There’s only one constant thing in life and that is that things change. Nothing is ever constant and with the PC industry this constant is actually ratcheted up about six notches. Why do I bring this up? Because I am going to be talking about the ECS PF5 Extreme, the new high end motherboard from ECS. ECS is mostly known for their low end, entry level motherboards and I only knew of them as being the brand of choice for the great motherboard/chip deals on Outpost.com. I was a little wary of the board as I’ve seen a lot of other companies try and enter this market and fail because they didn’t quite understand all of the nuances of the market they were getting into.
The first thing you notice when you get the PF5 Extreme is how big the box is. It was easily twice the height of every other motherboard box I’ve ever seen before. ECS has to use a box this big though, just to contain all of the goodies that come with the PF5. Opening the box revealed four SATA cables, a pair of ribbon IDE cables, a FDD cable, a Top Hat flash unit, a USB/1394 bracket, a USB/1394 3.5 drive bay housing, an Ethernet cable, rear SATA bracket, a rear LPT1 bracket, a PF5 case badge, a pair chrome faucets, a pedestal kitchen sink, and seven maids a milking. OK, I made the last three up but there’s a lot of stuff in the box. I really like the fact that ECS included a rear USB/1394 bracket as well as a housing that you can mount on the front of your case. If you need extra USB headers for the front of your case and you don’t have a case with front ports this is a really nice benefit.
A nice little touch is the dust covers for optical ports on back of the motherboard. Instead of adding in those dinky-easy-to-lose plugs for the optical ports, ECS put little flip dust covers over the ports. I know it’s a small thing but it’s those little things that can add up pretty quickly.
Another nice touch is the Top Hat flash unit which allows you to immediately restore an old BIOS incase you manage to trash the one on the board. While I didn’t have to use it, it does represent a nice lifeline in case you hose up a setting and can’t get back into the board for some reason such as a BIOS flash gone bad.
Besides the trinkets there is the motherboard itself which has a feature list that is also fairly impressive:
The first thing you’ll notice looking at the very purple motherboard is the large lime green fan at the top left corner of the board. This fan actually pulls cool air into the case and over the power capacitors and CPU. It’s not a particularly powerful fan but ever little bit helps right? The fan also has some air holes in it to help exhaust some of that heat as well. The negative part of this is that it does take up a bit of the space from the rear IO port (hence why the LPT is on bracket that hooks directly to the motherboard). It’s not a bad trade off though as long as you don’t have a need for that port.
Intel 945P chipset North Bridge
2 x16 PCI-E slots, 1 x1 PCI-E slot, 3 PCI
Altec ALC880 8 channel audio
Dual LAN ports, 1 Marvell Gigabit connection, 1 Realtek 10/100 connection
8 USB 2.0 ports, 4 on back panel, 4 on the motherboard
The PF5 Extreme is a very large PCB board and the components are nicely spread out across the board. Possible even too much as there’s a very large badge on the board that just seems to be there to occupy space. I’m not going to complain about it because there is a lot of room around the CPU so you should be able to mount what ever kind of monster CPU cooler you want on to the board.
The layout of the the board well thought out. The North Bridge chip set is actively cooled with a small cylindrical heat sink with a fan on top and the South Bridge is kind of passively cooled with a small metal covering with the word “Extreme” punched out around the sides. I’m not sure if there’s scientific principle about the word “Extreme” adding any kind of cooling benefit but that’s the route ECS has taken.
The IDE and FDD slots are high on the right side which is a nice idea. I would have liked to have them side mounted to the board (something that Abit has started doing with their boards) as it makes routing the cables a little easier but having the ports in that location does help that a bit. The location of the fan headers is also nice as ECS put one on either side of the bottom of the motherboard, in perfect position for front and rear fans in the case.
Setting the board up is pretty standard fare and helped greatly by the excellent color manual included in the box. ECS has put some small LEDs above the four memory units. When the LED is on, you should not remove the memory module. It’s a common sense thing but a nice reminder when you are up to your elbows working in side the case. There are also a set of LED’s next to each of the PCI cards that light up when a card is not present or unrecognized by the system. If a card is not installed the LED will blink on and off. It’s a nice debug tool and it kind of looks cool if you have a side window on your case.
ECS did a nice job with the driver installation. Instead of having to install a series of drivers, you run one program and it installs all of the necessary drivers and software. The process is automated enough where you can walk away and the system will reboot as necessary. This is the first time I’ve seen this on a motherboard install program and it’s a nice change from the “have to sit there and work my way through a list of install programs” that other companies have provided.
Installed with the drivers is ECS’s ESonic 2 application which allows you to overclock the motherboard, check the status of the hardware, flash the motherboard, and create custom boot-up logo’s. The real highlight of the package is the Logo utility which allows you to use your own logo’s for the boot-up image. I know it is a bit on the silly side but it is a fun feature that I really haven’t seen on a lot of other motherboards. (I'm sure Chuck's searching for a nice Columbus Bluejackets image to use right now. -John)
While I’m on the topic of software, ECS put in a second disc full of utilities in with the motherboard. They include WinDVD, WinDVD Creator, Winrip 2 (music ripping and storing application), DPU (a backup utility), InTouch (remote access software), Pro Magic plus, and ShowShifter (a DVR application). It’s a nice touch to toss these in and while you might not use all of them, you’ll probably end up using one or two of them.
My test system consisted of:
- Windows XP Service Pack 2
- Intel Pentium 820P processor
- 1 GB of Patriot DDR2 RAM
- XFX 7800 GT OC
- Nvidia Drivers Version 81.85
By far one of the most interesting features of the PF5 Extreme is the Scalable D.G.E. feature of the motherboard which allows you to use two different PCI-E video cards concurrently. This feature will allow you to push images out to four different monitors at the same time and the cards do not even have to be from the same manufacturer. To test this I installed my old ATI 700 Pro card along with a 7800 GT card to see if it worked as advertised. After re-booting the system and installing the ATI drivers I’m happy to say it works as advertised. I was able to get three monitors up and running at different resolutions on two competing brands of video cards which is pretty amazing. I ran a few games after installing the extra video card and did not see any perceptible change in framerate while gaming. It’s important to note that the PF5 Extreme does not currently support SLI implementations. This is a quick and easy way to add more monitors if you feel constrained by only using two monitors at a time.
Since the PF5 Extreme is aimed at the enthusiast market, overclocking options are critical features of the board. For the most part the PF5 Extreme has everything you’d want to be able to change from the CPU frequency to CPU and DIMM Voltage. The only thing that I really seemed to miss was a more accurate way of tweaking DIMM Speeds, something that hard core OC’s might miss but if you’re new you probably won’t notice. All of these changes can be done through the BIOS but if you want to change them within Windows you are limited to only changing the CPU frequency.
After using the board for almost a month I can honestly say that it’s rock stable. The only problem I’ve encountered is that the board does seem to have some problems booting when I have my Canon MP390 printer/scanner plugged in. The motherboard recognizes the card readers in the combo as bootable devices and tends to boot slowly when it’s plugged in. Other than that I really don’t have a lot of gripes about the board as ECS has put out a very high quality product with some really unique and interesting features.
More On:ECS PF5 Extreme
A solid value with a lot of new and interesting features. While not all of the overclocking options are there the SDGE functionality of the board more than makes up for it.