AMD's 690G chipset comes out for an encore

AMD launched its 690G chipset back in February, and five months later, they're back with an update. Sort of. The chipset hardware hasn't changed, but AMD has been fiddling with BIOSes and drivers to give the second wave of 690G-based motherboards that's hitting the market a little extra punch.

Much of the force behind this punch comes courtesy of AMD's claim that the 690G is now capable of smooth HD DVD and Blu-ray playback at 1080p. But you won't find AMD's Universal Video Decoder in the 690G. Instead, AMD says it's been able to smooth high definition video playback through "driver streamlining." Playback is largely handled by the CPU, and to watch HD content in all its 1080p glory, a dual-core Athlon X2 processor is required. Each HD format has different processor speed requirements, as well, and we've outlined those requirements below.

Format Required X2 speed

With a 1.9GHz clock speed, the affordable Athlon X2 3600+ has enough horsepower for MPEG2 playback. That won't cut it for movies encoded in VC-1 or H.264 formats, though; you'll need at least an Athlon X2 4600+ to ensure smooth playback with all HD DVD and Blu-ray movies at their maximum resolution. AMD also recommends dual-channel memory configurations of at least DDR2-667, and a minimum of 1GB of memory for playback in Windows XP, and 2GB for Vista.

So the 690G may now support smooth 1080p playback, but it doesn't do so on its own. And while a 4600+ and 2GB of memory should be well within the budget of anyone who can actually afford a 1080p display, so should mid-range graphics cards from AMD and Nvidia that handle HD video decoding in hardware and provide much better 3D performance than the 690G's integrated graphics core.

If the hardware requirements for HD playback put you off, you may be interested in the second component of AMD's 690G refresh: overclocking. AMD didn't put much effort into 690G overclocking at the chipset's launch, instead opting to focus on overall platform stability. However, the company has been working on its reference BIOS for 690G motherboards, adding voltage adjustments, memory timings, CPU multiplier and HT clock control, and even the ability to manipulate the clock speed of the chipset's integrated graphics core. These tweaking and overclocking features are all but ubiquitous on enthusiast-oriented ATX boards, of course, but they're not nearly as common on the kinds of budget Micro ATX boards that typically play host to integrated graphics chipsets.

AMD is working with its board partners to ensure that these overclocking features make their way to end users, and Gigabyte has answered the call with the GA-MA69GM-S2H.

This board is the best 690G implementation we've seen, offering a full suite of overclocking features in addition to onboard VGA, DVI, and HDCP-compliant HDMI output, TOS-Link digital S/PDIF audio output, PCI Express x4 and x16 expansion capabilities, Firewire, and four DIMM slots. Add passive chipset cooling to the mix and a $76 street price, and we'll even forgive the board's PCI-based Realtek Gigabit Ethernet chip.

HD video playback may get AMD's 690G redux more headlines, but given its hardware requirements, the combination of BIOS-level overclocking options and a second wave of more mature, feature-rich motherboards may ultimately prove more attractive to enthusiasts. With the "free" overclocking headroom available with many of AMD's budget Athlon X2 processors, squeezing at least 2.4GHz from a 3600+ may not take too much effort, either.

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