ECS "Golden Board" Z77H2-AX
ECS' flagship Z77H2-AX is the only board in today’s comparison to include the 48-lane PCIe 3.0 bridge needed to enable three-way SLI. At the time it was delivered, it was also one of only two sub-$280 Z77 Express-based boards equipped with this extremely exclusive features.
Naming issues still plague ECS though, as each step up in model number brings with it a reduction in price and features. Heck, the firm even replaces the word Budget with Deluxe in several models, adding the word Black to the packaging of boards that aren’t part of its Black Edition high-end line. The Golden Board label still represents its top-end parts, but those words only show up on the company's box, and not in the model number.
And so, the least-impressive name denotes the firm's most expensive products, from gold-plated connector shells and pins to the previously-mentioned PCIe bridge, integrated Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and dual eSATA ports.
ECS adds a CLR_CMOS button to the Z77H2-AX's rear I/O panel, but does not give it a second gigabit network controller. Stranger still, the company puts VGA output on a board purchased by enthusiasts who'd much rather see DVI or DisplayPort.
Note that the 48-lane PEX 8747 chip is divided up into 16 lanes on the controller side and 32 lanes on the device side. A row of four two-lane switches above the platform's second 16-lane slot allows the third 16-lane slot to borrow eight lanes whenever a card is installed there, taking the board from x16/x16/x0 to x16/x8/x8 mode. Moreover, not wasting any of the chipset’s eight PCIe 2.0 lanes on a x16 slot gives ECS the opportunity to design its Z77H2-AX without the need to switch off certain devices to enable others. We count seven slots or devices connected to the Z77 chipset's eight PCIe 2.0 lanes.
Most of ECS' boards have an empty spot where the Port 80-style diagnostics display should have gone, but the Z77H2-AX actually has the real thing for reporting system status. That’s especially handy for troubleshooting an open test bench, as are the on-board power and reset buttons, and voltage detection points along the motherboard’s top edge.
Four of the Z77H2-AX’s internal SATA connectors are rated for 6 Gb/s data rates, since two of them employ a third-party controller. One of the Z77’s missing SATA 3Gb/s ports is re-assigned to an mSATA slot, while the other remains missing in action.
The Z77H2-AX’s layout is almost as good as its features, with three spaces separating the first and second graphics card slots. But USB 3.0 header placement is the elephant in ECS' design room. Because it's so close to the third graphics slot, front-panel USB 3.0 and three-way SLI or CrossFire are mutually-exclusive features.
The Z77H2-AX includes four black and two red SATA cables, a USB 3.0-to-3.5” bay adapter, three SLI bridges, and a front-panel Wi-Fi antenna.