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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  • 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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