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NVIDIA GeForce 9400/9300 Chipset Review: IGP for Intel

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Introducing the GeForce 9400/9300 Chipset

Introduction


The introduction of the most recent NVIDIA chipset with integrated graphics for the Intel platform has been expected for quite some time.  Code named the MCP7A, news of the chipset goes back to the middle of 2007 when we actually thought we would see it before the end of that year.  Obviously some delays happened, either on the technical or legal side of things, and the product was delayed long enough for us to be writing about it officially for the first time in October of 2008.  In fact, it is that delay that actually gave AMD's 780G chipset the IGP edge; but that isn't exactly relevant while we are talking about Intel-based platforms today. 

Obviously the biggest news about the MCP7A product came with the official announcement yesterday of Apple adopting the chipset in their entire line up of new MacBook and MacBook Pro offerings - something I have been predicting since July.

But just as important to us is the release of the desktop variant of this chipset, now officially known as the GeForce 9400 and 9300 Motherboard GPUs (I really can't stand that term) that we are reviewing today.  We actually had three different mATX motherboards from MSI, Zotac and ASUS show up for our testing, all which will get some attention today. 

The NVIDIA GeForce 9400/9300 Motherboard GPU Chipset

At its core, the NVIDIA GeForce 9400/9300 is a standard core logic chipset with the addition of an integrated graphics core for a convenient all-in-one design popular with low-cost PCs and notebooks.  Everything in the GF9400 chipset is new though - from the memory controller to the IGP solution and with it comes some great new features as well as some not so exciting restraints. 

The GeForce 9400/9300 chipset is in fact NOT a 'set' but just a 'chip' - it uses a single chip design to integrate all traditional north brdige, south bridge and GPU features into a single die.  This gives the NVIDIA product some advantages: easier motherboard design, cheaper to manufacture (in theory), easier notebook design.  It also creates one bigger issue though: a concentrated power dissipation and heat area.  In my testing the chipset heatsinks on these motherboards got VERY hot - over 200F in one case compared to the Intel G45 north bridge heatsink that never went over 100F.  While this doesn't actually cause any problems out of the gate there is the potential for issues down the road for overclocking, stability and burnt fingertips.

The core logic features of the GeForce 9400/9300 chipset are impressive and encompass pretty anything a modern Core 2-based chipset is required to have.  The memory controller (probably one of the last chipset-based memory controllers to be built) can support either DDR2-800 or DDR3-1333 memory configurations though all of our sample motherboards chose DDR2 for cost considerations. 

Processor support includes all the current dual-core and quad-core CPUs that use the 1333 MHz or slower front-side bus - 1600 MHz FSB is just not going anywhere and NVIDIA won't be losing any business by not supporting it.  The chipset does have 20 full lanes of PCI Express 2.0 support and will likely be divided up between a single x16 PCIe 2.0 connection and a either a single x4 or a couple x2 connections for expansion purposes.  Up to 5 legacy PCI slots are supported as well.

Connectivity on the chipset is superb as well: 6 SATA 3.0 Gb/s channels, 12 USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet and HD Azalia audio support. 

Where the chipset gets even more exciting is when we look at the integrated graphics core included on the die. 



The entire GeForce 9400/9300 die
The graphics architecture on the chip has 16 shader processors (not an astounding amount when you compare it to the 240 SPs that the GTX 280 sports) that culminate in 54 GigaFLOPS of processor power for an IGP.  The GeForce 9400 chipset and 9300 chipset differ only in the performance of their integrated graphics clock speeds: the 9400 runs at 580 MHz core and 1400 MHz shader clocks while the 9300 runs at 450 MHz core and 1200 MHz shader clocks.  Other features remain the same between the two models including support for dual-link DVI resolutions of 2560x1600,  PureVideo HD, 7.1 channel LPCM audio, NVIDIA PhysX and Hybrid SLI.  Display connectivity is also robust with support for VGA, DVI, HDMI or DisplayPort - you can power any TWO of these at any one time from the chipset including one analog (VGA) and one digital or two digital outputs. 

I do have some beef with the claim that the chipset supports 2560x1600 resolutions with dual-link DVI output - while that may be the case none of the three motherboards I tested for this article implemented it and instead ran single-link resolutions only up to 1920x1200.  Chances are that is going to be good enough for most users but I find it hard to believe the cost for including the additional hardware (whatever it is) to move to dual-link capability is very high. 

The PureVideo HD technology is what allows the GeForce 9400/9300 chipset to offload the CPU for decoding H.264 content including Blu-ray movies. 

Of course VC-1 and MPEG-2 decode acceleration is still supported but those aren't nearly as strenuous as high bit-rate H.264 content. 
Hybrid SLI is a good feature on paper as it allows you to team up your integrated graphics core with a discrete GPU for increased gaming performance.  The problem lies in the fact that the only discrete cards supported are the GeForce 8400 GS and the 8500 GT - not exactly the most common and relevant cards for today's market.

And, lest I forgot and someone at NVIDIA chastises me for it, I can't NOT mention that the new GeForce 9400/9300 chipsets support other key NVIDIA features like PhysX technology and CUDA.  While PhysX technology is interesting to discuss, CUDA is really the technology that could make a difference for your computing needs in the future.  In recent weeks NVIDIA has been showing off a partnership with Adobe that accelerates software like Photoshop, Premiere and more and even though CUDA isn't explicitly used, the GPGPU idea is the same.  Even Apple and their support for OpenCL coming in the new Snow Leopard software next year will be putting GPU-centric computing into an important light.

Now, let's take a look at the actual retail motherboards we received for this product and how they compare to each other and to the feature lists above.

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