ECS KN1 Extreme


posted 7/26/2005 by John Yan
other articles by John Yan
When the subject of good motherboard manufactures are brought up, the names that are usually thrown around are ABIT, ASUS, MSI, and DFI. They’re known for putting out solid, stable, and feature rich motherboards for gamers. ECS, or Elitegroup Computer Systems, wants to start being mentioned with the biggies and they hope their Extreme line will help improve their reputation. Today we’re going to take a look at the KN1 Extreme and we’ll see if ECS has the goods to start being a major choice for gamers.

I’ve had a few experiences with ECS motherboards before, especially the K7S5A. When looking for an inexpensive motherboard for my PVR project, this one came to the forefront and after three years, it’s still my main PVR machine to date. In fact, I’ve built three more computers with the motherboard and none of them have had any problems. But I wouldn’t use their motherboards as my main gaming machine. That might change with their latest product line.

The ECS KN1 Extreme is an AMD64 nForce4 motherboard supporting the 939 chip. A quick look at the features that this board exhibits and you can see ECS has really worked at putting out a feature rich product. It sports the nForce4 Ultra chipset and supports PCI Express. CPU’s supported include the Athlon 64 FX, Athlond 64, Sempron, and with the latest BIOS update it supports the dual core AMD chip.

Area around the CPU socket is pretty free of obstruction. If you plan on using an oversized cooler such as one from Zalman, the only problem you might run into is the clearance between the cooler and the fan duct that’s situated at the back panel. Location of the HSF fan connector was relatively close.

Four memory slots allow for a maximum of 4 gigabytes of memory to be on board. Memory speeds support up toe DDR400 and they are color coded so that you’ll know which pairs to insert for dual-channel memory access. I’ve had problems with a few motherboard where all four slots were filled so we’ll test to see if the motherboard is stable at that configuration.

One PCI Express x16, two PCI Express x1, and three PCI slots round out the expansion area. The PCI-E x16 slot sits below the two PCI-E x1 slot. One of the three PCI slots, colored yellow, offers better stability and is recommended for audio cards. Hopefully, we’ll see more PCI-E x1 cards soon to take advantage of the two that are on this board. Each PCI slot has an LED associated that gives you a status of the slot. When blinking, no data or a problem with the seating of the card lets you know there’s something wrong with it. While I do really like the visual cue, I would’ve rather seen the blinking not be there when there’s no card installed. Those with window cases may find it annoying and hopefully there’s a BIOS update that can let you choose how the LED notifies you.

For storage, there are plenty of connections for both IDE and SATA available. Three IDE connectors are on board with IDE 1 and IDE 2 located close together on one side. The third supporting RAID 0 or RAID 1 through the SiS180 controller sits in a corner. Six SATA connectors ensure that you’ll have plenty of room for storage updates using the latest interface. SATA 5/6 can be used to RAID two SATA hard drives.

Dual network connections are offered through a Realtek RTL8100C controller that supports 10/100 Mbps and a Marvell 88E1111 controller that supports up to gigabit speed. Some may not like the lack of gigabit support on the secondary controller. Given that the board has at least one with that speed, I am more inclined to overlook the lack of it on the other. Because the board uses the nForce4 Ultra chipset, there’s the option of using nVidia’s ActiveArmor hardware firewall. You can never have too much security these days and nVidia’s firewall implementation is pretty good. The hardware firewall should also take fewer resources than a software one. After installing the software, you get Zone Alarm type notifications on applications accessing the network. I was pretty pleased with how it worked and having a built in firewall on the motherboard is a great feature.

For sound ECS went with the older Realtek ALC655 chip that supports 6-channel audio. While it’s an adequate solution, I would’ve liked to have seen the newer ALC882 here. That’s not to say the board doesn’t feature good sound and from my running through various applications, the chip does a good job. But if you’re aiming for a gaming crowd, the newer Realtek audio solution would’ve been a better choice in my opinion. Still, it’s nice of ECS to include two optical outputs. And if you aren’t happy with the solution, you could always purchase a separate sound card instead of using the onboard audio.

The nForce4 chip does get pretty hot and ECS has decided to implement a very high aluminum cooler to help keep temperatures down. While I do like that they have an active cooling solution on the chipset, I am not a fan of the sound it makes. With no way to dial down the speed or have it be regulated, the noise generated along with the other coolers can really turn off those looking for a more quiet solution.

Besides the loud fan on the nForce4 cooler, you’ll also get wind of the duct fan. That fan is also not regulated and there’s no way to have it spin slower. Finally, adding to the triumvirate of sound generation by fan noise, the motherboard doesn’t dial down the HSF chip fan. On other AMD64 boards, my HSF fan would spin up and then dial back once the motherboard determined that cooling was sufficient and it didn’t need to run the HSF fan at full speed. Unfortunately, the KN1 Extreme doesn’t seem to do that so you have three motherboard fans running at full speed constantly. This leads to a very loud computer and that can be a turnoff for some. After talking with ECS about this problem, they provided me with a BIOS update after a few days. Lo and behold, the BIOS solved the HSF noise problem, making the board a lot quieter than before. I’ll say that dealing with ECS tech support was very easy and they were very responsive in finding the problem on their end and providing a fix to it. Kudos to ECS for their quick response time.

The back panel features most of the basic connections. Missing is the parallel port connector but you can attach an included bracket in your expansion port area if you really need the connector. Since most of the products coming out now are USB based, I don’t mind the omission of the parallel port in the main back panel area. One feature I really liked is two S/PDIF connectors: one optical and one coaxial. While some boards utilize an optical plug to keep the connection dust free when not in use, ECS has done a good job in putting a shutter on the optical connection so you don’t have to keep a plug on hand. I know I’ve lost a good amount of those optical plugs with all my other motherboards and this solution works beautifully. Because of using the older Realtek audio chip, there are only three jack connections. I personally only use the S/PDIF connectors myself, but a lot of motherboards are using the new Realtek chip and offering more channels.

There are four USB connectors with the two LAN connectors that I mentioned earlier. Included with the package is a bracket with two more USB connections and the firewire connection as well. If you would rather have them mounted on the front of your computer, ECS was nice enough to include a housing that will fit in a 3/5” drive slot. I like the fact that ECS gave you a choice here on where you would like your extra connectors placed with the two included options.

I really do like ECS’s decision to color code the motherboard giving you a very quick way to identify what connects where. More companies should do this and it really helped speed up my build time.

Generally the layout of the board isn’t bad but I do have a few issues. For one the ATX12V plug that supplies the CPU with power is in an awfully tight space depending on how close your power supply is to your motherboard. Another is the placing of the floppy drive connector. It’s placed all the way on the other edge away from the hard drive connections so you’d have to string the cable a long ways. A nice spot would’ve been where the ECS sticker is. Finally, a few of the SATA connectors are lined up with the PCI-E x16 port so long video cards can interfere with a few of them.

A concern for purchasers could be the appearance of OST capacitors on this board. Now, there’s been talk about the unreliability of these capacitors. Now the OST capacitors have a reputation for bulging and leaking. Of course, the time needed to complete this review won’t really allow me to see if the capacitors will fail over a long period of time. I have an ECS K7S5A working for a good three years at 12+ hours a day without any problems and they have OST caps. So in my personal experience, I can’t say I’ve had any problems with ECS boards failing due to this. But I thought I’d at least mention that the board does have a few OST caps in place.

For the BIOS, the board uses the Phoenix-AwardBIOS setup. Before I get into the features, one nice inclusion is the Top Hat Flash. Say you flash the BIOS and kill your machine. By popping the Top Hat Flash chip in and turning on your computer, you’ll have a fully working computer to re-flash the BIOS. I do think the process can be improved upon by building a secondary BIOS onto the board rather than using a little tool to do it but at least ECS was smart enough to allow an option such as the one presented.

Back to the BIOS, there are some things that seemed a little off. For you overclockers, the CPU multiplier setting is not in the same menu as with most of the other CPU options. You can’t clock more than 250MHz for the CPU on the BIOS that came with my sample, there are no CPU voltage tweaks, and you can’t change the frequency of the PCI or PCI Express bus. A BIOS update does allow for higher clock settings for the CPU. The memory settings are limited as well. If you want a board that lets you have full control when overclocking, the KN1 Extreme is not for you. But those that just want to run the CPU as is out of the box won’t notice these missing features.

For testing, here are the specs of the components that were used:
AMD64 3800+
2 sticks of 256MB OCZ PC3200 ram
Leadtek PX6600
Maxtor 80 GB 7200RPM HD
Windows XP Professional w/ Service Pack 2

For comparisons, here are the scores against an MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum. All tests were done at 640x480.So let’s start of with Futuremark’s 3DMark05.

3DMark05 is one of two synethetic benchmarks we are using today. From their website: It is the first benchmark to require a DirectX9.0 compliant hardware with support for Pixel Shaders 2.0 or higher! By combining high quality 3D tests, CPU tests, feature tests, image quality tools, and much more, 3DMark05 is a premium benchmark for evaluating the latest generation of gaming hardware.

PC Mark 04 is the latest version of the popular PCMark series. PCMark04 is an application-based benchmark and a premium tool for measuring overall PC performance. It uses portions of real applications instead of including very large applications or using specifically created code. This allows PCMark04 to be a smaller installation as well as to report very accurate results. As far as possible, PCMark04 uses public domain applications whose source code can be freely examined by any user.

Half-Life 2 is Valve's sequel to the mega hit of five years ago. The game features incredible physics and highly detailed graphics. We used to built in benchmark to test the board out.

Doom 3 is iD Software’s re-invention of the classic game that started the deathmatch craze. The engine really taxes a system and the graphics are phenomenal for a computer game. For the tests, we ran the game with Max settings here.

Far Cry is an impressive first person shooter from Ubi Soft with great outdoor levels and some awesome effects. The vehicles and the ability to explore the entire island makes this one of the best games of the past year. Settings were maxed out and we used the default demo.

Halo is the Microsoft/Bungie/Gearbox first person shooter originally appearing on the Xbox. Featuring great graphics, vehicles, and good gameplay Halo is ran with max settings as well with Pixel Shader 2.0.

Epic’s great shooter, Unreal Tournament 2004 is our next test. While the engine didn’t change too much from the previous version, it’s still a very nice looking game. Three bot matches were ran with the scores averaged for each resolution. Details were maxed out.

As you can see from the tests, performance is comparable to the MSI board. There’s not that big of a difference in any test where I would tell you to shy away from it. While not a top performer in all tests, the KN1 Extreme gets marks close to another nForce4 board.

In testing for stability, I ran 3D Mark 05 on a loop for a day. I came back and the machine was running without a hitch the next day. For the memory, I used MemTest to test out both two and all four slots filled up. Using OCZ PC3200 ram and Crucial PC3200 Value Ram at configurations of 2x512 and 4x512, MemTest was run for around 20 cycles. Both configurations passed the tests with no errors and I was happy to see the board not exhibiting problems with all four DIMM slots filled. I also ran 3D Mark 05 for a few cycles with the slots filled and the board held up without a hitch. For stability, the board earns good marks in these tests.

It’s not really “Extreme” in the fact that the overclocking options are sparse and a few design issues but it’s a great board especially for the price. At $100 with all that it comes with, the ECS KN1 Extreme offers a great deal of bang for the buck. For budget builders and even mid-level gamers, this board would be a good pickup. ECS is trying hard to improve their image and this board really gives them a great product to put in their portfolio. Like I stated earlier, I’ve never had problems with ECS boards and I have no problems recommending their brand especially for those on a budget. With the KN1 Extreme I have no reservations in recommending this as an option for people looking for an nForce4 Ultra board.

Don't let the name of the company fool you. You should really consider this board if you're building an AMD64 system.