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. 

Overview

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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  • PhoenixEnigma - Sunday, January 15, 2012 - link

    Agreed.

    When I see an Anandtech Editor's Choice award, I expect whatever product is to be substantially above average in most, if not all, regards. They're pretty rare, and carry a good deal of weight in my eyes.

    Seeing something like this be given one devalues that. Performance is middling at best, expandability is mixed, warranty is below average, and the EFI appears to be a steaming pile of crud - even clearing CMOS is faulty!

    It's a cheap board (if you trust the MIR), but it seems to be in both price and quality, corners have been cut all over. Short of Ian verifying those are indeed SAS ports, I have a hard time imagining how this is "Editor's Choice" better than, say, the GA-X79-UD3 - which doesn't need a MIR to hit the same pricepoint.
    Reply
  • IanCutress - Sunday, January 15, 2012 - link

    This is only the second award I've given in twelve months over 20+ reviews - the other being the ASUS P9X79 Pro. After testing the board, I'd be happy to stick it into a system, use the one button 4.5 GHz overclock and leave it there, and still have access to 12 SATA ports (I should add ECS doesn't guarantee SAS compatibility with these, for all intents and purposes they are best left to be used as SATA), dual gigabit Ethernet, Wifi and Bluetooth. The GA-X79-UD3 you mention in comparison has 6 SATA ports, a single Ethernet port, no Wifi or Bluetooth, a comparatively worse automatic overclock system, not a full range of fan controls and perhaps questionable software.

    Editor's Choice awards aren't there just for the biggest, best and brightest - otherwise we'd be putting them on every board at the highest price point that checked all the boxes. They're meant for hardware that as a reviewer, I'd happily use, and it ticks all my boxes. These may not be the same boxes as yours, sure, but a board that caters for one group of users may not suitable for another group, meaning that I have to levy my judgement over my experiences with what I'm happy with.

    This is why I've given so few over the past 12 months - the ECS board has been given a Bronze award while the rebate is in place, as the price is a big factor given the comparison to other products. I've yet to give a gold award at all, because no one board I've seen has been a perfect (features, performance, price) must buy. You may disagree with my choice to give this ECS board an award, which is your right. But in my opinion, after testing the board and conversing back and forth on some of the finer points with ECS, that it deserves one at the $260 price point.
    Reply
  • kloudykat - Sunday, January 15, 2012 - link

    Back in April 2009, I was building a new system.

    I scanned newegg and eventually settled on a brand new "enthusiast" motherboard from ECS.

    It was the ECS BLACK SERIES X58B-A, the 1366 chipset one.

    I bought it because I had built a few pc's for other people using ECS boards, so I knew it would work.

    Here are the other components if anyone is interested:

    Intel Core i7-920 Bloomfield 2.66GHz LGA 1366 130W Quad-Core Processor
    G.SKILL 6GB (3 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333 (PC3 10666) Triple Channel Kit
    BFG Tech BFGEGTX260MC896OCE GeForce GTX 260
    CORSAIR Enthusiast Series CMPSU-650TX 650W Power Supply
    Pioneer DVD Burner
    Bunch of hard drives, 1x 360 gb main drive, 2x 1.5TB and 1x 1TB storage drives

    Once I got it all installed, I found I was unable to overclock it at all.

    Now I am not an OC king or anything, but I have managed to successfully OC some systems in the past.

    No matter what I attempted to do in the BIOS, manual or auto OC, it would fail to boot.

    With that said, if I left it alone and kept it at the stock frequencies, it worked great. It still works great.

    Heck, I am posting this on it right now.

    But what rubbed me the wrong way was that ECS marketed this as an OC friendly board, when in reality, it was nothing of the sort.

    I agree with Ian, the bios OC options are confusing as hell, at least on my board.

    I made sure to update to the latest BIOS and that didn't help anything.

    I even made it a point to contact ECS customer support for assistance.

    I followed the guidelines they emailed me and it still didn't work.

    When I contacted them again to inquire about replacement/money back/etc, I was told basically tough luck.

    Ok, thats it. That is my 2 cents. So yeah, I agree with you Ian. It is a good board. I have used it as my

    main pc for 3 almost 4 years in a row. It has done nothing but good things for me. I just hope that

    you have better luck out of this model than I did out of mine.
    Reply
  • AlexIsAlex - Monday, January 16, 2012 - link

    What would be nice, in motherboard reviews, would be a measure of the cold boot (POST) time. This is something that different bioses can be differentiated on, and UFEI offers the potential for very fast boots if manufacturers take advantage of it properly.

    Would it be possible to report, for comparison, the time between the power button being pressed and the installed bootloader starting? I was thinking it might be easiest to measure this by having no OS on the boot media and measuring the time to the "please insert boot media" message, but I'm sure you can think of other ways of doing it.
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - link

    I'd like to second this request, and that it include both normal and overclocked times. My current LGA1366 system spends almost half its boot time posting and half loading the OS from my SSD. (20s power to beep, 10s beep to appearance of OS loading screen, 20s more to login). At stock speeds the first interval is less than half as long. Reply
  • Lugaidster - Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - link

    I wonder why boot time is not included given that it should be affected by the firmware. At least I would expect bigger differences than the results on the computation benchmarks. Reply

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