Out Of The Chipset Business? Not Yet, At Least
Nvidia’s new GeForce 9300 would appear to go toe to toe with Intel’s G45 from a raw specifications standpoint. Both platforms support Core 2 Duos and Quads with front side bus speeds of up to 1,333 MHz. The two chipsets also support DDR2 and DDR3 memory. And while Nvidia’s offering goes a step further by accommodating DDR3-1333 (compared to Intel’s 1,066 MHz ceiling), we have to imagine that most motherboard vendors are going to continue snubbing DDR3 on their entry-level models (indeed, Nvidia confirms that all of the launch boards employ DDR2). Intel and Nvidia both support DirectX 10 through their integrated graphics cores. Likewise, they also support VGA, DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort outputs. But from there, the onboard graphics engines diverge.
GeForce 9300 Graphics
The GeForce 9300, which Nvidia says is equivalent to the G86 architecture powering its GeForce 8400 GS discrete card, features 16 unified shader processors running at 1,200 MHz. Intel’s G45 boasts 10 shaders running at 800 MHz. Not only does Nvidia wield the advantage in onboard graphics resources, but also clock speed. According to Nvidia, the difference translates to several times the performance of Intel’s solution. But with a benchmark set so low, we’re still wondering if the GeForce 9300 can deliver playable frame rates.
More certain is the 9300’s ability to serve up smooth video playback through its integrated PureVideo HD video processor, which Nvidia claims is able to offload 100% of movie playback in H.264, VC1, and MPEG-2 formats. This doesn’t mean you’ll realize 0% host processor utilization though, as we’ll see in the benchmarks.
The 65nm mGPU also includes support for Nvidia’s PhysX and CUDA technologies, which will be of limited use to most folks. There is actually a fairly substantial list of titles with PhysX support—it’s just that we’ve never really felt compelled to try out Magic Ball 3 or Ultra Tubes before. Higher-profile offerings include Unreal Tournament 3 and Mass Effect. Similarly, the list of CUDA-enabled applications is also growing. But most of them are purpose-built titles written to handle molecular dynamics, computational chemistry, and holographic microscopy. The more notable mainstream applications include Elemental’s Badaboom media converter and Adobe’s upcoming Photoshop CS4. The Adobe app isn’t available yet, but Will Smith of Maximum PC has an interesting comparison online of Badaboom versus Handbrake 0.9.2 suggestion that while the technology is promising, it’s not quite all the way there yet with regard to quality, even if it does introduce substantial performance gains.
More Chipset Details
Back to the similarities. GeForce 9300 and G45 both include individual PCI Express x16 slots compliant with the 2.0 specification. On G45, you’d use that slot as a reprieve from the anemic integrated core, replacing it completely with a discrete board. GeForce 9300 gives you two options: either populate the slot with a high-end card and shut off the integrated core altogether, or add a discrete GeForce 8400 GS/GeForce 8500 GT card to enable GeForce Boost. We’ve covered the basic functionality of GeForce Boost already. In short, it works similarly to SLI, leveraging the mGPU and a discrete GPU cooperatively. Of course, the 790GX board in this comparison goes a step further, enabling true CrossFire support through a pair of x16 PCI Express 2.0 slots wired to run in a x8 mode when they’re both populated.
For the rest of G45’s base functionality, you have to move away from the Intel’s memory controller hub and down to its ICH10 controller—the southbridge in any other language. A 2 GB/s interface connects the two components. Although it’s loaded down with 12 USB 2.0 ports offering 480 Mb/s of throughput each, six PCI Express x1 slots able to move 500 MB/s apiece, Gigabit Ethernet, six SATA 3 Gb/s ports, and a High Definition Audio controller, Intel apparently doesn’t see there being any issues with bandwidth.
Nvidia circumvents that challenge altogether by using a single-chip design. The same component hosting the GeForce 9300 graphics and memory controller also delivers four PCI Express x1 slots (2.0 versus Intel’s 1.1), six SATA ports, Gigabit Ethernet, 12 USB 1.0 ports 7.1-channel LPCM HD Audio, and five standard PCI slots. As with Intel, Nvidia’s storage subsystem supports RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and 5 arrays, too.