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P55 On A Budget: Five Core i5/i7 Motherboards For $100-$150

ECS P55H-A

Famed for its low-cost products, Elitegroup Computer Systems has also produced a performance-oriented “Black Series” for several years to gain recognition among enthusiasts. Black Series motherboards also provide moderate feature and BIOS enhancements compared to the company’s other products, and the P55H-A is no exception. Internal power and reset buttons, a Port 80 diagnostics display, and an I/O panel CLR_CMOS button set the P55H-A apart from less expensive ECS products, while setting it ahead of similarly-priced models from better-known “enthusiast” brands.

A row of electronic pathway switches above the upper PCIe slot allows you to change modes from single x16 to dual x8 pathways when a second graphics card is installed, potentially making this a better choice than models limited to x16/x4 when building for high-end CrossFire graphics solutions. A x4 slot two positions below the upper slot provides enhanced bandwidth for medium-performance add-in cards, but its closed end unfortunately prevents use with longer x8 and x16 expansion cards.

While normally a freebie function of the multi-I/O controller, ECS includes no physical connection for the floppy drive that many Windows XP users require for adding RAID drivers during installation, but still includes the “added-cost” Ultra ATA interface. Though often added as a way to address older and low-cost optical drives, ECS places the Ultra ATA header beneath the lowest PCI slot where cable length issues generally restrict it to lower-bay hard drives.

A full-sized PCB has none of the physical support issues that plague smaller boards, but ECS still crowds the DIMM slots by moving its LGA 1156 interface forward, preventing some oversized coolers from being used in combination with four DIMMs. We’ll revisit that in our Test Settings page.

Our only other layout concern is the front-panel audio header in the bottom rear corner, a location that makes connecting top-panel or upper-bay jacks extremely difficult. This standard is one that should be abandoned, since most cases have front-panel jacks near the motherboard’s opposite corner.

BIOS

While the P55H-A hails from ECS’ Black Series enthusiast product line, its BIOS is best-targeted towards beginning overclockers. Only the most important settings are available in its simplified overclocking menu.

Changing the Performance Level control allows access to CPU multipliers, a setting we left alone during benchmarks so as not to inhibit Intel’s Turbo Boost function. Beneath it are DRAM and memory latency settings that worked perfectly for us, which were a vast improvement over the non-functional settings of previous-generation Black Series motherboards.

CPU Vcore and Uncore voltage levels are both adjustable, which along with DIMM and PCH voltage, allow the board to achieve remarkable speeds given its limited menu options.

Accessories

ECS includes four right-angle SATA cables, an 80-conductor Ultra ATA ribbon, a driver CD, and a Linux-based OS. The “light” OS appears to be ECS’ answer to Asus’ Express Gate and can be loaded onto a hard drive before the main operating system is installed to allow fast access to integrated applications.

One other minor issue we must mention is that the autoloader for ECS’ driver CD doesn’t work with Windows 7. Users must instead install drivers manually if desired, at least until ECS starts issuing a new version of the disc.

  • dirtmountain
    The Asrock P55 Pro is 16x-4x, not 8x-8x.
    http://www.asrock.com/mb/overview.asp?Model=P55%20Pro
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16813157171
    The Asrock P55 Extreme at $140 offers 8x-8x
    Reply
  • JeanLuc
    Good read but it really just confirms what a lot of us have known for a long time. Don't buy budget motherboards (MSI, ASrock, ECS) if you want to overclock and it's no coincidence that the boards from Gigabyte and Asus passed with flying colours as these companies clearly have proper testing procedures in place and quality assurance measures to avoid such issues.
    Reply
  • evongugg
    Another great article from Tom's, letting us know about how one of these motherboards can burn your CPU. Never would have known without you.
    Might have burnt out a CPU and not know the cause.

    Reply
  • Crydee
    How would P55 stack up against non P55s is what I wanted to see as well. See if the premium is worth it over the more budget friendly P55.
    Reply
  • LATTEH
    nice article i liked it!
    Reply
  • avatar_raq
    Unfortunately neither Gigabbyte nor ASUS boards offer the 8x8x PCI-e slots for multiple GPUs. I think it's better to wait for their premium brethren to fall below $150 before upgrading.
    Reply
  • SchizoFrog
    For the extra $20 you can get the ASUS P7P55D PRO which is a much better board and offers the full spec for multi GPUs... However, I personally can only recommend what I would do myself and that is to wait. There are a lot of major PC spec changes over the next 6 months. So I am waiting for USB3 and SATA3 to make it to mainstream.
    Reply
  • SchizoFrog
    For the extra $20 you can get the ASUS P7P55D PRO which is a much better board and offers the full spec for multi GPUs... However, I personally can only recommend what I would do myself and that is to wait. There are a lot of major PC spec changes over the next 6 months. So I am waiting for USB3 and SATA3 to make it to mainstream.
    Reply
  • helms
    I doubt their quality assurance is as good as you think Jeanluc. Both Gigabyte and Asus make crap DDR3 controllers for socket 775 motherboards. I've tested a heap of DDR3 socket 775 boards from Asus and Gigabyte, the Asus P5Q3 in particular is causing a lot of problems. When paired with a quad core cpu (everything stock) and running 3 threads prime(blend) + furmark, the system would inevitably freeze in under 2hr's (usually within the 30 minutes mark, quite a bit less than 2hrs). In fact systems with those boards would freeze even during normal non PC intensive use such as browsing the internet. Running prime+furmark just forces it happen rather than waiting for it to freeze which is quite random during light use like word prcoessing. I doubt Asus even realizes that their P5Q3 is a faulty product and shouldn't have hit retail stores. They have been selling the P5Q3 for ages. They probably tested the board with a cheap dual core celeron and since it worked with that called it a day.
    Reply
  • burnley14
    JeanlucGood read but it really just confirms what a lot of us have known for a long time. Don't buy budget motherboards (MSI, ASrock, ECS) if you want to overclock and it's no coincidence that the boards from Gigabyte and Asus passed with flying colours as these companies clearly have proper testing procedures in place and quality assurance measures to avoid such issues.
    I think you're jumping to conclusions here. Tom's reviewed some boards a while back for the 1366 socket and gave ASRock first place for quality and value.
    Reply