Nvidia GeForce 9400 vs. Intel 945GC
Although Intel Atom processors are currently employed with a pretty wide range of Intel chipsets, we will compare Nvidia solution first of all against Intel 945GC. It is currently is the fastest Intel core logic set for Atom CPUs recommended by Intel for use in nettop platforms. No wonder that most mainboards for nettop computers use this particular chipset (for example Intel D945GCLF and D945GCLF2 mainboards we have already discussed before). As for netbooks, Intel recommends a slightly different solution: 945GSE. However, there are truly minor differences between the two of them – the integrated graphics cores of Intel 945GC and Intel 945GSE work at different frequencies.
We would like to start our story of Nvidia ION with the acknowledging fact that even though Nvidia tries real hard to present its platform as a new solution for netbooks and nettops, it fact things are much more commonplace. In fact all the company did was declare compatibility of the integrated GeForce 9400 with Intel Atom processors. It is actually not that big of an innovation, keeping in mind that Atom supports an ordinary FSB bus similar to that of CPUs on NetBurst or Core microarchitecture. The actual GeForce 9400 chipset is not that new anyway. It is very widely spread in the market of classical notebooks and mini-computers. For example, it is very popular by Apple and is widely used in MacBook laptops as well as Mac Mini and iMac systems. However, Intel chipsets for Atom processors seem to be much older, which explains their relatively modest characteristics.
Therefore, there is nothing wrong about Nvidia GeForce 9400 having become a solution for Intel Atom. Its functionality is quite sufficient for netbooks and nettops even without any additional controllers.
Namely, GeForce 9400 offers a pretty decent number of USB 2.0 and Serial ATA-300 ports. It also supports PCI Express and PCI devices thus being almost completely identical to Intel 945GC. However, Nvidia solution also boasts a few unique functional features making GeForce 9400 superior to Intel chipsets even graphics core aside. For example, Nvidia chipset has a built-in Gigabit network controller, while Intel solution supports only 100Mbit network.
However, GeForce 9400’s major trump is undoubtedly the graphics core that is way superior to Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 integrated into 945GC and 945GSE chipsets used widely with Intel Atom processor. While the best contemporary nettops and netbooks can do is work with Aero-interface of the Vista operating system, GeForce 9400 can offer the users a true DirectX 10 compatible graphics processor with 16 unified shaders and 4 rasterization units. Compare for yourselves: GMA950 is compatible only with DirectX 9 and has only four pixel and one vertex shader. The operational frequencies are also different. Intel graphics core works at 400MHz at best, while Nvidia GPU uses 450MHz frequency and 1.1GHz shader frequency. In other words, GeForce 9400 boasts tremendous advantage over Intel chipset when it comes to 3D specifications already.
However, this is not all. Nvidia solution supports all major display interfaces including HDMI. The old Intel 945GC doesn’t have anything like that. The chipsets also differ dramatically by maximum supported resolutions. GeForce 9400 can work with up to 2560x1600 monitor resolutions (you need to use Dual-link DVI connector in this case). The maximum resolution supported by Intel GMA950 is only 2048x1536.
We can’t disregard one more important feature of Nvidia GeForce 9400: this chipset’s GPU has PureVideo HD engine providing hardware acceleration for video decoding in H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 formats. It helps unload the CPU during high definition video playback, so that you can watch HD movies even on systems with weak CPUs like Intel Atom. Let me remind you that the chipsets Intel offers for their Atom processors do not boast any special functions for video decoding acceleration, so they cannot be used for HD video playback.
Unlike Intel 945GC and Intel 945GSE, Nvidia chipset supports not only single- and dual-channel DDR2 SDRAM, but also DDR3 SDRAM. This feature may come in very handy first of all in netbooks, because DDR3 is more energy-efficient solution. Moreover, DDR3 memory features higher bandwidth, which may be very useful in 3D modes, since GeForce 9400 graphics core uses part of the system memory for its needs and its speed is directly connected with the graphics core performance.
Nvidia GeForce 9400 chipset has a few other advantages that may not be so evident at first glance. It consists of only one chip, which allows designing very small Atom mainboards, for example, in Nano-ITX or even Pico-ITX form-factor. This way, Nvidia core logic set may inspire creation of even smaller netbooks and nettops than Intel chipsets.
There is only one thing that upset us in GeForce 9400. Although it is manufactured with a relatively modern 65nm process, it is pretty power-hungry because of the complex integrated graphics core. It may reach 12W. And it is even more than Intel 945GSE and ICH7M consume together (9W), even though they are made with 90nm technology. As a result, the new Nvidia chipset will not be able to resolve the battery life issue for most netbooks. At the same time, 12W power consumption of GeForce 9400 is not too bad for nettops, because Intel 945GC targeted for this type of systems may consume up to 22W of power.
Summing up everything we have already said at this point we have every reason to state that Nvidia core logic set offers much more impressive characteristics than the standard Intel platform. However, will all these advantages pay off in Intel Atom platforms – is still a question to be answered. This Intel CPU has lower computational capacity than other widespread x86 processors, therefore the benefit of combining it with a high-performance chipset is still rather questionable. It is quite possible that the performance of Nvidia ION and similar systems may be restricted by the CPU, which will not let other system components show their real best. WE are going to perform several tests that will help us clarify this matter, but before that, let’s take a closer look at the first prototype of an Intel Atom and Nvidia GeForce 9400 based system that arrived into our testlab.