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[nextpage title=”Introduction”]

The first socket LGA1156 processors were released this week together with a new chipset from Intel, P55. Of course the main motherboard manufacturers are releasing products based on this new platform. Today we are going to take a look at a model from ECS, P55H-A Black Series, which is a mainstream model featuring all-solid capacitors.

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboardFigure 1: ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboard.

The first thing that caught our eye on this motherboard was the use of only solid aluminum capacitors.

ECS P55H-A has two PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots. These slots are actually connected directly inside the CPU, and this in one of the main new features brought by socket LGA1156 processors. If only one video card is installed, the main slot will work at x16, but if two video cards are installed the speed drops to x8 on each slot. This is a limitation from the CPU, not from the chipset or the motherboard, since the CPU is the component controlling these slots, as explained. P55H-A supports CrossFire configuration, but not SLI. SLI support on P55-based motherboards will depend on whether the manufacturer licensed this technology from NVIDIA or not.

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboardFigure 2: Slots.

This motherboard also has one x4 PCI Express slot, one x1 PCI Express slot and two standard PCI slots. These are controlled by the chipset.

In Figure 2 you can also see an extra power connector (using a standard peripheral power connector, a.k.a. “Molex”) that is available on the motherboard. ECS doesn’t say exactly when it should be used. Since it is used to provide extra current for the PCI Express x16 slots, we recommend you to always use it.

[nextpage title=”Memory Support”]

Socket LGA1156 CPUs, like socket LGA1366 and AMD processors, have an embedded memory controller. All other Intel CPUs use an external memory controller, which is located on the north bridge chip (a.k.a. MCH or Memory Controller Hub) from the chipset. This means that with other Intel CPUs the chipset (and thus the motherboard) is the component that says what memory technologies and the maximum amount of memory you can have on your PC.

Since now the memory controller is inside the CPU, it is the processor, and not the chipset, that defines the memory technologies and the maximum amount of memory you can have. The motherboard, however, may have a limitation as to how much memory can be installed.

At the moment, the integrated memory controller of socket LGA1156 processors supports only DDR3 memories up to 1,333 MHz under dual-channel architecture, however ECS says P55H-A supports DDR3 memories up to 2130 MHz under overclocking. ECS P55H-A has four DDR3 sockets and since each DDR3 memory module can have up to 4 GB, you can have up to 16 GB with this motherboard.

The first and the third sockets are orange, while the second and the fourth are yellow. In order to achieve the maximum performance, you should install two or four memory modules to enable the dual-channel architecture. When only two modules are used make sure to install them on the yellow sockets. If you install them on the orange ones the computer won’t turn on and the POST display will show “E8” code.

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboardFigure 3: Memory sockets. Install two or four modules for the best performance.

[nextpage title=”On-Board Peripherals”]

Intel P55 chipset is a single-chip solution. The basic features provided by this chipset include six SATA-300 ports (RAID support is optional), no support for parallel ATA (PATA) ports, 14 USB 2.0 ports supporting port disable, embedded Gigabit Ethernet MAC (Medium Access Control) and eight x1 PCI Express lanes.

ECS P55H-A provides all the six SATA-300 ports and they are placed facing the motherboard edge, as you can see in Figure 4. This is a terrific solution, because on motherboards where the ports are facing up the video cards usually block the access to them or even completely prevent you from installing SATA cables on them.

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboardFigure 4: SATA ports.

Intel P55 does not provide parallel ATA port, but ECS P55H-A has one ATA-133 port, provided by a JMicron JMB361. This chip also controls the eSATA port present on the rear panel from the motherboard. This eSATA port supports port multiplier up to three devices, allowing you to install up to three hard drives on this port, as long as you have an external enclosure supporting eSATA with port multiplier. This port – and only this port – supports RAID 0, 1 0+1 and JBOD. ECS P55H-A, however, doesn’t have a floppy disk drive controller.

All the 14 USB 2.0 ports supported by the chipset are present, eight soldered on the rear panel and six available on three motherboard headers.

Audio is generated by the chipset using a Realtek ALC888S codec, which is a good component for a mainstream motherboard, providing 7.1 audio with 24-bit resolution, 97 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the outputs, 90 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog inputs, 192 kHz sampling rate for the outputs and 96 kHz sampling rate for the inputs. This motherboard comes with an on-board optical SPDIF output, which is great. As you can see in Figure 5, this motherboard has analog outputs only for 5.1 audio, so 7.1 audio is only supported through the optical SPDIF output.

ECS P55H-A has a Gigabit Ethernet port controlled by a Realtek RTL8111DL chip.

In Figure 5, you can see the motherboard rear panel with PS/2 keyboard and mouse connectors, clear CMOS button, eight USB 2.0 ports, eSATA port, Gigabit Ethernet port, optical SPDIF output and independent analog 5.1 audio outputs.

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboardFigure 5: Motherboard rear panel.

[nextpage title=”Other Features”]

ECS P55H-A has other smaller features. For example, it has a header for you to install an SPDIF coaxial output, if you need this (the bracket containing this jack doesn’t come with the motherboard). It comes with a POST display, which helps you to diagnose why the computer isn’t turning on through a two-digit number. It also has reset and power buttons soldered on the motherboard, which helps a lot when you are building a PC outside a case or are debugging your PC.

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboardFigure 6: POST diagnostics display and power and reset buttons.

One detai
l is that the BIOS chip is soldered directly to the motherboard, which can make it hard for you to remove it in case you damage it during a BIOS upgrade (you can recover a “dead” BIOS chip by reprogramming it on another functional motherboard, click here to learn how).

As mentioned before, all electrolytic capacitors from this motherboard are solid. The transistors from the voltage regulator circuit have passive heatsinks on top of them, as you can see on Figures 7 and 8. They have a very interesting shape.

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboardFigure 7: Voltage regulator circuit.

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboardFigure 8: Passive heatsink.

P55H-A, like other new motherboard from ECS, features a function called eJiffy, which is basically a Linux-based operating system with Internet browser, instant messaging and other features stored inside the motherboard ROM chip, so you don’t need to load the operating system or even have a hard drive installed to enter the Internet and do basic stuff like browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, etc. ASUS has a similar feature on their motherboards, called Express Gate. We think this feature would be even more useful if added to entry-level motherboards, so people willing to build simple kiosks for quick Internet access could save money by not having to add a hard drive to the computer.

In Figure 9, you can see the accessories that come with the motherboard.

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboardFigure 9: Accessories.

[nextpage title=”Overclocking Options”]

ECS P55H-A Black Series offer some good overclocking options under a menu called "M.I.B. II (MB Intelligent BIOS II)". The main options we could see with the initial BIOS release (08/17/2009) were:

  • CPU base clock: can be adjusted from 133 MHz to 600 MHz in 1 MHz increments.
  • Memory controller base clock: can be adjusted from 133 MHz to 600 MHz in 1 MHz increments.
  • PCI Express clock: can be adjusted from 100 MHz to 200 MHz in 1 MHz increments.
  • CPU voltage: From +0.01 V to +0.15 V in +0.01 V increments.
  • CPU termination voltage (VTT): From +0.01 V to +0.15 V in +0.01 V increments.
  • Memory voltage: From +0.01 V to +0.15 V in +0.01 V increments.
  • Chipset (PCH) voltage: From +0.01 V to +0.15 V in +0.01 V increments.

Memory timings can also be tweaked.

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboardFigure 10: Overclocking menu.

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboardFigure 11: Voltage adjustments.

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboardFigure 12: Memory timing options.

[nextpage title=”Main Specifications”]

ECS P55H-A Black Series motherboard main features are:

  • Socket: 1156.
  • Chipset: Intel P55 Express.
  • Super I/O: ITE IT8720F
  • Clock generator: ICS 9LPRS926EGLF
  • Parallel ATA: One ATA-133 port controlled by a JMicron JMB361 chip.
  • Serial ATA: Six SATA-300 ports controlled by the chipset (no RAID support).
  • External ATA: One eSATA-300 port controlled by the JMicron JMB361 chip, supporting port multiplier (up to three devices) and RAID 0, 1, 0+1 and JBOD.
  • USB: 14 USB 2.0 ports (eight soldered on the motherboard and six available through headers on the motherboard; the board doesn’t come with I/O brackets to use them).
  • FireWire (IEEE 1394): No
  • On-board audio: Produced by the chipset together with a Realtek ALC888S codec (eight channels, 24-bit resolution, up to 96 kHz sampling rate for the inputs and up to 192 kHz sampling rate for the outputs, 90 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the inputs and 97 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the outputs). On-board optical SPDIF output, support for coaxial SPDIF output through an I/O bracket that doesn’t come with the motherboard.
  • On-board LAN: One Gigabit Ethernet port controlled by a Realtek RTL8111DL chip, which is connected to the system through one PCI Express x1 lane.
  • Buzzer: Yes.
  • Power supply required: EPS12V.
  • Slots: Two PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots (working at x8/x8 when two video cards are installed) supporting CrossFire, one PCI Express x1 slot, one PCI Express x4 slot and two standard PCI slots.
  • Memory: Four DDR3-DIMM sockets (up to 16 GB up to DDR3-1333/PC3-10600 officially or up to DDR3-2130 through overclocking).
  • Number of CDs/DVDs provided: Two.
  • Programs included: Motherboard drivers and utilities.
  • Extra features: Aluminum solid capacitors, external clear CMOS button, POST diagnostics display.
  • More Information: https://www.ecsusa.com
  • Average price in the US*: USD 135.00

* Researched at Newegg.com on the day we published this First Look article.

[nextpage title=”Conclusions”]

ECS has surely improved the quality of their motherboards: P55H-A comes only with solid capacitors and passive heatsinks on top of the transistors from the voltage regulator circuit, using a different shape, by the way.

P55H-A is a good option for your new Core i5 processor if you are looking for a mainstream motherboard. It comes with an attractive price, USD 135. Of course it could cost less (like everything in the world), but for a product based on a chipset that was released this week targeted to a brand new CPU line, we can’t complain. It costs less than competing products and thus provides a great cost/benefit ratio if you are building a PC based on the new Core i5 processor.

Of course if you want more options that those provided by P55H-A – especially SLI support – you will have to buy a different (and more expensive) product.

One final note: if you buy this motherboard make sure that the CPU Turbo B
oost technology is enabled on the BIOS setup, for some strange reason on this motherboard this option defaults to disabled. Of course you want this option enabled in order to achieve the highest performance possible.