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ModelKA3 MVP
Price (Street)
Striving for enthusiasts

Apparently not content with being one of the largest manufacturers of budget motherboards, ECS has been trying to break into the enthusiast market. Enthusiasts are notoriously fickle, though, so it hasn't been easy. Not only does ECS have to build a board with a generous array of features and tweaking options, decent overclocking potential, rock-solid stability, and screaming performance, it also has to contend with competition that has much more experience catering to demanding enthusiasts.

ECS's first wave of enthusiast-oriented "Extreme" boards showed promise, but didn't quite hit the nail on the head. Looking to improve, ECS turned its attention to Socket AM2 and released the KA3 MVP. The KA3 MVP was actually the first Socket AM2 CrossFire Xpress 3200 board available for sale in North America.

Unfortunately, the board retains the Barney-purple coloring of its predecessors, complete with a multicolored array of expansion ports and slots. The veritable rainbow of port and slot colors is at least backed up by a color manual that makes it easier for less experienced users to differentiate between ports. There's no utility to the purple board, though. Even ECS has realized that maybe bright purple isn't a good look; the company's next-gen Extreme boards on display at Computex featured a much darker, richer color palette.

Aesthetic critiques aside, the KA3 MVP's layout is reasonably good.

AMD's heatsink retention bracket ensures that there's enough room around the KA3 MVP's CPU socket for standard coolers, but a row of tallish capacitors along the bracket's edge could complicate compatibility with wider aftermarket designs. Fortunately, cooler manufacturers appear to be more interested in building up rather than out. Taller designs seem to be more popular these days than shorter, wider units.

Speaking of popular, voltage circuitry cooling is still all the rage for enthusiast boards. However, instead of outfitting the KA3 MVP with VRM heatsinks or fancy heatpipes, ECS relies on a single small fan and minimal ducting to direct airflow over the board's VRMs. We've found that tiny fans tend to develop an annoying whine over time, and can often fail prematurely, so we're not too crazy about relying on one for VRM cooling.

Fortunately, ECS doesn't rely on a potentially whiny fan to cool the CrossFire Xpress 3200. The chipset's north and south bridge components are both cooled by passive heatsinks, and the south bridge cooler is a low-profile design that doesn't interfere with longer graphics cards.

Longer cards also won't interfere with the DIMM slot retention tabs, allowing users to swap DIMMs without having to remove their graphics card. That's an especially good thing on the KA3 MVP, because the retention tabs on the board's PCI Express x16 slots apparently require nails, a screwdriver, or impossibly tiny fingers to release easily. The tabs snap into place and hold cards well enough, but the shaky dismount ruins it.

While we're griping, there are a couple of other issues with the KA3 MVP's expansion slots that deserve attention. First, using a pair of double-wide graphics cards leaves users with only a single PCI slot. At the very least, we'd like to see access to one PCI and one PCI Express x1 slot, or even two PCI slots. The board also needs more space between the two x16 slots to allow air to circulate between double-wide graphics cards. On our open test bench, we ran into overheating-related artifacts with a Radeon X1900 CrossFire configuration, and had to resort to auxiliary graphics cooling just to get the setup stable enough for benchmarking.

Despite an imperfect array of expansion slots, ECS nails the placement of the board's Serial ATA ports. All four of the south bridge chip's ports line the right edge of the board where they won't interfere with longer graphics cards, and even the ports connected to the auxiliary JMicron controller are positioned well. The JMicron chip's IDE port isn't terribly convenient for optical drives mounted in full tower cases, though. Fortunately, the KA3 MVP's primary IDE port is located mid-way up the board where it can more easily reach 5.25" drive bays in full tower cases.

Around the rear, the KA3 MVP's I/O panel bristles with connectivity options. There's plenty to like here, including a serial port for the old-school crowd and both coaxial and TOS-Link digital audio outputs. However, Firewire is conspicuously missing; you have to tap one of two onboard headers to squeeze 1394a from the KA3 MVP.

ECS makes tapping at least some of the KA3 MVP's expansion port headers a bit of a treat, though. In addition to proving a PCI back plate ports for some of its onboard headers, ECS also includes a 3.5" drive bay insert that can accommodate one Firewire and two USB ports. Considering that the KA3 MVP has onboard headers for two Firewire ports and six USB, it makes a lot of sense to have access to at least a few of those up front.

The KA3 MVP's treats don't end with the drive bay insert, either. The board also comes with a handy "Top Hat Flash" BIOS chip that can be clipped over the motherboard's BIOS chip in the event of a failed flash attempt or other BIOS corruption. Few users may ever need the Top Hat module, but for those who do, it'll be a life saver.