ECS has come a long way in a few short years. Their brand image was such that they used to be seen as a company that sold motherboards for budget users. Slowly but surely, the company has introduced products that target high-end enthusiasts and system builders. Now with the Golden Board series, the enthusiast user is being targeted. With the new series of boards, ECS claims only the best components are good enough, and goes to extra effort to make sure boards with the Golden Board name are the most stable, longest lasting motherboards possible. They have even introduced an expedited RMA service should something go wrong with any of their motherboards or GPUs.
|Chipset||Intel Z77 Express|
|Memory support||32GB (4x8GB) DDR3-2667(OC)/1600/1333/1066|
|Expansion slots||PCI Express 3.0 x16: 2 (16/0 or 8/8)
PCI Express x1: 2
Mini PCI Express x1: 1 (mSATA or mPCIe)
|Storage||Z77: 2x SATA 6.0Gb/s, 2x SATA 3.0GB/s
Asmedia ASM1061: 2x SATA 6.0GB/s
|Audio||Realtek ALC892 8-channel HD Audio|
|Network||Realtek RTL 8111E Gigabit
Bluetooth 2.1+ EDR
|USB||4x USB 3.0 (rear I/O)
1x USB 3.0 header
2x USB 2.0 (rear I/O)
1x USB 2.0 header
|Video ports||HDMI, DVI, VGA|
|Fan headers||2×3-pin, 1×4-pin|
|On-board buttons||Power, reset, Clear CMOS|
|Price||$249.99 MSRP, $219.99 on Newegg before rebate|
When paired with an Ivy Bridge CPU, all three display outputs on the motherboard may be used at the same time. A Sandy Bridge CPU only allows use of two of the outputs. I’d like to have seen a DisplayPort output (perhaps instead of the analog VGA port), especially since VGA is supposedly being phased out in favor of all-digital outputs in the display market, but it’s only a minor complaint.
- Golden Board enhancements—The ECS Golden Boards represent the upper echelon of the enthusiast Black Series motherboards and brings a (not surprising, given the name) black and gold layout. The CPU pins, memory sockets, PCI Express slot pins, and heatsinks are all gold plated.
- Nonstop Technology—All of the current Golden Boards and new Black Series motherboards with Nonstop Technology include super alloy chokes, Apache long-life capacitors, and Thor Ultra Protection comprehensive electrostatic discharge protection. The certification process involves a brutal 72-hour test period which stresses critical components and subjects them to operation in 50°C temperatures.
- Lucid Virtu—The previous generation Intel chipsets (Cougar Point) made the user choose between a discrete GPU and Intel’s on-die graphics. This caused one potentially useful feature, QuickSync, to be completely disabled when a discrete GPU was in place. Now, thanks to Virtu, the system can seamlessly switch between the discrete and integrated graphics when needed. When using this feature, the monitor outputs on the motherboard must be used as opposed to the GPU outputs—the video signal from the discrete GPU is routed through the motherboard outputs.
Attached to the I/O shield are antennas for Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11b/g/n radios. They’re both very handy extras, especially since their inclusion potentially frees up either internal expansion slots or USB ports.
SuperSpeed USB 3.0 support is built into the Z77 chipset. Four USB 3.0 ports are on the rear I/O panel and there is an additional header on the motherboard. Four USB 2.0 ports are also included on the rear panel with one additional motherboard header included.
A mini PCI Express slot (in the corner opposite the I/O shield) allows users to add a small SSD for Intel’s Smart Response Technology, which uses said SSD for caching programs and data for faster access.
- CPU: Intel Core i7 2600K
- Motherboard: ECS P67H2-A2, ECS Z77H2-A2X
- RAM: 16GB DDR3-1600
- GPU: Radeon HD 6950 2GB
- SSD: OCZ Vertex 2 120GB
You might have noticed from the system configuration that an Ivy Bridge CPU is not included. Why? Well, the main reason is that Ivy Bridge is not much more than a die shrink of Sandy Bridge, and as such it is not a significant improvement over its predecessor. Furthermore, many of the other review sites as well as overclockers on Icrontic have stated that the best combination of CPU and chipset right now is Sandy Bridge on a Z77 motherboard.
Overally, there really isn’t much of a performance difference between the older P67 and newer Z77 chipsets when all the other hardware is identical. If there is a difference, it’s generally less than 10% and likely not to be a noticeable difference.
Synthetic benchmark suite SiSoft Sandra shows a couple of spots where performance is inexplicably different between platforms. Specifically, two CPU tests (Dhrystone integer performance and L3 cache bandwidth) and memory bandwidth test have no reason to perform differently. It could be due to different motherboard drivers, but it’s hard to nail down the exact cause. A fresh Windows install was used for each system build, so old/bad driver selection can be eliminated.
Among the applications in our benchmarking suite, gaming seems to improve the most, but again there are only mild to moderate benefits from the Z77 platform. Only one game wasn’t faster on the newer motherboard, and even then the difference was less than two percent, and it was certainly nothing that would be noticed as frame rates were still quite above acceptable levels. Other than that one game, anywhere up to about a 10% improvement can be expected with otherwise identical hardware.
Benchmark results follow.
I ran the ECS Z77H2-A2X through some overclocking exercises and was able to get to just about 4.8ghz on air. Here’s the follow-up article detailing my overclocking experiences.
Owners of Intel P67 or Z68 motherboards have no really compelling reason to upgrade to the new boards (unless they’re itching to get their hands on Ivy Bridge), but anyone looking to build a new system would do well in pairing a Z77 motherboard with a Sandy Bridge CPU.
The ECS Z77H2-A2X is a feature-packed motherboard that performs well. At $219.99 it’s one of the more expensive Z77 motherboards, but it also includes a combination of features that other similarly priced boards cannot match. High quality components designed to withstand punishing conditions, rigorous quality testing, and (should it be needed) outstanding RMA service and you have a rather compelling package. It’s an enthusiast part without the enthusiast pricing. We’re happy to award the ECS Z77H2-A2X the Icrontic Stamp of Approval for being most golden motherboard.