Reviewed: July 4, 2006
What's in the box
Best Online Price: $119.99
A long time ago, before I founded GCM - I was a Network Administrator specíing and building computers for various architectural firms around the Midwest and even some government offices. Iíve probably built more than 200 systems in my lifetime and worked on at least four times that many, so I have seen my fair share of hardware.
It never ceases to amaze me how much the game industry drives the hardware technology. Sure, you need super-systems to run your CAD software and create all those amazing CG movies, but itís the gamer that demands the most power and ultimately spends the most dollars on a hobby (or obsession) that requires almost yearly updates.
Surprisingly enough, while graphics and audio technology change almost on a weekly basis, PC technology has been at a relative standstill as far as CPUís and motherboards are concerned. It wasnít that long ago that we reviewed the KN1 Extreme motherboard from Elitegroup Computer Systems. But about the same time as that review SLI (dual video card solutions) were becoming all the rage so ECS quickly followed up with their own SLI-supported mobo.
The ECS KN1 SLI Extreme Motherboard for all intents and purposes is pretty much the same mobo as the one we reviewed a few months ago, only with a few minor tweaks and the added support of the extra PCI-Express video slot. But if SLI is what you need and you demand quality at a fair price, this might just be the card you are looking for.
I won't inflate this review with pages of specifications and features. You can read all of that here if you want before continuing on to our hands-on review.
The KN1 SLI Extreme starts off strong in the specs list building on a core nForce4 Ultra chipset, which is basically the standard for motherboards these days. Express video as well as an accelerated 3GB/s transfer rate for supported hard drives, new RAID morphing, and integrated nVidia firewall. Bottomline; if you are a hardcore gamer then you want nothing less than an nForce4 motherboard in your case.
The KN1 SLI Extreme comes with all the bells and whistles youíd expect from a high-end motherboard, but not for one that can be had at a fraction of what others would cost. The KN1 offers updated onboard audio using Realtekís ALC850. This is an 8-channel (7.1) codec, a substantial improvement over the 6-channel (5.1) codec used on the non-SLI mobo and a great alternative for those who donít have a dedicated 7.1 gaming audio card like an Audigy or X-fi.
Gamers will certainly enjoy the inclusion of two LAN ports. One is Gigabit Ethernet (1,000 Mbps), controlled by the nForce4 SLI chipset supporting hardware-base firewall by nVidia and the other one is Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps), controlled by a Realtek RTL8100C chip. There was even a crossover Ethernet cable included, allowing you to instantly network to another PC right out of the box.
There is support for an astonishing ten (10) USB connections including four on the back and six more through special I/O brackets or that you can wire to case-specific outlets. ECS includes a plate for two extra USB and a Firewire so you have support for six USB out of the box and four more that you can add on your own if needed. In my particular setup, I was able to run two USB to built-in ports under the top hatch on my case for easy access for my MP3 player and PSP.
Power users looking to build a RAID system will drool over the extra two SATA connections allowing for a total of six (6) Serial ATA drives and a total of eight (8) hard drives in a RAID setup.. For old-school gamers, there are three (2x HDD and 1 FDD) standard ATA IDE connections. This is also the first mobo we have seen with full support for eSATA - external SATA devices including an extender that allows you to channel one of your ports to the rear of the case for outboard drives. Regrettably, we had nothing to test it with prior to this review.
Aesthetically speaking, ECS continues with their ďPC Pimping PurpleĒ color that will standout in a clear case at a LAN party. The motherboard is coated so you canít even see the circuitry and just about every connection is some wild color like orange, yellow, green, or blue. It looks cool, but it also makes it easy to find and figure out what gets connected to what during installation. Even the DIMM sockets are color-coded.
If colored plastic isnít enough you can watch an impressive lightshow with all of the LEDís scattered about the motherboard. There are blue status LEDís for each of the card slots and an orange anti-burn LED to warn you about improperly installed memory.
The overall layout of the board is compact, too compact if you ask me. Even in the smallest cases you are going to have room left over so it would have been nice to spread things out a bit. As it your components will be extremely close together once your system is built, and any changes or updates will require you to remove drives, video, or some cabling.
A good example is the video cards. If you are using dual cards (and why wouldnít you if you got this mobo) then one of your SATA connections will be blocked, and if you ever need to change or add memory you can expect to remove the primary video card to get to the slots. And with heat concerns, I just wish this configuration allowed for a bit more breathing room.
I was impressed with the distance between the two PCI-E slots, much wider than most other SLI mobos, which not only makes installation much easier, especially with the growing girth of video cards, but allows for improved airflow and better cooling. After all, you donít want one video card venting all its hot air onto the other.
The large circular fan on the main nForce4 chip resides between the two video slots and is much quieter than the one used in the non-SLI board, although I never had any complaints about loudness before. Itís just ďreallyĒ quiet now and even helps vent the video card heat.
Whether your case has multiple fans or you are running a liquid-cooled system, the KN1 SLI Extreme is already running nice and cool out of the box with a dual cooling solution. The aforementioned nForce4 fan keeps the main system running at optimum temperature while the fluorescent green fan and rear exhaust duct pumps out excess hot air coming off your CPU and voltage regulator. Both fans spin at rather high RPMís and generate more noise than a lot of third-party solutions, but any ambient noise in the room will quickly cover the hum from the rear of the case.
The extra fan at the rear of this mobo takes the spot of a traditional 25-pin LPT port, but when was the last time you needed one of those? But just in case you have an antique printer, ECS provides one mounted on a slot-plate.
INSTALLATION AND SETUP
Installing the motherboard was a snap. The rounded corners keep it from getting hung up on the case or any cables. The motherboard supports a 24-pin power-supply cable, but four of the holes are taped over out of the box in case you are using an older 20-pin PSU. Our AMD 4000+ snapped right into place, and our Golden Orb II CPU cooler from Thermaltake installed just as easily.
Our 2GB of memory slipped into their color-coded slots. If you want to use DDR Dual Channel just match the memory to the same color slots. Easy! Then it was just a matter of snapping in our pair of PX7900 video cards, plugging in the WDC 300GB Caviar drive using the included SATA cables, and attaching the case connections to the color-coded header at the bottom edge of the board. The entire process took about 20 minutes.
The newly added support for SLI is a no-brainer and requires no special setup. Simply plug in two supported SLI video cards and installed the bridge and the mobo will detect the setup and go from there. This "switchless" setup is usually reserved for the extremely high-end and expensive mobos. ECS has just put the screws to a lot of mobo manufacturers with this feature alone.
Typically, we use dedicated audio hardware in our systems, but seeing as how ECS was giving away 7.1 audio we decided to check it out. Hooking up our 7.1 surround speakers was a snap. The ďconnection centerĒ at the back of the mobo had all the standard speaker outs, all color-coded to match industry standards. The end result wasn't as technically proficient as an Audigy or X-fi, but unless you have heard those other cards, the 7.1 surround mix will certainly dazzle the casual gamer and those only used to 2-channel stereo or 4-channel surround.
Normally, this is where we would do some benchmarks, but in all reality, any significant changes in performance over the non-SLI KN1 would be video card related. Plus, we went from a Geforce 6800 to a pair of 7900ís in this new setup, which is hardly a baseline of comparison.
And Iím not going to bore you with SYSMark numbers or fancy graphs and charts. What I will do is tell you that with the ECS KN1 SLI Extreme, and a pair of Geforce 7800 or 7900 video cards you will be able to run any game currently available at max resolution and usually with all features turned on and maintain playable, if not exceptional framerates.
Itís all about the graphics these days, and GPUís are doing twice the work of your CPU, especially when you put a pair of them in your PC, so games like F.E.A.R. and the Half-Life Lost Coast demo will glide on a system with the KN1 SLI Extreme at its core. And considering that a majority of upcoming PC titles are using the new Unreal 3 engine, graphical power will be a prerequisite in this next generation of PC titles.
For those who like to tinker and overclock, youíll be glad to know there are some improved (but still limited) OC options on this new mobo. The SLI version of the KN1 uses the Phoenix BIOS rather than the Award BIOS, which has always been one of my favorites, and if you dig around the Power Management options you can find the overclocking options that include:
If you do manage to screw up your BIOS, either through upgrades or viruses, ECS uses Top-Hat Flash as a built-in backup that can easily restore your mobo to factory default in case of emergency.
You can find the KN1 SLI Extreme for anywhere from $119 to $139 depending on how savvy a shopper you are. This definitely puts the KN1 in the budget price range while offering virtually every feature and advantage of the more expensive boards.
Not only does the KN1 Extreme look cool, it runs cool with twin fans and a clean design that keeps the cables away from the board for maximum cooling and attractiveness in a showcase system. When properly lit, the purple motherboard and multicolor connectors really make this motherboard stand out from anything else currently available.
Letís face it. You arenít going to see huge performance shifts between the various 939 motherboards out there. The CPU and video cards are driving the technology and speed these days, so when it comes time to buy a new mobo you need to go for features, cost, and reliability.
ECS also packs in plenty of extras including all the SATA cables, USB cables and case plate, plus a nice software bundle The manual is surprisingly informative and nicely laid out - a rarity in today's hardware market.
ECS has set out to create an affordable 939 Socket motherboard to cater to hardcore gamers with limited funds and they have done just that. If money is no object then you probably arenít even considering this motherboard, but when you combine the KN1 SLI Extreme with the right CPU and video cards you are going to have one killer system that can take you well into 2007 and perhaps even beyond.