ECS X79R-AX Motherboard
By Gabriel Torres on December 21, 2011
ECS has released two motherboard models for the new socket LGA2011 platform, the X79R-AX and the X79R-AX Deluxe, targeted to the most high-end processor Intel offers for desktops today, the Core i7 “Sandy Bridge-E” models. Let’s take a look at the X79R-AX, which comes with four PCI Express 3.0 x16 slots, eight SATA-600 ports, six USB 3.0 ports, and more.
To better understand the differences between the two socket LGA2011 motherboards released by ECS, we compiled the table below. Despite its name, the “Deluxe” version has fewer features.
PCI Express x16
PCI Express x1
Wi-Fi IEEE 802.11b/g/n
In Figure 1, you see the ECS X79R-AX motherboard.
The ECS X79R-AX has a strip thermometer attached to the chipset heatsink, as you can see in Figure 2. A similar strip is available on the heatsink of the voltage regulator circuit, which changes its color according to the temperature. See Figure 3.
The ECS X79R-AX comes with four PCI Express 3.0 x16 slots and two PCI Express 2.0 x1 slots. Socket LGA2011 processors have a total of 40 PCI Express 3.0 lanes for video cards. This allows a very high-end configuration for the PCI Express x16 slots, but the exact configuration used will depend on the motherboard model.
The first and third PCI Express x16 slots (gray) always run at x16 speed, while the second and fourth PCI Express slots (white) always work at x8 speed. ECS hit the bull’s eye by using different colors to identify the speed of each slot.
If you are installing two video cards, make sure you install the second one in the third (and not in the second) PCI Express x16 slot for the best performance.
When installing dual-slot video cards in the second and third PCI Express x16 slots, you “kill” the PCI Express x1 slot immediately to the left (looking at the motherboard with its rear connectors facing up) of the slot being used. You can install up to three dual-slot video cards using a regular seven-slot computer case, but the installation of a fourth dual-slot video card requires you to have a case with at least eight expansion slots.
All PCI Express x16 slots support both SLI and CrossFireX technologies.
Intel socket LGA2011 CPUs have an embedded memory controller, meaning that it is the processor, not the chipset, which defines what memory technologies you can have and the maximum amount of memory that is possible. The motherboard, however, may have a limitation as to how much memory can be installed.
The integrated memory controller from socket LGA2011 processors supports DDR3 memories up to 1,600 MHz officially, but they actually support memories up to 2,133 MHz. According to ECS, the X79R-AX supports memories up to 2,500 MHz.
One of the most important features of the socket LGA2011 processors is the support for the new quad-channel memory architecture, which allows the memory to be accessed in 256-bit mode for higher performance. Since each memory module is a 64-bit entity, four memory modules are needed to enable this architecture. If only two or three memory modules are installed, the memory will be accessed under dual- or triple-channel architecture, respectively.
The ECS X79R-AX has four memory sockets (two at each side of the CPU socket) and, since DDR3 memory modules can be found in capacities up to 8 GB, you can have up to 32 GB with this motherboard if you use four 8 GB modules.
In order to enable the quad-channel mode, install four identical memory modules.
The Intel X79 chipset is a single-chip solution which is also known as a PCH (Platform Controller Hub). This chip supports two SATA-600 ports and four SATA-300 ports, supporting RAID (0, 1, 10, and 5).
ECS discovered that the Intel X79 chipset has four hidden SAS-600/SATA-600 ports, and they were able to add these ports to the motherboard. These ports, however, can’t be used for boot devices, as you need to install a driver in the operating system in order to make them available.
In fact, we had a hard time putting these ports to work, since the product manual is poorly written. In order to use these ports, you must enable the options “SCU SATA 6 Gb/s Devices” and “SCU SATA 6 Gb/s OpROM” available after you select the “SCU SATA 6 Gb/s Configuration” in the motherboard setup. Inside the operating system, these ports will only be recognized after you install the “Intel Rapid Storage Technology Enterprise” drivers. If you have already installed these drivers, you will need to remove and reinstall them, as the ports won’t be recognized automatically.
The ECS X79R-AX has another two SATA-600 ports, controlled by an ASMedia ASM1061 chip. These ports are labeled “EXSATA6G1_2” and are the ones located on the far left in Figure 6.
The motherboard also has two eSATA-600 ports, controlled by another ASMedia ASM1061 chip.
One drawback is that the manufacturer used only two colors to identify the SATA ports: white for the SATA-300 and gray for the SATA-600. The problem is that this is the opposite color code used by all other manufacturers, which use white for the SATA-600 ports. Also, the manufacturer should have used different colors to identify to where each port is connected. We think they should have used one color for the SATA-600 ports controlled by the chipset (which are the ones to the right of the SATA-300 ports), another color for the “hidden” SAS-600/SATA-600 from the chipset (which are the ones to the immediate left of the SATA-300 ports), and yet another for the ports controlled by the ASMedia ASM1061 chip (which are the ones on the far left).
The SATA ports are located at the motherboard’s edge and rotated 90°, so video cards won’t block them. See Figure 6.
The Intel X79 chipset supports 14 USB 2.0 ports. Unfortunately, support for USB 3.0 ports isn’t integrated in the chipset yet. The ECS X79R-AX offers 10 USB 2.0 ports, six soldered on the rear panel and four available through two headers located on the motherboard. It also supports six USB 3.0 ports, the four located on the motherboard rear panel controlled by a Texas Instruments TUSB7340 chip and the two available on the motherboard header controlled by a Texas Instruments TUSB7320 chip. The motherboard comes with a 3.5” panel containing two USB 3.0 ports for you to use the motherboard USB 3.0 header, if your computer case doesn’t have USB 3.0 ports with an internal connector.
The ECS X79R-AX doesn’t have FireWire ports.
This motherboard supports 7.1+2 audio format, i.e., eight channels plus two independent channels for audio streaming. On this motherboard, the audio is generated by the chipset using the Realtek ALC892 codec. The specifications of this chip include a 97 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog outputs, a 90 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog inputs, up to 192 kHz sampling rate for both inputs and outputs, and 24-bit resolution. In order to cut costs, ECS decided to use a mainstream audio codec on a high-end motherboard. They should have picked a codec with an SNR of at least 100 dB for the analog outputs and 97 dB for the analog inputs. If you are looking into working professionally with audio editing, you should look for a motherboard that provides an SNR of at least 97 dB for the analog input.
This motherboard comes with independent 5.1 analog audio outputs. However, if you install a 7.1 analog speaker set, you will have to use either the line in or mic in jacks, making the jack unavailable for other usage. It also features optical SPDIF output. You can install an optical SPDIF output through an SPDIF header that is available, using an adapter that doesn’t come with the product.
The portrayed motherboard has two Gigabit Ethernet ports, controlled by two Realtek RTL8111E chips. These ports support the “teaming” function, where you can increase the network speed to 2 Gbps if you use compatible network equipment.
This motherboard also comes with Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR and Wi-Fi IEEE 802.11b/g/n (Atheros AR9271 chip) modules, soldered on the motherboard rear panel.
In Figure 7, you can see the motherboard rear panel, with a clear CMOS button, shared PS/2 connector for keyboard and mouse, Wi-Fi module, six USB 2.0 ports, two eSATA-600 ports, Bluetooth module, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, shared 7.1 analog audio jacks, and an optical SPDIF output.
This motherboard has a POST diagnostics display, which shows, through a two-digit code, which component is preventing the computer from turning on.
The ECS X79R-AX offers voltage monitoring points for you to manually read the CPU, memory, and chipset voltages using a voltmeter.
It has a legacy serial port, which is available through a header labeled “COM.” You will need to buy an adapter if you want to use this port.
In Figure 10, you can see all accessories that come with the ECS X79R-AX.
The CPU voltage regulator circuit of the ECS X79R-AX has 12 phases for the CPU main voltage (Vcc a.k.a. Vcore), two for the CPU VSA voltage (memory controller), and two for the CPU VTT voltage (PCI Express and DMI interfaces). Therefore, it uses a “12+2+2” configuration. The voltage regulator is controlled by an ISL6366 integrated circuit.
The ECS X79R-AX uses a mix of solid and SMD (a.k.a. highly-conductive polymerized or simply Hi-c) electrolytic capacitors in its main voltage regulator circuit. All coils on this motherboard are ferrite-core models, which can provide up to 20% improvement in efficiency. The rest of the electrolytic capacitors used on this motherboard are solid.
Each main phase is controlled by an FDMG6705V integrated circuit, which combines the three required transistors (“high side,” “low side,” and “driver”) in a single chip. It also allows the switching clock to be at 1 MHz, which allows efficiency to be over 90 percent. (Usually, voltage regulator circuits switch at 250 kHz.)
If you want to learn more about the voltage regulator circuit, please read our tutorial on the subject.
The ECS X79R-AX has a few overclocking options. Below, we list the most important ones (11/29/2011 BIOS):
The main specifications for the ECS X79R-AX include:
* Researched at Newegg.com on the day we published this review.
ECS is working hard to improve the quality of its products, and this is clear by seeing the voltage regulator circuit of the X79R-AX, which uses a high-end design, on par with tier one manufacturers. ECS also hit the bull’s eye on the color selection and use of different colors on the PCI Express x16 slots in order to identify their speed.
The company was able to add several additional features to the X79R-AX, to make a fully-loaded motherboard at a very competitive price: four PCI Express 3.0 x16 slots working at x16/x8/x16/x8 supporting SLI and CrossFireX, eight SATA-600 ports (four of them compatible with SAS-600 devices), two eSATA-600 ports, six USB 3.0 ports, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi IEEE 802.11b/g/n, and thermometer strips for the chipset and voltage regulator.
The negative points for the X79R-AX are “the usual” for ECS products in general: poorly written manual, color code for the SATA ports uses the opposite scheme from all other manufacturers, SATA ports could use different colors depending to which controller they are connected, and the use of a mainstream audio codec with low signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) for its analog input instead of a high-end one. Also, it only has four memory sockets, which may be a drawback for users thinking of adding more memory in the future.
By the way, we had a hard time setting up this motherboard. With a USB keyboard installed, you simply can’t enter the motherboard setup; you will need a PS/2 keyboard.
If these drawbacks don’t scare you, the ECS X79R-AX is a good option if you want all the extra features it brings.