A few months ago, NVIDIA had a banner day announcing the GeForce 8800 video cards and NVIDIA 680 chipset. With the announcement, a few board partners went to produce 680i motherboards. One of the companies to do so is ECS and today we're looking at their 680i SLI board in the ECS PN2 SLI2+.
The ECS PN2 SLI+ motherboard sports the NVIDIA nForce 680i chipset supporting Socket 775 processors including the Core 2 family, Pentium D, Pentium 4, and Celeron D processors. ECS pretty much stuck with the reference design for this board and that's not a bad decision. There a few paths companies can go when producing a motherboard and sticking to a reference design to get the motherboard out in a short amount of time was what ECS decided to do. The layout should be pretty similar to other boards out there. With the previous Extreme boards, ECS had a pretty wild color scheme. Gone are the purples, yellows, and oranges replaced by a black PCB and shades of blue on the ram and PCI-E slots.
The CPU socket area is pretty open and clear of obstructions. What that means is if you plan on using an oversized aftermarket heat sink and fan combination, you should be in pretty good shape and not have to worry about it interfering with components on the motherboard. To two sides of the socket are some capacitors that are passively cooled by heatsinks. The area around the CPU is designed pretty nicely giving you enough room for whatever heatsink you decide to throw at it.
Speaking of cooling you can see the very nice heatpipe solution that ECS has on this motherboard to cool the north and southbridge. A pipe runs from the southbridge to the heatsink that sits on top of the northbridge. If it gets a little too hot for your taste like when you are overclocking, you can attach a fan to the setup. The option of using a fan or keeping it passive is a nice touch. I personally like to keep the fan off and I can see this motherboard going into my HTPC someday because if its quiet nature.
With the motherboard positioned so that back I/O area facing down, four DIMM slots sit just north of the CPU socket. In groups of two, they are color coded so you know which ones to place your memory in for dual-channel configuration. There's a maximum of 8GB of ram you can put in here with speeds from DDR2 400 to DDR2 800 and a few in between.
Just north of the DIMM slots are a few connectors you'll need. First off is the 24-pin power connect to put some juice to the motherboard. To the right of that is your only IDE channel on the motherboard. With more and more storage devices moving to SATA, the lack of an IDE connector isn't a big deal nowadays. I personally only had the DVD writer attached to this board via IDE as the rest of my hard drives were SATA.Around this area you'll find two connectors that you don't normally see here. First off are the front panel connections. Normally they sit to the far right of where they are on this motherboard but the 680i reference board has them in an interesting place. Right above the front panel connectors is a 4-pin molex connector for stabilizing SLI configurations. I've seen this connector on the south-west area of the motherboard or even near the first PCI-E slot but the PN2 SLI+ has it near the DIMM slots. I personally liked this placement the best as it's near where hard drives or optical drives are sitting so you should have a molex connector that can easily fit this area. On other motherboards I had to run an extension cable but I didn't have to with the PN2 SLI+.
Four SATA II connectors are positioned to the right of the molex connector as well but they aren't the only ones. Two more sit on the edge to the left of the four and they are positioned outward instead of facing up like most connectors. This also happens to be the same way the floppy connector is to the left of the two SATA connectors. I've experienced the positioning of these connectors on ABIT motherboards before and I do like them that way. They can make it easier for some cables to run into.
To troubleshoot any problems, the motherboard features two LEDs that will show you the error code in case something happens. This is certainly a lot better than listening to beep codes. While it's certainly not the first motherboard to feature an LED display, it is a nice touch to include it on here. Near the LEDs are a couple USB headers so you can expand the amount of USB connections you have. If you have front connectors like I do on my case, here's where you can connect them.
Another really cool feature on this motherboard are onboard power and reset buttons. If you fiddle with your board a lot or if you use it to test like I do with the motherboard sitting on a test bench, you no longer have to connect power switches as the onboard buttons will turn on and restart your computer. While I would've liked it in a better and less obstructive position I am happy it is on there nevertheless. Since the two buttons are close to the last PCI slot, you might have problems reaching it if you have a card in there.
When you look at the connectors available, the one thing that should pop out to you is that this board features three PCI-E slots. Two of course is used for SLI but the third one is going to be for future use such as using a video card for physics, which is probably something you heard of a little while ago. While the technology isn't out there yet to let you do this, the PN2 SLI2+ is ready to go when it does launch. You won't have to throw out those old PCI-E video cards now as they might be used one day to accelerate some physics in your games. The first two PCI-E slots run at a full 16X speed while the third one runs at 8X. I'm very happy ECS did away with the tiny clips they used to have on some of their PCI-E slots as this motherboard features side clips. They are a lot easier to reach and they also sit on the side opposite the second slot one dual slot video card would take so you shouldn't have too much trouble reaching them to take out your video card. Sitting on either side of the first PCI-E slot is a PCI-E x1 connector. Two PCI slots round out the expansion slots that this motherboard has.
On the back the usual connetors are featured here. Missing though are the parallel and serial ports which shouldn't affect many enthusiasts out there. Two PS/2 connectors are still here if you are still using an older mouse and/or keyboard. In place of the parallel and serial connectors are two USB ports and a firewire port. To the right of those are the audio connectors featuring one optical S/PDIF and six audio sensing jacks. Powered by Realtek's ALC885, you'll get 8-channel sound from this motherboard's internal sound chip. I use a lot of optical connectors between my receiver and Logitech speakers when I hook up my PC so I'm happy to see one S/PDIF on here. Four more USB ports sit on the right of the audio connectors and finally 2 Gig-E connectors round out the back.
Speaking of the dual Gigabit connectors, NVIDIA has a feature called DualNet which can pair the two connectors to make it seem like one large 2 Gig-E connection. Essentially you double the bandwidth to the PC. This can be helpful say if you are in a LAN and need to copy or move large files to other computers. If you're planning on using this motherboard in a server capacity, DualNet can also provide some network redundancy in case one of the onboard NICs should fail. It's not a feature that most will use but power users and server operators might consider enabling this feature.
Overall, the layout is pretty good and I didn't any problems reaching the areas I need to in order to build the PC. There are a few minor issues of placement on some things but nothing that's really bad that stands out on this motherboard. The design, while holding to the reference board, works well.
Overclockers will enjoy the number of BIOS options available on this motherboard. The PN2 SLI2+ uses an Award BIOS. Overclocking CPU can range from 400 to 2500 FSB while memory settings range from 400 to 1400 DDR speed with the ability to unlink the two so you can change the two speeds individually. For power, the PN2 SLI2+ will let you push the CPU core to 1.8V in increments of 0.0125V. Memory can go up to 2.35V in increments of 0.025V. After all that's said and done and you're happy with how you want it to be you can save your settings in one of three profiles. Say you just want to push your computer only when playing games and want to scale it back for normal usage, you can setup different profiles and change between them in between resets. It's a pretty interesting feature and one that I was surprise to see.
ECS's Extreme line always comes with a lot of bundled in their package and this is no exception. You'll get plenty of cables and connectors so you should be set here. One of the more useful inclusions for me is the conversion for the back USB and firewire ports to allow you to place them in a free 3'5" slot on the front. Some of my cases don't have front USB connectors and the front plate converter came in handy. ECS also included a SATA cablel for each connector they have onboard so there are indeed six orange SATA cables that comes bundled in here along with the same number of molex to SATA power converters. It is kinda funny that ECS included two IDE cables even though this board only as one IDE connection. If there's one thing that ECS does well in the Extreme line is to give you a lot of extras and they came through here in this packaging.Since this is my first Intel system in a long time I currently don't have anything to compare this to. For now I'll just list the scores I received with this setup. In the future I'll add the graphs of scores to other motherboard tests but for now here's what my test system consisted of:
- Intel Core 2 E6400
- 2 GB Crucial Ballistix PC-6400
- ECS PN2 SLI2+
- 120GB HDD Seagate SATA
- Foxconn GeForce 8800 GTX
- Windows XP Professional w/ Service Pack 2
All tests were run with resolution set at 1024x768 and all the eye candy turned off so that it would take the video card out of the equation on being the bottleneck.
|Company of Heroes
Throughout my few months of using the motherboard, I didn't experience any problems with the setup. The system ran fast and stable even without me using a fan on the heatsink. Granted my testing area is pretty cool outright so that helps a lot as well. The built in reset and power buttons made for testing various setups easy. SLI expandability allowed for me to run two GF8800 GTX cards in this system without any troubles. Right now I'm running the system with Windows Vista and so far it seems solid but then again I'm not running SLI at the moment either until NVIDIA gets SLI working without a hitch on Vista.
The ECS PN2 SLI2+ is a solid enthusiasts motherboard for the Intel CPU. Granted the folks at ECS just took the reference board from NVIDIA and added their own packaging but you get a decent bundle in the set. With a lot of room for expansion and plenty of features on hand, it's definitely a motherboard I would recommend provided you want to spend the money. It runs $180 for the OEM on NewEgg.com which isn't too bad considering. NVIDIA has recently come out with a more mainstrem SKU in the 680i LT but if you have the money and want to try to push your CPU to the limit as well as have plenty of features onboard, the ECS PN2 SLI+ is the motherboard for you.