It is no secret that Nvidia’s attempt to develop a complex top-performance graphics core had not been good for the company which is now being beaten by AMD on both mainstream and high-end fronts. Unable to hold back the ATI Radeon HD 5x00 series, Nvidia has decided to make a sortie in the market sector where it has been rather inactive lately. We mean the sector of entry-level discrete graphics cards which are often found in HTPCs.
An HTPC-ready graphics card is supposed to support decoding and post-processing of High-Definition video in H.264 and VC-1 formats and be able to output sound, including HD audio, via HDMI. Nvidia has had problems with this functionality. First, almost all of the company’s solutions based on its 65nm and 55nm GPUs (excepting the G98 and the chipsets with an integrated G98 graphics core) had the VP2 version of the PureVideo HD processor which only offered hardware video decoding acceleration for VC-1 format. In this case, bit stream processing and entropy decoding had to be done on the CPU. Thus, such graphics cards could not be used in quiet HTPCs with inexpensive, low-performance CPUs. Second, there were even more problems with the audio-over-HDMI feature. The best that Nvidia’s discrete graphics solutions could do was to translate an S/PDIF stream into HDMI. So, they could not support multi-channel HD audio formats whereas all modern products from AMD equipped with an integrated audio core offered this opportunity.
In the summer of 2009, Nvidia quietly shipped two new entry-level GPUs that were meant to solve the mentioned problems. The GT218 and GT216 targeted computer integrators and notebook makers in the first place but on the 12th of October these solutions were announced for the retail market. The new GPUs feature a new version (VP4) of the PureVideo HD engine that supports bit stream processing and entropy decoding of both H.264 and VC-1 and has enhanced audio-over-HDMI functionality. They also represent Nvidia’s first attempt at implementing 40nm tech process and DirectX 10.1. That doesn’t seem much if compared to AMD’s Radeon HD 5x00 series, yet it is indeed a big step forward for Nvidia that could only offer 55nm and DirectX 10 until recently. Besides, the new GPUs support hardware acceleration of video in Adobe Flash 10.1 format (with the version 195 and higher driver), which is very good news for users of systems with low-performance CPUs.
These GPUs are installed on GeForce 210 and GeForce GT 220 graphics cards. Priced most affordably, these products may be appealing for people who don’t play modern games at high resolutions but look for a discrete graphics card capable of HD video decoding or PhysX acceleration (the 220 model only). In this review we will discuss a few versions of these cards offered by Gainward and Gigabyte. But first, let’s take a look at what Nvidia’s new entry-level GPUs can do.