Date: August 15, 2008
Author(s): Rob Williams
Need to build a new rig on the cheap? Need modest Crossfire support, and a decent feature-set? The ECS P45T-A might be worthy of your consideration, as it packs in a good amount of functionality, solid performance, a cool color scheme and of course, a good price tag, of around $110.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at our second sample from Elitegroup, or ECS for short. Although not a new name in the motherboard business, they are relatively new in the gaming/enthusiast side of things. I first took a look at one of their boards last month, the X48T-A, during a brief roundup, and overall was left less than impressed.
For the $200 asking price, I felt we deserved more. It had no overclocking-ability, lackluster features and even the software CD left a lot to be desired. So needless to say, when I first received the P45T-A, I was a bit skeptical. I had right to be, because it didn’t take too long until I settled on the fact that the board wasn’t overly impressive.
But, I settled on my thoughts far too quick, because up to that point, I didn’t realize the board was being sold for $110 over at NewEgg. Instantly, my perspective changed, and I suddenly came to enjoy the board a lot more. Price isn’t everything, but this board actually performed better than the X48T-A in certain regards, and as long as you aren’t a stickler for features, this really should be considered for any low-budget build.
Like all other P45-based motherboards, ECS’ P45T-A offers the latest and greatest from Intel under the hood, such as 1333MHz FSB support, so any current-gen Intel CPU will work just fine. Because this is a budget model, certain features have been scaled back, though, such as the memory speed. While the standard is DDR2-1066 for P45, we are left with DDR2-800 speeds here, with the inability to go higher.
Memory is not the most important thing in the system, though, and if you have a decent kit of RAM with at least 4-4-4 timings, you will be smooth-sailing. Given the overall price, such a cut isn’t so much of a surprise. As you can see below, the board itself is rather attractive, with a dark color palette used and some of the most modest heatsinks you’ll find anywhere.
The board offers 6 S-ATA ports off the get go, although a few may be blocked depending on your GPU installed. If you are using a card similar in size to the 9600 GT, you should have no issue whatsoever. But anything like a 9800GTX or longer will block off one or two. This can be prevented in some cases if a flat-top S-ATA cable is plugged in, though that in itself would likely block off another port.
Also found down this side of the board is a power on/off and reset buttons, which is really, really nice to see on a budget offering. There’s little use in the overall scheme of things, but it was a thoughtful addition regardless.
The board features two of each port: PCI-E, PCI, PCI-E 1x, which I have to give kudos to ECS about because they are all nicely spaced. If you were using dual single-slot GPUs, you could fill all six without issue. Notice the red tab between the two PCI-E 16x slots… that’s for the Clear CMOS. It’s very inconveniently-placed, as I’ll touch on later.
As mentioned, the board uses DDR2 in lieu of more expensive DDR3, which would really defeat the purpose of the board that ECS was going for. Unlike some other P45 budget models, this one still requires a 24-pin motherboard power connector.
Around the socket, we can find ample room for most any CPU cooler out there, although if you have a very-low-profile model, you might want to make sure the caps don’t get in the way. ECS offers a four phase power solution here, which should prove plenty enough for any CPU out there, but it’s not going to help with successful overclocks.
Towards the top of the photo, you can also see the mostly-inconvenient 4-pin motherboard connector. Its location means a cable has to hover over the motherboard, which makes it very difficult to keep a clean chassis, if that’s your goal.
At the back, we find PS/2 ports, six USB, e-SATA, Serial, LAN and of course, the 7.1 audio. Not a bad selection given the price-point of the board, and the six USB ports are sure to be appreciated by many.
Inside the bundle are a few S-ATA and IDE cables, the I/O panel for the back, the manual and driver CD-Rom. Like the X48T-A I took a look at last month, this driver CD does not work with 64-Bit Windows, but you are able to browse the CD manually for the drivers you need.
The P45T-A isn’t going to win awards for its bundle or board design, but it’s a $110 offering, and that does change everything. The board itself is far from perfect, with certain awkward layout decisions, but it’s all manageable. Can we say the same about the BIOS?
Like the X48T-A I’ve tested before, the BIOS on the P45T-A didn’t do much to impress, nor did I expect it to. The options are barebone, with little in the way of overclocking. In fact, I didn’t include any overclocking results in the article, primarily due to the fact that the board is not designed for such a thing, and it lets you know it right away.
Whenever an overclock is failed, which happens incredibly often (the max I could get was 350MHz before I gave up), you are left with a brick. You then need to get into your chassis, move over the red tab which is right underneath the top video card, turn PSU back on, then off, then replace the tab again. It’s not a fun process, so imagine doing it five times over just while trying to reach anything a bit higher than 350MHz.
Intel’s own motherboards are notorious for this as well, so it’s as though this is really based off of the reference design, except Intel’s BIOS’ would blow the pants off this one in some regards. The one here doesn’t allow full control over what you can overclock, and the voltages top-end are also incredibly low. So simply put, this board is not for overclocking. Don’t even consider it. Get the board, use stock clocks and be happy.
On to the testing methodology and finally, our collection of performance results.
At Techgage, we strive to make sure our results are as accurate as possible. Our testing is rigorous, and sometimes exhaustive, but we feel the effort is worth it. In an attempt to leave no question unanswered, this page contains not only our testbed specifications, but also a fully-detailed look at how we conduct our testing.
If there is a bit of information that we’ve omitted, or you wish to throw off recommendations or suggest changes, please feel free to shoot us an e-mail or post in our forums.
When preparing our testbeds for any type of performance testing, we follow these guidelines:
No hardware during our performance reviews is changed during testing, except for the product-type being reviewed, of course. Our current configuration is as follows:
For our testing, we use Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit. We chose to stick to a 64-bit Windows because throughout the past year of usage, we find it to be much more stable than the 32-bit counterpart.
Once we set up our OS’, nothing changes unless we revamp our entire methodology.
In an attempt to deliver accurate results, games that we test with are played through manually, with the average FPS recorded with the help of FRAPS 2.9.4. In our personal tests, we have found that manually benchmarking games is the best way to deliver accurate results, since time demos rely heavily on the CPU.
In order to deliver the best results, each title we choose is explored to find the best possible level for our benchmarking. Once a level is chosen, we play through in order to find the best route, and then in future runs, we stick to that route as close as possible. We are not robots, so we cannot make sure that each run is identical, but they will never be far off from each other. As we see in our results, scaling is good, so we are confident that our methodology is a good one.
Because performance between motherboards shouldn’t vary by much to begin with, we choose to run a single game for our tests, along with Futuremark’s 3DMark Vantage.
On the next page, we’ll kick off our results with SYSmark 2007 Preview.
Synthetic benchmarks have typically been favored for performance testing, but the results they provide can be fairly abstract, and the methods they use to assign their scores can be dubious at times. By contrast, real-world application benchmarks provide performance metrics that apply directly to real-world usage, and we endeavor to apply both in our performance comparisons.
SYSmark 2007 Preview from BAPCo is a special case, because its synthetic scores are derived from tests in real-world applications. However, we still believe that synthetic benchmarking scores are best used to directly compare the performance of one piece of hardware to another, and not for developing an impression of real-world performance expectations. SYSmark is more useful than most synthetic benchmarking programs in our opinion, because its tests emulate tasks that people actually perform, in actual software programs that they are likely to use.
The benchmark is hands-free, using scripts to execute all of the real-world scenarios identically, such as video editing in Sony Vegas and image manipulation in Adobe Photoshop. At the conclusion of the suite of tests, five scores are delivered: an E-learning score, a Video Creation score, a Productivity score, and a 3D Performance score, as well as an aggregated ‘Overall’ score. These scores can still be fairly abstract, and are most useful for direct comparisons between test systems.
A quick note on methodology: SYSmark 2007 requires a clean install of Windows Vista 32-bit to run optimally. Before any testing is conducted, the hard drive is first wiped clean, and then a fresh Windows installation is conducted, then lastly, the necessary hardware drivers are installed. The ‘Three Iterations’ test suite is run, with the ‘Conditioning Run’ setting enabled. Then the results from the three runs are averaged and rounded up or down to the next whole number.
So far we are off to a great start. It might be a budget board, but in six entire runs of the suite, it still scored a healthy 168… substantially better than its X48T-A brother.
For our video conversion test, we use VirtualDub to transcode (converting from one codec to another) a 0.99GB high-quality DivX H.264 AVI video of Half-Life 2: Episode Two gameplay with stereo audio. The video is just under 4 minutes in length and has a 720p resolution (1280×720).
For our testing, we encode the video two different ways. The first transcoding run (“720p Video Recode”) encodes the video at the same 720p resolution but with a lower quality, to achieve a more acceptable file size for distribution (~150MB).
The second transcoding run (“Mobile Video Recode”) scales the video to a 480×272 resolution, similar to what some mobile devices such as Apple’s iPod use. For both tests, “Enhanced multithreading” is enabled in the codec control panel, as well as “Experimental full search” using the highest version of the SSE instruction set that the CPU supports.
Photo manipulation benchmarks are more relevant than ever, given the proliferation of high-end digital photography hardware. For this benchmark, we test the system’s handling of RAW photo data using Adobe Lightroom, an excellent RAW photo editor and organizer that’s easy to use and looks fantastic.
For our testing, we take 100 RAW files (in Nikon’s .NEF file format) which have a 10-megapixel resolution, and export them as JPEG files in 1000×669 resolution, like most of the photos we use here on the website. Such a result could also be easily distributed online or saved as a low-resolution backup. This test involves not only scaling of the image itself, but encoding in a different image format entirely. The test is timed indirectly using a stopwatch, and times are accurate to within +/- 0.25 seconds.
Autodesk’s 3ds Max 9 is considered the industry standard when it comes to 3D modeling and animation, counting DreamWorks, BioWare, and Blizzard Entertainment among its users. It’s a multithreaded application that’s designed to be right at home on multi-CPU workstations or render farms, so it’s right up our alley for testing systems with multi-core processors.
Instead of the polygon-based rasterization handled by most GPUs, 3ds Max 9 uses scanline rendering as its chief method, but some ray-tracing plugins exist (which we don’t use).
In our testing, we use a standard dragon model provided with 3ds Max, ‘Dragon_Character_Rig.max’. The scene is rendered in two formats. First, a single frame from the animation is rendered at a resolution of 1920×1080 (1080p). Then, a 60-frame sequence of the same model is rendered to a 490×270 resolution AVI file, which can be exported to a portable media player.
The P45T-A might have done well in the SYSmark test, but the overall lack of memory frequency made the differences with our three real-world tests. It didn’t perform horribly, but just an inch slower than the rest.
To test the storage subsystem, we rely on Simpli Software’s HD Tach, a superb storage benchmarking tool that’s now free for everyone to use. It excels at benchmarking a variety of internal and external storage devices, and produces consistent data and information-rich reports.
For this review, HD Tach will be used to test the internal hard drive’s data transfer rates. Since the main system drive is being tested, which contains the operating system software, we will only be performing read tests, not write tests (which might cause data corruption.) Also, since we’re not specifically interested in the drive’s performance per se, we won’t be running any access time testing.
While the P45T-A kept in line with the other boards where average MB/s was concerned, it fell far behind in the burst speed. This downside won’t likely show up in real-world use, and if it does, then you’d be hard-pressed to notice.
SiSoft’s Sandra benchmarking package has long been one of our favorite tools, because of its comprehensive set of specific hardware benchmarks. It delivers excellent consistency, and offers a variety of tests devoted to the memory subsystem. Here, we’ll use it to test memory bandwidth and latency.
Given the fact that the motherboard forces DDR2-800 speeds, it’s no surprise to see both a low bandwidth and high latency result. This is not for the enthusiast, under any circumstances.
For real-world game testing, we turn to Valve’s Half-Life 2: Episode Two, which has long been a standard for our game benchmarking. With Episode Two, Valve delivers more of what fans loved about the original game, but were kind enough to throw in a few twists. It’s becoming increasingly difficult waiting for Episode Three!
The level used for testing here is ‘Our Mutual Fiend’, which has you navigating a large outdoor area with many Striders and buildings about. The goal is to make your way through the level, decapitating all the Striders you are able, while doing your best to save as many of the buildings as you can. It can be a stressful level, but is great for benchmarking thanks to the constant action and massive amounts of AI.
For our testing, we begin by loading the level from the console, and once loaded, we enable the FRAPS benchmarking feature which will track our overall FPS information. We begin the level in the same spot each time, and follow a well-defined path throughout until we reach a specific point of the level where we tell FRAPS to wrap up its FPS recording. For detailed information about the settings used in testing, see the screen shots in our Testing Methodology page.
3DMark has been the ‘gaming benchmark’ standard for quite a while, with versions dating all the way back to 1998. Vantage is the latest iteration and is just as hardcore on your GPU as we had hoped. It will be a little while before it can be run on any hardware with relative ease, which makes it a perfect candidate for stressing our rig to the max.
Between our gaming tests, there’s no real complaining to be had. The results from the P45T-A are in line with the rest, which is what we wanted to see. It just goes to show that faster memory isn’t really immediately improve your gameplay, although that might change when you are gaming over the course of a few hours.
To capture power consumption, we use a Kill-A-Watt, a cool gadget that plugs into your socket and reports the current wattage reading. We plug our testing machine directly into this, with our Gateway XHD3000 monitor plugged into the other available socket. Our results here show the power draw from the computer itself (including all internal components) and nothing else.
Please note that these figures also include the power draw from our Corsair Nautilus 500 water-cooling system, which gets its power from our PSU. Also, only one hard drive is connected to the motherboard and power supply, and the only ‘extra’ accessory used is the RAM fan. Before testing, network adapters are enabled, but no LAN cable is connected.
To record our results, we grab figures while the machine is completely idle, and then also while half of the processor (Core 2 Extreme QX9650 Quad-Core) is being utilized. The third and final set of results are grabbed while half of the CPU is being used in addition to the GPU (NVIDIA 9800 GTX), which represents a realistic result from normal gameplay.
It’s a budget motherboard, so it’s no surprise that the power consumption isn’t over-the-top. Interestingly though, even though the idle power usage is on par with the ASUS P5Q, which is a much more robust board, it proves 10W more of a drain when being stressed.
This ECS board isn’t going to blow anyone’s socks off, that’s for certain. But with it’s $110 price tag and ample performance, it actually could be considered if you are looking to build a new rig on the cheap.
Throughout our performance results, we’ve seen it’s obvious the board won’t deliver the same speed as some of the higher-end models, but it still offers solid performance that should prove enough for most anyone who’s not that fussy about a process taking a few extra seconds to complete. For the price, it’s hard to go wrong.
The overclocking ability on the board is nil, unless you consider 10 – 20MHz on the FSB to be an impressive feat, which it isn’t… not when 400MHz FSB isn’t even considered an overclock anymore. It’s a budget board, and it’s not designed to allow your parts you run out of spec. For that, you’ll need a higher-end model, and considering ECS’ own X48T-A doesn’t improve on the overclocking here, you’d best go with someone else.
But overclocking is not what this board is about. It offers a good set of features, including 6 USB ports on the back, a semi-decent board design, great color scheme, good performance, and of course, the good price of ~$110.
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