By now, you should have the impression that the ECS P55H-AK is anything but typical of ECS' motherboards, including even its higher end Black Series but what exactly is so different about it? We are tempted to say 'everything!' but let's start from the exterior design. Here, ECS has gone for a makeover, favoring a stark, serious appearance with its gray and white colors. Contrast that with the colorful P55H-A (also a Black Series board) earlier this year.
In fact, compared to the ECS P55H-A, the new P55H-AK has physically changed for the better. The PCIe 2.0 x16 slots have a new locking mechanism that we feel is comparatively easier to remove installed graphics cards. The onboard buttons are more prominent and larger for users to press. The heatsinks are more elaborate, with heatpipes now used extensively. And last but not least, the PCB is no longer the off-putting brown but more towards a darker shade.
Users rightfully would be most concerned about the features on the P55H-AK and it is quite the departure from ECS' other Black Series boards. For one, this board supports 3-way SLI/CrossFireX, thanks to the presence of an NVIDIA NF200 controller that adds 32 more PCIe lanes to enable this feature without compromising on the bandwidth for each card. As you should know, the P55 chipset only supports up to two graphics cards for SLI/CrossFireX by default. According to the specs, the three PCIe 2.0 x16 slots on the P55H-AK will be configured as x16/x8/x8 when all three slots are filled.
Then there's the presence of a PLX switch chip that ensures the USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps features work at their intended speeds. The P55 chipset itself comes with limited PCIe lanes and is not intended to support USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps natively. Without the PLX chip, the third party solutions implemented by the motherboard vendor would be cannibalizing the chipset's PCIe lanes. Similarly, the graphics card taps onto the same pool of PCIe lanes, resulting in either the degradation of USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps speeds or a lower x8 (from x16) speed for the graphics. This is the reason why ECS went for the PLX chip to manage the PCIe lanes, something that other vendors like ASUS have done too, to guarantee the full speed experience in all cases.
Another sign that this board is targeted at the premium segment - the ECS P55H-AK comes with dual Gigabit LAN ports, with two Realtek controllers doing the work. Audio is also provided by a Realtek chip, but the rear ports only have optical and not coaxial S/PDIF output, which is a slight disappointment. There's an onboard S/PDIF header however. ECS has eight USB 2.0 ports; that's not including the two rear USB 3.0 ports (in blue). An onboard header gives two more USB 3.0 ports from a second NEC USB controller. A cable and front panel bracket is provided for those who want to make use of these extra USB 3.0 ports.
Following the trend of vendors adding their own proprietary stuff to enhance the value of their offerings, ECS has also trotted out some tools and programs, some of which sound very similar to its competitors. For instance, this board comes with eDLU and eBLU - ECS Driver Live Update/BIOS Live Update - utilities that grabs new drivers and BIOS automatically for the user when online. Then there's eJiffy, an instant boot Linux-based solution that have been on ECS boards for a while now and a Windows-based overclocking tool.
The BIOS also comes with auto-overclocking tools, with set profiles that boosted our processor up to a maximum of 3.5GHz from 2.93GHz in our case. Known as ECS M.I.B X, users can save their own tweaked settings in profiles with it.