At a glance, we noticed that the RS400-A had a pretty decent and structured design going for it. Components were neatly arranged and grouped. ECS seemed to have placed more focus towards the upper portion of the board though with ample spacing around the CPU socket. We were still slightly concerned with the tall capacitors around it though. Luckily, we did not run into any problems with CPU installation or cooler mounting.
Spacious CPU socket area.
The board had four color coded DIMM slots grouped in pairs. Remember that the RS400 Northbridge supports both DDR and DDR2, so this color-coding on the board does not denote memory channels, but the type of memory supported. Taking a closer look, the purple slots had a 240-pin configuration for 1.8V DDR2 memory modules while the blue slots were compatible with 184-pin 2.5V DDR modules. Each pair can only be used exclusively of each other and support up to 2GB in dual-channel operation.
Remember, blue for DDR and purple for DDR2.
Another much touted feature of the RS400-A was its flexible graphics options. With an IGP Northbridge and the Radeon X300 graphics core, the RS400-A boasted DirectX 9 capabilities, hardware accelerated DVD and video decoding plus TV output (optional via on-board header). Besides the functional prowess of the X300 core, the board also supported discreet graphic cards based on either the PCI Express or AGP buses. How was this possible? You forget that ECS is an innovative bunch and they've basically slapped a bridge on a normal PCI bus to support AGP cards. Bringing back their AGP Express technology to the RS400-A motherboard gives it an advantage over the competition, but note that bandwidth is essentially capped to PCI speeds and we also found out that card compatibility was a very strict affair. Before you jump to take advantage of the AGP Express interface, it would be wise to download the board's manual for a compatibility list of AGP cards supported.
Wide variety of expansion possibilities. From the top to bottom, a PCI Express x16, two PCI Express x1, an AGP Express and lastly two PCI slots.
Besides the graphics and memory flexibility design, the RS400-A wasn't really a feature rich motherboard. Built for the mainstream, the board came only with rudimentary features more for the sake of extended functionality than to generate a 'wow' factor. Using ATI's own SB400 Southbridge, the board had support for four SATA ports with RAID plus eight USB 2.0 ports. Very standard fare, but users can look forward to future Radeon Xpress 200 announcements with the newer ATI SB450 Southbridge, which should incorporate Intel's Azalia audio and PCIe Gigabit LAN, though we will not likely see SATA II support till probably the SB600 at the end of the year. As for non-chipset based features, the RS400-A came with a single LAN controller powered by a Realtek RTL8100C Fast Ethernet chip and supports 6-channel onboard audio via Realtek's ALC655 CODEC.
The following overclocking options were available to the RS400-A motherboard:-
FSB Settings: 200MHz to 510MHz
DDR2 RAM Frequency: DDR400, DDR533, DDR667
DDR RAM Frequency: DDR266, DDR333, DDR400
UMA Buffer Size: 32MB, 64MB, 128MB
Memory Overclock: 0 to 31%
CPU Voltage Settings: +3%, +6%, +9%
Memory Voltage Settings: +50mV, +100mV, +150mV
PCIe Voltage Settings: +10%
Multiplier Selection: Yes (unlocked CPUs only)
Considering that we've had a very favorable overclocking experience with the ECS RX480-A, we held an optimistic outlook for the performance of the RS400-A as well. In the end, we were able to coax the board to a maximum stable FSB of 225MHz. This wasn't such a bad overclock since at 225MHz, it outperformed many of the Intel 915P Express based boards at stock settings. If only the RS400-A had better overclocking controls, we might have been able to push for a higher overclock.
We originally mentioned that the board had a clear motherboard layout, which was true. However, this did not mean that ECS managed to get an optimum board design. While the board had a spacious CPU area, the bottom half wasn't as ideal. The RS400-A had all its IDE and SATA connectors located side by side at the lower half of the board and placed the floppy below a PCI slot, similar to many new ABIT designs. As a budget motherboard, we found that it also lacked full surround sound connectivity and did not feature any S/PDIF ports as well. On the bright side, ECS did provide headers on the board so users are still able to enable the advanced features such as S/PDIF and TV output with the right accessories.
All the storage connectors are placed towards the bottom of the board and arranged side by side.
Floppy connector makes its way towards the very bottom of the board.
There are no S/PDIF ports provided by ECS, but the board does have an S/PDIF header for optional connectors so that the option isn't totally ruled out.
The RS400-A was also incredibly picky about hardware compatibility. We had numerous problems with the different types of Kingston memory we used that ranged from random application crashes to being unable to POST. Fortunately, the board seemed to like Corsair memory and we managed to get both DDR and DDR2 setups working flawlessly. We've liaised with ECS on this issue and they've been stepping up the memory validation, so hopefully the problem can be fixed in a future BIOS. The other problem we ran into was the AGP Express slot compatibility. Although the AGP Express slot supports AGP 4x/8x cards, it wasn't a simple plug and play affair. ECS maintains a list of validated AGP cards that has been tested with the board in the manual and sure enough, when we plugged in a Radeon 9550, the board wouldn't POST. However, it worked fine with a Radeon 9250 (which was on the list). So be sure to download the online manual to figure out if your AGP card is compatible.
Another issue to gripe about the RS400-A was its seemingly 'experimental' BIOS. You might have already noticed some of the vague overclocking options like the 31% memory overclock. Why 31% and not any other number, we didn't know then and we still don't know now, but you haven't seen anything yet. Instead of regular memory latency and timing selections, the RS400-A confounded us with LAQ Bypass, PIF Stage, Impedence Control (that is how it is spelled), Bank and Channel Map selections, all of which held unfamiliar values and the manual wasn't any help in explaining these functions. To top it off, actual running memory parameters were not displayed and due to the relative newness of the chipset, tools like Sandra and CPU-Z were not able to retrieve the information as well. You could say that we were practically running blind while testing the board and that's something we weren't really enthused about.