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[nextpage title=”Introduction”]

ECS is releasing a new motherboard series, “Golden Board,” where all metallic parts are golden, including the capacitors and coils. Two models were announced within this series, the Z77H2-AX and the Z77H2-A2X. Let’s take a look at the Z77H2-AX, which comes with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, a PLX switch chip allowing a very high-end configuration for its PCI Express x16 slots, and much more.

The Intel Z77 chipset will be released by the end of this month, but we had the privilege of getting the ECS Z77H2-AX for a “first look” article. It will be a high-end socket LGA1155 motherboard targeted to the forthcoming “Ivy Bridge” processors (third-generation Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 processors) and also supporting the current “Sandy Bridge” models (second-generation Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 processors). Let’s see what the ECS Z77H2-AX will have to offer.

The Intel Z77 will be an upgraded version of the Z68 chipset with the same basic features (Intel Smart Response Technology and Virtu video switching technology), plus native support to four USB 3.0 ports. It will also include the addition of two new technologies: Smart Connect (allowing the computer to receive emails and refresh webpages while it is in sleep mode) and Rapid Start (faster boot times).

In addition, the ECS Z77H2-AX supports the Virtu Universal MVP, which allows you to combine the performance of the integrated graphics processor available in the CPU with the performance of any video card installed. This is similar to what occurs with the Hybrid SLI and ATI Hybrid Graphics technologies, with the notable difference of not being limited to GPUs from a specific manufacturer.

ECS has already announced five different motherboard models based on the Intel Z77 chipset. In the table below, we compare their main specifications.

Specification Z77H2-AX Z77H2-A2X Z77H2-A2X Deluxe Z77H2-A3 Z77H2-A3D
Memory Sockets 4 4 4 4 4
PCI Express x16 3 (x16/x16/x0 or x16/x8/x8) 2 (x16/x0 or x8/x8) 2 (x16/x0 or x8/x8) 1 1
PCI Express x1 2 2 2 4 4
Mini PCI Express 1 1 1 0 0
Standard PCI 2 2 2 2 2
CrossFireX Yes Yes Yes No No
SLI Yes Yes No No No
SATA-300 2 2 2 4 4
SATA-600 4 4 4 2 2
eSATA-300 2 1 1 0 0
eSATA-600 0 0 0 0 0
USB 2.0 6 6 6 10 10
USB 3.0 6 6 6 4 4
FireWire 0 0 0 0 0
Bluetooth 2.1+EDR 2.1+EDR No No No
Gigabit Ethernet 1 1 1 1 1
Wi-Fi Yes, a/b/g/n Yes, a/b/g/n No No No
VGA 1 1 1 1 1
DVI 0 1 1 1 1
HDMI 1 1 1 Optional 0
DisplayPort 0 0 0 0 0
Audio ALC892 ALC892 ALC892 ALC892 ALC892
Voltage Regulator 12+2+1 NA NA NA NA
Price NA NA USD 165 NA NA

Figure 1 shows you the ECS Z77H2-AX motherboard. As you can see, the black printed circuit board with golden components gave this motherboard an exquisite look, a far cry from the purple PCB with 10 different colors the manufacturer used to love. Kudos to ECS.

ECS Z77H2-AX motherboardFigure 1: ECS Z77H2-AX motherboard

[nextpage title=”Slots”]

The ECS Z77H2-AX comes with three PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16 slots, two PCI Express 2.0 x1 slots, two standard PCI slots, and one mini PCI Express slot.

Usually, on motherboards based on the Z77 chipset, the first two PCI Express x16 slots are controlled by the CPU; the third PCI Express x16 slot is controlled by the chipset, operating at a lower speed (almost always x4). On this motherboard, however, thanks to the use of a PLX PEX8747 switch chip, the third PCI Express slot is connected to the CPU, is compatible with PCI Express 3.0, and can work at x8 speed.

Unfortunately, the product manual doesn’t mention the actual speeds of the PCI Express x16 slots. However, reading the product brief for the PLX PEX8747 switch chip, we can easily assume that the first two slots work at x16 speed when two video cards are installed (and not x8 as on most Z77-based motherboards), and the second and third slots work at x8 when three video cards are installed, while the first slot always works at x16. This is a phenomenal configuration. We simply don’t understand why ECS is not clearly explaining this important feature on its website and in its manual.

Since the slots are controlled by the CPU, they will offer PCI Express 2.0 bandwidth (8 GB/s at x16) when a “Sandy Bridge” CPU is installed, but PCI Express 3.0 bandwidth (16 GB/s at x16) when an “Ivy Bridge” CPU is used.

The PCI Express x16 slots support both SLI and CrossFireX technologies.

Since the Z77 chipset doesn’t support standard PCI slots, these slots are connected to PCI Express x1 lanes using an ITE IT8893 bridge chip.

ECS Z77H2-AX motherboardFigure 2: Slots

Another highlight of this motherboard is the presence of a mini PCI Express slot. This slot allows you to install an SSD unit or a wireless network card based on this form factor.

ECS Z77H2-AX motherboardFigure 3: Mini PCI Express slot

[nextpage title=”Memory Support”]

Intel socket LGA1155 CPUs have an embedded memory controller, meaning that it is the processor, not the chipset, which defines what memory technologies you can have and the maximum amount of me
mory that is possible. The motherboard, however, may have a limitation as to how much memory can be installed.

The integrated memory controller from socket LGA1155 processors supports DDR3 memories up to 1,333 MHz (“Sandy Bridge” CPUs) or up to 1,600 MHz (“Ivy Bridge” CPUs). According to ECS, the Z77H2-AX supports memories up to 2,800 MHz.

The ECS Z77H2-AX has four memory sockets. Since DDR3 memory modules can be found in capacities up to 8 GB, you can have up to 32 GB with this motherboard if you use four 8 GB modules.

In order to enable the dual-channel mode, you must install two or four memory modules. Unfortunately, ECS used the same color for all the memory sockets (black) instead of using two different colors, which would certainly help users detect which sockets to use. Installation must start from the bottom-most socket, i.e., the socket closest to the main power supply connector. When installing two memory modules, you will have to “skip” the second memory socket, and install the second memory module in the third memory socket.

ECS Z77H2-AX motherboardFigure 4: Memory sockets; install two or four modules for the best performance

[nextpage title=”On-Board Peripherals”]

The Intel Z77 chipset is a single-chip solution, which is also known as a PCH (Platform Controller Hub). This chip supports two SATA-600 ports and four SATA-300 ports, supporting RAID (0, 1, 10, and 5). This motherboard has two additional SATA-600 ports, controlled by an ASMedia ASM1061 chip (no RAID support). These ports are located at the motherboard’s edge and rotated 90°, so video cards won’t block them. Unfortunately, the manufacturer used the same color for all ports, making it hard to identify them. See Figure 5.

ECS Z77H2-AX motherboardFigure 5: The two SATA-300 ports, the two SATA-600 ports controlled by the chipset, and the two SATA-600 ports controlled by the additional chip

This motherboard also has two independent eSATA-300 ports, which are controlled by the chipset.

The Intel Z77 chipset supports 14 USB 2.0 ports and four USB 3.0 ports. The ECS Z77H2-AX offers six USB 2.0 ports, four available on the motherboard rear panel and two available through a header located on the motherboard; and six USB 3.0 ports, four located on the motherboard rear panel and two available on a header located on the motherboard. The two additional USB 3.0 ports located on the rear panel are controlled by a Texas Instruments TUSB7320 chip. The motherboard comes with a 3.5” panel with two USB 3.0 ports, so you can use the internal USB 3.0 connector if your computer case doesn’t have USB 3.0 ports using this kind of connector.

The ECS Z77H2-AX doesn’t support FireWire ports.

This motherboard supports 7.1+2 audio format, i.e., eight channels plus two independent channels for audio streaming. On this motherboard, the audio is generated by the chipset using the Realtek ALC892 codec, which is a mainstream solution, providing a 97 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog outputs, a 90 dB signal-to-noise ratio for the analog inputs, and up to 192 kHz sampling rate for both inputs and outputs, with 24-bit resolution. For a product touted as high-end, we’d prefer to see a better audio codec here, with at least a 100 dB signal-to-noise ratio.

The motherboard has an optical SPDIF output, and you can add a coaxial SPDIF output or route digital audio to old video cards that require a physical connection in order to have digital audio on their HDMI output by using the “SPDIFO” connector available.

The analog audio outputs are independent only if you use a 5.1 speaker set; if you install a 7.1 speaker set you will have to use either the “mic in” or the “line in” jacks.

The portrayed motherboard has one Gigabit Ethernet port, controlled by a Realtek RTL8111E chip.

In Figure 6, you can see the motherboard rear panel with the Bluetooth dongle, four USB 2.0 ports, two eSATA-300 ports, clear CMOS button, VGA output, HDMI output, Wi-Fi dongle, four USB 3.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet port, optical SPDIF output, and the analog audio jacks.

ECS Z77H2-AX motherboardFigure 6: Motherboard rear panel

[nextpage title=”Other Features”]

This motherboard has a POST diagnostics display, where you can see, through a two-digit code, which component is preventing the computer from turning on. You can see this device in Figures 3 and 5.

It has a legacy serial port, which is available through a header labeled “COM.”

In Figure 7, you can see all of the accessories that come with the ECS Z77H2-AX.

ECS Z77H2-AX motherboardFigure 7: Accessories

[nextpage title=”Voltage Regulator”]

The CPU voltage regulator circuit of the ECS Z77H2-AX has 12 phases for the CPU main voltage (Vcc a.k.a. Vcore), two for the CPU VSA voltage (memory controller), and one for the CPU VTT voltage (PCI Express and DMI interfaces). Therefore, it uses a “12+2+1” configuration. The voltage regulator is controlled by a uP1618A integrated circuit, using a digital design.

ECS Z77H2-AX motherboardFigure 8: Voltage regulator circuit

The ECS Z77H2-AX uses solid electrolytic capacitors. All coils on this motherboard are ferrite-core models, which can provide up to 20% improvement in efficiency.

If you want to learn more about the voltage regulator circuit, please read our tutorial on the subject.

[nextpage title=”Overclocking Options”]

The ECS Z77H2-AX has a few overclocking options. Below, we list the most important ones (March 03, 2012 BIOS):

  • Base clock: From 99 MHz to 150 MHz in 1 MHz increments
  • CPU core voltage: From +0.010 V to +0.630 V in 0.010 V increments
  • Integrated graphics processor (AXG) voltage: From +0.010 V to +0.630 V in 0.010 V increments
  • Memory controller (“IMC,” “System Agent,” VCCSA) voltage: From +0.015 V to +0.945 V in 0.015 V increments
  • CPU VTT (“I/O”) voltage (wrongly labeled as “System Agent”): From +0.010 V to +0.630 V in 0.010 V increments
  • CPU PLL voltage: From +0.010 V to +0.630 V in 0.010 V increments
  • Memory voltage: From +0.010 V to +0.630 V in 0.010 V increments
  • Chipset (PCH) voltage: From +0.010 V to +0.630 V in 0.010 V increments

ECS Z77H2-AX motherboardFigure 9: Overclocking options

ECS Z77H2-AX motherboardFigure 10: Voltage options

ECS Z77H2-AX motherboardFigure 11: Memory options

The motherboard also has voltage monitoring points, where you can monitor the CPU (Vcore and memory controller), graphics controller (“VAXG”) and memory (“DIMM”) voltages.

ECS Z77H2-AX motherboardFigure 12: Voltage monitoring points

[nextpage title=”Main Specifications”]

The main specifications for the ECS Z77H2-AX include:

  • Socket: 1155
  • Chipset: Intel Z77 Express
  • Super I/O: ITE IT8728F
  • Parallel ATA: None
  • Serial ATA: Two SATA-300 ports, two SATA-600 ports controlled by the chipset (RAID 0, 1, 10, and 5), and two SATA-600 ports controlled by an ASMedia ASM1061 chip
  • External SATA: Two eSATA-300 ports controlled by the chipset
  • USB 2.0: Six USB 2.0 ports, four on the rear panel and two available through a header on the motherboard
  • USB 3.0: Six USB 3.0 ports, two soldered on the motherboard rear panel, two available through a header on the motherboard controlled by the chipset, and two soldered on the motherboard rear panel controlled by a Texas Instruments TUSB7320 chip
  • FireWire (IEEE 1394): None
  • On-board video: Yes, controlled by the CPU, VGA, and HDMI connectors
  • On-board audio: Produced by the chipset together with a Realtek ALC892 codec (7.1+2 channels, 24-bit resolution, 192 kHz sampling rate, 97 dB SNR for the outputs, and 97 dB SNR for the inputs), on-board optical SPDIF output
  • On-board LAN: One Gigabit Ethernet port controlled by a Realtek RTL8111E chip, Wi-Fi IEEE802.11a/b/g/n
  • Buzzer: Yes
  • Infrared interface: No
  • Power supply required: EPS12V
  • Slots: Three PCI Express 3.0/2.0 x16 slots (x16/x16/x0 or x16/x8/x8, supporting SLI and CrossFireX), two PCI Express 2.0 x1 slots, two standard PCI slots, and one mini PCI Express slot (ITE IT8893 bridge chip, PLX PEX8747 switch chip)
  • Memory: Four DDR3-DIMM sockets (up to DDR3-2800, 32 GB maximum)
  • Fan connectors: One four-pin connector for the CPU cooler and two three-pin connectors for auxiliary fans
  • Extra features: Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, POST diagnostics display, legacy serial port, voltage measurement points
  • Number of CDs/DVDs provided: One
  • Programs included: Motherboard utilities
  • More Information: https://www.ecs.com.tw
  • MSRP in the U.S.: NA

[nextpage title=”Conclusions”]

The ECS Z77H2-AX is a high-end motherboard, meaning it is targeted to the user who wants to buy a motherboard loaded with extra features. This comes in the form of an additional PCI Express x16 slot (allowing you to install up to three video cards under SLI or CrossFireX modes), six USB 3.0 ports (motherboards based on the Z77 chipset usually come with four), a mini PCI Express slot (for you to install a small SSD unit or expansion card based on this form factor), two independent eSATA-300 ports, support for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, voltage monitoring points, and an adequate voltage regulator circuit.

Under the hood, however, is where one of the most important aspects of this motherboard lies: the PLX PEX8747 switch chip. This chip allows the second PCI Express x16 slot to work at x16 when two video cards are installed (not x8 as is the norm), and the third PCI Express x16 slot to work at x8 and be compatible with the PCI Express 3.0 specification when an “Ivy Bridge” processor is installed. It is simply unbelievable how ECS is not explaining this very important feature in its manual or on its website.

It is clear that ECS improved their design a lot. The Z77H2-AX motherboard looks more professionally-designed than ECS’s previous attempts to enter the high-end segment, and the addition of actual high-end features such as a PLX chip and a better-designed voltage regulator circuit are very welcome. However, this motherboard is still plagued with some minor but important problems, such as the use of a mainstream audio codec instead of a high-end one, the very low number of fan connectors, and a badly-written product manual, which misses important technical information (the speed configuration of the PCI Express x16 slots and the importance of the PLX PEX8747 chip, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi supported speeds, information about the chip that controls the additional USB 3.0 ports, speed of the eSATA connectors, etc.).

In summary, it is a terrific option if you want the extra features brought by this motherboard. If you don’t need so many fancy features, you can pick a more affordable product.