ECS P67H2-A Review: A visit back to Lucid's Hydraby Ian Cutress on July 21, 2011 9:00 AM EST
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If you remember back to October 2008, there were distinct murmurings about Hydra - an encompassing hardware and software solution to bring multiple GPUs together to act as one. Then, in January 2010, Ryan tested the Hydra chip, with the end result being: more development required. In my hands is the ECS P67H2-A, the latest board to include the Hydra solution. Armed with the latest version of the Hydra software too, I'm here to review this board, to see if it works as a suitable P67 solution, and if Hydra has anything to offer.
In terms of the P67H2-A itself, there are still quite a few areas that need polishing in order to improve the end user experience. There are BIOS issues relating to usability; there's a serious overclocking issue in the case of multithreading over 4.4 GHz, and the Hydra solution still isn't what we want (but you could say it's getting there, possibly). Out of the box, very few people would have issues. But it's when you get into the meat of the product where some slightly uncomfortable ridges occur, which other competitors have potentially worked on to get the better product.
The P67H2-A is a Black Series model from the ECS line-up, which means it gets the Black Series treatment - the silver, black and grey livery makes its way onto the PCB, all the slots and connectors, and the power delivery heatsink at least looks styled. The heatsink is a dual copper heatpipe design, which ECS states gives a 15-20ºC reduction in PWM temperature.
Along the top we find a 2x4-pin 12 V CPU power connector, and a series of lights indicating how many of the power phases are being utilised under different CPU loads. Next to this is a 4-pin CPU fan header – one of only three fan headers on the board (a PWR on the other side of the DIMM slots, and a SYS at the bottom of the board). Having only three fan headers on a high end board is rather shocking. Beyond the CPU fan header above the DIMM slots are voltage read points for vCore, DIMM, IMC, PCH and PLL – these require direct contact rather than easy slot in connectors, and given my experience of overclocking below, not required.
Working down the right hand side of the board, beyond the four DDR3-2133 (OC) memory slots, are onboard power and reset buttons. The PCH provides the standard two SATA 6 Gbps and four SATA 3 Gbps ports, all supporting RAID 0, 1, 5 and 10. It is odd not to find another controller provided on this board to give more internal SATA ports, given that so many others at this price range typically have another two SATA 6 Gbps ports provided by a controller. Instead, we have a controller for the eSATA 6 Gbps ports on the rear I/O panel.
Underneath this is a USB 3.0 port, which in my eyes is in a very odd place – this is a Hydra board, designed to aid multi-GPU situations. Yet if I use two medium level GPUs (e.g. 5850s at 9.5 inches long) in the appropriate slots, this obscures the USB 3.0 header completely. This seems to be an oversight in ECS’ design. Further below this port is a debug LED, which should according to the documentation double up as a ‘live’ temperature monitor after POST - however, this doesn't happen. Also of note is that this board doesn’t have a screw hole in the bottom right, for affixing the board to a case – a hole is there, but it’s neither in the right place nor the right type.
Underneath the heatsinks, this board contains a Hydra 200 chip. This chip is providing two important functions on this board – to serve as a bypass to requiring SLI certification, and also like an NF200 by organising extra PCIe lanes. As a result, the three full length PCIe x16 slots will run at x16/x16/x0 or x16/x8/x8 depending on if two or three graphics cards are used. Like the NF200, we expected this to result in a small decrease to performance compared to true x16/x16 native chipset implementations, but there may also be associated overhead in using the Hydra hardware (as well as the software). I examine the Hydra results in detail later in the review.
The PCIe layout itself is a mix of good and bad, using an x1, x16, x1, PCI, x16, PCI, x16 configuration – however the first x1 can be limited by the heatsink in terms of width, stalling any wide PCIe x1 cards. The only full length x1 will be blocked by any dual slot GPU. If the top two PCIe x16 slots are populated with GPUs, then the user could use the bottom PCIe x16 slot for the x1 card, however I’m unsure as to whether the slot would run in x8 mode (as all the PCIe are populated) or in x0 mode (because the GPUs are in the first two PCIe x16). It can be very hard to organise a tri-GPU motherboard and please everyone in this regard.
The back panel is a fairly reasonable layout of what would cover most people – a PS/2 port for mouse or keyboard, six USB 2.0 ports, four USB 3.0 ports (NEC controller), dual gigabit Ethernet (Realtek) which supports Teaming, a clear CMOS button, 8-channel audio jacks (Realtek) and an optical S/PDIF output.
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anandtech pirate - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - linkthat last photo on the first page makes the board look crooked.
also, where's the evo3d review?
Gigantopithecus - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - linkAgreed - some board flexing is to be expected, especially after mounting a massive aftermarket hsf and installation into the case, but that looks a bit ominous for a brand new board straight outta the box! I know it's not terribly reasonable to think less of a board for such a thing, but I can't help but raise an eyebrow as to why a premium board looks like that.
...Otherwise, thanks for the very thorough review, thanks Ian!
connor4312 - Monday, October 17, 2011 - linkLikely (hopefully) just some lens distortion that wasn't fixed in PS.
Hargak - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - linkThe word ECS still gives me nightmares. I'm sure things have changed.. I still twitch from flashbacks of early MSI boards..
randinspace - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - linkI can't believe you actually ran that many combinations in that many programs for Hydra! It made for quite the fascinating read so great job.
ckryan - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - linkare very hit and miss lately.
First, if you're a in the business of designing, building, and selling mainbords, why would you try to kick your customers in the [insert place to kick here] with such a prickly, useless UEFI? Further, some of the engineers presumably have sight, so that it left the facory with that kind of graphical uefi is unbelivable. Just looking at the color pictures of the uefi made my eyes hurt with it's yellowish-green and greenish-yellow text on a schizophrenic background. Asus clearly has the (far and away) best graphical UEFI, but the graphical part isn't neccessary if you design the text part is a half way decent fashion. The BIOS and UEFI make or break a board. For instance, Zotac has some good boards with not so great BIOSs, either with dubious or broken or missing functions. Biostar has improved in this area, but was using a text UEFI, then released a grapical upgrade for their 1155's (I have not tried it yet, but have seen some pictures) company that makes boards that should have no excuse for bad BIOS/UEFI designs is Intel (though you could make the case that everything they do should be better). To their credit, they've improved over the last decade substantially. Their DP67BG mainboard had a less than savory UEFI back in January, but has since improved to an almost excellent system. But not graphical, which is okay. I'd rather have a decent text system than graphical one any day of the week, or in ECS's case, never. I just don't get a lot of the decisions mainboard manufacturers are using, especially when this seems like the one area where Taiwanese firms AREN"T "copy and pasting" and just plain stealing from one another.
philosofool - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - linkI honestly don't see the point of GUI BIOS, but I've never used one. The only advantage I can see is building in mouse roll-over stuff so that when I mouse over the menu option, it shows me what's nested in there, but you can do that with arrow key selection too.
ckryan - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - linkI think, when done well, a graphical UEFI can provide more information and options. It doesn't actually do anything better per se. In my opinion, no bios provides nearly enough information on settings and options anyway, but some are just abysmal. Even in the mobo's manual you will find vague descriptions which border on absurd. If you do a lot of digging (and you own an Intel extreme series board) you can find Intel's BIOS/UEFI manual which and a performance tuning guide which provides some good guidance about which settings do what and why you would need to use them. If you had only been using AMD, and then switched to a Z/P Sandy Bridge board, you'd probably be a little confused about the options due to the new OC paradigm. I believe that the best motherboard can be ruined with a terrible BIOS or UEFI. UEFI is pretty cool, but if you can't make a good text only implementation, how the hell are you going to make a passable GUI? I'm perfectly happy with a well designed text based UEFI, but I will admit that as much time as I spend with BIOSs and UEFIs, Asus' slick GUI system is clearly in a class by itself. If I were new to the game, I would want something like that on my first build. There just isn't an excuse for terrible BIOS/UEFIs in the year 2011.
wifiwolf - Thursday, July 21, 2011 - linkI for instance have been surprised my Asus board gui enables instantly booting from whatever device by clicking in that device in boot section of the bios. Was a nice surprise.
Nataku - Friday, July 22, 2011 - linkhonestly speaking, for beginner/intermediate users that didn't have to deal with dos, the mouse option does help
besides, we gotta move forward at some point :P