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ECS's KA1 MVP Extreme motherboard

ECS takes on enthusiasts

ModelKA1 MVP Extreme
Price (Street)

WHILE NOT THE MOST popular motherboard manufacturer among enthusiasts, ECS has quietly been building mobos for nearly two decades. Most of those boards have been budget and OEM offerings that put affordability before features and performance, so it's no surprise that they haven't caught on among enthusiasts. That may be about to change, though. ECS isn't content to just be known for its budget fare, and the company has launched a new line of "Extreme" motherboards targeting gamers, overclockers, and enthusiasts.

The latest of ECS's Extreme offerings is the KA1 MVP, a Socket 939 motherboard that combines ATI's Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire Edition chipset with PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet and Serial ATA RAID. That looks like a decent spec on paper; however, we enthusiasts are a picky lot, and we demand more than just an "Extreme" moniker and checkbox features. Read on to see if the KA1 MVP delivers the performance, BIOS, layout, and extras needed to back up ECS's intentions.

The specs

CPU supportSocket 939-based Athlon 64 processors
North bridgeATI Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire Edition
South bridgeATI SB450
InterconnectPCI Express (1GB/sec)
Expansion slots2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz
Memory4 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 4GB of DDR266/333/400 SDRAM
Storage I/OFloppy disk
2 channels ATA/133
4 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1 support
2 channels Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1 support via SiI 3112
Audio8-channel HD audio via SB450 and Realtek ALC880 codec
Ports1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
1 Serial port
USB 2.0 with headers for 4  more
1 Firewire via VIA TSB43AB22A with header for 1 more
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 via Marvell 88E8053
1 RJ45 10/100 via Realtek RTL8100C

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out
1 analog rear out
1 analog surround out
1 analog line in
1 analog mic in

Headers for 2 Firewire via VIA VT6307
BIOSPhoenix AwardBIOS
Bus speedsHT: 200-500MHz in 1MHz increments
LDT: auto, 1000, 800, 600, 400MHz
DDR: 100, 133, 166, 183, 200MHz
Bus dividersNA
VoltagesCPU: auto, 0.825-1.55V in 0.025V increments
CPU overvolt: +0.025-0.175V in 0.025V increments
DDR: auto, 2.6-3.0V in 0.05V increments
MonitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring
Fan speed controlNone

The KA1 MVP's spec sheet has just about everything you'd expect from a high-end enthusiast motherboard, starting with a chipset capable of multi-GPU graphics. In this case, ECS is doing multi-GPU with ATI's Radeon Xpress 200 CrossFire Edition north bridge, which can split 16 lanes of PCI Express evenly between a pair of CrossFire-capable graphics cards. The north bridge also has an additional six lanes of PCI Express, four of which are consumed by the board's pair of x1 slots, its PCI-E Marvell Gigabit Ethernet controller, and a Silicon Image Serial ATA RAID chip.

So what about those extra two lanes of PCI Express on the north bridge? Those are actually used as the chipset interconnect between the north bridge and south bridge chips. Using a couple of standard PCI Express lanes gives the interconnect 500MB/s of bandwidth in each direction, and perhaps more importantly, allows the north bridge chip to interface with one of several different ATI and ULi south bridge chips.

Unfortunately, ECS doesn't take advantage of the potential for an ATI/ULi chipset pairing. Instead, the KA1 MVP comes with ATI's older SB450 south bridge. The SB450 sports High Definition Audio and four Serial ATA ports, but it lacks support for Native Command Queuing (NCQ), 300MB/s Serial ATA transfer rates, and RAID 0+1 or 5 arrays. We've also encountered persistent I/O issues with the SB450 that can slow both USB and PCI performance.

While the SB450/s I/O performance woes likely won't be fixed until ATI's next-gen south bridge appears, ECS has managed to sidestep some of the chip's other limitations. For example, the KA1 MVP's auxiliary Silicon Image Serial ATA RAID chip supports both NCQ and 300MB/s transfer rates. The board's PCI Express Marvell Gigabit Ethernet controller also makes up for the SB450's lack of integrated GigE. However, the secondary Realtek 10/100 Fast Ethernet chip is a bit of a curiosity. Fast Ethernet is an order of magnitude slower than Gigabit, and with most enthusiast boards rocking dual GigE ports, 10/100 feels unnecessarily cheap.