ECS preps new enthusiast mobos

— 10:28 AM on August 30, 2005

This past Friday, ECS invited journalists fresh out of the Intel Developer Forum to come hear about this motherboard company's intention to make a push into the enthusiast market. ECS Elitegroup has long been known for making decent, cheap motherboards, usually based on SiS chipsets, with modest feature sets and even more modest pricing. Now, the company says it's time to pick a fight in the high end of the market, and it's prepping a number of intriguing products and would-be products for use in that effort.

First and foremost among those products are new mobos designed for ATI's CrossFire dual-graphics solution. Based on ATI's Radeon Xpress chipsets, these boards naturally pack dual PCI Express graphics slots, a host of high-end features, and ECS's funky "extreme" color scheme, as seen on the PA1 MVP Extreme pictured below.

ECS's CrossFire mobo for Pentium processors
ECS was showing off motherboards for both AMD and Intel processors running with dual Radeon graphics cards, and the company says both boards are ready to roll as soon as ATI delivers CrossFire "Master" cards. That should happen some time in September, according to the rumors I've been hearing.

If you think dual graphics configs are just a gimmick, perhaps ECS's mobo with interchangeable CPU sockets is more your speed. The PF88 motherboard ships with an LGA775 socket for Pentium processors, but it has a big slot onboard into which one may plug a SIMA expansion card, as ECS calls it. This card has a CPU socket, a north bridge chip from SiS, and a pair of DIMM sockets, allowing the conversion of the motherboard into another socket type.

A SIMA card for AMD CPUs
ECS has been shipping a Socket 939 converter card for the PF88, but they are just now starting to ship cards for the Pentium M (Socket 479) and the Turion 64 (Socket 754). That means this one motherboard is capable of hosting CPUs with at least four different socket types. We might have to snag one of these for some comparative power consumption testing with different CPUs. Beyond experiments like that, I'm not sure there's much of a market for a convertible motherboard, but it's certainly a fun idea.

Cooking up the SIMA card must have emboldened the folks at ECS R&D to try even more radical experimentation. The result: SDGE, a concept for delivering dual PCI-E x16 graphics at a relatively low price point. An SDGE motherboard will ship with two PCI Express x16 physical slots, but Slot 1 will have all sixteen lanes routed to it. Slot 0 will get none, but it will have a giant line of connectors next door to it, into which one can plug an SDGE expansion card. The SDGE card has an NVIDIA HyperTransport chip onboard, and it can supply an additional 16 PCI Express lanes for Slot 0.

Mobo with SDGE card installed
Of course, in order for this scheme to work, NVIDIA and ATI will have to open up their drivers for dual graphics cards to allow it. More importantly, I'm not sure why, exactly, one would prefer this solution to more conventional dual eight-lane configs. ECS suggests that a motherboard plus SDGE card could enable true, dual sixteen-lane SLI for less than the cost of a nForce SLI X16 motherboard, but I'm not sure the performance benefits are worth the fuss. SDGE may never make it past the concept stage, but given that ECS is already shipping the PF88 with SIMA cards, I suppose anything is possible.
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