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ECS 945G-M3 and C19-A SLI Motherboards
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Date: May 15, 2006
Section:Motherboards
Author: Shane Unrein
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ECS 945G-M3: Intro, Specs & Bundle

As ECS continues to gain respect and attention in the enthusiast motherboard market, the company is of course extending its reach into the segment it is best known for - the budget segment. While high-end and enthusiast-level boards often cost $150 or more, budget and entry-level motherboards can usually be had for $70-90. Entry-level doesn't necessarily equate to a lack of great features though, as demonstrated by the two review candidates on the test bench today.

The ECS 945G-M3 motherboard is based on Intel's 945G chipset, while the ECS C19-A SLI motherboard is based on NVIDIA's nForce4 SLI XE chipset. Both boards sport an LGA775 socket, 667MHz DDR2 support, 1066MHz FSB support, gigabit ethernet, SATA 3Gb/s ports and 8-channel audio.

We're going to start this review with a closer look at the 945G-M3. ECS proudly displays the Intel Viiv logo on the box of this board. Put simply, the Viiv logo is supposed to indicated to the consumer that a product is entertainment PC friendly. When you see Viiv, you're supposed to think of media and home theater PCs.

ECS 945G-M3 (1.0B)
Specifications & Features
CPU
LGA775 socket for Intel Pentium 4 / Pentium D processor
FSB 1066/800/533 MHz
Support Hyper-Threading Technology

CHIPSET
Intel 945G & ICH7
North Bridge: Intel 945G
South Bridge: Intel ICH7

GRAPHICS
Integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 ( GMA950 )

MEMORY
Dual-channel DDR2 memory architecture
2 x 240-pin DDR DIMM socket support up to 2 GB
Support DDR2 667/533/400 DDR2 SDRAM

EXPANSION SLOTS
1 x PCI Express x1 slot
1 x PCI Express x16 slot
2 x PCI slots

STORAGE
Supported by Intel ICH7
-- 2 x Ultra DMA100/66 devices
-- 4 x Serial ATA 3Gb/s devices

IEEE 1394a
VIA VT6307, support 2x IEEE1394a ports

AUDIO
Realtek ALC880 8-channel audio CODEC

LAN
Realtek RTL8110S Gigabit Mbps Fast Ethernet Controller


REAR PANEL I/O
1 x PS/2 keyboard & PS/2 mouse connectors
4 x USB ports
1 x Serial port (COM1)
1 x VGA port
1 x Parallel port (LPT1)
1 x 1394a port
1 x RJ45 LAN connector
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 FDD connector supports two 360K~2.88MB FDDs
1 x IDE connector
4 x Serial ATA connectors
2 x USB 2.0 headers support additional 4 USB Ports
1 x SPDIF out header
1 x Front panel switch/LED header
1 x Front panel audio header
1 x IrDA for SIR header
1 x 1394a header
AUX-in header
CPUFAN/SYSFAN connectors

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

FORM FACTOR
Micro-ATX Size, 244mm*244mm

Opening the 945G-M3 box reveals a rather skimpy bundle, which actually isn't surprising considering that this is an entry-level board. The package includes a User Guide, rear I/O shield, one SATA cable, one SATA power cable, one floppy cable and one IDE cable. Extravagant packages can be fun and exciting, but simple and practical bundles have their place as well.

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ECS 945G-M3: The Board

ECS 945G-M3: The Board
Check Out the Layout on That PCB!

The 945G-M3 is a micro-ATX board. Both the northbridge and southbridge are passively cooled, which along with its size should help make this board attractive to HTPC builders. Passive cooling of course means that no fans are used to cool the chipset, and that means no extra noise from the motherboard.

This board features one PCI Express x16 slot, one PCI Express x1 slot and two PCI slots. You can see in the second image below that there is a fair amount of clearance around the CPU socket. We didn't test any big coolers, but we're guessing many or most of the popular enthusiast-level coolers would fit on this board. To the left of the CPU socket, there are two DIMM slots, which support up to two gigabytes of 667MHz DDR2.

For your storage needs, ECS includes four SATA 3Gb/s ports, one IDE connector and one floppy connector. Overall, the layout of the board is decent, especially considering its small size. It is worth noting that the CMOS battery sits perpendicular to the PCB, which means it is sticking up and could pose problems with larger video cards.

Since the 945G-M3 features onboard graphics, it has a VGA port on the rear panel I/O. The other ports include the usual suspects: PS/2 keyboard, PS/2 mouse, 4 USB 2.0, 1 serial, 1 parallel, 1 IEEE 1394a (FireWire), 1 RJ45 and 1 set of audio ports.

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ECS 945G-M3: BIOS & Overclocking

As you'd expect from an entry-level board, the 945G-M3's BIOS is pretty basic. There are not a lot of options to help maximize overclocking, but that's okay since ECS doesn't claim that this is a board geared towards enthusiasts.

ECS 945G-M3: The BIOS
Simple and Basic

For the most part, the Phoenix AwardBIOS used for this board is rather basic and only includes the typical menus and settings. The only real excitement in the BIOS can be found on the Frequency/Voltage Control menu.

As you can see from the picture, even this page is pretty limited. There actually aren't any voltage control options, but you can change the CPU clock from 200 to 510MHz in 1MHz increments. Anyone for some quick and dirty overclocking?

ECS 945G-M3: Overclocking
Put the Pedal to the Metal

With a very limited BIOS, we didn't have many ways to approach overclocking. We held the memory at 400MHz and started bumping up the CPU clock in the BIOS via the front side bus. When it was all said and done, we couldn't get any higher than 223MHz with our test system. Obviously, that's not overly impressive, but for a board that really isn't designed for overclocking, it's not too bad.

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ECS C19-A SLI: Intro, Specs & Bundle

Next in line, we have the ECS C19-A SLI, another LGA775 motherboard, but this one is based on NVIDIA's nForce4 SLI XE chipset. NVIDIA released the nForce4 SLI XE chipset in order compete in the entry-level segment of the motherboard market with SLI boards. That's right; you don't have to drop $150+ in order to enjoy some SLI fun.

Unlike the 945G-M3, the C19-A SLI is a full-size ATX board and does not feature onboard graphics. The 945G-M3's northbridge is the Intel 945G, and its southbridge is the Intel ICH7, while the C19-A SLI features the NVIDIA C19XE and MCP51.

ECS C19-A SLI (1.0A)
Specifications & Features
CPU
LGA775 socket for Intel Pentium 4 / Pentium D processor
FSB 1066/800 MHz
Support Hyper-Threading Technology

CHIPSET
NVIDIA C19XE & MCP51
North Bridge: NVIDIA C19XE
South Bridge: NVIDIA MCP51

MEMORY
Dual-channel DDR2 memory architecture
4 x 240-pin DDR2 DIMM socket support up to 16GB
Support DDR2 533/667 DDR SDRAM

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

STORAGE
Supported by NVIDIA MCP51
-- 4 x Ultra DMA133/100/66 devices
-- 4 x Serial ATA 3Gb/s devices
RAID0, RAID1, RAID0+1, RAID5 configuration

IEEE 1394a (optional)
VIA 6307 support 2 x IEEE1394a ports

AUDIO
Realtek ALC883 8-channel audio CODEC

LAN
Marvell 88E1115 Gigabit LAN controller
Realtek RTL8100C 10/100 Mbps Fast Ethernet Controller (optional)


REAR PANEL I/O
1 x PS/2 keyboard & PS/2 mouse connectors
4 x USB ports
1 x RJ45 LAN connector
1 x Serial port (COM1)
1 x Audio port (Line-in, Line-out, Mic-in)
2 x Digital SPDIF (Optical & Coaxial) out
1 x Parallel port (LPT1)

INTERNAL I/O CONNECTORS & HEADERS
1 x 24-pin ATX Power Supply connector
1 x 4-pin ATX 12V connector
1 x FDD connector supports two 360K~2.88MB FDDs
1 x Auxiliary 4-pin +12V connector
1 x IrDA for SIR header
1 x Speaker header
2 x IDE connectors
4 x Serial ATA connectors
2 x USB 2.0 headers support additional 4 USB Ports
1 x Front panel switch/LED header
1 x Front panel audio header
CD in header
CPUFAN/NBFAN/SYSFANx2 connectors

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

FORM FACTOR
ATX Size 305mm*244mm

From a gamer's perspective, the C19-A SLI is a much more interesting board than the 945G-M3, but it doesn't really offer a more exciting bundle. Like the one found with the 945G-M3, this bundle is rather spartan. We feel obligated to reiterate, though, that this is typical of boards in this price range.

The bundle consists of the following items: a driver CD, a User Guide, a rear I/O panel cover, one floppy cable, one IDE cable, one SATA cable, one SATA power cable, an SLI bridge connector and a bracket to hold the SLI connector in place.

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ECS C19-A SLI: The Board

ECS C19-A SLI: The Board
Have a Closer Look

The C19-A SLI's PCB is a deep purple, a common color for ECS boards. The board features a typical layout. The northbridge, which is cooled by a heatsink and fan, is in between the CPU socket and expansion slots while the southbridge is between the expansion slots and the SATA connectors. ECS did a good job of not crowding too many areas on the board. The power connectors are really close to connectors and/or capacitors, but that's easy to get over.

The C19-A SLI sports four DIMM slots which support 667MHz DDR2. Near the memory slots, you can see the main power connector, the floppy connector and one of the IDE connectors. You might also notice that longer PCI Express x16 video cards would have to be removed in order to install/uninstall memory, so that you could fully disengage the DIMM slot clips. The southbridge is passively and silently cooled by a small heatsink. Near the southbridge, you can find the rest of this board's storage options: four SATA 3Gb/s connectors and the second IDE connector.

The CPU socket seems to have enough clearance for most large coolers. One of the PCI Express x16 slots is orange while the other is blue. When in SLI mode, these slots function as x8 slots. With two video cards installed, you won't be able to use the PCI Express x1 slot in between the two x16 slots, but the one to the left of the orange x16 slot would still be available. The C19-A SLI also sports three PCI slots, one of which probably couldn't be used if you decide to run two video cards in SLI.

We were pleasantly surprised by the rear panel I/O in regards to audio outputs. In addition to the six analog ports that support 8-channel audio, this board includes two digital S/PDIF out connectors (one optical and one coaxial). In addition to the audio ports, you can see the following connectors: PS/2 keyboard, PS/2 mouse, 4 USB 2.0, 1 serial and 1 RJ45.

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ECS C19-A SLI: BIOS & Overclocking

Users interested in tweaking their systems will be happy to see that the C19-A SLI board includes quite a bit more options for overclocking than the 945G-M3 does.

ECS C19-A SLI: The BIOS
A Few Good Options

It's nice to see that this BIOS allows some adjustment of voltages, namely the DIMM and CPU voltages. This should definitely help when trying to reach higher and more stable overclocks.

Along with memory and voltage control, the Performance Options menu allows you to adjust the front side bus speed, which happens to be shown as the quad data rate (QDR). In this case, the default FSB is 200MHz (200MHz x 4 = 800MHz QDR). FSB can be increased all the way to 1300MHz QDR (325MHz x 4). Memory speed and timings can also be adjusted.

ECS C19-A SLI: Overclocking
Put the Pedal to the Metal

Overclocking with the C19-A SLI was quick and painless. With our Pentium D 840, we were able to crank the FSB to 235MHz (940MHz QDR) without making any voltage adjustments. After a couple small voltage bumps for memory and the CPU, we were able to get a stable overclock to 253MHz. At this speed, the CPU was clocked at 4.048GHz.

We were impressed that we reached over 250MHz, especially considering that this board isn't aimed at enthusiasts. Casual overclockers should be happy enough with the BIOS options. As always, your overclocking mileage will vary.

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Test System & SANDRA 2005

Test System Specifications
What's Under the Hood?
Motherboards Tested:
ECS 945G-M3 (Intel i945G)

ECS C19-A SLI (nForce4 SLI XE)
Gigabyte GA-8I955X Royal (Intel i955X)

Common Hardware:
Intel Pentium D 840 Processor @ 3.2GHz
2x512MB Corsair XMS2 Pro DDR2-667 (CL 4-4-4-12)
NVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT

On-board audio & LAN
Western Digital 74GB Raptor Hard Drive

Software / System Drivers:
Windows XP with Service Pack 2
DirectX 9.0c
NVIDIA nForce4 Chipset Drivers v6.82
NVIDIA ForceWare Drivers v84.17

Intel INF Chipset Drivers v7.2.2.1006

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 three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA 2005 suite (CPU, Multimedia, and Memory) with a Pentium D 840 installed into the various boards we tested. All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speed of 3.2GHz.

As we expected, all of the boards performed similarly. Even though none of the boards use the same chipset, they all seem to be able to squeeze almost the same level of performance out of the Pentium D 840 and Corsair DDR2 RAM.

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PCMark05: CPU & Memory

For our next round of synthetic benchmarks, we ran the CPU and memory performance modules built into Futuremark's PCMark05. We incorporated PCMark05 into our benchmark suite soon after its release and have found it to be even more robust in terms of test features than its predecessor. That said, the CPU and memory test modules we use for comparison are very similar to the 04 version of the test suite. For those interested in more than just the graphs though, we've got a couple of quotes directly from Futuremark that explain exactly what these tests do and how they work.

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. The CPU Test Suite also includes multithreading: two of the test scenarios are run multithreaded; the other including two simultaneous tests and the other running four tests simultaneously. The remaining six tests are run single threaded. Operations include, File Compression/Decompression, Encryption/Decryption, Image Decompression, and Audio Compression" - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.

Once again, the results aren't different enough to truly matter. It is nice to see that the entry-level ECS boards keep up with the high-end Gigabyte board that costs more than twice as much.


"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." - Courtesy FutureMark Corp.

Like the CPU performance module results, these results are really close. All three boards appear to provide nearly equivalent memory performance and bandwidth.

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Office XP SP2 & Photoshop 7

PC World Magazine's WorldBench 5.0 is a new breed of Business and Professional application benchmark, that has replaced the aging and no-longer supported Content Creation and Business Winstone tests in our suite. 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 Office XP SP2 and Photoshop 7 modules, recorded in seconds. Lower times indicate better performance here, so the shorter the bar the better.

PC World's WorldBench 5.0: Office XP SP2 & Photoshop 7 Modules
Real-World Application Performance

The same story continues here. Only three seconds separate the fastest times from the slowest.

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Windows Media Encoder 9 & LAME MT

Windows Media Encoder 9
Digital Video Encoding

For our next text, we moved onto a benchmark based on Windows Media Encoder 9. PC Worldbench 5.0's Windows Media Encoding test reports encoding times in seconds, and like the tests on the previous page, lower times indicate better performance.

We know it's getting redundant, but the performance by all three boards is virtually identical again.

LAME MT MP3 Encoding Test
Converting a Large WAV To MP3

In our custom LAME MT MP3 encoding test, we convert a large WAV file to MP3 format, which is a very popular scenario that many end users work with on a daily basis, to provide portability and storage of their digital audio content. In this test, we created our own 223MB WAV file (a never-ending Grateful Dead jam) and converted it to MP3 format using the multi-thread capable LAME MT application in single and multi-thread modes. Processing times were recorded and are shown in seconds below. Once again, shorter times equate to better performance.

Here we can see a good example of the benefits of multi-threaded applications. In multi-thread mode, the encoding time is almost cut in half.  But again, all of the motherboards we tested offered similar performance regardless of the test configuration.

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KribiBench v1.1

Next we ran Kribibench, a 3D rendering benchmark produced by the folks at Adept Development. Kribibench is an SSE aware software renderer where 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: a "Sponge Explode" model consisting of over 19.2 million polygons and a gargantuan "Ultra" model that is comprised of over 16 billion polys.

KribiBench v1.1
Details: www.adeptdevelopment.com

The same trend from the previous pages continues here with the KribiBench testing. All three boards performed at nearly identical levels, with the 955X board barely edging out the two ECS boards.

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CINEBENCH R9.5 & 3DMark05 - CPU

CINEBENCH R9.5 Performance Tests
3D Modeling & Rendering Tests

The CINEBENCH R9.5 benchmark is an OpenGL 3D rendering performance test, based on the commercially available Cinema 4D application. This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The time it took each test system to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below (listed in seconds).

None of the three boards takes a decisive victory here, but the ECS 945G-M3 does fall a little bit behind the other two.

Futuremark 3DMark05 - CPU Test
Simulated DirectX Gaming Performance

3DMark05's built-in CPU test is a multi-threaded "gaming related" DirectX metric that's useful for comparing relative performance between similarly equipped systems. This test consists of two different 3D scenes that are generated with a software renderer, which is dependent 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 is used to determine the final score.

Once again, the competition is close, but the 955X board manages to squeak by with another tiny victory.

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Gaming: F.E.A.R. & Doom 3

We must note that we didn't fully test the 945G-M3's onboard graphics (integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950). The GMA950 isn't really suited for intense gaming; it is more suitable for very casual and light gaming situations where high frame rates and image quality are not a big concern. If you don't plan on playing any recent, intense 3D games and will stick to mostly office apps and e-mail, then the GMA950 is fine for that type of usage scenario.

Benchmarks with F.E.A.R.: Low Res / Low Quality
DirectX Gaming Performance

To start our in-game testing, we ran some low resolution and low quality benchmarking with F.E.A.R., a game that can be quite demanding even on the fastest system. Like the other in-game tests in this review, we used low quality graphical settings and a low screen resolution to isolate CPU and memory performance. In other words, all eye candy was set to the lowest level possible or disabled, and resolution was set to 640x480. All tests were run with a GeForce 6800 GT.

Finally, the test results get a little more exciting. The C19-A SLI board decided to perk up a bit and take this one by a decisive margin. The 945G and 955X boards, on the other hand, post very similar scores which are about 20 FPS lower than the C19-A SLI. Remember this is with only one 6800 GT installed on all boards.

Benchmarks with Doom 3: Low Res / Low Quality & High Quality SLI
OpenGL Gaming Performance

For our next game test, we benchmarked all of the test systems using a custom single-player Doom 3 timedemo. Here, we cranked the resolution down to 640 x 480 and configured the game to run at its "Low-Quality" graphics setting. When it's configured at these minimal settings, this game is also more CPU and memory-bound than anything else.

The scores end up being closer in Doom 3, but the C19-A SLI board takes the victory once more. As with the F.E.A.R. benchmark, the two ECS boards perform nearly identically.

Since the C19-A SLI is an SLI board, we couldn't leave you without any SLI benchmarks. Just to show you that this board can put up some nice numbers in SLI mode, we also ran the Doom 3 test with 4x AA (anti-aliasing) and "High Quality" set in the game options. Admittedly, Doom 3 isn't the newest game around, but it does demonstrate the potential performance gains from SLI.

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Our Thoughts & Conclusion

Benchmark Summary: When it comes to CPU, memory and disk performance, the entry-level ECS 945G-M3 and C19-A SLI essentially perform at the same level, matching the performance of the enthusiast-oriented Gigabyte GA-8I955X Royal. Although the 945G-M3 and C19-A SLI are geared towards different users, they offer equivalent performance in every aspect except gaming when they are equipped with the same components. The C19-A SLI was the top performer in our low quality gaming tests and is of course SLI capable.

ECS 945G-M3:
If you're looking for a solid, mainstream board with which to build a decent office machine or even an Intel Viiv-based media PC, then be sure to check out the 945G-M3. It offers a lot of value in a small and simple package, especially considering you should be able to find this board for less than $90 online. With its onboard GMA950 graphics, gigabit ethernet and high-definition audio, the 945G-M3 will easily meet most users needs as long as those users don't want to do any real gaming. 3D gaming will require the addition of a PCI Express x16 video card. For enthusiasts, one of the biggest downsides of this board is the lack of overclocking and voltage options in the BIOS.  Then again, this motherboard isn't targeted towards enthusiasts. Overall, the 945G-M3 is a simple yet competent board that has a lot of potential in the right environment. We award it a 7.5 on the Heat Meter.

  • Decent Layout
  • Competitive Performance
  • Good Price
  • Silent NB & SB Cooling
  • Onboard Graphics
  • Sparse Bundle
  • Very Limited BIOS

ECS C19-A SLI:
We were pleasantly surprised when SLI boards started aggressively competing price-wise in the mainstream segment. For a budget Intel-based SLI rig, the ECS C19-A SLI might be hard to beat at around $80. Many users won't even miss the extra features and bundled extras found in higher cost boards. When it comes to performance, the C19-A SLI should be able to keep up with any other Intel SLI board, even those that are twice its price. Although enthusiast-level boards do feature more BIOS options, the C19-A SLI has enough of the basics to help you get to the next level of performance if overclocking is your thing. The board proved to be stable and easy to work with. Additionally, it offers performance equivalent or better than that of 945G and 955X boards. The C19-A SLI's value is undeniable. We're giving it an 8 on the Heat Meter.

  • Inexpensive SLI!
  • Competitive Performance
  • Good Layout
  • Decent Overclocking Potential
  • Sparse Bundle

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