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Give Me Discrete Graphics

The HTPC / Windows 7 Chronicles: You Asked, We Answer!
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Reader LuxZg wrote in wanting to see some benchmark results for the Maui platform armed with discrete graphics—and with good reason. In talking to AMD about LuxZg’s request, the company clearly wanted Maui to support an add-in card specifically for the gamers who’d demand greater graphics performance.

However, there’s a caveat. The MSI Media Live motherboard is fairly cramped as it is. And although our nMedia chassis has no problem accommodating full-height cards, this combination will only take a single-slot solution, limiting us to something in the Radeon HD 4850 range right off of the bat. Unfortunately, the 4850 also turns out to be too long of a card. It bumps right up against the hard drive/optical drive tray. And this isn't exactly a small case. You probably won't want to go much larger.

So we stepped back to a Radeon HD 4670 with 512MB of memory and the card dropped right in. Bear in mind that these tests were run before swapping in the new Phenom II X4 905e. First step: run some benchmarks using a couple of the commonly-tested games here, Far Cry 2 and Left 4 Dead.

Regardless of how well discrete graphics perform in this specific environment, though, the noise added by the reference cooler is simply unbearable. Priority number one in this system is silent running—anything less and I’d rather stick to my A/V equipment. At least as far as the MSI Media Live board is concerned, a single-slot, actively-cooled GPU is likely out.

That left us with one last option—Hybrid CrossFire. I had a Radeon HD 3470 256MB lying around from a previous round of 780G testing and plugged that in to the MSI board. Though noise didn’t increase at all (the Sapphire Radeon HD 3470 is passively cooled), it quickly became clear that I was still wasting my time. Frame rates improved, but not to a point of playability. In fact, just looking at the 4670 scores should have been telling enough—those would have been the scores I was looking for, but I needed them in a passive card in order for the addition to make sense.

Bear in mind that these are pre-RC results. With the release of Microsoft’s release candidate, ATI’s Catalyst package wouldn't install for the Radeon HD 3200 integrated GPU, so we were either stuck with 8.11 and no Hybrid CrossFire numbers or results from the beta release.

Lux, it looks like big-screen gaming is out for this one. If you really want to play on a big screen, you’ll need to either build your HTPC using a different motherboard or tolerate the acoustic output of a single-slot, actively-cooled graphics card. A different board would at least give you space for a dual-slot graphics card, opening the door to one of Sapphire's Ultimate-series cards with passive cooling.

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