ECS has been in business since 1987 and while most people may have gotten to know the brand through OEM and budget offerings; they have worked hard to compete with the likes of Asus, MSI, Gigabyte and the like for a foothold in the premium motherboard market. Today we take a look at a budget friendly board from their L337 Gaming range, the ECS Z87H3-A3X Drone.
The motherboard comes in a standard box that flips open to reveal the board and accessories. The box itself is rather simple; the front has the brand and model name with more information about what the board supports and features. The back of the box has more illustrations and specifications so you are aware of what this board can do. Included with the board is a quick setup guide, a user manual, driver disc, I/O panel, SLI connector and 2 SATA cables. This might not look like a premium product’s list of accessories but bear in mind this is a budget board and priced as such.
Due to its budget friendly nature this board does not offer any fancy onboard buttons or diagnostic LEDs like the ECS Domination we reviewed early on. The board layout is clean and simple; the CPU has plenty of space around it for a large cooler and there is even a good amount of space between the CPU and PCI-Express slot which is great. The board supports 8-pin connectors but should do just fine with only 4-pins.
At the bottom we have our front panel connectors but we also have front facing SATA ports which is something we don’t usually see on modern boards. Most boards leave these ports on the side for easier connection and better cable management. The Z87H3-A3X has four DIMMs supporting up to 32GB at 3000MHz. It supports both Nvidia’s SLI and AMD’s Crossfire technologies with two PCI-Express X16 3.0 slots. It also has four PCI-Express X1 2.0 slots and six SATA 6Gb/s ports supporting RAID 0, 1, 5 and 10 configurations.
On the I/O panel there’s a PS/2 port, four USB 2.0 ports, six USB 3.0 ports, one HDMI port, one DVI-D port, one VGA port, one eSATA port, four Line-out Audio ports, one Line-in port, one SPIDF out port and one Gigabit LAN port.
BIOS and Software
The M.I.B.X. BIOS on the Drone is similar to the one we saw on the ECS Domination which we had trouble using the overclocking tools on. However, with this board we did not encounter the same problems but the mouse movement is a little bit sluggish. Much like the Domination, the Drone’s BIOS while rich with options just isn’t as well laid out as an Asus or MSI BIOS is. You do get a ton of options but the refinement needs a bit of work. It doesn’t mean that you can’t use the BIOS but it’s just not as easy or nice to look at. There also seems to be a lack of a screenshot feature which you expect to see on a modern BIOS like this. I still grew to like this BIOS, not because of its layout or looks but due to its functionality.
The bundled software is also similar to the Domination’s with esF software for fan control and eOC for overclocking. Once again the eOC software had extremely limited overclocking options such as only giving you Base Clock and DIMM voltage adjustments, but unlike the Domination, adjusting the Base Clock here would either do nothing or would result in a crash. So while ECS does include Windows bundled software to adjust some board settings, they just don’t offer as many options.
For testing we used the Intel Core i7-4770k with 2 x 4GB G.Skill Ripjaws Z DDR3-1600MHz memory, the stock NVIDIA GTX 770 graphics card and the SanDisk Ultra Plus 64GB SSD with a Thortech 850W Thunderbolt Plus PSU. On the software side, the system was running Microsoft Windows 8 as well as the following applications.
X264 HD Encoding 1st & 2nd Pass
Bioshock Infinite & Tomb Raider
Dirt: Showdown & Total War: Shogun 2 CPU
Overclocking was relatively easy although it did not get us a great results. We used the BIOS to overclock the CPU to 4.6GHz with a core voltage of 1.25V and while we managed to get into Windows, running a benchmark eventually resulted in a crash. Toning it down to 4.4GHz didn’t help much. Even at nearly 1.3V we could not get a stable overclock. Eventually we settled for a measly 4.2GHz with 1.25V and temperatures did not rise about 60C. Not the best overclock but certainly not the worst. We believe with a few more tweaks in the BIOS and you can get at least 4.4GHz stable but be sure to get a very large cooler if you try anything near 1.3V.
There’s nothing particularly special about the ECS Z87H3-A3X- it doesn’t have any onboard buttons, diagnostic LEDs nor does it have lots of PCI-Express slots for quad GPUs. But because of its decent performance numbers, simple layout and competitive pricing, this board ends up being a good buy. You may not get lots of features or accessories with it but you will get a solid performing board that’s reliable and cheap. Amazon’s current price for the ECS Drone is $120, that’s $100 off the current price of the Domination so if you want a simple motherboard that performs well, this one might be a good choice for you.