Just a few short years ago, home theater PCs were pretty cutting-edge. You pretty much had to be an enthusiast to even know such a thing was possible, and setting up a suitable system wasn't cheapespecially if you wanted to make the most of a high-definition TV. But as is often the case in this industry, cutting edge features and capabilities quickly trickle down to the mainstream. Even today's run-of-the-mill home theater PCs are leagues ahead of the once-impressive media rig that I assembled several years ago and still use today.
Several factors have conspired to make home theater PCs so capable and popular. Microsoft deserves some credit for bringing a 10-foot GUI to Windows, making it easier for folks to control their PCs from the couch without having to mess with additional software. The industry trend toward lower power consumption has helped, too, delivering scores of cool-running chips that can get by with the kind of near-silent cooling you want in your living room. Integrated graphics chipsets have also stepped up in a big way, offering credible gaming chops and an arsenal of advanced video decoding tricks.
For a few months now, AMD's 780G has reigned as the only integrated graphics chipset capable of handling high-definition video decoding. Now it has company in the form of Nvidia's new GeForce 8300. This single-chip core logic package features a graphics core derived from the GeForce 8400 GS, full Blu-ray decode acceleration, a HyperTransport 3.0 processor link prime for Phenom processors, PCI Express 2.0 connectivity, Gigabit Ethernet, loads of SATA RAID, and an even dozen USB ports. Impressive specs, no doubt, but can the GeForce 8300 unseat the 780G as our integrated graphics chipset of choice? Read on to find out.
New hotness all around
Nvidia has taken to calling the integrated graphics components of its chipsets motherboard GPUs, or mGPUs for short. This is a part of a larger strategy to put a graphics core into every one of its core logic chipsets, providing a broader installed base for the Hybrid SLI technologies recently introduced with the nForce 780a SLI chipset.
Interestingly, the nForce 780a SLI's mGPU architecture is essentially identical to what you'll find inside the GeForce 8300. This graphics core was derived from Nvidia's GeForce 8400 desktop GPU, so it's fully compliant with DirectX 10 and Shader Model 4.0. A total of 16 stream processors can be found inside the mGPU, and those SPs run at 1.5GHz, while the rest of the GPU core is clocked at 500MHz. The GeForce 8200 chipset is also available with a slightly slower shader clock of 1.2GHz.
Nvidia formally introduced the GeForce 8200 back at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, and the company made no mention of the GeForce 8300 at the time. I suspect this higher-clocked 8300 derivative is a response to the strong integrated graphics performance of AMD's 780G chipset.
Even with a higher shader clock, the GeForce 8300 mGPU's pixel-pushing horsepower is still relatively modest. However, the chip's video decoding capabilities are top notch. The GeForce 8300 includes a PureVideo HD decoding block that Nvidia says can offload 100% of the Blu-ray decoding process with MPEG2, AVC (H.264), and VC-1 content. You'll need the faster HyperTransport link present in Phenom processors to take advantage of this decode acceleration, though. Nvidia also points out that while video decoding is handled in hardware, calculations associated with HDCP copy protection schemes must still be crunched by the CPU.
The GeForce 8300's HD video decoding capabilities are well-suited for home theater PC applications, so it's only fitting that the chipset offers support for HDMI 1.3a in addition to standard VGA and DVI outputs. Audio can be passed over HDMI, but while 8-channel LPCM bitstreams are supported, TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio formats are not. Digital video output is also limited to a single connection, so you can't use the chipset's DVI and HDMI outputs simultaneously.
Of course, the mGPU is just one component of the GeForce 8300 chipsetwell, chip, actually. While most core logic chipsets (including AMD's 780G) split functionality between separate north and south bridge chips, Nvidia has squeezed the 8300 onto a single piece of silicon. The chip itself is fabbed on an 80nm fabrication node by TSMC.
If the GeForce 8300's mGPU just isn't cutting it for you, the chipset also provides 19 lanes of second-generation PCI Express connectivity. Plug in a compatible graphics card, and you can reap the benefits of Hybrid SLI, or more specifically, its GeForce Boost and HybridPower component parts. The GeForce Boost side of Hybrid SLI improves 3D performance via cooperative rendering just like, well, SLI. For this scheme to work, however, you have to use a discrete GPU with capabilities comparable to those of the mGPUin this case, a lowly GeForce 8400. HybridPower is more interesting; clever display routing allows the user to run a powerful discrete graphics card that can be literally switched off at idlewhere the mGPU takes over display dutiesto conserve power. The list of Hybrid SLI-compatible GeForce graphics cards is a short one at the moment. However, the recent Green Light Special on the GeForce 9800 GTX has finally brought HybridPower-capable cards down to a mid-range price point.
Sorry to slip back into graphics there for a moment. The mGPU really is the GeForce 8300's raison d'être, and it's loaded with interesting stuff. They called this a GeForce rather than an nForce for a reason, you know.
|AMD 780G||Nvidia GeForce 8300|
|Processor interface||16-bit/2GHz HyperTransport||16-bit/2GHz HyperTransport|
|PCI Express 2.0 lanes||26*||19|
|Chipset interconnect||PCIe 1.1 x4||NA|
|Serial ATA ports||6||6|
|Native Command Queuing||Y||Y|
|Max audio channels||8||8|
On to the rest of the 8300's core logic package. With 16 PCI Express 2.0 lanes reserved for a graphics card, only three remain for x1 slots and peripherals. The GeForce looks to be at quite a disadvantage here next to the 780G, but keep in mind that four of the AMD chipset's PCIe lanes are reserved for its chipset interconnect. In reality, the GeForce is really only three lanes shorteffectively two, since you save having to burn a PCIe lane on a GigE controller thanks to the GeForce's integrated Gigabit MAC.
Otherwise, the 8300 matches up well against the 780G. Both offer six Serial ATA ports, and Nvidia even kicks in RAID 5 support for those looking to build a storage server on the cheap. The GeForce doesn't abandon "parallel" ATA, either, although it only supports two old-school IDE drives, while the 780G can handle four.