especially on the color side. Maybe they think a colorful motherboard is great, but we don’t. Each plastic piece on the motherboard has a different color, making this motherboard one big carnival. On KA3 MVP Extreme, for example, they tried to make the CPU cooler holder, the DIMM sockets, the SATA ports, the second x16 PCI Express slot and the FireWire headers with the same color, orange, but each part is simply using a different shade of orange!
Doctor LED, which can be a very interesting feature to check if the motherboard busses are working, have the side effect of making your motherboard to look like a nightclub, as the LED’s blink in blue in a random order.
We think that if ECS improved the visual design of their motherboards (hiring a new designer that doesn’t pick colors at random would be a good start) they would achieve what they are looking for: a better image from the enthusiast community.
Don’t take us wrong. ECS KA3 MVP Extreme is a great product, should arrive the market with an unbeatable cost/benefit ratio and we see no reason of not buying it (especially if you don’t mind having a colorful motherboard) and that's why we are giving it our Golden Award seal. We are giving ECS just some ideas on how they could improve their products.