Intel wears the desktop processing performance crown. Yet AMD maintains a faithful following of value-oriented customers who see suitable speed from the company’s quad-core Phenoms at a price point way below Intel’s Extreme Edition CPUs. Even more compelling to AMD’s admirers is the company’s chipset lineup, which was bolstered by the acquisition of ATI.
At the high-end, you have 790FX—now being paired to the SB750 southbridge on a number of compelling motherboards (check back for a roundup of the available 790FX/SB750 combinations later this month). The mid-range is being covered by 790GX, with its integrated graphics and SB750-driven Advanced Clock Calibration overclocking aid. And cleaning up at the sub-$100 motherboard price point is 780G, a capable chipset with “powerful-enough” Radeon HD 3200 graphics able to handle any low-impact desktop environment you can throw at it. The platform isn’t really suited to first-person shooters, but it is a DirectX 10 part able to handle extremely low-resolution gaming at playable frame rates.
But this story isn’t about AMD’s favorable position in the eyes of those buying motherboards with onboard graphics, though we will revisit the power and performance characteristics of its 790GX chipset a little later. Rather, we’re looking at a brand new platform from Nvidia called GeForce 9300, which Intel may grow to simultaneously love and hate. They’ll love it because Nvidia’s latest mGPU bites at the throat of AMD’s mainstream attractiveness. They’ll hate the GeForce 9300 because it’s indiscriminate in its attack, meaning it also snaps at Intel’s own recently-polished G45. And given Nvidia’s experience in integrated graphics, this platform is really something for Intel to eye warily.
Integrated Chipsets: Always Advancing, Never Catching Up
With predictable regularity, AMD and Nvidia refresh their chipset lineups using technology derived from once-modern discrete architectures. Each time, the list of advancements seems like it could bring desktop gaming into the realm of possibility for budget-minded buyers. But motherboard-down graphics just never seem to catch up enough for much else besides basic productivity and a little entry-level entertainment. Intel’s offerings fare far worse, victims of underpowered graphics hardware and unfortunately tardy driver development—which brings us to where we are today.
Despite its Computex unveiling in June of 2008, G45 is still suffering from the teething pains of what we’d consider to be a brand new piece of hardware. Problems with hardware-accelerated Blu-ray playback, disappointing 3D performance, and dismal game compatibility have plagued testing with the latest drivers. Crysis, Unreal Tournament, and World in Conflict all demonstrated severe rendering issues that’d make each of those games unplayable, even if frame rates were acceptable. Moving on.
AMD fares much better—expected, since the graphics engine driving its 780G and 790GX chipsets is more than a year old and is consequently quite mature. Like Intel’s G45, AMD’s integrated chipsets are able to offload Blu-ray playback, though you’ll see later in this review that the technology is still evolving and far from perfect. Nvidia’s GeForce 9300 needs to usurp AMD’s incumbent platform story in order to win favor. G45 isn’t nearly as threatening, it’d seem.