ECS KN3 SLI2 Extreme Motherboard Review
By Gabriel Torres on February 14, 2007
ECS KN3 SLI2 Extreme is the most high-end socket AM2 motherboard from ECS based on NVIDIA nForce 590 SLI chipset and targeted to Athlon 64 CPUs supporting DDR2 memory. Part of ECS Extreme series, this motherboard comes with a truck loaded of features and it is aimed to be a cheaper competitor to other nForce 590 SLI motherboards from tier 1 manufacturers like ASUS, Gigabyte and MSI. Let’s take a look at it.
The main difference between ECS KN3 SLI Extreme and competing models from ASUS (M2N32 SLI De Luxe), Gigabyte (GA-M59SLI-S5) and MSI (K9N Diamond) is the absence of a passive heatsink solution using a heat-pipe. This is probably where ECS could make a cheaper motherboard but keeping tons of extra features.
This motherboard is part of the Extreme series from ECS, where all motherboards look like a carnival, with every single plastic part using a different color. As we have already said in other reviews, this may please the eyes of Chinese and Taiwanese customers, but for the western eye we think a more sober color scheme could be used. For example, a black printed circuit board with all plastic parts using the same color (red, for example) would cause a far better impression, in our opinion. As ECS is working their way to become a decent high-end motherboard supplier, this is one of the places they should work to establish a better perception of their brand. On the good side we have say that ECS made something better on this board, replacing the traditional purple lacquer layer they use on their printed circuit boards with a dark brown lacquer, removing the amateurish look of the PCB used on this motherboard.
The problem isn’t only that they use plastic parts with several different colors – on this model we could count seven different colors (lime-green, yellow, white, blue, orange, red and purple). The main problem is that color shades don’t match! For example, the CPU cooler support, two memory sockets, one x16 PCI Express slot and five SATA ports are supposedly orange, but each part uses a different shade of orange! With this amateurish look it is hard to think of ECS as a serious competitor to tier 1 manufacturers, even if they deliver good products. At the end, the looks count a lot.
Like other members of the Extreme series, KN3 SLI2 features “Dr. LED,” a series of blue LEDs near each PCI slot and near each x1 PCI Express slot that indicates that the slot is working fine when it is blinking. The LEDs blink randomly, so when turned on your motherboard looks like a nightclub.
Talking about slots, this motherboard has two x16 PCI Express slots supporting SLI and truly running at x16 when SLI mode is enabled, two x1 PCI Express slots and two regular PCI slots. One of them is yellow and called “PCI Extreme” by ECS, using a solid aluminum electrolytic capacitor, which offers a better quality over regular electrolytic capacitor. That is why this slot is recommended for installing your add-on sound card. But it wouldn’t be better if all capacitors were solid on this motherboard instead of using just one?
Talking about capacitors, even though ECS used some Japanese capacitors from Chemi-Con on the voltage regulator circuit, all other electrolytic capacitors found on this motherboard are from Taiwanese suppliers like G-Luxon and OST. Also, three big capacitors on the voltage regulator are from OST. This can be seen in Figure 4: the black capacitors are from Chemi-Con and the blue ones are from OST. Once again, why not using all capacitors from Chemi-Con or even all solid like Gigabyte is doing on some of their high-end motherboards? Of course this is where ECS saves some bucks and is able to deliver a cheaper product.
Like other members of Extreme series KN3 SLI2 has a duct with a fan right above the voltage regulator, pulling hot air from inside the computer to the outside. Even though we don’t like the color of the duct (UV-sensitive lime-green) we think this idea is great, not only because the voltage regulator generates a lot of heat, but also because it is in front of the CPU, which is obviously the component that produces the highest amount of heat inside a computer. But we think ECS could have added a passive heatsink on top of the MOSFET transistors found on this stage but, once again, here is where ECS saved some bucks.
Even though the main power supply connector allows you to connect an old 20-pin power supply to this motherboard (as you can see in Figure 5, the extra four pins are closed with a sticker), we do not recommend you doing so. Also, this motherboard has an auxiliary power connector using a standard peripheral male power connector located next to the orange x16 PCI Express slot. You have to install a peripheral cable coming from the power supply to this connector if you use two video cards otherwise your system will become unstable.
On the memory side, this motherboard has four DDR2-DIMM sockets, supporting up to 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 on this motherboard just install the memory modules on sockets using the same color.
On the storage side this motherboard has a total of eight SATA-300 ports and two ATA/133 ports. Six SATA-300 ports and one of the ATA/133 ports are controlled by the chipset and the other two SATA-300 ports and the other ATA/133 port are controlled by a JMicron JMB363 chip. The ports controlled by the chipset support RAID0, 1, 0+1, 6 and JBOD configuration, while the ports controlled by the Jmicron chip support RAID0,1 and JBOD configuration.
One of the SATA-300 ports controlled by the chipset is located externally on the rear panel. This port and the ones controlled by the JMicron chip support Port Multiplier. Port multiplier 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. 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 port.
What is good about this motherboard is that it comes with an I/O bracket that allows you to connect one of the two SATA-300 ports controlled by the JMicron chip externally, allowing you to use Port Multiplier on it (Port Multiplier connector is different from the standard SATA connector). So the SATA I/O bracket that comes with this board is to be installed on one of the SATA ports controlled by the JMicron chip (red connectors) not on the SATA ports controlled by the chipset (orange connectors). This motherboard also comes with an external SATA cable to be used by this I/O bracket or by the external SATA connector that is soldered on the rear panel of the motherboard.
This motherboard has 10 USB 2.0 ports (four soldered on the motherboard) and two FireWire (IEEE1394) ports controlled by VIA VT6308 chip. This motherboard comes with just one I/O bracket with two USB ports and one FireWire port, so four USB ports and one FireWire port are left over. On the other side, this motherboard comes with a plastic frame for installing the USB and FireWire connectors on any 3.5” bay of the computer case, allowing you to have your USB and FireWire ports on the case front panel.
This motherboard has two Gigabit Ethernet ports, both controlled by the south bridge using two Marvell 88E1116 chips to make the physical layer interface. In the motherboard box you will find a cross-over cable for free, allowing you to build a small network between your computer and any other computer without using a router.
This motherboard has an eight-channel on-board audio, produced by the chipset together with Realtek ALC883 codec. This codec provides a low (for today’s standards) signal-to-noise ratio for its inputs – only 85 dB. So it is not advisable to use this motherboard for professional audio capturing and editing (the minimum recommended for this application is 95 dB), unless you install a professional add-on audio card on it. Also the maximum sampling rate for its inputs is of 96 kHz, while its outputs supports up to 192 kHz. The signal-to-noise ratio for its output is of 95 dB. So ECS could have used a better codec.
ECS could have soldered at least SPDIF outputs on this motherboard. If you want to connect your motherboard to a home theater system you will need to buy a SPDIF I/O bracket, as this motherboard doesn’t come with one.
Like some other motherboards from Extreme series this motherboard features a dual-BIOS solution. As far as we know only other two companies provide this feature, Gigabyte and Albatron. This feature allows you to recover the contents of your BIOS chip if the chip was erased by a virus like CIH/Chernobyl or during a bad BIOS upgrade. Called “Top-Hat Flash” you need to install the backup BIOS literally on the top of the motherboard BIOS, see Figures 7, 8 and 9.
In Figure 10, you can see all cables and accessories that come with this motherboard: four Serial ATA cables, one Serial ATA power adapters, two parallel IDE flat-cable, one floppy disk drive flat-cable, one cross-over cable, one external SATA cable (Port Multiplier cable), one SLI bridge, one metallic bracket for fastening the SLI bridge to the case, one I/O bracket with two USB ports and one FireWire port, one plastic frame for putting the USB and FireWire ports on the case front panel, one parallel port bracket and one external SATA bracket.
This motherboard comes with two CDs with motherboard drivers and utilities.
ECS KN3 SLI2 Extreme main features are:
* Researched at Shopping.com on the day we published this review.
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.
We compared the reviewed board to other motherboards based on nForce 590 SLI chipset – MSI K9N Diamond, Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5 and ASUS M2N32 SLI De Luxe – and to ECS KA3 MVP Extreme, which is based on Radeon Xpress 3200 chipset. You can see the results on the graph below.
In this test we could only see performance difference on the Internet Content Creation batch, where the reviewed motherboard from ECS was 3.11% slower than Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5. On all other results the reviewed motherboard achieved a performance similar to the other motherboards included in your comparison.
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 all 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 KN3 SLI2 Extreme achieved the same performance level as Gigabyte GA-M59SLI-S5 and as ECS KA3 MVP Extreme, but it was beaten by ASUS M2N32 SLI De Luxe, which was 3.22% faster, and by MSI K9N Diamond, which was 10.56% faster.
ECS KN3 SLI2 Extreme has some overclocking options found under “Advanced Chipset Features” and “Frequency/Voltage Control.” You will find the following options (1.1C BIOS):
You can also find detailed memory adjustments, where serious tweakers will have lots of fun.
Even though this motherboard at a first glance has several overclocking options, there is one big problem. There is only one clock generator. This means that when you increase the main clock generator, you will not only increase the CPU clock but also the PCI Express, the PCI and the SATA clocks. This is a major drawback for serious overclockers.
That is probably the reason we achieved a very low overclocking with this motherboard: we could set the base clock only up to 210 MHz, making our Athlon 64 X2 5000+ (which runs by default at 2.6 GHz) to run internally at 2.73 GHz, a just 5% increase on the CPU internal clock rate. Above that the system was unstable.
With all other high-end socket AM2 motherboards we reviewed to date we could make the system to run at least with a 220 MHz base clock.
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.
The main advantage of ECS KN2 SLI2 Extreme over competing nForce 590 SLI motherboards is its price. Even though this motherboard from ECS provides a truck loaded of extra features, you should be aware on what ECS saved some bucks to provide this price.
But first let’s talk about the great features this board provides: two x16 PCI Express slots truly running at x16, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, eight SATA-300 ports including two external ports with Port Multiplier, two FireWire ports, backup BIOS, active cooling duct and 7.1 audio.
Where ECS saved money: the audio codec used is really bad today’s standards (only 85 dB signal-to-noise ratio for its input, making this motherboard a bad choice if you want to capture and edit audio; the output with 95 dB SNR is ok), only some of the capacitors are Japanese (for an ECS motherboard this is a great start, though), the motherboard doesn’t come with a SPDIF bracket, so you will need to buy one if you plan to connect your PC to your home theater system and really bad overclocking.
We also would like to add all the constructive criticism we made on the first page of this review: we thing ECS must start paying attention to the motherboard looks on what concerns the choice of colors. They are trying to enter the high-end market but making their motherboards to look like a carnival isn’t the answer.
Is this a good motherboard? For the average user, yes. If you are looking for a cheap high-end socket AM2 motherboard and are not going to use your PC to professionally edit audio and aren’t addicted to overclocking, this motherboard provides one of the best cost/benefit ratios of the market today.
However, if you like overclocking and/or are going to capture audio, we recommend you to buy a different model.