What might seem to be a bargain may have some hidden surprises lurking underneath.

One of our readers who is searching for a new enthusiast class motherboard came across what seemed to be a bargain for product based on Intel’s High end X48 chipset for their Core2 CPU line, being Elite group's (ECS) Black series X48 motherboard and asked of our opinion.  At time of going to press the ECS X48T-A socket 775 motherboard is available in Australia at a street price as low as $185.  Upon reading the price our reader mentioned, we were somewhat surprised at this price thinking the price was for refurbished or demonstration units, as common make and model of motherboards based on the Intel X48 chipset range between $200 for selected DFI models right up through to almost $700 for Asus or Shuttle brand, depending on the location or retailer with the majority of these products range between $250 and $550 AUD.

 

We set off to research pricing and noticed that around the $185 AUD was the minimum going street price for the ECS X48T-A.  Why was this board so cheap? Was there discounting of ECS products occurring ? How about Intel price cuts or promotions to push for higher penetration of their enthusiast grade chipsets? There is always a reason for certain behaviour with computer component pricing and searching through our extensive database of affiliate site reviews we found the answer, or should we say Canadian review site Techgage found the answer.  Techgage’s review correctly highlighted several critical caveats in the design of the layout and connections of the motherboard which will negatively affect installation and the users experience.

ECS X48T-A

Although ECS/PC Chips has had a poor reputation with some users and system builders in the past especially the socket 7/slot 1 CPU era, the company has come a long way since those times and now performs OEM manufacturing for particular brand name PCs which you would have definitely be familiar with, amongst other customers and their own branded products.  Caveats, cons or negative aspects in the design or features of a product are to be expected, especially in a ‘first’ of anything and there is no such thing as a perfect motherboard, graphics card, monitor or even an automobile.

 

The ECS X48T-A was ECS’s first product in their new premium main board  brand for 2008 dubbed ‘black series’ which was targeted at power users and enthusiasts.  The X48T-A ‘only’ has one  4-pin PWM-enabled fan connector, which is intended for the CPU fan.  The feature of only one 4-pin connector is quite common and even the recent flagship ASUS Rampage II extreme motherboard for the Intel Core i7 CPU has only one of this type of socket as do Intel’s own branded motherboards so this is just a minor issue.

 

The Serial ATA connectors on the ECS board are a definite issue however. ECS have grouped all six sockets together upwards facing and when a large graphics card is installed such as the NVIDIA 9800 GTX, four of these sockets will be blocked and covered by the graphics card, while using a pair of ATI cards only leaves two sockets available.  Contemporary motherboards which support multiple graphics cards use right angle connectors which solve this layout issue.

An alternative  location for upright SATA ports that generally does not conflict with any add-in cards is the lower right corner of the motherboard. Manufacturers such as Intel have been known to optimise their designs in this fashion.

 

The board uses a simpler and cheaper power distribution design than some other motherboards of the same class and as such in place of the 7th expansion slot which can be either PCI or PCI Express, ECS have included an optional 5.25” drive power socket for those users who desire ‘extra stability’, which means those users with older or average  power supplies. Other manufactures such as DFI offer the full complement of seven expansion slots on their X48 boards.

 

Some pluses/positive aspects of this main board is that one of its gigabit network ports is powered by Intel’s 566DC Ethernet chip and the other powered by the common Realtek 8111 solution. The inclusion of the PCI Express connected Intel Network chip means that with Windows Vista, Windows 7 and most modern Linux distributions, this Gigabit LAN controller is supported by the ‘inbox’ drivers included with the operating system.  The Intel solution also offers higher performance generally due to its efficiency and PCI Express bus connection, better task offloading support to reduce CPU usage and offers a enterprise friendly and proven PXE (Network boot) solution for scenarios who install or deploy disk images or operating systems over their network.

 

What may seem like a unnecessary and redundant port by some is the inclusion of a single serial board on the back of the motherboard, however it is not as redundant as many people think it is.  Serial is required to interface and communicate with many types of electronic or computer devices such as enterprise/ business grade network routers, set top boxes, scientific, electronic and industrial equipment, serial redirection of a software console or operating system as well as a number of interface adapters or cables for diagnosing or repairing electronic/computing products that require a ‘TTL’ interface such as consumer networking devices, multimedia players or a wide range of devices which incorporate a CPU and a internal RS232/TTL port.

 

A USB to serial adapter is often suitable for connection of legacy devices to modern computers, however not all of these operate in exactly the same way and there are compatibility  issues with these types of devices as some do not translate all of the signals that are used in a physical serial-com port.  For a professional workstation or server implementation use a physical serial port on the motherboard may be desired by the end user, especially where an older system is being replaced by a modern equivalent.  Other manufacturers such as DFI and Intel do offer serial ports on their contemporary motherboards however these are simply pin headers and the end user is expected to purchase a suitable cable/socket/back plate.  An internal serial cable from the ‘junk box’ or an old motherboard will not be suitable as these are typically very short. Additionally, modern computer chassis/cases do not feature extra cut-outs for sockets such as serial ports so the user will either need to feed this extra installed serial cable through an opening or install the socket in a back plate for an expansion slot, loosing the use of that expansion slot which are already limited on modern motherboards.

 

Another design ‘quirk’ is the inclusion of two coaxial SPDIF(Digital Audio) sockets, one for input other for output. Some motherboards such as some of those from Intel only feature optical output while others bundle an expansion card to enable the use of extra audio connections at the expense of an expansion slot. The ECS X48T-A has coaxial and optical digital audio sockets on the board.

The same can be said about the motherboards eSATA socket, ECS give the user a physical socket on the rear of the motherboard, although this is commonplace, other manufacturers such as Gigabyte expect the users to waste an expansion slot with a bracket or card to use these features.

ECS X48T-A motherboard

While this motherboard may be the cheapest X48 model on the Australian market, if you are intended to use a multi disk array with high-end graphics cards please consider carefully whether saving a few dollars up front to buy a cheaper motherboard such as ECS X48T-A is suitable for your intended system specification as purchasing upfront and then discovering a compatibility issue will only lead to frustration and a waste of time and money.  If you after a cheap performance motherboard to use DDR3 memory and two ATI Radeon graphics cards at their full bus speed of 16x and higher front side bus speeds for over-clocking, or require a physical serial port or you do not need a flexibility with expansion slots this board may be for you.

 

This board and the chipset it uses is aimed at a demographic who will install large/multiple graphic cards. Both ECS and Intel intended for this product to be used in this fashion, it is the whole point of Intel’s X series chipsets.  A critical layout conflict with the SATA ports is unacceptable and we feel he ‘low’ price of $185 AUD is still to high. Given that Intel’s new mainstream/performance platform of the Core i5 CPU and P55 chipset is almost here, as well as value-for-money multi-core Phenom II CPU and chipsets from AMD at similar price points we cannot recommendation this motherboard at this price, a further price drop of another $10-$15 would be sufficient if not a further price reduction.

 

This motherboard design should not have been given the go ahead and manufactured given this design limitation. Having said that there are many motherboards on the market from other Tier-1 manufacturers such as select models from Giga-Byte and others which also have layout/design conflicts with SATA, USB, power or expansion card concerns and that the ECS is not alone, it is however their flagship socket 775 Intel Chipset motherboard which is why we have highlighted its pros and cons.  In a positive note, ECS seemed to have taken on feedback from reviews and users and other members of its ‘black series’ brand such as its P45T black series have design and layout improvements.

 

Product Info: ECS product web page ECS product web page

Product Review: Techgage review

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