ECS P55H-AK Motherboard
By Gabriel Torres on August 11, 2010
ECS is a company know for their cost-effective motherboards, and we were surprised to see them releasing a high-end socket LGA1156 motherboard with two SATA-600 ports, two eSATA-600 ports, four USB 3.0 ports, three PCI Express x16 slots, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, a POST diagnostics display, and a 14-phase voltage regulator circuit.
The first thing that caught our attention was the fact that finally ECS decided to build a motherboard with a decent color scheme. Traditionally, ECS uses a carnival of colors on their motherboards, and usually on a single board you will usually find at least six different colors. On the new P55H-AK, however, ECS decided to go with white and gray, giving this motherboard a very professional looks. Even though ECS improved their taste in color-picking, next time they should pay more attention to better match the shades of the colors being used, as the gray used on the PCI Express x16 slots is not the same gray used on the memory sockets, and the white used on the PCI Express x1 slots, PCI slot, USB headers, and SATA ports are not of the same hue.
The P55H-AK has four passive heatsinks, one on top of the P55 chip, one on top of the NVIDIA NF200 bridge chip, and two on top of the transistors of the voltage regulator circuit. They are interconnected using heatpipes, and they use a color scheme that matches the overall looks of the motherboard (finally!).
One of the main new features from socket LGA1156 processors is the presence of an integrated PCI Express 2.0 controller inside the CPU. This controller supports one x16 connection or two x8 connections. The Intel P55 chipset provides a total of eight x1 PCI Express lanes.
On an unusual configuration for a traditionally price-oriented company, ECS added very high-end components on their P55H-AK, an NVIDIA NF200 bridge and a PLX PEX8608 chip. The first chip adds 32 PCI Express x1 1.0 lanes, while the second chip adds eight PCI Express x1 2.0 lanes.
These two chips allow the three PCI Express x16 slots to work at x16, x8, and x8 all the time, plus prevent performance from dropping when you run two or three high-end video cards, SATA-600 hard disk drives and USB 3.0 devices at the same time. On motherboards without bridge chips, performance may drop under this type of load, as the chipset doesn’t have enough PCI Express lanes to connect all these devices at the same time at their full speed.
The three PCI Express x16 slots support CrossFireX and SLI configurations.
The ECS P55H-AK also has two PCI Express x1 slots and one standard PCI slot. There is enough space between the first two PCI Express slots for you to install in the first slot a video card that takes up to three expansion slots without “killing” the second slot. If you install a dual-slot video card in the first PCI Express x16 slot you won’t kill any of the PCI Express x1 slots available, a configuration rare to be seen.
On the other hand, if you install a dual-slot video card in the second PCI Express x16 slot, you will “kill” the standard PCI slot, and you can only install a dual-slot video card in the third PCI Express x16 slot if you have a case with eight or more expansion slots.
Socket LGA1156 CPUs, like socket LGA1366 and AMD processors, have an embedded memory controller. All other Intel CPUs use an external memory controller, which is located on the north bridge chip (a.k.a. MCH or Memory Controller Hub) of the chipset. This means that with other Intel CPUs, the chipset (and thus the motherboard) is the component that says what memory technologies and maximum amount of memory you can have on your PC.
Since now the memory controller is inside the CPU, it is the processor – and not the chipset – that defines what memory technologies and maximum amount of memory you can have. The motherboard, however, may have a limitation as to how much memory can be installed.
At the moment the integrated memory controller in socket LGA1156 processors supports only DDR3 memories up to 1,333 MHz in a dual-channel architecture, however, ECS says the P55H-AK supports DDR3 memories up to 2400 MHz through overclocking. The P55H-AK has four DDR3 sockets and since at the moment, each DDR3 memory module can have up to 4 GB, you can have up to 16 GB with this motherboard.
The first and third sockets are white, while the second and fourth are gray. In order to achieve the maximum performance you should install two or four memory modules in order to enable dual-channel architecture. When only two modules are used, make sure to install them in the white sockets. If you install them in the gray ones, the computer won’t turn on.
The Intel P55 chipset is a single-chip solution. The basic features provided by this chipset include six SATA-300 ports (RAID support is optional), no support for parallel ATA (PATA) ports, 14 USB 2.0 ports supporting port disable, an embedded Gigabit Ethernet MAC (Medium Access Control), and eight x1 PCI Express lanes. As explained, this motherboard has a PLX PEX8608 chip that adds another eight PCI Express x1 2.0 lanes and an NVIDIA NF200 chip that adds 32 PCI Express x1 1.0 lanes.
The ECS P55H-AK provides all six SATA-300 ports with support for Intel Matrix Storage, which provides RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 (these ports are white). This motherboard comes with two SATA-600 ports (a.k.a. SATA 6G), controlled by a Marvell 88SE9128 chip that provides support for RAID 0 and 1. Here we couldn’t understand why ECS used the opposite color standard that is being used by all other manufacturers. On all other motherboards we’ve seen so far, the SATA-600 ports are white, and the SATA-300 ports use a color that is different from white, usually black or blue.
The portrayed motherboard also has two eSATA-600 ports, controlled by another Marvell 88SE9128.
All SATA ports are placed on the motherboard edge rotated 90°, so video cards won’t block them.
No ATA-133 port or floppy disk drive controller are present.
From the 14 USB 2.0 ports supported by the chipset, the P55H-AK offers 12 of them, eight soldered on the rear panel and four available through two motherboard headers.
One of the highlights of this motherboard is the presence of four USB 3.0 ports, controlled by two NEC μPD720200 chips. Two of these ports are available on the rear panel of the product and painted blue. The other two ports are available through a USB 3.0 header on the motherboard, and the P55H-AK comes with a nice aluminum-made adapter for you to install these ports on the front panel of your case, using a 3.5” external bay. The product also comes with a bracket for you to install these two USB 3.0 ports at an available expansion slot, which is a nice option to have.
No FireWire port is available.
Audio is generated by the chipset using a Realtek ALC889 codec, which provides professional-grade audio to this motherboard, with eight channels, 24-bit resolution, a sampling rate of up to 192 kHz for both inputs and outputs, 104 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog inputs, and 108 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the outputs. With a high signal-to-noise ratio like this you can work professionally, converting, mixing, and editing audio from an analog source (e.g., converting VHS tapes and vinyl records to the digital format) with no background noise (white noise). This motherboard comes with an on-board optical SPDIF output. The board also has an SPDIF-out header (labeled “SPDIFO”), which can be used to add a coaxial SPDIF port (through an adapter that doesn’t come with the product) or to route sound to the video card HDMI output in order for you to have an HDMI output with digital audio on a single connector.
This motherboard uses shared 7.1 analog audio outputs, but independent 5.1 analog audio outputs, meaning that you can have a six-channel analog speaker set without killing the line in or the mic in jacks, but if you install an eight-channel analog speaker set you will have to kill one of these jacks in order to use it.
The ECS P55H-AK has two Gigabit Ethernet ports, each one controlled by one Realtek RTL8111E chip, which are connected to the system using PCI Express x1 lanes, and thus not presenting any potential performance issues.
In Figure 6, you can see the motherboard rear panel with a clear CMOS button, a shared PS/2 mouse/keyboard connector, eight USB 2.0 ports, two eSATA-600 ports, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, two USB 3.0 ports (blue), shared 7.1 analog audio connectors, and an optical SPDIF output.
This motherboard comes with a POST diagnostics display, which tells you through a two-digit code what is wrong when you computer doesn’t turn on.
There are other smaller features. For example, this motherboard comes with an operating system stored inside the motherboard read-only memory that allows you to access the Internet without needing to load the operating system or even without having a hard disk drive installed. This feature, called eJiffy, is identical in concept to the Express Gate feature available on motherboards from ASUS and the Winki feature present on motherboards from MSI.
The P55H-AK comes with a 14-phase high-end voltage regulator circuit. Twelve of them are used for CPU main voltage (Vcc, a.k.a. Vcore) and two of them are used for the VTT rail, which feeds the CPU integrated memory controller and L3 memory cache.
As mentioned before, this motherboard comes with two passive heatsinks on top of the MOSFET transistors of the voltage regulator circuit, which are interconnected by two heatpipes. These heatpipes are also connected to the NVIDIA NF200 bridge chip and the Intel P55 chip.
All capacitors used on the voltage regulator circuit and on the rest of the motherboard are solid, and all chokes are ferrite models, which are better than iron chokes.
Please read our Everything You Need to Know About the Motherboard Voltage Regulator tutorial for more information.
The main overclocking options we could see in the motherboard setup were:
The main specifications for the ECS P55H-AK are:
We were impressed by how ECS improved the quality of their products, starting with the overall look of the product. In the past they would use at least six different colors on their motherboards, making them to look cheesy and cheap. Finally ECS decided to use a more sober color pattern (gray and white), giving the P55H-AK a more professional looks. There is still room for improvement, though, as the gray pieces are not from the same shade of gray, the same happening with the white parts.
Speaking of colors, the only thing that we didn’t like about this motherboard was the use of the opposite color standard that all other manufacturers are using for the SATA ports. Instead of using white for the SATA-600 ports and black for the SATA-300 ports, ECS decided to use the opposite scheme.
Apart from these minor details, the forthcoming P55H-AK is a true high-end motherboard, as you can tell by the presence of the NVIDIA NF200 and the PLX PEX8608 chips, which allow your system to maintain a high performance even if you install three high-end video cards and decide to use the SATA-600 ports, the USB 3.0 ports and the Gigabit Ethernet connections all at the same time. On motherboards based on the Intel P55 chipset without a bridge chip performance may drop under this scenario.
The P55H-AK comes with two SATA-600 ports and two eSATA-600 ports controlled by separate chips, and four USB 3.0 ports. Two of these ports are permanently soldered on the rear panel, and the other two you can either install in a 3.5” bay or on the rear of your computer, using the practical adapter that comes with the motherboard.
Other important features include the presence of three PCI Express x16 slots (working at x16, x8, and x8), a professional-grade audio codec with on-board optical SPDIF output, a 14-phase voltage regulator circuit, and a POST diagnostics display.
This motherboard comes with decent overclocking options, but if you want more than increasing the basic clocks and voltages, you will need to buy a different (and likely more expensive) product.