Does Chipset-to-GPU Matching Matter?

Should A Graphics Card Match The Chipset?

Ever since Nvidia released its first chipset, PC building newcomers have constantly questioned whether these must be matched to a like-branded graphics card. Traditionally, however, Nvidia chipsets have had no problems supporting ATI graphics cards, and the inverse became true when ATI later introduced its own chipsets.

But why would anyone do this? The answer was easy two years ago, when Nvidia's clear lead in AMD-compatible chipsets was at odds with ATI's clear lead in graphics performance; such were the days of 9700 Pro and FX 5800 graphics. But while today's chipsets seek to "lock in" graphics buyers by offering unique brand-only features such as SLI or Crossfire mode, the majority of buyers will never use these features. And though a larger number of users may wish to add multiple cards to support an increased number of monitors, chipset brand doesn't affect the use of dual-independent cards.

Putting aside normal expectations, such as the consistent compatibility between chipset and graphics products of battling brands or the loss of special chipset features such as SLI or Crossfire mode, little has been written to show the actual performance impact of such mix-and-match combinations. Certainly these companies have chipset optimizations that show preference towards own-brand graphics, don't they? If so, such optimizations could potentially invalidate chipset comparisons by making "identical configurations" favor the chipset brand from which the graphics card was selected!

But the benchmarking issue only links theory to reality: Many builders upgrade continuously rather than building from scratch. Should brand matching guide these upgrades?

The Test

This isn't about which manufacturer is leading in discrete graphics card or chipset performance. Instead, this review is about whether or not these companies employ "engineering trickery" to make their other products shine. The ones we know about, such as automatic overclocking of either the graphics card or PCI-Express interface, are BIOS options that should be disabled for any technology comparisons. Manual overclocking is available for the top products of both companies, which represents a better-performance option for anyone who really wants to push his or her system.

Thus, the rundown must include the top performing ATI and Nvidia graphics cards, as well as these companies' latest chipsets with automatic overclocking disabled.

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Thomas Soderstrom
Thomas Soderstrom is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware US. He tests and reviews cases, cooling, memory and motherboards.