The Board - A Closer Look
The ECS Z77H2-AX comes equipped with ON/OFF and RESET buttons situated just above the uppermost PCIe x16 slot, probably one of the very best locations I've seen ever, leaving them accessible even when all of the slots are populated. The BIOS is contained within a 64 Mb Winbond chip, seen in the second image above, and outputs POST codes to the dual-digit display found just under the SATA ports. The buttons and POST display are two things I consider 100% essential for a high-end enthusiast product, and ECS definitely has those covered.
Opening the socket reveals a few unpopulated SMD positions, as well as the specially-coated pin array that mates with your installed CPU. Flipping the board over and looking at the rear of the socket, we see the socket backplate and screws are gold-coated too, and I did notice several "cooling strips" located under where the VRM is on the front side. There are many pins close to the socket, but our fairly large Noctua backplate installed just fine, even though it has large rubber pads that sit against the board's surface around the mounting holes.
The VRM is managed by a uPI Semiconductor uP1618a 6+2 buck controller which powers the 12-phase main CPU power by duplexing each of the six main controller outputs to two phases rather than just one, as is quite common for VR12-compliant VRM designs. There's also a section just above the DIMM slots that allows several critical system voltages to be measured by a digital multi-meter, offering every voltage I personally need when overclocking on Intel Z77-Express-based products. The DIMM VRM itself is a single-phase design, but looks to be more than capable of supplying the power needed to reach up over 2800 MHz with DIMMs that are capable.
At first I couldn't find the SuperIO chip which provides temperature monitoring as well as fan control, but it's hidden under the sticker you see in the first image above. The ITE IT8728F is a pretty popular as well as a fairly functional unit I've seen many many times now, providing pretty reliable monitoring as well as decent customizable fan options too.
The eSATA ports on the rear I/O panel are provided by the Asmedia ASM1061 seen in the first image above, while the second image shows the ITE IT8893E PCIe-to-PCI bridge chip that provides support for the onboard PCI slots.
The PCIe link is a bit more complex than I was expecting, but the ECS Z77H2-AX doesn't have your standard PCIe configuration, either. There a small clock-buffer chip provided by ICS, while lane switching is provided by Asmedia ASM1480 PCIe 3.0 parts, and every PCIe x16 slot features PCIe 3.0 connectivity, with both upper slots offering physical PCIe 3.0 x16 links, and the lower has a PCIe 3.0 x8 link, double that of a normal Intel Z77 Express product, and much more like what the much more expensive Intel X79 Express platform offers. Of course, the PCIe 3.0 functionality is dependant on the installed CPU, so our old 2600K test chip wasn't able to take full advantage of this design, but now that PCIe 3.0-supporting CPUs are available, I've got the opportunity take a full look at this board to see if the addition of the PLX PEX8747 chip, shown in the third image above, affects performance in any way. The PLX PEX8747 is a 48-lane, 5-port PCIe Gen 3 switch, with built in error correction that also supports peer-to-peer traffic for the best possible connectivity for multi-GPU system configurations. I am very eager to test this one out, let me tell you, and comparing it to Intel X79 Express should prove very interesting!
Finally, to wrap things all up, we find two Realtek-designed parts, an ACL892 Audio CODEC, and a RTL8111E LAN chip, both of which are pretty common-place yet at the same time offer decent reliable solutions that are in millions of other products on the market today.