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ECS KN1 SLI Extreme: SLI on a Budget
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Date: Nov 17, 2005
Section:Motherboards
Author: Jeff Bouton
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Introduction & Product Specifications

If we took a moment to reflect on some of the biggest technological advancements in recent history, SLI has to be on the short list.  Thanks in part to the increased bandwidth of PCI Express, NVIDIA paved the way for running two matching PCI Express based video cards concurrently, resulting in what we know today as SLI. 

As with virtually any technology, there are positives and negatives to SLI.  First, the cards used must be the same and designed specifically to support SLI.  Second, the power requirements of today's NVIDIA graphics cards will require many to add a new PSU to their upgrading budget, in many cases.  However, these added considerations can yield some impressive performance gains in the long run, while adding longevity to your investment.  What's even better is that user's can build a SLI system on a budget and still appreciate real performance gains.  Even the pairing of two affordable GeForce 6600 GTs can result in some sweet returns.

The latest SLI ready motherboard to come our way is actually a revision of the ECS KN1 Extreme we reviewed in July. This time around it's the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme we're running through the testing track.  Back then, we found the KN1 Extreme to be a well rounded motherboard that lacked some overclocking features, contrary to what the "Extreme" label implied.  Nonetheless, its clean layout, competitive pricing and excellent retail bundle made for an attractive all-around product. With the KN1 SLI, ECS traded in a PCIe x1 slot for a second PCI Express x16 slot, bringing support for SLI to the mix while making a few other adjustments as well.

Specifications:  ECS KN1 SLI Extreme
A Slick Looking Powerhouse
CPU
Socket 939 for AMD Athlon™ 64/ Athlon™ 64 FX processor.
Socket 939 for AMD Athlon™ 64 X2 Dual-Core/ Athlon™ 64/ Athlon™ 64 FX processor.
High-performance Hyper Transport CPU interface.
Support transfer rate of 2000/1600/1200/800/400 mega-transfers per second.

CHIPSET
NVIDIA nForce4 SLI

MEMORY
Dual-channel DDR memory architecture
4 x184-pin DDR SDRAM DIMM socket support up to 4 GB
Support DDR400/333/266 DDR SDRAM

EXPANSION SLOT
2 x PCI Express x16 slot ( SLI mode: x8, x8 )
1 x PCI Express x1 slot
3 x PCI slots

STORAGE
Supported by nForce4 SLI
-- 4 x Ultra DMA133/100/66 devices
-- 4 x Serial ATA2 devices

RAID0, RAID1 & RAID 0+1 configuration
Supported by SiI3132
-- 2 x Serial ATA2 devices
-- RAID0, RAID1, PM and eSATA support

AUDIO
Realtek ALC850 supports Intel 8 channel audio
Compliant with AC'97 2.3 specification

DUAL LAN
Realtek 8100C 10/100 Mbps Fast Ethernet controller
Marvell 88E1111 Giga LAN PHY


SYSTEM BIOS
Award BIOS with 4Mb Flash ROM
Supports Plug and Play 1.0A, APM 1.2, Multi Boot, DMI
Supports ACPI revision 1.0 specification

IEEE 1394a
TI TSB43AB22A support 2 x IEEE1394a


REAR PANEL I/O
1 x PS/2 keyboard & PS/2 mouse connectors
4 x USB ports
2 x RJ45 LAN connectors
2 x Digital SPDIF (Optical & Coaxial) out
1 x Serial port (COM1)
1 x Audio port (Line-in,4x Line-out, Mic_in)

INTERNAL I/O CONNECTORS & HEADERS
1 x 24-pin ATX Power Supply connector
1 x 4-pin ATX 12V connector
1 x Auxiliary 4-pin +12V connector
1 x FDD connector supports two 360K~2.88MB FDDs
2 x IDE connectors
6 x Serial ATA connectors
1 x IrDA for SIR header
2 x 1394a headers
3 x USB 2.0 headers support additional 6 USB ports
1 x Front panel switch/LED header
1 x Front panel audio header
1 x 26-pin LPT header
CD in header
CPUFAN/NB_FAN1/CASFAN1~2 connectors

FORM FACTOR
ATX Size 305mm*244mm

The retail bundle of the KN1 SLI Extreme didn't change all that much from the original KN1.  With this edition, ECS opted to scale back the SATA cabling to four instead of the six included in the original KN1's package, trading two cables for a single external SATA adapter.  We also found the necessary SLI bridge clip to tie two SLI ready graphics cards together.  Aside from that, the package was the same, with some interesting options.  Along with a Molex-to-SATA power cable adapter, a single IDE and floppy cable, ECS included an Ethernet cable and an external parallel port adapter for legacy support.  There were also Setup and Software Application CDs along with a well documented User's Manual.  Rounding out the package was an ECS case badge, custom I/O shield and a bracket with two USB ports and two FireWire ports that can occupy a PCI slot or be converted to fit into a 3.5" drive bay. 

   

Lastly, ECS included their Top Hat BIOS recovery device which is essentially a second BIOS chip that can piggy back to the board's chip to recover the on-board ROM from a bad flash.  When we first encountered this with the original KN1 we found it to be peculiar, as many other products integrate a second ROM to the motherboard.  Nonetheless, the process works as promised.

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The ECS KN1 SLI Extreme Up Close

The ECS KN1 SLI Extreme Up Close
Breaking It Down

When we look at the layout of the KN1 SLI Extreme, ECS did shuffle some components around compared to the original KN1 Extreme, although they still managed to keep a clean, uncluttered layout.  Along with two PCI Express x16 slots, the board came equipped with three PCI slots and a single PCIe x1 slot, with flashing LEDs situated between each slot for an added effect.  The second PCIe x16 slot had an auxiliary Molex power connector integrated into the board for added power, and the nForce4 SLI chipset was equipped with active cooling.  One thing we did find was that ECS did situate the added PCIe x16 slot too close to the hinges of the board's four DIMM slots.  When the hinges are closed, the card is right up against them, guaranteeing the card will need to be removed when upgrading the memory.  Since this could mean the card and bridge clip must be removed, this adds to the potential for problems.  Furthermore, if a DIMM hinge is open, user's can inadvertently break it off when installing the video card if they don't see it.

Something you may notice is that the KN1 SLI does away with the transposer card used on many other SLI motherboards to alter the PCI Express lane configuration to the PEG slots. Instead, the KN1 SLI can work in single, or dual-graphics card configurations without the need to manually flip the transposer card.

  

ECS did improve on the IDE and Floppy placement compared to the original KN1, consolidating them all into the same location rather than spreading them across the board.  The six SATA II ports were all grouped together as well, four of which were powered by the nForce 4 SLI chipset.  ECS traded in the SiS180 controller of the KN1 for a SiI3132 RAID controller, bringing RAID 0, 1 and 0+1 to the remaining two SATA II ports.  Additionally, the KN1 SLI Extreme offers two FireWire headers, 3 USB 2.0 headers and a front panel audio header. 

 

The KN1 SLI Extreme's integrated audio is powered by a Realtek ALC850 CODEC, delivering 8 audio channels, a step up from the KN1's 5.1 channel ALC655.  The board is also Dual LAN ready with a Realtek 8100C controller providing 10/100 Mbps and a Marvell 88E1111 offering Gigabit Ethernet.  The back of the board offered a solid array of ports such as the 8 channel audio connections, including 2 Digital SPDIF (Optical & Coaxial) outs, Dual Ethernet, four USB 2.0, PS/2 and Serial connections.  Lastly, ECS included active cooling to draw air across the Voltage Regulator Module and capacitors for added stability.

We must say, when we reflect on the comments made with the original KN1 Extreme, it seems that ECS is taking reviewer's feedback seriously.  In our original review, we expressed concern over the Floppy placement and SiS180 RAID controller and it appears they were listening.  Did ECS address all of the issues we pointed out?  No, but they were listening, which shows a willingness to improve a product based on consumer feedback.  We still wish the board had Dual 'Gigabit" Ethernet.  Nonetheless, throw in the added PCIe x16 slot, upgraded 8 channel audio and the KN1 SLI Extreme offers some major improvements over the original KN1.

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BIOS Info & Overclocking

The BIOS and Overclocking of the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme
Brains Behind the Brawn

The BIOS for the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme was the standard Phoenix Award BIOS commonly found on the majority of today's motherboards, along with a few personal touches.  There were the standard settings screens to configure hard drives, peripherals, integrated components and power management as well as a PC Health Status window that reports various temperatures, voltages and fan speeds.  The thrust of the performance settings were located under the Advanced Chipset Features screens. This is the main destination for configuring the system for optimal performance as well as overclocking.

   

When it came to overclocking, the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme was fairly well equipped for the task.  The CPU frequency range could be adjusted in 1MHz steps from 200MHz to 400MHz while the HyperTransport multiplier was adjustable from 1x -5x or could be set to Auto.  The DDR Frequency settings were adequate, ranging from 100MHz up to 250MHz and the CAS setting ranged from 2, 2.5 or 3.  The system also offered a CPU throttling mechanism based on the thermal reading of the processor.  CPU voltage could be adjusted from +25mV through +375mV in .025mV increments.  DDR Voltage topped out at a decent 3.11MHz but like its predecessor, there still was no voltage option for the Chipset, although ECS did add the option to enable/disable 1T/2T Command rate.

   

   

When we put the board to the test to see the highest stable CPU speed we could hit, we lowered the HyperTransport link to 3X, set the memory at 400MHz DDR and raised the clock generator to the highest stable frequency.  When all was said done, we managed a peak of 242MHz, pushing our CPU from 2.2GHz to 2.66GHz, a gain of 460MHz.  Thus far, this is the highest speed we've seen with our Athlon 64 3700+, resulting in a boost of 21% which is a respectable increase.

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HH Test Bed and SiSoft SANDRA

How we configured our test systems: When configuring the test systems for this review, we first entered their system BIOSes and set each board to its "Optimized" or "High-Performance Defaults."  The hard drives were then formatted, and Windows XP Professional (SP2) was installed. When the Windows installation was complete, we installed the rest of the necessary drivers and removed Windows Messenger from the system.  Auto-Updating and System Restore were disabled, and we set up a 768MB 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
AMD nForced Here
SYSTEM 1:
AMD Athlon 64 3700+
(2.2GHz)

ECS KN1 SLI Extreme
(NVIDIA nForce 4 SLI)

2x512MB PQI3200-1024DBU
CL 2-2-2-5

GeForce 6800 GT
On-board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD 80GB Hard Drive
7200 RPM IDE

Windows XP Pro SP2
nForce 4 Drivers v6.70
NVIDIA Forceware v81.94
DirectX 9.0c
SYSTEM 2:
AMD Athlon 64 3700+
(2.2GHz)

MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI
(NVIDIA nForce 4 SLI)

2x512MB PQI3200-1024DBU
CL 2-2-2-5

GeForce 6800 GT
On-board Ethernet
On-board Audio

WD 80GB Hard Drive
7200 RPM IDE

Windows XP Pro SP2
nForce 4 Drivers v6.70
NVIDIA Forceware v81.94
DirectX 9.0c
Software:
SiSoft Sandra 2005
FutureMark PCMark05
Content Creation Winstone 2004
PC World's World Bench 5.0
-Photoshop 7 Module
-Office XP SP2 Module
-Windows Media Encoder 9 Module
Lame MP3
Adept Development's KribiBench v1.1
Cinebench 2003
Unreal Tournament 2004
Doom 3


Preliminary Benchmarks with SiSoft SANDRA 2005
Synthetic Testing

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 four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2005 suite (CPU, Multimedia, Cache, and Memory).  All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor and memory running at their respective default clock speeds of 2.2GHz and 200MHz (DDR400).


CPU Arithmetic Benchmark

Multimedia Benchmark

CPU Cache Benchmark

Memory Benchmark

SANDRA's tests don't offer anything conclusive regarding performance, but rather shed light on expected performance potential when compared to other comparable systems in SANDRA's ever growing database.  CPU and Multimedia performance were both on par with what we should expect to see with this hardware configuration.  Memory performance was at the top end of the scale, showing solid promise in this area of performance.  We'll have to reserve judgment, of course, until we complete our battery of benchmarks in the pages ahead.

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Futuremark PCMark05

For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and Memory performance modules built into FutureMark's PCMark05.  To help explain how FutureMark PCMark05 performs and arrives at its conclusions, we've  quoted FutureMark directly.

Futuremark PCMark05
More Synthetic CPU and Memory Benchmarks

"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."

When comparing performance to a similarly equipped MSI nForce4 SLI system, the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme performed on the same level as the more expensive competitor with respect to CPU performance.  Both board's were essentially tied with this module, with only slight variations in the results.


And here's FutureMark's explanation on what tests comprise the Futuremark PCMark05 Memory Test module...

"The Memory 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."

Since the memory controller is integrated into the Athlon 64 3700+, we have to look at these variations in memory performance with a degree of skepticism.  We ran and reran this module on both test systems and the results did remain consistent, even after triple-checking BIOS settings on both boards.  We'll give this test to the KN1 SLI Extreme, but will have to let some more real-world testing confirm whether this is an anomaly or not.

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CC Winstone 2004 & World Bench 5

To get this next batch of results, we used Veritest's Content Creation Winstone 2004 suite.  Before running these benchmarks, we patched the program to its latest version (v1.01), shut-down any unnecessary background processes, and defragged the hard drive.

Content Creation Winstone 2004
Real-World Application Performance

The Veritest Content Creation Winstone 2004 test utilizes the following applications in its benchmark routine. For more information about this test, see this page:

  • 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

Performance with Content Creation Winstone was another close race, with the results essentially tied. 

PC World's World Bench 5.0: Photoshop 7 & Office XP Modules
More Real-World Application Performance

PC World Magazine's WorldBench 5.0 is a new breed of Business and Professional application benchmark, poised to replace the aging and no-longer supported Winstone tests. WorldBench 5.0 consists of a number of performance modules that each utilize one, or a group of, popular applications to gauge performance.  Below we have the results from WB 5's Photoshop 7 and Office XP modules, recorded in seconds.  Lower times indicate better performance.

World Bench 5's Photoshop and Office XP SP2 modules went back and forth between the two boards, but like Content Creation, the differences were negligible.  With the Photoshop 7 module, the MSI K8N board topped the ECS KN1 SLI by four seconds while it went the other way with the Office XP SP2 component.

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More World Bench 5.0 & LAME MP3

We continued our testing of the with a video encoding benchmark based on Windows Media Encoder 9.  In this test, we ran the Windows Media Encoder 9 portion of the WorldBench 5 suite with encoding times recorded in seconds.  Lower times indicate better performance.

World Bench 5.0 - Windows Media Encoder 9
More Digital Video Encoding

With World Bench 5's Windows Media Encoder 9.0 module, we saw the widest variation in scores thus far, with the MSI board holding a seven second lead over the ECS model.  Although again, these results are very close and well within the margin of error in this test.

LAME MP3 Encoding Test
Converting a Large WAV To MP3

In our custom Lame MP3 encoding test, we converted a large digital audio file to the MP3 format.  In this test, we chose a 223MB WAV file (a never-ending Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to the MP3 format. Processing times are recorded below. Shorter times equate to better performance.

Once again, with CPU intensive tasks, the MSI board had a slight leg up over the ECS board, with the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme trailing by two seconds.  To say one board was faster than the other at this point would be splitting hairs though.

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Kribibench v1.1 & Cinebench 2003

Next up, we ran the Kribibench rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development.  Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer.  A 3D model is rendered and animated by the host CPU, and the average frame rate is reported.  We used two of the included models with this benchmark: an "Exploded Sponge" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and then its enormous "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polygons.

Kribibench v1.1
Details: www.adeptdevelopment.com

Once again, we see a tight performance delta between the two test beds.  In the Sponge Explode test, the ECS KN1 SLI held a mere three second lead while the Ultra test had the two boards tied.

Cinebench 2003 Performance Tests
3D Modeling & Rendering Tests

With Cinebench, we could only run the single-thread mode as the Athlon 64 is a purely single core CPU without any type of HyperThreading feature as found with Intel's Pentium line.

Once again, the results speak for themselves, both boards were essentially tied in the single-threaded Cinebench 2003 test.

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Unreal Tournament 2004 & Doom 3

Next we delved into the gaming side of things a bit and performed some low-resolution benchmarking with Epic's Unreal Tournament 2004.  We specifically used a "Low-Quality" game setting with UT2004 which allows us to isolate CPU and memory performance with little burden on the graphics subsystem.

Unreal Tournament 2004
DirectX 8 Gaming Performance

Here the two test scenarios continued to keep things close with less than 3 FPS difference between the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme and the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum SLI.

Benchmarks with Doom 3
OpenGL Gaming Performance

For our next game test, we benchmarked all of the test systems using a custom multi-player Doom 3 timedemo. We cranked 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...

With Doom3 testing, the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme pulled ahead of the MSI K8N Neo4 slightly more, taking a 7FPS lead over the "Platinum" series motherboard.

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SLI Performance with UT2004 and Doom 3

In our final test scenario, we traded in our GeForce 6800 GT for two GeForce 6600 GTs.  This time, we reran our Unreal Tournament and Doom 3 tests at 1600x1200 with 4X Antialiasing and 16X Anisotropic Filtering enable. First we ran each test with one GeForce 6600 GT installed, then repeated each test with SLI enabled.

SLI Benchmarking with Unreal Tournament 2004
DirectX 8 Gaming Performance

With the single card test, the two motherboards ran at virtually identical FPS, with a slight edge going in favor of the MSI K8N Neo4.  Once we added a second card for SLI testing, the scales tipped in favor of the ECS KN1 SLI by 2.5 FPS over the K8N Neo4.

SLI Benchmarking with Doom 3
OpenGL Gaming Performance

With Doom 3, the results were even closer then the UT2004 results.  The single card performance results were within .5 FPS of each other.  With SLI enabled, the performance for each scenario increased just shy of double, with the differential increasing to .7 FPS variance with the ECS KN1 SLI having the edge in both tests.

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Performance Summary & Conclusion

Performance Summary:  When assessing overall performance, the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme proved to be quite competitive.  In the majority of tests, the KN1 SLI Extreme was on the same level as the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum SLI, a high-end enthusiast class motherboard.

The ECS KN1 SLI Extreme motherboard picks up where the original KN1 Extreme left off, adding SLI to the mix as well as fine tuning board design and several features along the way.  We were impressed to see that ECS took feedback on the original KN1 to heart and implemented changes to improve on an already good design.  Granted, not all issues were addressed, but keep in mind, this board is marketed as an affordable enthusiast board, so some options will need to be scaled back.  Case in point, the Top Hat BIOS recovery is not as elegant as integrating a second BIOS to the motherboard, but that would add to manufacturing costs.  Nonetheless, as a whole, ECS performed a good balancing act, offering a feature rich board with competitive performance and an affordable price.

Currently, the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme motherboard retails in the ballpark of $125, a mere $30 more than its non-SLI capable counterpart, the KN1 Extreme.  That's an attractive price for a motherboard with SLI, RAID, 8 channel integrated audio and Dual LAN.  Factor in that performance is on par with a high-end enthusiast motherboard such as the MSI K8N Neo4 Platinum/SLI which retails closer to $160 and the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme should appeal to those on a budget.  The bottom line is, if you are looking for a solid board with decent overclocking and competitive performance at an attractive price point, the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme will not disappoint.  We give the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme a Hot Hardware Heat Meter rating of an 8.5.

_Overall Performance
_Affordable SLI
_Overall Features
_Improved RAID, AUDIO and BIOS options over KN1
_PEG Slot too close to DIMM hinge

 

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