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[nextpage title=”Introduction”]

We took a look at GA-EP31-DS3L, a motherboard from Gigabyte based on Intel P31 chipset targeted to the mainstream market, coming with a lot of features and a relatively low cost. Check it out!

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 1: Box.

The motherboard box announces the main features available on this motherboard:  support for the 1,333 MHz front side bus and support for DDR2-1066 memories (under chipset overclocking, since Intel P31 officially only supports memories up to DDR2-800), besides being “Quad-Core Optimized” (which, honestly, means nothing) and “Windows Vista Certified.” In Figure 2, you can see the big stickers that come attached to the board announcing that all the capacitors are solid and that this board has a feature called “Dynamic Energy Saver,” which promises to up to 70% in energy savings.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 2: Motherboard with its stickers.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 3: Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3L.

GA-EP31-DS3L uses the standard ATX form factor and a very simple passive cooling solution (i.e., no fan) on its chipset, both on the north and on the south bridge chips. In fact fancier cooling solutions are usually a feature exclusively found on high-end motherboards.

The silk screen layer from this motherboard announces the support for the 1,600 MHz front side bus through overclocking.

Now let’s take a closer look at this motherboard.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 4: Overall view.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 5: Another angle.

[nextpage title=”More Details”]

Near to the CPU socket we can find the voltage regulator circuit, which on this motherboard uses only solid capacitors (as we mentioned all capacitors from this motherboard are solid) and ferrite chokes (usually motherboards use iron chokes in this circuit). Very good. We think Gigabyte could have added heatsinks on the voltage regulator transistors.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 6: CPU socket, solid capacitors and ferrite chokes.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3L has four memory sockets, accepting up to 4 GB DDR2-667, DDR2-800 or DDR2-1066 memories under dual channel configuration. In order to use this configuration is simple: simply install memory modules in sockets with the same color. It is interesting to notice that the presence of four memory sockets is one of the things that differentiate mainstream and high-end motherboards from low-end models, which usually have only two memory sockets.

The main difference between P35 and P31 chipsets is the presence of DDR3 memory support on P35, feature not found on P31. Another important difference is that P35 is paired with south bridge chips from the ICH9 family, while P31 must be paired with south bridge chips from the ICH7 family.

Next to the memory sockets you can also see the main motherboard power connector.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 7: Memory sockets.

On this motherboard the ICH7 south bridge chip is cooled by a small golden passive heatsink. It is a pity that GA-EP31-DS3L doesn’t use ICH7R south bridge chip, which features RAID. Since this motherboard doesn’t bring any extra hard disk drive controller chip the absence of RAID feature is one of the main negative points from this motherboard.

Next to the south bridge chip we can find four SATA-300 ports and one ATA-100 port.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 8: South bridge chip, SATA-300 ports and ATA-100 port.

In Figure 9, you can see the two USB 2.0 headers for the case frontal USB ports and the pins for the case frontal panel features, which are very well identified through a color code, helping the person that will install this motherboard to a case.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 9: Connectors for the frontal panel of the case.

[nextpage title=”More Details (Cont’d)”]GA-EP31-DS3L offers one PCI Express x16 slot for the installation of one video card (this motherboard doesn’t have on-board video), three PCI slots and three PCI Express x1 slots. A floppy disk drive connector is available on the board edge near the slots.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 10: Expansion slots.

The rear panel is very conventional, coming with mouse and keyboard PS/2 ports, one parallel port, one serial port, four USB 2.0 ports, one Gigabit Ethernet port (produced by an independent chip, since ICH7 south bridge chip offers only Ethernet 10/100 connectivity), six input and output audio jacks (you don’t need to “kill” the line input jack in order to use eight-channel analog speakers) and two SPDIF outputs, one coaxial and one optical. Having at least one eSATA port would be nice.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 11: Rear panel.

GA-EP31-DS3L doesn’t come with a lot of accessories, only a user’s manual, a quick installation guide, an I/O frame for the rear panel, CD with drivers and utilities, cables for SATA, IDE and floppy units and two Gigabyte stickers for you to decorate your case.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 12: Accessories.

[nextpage title=”Main Specifications”]

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3L main features are:

  • Socket: 775.
  • Chipset: Intel P31 Express with ICH7 south bridge chip.
  • Parallel IDE: One ATA-100 port controlled by the south bridge chip.
  • Serial IDE: Four SATA-300 ports controlled by the south bridge chip.
  • USB: Eight USB 2.0 ports (four available on the rear panel and four available through I/O brackets that don’t come with the motherboard).
  • FireWire (IEEE 1394a): No.
  • On-board audio: Produced by the chipset with the aid of a Realtek ALC888 codec (eight channels, 24-bit resolution, sampling rate of up to 192 kHz for the outputs and up to 96 kHz for the input, signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of 90 dB for the inputs and 97 dB for the outputs).
  • On-board video: No.
  • On-board LAN: Yes, Gigabit Ethernet controlled by a Realtek RTL8111B chip, which is connected to the system through PCI Express x1 bus.
  • Power supply required: ATX12V v2.x (24-pin).
  • Slots: One PCI Express x16, three PCI Express x1 and three PCI slots.
  • Memory: Four DDR2-DIMM sockets (maximum of  4 GB up to DDR2-1066).
  • Buzzer: No.
  • Number of CDs that come with the product: 1 CD.
  • Programs that come with the product: Drivers and utilities.
  • Extra features: None.
  • More information: https://www.gigabyte.com.tw
  • Average price in the US*: USD 75.00

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

[nextpage title=”Overclocking”]

GA-EP31-DS3L is clearly a mainstream motherboard but its overclocking support puts this motherboard in a completely different category. Something that is really complicated about this motherboard (and other mainstream motherboards from the same manufacturer) is that you have to press Ctrl+F1 inside the motherboard setup to enable all advanced configurations this board has, and this option isn’t clearly announced by the manufacturer.

You can configure this motherboard to run at several different dynamic overclocking levels, feature that automatically increases the front side bus clock rate between 5% and 19%. If you prefer, you can manually adjust this clock rate in 1 MHz steps, from 100 MHz way up to 700 MHz (i.e., up to 2,800 MHz QDR). You can also lock the PCI Express clock rate, a feature that increases the chances of a successful overclocking.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 13: CPU clock adjustment.

Memory speed can be configured through a FSB clock multiplier, from 2.0 to 4.0. As the minimum adjustment for this multiplier is 2 when configuring the CPU external bus to 1,600 MHz QDR (400 MHz) memories will have to work at least at 800 MHz.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 14: Memory multiplier adjustment.

You can find practically all latency adjustments for fine tunings on this motherboard. Besides that you can increase or decrease the voltages used by several circuits from this motherboard, including the CPU and the memories, of course.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 15: Memory timings adjustment.

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3LFigure 16: CPU voltage adjustment.

With this motherboard we could set a dual-core Celeron E1200 running at 3.0 GHz (its original clock is 1.6 GHz) with a 375 MHz (1,500 MHz QDR) external clock rate, which represents an amazing 87.5% increase on its internal clock rate. And we didn’t even try to push harder. With patience and increasing voltages you may be able to achieve even higher overclocking levels.

[nextpage title=”Conclusions”]

Gigabyte GA-EP31-DS3L is a mainstream motherboard targeted to average users that want a platform with good features, outstanding overclocking capability, high performance but doesn’t want to give an arm to buy a high-end product. In our opinion this motherboard brings an excellent cost/benefit ratio for the average user that is building an Intel-based PC.

It has several advantages over entry-level products such as four memory sockets (instead of just two), Gigabit Ethernet, very high overclocking capability, on-board digital audio outputs and more.

The only negative point from this motherboard is the absence of a RAID controller and eSATA ports but frankly we wouldn’t expect that from a motherboard that costs far less than a high-end model.