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[nextpage title=”Introduction”]

PN2 SLI2+ Extreme from ECS is based on the latest NVIDIA chipset for the Intel platform, nForce 680i, being a very high-end motherboard targeted to the latest and future Core 2 CPUs. Its main features include support to DDR2 memories up to 1,200 MHz, the new 1,333 MHz external bus (FSB) and an out-of-ordinary overclocking support. Nvidia has now a new approach and some motherboards based on their chipsets are now labeled as “designed by NVIDIA,” meaning that the motherboard was designed and manufactured by NVIDIA, not by the brand that is selling it. This is the case with this motherboard. Let’s see how this model branded by ECS performs.

ECS NVIDIA nForce 680iFigure 1: ECS PN2 SLI2+ Extreme motherboard.

It is very important to note that there are two nForce 680i chipsets around, the most high-end, used on this motherboard, is called nForce 680i SLI, and there is a “light” version of nForce 680i called nForce 680i LT SLI, which does not support DDR2 memories above 800 MHz and has not so many overclocking options as the “full” nForce 680i.

Because this model is a reference model manufactured by NVIDIA, it is identical to other nForce 680i motherboards “designed by NVIDIA” carried by other NVIDIA partners, like EVGA, BFG, Biostar and Albatron.

Those who are familiar to ECS motherboards will note another side effect of this motherboard being manufactured by NVIDIA: instead of having the traditional ECS purple lacquer on the motherboard PCB, this motherboard is black, bringing a much more professional aspect to the product.

This motherboard uses an active cooling solution on its north bridge chip and a passive heatsink on its south bridge chip. This passive heatsink has an aluminum heat-pipe that dissipates the heat generated by the south bridge chip on the north bridge heatsink. You can see this solution in Figure 2.

ECS NVIDIA nForce 680iFigure 2: Cooling solution used on the chipset.

By the way, on nForce 680i chipset the north bridge chip is called C55XE and the south bridge chip is called MCP55PXE – this is the same south bridge chip used on the nForce 590 SLI chipset, targeted to the AMD socket AM2 platform.

This motherboard provides three x16 PCI Express slots (the blue one running at x8), two x1 PCI Express slots and two standard PCI slots. Even though there are three x16 PCI Express slots, only two of them can run under SLI (they run at x16 when SLI is enabled). The third slot, which is blue and always run at x8 and not at x16, is available only if you want to increase the number of video displays connected to your PC – since you can connect up to two video monitors to a video card, with three card you can have up to six monitors connected to your computer, each one displaying a different image.

ECS NVIDIA nForce 680iFigure 3: Motherboard slots.

On the memory side, ECS PN2 SLI2+ has four DDR2-DIMM sockets, supporting up to 8 GB officially up to DDR2-800, however this motherboard supports up to DDR2-1200/PC2-9600 memories (we installed four DDR2-1066 modules and they worked just fine at 1,066 MHz). On this motherboard sockets 0 and 2 are blue and sockets 1 and 3 are black. Configuring DDR2 dual channel on this motherboard is pretty easy: just install each module on a socket with the same color.

On the storage side, this motherboard has a total of six SATA-300 ports and one ATA/133 port, all provided by the chipset. The SATA ports support RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 and JBOD. This motherboard comes with an adapter that converts any of the SATA-300 ports into an eSATA port, allowing you to connect an external SATA hard disk drive to this motherboard and access it at its full speed through the use of an eSATA HDD enclosure. This port, however, probably isn’t compatible with all features provided by port multiplier. This motherboard has two Gigabit Ethernet ports, controlled by the south bridge using two Marvell 88E1116 chips to make the physical layer interface. This motherboard comes with a cross-over cable, allowing you to easily build a small network without needing to use a router.

[nextpage title=”Introduction (Cont’d)”]

The audio section from this motherboard provides 7.1 audio, produced by the south bridge chip with the aid of a Realtek ALC885 codec. This codec provides a professional-level audio capability to this motherboard, with a 101 dB signal-to-noise ratio for its inputs and a 106 dB signal-to-noise ratio for its outputs. Several motherboards provide a high SNR on the outputs but a low SNR on the inputs, which isn’t the case with this product. This means that you can use its on-board audio for professional applications, like capturing and editing analog audio. It also provides a sampling rate of up to 192 kHz for both inputs and outputs, and several motherboards provide a high sampling rate for its outputs (192 kHz) but usually a lower maximum sampling rate for its inputs (e.g., 96 kHz). Once again, this isn’t the case with this motherboard.

This board also provides one optical SPDIF output soldered directly on the motherboard, which is great as you can easily connect it to your home theater receiver.

This motherboard has 10 USB 2.0 ports (six soldered on the motherboard and four available through I/O brackets) and two FireWire ports controlled by Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A chip (one soldered on the motherboard and another available through an I/O bracket). This motherboard comes with an I/O bracket providing two USB ports and one FireWire port and also with a 3.5” plastic frame that allows you to use this bracket on the front of your case.

On the rear panel (Figure 4) you can find the two Gigabit Ethernet ports, six USB 2.0 ports, separated analog audio inputs/outputs (7.1 format), SPDIF optical output, PS/2 mouse and PS/2 keyboard connectors. The parallel and serial ports are missing and they aren’t available on this motherboard, not even through the use of I/O brackets.

ECS NVIDIA nForce 680iFigure 4: Motherboard rear connectors.

This motherboard comes with a POST diagnostics display, which allows you to see what is wrong if your computer doesn’t turn on.

ECS NVIDIA nForce 680iFigure 5: POST display.

This motherboard uses only solid aluminum capacitors on its voltage regulator, which is great. It also uses passive heatsinks on top of its MOSFET transistors. These two features provide a longer life-span to this product.

Figure 6: Voltage regulator using solid aluminum capacitors and passive heatsinks.

The other electrolytic capacitors used on this motherboard are conventional ones, manufactured by Rubycon, Chemi-Con and Samxon. The first two companies are Japanese and thus provide very high-quality products, but Samxon is a Chinese company and thus not as reliable as the other two brands. Since this is a very high-end (and very expensive) motherboard we think NVIDIA should have used only solid aluminum capacitors on this motherboard.

This motherboard has a power button and a reset button and also a buzzer (small loudspeaker) soldered directly on the motherboard.

On Figures 7 and 8 you can see all cables and adapters that come with this motherboard.

ECS NVIDIA nForce 680iFigure 7: Cables that come with this motherboard.

ECS NVIDIA nForce 680iFigure 8: eSATA adapter, USB/FireWire bracket, plastic frame and SLI bridge.

Finally, it is important to note that this motherboard requires an EPS12V power supply, as it uses an eight-pin auxiliary power connector and not a four-pin one, and also a peripheral power connector installed.

This motherboard comes with two CDs, containing its drivers and utilities.

[nextpage title=”Main Specifications”]

ECS PN2 SLI2+ main features are:

  • Socket: 775.
  • Chipset: NVIDIA nForce 680i.
  • Super I/O: Winbond W83627DHG.
  • Parallel IDE: One ATA-133 port controlled by the south bridge chip.
  • Serial IDE: Six SATA-300 ports controlled by the south bridge chip, supporting RAID 0, 1, 0+1, 5 and JBOD and eSATA.
  • USB: 10 USB 2.0 ports (six soldered on the motherboard and four available through I/O brackets. This motherboard came with a bracket with two ports, so two ports are left over).
  • FireWire (IEEE 1394a): Two ports controlled by Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A chip.
  • On-board audio: Produced by the chipset together with Realtek ALC885 codec (eight channels, 24-bit resolution, up to 192 kHz sampling rate for both the inputs and outputs, 101 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the inputs and 106 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the outputs), with optical SPDIF output soldered on the motherboard.
  • On-board video: No.
  • On-board LAN: Two Gigabit Ethernet ports controlled by the chipset together with two Marvell 88E1116 chips.
  • Buzzer: Yes.
  • Power supply: EPS12V (24-pin).
  • Slots: Three x16 PCI Express slots (two supporting SLI at x16 and one running at x8), two x1 PCI Express slots and two PCI slots.
  • Memory: Four DDR-DIMM sockets (up to 8 GB up to DDR2-1200/PC2-9600).
  • Number of CDs that come with this motherboard: Two.
  • Programs included: Drivers and utilities.
  • Extra features: POST diagnostics display.
  • More Information: https://www.ecsusa.com
  • Average price in the US*: USD 260.00

* Researched at Shopping.com on the day we published this review.

[nextpage title=”How We Tested”]

During our benchmarking sessions, we used the configuration listed below. Between our benchmarking sessions the only variable was the motherboard being tested.
 
Hardware Configuration

Software Configuration

  • Windows XP Professional installed using NTFS
  • Service Pack 2
  • DirectX 9.0c

Driver Versions

  • NVIDIA video driver version : 158.22
  • NVIDIA nForce driver version: 9.53
  • Intel Inf chipset driver version: 8.3.1.1013
  • Realtek Audio driver: R1.41

Used Software

We adopted a 3% error margin; thus, differences below 3% cannot be considered relevant. In other words, products with a performance difference below 3% should be considered as having similar performance.

[nextpage title=”Overall Performance”]

We measured the overall performance of this motherboard using SYSmark2004, which is a program that simulates the use of real-world applications. Thus, we consider this the best software to measure, in practical terms, the system performance.

The benchmarks are divided into two groups:

  • Internet Content Creation: Simulates the authoring of a website containing text, images, videos and animations. The following programs are used: Adobe After Effects 5.5, Adobe Photoshop 7.01, Adobe Premiere 6.5, Discreet 3ds Max 5.1, Macromedia Dreamweaver MX, Macromedia Flash MX, Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9, McAfee VirusScan 7.0 and Winzip 8.1.
  • Office Productivity: Simulates the use of an office suite, i.e., simulates sending e-mails, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc. The following programs are used: Adobe Acrobat 5.05, Microsoft Office XP SP2, Internet Explorer 6.0 SP1, NaturallySpeaking 6, McAfee VirusScan 7.0 and Winzip 8.1.

The software delivers specific results for each batch and also an overall performance result, all in a specific SYSmark2004 unit.

We compared the reviewed board to ECS NF650iSLIT-A (nForce 650i), ASUS P5N-E SLI (nForce 650i), MSI P35 Platinum (Intel P35), MSI P35 Neo Combo (Intel P35), ASUS P5B (Intel P965), ASUS P5B Premium (Intel P965) and Intel D975XBX2 (Intel 975X). On the graphs present on this and on the following pages you will see the clock rate we configured our memories. Since we had DDR2-1066 memory modules installed, we ran our tests two times, first with our memories configured at 800 MHz and then configured at 1,066 MHz, whenever possible. Some motherboards (like the ones based on nForce 650i and Intel 975X chipsets), however, do not support DDR2-1066 and that is why you won’t find DDR2-1066 results for them.

You can see the results on the charts below.

Socket LGA775 Core 2 Duo Motherboards

ECS PN2 SLI2+ with our DDR2-1066 memories configured at 1,066 MHz achieved the same performance level the following motherboards, all with memories configured at 800 MHz: ASUS P5B (Intel P965), ECS NF650iSLIT-A (nForce 650i), Intel D975XBX2 (Intel 975X) and ASUS P5N-E SLI (nForce 650i). Running our memories at 1,066 MHz instead of 800 MHz produced no performance gain on this test.

With our memories running at 1,066 MHz, MSI P35 Platinum (Intel P35) was 5.41% faster, ASUS P5B Premium (Intel P965) was 5.11% faster and ASUS P5B (Intel P965) was 4.20% faster than the reviewed motherboard.

With our memories running at 800 MHz, MSI P35 Neo Combo (Intel P35) was 5.74% faster, MSI P35 Platinum (Intel P35) was 4.83% faster, ASUS P5B Premium (Intel P965) was 4.53% faster and ASUS P5B (Intel P965) was 3.02% faster than ECS PN2 SLI2+.

Socket LGA775 Core 2 Duo Motherboards

On Internet Content Creation ECS PN2 SLI2+ with memories running at 1,066 MHz achieved the same performance level of ASUS P5B (Intel P965) with memories also running at 1,066 MHz and  ASUS P5B Premium (Intel P965), ASUS P5B (Intel P965), ECS NF650iSLIT-A (nForce 650i),  Intel D975XBX2 (Intel 975X) and ASUS P5N-E SLI (nForce 650i), with memories running at 800 MHz.

With our memories running at 1,066 MHz, MSI P35 Platinum (Intel P35) also with DDR2-1066 was 4.17% faster, MSI P35 Neo Combo (Intel P35) with DDR2-800 was 3.70% faster and ASUS P5B Premium (Intel P965) with DDR2-1066 was 3.47% faster.

Running our memories at 1,066 MHz instead of 800 MHz produced no performance gain on this test.

Socket LGA775 Core 2 Duo Motherboards

On Office once again we saw no performance gain from using DDR2-1066 instead of DDR2-800. Here ECS PN2 SLI2+ achieved the same performance level as ASUS P5B (Intel P965), ECS NF650iSLIT-A (nForce 650i), Intel D975XBX2 (Intel 975X) and ASUS P5N-E SLI (nForce 650i), all with their memories running at 800 MHz.

With DDR2-1066 memories, MSI P35 Platinum (Intel P35) was 6.61% faster, MSI P35 Neo Combo (Intel P35, with DDR2-800 memories) was 6.61% faster, ASUS P5B Premium (Intel P965) was also 6.61% faster and ASUS P5B (Intel P965) was 5.45% faster.

[nextpage title=”Processing Performance”]

We measured processing performance using PCMark05 Professional program. PCMark05 Professional measures the system performance by running several tests. The System batch, which was the one we used, performs the following tests: HDD XP Startup, Physics and 3D, 2D Transparent Window, 3D Pixel Shader, Web Page Rendering, File Decryption, 2D Graphics Memory – 64 lines, HDD General Usage and three multithreading tests. The results are given in a PCMark05 specific unit.

Socket LGA775 Core 2 Duo Motherboards

Here all motherboards achieved similar results, the only performance difference was against Intel D975XBX2, where ECS P2N SLI2+ was 4.33% faster than this motherboard from Intel when using DDR2-800 memories (using DDR2-1066 memories this difference increased to 5.72%, but this is an unfair comparison as D975XBX2 does not support DDR2-1066).

[nextpage title=”3D Performance: Quake 4″]

We upgraded Quake 4 to version 1.3 and ran its multiplayer demo id_demo001 at 1024x768x32 with image quality settings configured at “low” four times. The first result was always discarded, and from the other three values, we discarded the highest and the lowest score, i.e., we used the middle value for our comparison. You can see the results below.

ECS NVIDIA nForce 680i

From the motherboards that support DDR2-1066 ECS PN2 SLI2+ was the one that achieved the lowest results with our memories running at 1,066 MHz: ASUS P5B was 6.18% faster, ASUS P5B Premium was 5.98% faster and MSI P35 Platinum was 5.78% faster.

When we configured our memories to run at 800 MHz, ECS PN2 SLI2+ achieved the same performance of Intel D975XBX2 (Intel 975X), ECS NF650iSLIT-A (nForce 650i), MSI P35 Neo Combo (Intel P35) and ASUS P5N-E SLI (nForce 650i), also with their memories running at 800 MHz.

Under this configuration ASUS P5B Premium (Intel P965) was 3.78% faster, ASUS P5B (Intel P965) was 3.61% faster and MSI P35 Platinum (Intel P35) was 3.40% faster than the reviewed motherboard.

[nextpage title=”Overclocking”]

According to NVIDIA nForce 680i-based motherboards are targeted to extreme overclocking, and on ECS PN2 SLI2+ we could find several overclocking options (BIOS P25):

  • FSB clock: Can be adjusted from 400 to 2500 MHz in 1 MHz steps. As the clock here isn’t the real clock but the QDR clock (i.e., four times the real clock), this means that you can adjust the external clock rate from 100 MHz to 625 MHz in 0.25 MHz steps.
  • Memory clock: Can be adjusted from 400 to 1400 MHz in 1 MHz. As the clock here isn’t the real clock but the DDR clock (i.e., two times the real clock), this means that you can adjust the memory clock rate from 200 MHz to 700 MHz in 0.5 MHz steps.
  • PCI Express clock: Can be adjusted as auto or from 100 MHz to 200 MHz in 1 MHz steps. This motherboard offers separated clock adjustments for each one of the three PCI Express x16 slots.
  • HyperTransport clock (SPP <-> MCP Ref Clock): This is the clock rate between north bridge and south bridge and can be adjusted as auto or from 200 MHz to 248 MHz in 2 MHz steps; from 249 MHz to 298 MHz in 1 MHz; and from 300 MHz to 500 MHz in 2 MHz steps.
  • HyperTransport multiplier: From 1x to 5x.
  • CPU voltage: auto or from 0.50000 V to 1.52500 V in 0.00625 V increments and from 1.52500 V to 1.80000 V in 0.0125 V increments.
  • Memory voltage: auto or 1.8 V to 2.5 V in 0.025 V increments.
  • FSB voltage: auto or 1.2 V to 1.5 V in 0.1 V increments.
  • North bridge voltage (SPP): auto or 1.20 V to 1.55 V in 0.05 V increments.
  • South bridge voltage (MCP): auto or 1.500 V to 1.750 V in 0.025 V increments.
  • HyperTransport voltage: auto or 1.20 V to 1.55 V in 0.05 V increments.

HyperTransport is the name of the bus used to connect the north bridge chip to the south bridge chip.

This motherboard also provides several memory timings adjustments, as you can see in Figure 9.

ECS NVIDIA nForce 680iFigure 9: Memory timings adjustments on ECS PN2 SLI2+ (P25 BIOS).

This motherboard provides several important overclocking features not found on mainstream motherboards and even on some high-end models.

The most important one is the ability to lock and configure the memory clock independently from the CPU external clock. On almost all motherboards the memory clock is derived from the CPU external clock, so if when you overclock the CPU you automatically overclock the memory as well. Thus when you reach the maximum overclocking your system can take you will never know what is limiting your computer from reaching an even higher overclocking, the CPU or the memories. With this option you can lock your memory clock at their standard clock rate (e.g., 800 MHz or 1,066 MHz) and only after you found the maximum clock rate your CPU can take you may start increasing the memory clock rate in order to find the maximum clock rate your memories can achieve.

The PCI Express clock configuration is also very important, as you can lock the PCI Express clock at a given value (100 MHz, for example). Usually when you increase the FSB clock you will automatically increase the PCI Express clock as well, and sometimes your overclocking will be limited not by the CPU but by the devices connected to the PCI Express bus. Thus with this option you can increase the probability of setting a higher overclocking. Almost all high-end motherboards have this option, but on ECS PN2 SLI2+ you can configure the PCI Express clock rate individually to each one of the three x16 PCI Express slots available.

On this motherboard the external clock rate is configurable at 0.25 MHz steps and a lot of people may not notice this, because in the setup the FSB clock rate is referred by its quadruplicated value (QDR), not by the real clock rate like on almost all other motherboards.

For instance, the maximum external clock rate we could configure was 1,226 MHz (i.e., 306.5 MHz), with our memories locked at 1,066 MHz. With this overclocking our Core 2 Duo E6700, which normally runs at 2.66 MHz, was running at 3.06 GHz, a 15% increase on its internal clock rate. With this overclocking our system performance increased 9.58% on Quake 4 and 8.20% on PCMark05.

We could configure our external clock above that but the system was unstable. We only consider our overclocking to be successful after we can run at least four times Quake 4 and PCMark05 with no errors.

Even though 15% seems to be a good number, we achieved better overclock with other motherboards. For instance, on MSI P35 Neo Combo we could set our CPU running at 314 MHz, on ASUS P5B we could set our CPU running at 316 MHz, on ASUS P5B Premium we could set our CPU running at 323 MHz and on ASUS P5N-E we could set our CPU running at 327 MHz.

We, however, didn’t play with voltage settings or any other fancy adjustments, so you may achieve a better overclocking than we did with more time and patience.

[nextpage title=”Conclusions”]

ECS PN2 SLI2+ has lots of features, like six SATA-300 ports featuring eSATA and RAID support, dual Gigabit LAN, three PCI Express x16 slots, a POST diagnostics display, FireWire ports and several overclocking options.

The audio section from this motherboard is one of its best features, providing a 101 dB signal-to-noise ratio for its inputs and a 106 dB signal-to-noise ratio for its outputs. Several motherboards provide a high SNR on the outputs but a low SNR on the inputs, which isn’t the case with this product. This means that you can use its on-board audio for professional applications, like capturing and editing analog audio. It also provides a sampling rate of up to 192 kHz for both inputs and outputs, and several motherboards provide a high sampling rate for its outputs (192 kHz) but usually a lower maximum sampling rate for its inputs (e.g., 96 kHz). Once again, this isn’t the case with this motherboard. This board also provides one optical SPDIF output soldered directly on the motherboard, which is great as you can easily connect it to your home theater receiver.

It also supports the new 1,333 MHz FSB that will be used by newer Core 2 Duo processors and also supports memories up to DDR2-1200/PC2-9600, making this platform a great option if you are into overclocking.

So if you buy this motherboard today you won’t have any trouble in upgrading your CPU for a newer model in the future.

The only problem we see with this product is its price. Costing around USD 260 this board is simply too expensive for the average user. Its price, however, is in the same price level as other nForce 680i “designed by NVIDIA” motherboards. The problem is that its main direct competitor, ASUS P5N32-E SLI, costs a lot less – you can find it around USD 200 or even less. Also based on nForce 680i and having the same basic features as ECS PN2 SLI2+, we think this model from ASUS is “the” pick for someone looking for a very high-end nForce 680i-based motherboard, even though we couldn’t include it on our performance comparison.

But frankly we think that there are several other motherboards on the market today that provides a better cost/benefit ratio – if you are not looking for so many extra features, of course. For example, if you are worried about the new 1,333 MHz FSB and want DDR2-1066 support you can buy a motherboard based on the new Intel P35 chipset. We included two models from MSI and they not only achieved a higher performance, but one of them also achieved a higher overclocking (keep in mind that we didn’t play with advanced overclocking adjustments so you may achieve a better overclocking with ECS PN2 SLI2+ than we did).

Of course buying a motherboard that costs half the price won’t give you all features brought by ECS PN2 SLI2+, and buying this board or any nForce 680i-based motherboard only makes sense if you will really use all features it provides and you are really into overclocking to try out all overclocking options this motherboard provides.