ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme Motherboard
By Gabriel Torres on July 22, 2013
The Z87H3-A2X Extreme is a top mid-range socket LGA1150 motherboard targeted for the “Haswell” processors (fourth-generation Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 processors), coming with all the bells and whistles you can imagine, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and more. Let’s see what this motherboard has to offer.
The full name of this motherboard is “ECS L337 Gaming Gank Machine Z87H3-A2X Extreme.” Why make it simple if you can complicate it, right?
The new Intel Z87 chipset provides two important upgrades compared to its predecessor, the Z77: six USB 3.0 ports instead of four, and six SATA-600 ports instead of only two. Another important difference between the two chipsets is where the video outputs of the motherboard are connected. While with both chipsets the video is generated by the CPU, on the Z77 the video signal was routed to the chipset, and the video outputs were connected to the chipset. On the Z87 chipset, the video outputs are connected directly to the processor. Both chipsets support up to three independent video monitors. The Z87 supports all other features provided by the Z77, such as Smart Response (installing an SSD as a cache for the main hard drive), Smart Connect (allowing the computer to receive emails and refresh webpages while it is in sleep mode), and Rapid Start (faster boot times) technologies.
You can see the ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme motherboard in Figure 1.
The ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme comes with three PCI Express 3.0 x16 slots, one PCI Express 2.0 x1 slot, one standard PCI slot, and one Mini PCI Express slot.
The three PCI Express 3.0 x16 slots are controlled by the CPU, with the first slot working at x16 when only one video card is installed, the first two working at x8 when two video cards are installed, and with the first working at x8 and the other two working at x4 when three video cards are installed.
This configuration is somewhat different from what we’ve seen in competing products, where the third PCI Express x16 slot is 2.0, controlled by the chipset, and works at x1, x2, or x4 speed.
All three PCI Express x16 slots support the CrossFireX technology. SLI is supported only on the first two slots.
Differently from most competing products, you won’t need a case with eight slots if you plan to install a dual-slot video card in the third PCI Express 3.0 x16 slot, although you will “kill” the standard PCI slot when you install this video card.
Since the Intel Z87 chipset doesn’t support standard PCI slots, the motherboard uses an ITE IT8893 bridge chip to connect the standard PCI slot to a PCI Express x1 lane.
One of the highlights of this motherboard is the presence of a Mini PCI Express slot, allowing you to install a Wi-Fi card that uses this format. This slot is also compatible with mSATA SSDs, as it is connected to a SATA-600 port. Usually mSATA ports are SATA-300, so this is a great advantage.
Intel socket LGA1150 CPUs have an embedded memory controller, meaning that it is the processor, not the chipset, that 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 LGA1150 processors supports DDR3 memories up to 1,600 MHz. According to ECS, the Z87H3-A2X supports memories up to 3,000 MHz.
The ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme has four memory sockets. Since DDR3 memory modules can be found in capacities up to 8 GiB, you can have up to 32 GiB with this motherboard if you use four 8 GiB modules.
In order to enable the dual-channel mode, you must install two or four memory modules. Unfortunately, on the ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme, all memory sockets are black. In order to enable dual-channel mode and achieve the highest performance possible when installing two memory modules, you must install the first module in the first socket and the second module in the third socket (i.e., you must skip one socket).
The Intel Z87 chipset is a single-chip solution, which is also known as a PCH (Platform Controller Hub). This chip has six SATA-600 ports, supporting RAID (0, 1, 10, and 5). This motherboard has one additional SATA-600 port. Apparently, from the seven available ports, five are controlled by the chipset and two (labeled “EXSATA”) are controlled by an ASMedia ASM1061 chip. The sixth port available on the chipset is connected to the mSATA interface. However, there is no clarification on the manual or the manufacturer’s website to the actual SATA configuration of this motherboard, and the manufacturer used the same color to identify all SATA ports.
Six of the SATA ports are installed on the motherboard edge and rotated 90°, so the installation of video cards won’t block them, but the seventh SATA port is installed vertically, and the installation of a dual-slot video card in the second PCI Express x16 slot will block this port.
Two eSATA-600 ports are available on the motherboard’s rear panel, and they are controlled by another ASMedia ASM1061 chip.
The Intel Z87 chipset supports 14 USB 2.0 ports and six USB 3.0 ports. The ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme offers eight USB 2.0 ports, four located on the motherboard’s rear panel and four available through two headers located on the motherboard; and six USB 3.0 ports, four located on the motherboard’s rear panel and two available through one header.
The ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme doesn’t support 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 new Realtek ALC1150 codec, which is the best audio codec available today, providing an impressive 115 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog outputs, 104 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog inputs, and up to 192 kHz sampling rate for both inputs and outputs, with 24-bit resolution. This means you are able to capture and edit analog audio (e.g., converting LPs to CDs or MP3, converting VHS to DVDs or any other digital format, etc.) with this motherboard without adding any background noise.
Additionally, the ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme uses a Realtek ALC5505 digital signal processor (DSP). The datasheet for this component is not available and ECS doesn’t explain the features provided by this chip, which is simply ridiculous.
The ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme has a two-channel amplifier for analog headphones, provided by a Texas Instruments NE5532 chip.
The analog audio outputs are independent if you use a 5.1 analog speaker set. If you use an analog 7.1 speaker set, you must use either the “line in” (blue) or the “mic in” (pink) jacks for the two additional speakers.
The motherboard comes with an on-board optical SPDIF output. It also has a three-pin header labeled “SPDIFO,” where you can install an adapter to have a coaxial SPDIF output or to connect a cable to older video cards that required a physical connection to have audio on their HDMI outputs.
The portrayed motherboard has two Gigabit Ethernet ports, controlled by two Realtek RTL8111G chips.
The ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme comes with an IEEE 802.11n/g/b/a Wi-Fi adapter and a Bluetooth 2.0 module (competing products offer Bluetooth 4.0 adapters).
In Figure 6, you can see the motherboard’s rear panel with the Bluetooth 2.0 adapter, four USB 2.0 ports, two eSATA-600 ports, external clear CMOS button, DisplayPort output, HDMI output, Wi-Fi adapter, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, four USB 3.0 ports, the optical SPDIF output, and the analog audio jacks.
The Z87H3-A2X Extreme has several additional features not usually seen on products from ECS. It has two BIOS chips, so if the main BIOS chip is corrupted by a virus or a bad BIOS upgrade, you can still recover the motherboard. This is the first time we’ve seen a motherboard from ECS with this feature.
This motherboard has a three-digit POST diagnostics display, so you can see, through a two-digit code, which component is preventing your computer from turning on. See Figure 8. This display can also be used to indicate the temperature of the CPU, the main voltage of the CPU, the total amount of power drawn by the CPU, and the temperature of the voltage regulator circuit. An LED indicates which parameter is being displayed. This is an outstanding feature.
Another unique feature of this motherboard is the several configuration buttons you see in Figure 8. The one with two arrows is for you to select the BIOS to be used, the one with an icon of a gear allows you to enter the motherboard setup (same effect as pressing “Del” after turning on the computer), the one with an icon of a person running allows you to do an automatic overclocking, and the last button, which has an icon of an arrow pointing down, is used for selecting the mode of the POST display (see previous paragraph).
The portrayed product has voltage monitoring points, where you can measure, with the use of a voltmeter, the voltage of the CPU (“CPU_CORE”), the memory (“V_DIMM”), the chipset (“PCH_CORE”), and the chipset I/O lanes (“PCH_IO”).
The motherboard also has a legacy serial port, available through a header labeled “COM,” but it doesn’t come with the necessary adapter.
In Figure 10, you can see all of the accessories that come with the ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme.
The CPU voltage regulator circuit of the ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme has 12 phases for the CPU, controlled by an ISL6367 chip, which uses a hybrid design (i.e., analog) and provides six phases. Each of these phases is then doubled by the use of an ISL6611A chip, creating the 12 phases that are available. Each phase uses an IRF8308MPbF MOSFET, with a maximum RDS(on) of 2.7 mΩ, and an IRF8327SPbF MOSFET, with a maximum RDS(on) of 5.1 mΩ.
The ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme uses solid capacitors and ferrite-core coils. If you want to learn more about the voltage regulator circuit, please read our tutorial on the subject.
The main specifications for the ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme include:
* Researched at Newegg.com on the day we published this First Look article.
The ECS Z87H3-A2X Extreme is a lot of motherboard for the money. It costs less than its main competitors (such as the ASRock Fatal1ty Z87 Professional) and yet it brings more features.
One of the strongest features of the product is its audio section, using the new Realtek ALC1150 codec, which provides superb signal-to-noise ratios, and a Realtek ALC5505 digital signal processor (DSP). This motherboard also features an amplifier for analog headphones.
The third PCI Express x16 slot of the ECS Z87H3-A2X is controlled by the CPU and therefore follows the 3.0 specification, and can be used to build CrossFireX arrays (the other two slots are also compatible with SLI). Other highlights include a Mini PCI Express slot supporting mSATA SSDs with a SATA-600 interface (several motherboards use SATA-300), two independent eSATA-600 ports, seven SATA-600 ports, and six USB 3.0 ports.
One of the additional features we liked the most on this motherboard was its three-digit display, which can be used not only to indicate an error code when the computer doesn’t turn on, but also to monitor the temperature of the CPU, the main voltage of the CPU, the total amount of power drawn by the CPU, and the temperature of the voltage regulator circuit.
Even though ECS has been improving a lot at each new motherboard the company releases, a closer look reveals where they saved money. In the case of this motherboard, the use of a Bluetooth 2.0 module instead of 4.0 as the competitors, the use of Realtek Gigabit Ethernet chips (while competitors use chips from Intel, which are more expensive and provide higher performance), and the use of a low-end Wi-Fi module with a maximum transfer rate of 150 Mbps.
Also, the lack of information on the product manual and the manufacturer’s website is simply ridiculous. For instance, there are no technical specifications for the audio codec and DSP, and these are probably the most important features of this motherboard. The configuration of the SATA ports is not clear. Also, there is no information about the Wi-Fi module that is used. This is very important to know, since the IEEE 802.11n specification allows several different configurations. As the Wi-Fi module supports only one antenna, we have to assume it only supports up to 150 Mbps, instead of 300 Mbps as on the modules with two antennas used by competing products.
And, finally, why can’t ECS choose easier-to-memorize names for their products? It was already confusing before, and now with the new L337 Gaming brand it is simply ridiculous. (“ECS L337 Gaming Gank Machine Z87H3-A2X Extreme?” Give us a break!)