ECS Z370-Lightsaber | Tech News
Intel’s Coffee Lake-S processors don’t support older chipsets, which means you’ll need to invest in a motherboard bearing the new Z370 chipset if you pick up an eighth-generation Core CPU. All of the major motherboard brands have Z370 boards at this point, in multiple versions to appeal to the very different business and gamer markets. ECS has always aimed for gamers with its “Leet”-series boards, which now include the $199 Z370-Lightsaber, an ATX motherboard sporting onboard overclocking and gaming-centric features. It’s a fair entry into the Z370 stakes, but it’s best for experienced PC builders looking to build a basic-but-overclockable, sealed-box rig (and best if you find it on sale). The manual is sparse, and the board lacks certain cutting-edge connectivity items or any RGB bling.
The Z370 Balancing Act
We expected the ECS Z370-Lightsaber to be on the low end of the Z370 board price range, but ECS plans to sell the board in the near future on both Newegg and Amazon at an MSRP of $199. That puts it a little below the Gigabyte Z370 Aorus Gaming 7 and at nearly the same price as the MSI Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC.
ECS performed a very difficult balancing act when it designed this motherboard. It cut some common features, such as RGB lighting, Wi-Fi, and USB 3.1 Type-C ports, but it added an array of buttons that will help gamers who want to overclock. It’s a gamble: If you have a locked processor, you may be less interested in overclocking tools than some of the features that this board does without.
The Z370-Lightsaber’s black (and very, very dark gray) color scheme would make LEGO Batman proud. ECS should get a minor award for its component labels, which are easy to read, thanks to the white letters. ECS also spiced things up a bit with a white dragon logo near the Z370 chipset. The chipset itself has a heatsink and cover that looks vaguely like a sword and shield and bears the Leet logo. The overall effect of the Z370-Lightsaber’s design is distinctly gamer without being obnoxious. This seems to be a trend among motherboard makers in general, and I’m not the least bit disappointed.
ECS skipped a different motherboard trend, though: metal-braced board slots. Whereas many motherboard makers are wrapping expansion slots and sometimes even DIMM slots in steel (for better support when the system is moved), ECS keeps things basic, even though this is still a premium-price board. The plastic memory slots lack steel, as do the PCI Express x16 slots. Few buyers will worry about the lack of memory-slot braces, but some will balk at picking up a board that doesn’t have metal support for heavy video cards.
That’s not to say that the PCI Express slots aren’t sturdy; they didn’t budge when I tried to wiggle them, and the top slot held a midsize GeForce GTX 1060 video card without any visible problems. Still, with many gamer motherboards sporting extra support on PCI Express slots in recent years, customers have come to expect at least the primary slot girded in boards at this price.
The Z370-Lightsaber also lacks the I/O-area finesse that we’ve seen on most new gaming motherboards. Brands like MSI and Gigabyte have been wrapping the unsightly I/O-port clusters in a canopy or cover, often taking advantage of the extra surfaces to install LED lights or spiffy designs. ECS skips the coverings for the I/O section and the audio components, but it does place some sizable heatsinks over the power phases. ECS didn’t add any lights to these heatsinks, though the tiered fins give the board a little extra attitude. (See our guide to motherboard lingo, Buying a Motherboard: 20 Terms You Need to Know.)
The top half of the Z370-Lightsaber looks somewhat cluttered, due to the lack of an I/O-area cover and the buttons and capacitors that crowd the right side of the board. Still, the Intel LGA 1151 socket has plenty of clearance around it for coolers, including bulky, high-end air coolers. The only component crowding the CPU socket area is the left-most memory slot, and I had a sliver of space left over after I attached a liquid-cooler heatsink to the processor.
The dual-channel memory slots support up to 64GB of DDR4 memory (16GB per slot), with DIMMs at speeds up to DDR4 3200 (overclocked). ECS differentiates the two channels by coloring the slots gray and black, which is a nice touch, especially for new DIY PC builders, who aren’t likely to be familiar with the nuances of installing memory.
The lower half of the Z370-Lightsaber doesn’t look as cluttered, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have plenty of features. ECS put two M.2 slots on the board, along with three PCI Express x16 slots and three PCI Express x1 slots.
Both M.2 slots support storage devices up to size 2280 (80mm long), which encompasses most M.2 SSDs you’d install today. (See our guide to the best M.2 solid-state drives.) Most of the gaming boards I’ve seen recently have at least one M.2 slot that supports Type-22110 devices, but this won’t be a deciding factor for most buyers, as M.2 drives of this size are uncommon.
ECS put one of the M.2 slots just above the top PCI Express x16 slot. That’s a common location for the M.2 slot, but ECS faced the slot toward the right side of the board, which is a little unusual. The position shouldn’t make the slot any harder to reach once the PC has been built. The other M.2 slot sits between the last two PCI Express x16 slots, which makes perfect sense. Unless you’re running a multiple-video-card configuration, that slot should be clear to access anytime.
When it comes to onboard LEDs, the Z370-Lightsaber’s lighting simply doesn’t do justice to the motherboard’s name. ECS put an excellent LED strip along the left side of the board and snaked it around the Killer Ethernet E2500 chip and audio capacitors. But much of the board is dark, including the sword-and-shield emblem on the Z370 heatsink. Some backlit buttons provide a little extra lighting, but it’s overall more Light-sober than Lightsaber.
The back of the Z370-Lightsaber is clean. Several screws hold the chipset heatsink and other parts in place, but the screws are low to the board, and are much shorter than typical motherboard standoffs, so they won’t present clearance issues. You can see the Z370-Lightsaber’s LED strip more clearly from this side.
Ports and Headers: Just a Basic Mix
The ECS Z370-Lightsaber has plenty of external USB ports, including two USB 3.1 Type-A ports. Those modern ports are accompanied by four USB 3.0 ports and four USB 2.0 ports.
The I/O panel also includes the usual audio ports and both DisplayPort and HDMI port for video. The PS/2 port is a nod to gamers with keyboards that require the port for N-key rollover, and the gigabit Ethernet port is another gamer-friendly feature: It’s powered by the Killer Ethernet E2500 chip, which is designed to deliver low-latency gaming. ECS also added a Clear CMOS button, which is another nice touch for overclockers.
ECS opted for just five fan headers, which is on the low side for a gaming motherboard like the Z370-Lightsaber. ECS spread them out, putting one each on the left and right sides of the board, two on the lower edge, and one at the top. That layout will work for many gaming-PC buildouts, but DIY builders who are used to having two fan headers near the top of the board (a common design choice) may wish for a second header there.
The right edge of the board sports six SATA ports and a USB 3.0 header, along with the aforementioned four-pin fan header. The standard 24-pin power connector also sits on this side of the board. An additional eight-pin power connector sits at the top of the Z370-Lightsaber, near the power-phase heatsinks.
ECS installed some backlit buttons and a large digital debug display in the upper-right corner. A large red button marked “Start” lets you power on the PC, while the nearby black button resets the computer. These buttons are large and easy to reach.
The front-panel headers sit at the bottom-right corner of the motherboard, where you’d expect to see them. The Z370-Lightsaber sports dual BIOSes; the actual chips sit next to a large switch. The switch’s size and location are ideal. You’ll be able to reach it easily in most system builds.
ECS lined the lower edge of the Z370-Lightsaber with connectors, including the usual audio header, a USB 2.0 header, two fan headers, and a case alarm. ECS also put a total of four RGB LED headers on the board, letting you add plenty of your own lighting strips to your PC.
The lower edge of the board also features three large buttons, which come replete with backlit icons and labels. One is a one-touch BIOS-update button, while another boots you straight to the BIOS settings. The third button is a fast overclocking button that lets you auto-boost the PC with a touch. So long as you don’t put a card in the lowest PCI Express x16 slot, you shouldn’t have any trouble reaching these buttons.
The Accessories and the BIOS
The ECS Z370-Lightsaber’s accessories package is spare for any motherboard, let alone a premium-priced gaming one. The motherboard maker puts a driver disc, a lean manual, the I/O shield, and two SATA cables in the box.
Both SATA cables have straight connectors. I would have liked to see at least one SATA cable with an L-shaped connector, which makes for easier cable management in some installs. RGB extension cables also would have been a nice touch here. Still, with motherboards trending toward smaller accessory kits, it’s not surprising that the cost-conscious Z370-Lightsaber packs light.
ECS ships the Z370-Lightsaber with a bare-bones manual, with about 12 pages dedicated to identifying parts and providing instructions. I missed the more detailed item descriptions that appear in many motherboard manuals. Instructions for installing memory in different configurations (two DIMMs versus four DIMMs, for example) would be useful. The manual also didn’t include the typical list of codes for the debug display, and I couldn’t find the error codes on the Z370-Lightsaber’s driver disc, nor on ECS’s website.
As for the BIOS, you can enter the ECS Z370-Lightsaber’s BIOS by pressing the Delete key or F2 as the computer starts up. The BIOS displays its basic menu by default, though there is nothing basic about the interface. It has an array of status indicators, images of potential boot devices, and temperatures. You can actually switch between two similar basic menus (featuring slightly different layouts) by pressing F9. The requirement to employ that second menu version appears to be a discrete video card in your PC.
New DIY PC builders will like the basic menu. You can easily check important temperatures and fans. You can even tune your system with a single click, thanks to the performance buttons on the left side of the menu. I like that you can adjust the boot priority by simply clicking and dragging storage device icons here, rather than digging into a boot submenu.
Head into the Advanced menu, and you’ll be working with typical drop-down menus. A row of icons near the top of the page breaks the settings into categories. One of the categories, marked Advanced, contains the bulk of the settings most users will need to access, including a PC Health Status page and standard CPU information and options.
Overclocking options reside in the M.I.B. X category. You can dig into the performance settings for multiple components here. Interestingly, this category is also home to the settings for the motherboard’s onboard LEDs. The BIOS doesn’t appear to have a BIOS-update utility feature in either the basic or Advanced menus, which is a little surprising. ECS provides BIOS-update software via its website.
A Little Lightsaber Test Build
I built a full system around the ECS Z370-Lightsaber to get a feel for how the board might look in a typical gaming PC. (Building a system also unearths any design issues that might affect you when you build your own PC with this board.) As we mentioned earlier, the Z370 chipset is aimed solely at eighth-generation Intel Core CPUs, so I paired it with one that recently won our Editors’ Choice award: the Intel Core i5-8400.
We chose a Corsair Hydro H100i GTX liquid cooler for our Coffee Lake CPU, along with a G.Skill TridentZ F4-3200C16Q-32GTZSK memory kit and a bulky XFX Radeon R7 370 Double Dissipation Black Edition video card.
I kicked off the installation by popping the Z370-Lightsaber’s I/O plate into the back of SilverStone’s Primera PM01-RGB PC case and attaching the board to the case’s standoffs. The PM01-RGB has plenty of elbow room, so I was able to install the board without incident. And because nearly all of the headers stand perpendicular to the board, the close proximity of the PM01-RGB’s power-supply divider doesn’t affect cable management. The SATA ports are the only connectors that face off the side of the motherboard. I had no trouble snaking a SATA cable through the motherboard tray’s grommeted cutouts to the connectors.
The debug LED sits at the top-right corner of the Z370-Lightsaber, so I was able to see it easily when I booted the PC. (Unfortunately, as mentioned, the manual doesn’t include error-code descriptions to help you troubleshoot should problems arise.) Spotting the motherboard’s only decorative LED proved more difficult. The video card blocked much of our view of the Z370-Lightsaber’s onboard LED strip. Its position (at the very left side of the motherboard) means it probably won’t be the first thing that people notice when looking through a case’s side panel window.
Light on Value
Motherboard makers don’t have much room to cut corners when they design boards for gamers. They can’t ignore aesthetic features, as they might when designing a board for typical home or business use. And performance is crucial, including performance-boosting tools such as overclocking features. ECS checked many of the boxes when it designed the Z370-Lightsaber, but whether the board will tempt many gamers away from similarly priced Z370 boards from ASRock, Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI is hard to say.
Gamers and overclockers (who are often one and the same) will love the large buttons on the Z370-Lightsaber. The bright-red Start button has appeal, as do the icons ECS put on the other buttons. Even if you can’t see the white button labels on the PCB, you can figure out each button’s purpose from its icon.
But the Z370-Lightsaber lacks some features that other, cheaper Z370 boards have. The minimal lighting may turn off some would-be buyers, though the abundance of RGB light-strip headers can let you make up for that, if you like. Sure, your board may not have a killer lighting scheme out of the box, but if you’re building a PC yourself, you’re certainly capable of stringing lights.
Wi-Fi isn’t a critical feature for a gaming motherboard, seeing as an Ethernet connection is a gamer’s go-to, but the lack of Wi-Fi on the Z370-Lightsaber stings a bit because its price appears to match, for example, the MSI Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC, which sports a wireless AC card.
Assuming that the pricing stays in the neighborhood of $199 once the board reaches wider availability, that makes it a tough sell. If it stays that high, the board could have a hard time competing with the likes of the MSI Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC and similar boards in that range. Gamers on a budget should keep this in mind when comparing the ECS Z370-Lightsaber to other Z370 boards. Taking a big slice off the list price could make this Lightsaber a lot more appealing.