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Reviewed by: Carl Nelson [10.13.05]
Manufactured by: ECS

 

ECS + PC Chips = Innovation?

Nobody would have guessed that the merger of two of the most boring motherboard companies ECS and PC Chips would produce anything other than even more boring OEM products. But ECS is taking this merger as an opportunity to show off their ingenuity and engineering skills.

We first saw this with the KN1 Extreme, an NF4 Ultra board that won't turn any heads in overclocking performance, but maybe in price. ECS assured us that they had more interesting things in the works.

ECS has since launched one of the more interesting motherboards we've seen in a while, the PF88 Extreme Hybrid. We've seen multiple socket types on motherboards before, but never ones that supported entirely different CPU families.

The PF88 starts as a Pentium 4 motherboard powered by the SiS chipset combo of the 656 Northbridge and 965 Southbridge. It's the interoperability between the different SiS chipsets that make the PF88 possible. We'll get to the specifics of these chipsets in a moment.

ECS provides several models of 'SIMA' cards that fit into the 'Elite BUS Slot'. ECS is being quite mum about how exactly their patent-pending "Elite System BUS" works. They say 'for sure' it isn't simply using the SiS MultiOL bus. My own guess is that it uses the three remaining PCI-E lanes for data transfer (the SiS chipset supports 20 lanes, 16 of which are given to the video card. The PF88 has one X1 slot, leaving 3 to spare). This gives it 1.5 GB/s of bandwidth to work with, which is sufficient. Each card has a different socket type, and in some cases, different Northbridge chip. The A9S shown here is a Socket 939 card, which is equipped with the SiS 756 Northbride.

Other SIMA cards that will be made available are the Socket 479 I9S, which comes equipped with the the SiS 649 chipset, and the A4S, which is similar to the one shown above but with a Socket 754 interface. This means that all current AMD and Intel CPU's are supported by the PF88, including the Turion and Pentium-M.

When installed, the entire top half of the board is essentially cut off, and the SIMA card takes over. The only components used that are at this end of the board are the 24 pin ATX power connector, IDE ports, and rear panel outputs.

The Chipsets

The first thing we have to do is address these SiS chipsets themselves. The 656 and 756 are SiS' first foray into the PCI-E world. They were only meant to be used on budget boards, and therefore the features are somewhat lacking compared to the competition. First, let's look at how the 756 stacks up against competing chipsets supporting Athlon64 models:

Northbridge SiS 756 NVIDIA NF4 Ultra VIA K8T890 ATI Xpress 200
Dual Core Ready Yes Yes No Yes
NB PCI-E Lanes 16 20 20 22 (20 available)
Chipset Interconnect MuTIOL N/A (single chip) Ultra V-Link 2 lanes PCI-E
Peak NB/SB Bandwidth 1.06 GB/s 4 GB/s (direct HT link) 1.06 GB/s 1 GB/s
         
Southbridge SiS 965 NVIDIA NF4 Ultra VIA VT8237-R ULi M1573
SB PCI-E Lanes 4 (single chip) 0 4 (2 available)
SATA Ports 4 4 2 4
SATA Speed 150 MB/s 300 MB/s 150 MB/s 150 MB/s
RAID Support Yes Yes Yes No
NCQ Support No Yes No Yes
Ethernet 1000 Mb/s 1000 Mb/s 100 Mb/s 100 Mb/s
USB Ports 8 10 8 8
Audio AC'97 AC'97 AC'97 Hi-Definition

The 756/965 combo looks great next to anything VIA has come up with, but is lacking in many aspects when compared to the NF4 chipset, most notably in the area of storage. Overall though, it stands out as a budget solution, as it supports the latest dual core processors.

Northbridge SiS 656FX NVIDIA NF4 Intel VIA PT880 Pro Intel 945P
Dual Core Ready Yes Yes (840 and up) No Yes
Max FSB 1066 MHz 1066 MHz 800 MHz 1066 MHz
NB PCI-E Lanes 16 19 4 16
Chipset Interconnect MuTIOL HyperTransport Ultra V-Link DMI
Peak NB/SB Bandwidth 1.06 GB/s 1.6 GB/s 1.06 GB/s 2 GB/s
         
Southbridge SiS 965 NF4 SLI MCP VIA VT8237-R Intel ICH7R
SB PCI-E Lanes 4 0 0 6
SATA Ports 4 4 2 4
SATA Speed 150 MB/s 300 MB/s 1500 MB/s 300 MB/s
RAID Support Yes Yes Yes Yes
NCQ Support No Yes No Yes
Ethernet 1000 Mb/s 1000 Mb/s 100 Mb/s (not integrated)
USB Ports 8 10 8 8
Audio AC'97 AC'97 AC'97 Hi-Definition

On the Intel side, the 656FX/965 has a lot more to prove, as it is competing directly with Intel, who for the longest time has been the 'only' true platform to build a Pentium 4 system on. Only lately has NVIDIA come up with their solution, and VIA is far behind in terms of an actual chipset you can buy in stores.

The SiS solution stands up quite well, with its 16x lanes of PCI-E on the Northbridge backed by another 4x lanes on the 965 Southbridge. Unfortunately, the storage features are once again lacking compared to NVIDIA and Intel, and the audio support is poor (although 8 channel audio is standard).

Overall, the SiS chipsets should be fine to base a budget motherboard around, and provide ECS with the opportunity to come up with something unique and innovative.

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