BIOS

There are a lot of manufacturers who put a substantial amount of time and effort into their BIOS systems, and it shows in terms of compatibility, performance, and presentation.  In the early days of P67 UEFI, ECS' implementation wasn't much more than a glorified old-fashioned BIOS, with a new set of colors and menus.  Back in my ECS HQ Tour in June, I walked past engineers working on their 'more graphical' implementation, which is what we have to look at today.  Admittedly, from a usage standpoint, not much has changed - it still feels like you're navigating an old fashioned BIOS system, but with an enhanced color scheme.

One small change that ECS have done is with an easy and advanced mode for their BIOS.  At the minute, the BIOS defaults to the Advanced mode, which defeats the purpose of an easy mode, however that may change with BIOS updates.  The Easy menu has four buttons - Language, Default, Boot and Advanced, which essentially do what they say on the tin.  The Boot menu allows you to select a one-off boot device, which is odd when this option isn't in the advanced part of the BIOS menus (and one I rather like).

The BIOS is easy to navigate, but the initial screen doesn't provide any of the vital information a user might need - CPU, current CPU speed, Memory installed, Memory speed, basic voltage readings, fan speeds, temperatures.  This is all basic stuff which could be listed on the front page for quick access.  In terms of temperature/fan speed/voltages, these are found in the PC Health submenu, which further expands into the smart fan settings.

The smart fan settings and controls have preset modes, or manual adjustments.  This is the only place you can set the CPU fan settings - the OS software only allows control of the SYS fan headers.  Personally, I prefer the OS software anyway to the OS controls here - units such as 'PWM value' have no place on a user screen on a BIOS.

The main bread and butter of a BIOS is in the overclocking, found under the M.I.B. X heading in the ECS BIOS.  The front screen contains some of the overclocking tools - the very good 'Quick OC' option which puts the board into preset values supplied by ECS (more on that later), a set of ECS OC profiles (not so good, as of the BIOS I am using), BCLK and CPU strap adjustments, and voltage modification.  This screen doesn't have anything CPU multiplier or memory related, which is a big oversight, as they are just as important.

Voltages are only available in offset mode, which is frustrating when the CPU VCore lists the current value, rather than the stock value.  In order to change the BCLK, the 'CPU Overclocking' option needs to be set to enabled.  In order to adjust the CPU multiplier, users have to navigate to the 'CPU Overclocking Function' menu.  Memory tweaking requires the 'Memory Overclocking Function' menu.  Note, as of the 12/26/2011 BIOS, I was unable to adjust the CPU multiplier.  Another issue is when a user changes the CPU strap from 1.00x to 1.25x - this directly affects the memory, but as there isn't a memory setting on this M.I.B. X front screen, users may suffer boot failures due to memory being clocked too high.

Other points to be noted in the BIOS:

- By default, the bottom six SATA ports are set to disabled, as they are technically not supported by the chipset.  Users have to navigate to Advanced -> SCU SATA to enable the ones listed 'SAS'.
- On the 12/26/2011 BIOS (which I'm told may not be a full release BIOS), the WiFi and Bluetooth were also disabled by default.  ECS tell me that for consumers, these will be enabled by default, and thus installed by the Chipset driver utility program.  Just a heads up if they still are not working after you have installed the chipset drivers.
- Overclock recovery is almost non-existent on the X79R-AX.  Whenever I had overclock issues, especially memory, the board would stop on a POST code for a minute or two, then shut down.  On trying to clear CMOS, I was left with a blank Debug LED and the board still not even getting to BIOS.  The only way to remedy this was to remove the power cord, then hit the Clear CMOS button on the IO panel.  The board would then boot, albeit with all my settings lost.

Overclocking

As mentioned a couple of times so far this review, the X79R-AX is a dichotomous motherboard for overclock with the BIOSes I had access to.  There are several ways to overclock: by the 'Quick OC' option in the BIOS, by the 'ECS OC Profile' settings which split into memory and CPU, by the OC software in the OS, or by manual adjustment.  I will go through each one in turn.

With Quick OC, I was asked to confirm I wanted to proceed, then the board did two hard resets before going into the OS.  In the OS, the CPU idled at 1.2 GHz as normal, but in single and multi-threaded mode, this rose to 4.5 GHz (45x multiplier, 100 BCLK) at 1.416 V.  The memory was also set to its first XMP profile, which with this set (which has two XMP profiles) gave DDR3-2133 8-10-10.  This setting was completely Blender stable, never going above 73ºC.

Back in the BIOS, I now move on to the 'OC Profile' Settings, which is split into CPU and Memory, and each of these is split further.  The CPU options split into light/medium/heavy, each with different effects to the BCLK:

- Light: 1.00x strap, 102 BCLK
- Medium: 1.25x strap, 101 BCLK
- Heavy: 1.25x strap, 103 BCLK

On the light setting, the board booted into the OS, however Turbo was disabled, limiting me to 33x multiplier and 102 BCLK, technically making the performance worse than stock settings.  Neither the Medium or Heavy setting worked, in fact not even getting to POST.  This is because I feel these settings do not take into account the DDR3 memory adjustment - putting an extra 25% through the memory at the same JEDEC sub-timings isn't always advised without due care and attention, to which the user receives no notification on the M.I.B X screen.

With the Memory OC Profile settings, we have options on my memory from 1600 MHz in straps going up to 2400 MHz.  The 2133 setting on my memory worked, booting into the OS at 9-11-9 sub timings.  However the 2400 MHz setting didn't, giving POST code 64 on the Debug LED, relating to memory.

In terms of the OS overclocking software, eOC, we haven't got much to play with here.  The only adjustable is BCLK, which for all intents and purposes for most users is not very useful.  There is also an option to adjust the voltages, but these values move with the different power states which the board is in, which could be an issue if a user sets 1.4 V while the board is in an idle state, causing more +mV when in a load state.

And finally, manual overclocking, which for this board, is almost non-existent.  I had full reign over BCLK adjustments and CPU strap settings, getting 127 BCLK out of my processor.  However, for CPU multiplier adjustments, I hit a brick wall.  All the CPU multiplier adjustments are under the 'CPU Overclocking' menu in M.I.B. X, and to adjust the multiplier you have to turn the 'CPU Ratio Setting Control' from 'By Turbo Boost' to 'Manual'.  This gave access to the Multiplier, but the board would not apply (or save) any value I changed this to.  I tried adjusting the Turbo Boost per-core numbers as well, but this gave me nothing.  If I booted with these settings off of default, the OS would reduce to 33x multiplier max, giving a worse-than-stock performance.

As a whole on the overclocking side, I was really pleased with the Quick OC result.  Having 4.5 GHz at 1.4 V with XMP enabled is a great, one-button result.  However, the other options leave a lot to be desired.

ECS X79R-AX - Overview and Visual Inspection ECS X79R-AX - Board Features, In The Box, Software
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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.
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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. Reply
  • 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. Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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.
    Reply
  • 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.

    ;)
    Reply

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