EQS, not to be confused with ECS, are a European service centre for Sapphire VGA cards, who also buy in motherboards from the same Chinese factory that Sapphire motherboards are made at (although they aren't actually Sapphire!) The motherboard in question has the catchy name of M56K9-MLF, is for AMD Athlon 64 socket 939 CPUs and is based on the rather under used ATI RS480 (Radeon Xpress 200G) Integrated Graphics chipset and SB400 (also known as the IXP400) southbridge.
For those unfamiliar with the RS480/SB400 combination, read on:
ATI have gone for the northbridge / southbridge approach for AMD Athlon 64, with the northbridge handling the PCI-Express lanes: a maximum of one x16 PCI-Express slot and four x1 PCI-Express slots, onboard graphics with local frame buffer if necessary and 1GHz (2000 MT/s) Hyper Transport to the CPU. The southbridge is the main I/O centre handling four SATA 1.0a ports, 2 IDE channels, a standard PCI bus, ACí97 audio and up to 8 USB ports.
Northbridge / southbridge interconnect is also through two dedicated PCI-Express lanes giving 1GB/s bidirectional bandwidth.
The onboard graphics, whilst minimal, are nothing to be sniffed at, consisting of an X300 core (Radeon 9600 PCI-Express). While this is not your X800 beast, it is still better than the competition and provides full DirectX 9 support. Of course, you can always use the x16 PCI-Express port for your graphics card if you require something with a bit more go in it.
However, due to the fact the AMD Athlon 64 has an integrated memory controller, graphics calls have to go through the CPU's Hyper Transport bus. This is not really ideal considering graphics memory should be designed to have the highest bandwidth and lowest latency possible. ATI has overcome this by including the possibility of a local memory buffer (LMB) with a small quantity of graphics memory right next to the IGP - however, this memory is only available in 16MB/32-bit or 32MB/64-bit varieties. Unfortunately, even though this motherboard has the solder contacts for the LMB, there is no actual memory chip onboard.
What you get for your money
Inside the box we have a modest range of goodies including:
- The motherboard
- A basic manual and driver CD
- Single red SATA cable
- Metal I/O plate
- Single IDE and floppy cables
- Extra COM port
- Two USB2 ports
- S-video and composite connectors for the onboard TV out
Nothing too extravagant, but enough to get you going; The TV-out connectors are highly mod-able, because they can be unscrewed from the PCI backplate and placed where you like.
The motherboard itself is micro ATX standard, with a black PCB. It has a quality feel to it and the surface is packed out with components. Whilst there is no colour theme, it isn't black and white: the ram slots are in a tasteful blue and red, where the different colours indicate the separate memory channels, and support up to 4GB of your standard DDR memory (2.5V, 184-pin). We have a standard 20-pin ATX power connector placed to the edge of the board for easy access but the 4-pin 12v power is slightly hidden at the top between the power regulation components and CPU area, which may cause problems with cable routing around large heatsinks. The CPU socket itself (AMD Athlon 64, socket 939) is rather crowded with large TEAPO branded caps on one side, memory on the other and the passive chipset heatsink to the bottom.
The PCI Express x16 and legacy PCI slots are orange whilst the PCI-Express x1 slot is green. You only get two legacy PCI and a single PCI-Express x1 because of the micro ATX motherboard size constraints, but you do have the ability to use a PCI-Express x16 graphics card with a large heatsink if you don't mind sacrificing your only PCI-Express x1 slot. This gives it an advantage over other SFF systems, as it offers you greater flexibility.
The southbridge controls the 4 SATA ports, which do not support any SATA 2-esque features like Native Command Queueing, but you do get RAID 0, 1, 0+1 support provided by an integrated Silicon Image RAID controller. It also provides 2 IDE channels supporting a maximum of 4 devices, and finally a standard floppy port.
Onboard features consist of Firewire controlled by a common VIA chipset which provides two 400Mbit/s Firewire channels, one on the back plate and one through motherboard pins. Also, we have 10/100 LAN and 6 channel sound provided by Realtek. The codec is the popular AC97 ALC655. Whilst this has been superseded by the 6 channel ALC658 and 8 channel ALC850, the ALC655 is a cheaper and still a popular and well supported AC'97 onboard audio codec. It is sufficient for a lot of users, but you always have the option of putting in a more powerful PCI soundcard and still having a PCI slot spare.
The front panel pins, whilst not colour coordinated are, for a change, well labelled by the printing on the PCB as to what each does. The back I/O panel consists of the usual Parallel and PS2 ports, four USB 2.0 ports in a 2x2 arrangement, single 6-pin Firewire, and LAN sockets, three 3.5mm stereo audio jacks that support 6 channel sound, but can also be reassigned in the audio software for line-in and microphone use. The slight change from the norm is the onboard VGA port from the Radeon X300 IGP graphics and RCA S/PDIF port from the ALC655. If you want to use the onboard TV out instead there is a yellow TV connector just behind the back I/O panel. All in all, this motherboard provides everything you'd need for a HTPC or Office PC and the scaleability for a hardcore gaming machine, server or workstation.
Find a quiet CPU cooler and you can get away with an extremely quiet system using the IGP thanks to the passively cooled north and southbridge.