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Epox 5LWA+ i925XE Motherboard
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Date: Apr 20, 2005
Section:Motherboards
Author: Robert Maloney
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Introduction and Specifications

When Intel released the i925XE chipset, it took their existing line of top-tier motherboards to the next level, by providing additional support for CPUs running on a 1066MHz bus.  The current list of CPUs that run at this speed is, however, quite short. Combine this fact with the imminent release of Intel's dual-core processors and the 955/945 boards that will support them, and the lifespan of the 925XE seems to be waning.  This is the way it has always been; by the time many items hit the retail market there's already newer stuff waiting to replace them. 

The "here and now" is what concerns us most.  The hardware available today is what we can actually hold and test.  These are also the pieces of hardware that everyday users will be using the build their current rigs.  So, what we've got for you, our faithful readers and prospective builders, is a review on one of the latest releases from Epox.  The Epox 5LWA+, on the surface, appears to be a fully featured i925XE motherboard, that comes as one part of their elemental series (in this case, the 5LWA+ stands in for fire).  It's got all of the performance options, including some bells and whistles, that will definitely get it a second look for current or potential Prescott owners. We've got a rundown of the specifications of the 5LWA+ below, which you will find to be quite complete.

        
CLICK ANY IMAGE TO ENLARGE

Specifications of the Epox 5LWA+
Nothing lacking here...















Chipset
·
_Intel 925XE + ICH6R

CPU Socket
· Supports Intel Pentium 4 series processors up to 4 GHz in LGA775 socket

· Supports Intel Celeron D series processors up to 3.2 GHz in LGA775 socket
·_533/800/1066 front-side bus

Memory
·
_Four 240-pin DDR2 SDRAM DIMM slots
·
_Supports single-or-double sided, non-ECC, 1.8v DDR2 400/533 DIMMs
·_Can support up to 4GB system memory

Audio
·
_Selectable 2, 6, or 8 channel audio from onboard ALC880 CODEC
·
_Supports CD-In, S/PDIF-in and out
·
_Optical and Coaxial S/PDIF out available on rear panel
·_Supports jack detection for fool-proof audio device installation

LAN
·
_2x Gigabit Ethernet from onboard Marvell 88E8053 PCI-e controller

Storage
·
_One IDE interface (up to 2 IDE devices) with UDMA-33, ATA66/100 support
·_4x SATA ports with RAID (0,1) support from ICH6R















Expansion Slots
·
_3x PCI slots (PCI v2.3 compliant)
·_2x PCI-Express (x1) slots
·_1x PCI-Express (x16) slot

Universal Serial Bus
·
_8x USB connectors with USB2.0 from embedded controller (4 ports on rear panel)

FireWire
·
_2x 1394 ports from onboard VIA VT6307 1394a controller

Rear-panel I/O
·
_Onboard Winbond W83627THF9(E) LPC bus I/O Controller
·_PS/2 Keyboard and Mouse sockets
·
_4x USB 2.0 ports
·
_2x Gigabit LAN (RJ-45)
·
_8 channel audio out
·
_SPDIF I/O ports
·
_Coaxial Audio port
·
_Serial port
·
_Parallel Port

BIOS
·
_4Mb Flash EEPROM with Award Plug&Play BIOS
·_Supports ACPI S3 (Suspend to RAM)
·_Supports EZ-Boot for fast bootable device selection
·_Supports Magic Health for system hardware status report
·_PowerBIOS contains excellent overclocking features

Dimensions (L x W x H, mm)
·
_305 x 245 x 40






The Bundle:

Epox has included a set of cables, manuals, and other material that suits the 5LWA+ to a 'T'
.  Each little baggie contained various data and power cables for connecting IDE, SATA, and/or floppy drives, depending on the needs of the builder.  Adding support to the back I/O ports, we also found we could install an additional 2 USB 2.0 and 2 Firewire ports as well as a throwback serial/game port bracket.  We've also got the all-important I/O shield and a SP-ATA conversion kit which allows IDE devices to be added on a SATA channel.  All in all, a solid mix of components.

Mixed in with the lot of cables was a vinyl package labeled, "Power Pack".  This add-in contained a well-written User's manual, a sales sheet of Epox's latest products, and a driver/utility CD.  The standard lot of chipset, audio, and LAN drivers can be installed from this disc, although it often helps to check for updates soon after the system is running as these CDs often have older versions of the software.  Norton Internet Security 2004, MAGIC Flash, MAGIC Screen and a few other utilities are also included on the CD to customize, update, and protect your PC.  Final additions to the Power Pack were a thermal-probe, a handy little screw-driver kit, as well as mini-heatsinks that Epox recommends be placed on the MOSFETS on the board.  Ideally, we would have preferred it if Epox has placed these themselves and at least used a complementary color.  The heatsinks we received were blue, while the rest of the board's motif (remember fire?) revolves around black and red.

 

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Board Layout and Inspection

 

Epox has taken a departure from the norm with the color scheme used on the 5LWA+.  Rather than stick with the dark green used in almost all of their previous motherboards, the PCB used for this board is a dull black.  The colors used for other components vary from a deep red used on the PCI and SATA ports as well as for one set of DIMM slots to a vibrant yellow for the PCI-e 1x and IDE slots.  It helps builders quickly distinguish the various components available to them and adds some flair for those who intend to use windowed cases.  Two black-painted heatsinks are placed over the North and South bridges, both of which are passively cooled.  From an aesthetic standpoint, the layout of the board appears to be free of clutter and follows standard placement of components.

Layout of the Epox 5LWA+
Starting to heat things up...

 
 

Immediately noticeable when opening up the static bag for the first time is the cutout placed over the CPU socket, which is promoting the Piston V - a 5 phase switching power scheme.  According the Epox, the Piston V offers strong and stable power while producing less heat than conventional designs.  Heat issues are nothing new to Prescott CPUs, so any attempt by a manufacturer to keep the VRM cooler is much appreciated.  On the periphery of the Piston V are 6 large capacitors, a few of which are placed close enough to the CPU sockets to cause a little concern when installing larger heatsinks.  The upper right corner was especially tight, with little room available for locking down the retention clips on our stock Intel cooler.  Hindering things even further was the placement of the 4-pin ATX connector, but those with 24-pin plugs can skip this problem altogether by using the centrally placed 24-pin ATX power connection instead.

      

As newer chipsets, and thus newer boards, are released, we've got the shift to SATA going in full-swing.  In the lower left corner were four red SATA ports placed side-by-side, which are controlled by the nearby ICH6R Southbridge.  Directly beneath these were the single yellow IDE port and a floppy port as well.  The board schematic shows where a second IDE port could have been placed, but was left off.  Instead, users can make use of the included SP-ATA converter (included in the package) which will allow PATA devices to be used on SATA connections.  It's one way to keep older drives as part of an upgrade option, but with SATA hard drives and optical drives becoming more and more commonplace, it might be better to make the switch complete. 

      

As we mentioned, installation and setup of the Epox 5LWA+ was made easier by color coding, which didn't stop with the ports.  While connection of the front panel wires used to take a little guesswork, the 5LWA+ has each set of pins set to a different color with crosses for the positive leads.  When everything has been installed, all wires checked, and the system ready to boot, there are a few items placed on the board that allow for quick and easy troubleshooting.  Typical of many Epox motherboards, there is a LED readout down in the lower left that gives status codes during boot.  If an error is detected in the boot process, the code shown can quickly give the user the source of the problem.  Also helpful for setting up or troubleshooting a system who were two small buttons, one for resetting and the other for powering up the system, which are placed right on the edge of the board.  The options available on the Epox 5LWA+ seem to cater well to both the new builder as well as the seasoned veteran.

 

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BIOS Options and Overclocking Results

  

Examining the BIOS of the 5LWA+
The "setup" for our setup

       

      

      

The options available to us in the Phoenix-AWARD BIOS were as varied as the components on the board itself.  We first checked that our drives were all detected correctly, and set their boot order in the Advanced BIOS Features.  Moving onto the Advanced Chipset Features, we allowed the DRAM timings to be determined By SPD, which set the CAS Latency, RAS to CAS delay, RAS Precharge, and tRAS delay to their default settings (4-4-4-12).  Tweakers can modify these timings to squeeze out a little extra performance, depending on whether or not their RAM is up to the challenge.

The integrated peripherals included dual Marvell LAN devices, Realtek Audio CODECS, and the parallel and serial ports.  SATA ports can be configured as traditional IDE, RAID, or AHCI depending on the desired setup under the On-Chip Serial ATA heading.  Under PC Health Status, we can see the temperatures of the CPU as well as the "thermo-stick", a probe which can be placed wherever a reading is desired.  We could also view current fan speeds of the CPU and chassis fans and monitor all voltages.  The final two Smart Fan options let the user define a temperature that the system should maintain for the chassis or just the CPU.  The fan speeds are adjusted as needed to achieve this goal, which results in quieter operation during non-load usage.

Overclocking Tools
So many options, so little time

   

      

By all appearances, Epox has provided all of the tools necessary for achieving some high overclocking speeds.  The CPU Clock can be raised from a default speed of 200MHz (266MHz for the Extreme Edition P4) up to 350MHz.  Raising the front side bus results in the memory and PCI-e bus running at higher frequencies as well.  To limit the effect this has on the video card, the PCI Express frequency can be "locked" in at 100MHz.  Similarly, the memory frequency can be left at auto for normal purposes, but can be set at 1:1 or 3:4 dividers to keep the speeds in check.  Voltage options for the CPU ranged from -0.0875V to +0.1875V in 0.0125V increments.  DDR2 Voltages can be adjusted as high as 0.35V over the normal 1.8V in 0.05V steps and the Chipset voltage can also be raised in 0.05V steps up to +0.15V. 




SANDRA CPU Overclocked


PCMark04 Overclocked



When we last attempted overclocking this particular CPU on the Shuttle SB95P, we ran into a wall in the mid 230's for the front side bus, so we were hoping to get past this mark with the Epox 5LWA+.  Although the list of options for overclocking was slightly better in the BIOS of the 5LWA+, we were still only able to get a maximum stable overclock at 232MHz.  This required raising the CPU Voltage up to 1.45V and we also raised the Corsair DDR2 up to 2.0V.  Any attempts at going higher than 240 MHz simply caused the system to lock up during booting, or gave us STOP errors when loading in device drivers.  As of this point, we're left with the feeling that this is a limitation of this particular CPU, and not a fault of the board.  As always, overclocking is not an exact science, and requires a bit of luck with the chosen parts as well as some trial and error. 

Our final overclocked speed of 232MHz came out to approximately a 16% jump in the FSB, with the CPU running just under 4GHz and the DDR2 operating at a frequency of 310MHz.  Running benchmarks while overclocked gave us an expected boost in CPU and RAM performance as shown in the accompanying SANDRA and PCMARK04 screen shots on the left. 

 

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Test Setup and SANDRA

 

How we configured our test systems: When configuring the test systems for this review, we first entered the system BIOS and set each board to their "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults".  The hard drive was then formatted, and Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 was installed. When the installation was complete, we hit the Windows Update site and downloaded all of the available updates, with the exception of the ones related to Windows Messenger. Then we installed all of the necessary drivers, and removed Windows Messenger from the system altogether. Auto-Updating and System Restore were also disabled, and we setup a 1536MB permanent page file on the same partition as the Windows installation. Lastly, we set Windows XP's Visual Effects to "best performance", installed all of our benchmarking software, defragged the hard drives and ran all of the tests.

Test System Specifications
TAll Intel A
SYSTEM 1:

Shuttle SB95P


Intel 925XE Chipset
Intel Pentium 4 550 3.4GHz CPU
2x512MB Corsair XMS2 Pro DDR2

ASUS Extreme AX800XL
On-Board 10/100/1000 Ethernet
On-Board Audio

120GB Seagate Barracuda
7,200 RPM SATA Hard Drive

Windows XP Pro SP2

ATi Catalyst 5.3 Drivers
DirectX 9.0c
SYSTEM 2:

Epox 5LWA+


Intel 925XE Chipset
Intel Pentium 4 550 3.4GHz CPU
2x512MB Corsair XMS2 Pro DDR2

ASUS Extreme AX800XL
On-Board 10/100/1000 Ethernet
On-Board Audio

120GB Seagate Barracuda
7,200 RPM SATA Hard Drive

Windows XP Pro SP2

ATi Catalyst 5.3 Drivers
DirectX 9.0c
SYSTEM 3:

Intel 915PBL

Intel 915P Chipset
Intel Pentium 4 550 3.4GHz CPU
2x512MB Corsair XMS2 Pro DDR2

ASUS Extreme AX800XL
On-Board 10/100/1000 Ethernet
On-Board Intel High Definition Audio

120GB Seagate Barracuda
7,200 RPM SATA Hard Drive

Windows XP Pro SP2

ATi Catalyst 5.3 Drivers
DirectX 9.0c
Preliminary Benchmarks With SiSoft SANDRA 2005
Synthetic Testing Starts with SANDRA

We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. SANDRA consists of a set of information and diagnostic utilities that can provide a host of useful information about your hardware and operating system. We ran three of the built-in sub-system tests (CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multimedia, and Memory Bandwidth) that partially comprise the SANDRA 2005 suite of benchmarks.  All of these tests were run with the Epox 5LWA+ powered by an Intel Pentium 4 550 3.4GHz CPU with 1GB of Corsair DDR2 and compared against similar systems from SANDRA's database.



SANDRA CPU Arithmetic Benchmark
Pentium 4 550 @ 3.4GHz
1024MB DDR2 (CL4)


SANDRA Memory Benchmark
Pentium 4 550 @ 3.4GHz
1024MB DDR2 (CL4)


SANDRA CPU Multimedia Benchmark
Pentium 4 550 @ 3.4GHz
1024MB DDR2 (CL4)

The 5LWA+ proved to be right on target with expected CPU output of a Pentium 4 550, although slightly behind in the memory bandwidth.  Performance-wise, that's quite good, as the 5LWA+ consistently remained at or near the top of some high-end equipment that we chose for comparison.  Synthetic benchmarks only tell half of the story, however, as we will need to compare performance in SANDRA, 3DMark, et al. with what we get in real-world gaming benchmarks to get the full picture of the capabilities of this motherboard.

 

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PCMark04 Comparisons

Futuremark PCMark04
More Synthetic CPU and Memory Benchmarks

For our next set of benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built-into Futuremark's PCMark04.  For those interested in more than just the graphs, we've got a couple of quotes from Futuremark that explain exactly what these tests do and how they work...

 "The CPU test suite is a collection of tests that are run to isolate the performance of the CPU. There are nine tests in all. Two pairs of tests are run multithreaded - each test in the pair is run in its own thread.  The remaining five tests are run single threaded. These tests include such functions as file encryption, decryption, compression and decompression, grammar check, audio conversion, WMV and DivX video compression."

For the most part, this review of the Epox 5LWA+ is the opposite side of our previous look at the Shuttle SB95P.  Both are based on the i925XE chipset, and very little separated the two boards in our suite of benchmarks.  To liven things up a bit, we've thrown in the results from our previous test bed consisting of a stock Intel D915PBL motherboard also paired with the same CPU and RAM.  As seen above, the Epox 5LWA+ was the best of the bunch, albeit by relatively slim margins.

 


"TheMemory test suite is a collection of tests that isolate the performance of the memory subsystem. The memory subsystem consists of various devices on the PC. This includes the main memory, the CPU internal cache (known as the L1 cache) and the external cache (known as the L2 cache). As it is difficult to find applications that only stress the memory, we explicitly developed a set of tests geared for this purpose. The tests are written in C++ and assembly. They include: Reading data blocks from memory, Writing data blocks to memory performing copy operations on data blocks, random access to data items and latency testing."

As far as the memory testing went, the Shuttle SB95P turned the tables on the 5LWA+.  It just managed to squeeze by, scoring 22 points higher, although we can still basically call this one a draw. More pertinent to point of our review is that they are both ahead of the i915P based Intel board by just shy of two percent.  That extra bit of bandwidth can make all of the difference in some of our more memory intensive benchmarks down the road.

 

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ZDBench Winstone Suite 2004

Business & Content Creation Winstones
Real-World Application Performance

Synthetic benchmarks only tell part of the performance story, so we took the Epox 5LWA+ to task in some "real world" scenarios as well.  PC Magazine's Winstone Test Suite is an excellent benchmarking tool for testing the CPU, memory, and overall system performance.  Content Creation Winstone focuses on common media intensive tasks, while Business Winstone assesses general workstation application performance.  Below is a breakdown of each package's software complement that is used to issue an overall score when complete.

 

       Content Creation 2004 v1.0.1        Business Winstone 2004 v1.0.1
  • Adobe Photoshop 7.0.1
  • Adobe Premiere 6.50
  • Macromedia Director MX 9.0
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 6.1
  • Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9 Version 9.00.00.2980
  • NewTek's LightWave 3D 7.5b
  • Steinberg WaveLab 4.0f
  • Microsoft Access 2002
  • Microsoft Excel 2002
  • Microsoft FrontPage 2002
  • Microsoft Outlook 2002
  • Microsoft PowerPoint 2002
  • Microsoft Project 2002
  • Microsoft Word 2002
  • Norton Antivirus Professional Edition 2003
  • WinZip 8.1



With Business Winstone 2004 all patched for Windows XP SP2 and ready to go, we wound up with some close results.  The Shuttle and Intel boards were performing at exactly equal levels, both scoring 22.6.  The Epox board did them one (or make that 0.2) better by scoring 22.8 points.  Results were similar in Content Creation Winstone 2004 as well.  Here, at least, the Shuttle SB95P was able to put a little room between it and the Intel 915P board, but once again the Epox 5LWA+ stood at the top of the charts.

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LAME MP3 Encoding and 3DMark05

 

LAME MP3 Encoding Tests
Breaking the Sound Barrier

In our custom Lame MP3 encoding tests, we converted a large digital audio file to the MP3 format, which is a very popular scenario that many end users work with on a regular basis, to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content.  In this test, we chose a large 223MB WAV file (a never-ending Grateful Dead jam) and compressed into a much smaller MP3 file.  Processing times are recorded below.

Only 3 seconds separated each of the systems, with the overall shortest time going to the Epox 5LWA+.  The difference in performance from system to system only equates to about 2%, but we've got to give some bragging rights to Epox for the speediest conversion. 

3DMark05
DirectX Gaming Performance

3DMark05's CPU test module gives us an idea of how these systems will perform in a DirectX gaming environment, with the main emphasis of the test focused on CPU throughput and overall system bandwidth.  This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are generated with a software renderer, which is dependant on the host CPU's performance.  This means that the calculations normally reserved for your 3D accelerator, are instead sent to the central processor.  The number of frames generated per second in each test, are used to determine the final score.

Whereas most of the testing to this point has shown remarkable parity amongst the three motherboards, 3DMark05 was decidedly different in the performance deltas.  The order hasn't necessarily changed; we've still got the Epox 5LWA+ in the lead, followed by the SB95P and finally the D915PBL.  The spread is simply much more pronounced.  Differences between the 5LWA+ and the SB95P were just over 4 percent, and this gap widened to over 7 percent when compared to the D915PBL.

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Gaming Benchmarks - Part 1

Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory
OpenGL Quake Engine Gaming

To get a little different flavor of how the Epox 5LWA+ performed, we ran through some time demos with the OpenGL game Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory.  Wolfenstein: ET is a free, standalone multiplayer game that is based on the original Return to Castle Wolfenstein that was released a few years back. It uses a heavily modified version of the Quake 3 engine which makes it a very easy to use benchmarking tool.  We ran the test using the built-in "Fastest" setting, which runs at a low resolution of 640X480, using 16-bit color and textures.  Running this test with a higher-end graphics card, at these minimal settings, isolates processor and memory performance, without being limited by the graphics subsystem.

Similar in many ways to the 3DMark05 results, the Epox 5LWA+ took a substantial lead over both the SB95P and D915PBL boards.  It's hard to imagine that there should be such a difference between the top two boards, since CPU and RAM performance were basically equal in the synthetic tests, but the graphs don't lie.

Unreal Tournament 2004
DirectX Gaming Performance

We also tried benchmarking with Epic's Unreal Tournament 2004.  When we tested these systems with UT 2004, we ensured that all of them were being benchmarked with the exact same in-game settings and graphical options, and we dropped the resolution and detail levels to isolate CPU and memory performance.



Again, we've got the Epox 5LWA+ outpacing the other two boards, this time beating both of them by just over seven frames per second, or about a 6% increase in frame rates.  In this test, the SB95P and D915PBL were running closer together than we would have expected; we would have thought that the SB95P would be producing on levels nearer to the 5LWA+ since both systems were using the same chipset, CPU, and RAM.

 

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Gaming Benchmarks - Part 2

 

Doom 3 Multi-player Time demo
OpenGL Gaming Performance

For our next game test, we benchmarked both test systems using a custom multiplayer Doom 3 timedemo. We lowered the resolution down to 640 x 480, and configured the game to run at its "Low-Quality" graphics setting. Although Doom 3 typically taxes today's high-end GPUs, when it's configured at these minimal settings it's more CPU / Memory-bound than anything else.

We're back to the original order in Doom 3, with similar differences in frame rates seen between the top, middle, and bottom systems.  The Epox 5LWA+ led the trio, as it has in almost all of our benchmarks, producing an outstanding 153.1 fps in our custom Doom 3 time demo. 

Benchmarking Half-Life 2
DirectX 9 Gaming Performance

In our last in-game test, we benchmarked Half-Life 2 with a custom recorded time demo that takes us along a cliff and through a few dilapidated shacks in an area of the "Coastal" map, battling enemies throughout.  These tests were run at low-resolution and low graphical detail, to allow the CPUs to run flat out and not be held back by graphics subsystem performance.



Our final benchmark continued the recent trend, with the Epox 5LWA+ on top, followed by the Shuttle SB95P, and finally the Intel D915PBL.  We noticed that in the OpenGL testing, the Shuttle SFF PC usually was typically centered between the Epox and Intel boards.  When it came to DirectX gaming, however, the gap between the Epox and Shuttle boards widened, with the performance of the Shuttle SB95P ending up closer to that of the i915P board. 

 

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Performance Analysis and our Conclusion

  

 

System Performance Analysis:  The Epox 5LWA+ was the qualified "winner" in our suite of benchmarks.  From start to finish, the 5LWA+ led in all but one synthetic test against another i925XE board, and outpaced the companion i915P chipset in our stock Intel D915PBL.  The slight tweaks in the BIOS that Epox' has incorporated into the 5LWA+ have given this board a slight edge against the competition.

Looking over the Epox 5LWA+'s list of features, we've got a motherboard that's not heavily loaded down with unusual features, but it does have ample integrated peripherals for most users.  SATA and SATA RAID are the main storage options, and IDE configurations are mostly limited, although the included SP-ATA converter can help somewhat here.  There's also a very passable 8-channel HD audio solution and dual-Gigabit LAN on board, as well as numerous USB and Firewire ports.  Epox has also included some nice throw-ins, such as the "thermo stick" and mini-heatsinks in their power-pack, which add in some extra value to the package.

On the performance side, the Epox 5LWA+ did very well. It pulled ahead of the i915 easily, and we we're usually able to get some distance between the 5LWA+ and another 925XE board used in the Shuttle SB95P.  The hard part in recommending the Epox 5LWA+ would be the relative scarcity of Epox retailers in the United States.  A quick search on some major retail sites pulled up few hits for their motherboards in general, and none for the 5LWA+ specifically.  As such, we could not determine an exact street price for this board, although Epox typically falls on the lesser side of the price spectrum. The Epox 5LWA+ scores a 9 on HotHardware.com's Heat Meter.

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