Pros: SLI ready, 32GB RAM capacity, 4 SATA and 4 ATA hard drive support
Cons: Using dual PCI-e graphics cards disables the PCI-e 1X slots
The ECS NF650iSLIT-A is a motherboard geared towards gaming, and with gamers who want the best performance for their dollar in mind. The board supports SLI NVIDIA graphics cards for state-of-the-art video performance as well as support for what is currently the fastest FSB (front side bus) speed at 1333MHz (OC - overclocked). The board sports an impressive feature package and is priced lower than its 680i based cousins.
Gamers graphics concerns
The motherboard supports two PCI-Express 16X video cards and (using SLI technology) they can be connected with the supplied SLI card bridge to essentially double the graphic processing of the system. However, this does come at the cost of splitting the bandwidth of the PCI-Express slots in half. Each PCI-Express 16X slot is reduced to 8X on this board whether you are using SLI technology or not.
Worries about the effect of this on a single card were quickly abandoned when I installed an ASUS EAX1950PRO in a single slot and found that I was getting the same effective frame rates in CounterStrike: Source on the ECS NF650iSLIT-A as I did on an ASUS P5AD2-E Premium Motherboard with a single PCI-Express 16X slot running at full bandwidth. It appears that the bandwidth has less to do with the graphics performance than you would think. This motherboard does not support ATI's crossfire technology and all of my graphics cards are ATI Radeon cards so I have not tested the boards SLI function, however from the performance of a single Radeon X1950Pro I can safely say that the graphics capabilities of this board are on par with current gaming demands and the 8X PCI-Express bandwidth is not really a factor for single graphics cards.
The board has 3 PCI slots for expansion and two PCI-Express 1X slots. The PCI-Express 1X slots are disabled if PCI-Express 16X slot #2 is used. So if you are using SLI, you will not be able to use the PCI-Express 1X slots at all. This is another reason to consider a single powerful graphics card if you need the 1X slots for other peripheral cards. The board is an overclocker's dream with an aluminum heatsink and fan on the Northbridge, a heatsink on the Southbridge, BIOS supporting up to 1333MHz FSB and totally adjustable voltages and processing parameters accessible in the AWARD BIOS Firmware. The Firmware revision is 1.0 so there may be updates as technology proceeds.
* Processor support: LGA775 Core 2 Extreme, Core 2 Quad, Core 2 Duo, Pentium D, Pentium 4, Celeron D
* FSB (Front side bus) speeds: 533/800/1066 (overclock supported 1333) MHz
* Chipsets: C55 Northbridge (heat dispersed by fan cooled heatsink); MCP51 Southbridge (heat dispersed by heatsink)
* Supported Memory: DDR2 400/533/667/800 MHz
* Dual Channel Memory Bus: Yes
* Memory Slots: 4
* Maximum Memory: 8GB per slot up to 32GB total RAM
* LAN: Integrated NVIDIA NForce Network Controller 10/100/1000
* Audio: Onboard Realtek 7.1 High Definition audio controller
* 1394 FireWire (optional): Disabled on this board
* Parallel Port (optional): Omitted on this board
* I/O Ports: 2 - PS/2; 1 - Serial; 4 -USB; 1 - RJ-45 LAN; 2 - SPDIF out; 1 - microphone; 1 - audio line-in; 8 channel audio line-out
* Drive Controllers: 2 - NVIDIA nForce 430/410 Serial ATA RAID controller; 2 - Standard ATA 133
* Max drives: 4 - SATA; 4 - ATA33/66/100/133 (8 total)
* RAID support: 0; 1; 0+1; 5
* BIOS/Firmware: AWARD
Setup and Installation
I installed a Pentium D 945 3.4GHz dual core processor on the board with 2GB (2x1GB) of OCZ DDR2 800MHz RAM. The installation of the processor and RAM are easy enough; you simply place the processor in the slot (since it can fit in only the correct orientation) and close the socket. The memory also fits only in the correct orientation. I also installed a Thermaltake TMG i2 cooler on the processor.
The power supply used is an Ultra 550W SLI-Ready with a 120mm cooling fan built-in. The power supply you use should have dual 6-pin PCI-Express power leads if you plan on using SLI technology. You will also be required to plug an additional Molex power lead into the motherboard in order to use SLI.
Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit edition was installed as the operating system. I decided to use this operating system because it takes advantage of the 64-bit processing capabilities of the system. I use Cakewalk Sonar 6 Producer Edition on the system for studio multi-track recording and mixing and it also takes advantage of the 64-bit environment for superior performance in studio recording. This was probably the biggest factor in my decision to use Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit. When installing the drivers for the motherboard, I came across a slight problem that was quickly rectified. The launcher for the driver CD does not support Windows Vista 64-bit; however, I soon realized that Windows Vista had already installed the necessary drivers for the motherboard and all of the onboard peripherals. I decided later to install Windows XP Professional on a separate hard drive as a dual boot system. I found Windows XP to be more desirable for gaming because the ATI X1950 Pro driver has serious issues in Vista and has yet to be rectified in the last three driver updates from ATI.
Benchmarks and performance
I tried several times to benchmark the graphics and processing power of the system using 3DMark06 and Sandra, but neither program would function properly in Windows Vista 64-bit. Unfortunately I do not have any numbers to include in this review. I can attest to the boards ability to perform under full load with gaming, audio recording and video editing. I have not run any benchmarks in Windows XP yet mainly because I have been playing with Vista and havent really used XP much on this system. The computer is mostly used for audio recording and mixing which Vista handles very well.
Using Sonar 6 Producer Edition, I edited a full 32-track mix that my band recorded last month and the processor never used over 28% total processing power. Using a dual core processor, Sonar shows the CPU usage of each core. Core 1 never went over 35% and Core 2 never passed 26% and most of the time both were under 25%. This is impressive considering I was mixing 32 individual WAV tracks in 32-bit audio at 48KHz.
My other computer, which is a Pentium 4 660 3.6GHz 64-bit processor running Windows XP Pro with 2GB (2x1GB) of DDR2 400MHz, would always have the audio drop out during the mix at least once or twice with this particular recording. This happens when the audio engine stops during playback or the processor and/or hard drive can not keep up with the audio rendering. Clearly, the new motherboard and dual core processor have much to do with this as well as the faster RAM and 64-bit operating system.
Playing 3D games is also very impressive that is, when the ATI driver decides to allow me to play. CounterStrike: Source plays as fluid as water with all the graphics options on full. Using the same video card in on my other computer the game performed very well also but not quite as smooth with Anti-aliasing enabled. The frame rates were about the same during actual play, although I did notice they were consistently slightly higher (by a few frames per second) on the new motherboard. On my ASUS/P4 660 system I was getting an average of 50fps with Anti-aliasing set to 4X and a peak at 78fps with 12 players. On the ECS system I saw an average of 56fps and a peak at 90fps. This is most likely due to the faster memory bus (800MHz as opposed to 400MHz) and the dual core processor (dual core as opposed to just hyperthreading). Both processors are running on an 800MHz front side bus.
Some games seem to play just fine and others will crash to a blue screen or just simply freeze the computer (driver gets stuck in an infinite loop). The VPU recovery of the Radeon driver is supposed to catch and reset the driver when this happens and then send an error report to ATI. Unfortunately that doesnt happen and the system will hard lock requiring a complete reboot. This does not reflect on the motherboard, but on my insistence to use an ATI graphics card instead of an NVIDIA one. I think soon I will be purchasing a couple of 7600 cards to run together on this board and I will try to remember to update this review if and when that happens.
I should clarify here also that this problem only occurs in Windows Vista 64-bit and not when I am using Windows XP Professional. ATI's Vista driver is solely to blame for the problem and it doesn't reflect at all on this motherboard or Vista, but strictly on ATI.
I recently installed an EVGA e-GeForce 7900GS KO in this system and all related crashes during gaming has disappeared. This proves the problem was with the ATI driver for Windows Vista and the new card works wonderfully with the board and with Windows Vista. In the next couple of months I plan on buying a second and implementing the use of SLI technology; I will update again at that time.
Windows Vista rated this new system as a 5.0 on the performance under the Windows Experience Index.
The awesome stuff
What impressed me the most about this board is its scalability; it has support for SLI as well as being quite capable of handling single graphics card solutions. I was amazed at how well an ATI Radeon processor based graphics card ran with the NVIDIA Chipset in Windows XP Professional. I must give kudos to NVIDIA for this; their chipset solution is absolutely ROCK solid in XP.
The amount of supported memory in this motherboard is staggering. I have 2GB installed and it performs like a champ, but you can install up to 4 modules of 8GB each for an astounding total of 32GB of system memory; that kind of power in a home computer is just plain scary. You could essentially create a RAM drive and run Windows XP Professional straight from memory alone... absolutely amazing.
I am also impressed with the ability to have up to 8 drives installed on this board with the four SATA drives able to be configured for RAID operation. This board would make a decent media server, file server or web server as well as a great gaming machine. The SATA controller on this board supports the SATA II standard for 3GB/s transfers.
The onboard audio is not bad at all and with surround speakers it can really boost movie and game experience. I installed a SoundBlaster Audigy 2 ZS sound card and the sound was about the same as the onboard sound for movies, MP3 music and games. However, the onboard sound leaves a bit to be desired when it comes to sound processing for digital audio recording.
My Audigy 2 ZS can record audio 24-bit at 192Khz, while the onboard Realtek audio can only give me 16-bit at 48Khz. This is still acceptable for recording radio or from outsource music, but when you are mastering audio for studio quality sound you want the highest possible quality all the way down to the final mix for CD or DAT (which is only 16-bit at 44Khz anyway).
The things I would have liked to see improved upon are few but never-the-less important. This board has IEEE1394 capability but on mine the pins are missing and the option is disabled. In this day and age, a motherboard should support FireWire even at the lowest available options. It is not hard to install a PCI FireWire card so this is only a minor negative against the board, still it is annoying.
The board also does not have a parallel port. This is also only a minor negative since these days most printers are USB or RJ-45 enabled, but it is still annoying for people like me who have parallel peripherals to not be able to use them with this board. I have a parallel ZIP drive, an older parallel printer and an even older parallel scanner; none of which I can use with this board regardless of the operating system I install. Again, it is possible to install a PCI parallel adapter, so this is only a minor annoyance.
The PCI-Express 1X slots are essentially useless if you want to run dual SLI graphics cards. Both of the 1X PCI-e slots are disables when a card is inserted into PCI-Express 16X slot #2. You still have 3 PCI slots so this also is only another minor annoyance, but the 1X slots should not be dependant on or share the bandwidth of the 16X slots. There must be a way around this, and they should have figured this out and corrected it before releasing the board in my opinion.
These minor annoyances do add up to give food for thought before running out and purchasing this motherboard, but after all is said and done it is still quite an impressive piece of technology. I am sure I will be using it for quite some time before I need to upgrade again. Bang for buck, this is a great board and very stable. It is also worth mentioning again that this motherboard is 100% Windows Vista 64-bit compatible (the only problem I have had with Vista is the ATI driver). All aspects of the motherboard work with Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit.
On a scale of 1-10, I personally would rate this board a solid 10 for stability; 9 for up to date technology; 8 for backwards compatibility; 9 for scalability and overall as a complete solution I give it a 9. That being said, on our five star scale; this board gets 4 stars out of 5.
Thanks for reading,