Summary: If you're in the market for an inexpensive nForce4 Ultra motherboard, ECS' KN1 Extreme may be just the board for you. The board supports six Serial ATA ports, dual LAN networking and an additional 802.11g WiFi USB 2.0 adapter, active cooling on the North Bridge and ducted cooling near the CPU. The sweetest part however is the board's price, currently this motherboard can be found online for less than $120, making it an incredible value. With so many features and such a low price is the KN1 Extreme ideal for you? Find out in our review!
Every once in awhile a product comes along that completely blows us away. These products typically come out of nowhere, offering new levels of performance that were previously unheard of, or perhaps delivering a new level of performance at a given price point. ATI’s RADEON 9700 PRO was the most recent example of such a product.
When it was first launched, the RADEON 9700 PRO shattered all previous performance barriers, and was the first graphics card to support Microsoft’s DirectX 9.0 API, despite the fact that DX9 hadn’t been released yet. If you recall, up to that point ATI had established a track record for following months behind NVIDIA, who was first to deliver DX7 cards en masse with their GeForce 256 GPU, and DX8 with GeForce 3. For the DX9 generation, NVIDIA trailed ATI by over six months, and their first DX9 product, GeForce FX 5800 Ultra, was slower, louder, and ran hotter than RADEON 9700 PRO, ultimately the product never entered full production.
On the motherboard front, one of the last boards to truly stun us was ECS’ K7S5A. That’s right, we said ECS!
The K7S5A was the first motherboard to hit the market that was based on SiS’ 735 chipset. If you recall, back in those days, AMD had just released the world’s first DDR chipset for the Athlon platform, AMD-760. AMD’s 760 chipset was a very solid offering, delivering good performance, a well-rounded feature set, and most importantly, superb stability. The only problem with AMD-760 was price and availability. AMD was not in the business to make chipsets, and has always preferred relying on chipset partners, they just couldn’t supply enough chipsets to satisfy the market, which ultimately led to higher prices for the few AMD-760 boards that actually were available on the market.
VIA’s counterpart to AMD-760, KT266, was plagued early on with problems. Performance wasn’t up to snuff, with KT266 boards falling significantly behind AMD-760 in performance. In addition, VIA was still suffering from nagging compatibility issues with KT266’s South Bridge chip, 686B. There were numerous users who were running into PCI problems with 686B, the most notorious being Creative Sound Blaster Live! owners. Others reported USB problems, specifically dealing with printers and scanners.
In comparison, all SiS735 did was work, and work brilliantly. Not only did the chipset offer superior stability, it also wasn’t plagued by the compatibility issues found with VIA KT266, and even provided performance that was superior to AMD-760.
ECS’ K7S5A flourished with SiS735. Not only did the motherboard boast a good feature set, it delivered excellent performance and stability, and incredibly enough, could be found online selling for under $70! In our K7S5A review we said: “Essentially with the K7S5A you get a clean, no-frills board that leaves little guesswork in setting up the system for optimal performance. And once everything is finally set up, you've got a very quick motherboard right out of the box. In that sense the K7S5A reminds us of one of those sleeper cars you occasionally see on the highway. Sure, it may not look very fast on the outside, but you don't want to mess with it at the next stoplight, because before you know it, you're left in its dust.” The only downside to the K7S5A was overclocking options, as the board didn’t have many initially, but follow-up board revisions corrected this problem.
Since then we’d estimate that ECS has gone on to sell hundreds of thousands, if not millions of K7S5A motherboards. Looking over their site, they have 1.x and 3.x revisions, as well as a “Pro” variant. Price Watch even lists a K7S5A board for $40.
ECS’ KN1 Extreme builds on the same formula that made the K7S5A so special, building a board that’s designed for the hardcore gaming crowd. Of course, you probably realized that the moment you saw the motherboard’s twin cooling fans. But that’s definitely not the only feature this motherboard supports…
With their KN1 Extreme, ECS is trying to recapture some of the luster they once had with enthusiasts who owned K7S5A motherboards. This is their first attempt at recapturing the hearts and minds of gamers and hardware enthusiasts, much like DFI did with their LANPARTY series a few years ago, and based on what we’ve seen today we hope this isn’t their last attempt, as the KN1 Extreme is a pretty impressive motherboard.
ECS starts with NVIDIA’s nForce4 Ultra chipset. We won’t rehash the feature set of the nForce4 Ultra, as we’ve already gone over this chipset’s features in detail in our preview article from last year, but the Cliff’s Notes version concerning the nForce4 Ultra chipset is that it’s an evolution of last year’s nForce3 Ultra chipset, with the key additions being PCI Express as well as improved storage capabilities thanks to 3Gigabytes/second hard drive technology being supported, new RAID capabilities (RAID morphing), and finally, dedicated hardware acceleration for NVIDIA’s firewall solution. Basically, this is the chipset you’re going to want if you’re building a new Athlon 64 system. Of course, that’s assuming you aren’t looking for an integrated solution, or SLI.
Networking and audio
Like all high-end nForce4 Ultra boards, the KN1 Extreme features dual LAN controllers. Marvell’s Alaska 88E1111 chip provides Gigabit Ethernet support, acting as the physical layer to the nForce4 Ultra’s networking engine. The Marvell chip has been popular among motherboard manufacturers, as MSI and ASUS use this same chip on their nForce4 Ultra and nForce4 SLI motherboards. Powering the second Ethernet port is Realtek’s RTL8100C.
Storage and USB
For overclocking and hardware monitoring functionality, ECS bundles the KN1 Extreme with NVIDIA’s incredibly powerful (and versatile) nTune utility. nTune is a really cool software utility package, providing settings for overclocking your processor within Windows, and if you have a GeForce FX card or greater installed, you can even use nTune to overclock your graphics card without having to rely on a third-party software utility, or the Coolbits registry hack. As its name implies, nTune can automatically tune your system for a wide range of parameters, such as best disk, graphics, or memory performance, or you can tweak nTune to run your PC more quietly. (Although at the time of this writing, the KN1 Extreme didn’t support this feature properly with nTune.)
If all that weren’t enough, the real icing on the cake that ECS provides with the KN1 Extreme is an 802.11g WiFi adapter; specifically, an external USB 2.0-based solution.
To top it all off, ECS even ships the board with a 3-foot long CAT5 network cable.
The most striking visual aspect of the KN1 Extreme is its purple PCB, clearly denoting the board’s enthusiast roots. For the most part, everything on the board is color-coded, making installation of components easier for novices and inexperienced computer builders. We’re not just talking keyboard/mouse and audio ports either, as ECS color codes headers for the USB and Firewire headers, as well as the DIMM sockets, which are color coded properly for dual-channel memory operation and the pins for the front panel of your case. The yellow PCI slot is ECS’ PCI Extreme slot. This slot is specially designed to deliver the cleanest signals, making it ideal for use with your PCI-based sound card.
The KN1 Extreme board has other features you’d expect from an enthusiast-level board. For example, a large handle sits atop all of the board’s jumpers (such as the clear CMOS jumper), making the jumper much easier to grab, especially if you have large fingers. The KN1 Extreme also has rounded corners, ensuring better strength and preventing the board from snagging during installation.
ECS includes a ton of assorted LEDs on the KN1 Extreme, nearly enough to direct traffic. A small orange LED sits on the top right corner of the board; ECS calls this their anti-burn LED. It warns you if your memory is installed incorrectly by lighting up. ECS also has their Dr. LED technology, this refers to the blue LEDs that dot the middle of the board, each blue LED denotes a PCI Express or PCI slot for a total of 5 LEDs. The LEDs blink if the accompanying PCI or PCI-E slot is unpopulated or if it’s not functioning properly. If the LED remains on, this means that the slot is populated with an expansion card and running properly. This could potentially be a distraction with some of the LEDs constantly blinking, a handy troubleshooting device, or a cool “bling” feature, depending on how you look at it. Surprisingly enough however, with all the LEDs included, ECS forgot to provide a power LED, which could come in handy for diagnosing a dead motherboard. How’s that for irony? A diagnostic LED panel wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
ECS provides two PCI Express x1 slots at the middle of the board, directly above the x16 slot for your graphics card. Below the x16 slot are three PCI slots, which should be enough considering that LAN and Firewire functionality is provided onboard, as well as external 802.11g WiFi and six onboard Serial ATA ports. As far as the board’s layout is concerned, overall there really aren’t any gotchas that we could complain about; ECS places the ATX power connector away from the CPU socket, while the ATX 12V connector is tucked behind the keyboard/mouse port, generally out of the way of the processor and directly beneath the system’s power supply. So we really can’t complain there either. It would be nice however if the third IDE connector wasn’t placed along the bottom edge of the board, but that is a popular location for many motherboard manufacturers.
Cooling is one area where the KN1 Extreme really stands apart from many of its competitors, as ECS has gone out of their way to ensure that this board and the CPU runs as cool as possible.
The most striking example of this is the fluorescent green plastic duct flanking the CPU. Like ABIT’s popular “MAX” line, this ducting system serves two purposes: cooling the VRM circuitry near the system processor, and removing the hot, stagnant air near the processor from within your system and blowing it outside the back of your case ultimately helping to serve a third purpose – cooling the system processor.
The second cooler ECS has integrated on the KN1 Extreme is a large, Orb-shaped aluminum cooler. The heatsink is quite tall, with long fins, while the fan rests comfortably inside.
In operation, this system is quite effective, as the nForce4 chip and Athlon 64 4000+ ran quite cool over the course of our testing. The one downside to ECS’ implementation however is noise, both fans spin at high RPMs (5,800 RPMs for the North Bridge fan and 6,200 RPMs for the fan near the CPU) which currently can’t be adjusted within BIOS or via NVIDIA’s nTune software. This is the loudest motherboard we’ve tested in recent years, although we wouldn’t rate the board as excessively loud.
All too often we’ve come this far only to see the motherboard manufacturer falter on their BIOS implementation for their board. They’ll deck the board out with all kinds of cool features, and wrap it around an intelligent, well-thought out board layout, only to compromise when it comes to the BIOS.
Often times, OEM considerations come into play here, as few OEMs outside of Alienware and Falcon Northwest really want to see their customers tweaking their BIOS. After all, if you go too far with overclocking, or set your board’s memory timings too low, the system can become unstable, or it may not even boot at all. Next thing the OEM knows they have to deal with a support call, and when you’ve got millions of customers out there, these support calls can add up quickly. Therefore, many OEMs go straight to the source -- the motherboard manufacturer -- and have them remove access to settings in BIOS that could lead to potential trouble down the road for them. This is why you don’t see bus speed adjustment in Intel motherboards, which are frequently used by Tier One OEMs such as Dell, or an OEM like Gigabyte only provides the “Advanced Chipset Features” menu in BIOS if you press the F1 key (something only an enthusiast would know to do).
As a motherboard partner to many OEMs, ECS has given in to these OEMs wishes in the past, many of their value-oriented boards feature little if any BIOS settings for making system adjustments such as voltages and bus speeds. But since the KN1 Extreme is designed from the ground up for the enthusiast crowd, this shouldn’t be the case right? At least that’s what we were hoping while the board was in transit to us.
For the most part, ECS gets everything into the KN1 Extreme’s BIOS from a pure settings perspective, but for each setting they only give you enough options to get your feet wet, rather than do any extensive tweaking.
For example, you’ve got bus speed adjustment from 200MHz-250MHz, with increments ranging in 0.5MHz increments from 200MHz-210MHz, then 1MHz increments from 211MHz-230MHz, and 2MHz increments from there. Getting your board to run above 250MHz will often require an unlocked Athlon 64 FX CPU, so technically ECS provides the settings you’re most likely to need if you’re an Athlon 64 user, but enthusiast-level boards typically offer settings well in excess of 300MHz.
The HyperTranspot and memory bus speeds can be set individually which is good, but the board’s BIOS provides no settings for adjusting the PCI Express interface. Again, on a typical enthusiast-level board, you’d expect PCI-E settings ranging from 100-150MHz in 1MHz increments.
For voltage adjustment, CPU voltages of up to 1.825V are provided in 0.025V increments, which is pretty good, as we’ve seen some boards stop as early as 1.65V. ECS provides memory settings ranging from 2.55V-3.11V in increments of 0.08V. Again, this is pretty typical for an enthusiast board; however, ECS doesn’t provide a chipset voltage setting in the KN1 Extreme’s BIOS. Also absent is the ability to control the CPU multiplier – this isn’t a big deal if you’re an Athlon 64 user, as your multiplier is locked anyway, but Athlon 64 FX users would definitely want to have access to their CPU’s multiplier for overclocking.
Overall the KN1 Extreme’s BIOS is easy to navigate, as it uses Award’s familiar interface. All the settings you’ll need for setting up your system are there, including a wealth of options for adjusting memory timings, although the 1T memory command rate setting is absent from the board’s current BIOS. We just wish the board’s BIOS had a few more settings for overclocking, and just as importantly, a setting for dynamically or even manually adjusting the speed of the motherboard’s dual fans.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat (Mig-29 custom demo)
Lock On: Modern Air Combat – Direct3D
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB - OpenGL
Far Cry – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
SiSoft Sandra 2005
nForce4 Ultra chipset: The feature set of the nForce4 Ultra is really without equal right now. nForce4 Ultra provides 3Gb/s Serial ATA support with support for multiple RAID levels and even cross-controller RAID, and a nifty disk alert system that can warn you if a hard drive fails. On the networking side, you’ve got GigE, plus an integrated hardware-accelerated Firewall and accompanying software. And of course, don’t forget the PCI Express support. On top of all these features, nForce4 Ultra also delivers excellent performance.
BIOS implementation: As we mentioned on the BIOS layout page, the KN1 Extreme’s BIOS provides just enough settings for overclocking to get your feet wet, but in some cases, not enough to really explore what your system’s components can do. For instance, CPU multiplier adjustment is missing entirely, while bus speeds provided are a little scant, and in the higher bus settings, the increments are too high. Ideally the KN1 Extreme BIOS would provide settings up to 350MHz or more in 1MHz increments. The BIOS also lacks the 1T Command Rate setting, as well as voltage adjustment for the system chipset.
On the hardware side, ECS provides all the basic goodies an enthusiast would want in an nForce4 Ultra motherboard. You’ve got dual LAN capability, with GigE provided directly by the chipset. Some manufacturers may boast having dual GigE networking, but remember that the second Ethernet controller is usually tied to the PCI bus, which is capped at just 133MB/sec, so you’ll never see the full potential of the second GigE controller. ECS even goes one step further by including an 802.11g WiFi USB 2.0 adapter in the KN1 Extreme’s packaging.
ECS provides six Serial ATA ports, which is two more than the nForce4 Ultra provides natively, but two shy of what some motherboard manufacturers are including with their high-end nForce4 Ultra boards. You’ve also got three PCI slots, and two x1 PCI-E slots, which is pretty much standard fare among most nForce4 Ultra boards. From a hardware perspective, the biggest downside would probably be the outdated ALC655 audio, but considering that most gamers are probably using Audigy/Audigy 2 or VIA Envy24-based cards anyway, this probably isn’t a huge deal. We would like to see ECS include a few more USB ports on the board’s back plate as well. Six USB ports are supported by the board out-of-the-box, 4 via the back plate and two via an external USB header, the nForce4 Ultra chipset natively supports up to 10 ports, so ECS falls a bit short here. IEEE-1394a support is also provided.
ECS also takes active steps to thwart heat by including a large chipset cooler and a second cooler which removes hot air lurking within your system case, just like ABIT’s OTES-based motherboards.
As far as performance is concerned, the ECS KN1 Extreme delivered here as well, with performance falling between the other nForce4 board we tested, MSI’s K8N Neo4 Platinum SLI, and the nForce3 Ultra-based Gigabyte GA-K8NSNXP-939.
Overclockers will be a little disappointed however, as the KN1 Extreme’s BIOS options are limited in some areas. For instance, bus speed options only go up to 250MHz, and even then, the upper settings are only available in increments of 2MHz. In addition, settings for clock multiplier adjustment and chipset voltage aren’t even provided in BIOS.
Fortunately, this is one area that ECS can easily fix with a simple BIOS update, if they choose to do so. As we mentioned on the BIOS page however, politics may be playing a role here, it’s just too soon to know. The other cons we noted in the Ballistics Report will likely need to be addressed in a future board revision if ECS wishes to correct them.
The real positive that the KN1 Extreme has going for it is its price. Already the board can be found for just under $120 online, prices will likely fall even further once more boards become available and competition really sets in. The nearest competitor in price so far is Chaintech’s VNF4/Ultra Zenith board, which doesn’t have the cooling found on the ECS motherboard or the added extras, such as 802.11g WiFi, dual LAN, and six Serial ATA ports. ECS delivers more features and does so at a lower price.
Its because of this that we’ve awarded the KN1 Extreme or Bull’s Eye Award. As regular FiringSquad readers probably know, the Bull’s Eye Award is all about price/performance, and right now the KN1 Extreme delivers the best blend of price and performance among nForce4 Ultra motherboards currently available on the retail market. It may not have all the bells and whistles that an enthusiast would like to see in BIOS, but from a pure hardware perspective, ECS for the most part got everything right. All the raw ingredients are there, ECS just needs to add a bit of polish to their cooling implementation, and beef up the KN1 Extreme’s BIOS a bit more.
Just as the DFI LANPARTY and ABIT MAX series weren’t built overnight, the ECS “Extreme” line still has some edges that need to be smoothed out. ECS is pretty close to getting there though. In our first LANPARTY review we noted that DFI was on the brink of having a groundbreaking product on their hands. We ended the review by saying we had a feeling they could be one of the motherboard manufacturers to watch over the coming months. We now feel the same way about ECS, and remember, in our LANPARTY PRO875 review we listed the motherboard’s BIOS as a “con”. Food for thought don’t you think?
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