Over the past 12 months I have covered a number of ECS boards, from the Sandy Bridge and Fusion range, including one with a Hydra chip.  Looking back on those, there was a distinct running theme – a willingness to offer the consumer perhaps something different. My tour of the ECS headquarters back in June, and a Q&A session with an ECS VP, gave credence to ECS pushing more into the consumer market rather than their roots in OEM.  X79 was a focal point for this, and today we are seeing the fruits of that perseverance, in the X79R-AX (Black Extreme) motherboard. 


Overall, I have to say that this board performed well, after some initial teething problems.  What we have is a $310 X79 motherboard ($260 with mail-in rebate from ECS until 2/3) with dual Gigabit Ethernet, support for 12 SATA devices (and 12 SATA cables included), a USB 3.0 bracket, support for quad-SLI/CrossfireX as well as onboard WiFi and Bluetooth.  With the MIR this makes it a very attractive board, within firing line of the Gigabyte X79-UD3 reviewed previously

However, some users will note some areas which are perhaps comparably not as desirable compared to others – a Realtek ALC892 audio rather than the ALC898 commonly on X79, both gigabit Ethernet ports are also Realtek rather than Intel (or Broadcom), and only four DDR3 DIMM slots.  Personally, while these features are nice to be upgraded, from a personal perspective, they probably are not deal-breakers unless you specifically need the upgraded component.

In terms of auto-overclocking, this is one of the best ones we've seen, giving a 4.5 GHz CPU overclock, and applying an XMP profile, with just one option in the BIOS.  However, other overclocking methods are not as easy - I had difficulty using the auto-memory overclocks, and the CPU multiplier adjustment didn't seem to work, leaving only the CPU strap and BCLK to adjust.  Visually, I like the ECS style, with the black, grey and white, and everything is laid out on the board relatively easy to get to.  The board itself comes with a 3-year warranty for parts, 2-year for labor.

There were some initial hindrances in the X79R-AX review sample I received.  I was confused about some of the SATA ports labeled SAS, given that SAS compatibility was pulled from the Sandy Bridge-E specifications, but this was remedied by installing Intel RST in the OS.  On my shipping BIOS (11/10/2011), there were also issues relating to Turbo not being applied to the CPU.  This was fixed in the latest BIOS I was shipped (12/26/2011), which should be online shortly.  I have also fired a list off to ECS for some suggested changes to default settings to help consumers, but nevertheless, with the features on board, for the price (and the rebate), ECS have a very attractive offering.

Visual Inspection

As mentioned previously, I like the ECS color scheme of black, white and grey.  Anything that cannot be changed and is in the background is black, and everything else is grey/white.  For your money, the first thing users will see is that there are only four DDR3 DIMM slots, compared to some models in this price range having eight.  The pros and cons of having eight slots over four are debated wildly across the internet, and it comes down to need – if you want more than 16 GB (4x4 GB) of memory in your system (assuming you are not willing to spend $$$ on 8 GB modules).  For most enthusiasts (gaming, overclocking), the answer is probably no, whereas for media editing, rendering, VMs or simulation, you may need more.

Around the socket itself we have a tight squeeze with the DIMMs and the VRM cooler.  The VRM cooler is connected via heatpipes to the chipset cooler, and also sports ECS' new 'Qooltech IV' technology.  This is essentially a strip (or as ECS put it, 'thermal chromic technology') with chemicals that change color (black/transparent to orange) above a certain limit, akin to what you may have had put on your head as a child to check your temperature.  The downside I found is that my CPU cooling obscured this, making it quite irrelevant to the product.  Even with the extra temperature strip on the chipset heatsink, that was obscured mainly by my dual GPU setup.

In terms of fan headers, the board has five - two four-pin CPU headers at the top of the board (one either side of the VRM), a three-pin PWR fan to the left of the socket and two 3-pin (one SYS and one PWR) straddling the 24-pin ATX power connector.  This means no fan connectors at the bottom, which is a shame.  These fans are either controlled via the BIOS, or the eSF software provided by ECS will adjust the SYS fans via a hysteresis loop.  More on that later.

Moving down the right hand side of the board are the abundant SATA ports.  From top to bottom, we have two SATA 6 Gbps from the PCH in grey, four SATA 3 Gbps from the PCH in white, four SATA ports labeled 'SAS' from the PCH in grey, then another two SATA 6 Gbps in grey from an ASMedia controller labeled EXSATA.  Officially, these last six are not supported by the chipset, but are still in the silicon.  They have to be enabled in BIOS, then again in the OS by Intel RST - this can be frustrating slightly if you just plug in your hard-drive and expect to be able to install an OS straight away.  I suggest using the top six connectors until everything is installed, or keeping the bottom six ports purely for storage devices. 

The south side of the board is relatively empty compared to others, with only two USB 2.0 header, one USB 3.0 header, a COM header, front panel connectors and SPDIF output.  One thing which does annoy me slightly on ECS boards is the lack of printing on the PCB where the connectors for the front panel should go - this is commonplace on almost every other manufacturer, so users do not need to pull out the manual.  For a reviewer, the Power/Reset buttons are a help in this regard, but for users fiddling inside a case, this info should be there on the board itself.  Also of note down the bottom of the board is the Debug LED for diagnosing issues.

In terms of PCIe layout, Simple Makes It (a) Lot Easier with the ECS board, sporting four PCIe full length slots each separated by a gap, and thus in x16/x8/x16/x8 configuration (the second x16 becomes x8 when the fourth slot is populated).  In between these are a pair of PCIe x1 slots, meaning no PCI connectivity.

The IO panel is awash with USB ports, making up for the lack of headers on the board itself.  From left to right, a clear CMOS button, PS/2 connector, two USB 2.0 ports, then the WiFi dongle (antenna is attached to this dongle and comes with the board), two more USB 2.0 ports, an eSATA 6 Gbps port, a blue Bluetooth dongle, two more USB 2.0 ports, and an eSATA 6 Gbps port.  Onto the two Realtek Gigabit NICs, and the four blue USB 3.0 ports.  Finally we have the audio jacks and SPDIF digital output.

ECS X79R-AX - BIOS and Overclocking
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  • DanNeely - Friday, January 13, 2012 - link

    I currently have a 7GB commit charge on my box. Biggest offenders currently are:

    2,000MB Opera
    520MB Firefox
    188MB Outlook
    170MB FF Plugin container
    135MB Catalyst control center (ATI GPU app)
    122MB Steam
    8x104MB Einstein @ Home CPU work units
    102MB DWM
    96MB Display Fusion (multi-monitor taskbar)
    84MB Core Boinc Client
    77MB Einstein @ Home nVidia GPU work unit

    Opera currently has 65 open tabs (ranges between 50-100); and shortly before heap fragmentation brings it down (typically after a few weeks) reaches ~3.5GB commit.

    Before I disabled it, one of the other E@H CPU apps took ~250MB/instance.

    Add in memory use from the game of the night and I'm almost to the point of needing to stick my old 2GB Dimms back in to go from 12 to 18GB total. I am worried that 16GB won't be enough long term when I replace my I7-930 with an i7-3700 in a few months.
  • SmartyPants - Friday, January 13, 2012 - link

    I think that's pretty atypical...

    Unless 'typical' has changed in the last few years and I'm just behind the times.
  • bearxor - Monday, January 16, 2012 - link

    No, you're not behind the times. That's not what I would consider typical.

    I think you could make the argument that it might be typical for a large percentage of customers in the market for a X79 board, however.
  • popej - Sunday, January 15, 2012 - link

    Yes, basically you repeat "640kb ought to be enough for anybody".

    The price of this motherboard is equivalent of about 50GB DDR3. Something is wrong, if the more expensive part of PC limits its capability.
  • ExcaliburMM - Friday, January 13, 2012 - link

    Great looking board. Would love to put one of these in a white Fractal R3, black and white NZXT RB fans and sleeving to match on all the cables.
  • dtgoodwin - Friday, January 13, 2012 - link

    I'm confused. I thought Intel disabled the extra ports due to compatibility issues. Are the extra ports truly SAS? Is there any concern about their stability? If not, this board is certainly in a league of it's own with having those ports active and present.
  • DanNeely - Friday, January 13, 2012 - link

    The current mess of jumper wires is my biggest pet hate with the current ATX spec. I've seen OEM systems with a monolithic ribbon, but presumably because the standard doesn't enforce a fixed layout, never in a retail case. ASUS's QConnector helps a bit but it's far too easy for wires to pop off while you're trying to maneuver it into place in a crowded box.

    With molex connectors showing up again on sub-ultra premium boards again to boost power I assume work on an ATX refresh probably going to start soon if it hasn't already done so. Instead of just approving the keying shape for a 12 pin 12V connector I wish they'd standardize the front panel connectors layout so a single ribbon connector would be possible.

    Beyond that, and I know I'm just dreaming now, but with PCI finally going away there aren't any (major?) 3.3V consumers left on the mobo, -12V is pointless without RS232, and 5V is only needed for USB. As a result the base ATX power header with 4x +3.3V, +5x5V, 1x -12V, and only 2x +12V is an increasingly poor fit for current systems.

    By dropping the -12V entirely (the handful of boards that need it can synthesize it with their power hardware just like the handful of ISA(?) boards continued to make -5V after that pin was removed), and heavily reducing the number of +3.3/5V wires (to 1 and 2 respectively, or drop 3.3V entirely?) would give room to hack 8 to 12 pins (depending on how many grounds can be cut as well) resulting in either a much smaller 12-16pin connector or a new 16-20pin model with enough additional + 12V wires that mainstream systems would no longer need a separate +12V plug for power.

    This would result in easier cable management for everyone, more space on the mobo to cram all the 10 zillion addon devices that make up an enthusiast board, and marginal cost savings everywhere (only a few bucks/box max but margins are paper thin for budget retail boxes).

    Unfortunately with the failure of BTX there's probably zero chance the major hardware vendors will be willing to risk any breaking changes in the future.
  • fluxtatic - Saturday, January 14, 2012 - link

    To your first comment - yeah, I'd call that atypical. I got 8GB when I upgraded, but I don't know that I've ever seen usage above 3GB (I have a separate screen that tracks it in real time, along with clock speed and temp). I haven't seen Opera go to 1GB for me, although I typically have 30 tabs or less open.

    As to this - not the worst idea I've heard, but I don't see it happening soon. I got a Brazos board a while back, and it's got an ATX +12V - does a CPU with an 18W TDP really need a dedicated 12V connection? As to all the many grounds in a ATX connector, you could possibly cut as many of those as you have the + pins. I may be way off base, but I believe they are used as insulators between pins of varying voltages, similar to IDE ribbon cables. Once IDE started operating above a certain frequency, they moved to 80-wire ribbons, alternating ground and + lines for isolation. The old 40-pin cables got too noisy to be reliable.

    Keep in mind that there are still quite a number of boards using RS232, etc., that fit the ATX spec. They're used in embedded systems, industrial control machinery, etc. You don't see them because they're sold in non-retail channels - if you look at Via's site, you can tell that's their bread and butter. Why else have a Mini-ITX board where a third of the rear I/O panel is eaten up by a serial port (or two)? Similarly, I about did a spit take at work when a customer said they needed floppy disks. When I asked what they could possibly be using them for, the reply was "we use them in our ATMs" This was last year...

    For me, give me a reliable right-angle ATX connector at the very edge of the board and I'm good. I've only ever seen one, and one of the company engineers said those are a lot harder to do than you would think, although he didn't elaborate, as I recall.
  • DanNeely - Saturday, January 14, 2012 - link

    The ATX-24 plug has 11 pins with positive voltages that could conceivably carry significant amounts of current (4x3.3, 5x5, 2x12) and only 8 ground pins; it's not 1:1 presumably because the odds of all 11 power lines being maxed at once was considered negligible. The fact that it's not a simple 1:1 is why I wasn't able to put a number on how many could safely be dropped. THe +12V ones probably each need a dedicated ground since major current draws on them are possible. If the amount of +5 left is scaled to the number of USB ports the grounds there would probably also need to stay 1:1.

    The layout of the pins themselves wouldn't work well for suppressing RF noise/cross talk like in a ribbon cable; and there shouldn't be any high frequency signals running on the power cable that would need suppressed.

    I know RS232 is still alive and well in the embedded world; but its marketshare is a tiny fraction of mainstream systems just like Via's share of x86 itself. Mobos/PCIe cards already make virtually all the voltages their chips actually use already, and the cheapness of USB-RS232 dongles means that creating a negative voltage from a positive one can't be much harder than just dropping to a lower positive voltage. As something almost everyone pays for, but noone uses it's due to be moved out of the mandatory part of the spec.

    The right angle ATX connectors challenge is almost certainly due to mechanical stress from the cable on the socket due to the extremely stiff nature of the fat cable. A vertical socket is easily able to xfer the load directly to the PCB and a big heat sink puts a stronger torque on it so the mechanical strength needed is already there for free. The right angle connector would need extra attachment points to the board beyond those of the power leads going through the PCB itself; and cramped cases with the board jammed up against the drive cage would require tighter average bends on the cable increasing the amount of torque on the socket. Building a right angle connector in the cable itself would be problematic as well since it would need an opposite orientation for mass market cases where it came in from above and larger enthusiast cases where it was routed behind the mobo and then just popped up.
  • Sabresiberian - Saturday, January 14, 2012 - link

    I'm a bit confused here.

    I don't understand why any mainboard would get any kind of recommendation when it clearly has problems pointed out in the review. Regardless of whether or not you want to manually overclock, a sign of problems in any one area puts the whole package in question.

    Feature set does not make up for a lack of quality.

    I also don't understand why saving as much as $70 puts this board in league with the Asus P9X79. Why would anyone want to build an X79 rig and try to save money when there are much less expensive options which give overall similar performance? Build on Z68 (for example) and use a CPU that costs half as much. Or less. If you want the highest level of performance that X79 offers right now for some applications, then saving $70 on the heart of your computer doesn't make much sense to me.

    There are also other boards that are available that have a price similar to, or lower than, this one. Even assuming that saving $70 on the heart of your X79 rig makes sense to you, why would you choose this board over what else is available?

    I'm confused.

    Or, maybe not.


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