Before we talk about the good stuff, let’s start with our only notable complaint about the GF8200A board: the lack of a DVI output. I went to a local electronics juggernaut and couldn’t help but notice it was almost impossible to find an LCD PC monitor with an HDMI input. All of them had DVI inputs, though. In this author’s opinion, motherboard manufacturers would much better serve their customers by offering an HDCP enabled DVI output with a DVI-to-HDMI adapter, instead of HDMI outputs. Enough said about that — now it’s on to the good stuff.
We’ve learned a great deal in the process of testing these motherboards. Both the integrated GeForce 8200 in the Nvidia MCP78S chipset and the integrated Radeon HD 3200 in the AMD 780G chipset are worlds beyond what people have come to expect from integrated graphics.
Our first conclusion is that if we were considering the purchase of one of these boards for an HTPC, we would strongly lean toward the AMD 780G/Radeon 3200. The board served up 1080p video without the stuttering issues we saw on the Nvidia MCP78S/GeForce 8200 motherboard playing back the demanding H.264 encoded Blu-ray disk. By our reckoning, this is a deal-breaker. While it’s true that the GeForce 8200 has some better audio playback options, they don’t count for much when the video can’t be played back without stuttering on a dual-core Athlon X2 4800+ CPU. The 780G was even able to muster HD playback with the VC1 and MPEG2 codecs with a lowly single-core Sempron 3200 at 1.8 GHz. Don’t get us wrong—the MCP78S is no slouch by any consideration and it’s a great value chipset with really strong graphics capabilities and compelling features like Hybrid Power not found in its 780G competition. But when buying specifically for HD video playback, the 780G is simply the better choice.
Having said that, our second conclusion is that since discrete video cards like the Radeon 4650 are so easily found in the $70 range, a "purist" HD video enthusiast doesn’t need to consider one of these motherboards for HD playback. An add-in card like the Radeon 4650 will offer less CPU utilization, the option of playing back eight-channel uncompressed LPCM digital audio over HDMI, and massive image quality enhancements, like noise reduction. Because of these points, our recommendation for HD video enthusiasts is to concentrate on the discrete card solutions.
There is, however, a type of HTPC for which these motherboards would be ideal: very small-form-factor HTPC cases where discrete video cards might be difficult or impossible to install. In these cases the heat generation from a separate video card might also be a detriment and the power supply would necessarily be small and low-output. For this type of machine, we have no reservations recommending a motherboard based on the AMD 780G chipset, as it would have low power requirements and heat generation versus a system with a separate video card. And since there are a number of very small HTPC cases out there and many home theater buffs would rather not have a massive HTPC case in their living room, we can imagine there would be a lot of demand for these types of motherboards from home theater buyers who want a balance between size, performance, heat generation, and power usage.