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Conclusion

Move Over G45: Nvidia's GeForce 9300 Arrives
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Nvidia leads off its marketing material with “good enough is no longer good enough.” The combination of DirectX 10 graphics, CUDA technology, video decoding, PhysX, and GeForce Boost is said to push the GeForce 9300’s capabilities beyond merely ample. And while the chipset successfully stomps Intel’s G45 in all things 3D, it still sports a built-in graphics engine based on discrete GeForce 8400 GS/9300 GS technology, consisting of 16 unified shaders, eight texture mapping units, and four ROPs. When it comes to a majority of modern games that you’d want to see at reasonable quality settings, integrated graphics still cannot be considered good enough. You’d want at least an add-in GeForce 8500 GT in order to realize GeForce Boost mode. And even then, with as many compelling $100-and-lower cards out there, an inexpensive graphics upgrade is really the only way to fly.

With the idea that Crysis is going to look good on an integrated chipset set aside, Nvidia’s GeForce 9300 is actually welcome competition to Intel’s G45. When you put MSI’s P7NGM-Digital and Intel’s DG45ID next to each other, the platforms seem quite similar. Superficially, Nvidia enables parallel ATA. But buried inside the silicon, you also get hardware-accelerated PhysX through compatible games, CUDA support in the tiny number of applications optimized for it, seemingly more mature Blu-ray playback, and competitive platform performance. Intel had an excellent opportunity with its G45, but with GeForce 9300 available, budget buyers seem to have a better mainstream platform to complement Intel’s Core 2 processors.

To top it off, the MSI board is cheaper, too. Just bear in mind that you do get what you pay for. The P7NGM-Digital does not include a dual-link DVI port—a decision Nvidia says is up to each motherboard vendor. In a desktop environment, we’d recommend looking for another board able to take full advantage of Nvidia’s display output capabilities. But if you are using it as the foundation for a home theater PC, HDMI would likely be your interface of choice anyway.

How about GeForce 9300 versus AMD 790GX? So far, AMD’s exceptional entry-level chipsets have been the biggest reason to build Phenom-based boxes. The 790GX remains the most exciting thanks to its overclocking-friendly SB750 southbridge. However, AMD’s 780G is still a viable option when price is of principal importance. Nvidia’s GeForce 9300 serves up faster 3D overall, though. Yes, AMD scores a handful of wins in titles not optimized for GeForce Boost, but the GeForce is paired to Intel’s Core 2 CPUs, which make a big difference in productivity tests.

Nvidia’s GeForce 9300 might not be powerful enough to make real gaming possible, but the chipset, taken as a whole, is strong enough to shore up Intel’s position against AMD at the entry-level—a previous 780G stronghold. Just do yourself a favor and find a board with dual-link DVI and an optical audio output, two features that were missing from MSI’s P7NGM-Digital.

Update: 10/17/2008

At the request of several of our forum members, we went back and installed a Phenom X4 9600 into the AMD platform. Bear in mind that the 9600 is a rev. B2 processor that dissipates 95W compared to the Core 2 Duo’s E7200’s 65W. However, it’s priced about $110, bringing the total price of the AMD configuration to $260.

So, for an extra $40, 30W, and one TLB fix, does the quad-core Phenom do anything for the platform’s overall performance? Let’s check it out.

Benchmark Core 2 Duo E7200 Phenom X4 9600 Athlon 64 X2 5400+
Photoshop CS3 (min:sec) 2:07 3:03 2:33
Grisoft AVG (min:sec) 3:26 2:16 3:57
WinZIP (min:sec) 5:59 10:05 7:54
WinRAR (min:sec) 3:29 7:08 3:38
iTunes (min:sec) 1:22 1:58 1:41
MainConcept (min:sec) 4:59 3:05 5:43
DivX/XviD (min:sec) 4:11/8:00 6:37/5:33 4:03/8:20
Crysis (8x6, 10x12, 12x10) 18.4, 14.1, 9.59 18.4, 13.3, 8.89 17.0, 12.1, 7.98
World in Conflict (8x6, 10x12, 12x10) 21, 17, 13 22, 17, 12 19, 14, 9

To begin, it’s clear that mixing dual- and quad-core processors in these tests makes it much more difficult to evaluate the platforms themselves since we’ve introduced another huge variable: the degree of software threading.

However, with numbers for both the 2.3 GHz Phenom and the 2.8 GHz Athlon 64, it becomes clear that when you run software optimized for, at most, two threads, the Phenom gives up significant performance by virtue of its slower clock. When you run threaded software, the Phenom greatly enhances performance thanks to an extra two cores.

As far as gaming goes, we do pick up extra frames in Crysis and WiC, though not enough to enable any resolution that wasn’t playable previously.

Though interesting, these results don’t change the conclusion of the story at all. It’s a review of Nvidia’s GeForce 9300, and the fact remains that Nvidia has a compelling integrated platform on its hand able to outclass Intel’s G45 and rival the 790GX/780G chipset from AMD. If you’re willing to spend an extra $40 on the admittedly very-affordable Phenom X4 9600, there will be situations where the AMD processor outperforms Intel’s dual-core offering. But this is less a reflection of the motherboard/chipset and more a statement about the current CPU market.

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