by Ilya Gavrichenkov
09/15/2009 | 08:37 AM
The times when mainboards with integrated graphics were regarded only as budget solutions for office PCs are long gone. Contemporary chipsets with integrated graphics cores offer sufficient performance not only for office work but also for different home usage models. The latest generation solutions like that acquired a pretty high-performance 3D core. Although it is still inferior in performance to discrete graphics accelerators, it nevertheless provides quite acceptable speed even in some contemporary games. However, it is not the primary reason for growing popularity of integrated platforms. The main stimulus for increasing interest to integrated solutions is the newly acquired ability of the latest chipsets to accelerate high definition video playback on the hardware level. As a result, they turned into a popular choice for home media systems, because they are much more energy-efficient than systems with a discrete graphics card. Therefore, solutions like that will be a perfect choice for living-room environment: they can easily fit into small system cases with consumer electronics design and can work just fine with noiseless cooling systems.
Some time ago Intel was an absolute leader in the integrated chipsets market. The platforms from this manufacturer were widely recognized not only due to the fact that Intel G45 (and its modifications) offers excellent combination of features, but also due to the fact that this chipset supports Core 2 processor family that still boasts the absolutely best consumer qualities. As a result, an LGA775 processor combined with a mainboards on the chipset from the same maker is seen as a very stable high-quality platform, which is, in fact, very close to being true.
However, the stronghold of the integrated Intel platform may be quite shaken up by an alternative solution from AMD. Frankly speaking, AMD has been offering good integrated chipset for quite some time now. After ATI acquisition, AMD managed to release the entire lineup of high-performance integrated chipsets including such solutions as 780G and 790GX. With the solutions developed by one of the leading graphics chip developers, AMD managed to design chipsets that definitely supersede Intel G45 in graphics performance and other features. But AMD’s problem was that they couldn’t offer any equally successful CPUs for this platform. Luckily, as soon as they switched to 45 nm process, AMD CPUs have become significantly better and now they can compete on equal terms against their competitors. AMD undertook one more measure to promote their integrated platform: they updated their chipset lineup by adding a new solution – AMD 785G with several minor but very important improvements. As a result, an AMD 785G based mainboard and a Phenom II or Athlon II processor became a good option for a home or office platform.
Actually, that is why our today’s article saw the light of day. It is going to compare the integrated systems based on Intel and AMD components. The main heroes of our today’s story will be the chipsets from these two makers: AMD 785G and Intel G45. And two very similar MicroATX mainboards from Gigabyte will be the guinea pigs. Therefore, let’s start by introducing to you two Gigabyte mainboards first.
AT first glance the new AMD 785G chipset is not that much different from its predecessor, AMD 780G. Especially, if we look at its formal 3D specifications: the graphics core in both chipsets has the same number of shader processors (40) and the same number of rasterization units (4). Moreover, the GPU in both these chipsets works at the same frequency of 500 MHz. However, the graphics core in the new chipset is called Radeon HD 4200, while the GPU integrated into the AMD 780G was called Radeon HD 3200.
What was the reason for such serious change in the model name of the integrated graphics accelerator? Looks like AMD marketing people decided to stress the fact that the new graphics core supports DirectX 10.1. At the same time it is important to understand that it has very little effect on performance: the updated API version only offers additional options for shader optimization. Therefore, you shouldn’t expect the new chipset to run faster in any of the contemporary 3D applications.
However, what did change seriously is the part of the chipset responsible for video decoding. And even though the new chipset is not very different from its predecessor in the number of transistors or die size, the video decoder in AMD 785G was updated to version 2, which allowed it to perform simultaneous hardware video decoding of two data streams. It can be used during Blu-ray viewing when picture-in-picture mode is on.
The HDMI interface has also been updated to version 1.3 and now it can transfer 7.1 sound stream. However, since the audio part of the new chipset has been borrowed in full from the previous one, AMD 785G doesn’t support 8-channel LPCM sound. It is a pretty serious drawback that makes it questionable whether AMD 785G platforms can be used as a basis for high-end home theater systems, especially since the competing solutions from Intel do support eight-channel LPCM. However, if you are not one of the dedicated audiophiles, the absence of LPCM support won’t be such a big deal for you. Especially, since the new AMD chipset has no problems with any other popular formats such as multi-channel Dolby Digital or DTS.
Gigabyte provided us with their Socket AM2+ mainboard - GA-MA785GM-US2H – based on the new AMD 785G. This mainboard is one of the simplest example of how the new chipset could be used: it is designed for DDR2 SDRAM, not DDR3, and has no Sideport – a fast 128 MB cache based on DDR3 chips installed between the graphics core and system memory and slightly boosting the performance. Since these additional features are absent, the board sells at a very democratic price of about $80-$90 and is compatible not only with new Socket AM3 processors, but also with cheaper Socket AM2 CPUs.
At the same time, GA-MA785GM-US2H doesn’t look like a cheap product at all. Moreover, it uses only high-quality components and is built on Gigabyte’s brand name PCB with thicker conductive copper layers. However, solid-state capacitor with polymer electrolyte are only used for the four-phase processor voltage regulator circuitry, while most of the remaining capacitors or the ones with liquid electrolyte. Gigabyte also saved some money on the voltage regulator circuitry cooling, there are no heatsinks of any kind over it. Nevertheless, the board can work with all AMD processors, including the models with up to 140 W TDP. Therefore, the processor voltage regulator is powered via an 8-pin 12 V power connector instead of a common 4-pin one.
The functionality of this mainboard is quite sufficient for a performance fully functional system. Despite small MicroATX form-factor, the board is equipped with four DDR2 SDRAM slots, two PCI slots, a PCI Express x1 slot and even a PCI Express x16 2.0 slot that allows adding a fast discrete graphics card into the system. All slots and CPU socket are located in such spots that any large CPU cooler (a fanless one, for example) will fit perfectly in. Moreover, the board design is very convenient for system assembly, so the GA-MA785GM-US2H owner will not experience any difficulties with system building or cable management.
We are very pleased to point out that the BIOS of Gigabyte GA-MA785GM-US2H mainboard has all settings necessary to satisfy a computer enthusiast. The board allows you to overclock your processor as well as graphics core, as all needed options are there. However, there are certain limitations when it comes to voltage adjustment: memory voltage can be increased by no more than 0.3 V above the nominal (only to 2.1 V), while the CPU Vcore – only by 0.075 V.
However, there are options in the BIOS that allow enabling blocked cores in Phenom II X3 and Phenom II X2 processors.
Unfortunately, low price of this mainboard did have some effect on the chipset cooling system design: it is very primitive and consists of two stand alone aluminum heatsinks secured with plastic push-pin clips with springs. As a result, we were a little concerned about extremely high temperature of the chipset North Bridge during our test session. And even though it didn’t cause any problems, we assume that it would be dangerous to undertake any GPU overclocking experiments without modifying and improving the chipset cooling first.
The mainboard back panel has three monitor connectors: D-Sub, Dual-link DVI and HDMI. The mainboard also allows connecting two monitors simultaneously, although in this case you can’t use DVI and HDMI Outs together. Moreover, the existing DVI port is not compatible with a standard D-Sub adapter, which you should also keep in mind. There is also a PS/2 connector for keyboard or mouse, six USB ports, Gigabit network port, IEEE1394 connector and one eSATA port. The sound section is implemented via eight-channel Realtek ALC889A codec with very decent signal-to-noise ratio of 106 dBA.
Additional interface connectors are laid out as onboard pin-connectors. Overall, there are twelve USB ports, two IEEE1394 ports, serial and parallel ports, five Serial ATA-300 ports and a Parallel ATA port. By the way, since Gigabyte decided to use a relatively new AMD SB710 South Bridge, GA-MA785GM-US2H supports RAID 0, 1 and 0+1 arrays.
The fastest Intel core logic set with integrated graphics core that can compete against AMD 785G is Intel G45 Express. This chipset is the analogue to a popular discrete solution – Intel P45 – equipped with an integrated Graphics Media Accelerator X4500HD graphics core. Intel accelerator features 10 shader processors and four raterization units, but works at 533 MHz frequency. It also has a special engine for hardware decoding of high definition video called Clear Video technology.
G45 evidently yields in 3D performance to AMD solution, besides, it doesn’t support DirectX 10.1. Nevertheless, Intel G45 functionality is enough for most tasks where the use of integrated graphics accelerators is applicable at all. In other words, we won’t make any hasty conclusions just yet, but will take a closer look at Intel G45 in action.
For the tests of Intel integrated platform we used Gigabyte GA-EG45M-UD2H mainboard. Just like GA-MA785GM-US2H, this solution is a MicroATX mainboard supporting DDR2 SDRAM, but this time with an LGA775 socket. However, although there is nothing supernatural about the features of this mainboard, it retails for about $130. Unfortunately, Intel’s price policy is not as good for the user as AMD’s. Therefore, platforms using AMD chipsets turn out more attractive for the end-user than alternative solutions from Intel.
GA-EG45M-UD2H has pretty standard base functionality. I don’t think I need to list all the available slots and connectors, because you can see it all very well on the photograph. I would only like to stress that the mainboard is equipped with four DDR2 DIMM slots and supports external graphics cards that can be installed into the PCI Express x16 slot.
There is four-phase processor voltage regulator circuitry. This circuitry is powered from a four-pin power supply connector, but it doesn’t impose any obvious limitations on the CPU compatibility. And even though Gigabyte engineers didn’t provide the voltage regulator components with any type of cooling, all brand name innovations are right there. The voltage regulator circuitry uses solid-state capacitors with polymer electrolyte, ferrite core chokes and low RDS (on) MOSFET.
Moreover, the mainboard supports DES technology that allows it to adjust dynamically the number of active phases in the voltage regulator circuitry depending on the current load for the sake of better efficiency optimization.
By the way, high-quality components are used not only in the voltage regulator, but also on the rest of the mainboard PCB, which distinguishes GA-EG45M-UD2H very nicely from GA-MA785GM-US2H.
Just like other contemporary Gigabyte mainboards, GA-EG45M-UD2H uses special PCB with thick copper layers. Despite the MicroATX form-factor, it boasts very convenient design: the location of all slots and connectors shouldn’t cause any difficulties during system assembly. Even Serial ATA ports have been placed along the lower edge of the mainboard PCB having moved them as far away from the graphics card slot as possible, which definitely won’t remain unnoticed by those users who decide to install an external performance graphics card into this platform. Those users who decide to use a large CPU cooler will also be pleased with the available free space around the CPU socket.
In fact, the only issue we have found with the design of this mainboard is the availability of only two fan connectors. Note that these are four-pin fan connectors and it is only possible to enable automatic fan rotation speed management if you use fans with PWM control support.
The chipset is cooled with ordinary aluminum heatsinks, which, however, are of pretty unusual shape. There are no heatpipes used, which is actually not surprising for a mainboard that is not targeted for computer enthusiasts. However, despite this fact the developers didn’t remove overclocking related features from the GA-EG45M-UD2H mainboard BIOS. BIOS Setup allows increasing the FSB frequency, setting major memory timings and adjusting the voltages. The maximum voltage that can be sent to the CPU is 1.6 V, to the memory – 2.5 V. However, there are no options for GMA X4500HD graphics core overclocking on GA-EG45M-UD2H.
The back panel of GA-EG45M-UD2H is exactly the same as that of the GA-MA785GM-US2H. There are also six USB ports, an IEEE1394 port, eSATA connector and a Gigabit RJ45 connector. Another six USB ports and one more IEEE1394 port can be used via onboard pin-connectors. Also the board is equipped with connectors for the serial and parallel ports.
Since GA-EG45M-UD2H uses an ICH10R South Bridge there are five Serial ATA-300 ports (the sixth one is available on the back panel in the form of an eSATA connector). The hard drives connected to these ports can be united into RAID 0, 1, 0+1 and 55 arrays. The board also supports Parallel ATA interface and even has a floppy drive connector.
Display devices can be connected to GA-EG45M-UD2H mainboard via three ports: D-Sub, Dual-Link DVI and HDMI 1.3. Just like on AMD 785G based mainboard, you can only use two ports of the three at the same time (except the DVI + HDMI combination), and the DVI port doesn’t support D-Sub adapters. The sound section on this mainboard is implemented via eight-channel Realtek ALC889A codec. The back panel has six analogue jacks and an optical SPDIF Out.
Summing up everything we have just said, let’s take a look at the table with formal specs of the Intel and AMD integrated platforms:
The second table sums up the specifications of the two Gigabyte mainboards discussed in detail above:
We decided to go with processors of almost the same price and performance from AMD and Intel to build two similar platforms around AMD 785G and Intel 45G chipsets. We decided to use dual-core CPUs that are most often used for inexpensive systems. For the AMD platform we took the top dual-core Phenom II X2 550 processor, and for the Intel one – Core 2 Duo E7400 that performs on a similar level in tests and is selling at a very close price point of a little over $100.
Moreover, since Windows 7 operating system should start selling very soon, we decided to per4form all tests using this OS. Especially since all makers of the hardware components that we use are quite ready for the new OS launch and have full driver support for it already available.
As a result, our testbed were configured with the following hardware and software components:
First of all we decided to check the general performance of the platforms built on AMD and Intel integrated chipsets in common home and office tasks. To accomplish this we resorted to our traditional SYSmark 2007 test that measures the performance in real application scenarios.
The results show that AMD platform offers a slightly higher performance almost in every application pattern. However, it is important to understand that it is the Phenom II X2 processor and not really the AMD 785G chipset that makes this victory happen, because this CPU is really faster in general-purpose applications.
When it comes to performance of Radeon HD 4200 and GMA X4500HD, it is much more interesting to see their performance in 3D applications: games and synthetic tests. At first let’s take a look at the platforms results in 3DMark tests that serve as a standard instrument of measuring GPU performance.
The obtained numbers are pretty interesting. The thing is that although AMD 785G solution is ahead of Intel in 3DMark06, it falls behind the competitor in 3DMark Vantage suite. It is especially strange keeping in mind that Radeon HD 4200 is considerably more powerful than GMA X4500HD according to formally calculated theoretical performance. However, the fact is undeniable: Intel G45 chipset does produce higher 3DMark Vantage score in Windows 7. By the way, this is only true for the upcoming operating system, because Intel graphics accelerator can’t repeat its success in Windows Vista. And it means that we can conclude that this sudden success demonstrated by Intel G45 can only be explained by certain driver optimizations and not the GPU architecture.
However, 3DMark suites are pure synthetic tests that only provide a general idea of the performance of the chipset 3Dpart. Therefore, we have also run a few tests in real gaming applications. Here I would like to stress that the integrated graphics solutions are not as powerful as discrete ones, even from the low-end market segment. Therefore, the gaming application of the integrated graphics cores is a very theoretical thing. In fact, graphics accelerators like Radeon HD 4200 and GMA X4500HD can only provide comfortable gaming performance in previous-generation games or in low resolutions and with low image quality settings. Therefore, we ran the gaming tests in 1024x768 resolution with numerous effects disabled and level of texture detail set to Low.
There is no doubt that the integrated AMD 785G chipset provides higher gaming performance. Therefore, AMD platform can offer higher fps level in games. By the way, as we can see from the results, despite our initial pessimism, Radeon HD 4200 can provide pretty acceptable fps rate even in some relatively modern DirectX 10 games. Although you will have to sacrifice image quality and use only low resolutions.
All contemporary chipsets with integrated graphics, including AMD 785G and Intel G45, have special hardware engines that accelerate high definition video decoding in H.264/VC-1/MPEG-2 formats. This particular feature made integrated platforms into popular choices for media center PCs: during video viewing they provide very good image quality at minimal CPU utilization. However, it was the case in Windows Vista. This time we performed all tests in Windows 7, which has its own codecs for popular video formats and requires special drivers, where the developers have to implement hardware support for video stream decoding in the GPU. That is why the results we are going to see now may be somewhat different from the usual idyllic picture.
For our tests we used a 64-bit Media Player Classic Home Cinema 1.2.908.0 that uses hardware GPU potential for standard video acceleration – via DXVA (DirectX Video Acceleration). All videos used for our test session were recorded in 1080p.
The results are not that good: Intel G45 doesn’t use any hardware acceleration at all, while AMD785G doesn’t use acceleration during video playback in MPEG-2 format. As a result, the CPU utilization in this case becomes very high. At the same time, when we playback video in H.264 and VC-1 formats, AMD platform demonstrated remarkable video acceleration by means of the built-in UVD engine, which resulted into low CPU utilization.
While we were working on this review the unpleasant issue with Intel G45 was successfully fixed. The new version of Media Player Classic Home Cinema 1.3.1249.0 started to support Intel Clear Video Technology engine that is why Intel G45 based mainboards now have the ability to accelerate H.264 video with minimal CPU utilization.
However, as we have already mentioned above, Windows 7 already has standard codecs for most video formats including DivX, XviD and H.264. Therefore, we were very interested to see how the chipset cope with video playback using these specific codecs. So, we undertook one more test session that involved the default Windows Media Player 12 from Windows 7:
This is a completely different situation. Hardware acceleration is supported at all times on both platforms, including Intel. As a result, the CPU utilization on Intel G45 based system was even lower than that on AMD based one. However, it is important to remember that Windows Media Player 12 is actually not the best software player for a home media system. It still doesn’t support some widespread formats like VC-1, for example. Besides, it can’t work with popular media containers, such as Matroska (.mkv) in the first place.
Another feature of the integrated AMD 785G chipset is the support of ATI Stream technology that allows using Radeon HD 4200 GPU resources for computational tasks.
However, despite all AMD’s efforts aimed at promoting this technology, we don’t consider it a serious advantage in favor of integrated AMD solution. The thing is that at this point its software support is still at a very early stage that is why so far we can only speak of its potential and not of its real benefit for the end-users.
To demonstrate the way Stream technology works, AMD use video transcoding from one format into another using Cyberlink MediaShow Espresso utility. And in this case everything does really work. There appears a check mark next to “Enable Hardware Decoding” in the utility settings on AMD 785G based board. This option enables transcoding acceleration using shaders of the integrated Radeon HD 4200 graphics processor.
Stream activation really speeds up the transcoding process. As an example, we measured the time it took to transcode a two-minute video initially recorded in H.264 720p format into appropriate format for YouTube.com. The results turned out very impressive:
As we see, using graphics core shaders for video transcoding allows to speed things up by almost 40%. At the same time the CPU utilization gets lower, which makes the system more responsive to user actions even when Cyberlink MediaShow Espresso is running.
And everything could be considered great if it weren’t for one thing. At this point the use of GPU resources for video transcoding instead of the CPU not only speeds up the processing, but at the same time lowers the quality of the final videos. You can see what I am talking about from the screenshots below:
So, at this time ATI Stream support in AMD785G is of pure theoretical interest to us and can hardly be considered a serious technological advantage of this platform.
Another important argument in favor of integrated platforms is their high energy-efficiency compared with systems using stand alone discrete graphics cards. Therefore, in conclusion to our today’s review we took a real close look at the power consumption of systems built around AMD 785G and Intel G45 chipsets. This parameter indicates not only the energy parameters of the systems, but also determines how well they are fit for the quiet HTPC systems usually assembled in small system cases.
Besides the power consumption of full systems without the monitor, we have also measured the power consumption of individual mainboards. This additional number will help us estimate how energy-efficient the actual AMD 785G and Intel G45 chipsets are, when considered without the CPUs. The total power consumption was measured from the wall outlet, while the mainboard power consumption was measured using currents running along 24-pin ATX power cable.
To create maximum CPU load we used 64-bit version of Prime95 25.7 utility in Blend mode. To create maximum video system load we used FurMark 1.6.5 test. For power consumption measurements during video playback, we launched a movie in H.264 1080p format using Media Player Classic Home Cinema. Gaming workload was created in Unreal Tournament 3.
As you can see, the fact that AMD 785G is manufactured with 55 nm process, while Intel G45 is made using 65 nm one affects the power consumption readings clearly. Overall, GA-EG45M-UD2H turns out less energy-efficient than the competing solution for AMD platform. However, if we take full systems power consumption, we will have to change this conclusion to exactly the opposite. The thing is that AMD processors are still not as energy-efficient as Core 2 solutions from Intel, even though both of them are manufactured with the same 45 nm process. As a result, LGA775 systems with integrated graphics can offer way better energy-efficiency than competing solutions based on Phenom II and Athlon II processors.
There is only one exception here: during HD video playback AMD 785G platform performed best. However, the explanation of this success is fairly simple: on the Intel G45 platform it was the CPU that performed video decoding, while on AMD 785G platform the decoding was done in the chipset. Therefore, if we had picked a different software player for our tests that could engage Intel’s brand name Clear Video Technology engine, the outcome would have inevitably been different.
Unfortunately, we can’t name a definite winner among the integrated Intel and AMD platforms we have just tested. The verdict will depend a lot on your expectations of the platform.
The thing is that AMD 785G chipset is a really good solution in terms of performance. And it would be really strange if one of the leaders in graphics chips design turned out unable to offer a high-quality graphics core for the integrated chipset. As a result, AMD platform doesn’t leave Intel a single chance in 3D tests. However, in this case it is important to remember that we can only speak of high performance in reference to integrated solutions with certain allowances, because any budget discrete graphics card will easily outperform Intel GMA X4500HD as well as ATI Radeon HD 4200. Therefore, we wouldn’t consider integrated solutions a possible gaming choice even for the low-end segment. The best these systems owners can count on is acceptable gaming performance in lowest resolutions, where they will barely be able to enjoy any of the nice visual 3D effects. In other words, games are definitely not the primary application type for platforms with integrated graphics.
However, when it comes to general office or home systems, they can become an excellent choice. Here AMD platform is the leader offering slightly higher performance at a slightly lower price.
Radeon HD 4200 works very well in media centers, too. It easily performs hardware acceleration of HD video playback in various formats, supports HDMI interface and appears a more preferable solution in terms of software player support than GMA X4500HD. However, even the new AMD chipset is not absolutely flawless: the developers didn’t implement fully fledged HDMI 1.3 support. As a result, if you intend to use eight-channel sound in LPCM format, then AMD 785G is not the way to go. Luckily for AMD, this function is really demanded only by very few enthusiasts who work with really powerful acoustic systems.
But despite all the advantages of the integrated platform from AMD it also has a few serious drawbacks: the power consumption of systems assembled with this company’s components turns out higher than the power consumption of Intel systems. At the same time, AMD chipsets are more energy-efficient and the issue lies with the CPUs: Phenom II and Athlon II so far cannot compete in this aspect against Intel Core 2 processors. Therefore, if energy-efficiency matters a lot for you, which is directly connected with the ability to build quiet compact systems, but at the same time you have no intention to invest into special energy-efficient processor models, then your best bet will be on Intel components.
However, despite all the things we have pointed out above, AMD 785G platform is a finished and stable solution that you can definitely decide on without risking to stumble upon some unexpected difficulties. It offers excellent compatibility and great driver support. Radeon HD 4200 graphics paired with a 45 nm Phenom II or Athlon II processor is a well-balanced components combination that is very likely to become popular in the integrated solutions market. Many mainboard makers understand it very well that is why they welcomed the launch of the new AMD chipset with great enthusiasm and very soon we will see a wide range of Socket AM2+ and Socket AM3 integrated mainboards of different form-factors.
Therefore, we would like to express our sincere hopes that the companies designing mainboards won’t leave out Mini-ITX form-factor, which is becoming more and more popular lately. Especially since AMD is ready to offer special energy-efficient processors that can work perfectly fine in maximally compact system cases.