Intel’s G45 Express chipset

There was a time when enthusiasts had little interest in integrated graphics chipsets. At best, we only considered the IGPs of yesteryear as platforms for the next PC we’d build our mothers or corporate desktops we’d deploy to the masses of slack-jawed users in our domains. Older integrated graphics solutions simply didn’t have the graphics horsepower to run games—not just at acceptable frame rates, but at all—and they didn’t offer much in the way of video playback acceleration.

Lately, however, integrated graphics chipsets have enjoyed a renaissance. AMD and Nvidia are using functional blocks ripped from their high-end GPU architectures, assuring not only broad compatibility with games, but surprisingly adequate performance. These graphic cores have also been bestowed with dedicated video processing engines that serve up silky Blu-ray playback with even an Econobox sub-$100 CPU. And the chipsets as a whole have become quite energy-efficient, too, capturing the attention of enthusiasts looking to build silent PCs for their living rooms.

AMD and Nvidia have moved the goal posts forward by quite a leap with their latest integrated graphics chipsets, but what about Intel? The chip giant is the overwhelming integrated graphics sales leader, commanding the lion’s share of the overall graphics market on the strength of its IGP business alone. What does Intel’s latest G45 Express integrated graphics platform bring to the table?

  • DirectX 10-class unified shader architecture? Check.
  • Full Blu-ray decode acceleration? Check.
  • Second-generation PCI Express slot for discrete graphics upgrades? Check.
  • Proven south bridge with all the feature boxes, er, checked? Check.
  • Front-side bus that hooks into the spoils of Intel’s Core 2 processor lineup? Bonus!

On paper, the G45 Express certainly looks like it should be able to run with the new IGP order. But can Intel really compete with the graphics specialists on their home turf? There’s only one way to find out. Please, contain your excitement.

The G45 exposed

Integrating graphics functionality is the G45 Express’ raison d’être, so that’s the best place to start. The chipset’s north bridge component houses its graphics core: the Graphics Media Accelerator X4500HD. This GPU is an extension of the GMA X3500 architecture found in Intel’s older G35 Express chipset, bringing the X4500HD DirectX 10-class unified shaders with support for Shader Model 4.0 and OpenGL 2.0. While the individual shaders cores haven’t changed much for the X4500HD, there are two more of them, for a grand total of 10. These cores are running faster, too, with Intel cranking their clock speed from 667MHz in the X3500 to 800MHz in the X4500HD.

As far as the 3D pipeline is concerned, the X4500HD is a mildly hopped-up X3500. Intel has added a couple of cylinders and slapped on a turbo, but we’re still dealing with the same tired car analogy. The X3500’s gaming performance failed to impress, which doesn’t leave much room for optimism that the X4500HD will be a big improvement. We’ll find out for sure in a moment.

Fortunately, there’s more to the G45 Express’ graphics core than added horsepower. The X4500’s HD moniker actually means something, denoting support for Blu-ray decode acceleration. Intel makes use of both fixed-function logic and the X4500’s shader processors here, assisting with nearly every step in the decode process for the MPEG2, VC-1, and AVC/H.264 video formats.

Like AMD and Nvidia, Intel also has its own collection of de-interlacing and post-processing schemes to enhance HD video quality. We’re not entirely sure how useful those features will be given the quality of commercial Blu-ray releases, though.

Those same commercial Blu-ray titles tend to be encrusted with a thick layer of DRM, so it’s no surprise that the X4500HD offers support for both HDCP and the Protected Audio/Video Path. These necessary evils are essential to protect end users from the dangers of fair use, or something.

One of the more impressive elements of the G45’s graphics component is its robust output capabilities. The chip can simultaneously drive up to two digital displays via DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort outputs. You can feed multi-channel LPCM audio over HDMI, too—something even AMD’s beloved 780G can’t hack.

Like most integrated graphics implementations, the X4500HD carves itself a slice of system memory, in this case via the G45 Express’s dual-channel memory controller. This memory controller supports DDR2 up to an effective 800MHz and DDR3 up to 1066MHz, offering a healthy amount of memory bandwidth to the graphics core. And with support for front-side bus speeds up to 1333MHz (333MHz quad-pumped), the G45 has plenty of system bandwidth to go around, too.

Speaking of bandwidth, you’ll find 16 lanes of second-generation PCI Express in the G45’s north bridge component. That’s enough lanes to provide a single graphics card with 8 GB/s of bi-directional bandwidth, should you wish to forgo integrated graphics in favor of a discrete GPU. The lanes are consolidated in a single link and can’t be split into a pair of x8s without additional hardware, making it unlikely that we’ll see a G45-based answer to AMD’s mutant 790GX integrated graphics/Crossfire platform.

With all the G45’s PCI Express lanes tied up in an x16 slot, we have to look to the south bridge for additional lanes for x1 slots and peripherals. The G45 is designed to work with Intel’s ICH10 south bridge family, whose members offer six PCIe lanes of their own. These lanes are only gen-one, but they still offer plenty of bandwidth for the sorts of peripherals one might pair with a budget desktop system or home theater PC.

AMD 780G Intel G45 Express Nvidia GeForce 8300
Processor interface 16-bit/2GHz HyperTransport 800/1066/1600MHz front-side bus 16-bit/2GHz HyperTransport

PCI Express 1.1 lanes
0 6 0

PCI Express 2.0 lanes
26* 16 19

Multi-GPU support
CrossFire NA SLI

Chipset interconnect
PCIe 1.1 x4 DMI NA
Interconnect bandwidth 2GB/s
2GB/s
NA
Serial ATA ports 6
6
6
AHCI Y
Y
Y
Native Command Queuing Y
Y
Y
RAID 0/1 Y
Y*
Y
RAID 0+1/10 Y
Y*
Y
RAID 5 N Y* Y
ATA channels 2
0
1
Max audio channels 8
8
8
Audio standard AC’97/HDA
HDA
HDA
Ethernet N
10/100/1000
10/100/1000
USB ports 12
12
12

The ICH10 south bridge family certainly doesn’t want for storage options, with six 300MB/s Serial ATA ports and support for both AHCI and eSATA across the board. The vanilla ICH10 is the most likely sidekick for the G45. However, mobo makers can also opt for the ICH10R, which brings all sorts of RAID goodness to the table. Like the ICH9 series that preceded it, the ICH10 family lacks an IDE channel, forcing motherboard makers to employ third-party silicon to provide compatibility with older IDE devices. Since SATA optical drives are easy enough to find these days, though, we’re not inclined to complain.

What the ICH10 family lacks in IDE support it makes up for with an integrated Gigabit Ethernet MAC. We haven’t seen many mobo makers take advantage of this capability in their P45-based offerings, with most opting for GigE chips from Marvell and Realtek. That’s a shame, since we’ve actually found that Intel’s solution delivers competitive throughput with excellent CPU utilization.

A dozen USB ports rounds out the ICH10 series in unspectacular fashion. This south bridge line is really just a die shrink of the ICH9 family down to 65nm fabrication technology. The same process is used to craft the G45’s north bridge chip, which should make for an energy-efficient package overall.

Motherboard courtesy of MSI
Micro ATX for enthusiasts?

Manufacturer MSI
Model G45M-FIDR
Price (MSRP) $120
Availability Soon

The G45 Express is likely to be implemented in one of a few flavors. We’ll certainly see mainstream models designed primarily for consumer desktops. Versions explicitly crafted for home theater PC applications are also likely, particularly given the chipset’s Blu-ray decode and HDMI output capabilities. And since the old adage goes that no one ever got fired for buying Intel (although some should have been during the Prescott era), the G45 will surely make its way into business-oriented motherboards destined for corporate desktops.

MSI’s G45M-FIDR is being pushed as a business solution, and it’s currently shipping to system integrators. The board should start popping up in retail soon with a suggested price of around $120. That makes the G45M more expensive than most boards based on the 780G and GeForce 8300 chipsets, but there’s long been a price premium associated with Intel integrated graphics, rightly or not.

Like most of its counterparts, the G45M is built on a Micro ATX form factor. This doesn’t leave much room for extras, and it makes clearance issues harder to avoid. MSI has done a reasonably good job with the board’s layout, but there are a couple of quirks worth mentioning. The first of these is the placement of the auxiliary 12V power connector, which sits below the CPU socket, where cabling can interfere with airflow around the processor. We prefer to see 12V connectors tucked out of the way along the top edge of the motherboard where they need not be any further from the CPU socket.

The area around the MSI board’s CPU socket certainly isn’t crowded. There’s plenty of room for larger aftermarket heatsinks, in part thanks to a relatively short passive cooler on the north bridge. You won’t find any intricate heatpipe arrays here, folks. Those are far too flashy for what is otherwise a budget motherboard.

Hinting at its business orientation, the G45M-FIDR comes equipped with an ICH10R south bridge, blessing the board’s six Serial ATA ports with RAID support. The single IDE channel is backed by an auxiliary JMicron chip—a popular solution among motherboard makers looking to offer backward compatibility. JMicron also steps up to provide the silicon behind the FIDR’s Firewire ports.

Not that it matters much for this class of motherboard, but it’s worth noting that longer, double-wide graphics cards will obscure access to three of the G45M’s SATA ports. That still leaves three ports available with a gargantuan graphics card installed, which should be plenty for a Micro ATX LAN gaming rig.

Although it may seem ludicrous to offer more PCI than PCI Express slots on a modern motherboard, that sort of bias makes sense for a board like the G45M. PCIe peripherals may be easier to find these days, but they’re by no means common, particularly at the budget end of the spectrum where integrated graphics platforms reside.

The G45M’s port cluster offers up a collection of old-school connectivity options punctuated by PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports and even a parallel port. I suppose these throwbacks make sense for corporate environments, but I would have liked to see MSI take better advantage of the G45’s robust digital video output capabilities. The board lacks a digital audio output, too, putting users at the mercy of the DAC inside the onboard Realtek audio codec. Realtek also handles networking duties with a RTL8111C Gigabit Ethernet chip that we’ve actually found to be pretty decent. That’s a relief, at least.

A Firewire port predictably makes an appearance in the port cluster, but eSATA is nowhere to be found. To be fair, MSI has a “G45 Digital” board in the works that will directly target home theater PC applications. Let’s hope that board has a more current selection of expansion ports.

Busting into the BIOS

Micro ATX motherboards rarely offer a wealth of tweaking options, but the G45M has a few surprises up its sleeve.


Bus speeds
FSB: 200-800MHz in 1MHz
increments

PCI:
37.3, 42MHz

Bus multipliers
FSB/DRAM: 1/1.25, 1/1.5,
1/1.67, 1/2, 1/1, 1/1.2
Voltages CPU: 0.96-2.0475 in
0.0125V increments

DRAM: 1.8-2.9V in 0.05V increments

North bridge: 1.1-1.6V in 0.025V increments
FSB: 1.2-1.55 in 0.025V
increments
South bridge: 1.5-1.8V in 0.1V increments


Monitoring
Voltage, fan
status, and temperature monitoring

Fan speed control
CPU

Although CPU multiplier control isn’t provided, front-side bus speeds are available between 200 and 800MHz in 1MHz increments. The BIOS also serves up a full suite of bus dividers to keep the system’s memory in check.

The selection of voltage options is even more impressive. Users can push the CPU voltage up to 2.0475V and the memory up to 2.9V—higher values than we’ve seen on some enthusiast-oriented ATX motherboards. Heck, you can even tweak chipset and front-side bus voltages.

Enthusiasts will be pleased to know that MSI has included a full selection of memory timing controls in the BIOS. You don’t get access to every timing under the sun, but most users probably won’t mess with more than the CAS latency, RAS to CAS delay, RAS precharge, cycle time, and command rate.

Robust fan speed controls don’t seem to be a priority for motherboard makers, who appear fixated on providing far more extensive overclocking and timing controls than the vast majority of folks actually need. Fortunately, the G45M’s fan speed controls are pretty decent. Temperature-based fan speed control is limited to the CPU fan header, but users can easily set a target temperature between 40 and 70° Celsius in 5° increments. Control is also provided over the minimum fan speed, which can be set between 0 and 87.5% in 12.5% increments. Overall, then, this budget offering serves up more granular fan speed control than you get on most high-end motherboards.

While we’re discussing the BIOS, I should note that the G45’s Blu-ray decode capabilities are only unlocked if the chipset’s Protected Audio/Video Path is set to “Lite” mode. This option should be available in the BIOS under a “PAVP mode” setting, but it wasn’t present in the initial release that accompanied the G45M-FIDR, severely hampering Blu-ray playback. The option has been added in a subsequent beta BIOS for the FIDR, and it works. However, the fact that such an important feature was left out in the first place is a little alarming.

Specifics on specifications

As usual, we’ve consolidated all of the motherboard’s vital specifications in a handy chart. Enjoy.


CPU support
LGA775-based Celeron, Pentium
4/D, Core 2 processors

North bridge
Intel G45 Express

South bridge
Intel ICH10R

Expansion slots
1 PCI Express x16

1 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz PCI


Memory
4 240-pin DIMM
sockets

Maximum of 16GB of DDR2-667/800 SDRAM


Storage I/O
Floppy disk

1 channel ATA/133 via JMicron JMB368

6 channels 300MB/s Serial ATA with RAID 0, 1, 10, 5 support

Audio 8-channel HD audio via Realtek
ALC888 codec
Ports 1 PS/2 keyboard
1 PS/2 mouse
1 VGA
1 DVI

1 parallel

4 USB 2.0 with
headers for 6 more

1 RJ45 10/100/1000
via Realtek RTL8111C

1 1394a Firewire via
JMicron JMB381 with header for 1 more

1 analog front out
1 analog bass/center out

1 analog rear out

1 analog surround out

1 analog line in

1 analog mic in

Our testing methods

We actually began G45 testing with Intel’s DG45ID motherboard, but ran into an odd issue with our Pentium E2180 that seems to be related to a Core Multiplexing BIOS option. We’ve notified Intel about the issue, but since we’ve yet to receive a fix, we switched to the MSI board for testing.

The Pentium E2180 is the sort of CPU one might expect to find in a budget integrated graphics system. However, because it won’t plug into Socket AM2 motherboards powered by the latest IGPs from AMD and Nvidia, another CPU must be used with those systems. We’ve opted for the Athlon X2 4850e, which has a 500MHz clock speed advantage over the E2180, but sells for virtually the same price.

Gigabyte’s GA-MA780GM-DS2H

Asus’ M3N78 PRO

We’ve trotted out a couple of new motherboards representing the 780G and GeForce 8300 chipsets today. For the former, we’ve called upon Gigabyte’s new GA-MA78GM-DS2H, which includes 128MB of “Sideport” graphics memory soldered right onto the motherboard. Even with the extra RAM, the DS2H still rings in at around $100. Asus’ M3N78 PRO will represent the green team today, situating the GeForce 8300 in a full-sized ATX board loaded with an HDMI output plenty of expansion slots for, say, a stack of tuner cards for your home theater PC.

All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.

Processor

AMD Athlon X2 4850e 2.5GHz


Intel Pentium E2180 2.0GHz
System bus 1GHz HyperTransport 800MHz (200MHz
quad-pumped)
Motherboard

Asus M3N78 PRO


Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-DS2H
MSI G45M-FIDR
Bios revision 0403 F1 1.1
North bridge Nvidia GeForce 8300 AMD 780G Intel G45 Express
South bridge AMD SB700 Intel ICH10R
Chipset drivers ForceWare 15.24 Catalyst 8.9 Chipset: 9.0.0.1011

Graphics: 15.2

Memory size 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs) 2GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type
Corsair
TWIN2X2048-8500C5

DDR2 SDRAM at
~800MHz
CAS latency
(CL)
4 4 4

RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)
4 4 4
RAS precharge
(tRP)
4 4 4
Cycle time
(tRAS)
12 12 12
Audio codec Realtek
ALC1200
with 2.04 drivers
Realtek
ALC889A
with 2.04 drivers
Realtek
ALC888
with 2.04 drivers

Hard drive


Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB
SATA

OS


Windows Vista Ultimate x86
with Service Pack 1

Thanks to Corsair for providing us with memory for our testing.

All of our test systems were powered by OCZ GameXStream 700W power supply units. Thanks to OCZ for providing these units for our use in testing.

Finally, we’d like to thank Western Digital for sending Raptor WD1500ADFD hard drives for our test rigs.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Memory performance

Memory subsystem performance doesn’t always track with real-world applications, but it’s a good place to start with integrated graphics chipsets that cannibalize a portion of system memory and therefore bandwidth.

These results aren’t terribly surprising. AMD’s integrated memory controller is renowned for providing plenty of bandwidth with low access latencies, and the Pentium E2180’s relatively slow 800MHz front-side bus speed certainly doesn’t help matters for the G45 Express. Note, also, that our 780G platform has a significant advantage in the bandwidth test, likely due to its use of dedicated “Sideport” graphics memory, which lessens the burden on system memory.

Motherboards don’t always cooperate when you populate all of their DIMM slots, and our Asus GeForce 8300 board wouldn’t boot with a four-DIMM config, even after backing off on memory timings. We’ve alerted Asus to the issue, but don’t have a resolution yet.

The relative position of the G45 Express doesn’t really change when we load it up with memory. It still offers far less memory bandwidth with higher access latencies than the 780G.

The following latency graphs are a little indulgent, so I won’t be offended if you skip them. They show access latencies across multiple block and step sizes, painting a fuller picture of memory controller performance with each chipset. I’ve arranged the graphs in order of highest latency to lowest. Yellow represents L1 cache, light orange is L2, and dark orange is main memory.

Obviously, the G45 Express can’t compete with the low access latencies provided by AMD’s on-die memory controller.

STARS Euler3d computational fluid dynamics

Few folks run fluid dynamics simulations on their desktops, but we’ve found this multi-threaded test to be particularly demanding of memory subsystems, making it a good link between our memory and application performance tests.

Despite scoring poorly in our memory subsystem tests, the G45 Express turns in the highest score in our Euler 3D fluid dynamics test.

WorldBench

WorldBench uses scripting to step through a series of tasks in common Windows applications. It then produces an overall score. WorldBench also spits out individual results for its component application tests, allowing us to compare performance in each. We’ll look at the overall score, and then we’ll show individual application results alongside the results from some of our own application tests.

The Pentium E2180 looks to be a perfect match for the Athlon X2 4850e, as all our test configurations produce the same overall WorldBench score. But does the G45 Express differentiate itself at all when we break down the suite’s individual test results?

It does in the Photoshop test, where the G45 is more than a minute quicker than the competition. Intel comes out on top in the Movie Creator test, too, although by a much smaller margin. Only 10 seconds separates the field in the Media Encoder 9 test.

Although WorldBench’s Office test doesn’t mix things up, the standalone and multitasking Firefox tests show Intel lagging behind its rivals. That’s not surprising given that WorldBench’s Firefox tests tend to favor systems with lower memory access latencies.

We’re not surprised to see the G45 Express behind the 780G and GeForce 8300 here, and all things considered, it’s really not that far off the pace. The 780G wasn’t entirely stable in the DirectX modeling test, which it failed to complete about half of the time. We haven’t encountered this issue with older Catalyst revisions, so we can only assume that it’s related to AMD’s latest driver release.

WorldBench’s Nero and WinZip tests tend to favor faster storage subsystems, and the G45 Express takes top honors in both.

Gaming

Intel’s integrated graphics solutions have come a long way in the last couple of years, at least on the compatibility front. We didn’t encounter any problems actually running the games we used to test the X4500HD’s pixel-pushing horsepower. However, we did have to turn display resolutions and in-game detail levels way down to wring acceptable performance from Intel’s latest GMA. And in some cases, we didn’t even get that.

In Call of Duty 4, we turned off most in-game details and dropped the resolution to 800×600. Half-Life 2 Episode Two was also dropped to 800×600 with medium detail levels set across the board. For Crysis, we naturally set the lowest detail level possible at the lowest supported resolution of 800×600. Ambition got the better of us in Quake Wars, though. Here we were able to get surprisingly decent performance running the game at 1024×768 with high in-game detail levels, at least from the 780G and GeForce 8300.

As you can see, the G45 Express’ frame rates are well below those of the 780G and GeForce 8300. And there are more problems with the GMA, including sky rendering issues in Crysis and an absolutely abysmal showing in Quake Wars. What’s particularly disappointing about the Quake Wars results is that dropping to low in-game detail levels and a 640×480 display resolution only brings the G45’s frame rate up to nine frames per second. Clearly, the X4500HD is a poor choice for even occasional gaming.

HD Video playback

With HD DVD essentially dead, we confined our video playback tests to Blu-ray movies with the highest bitrates we could find for each of the format’s three encoding types. For VC-1 encoding, we settled on Nature’s Journey, which is packed with ridiculously gorgeous loops of nature scenes. On the AVC front (otherwise known as H.264), the highest bitrates we could get our hands on came with the fast zombie flick 28 Days Later. We had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for MPEG2, eventually settling on Click. For whatever reason, an Adam Sandler comedy is encoded with a higher bitrate than other MPEG2 movies.

We used the latest version of PowerDVD 8 Ultra (build 2021a) for playback and enabled hardware acceleration within the application. CPU utilization was logged for 60 seconds of playback with each movie, and the results were averaged. Movies were played back in fullscreen mode with the desktop resolution set to 1920×1080, or 1080p.

Even with our budget processors, the latest integrated graphics platforms have no problems delivering smooth Blu-ray playback with low CPU utilization. We didn’t observe any obvious differences in playback quality between the three platforms, either.

Intel actually hooked us up with an earlier version of PowerDVD to use with the G45, and with that build, CPU utilization with MPEG2 content dropped by about 10%. However, this older version of PowerDVD wasn’t compatible with 28 Days Later, forcing us to upgrade to the latest public release for testing.

We should also note that our GeForce 8300 board wasn’t immune to Blu-ray playback problems. In this case, the issues we observed related to screen resolution. We could only coax a display resolution of up to 1680×1050 from the board’s VGA output before PowerDVD started spitting out errors it attributed to the graphics driver. Switching to digital output allowed us to scale up to 1920×1080, but 1920×1200 produced the same PowerDVD driver errors. Oddly, switching to Nvidia’s standalone graphics driver rather than the display driver bundled with the GeForce 8300 driver package allowed us to play back Blu-ray titles at 1920×1200, but only over a digital output.

Serial ATA performance

The Serial ATA disk controller is one of the most important components of a modern core logic chipset, so we threw each platform a selection of I/O-intensive storage tests using a Western Digital VelociRaptor. The 780G is at a disadvantage here because we’re running it in native IDE mode, which doesn’t support Native Command Queuing. AMD’s south bridge chips must be run in AHCI mode to enable command queuing, but performance problems associated with that mode in both the company’s SB600 and SB700 south bridge chips remain a thorn in the 780G’s side.

IOMeter

We’ll begin our storage tests with IOMeter, which subjects our systems to increasing multi-user loads. Testing was restricted to IOMeter’s workstation and database test patterns, since those are more appropriate for desktop systems than the file or web server test patterns.

A lack of command queuing support really hurts the 780G here. Neither the G45 Express nor the GeForce 8300 have problems running in AHCI mode, though, and they’re evenly matched in IOMeter.

As one might expect, the response times of the G45 and GeForce are much quicker than those of the 780G.

The G45’s CPU utilization is a little higher than that of the GeForce 8300 in IOMeter, but not by a margin that we’d worry about. Don’t make too much of the 780G’s lower CPU utilization here—it’s doing less work.

HD Tach

We used HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone test to measure basic SATA throughput and latency.

The results of HD Tach’s transfer rate tests are mixed, with the G45 Express bouncing between second and third place. Intel is certainly in the running in the sustained throughput tests, but it’s a good 37MB/s off the lead in the burst speed test.

Although both the 780G and G45 offered consistent performance throughout HD Tach’s transfer rate tests, the GeForce 8300’s burst speed inexplicably bounced between 246, 209.7, and 173.6MB/s.

Our HD Tach random access times are all within 0.3 milliseconds.

HD Tach’s margin of error in this test is +/- 2%, and the G45 is well beyond that margin, using nearly four times the CPU cycles of the GeForce 8300. The G45’s high CPU utilization was consistent across multiple test runs, as well.

USB performance

Our USB transfer speed tests were conducted with a USB 2.0/Firewire external hard drive enclosure connected to a 7,200-RPM Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 hard drive. We tested with HD Tach 3.01’s 8MB zone setting.

Intel’s USB controllers haven’t always been performance leaders, but the G45 Express manages the highest throughput in our burst and sustained read speed tests. It’s just a hair off the lead in the sustained write speed test, too, and with much lower CPU utilization than the 780G.

PCI Express performance

We used ntttcp to test PCI Express Ethernet throughput using a Marvell 88E8052-based PCI Express x1 Gigabit Ethernet card.

The G45 Express looks good here, particularly when compared with the GeForce 8300. However, we should note that this high CPU utilization is uncharacteristic of other GeForce 8300 platforms we’ve used.

PCI performance

To test PCI performance, we used the same ntttcp test methods and a PCI VIA Velocity GigE NIC.

Again, the G45 runs neck-and-neck with the 780G. Our GeForce 8300 board’s problems with high CPU utilization remain.

Power consumption

We measured system power consumption, sans monitor and speakers, at the wall outlet using a Watts Up Pro power meter. Power consumption was measured at idle and under a load consisting of a multi-threaded Cinebench 10 render running in parallel with the “rthdribl” high dynamic range lighting demo. Results that fall under “No power management” were obtained with Windows Vista running in high-performance mode, while those with power management enabled were taken with Vista in its balanced performance mode.

Although its idle power consumption isn’t quite low enough to catch the 780G and GeForce 8300 with Cool’n’Quiet enabled, the G45 Express does consume less power under load. The 12-watt difference in load power consumption is greater than the 6.5-watt gap in idle power consumption, too.

For whatever reason, our GeForce 8300 board’s power consumption is quite high when running in Vista’s high-performance mode, which disables Cool’n’Quiet clock throttling. Switching to the balanced performance profile brings idle power consumption back down to reality, though.

Overclocking

Micro ATX boards generally don’t make good overclocking platforms, but since MSI was accommodating enough to provide a decent suite of BIOS options, we decided to turn the screws on our Pentium E2180 to see how far it would go. We dropped the system’s memory divider to 1:1 to take our DIMMs out of the equation and then began to turn up the front-side bus speed, testing stability with a two-way Prime95 load along the way.

This is the first time I’ve overclocked our E2180, and I was surprised to see it effortlessly sail up to 3.1GHz without so much as a voltage tweak. That’s more than a 50% clock speed boost, and the chip wasn’t done yet. It was actually stable at 3.2GHz, albeit with the CPU voltage bumped up to 1.43V.

The G45 Express certainly isn’t the best platform for budding overclockers, but it’s nice to know there’s headroom to exploit in Intel’s budget CPUs—provided you have a willing motherboard, of course.

Motherboard peripheral performance

Core logic chipsets integrate a wealth of peripherals, but they don’t handle everything. Firewire, Ethernet, and audio are farmed out to auxiliary chips, for example. To provide a closer look at the peripheral performance you can expect from the motherboards we’ve tested today, we’ve complied Firewire, Ethernet, and audio performance results below. We’ve used motherboard rather than chipset names here because these performance characteristics reflect the auxiliary peripheral chips used on each board rather than the performance of the core logic chipset.

Ethernet performance
Throughput (Mbps) CPU utilization (%)

Asus M3N78 PRO
825 52.4

Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-DS2H
938 20.9

MSI G45M-FIDR
944 23.9

MSI’s G45 board looks solid on the networking front, offering plenty of throughput with low CPU utilization. Again, our Asus GeForce 8300 board struggles with high CPU utilization in a networking performance test.

HD Tach
Firewire performance

Read burst

speed (MB/s)


Average read

speed (MB/s)


Average write

speed (MB/s)


CPU utilization

(%)


Asus M3N78 PRO
40.3 32.0 24.6 2.3

Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-DS2H
42.0 37.5 24.1 2.7

MSI G45M-FIDR
34.5 31.8 13.2 1.3

While the G45M’s GigE performance is up to speed, the board’s Firewire implementation is much slower than those of its competitors.

RightMark Audio
Analyzer audio quality

Overall score

Frequency response

Noise level

Dynamic range

THD

THD + Noise

IMD + Noise

Stereo Crosstalk

IMD at 10kHz

Asus M3N78 PRO
4 5 4 4 3 1 3 5 3

Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-DS2H
4 5 5 5 3 1 3 6 3

MSI G45M-FIDR
4 5 4 4 3 1 3 5 3

Our RightMark Audio Analyzer scores are close overall, but the Gigabyte 780G board does have an advantage in a couple of tests, likely thanks to its use of Realtek’s high-end ALC889A codec chip.

Conclusions

Let’s get this out of the way right now: if you’re looking to play games on an integrated graphics chipset, you can do a lot better than the G45 Express. AMD’s 780G and Nvidia’s GeForce 8300 platforms offer significantly better performance and a more reliable track record when it comes to compatibility, especially with newer titles. Of course, if you want to play newer games, you’re much better off ditching integrated graphics in favor of one of the sub-$100 discrete graphics cards available on the market, but I digress.

So the G45 Express’ Graphics Media Accelerator X4500HD isn’t much of a gamer, then. But Intel’s latest GMA does support Blu-ray decode acceleration—a task it performs rather well. Even with our budget Pentium E2180, the X4500HD had no problems smoothly playing back high-bitrate Blu-ray movies at 1080p. The latest integrated graphics chipsets from AMD and Nvidia can do this too, of course, but at least Intel has reached parity here.

The rest of the G45 Express is also up to snuff, with a second-generation PCI Express x16 slot, low power consumption at idle and under load, plenty of south bridge features including an integrated Gigabit Ethernet MAC and problem-free AHCI implementation, and a front-side bus compatible with a wide range of very potent Core 2 processors. Intel arguably has a much more attractive processor lineup than AMD at the moment, and that gives the G45 Express a leg up on the 780G and GeForce 8300. And if you’re looking to build a Core 2-based home theater PC with an integrated graphics chipset and Blu-ray decode acceleration, the G45 is currently the only game in town.

As tends to be the case with Intel’s integrated graphics platforms, there’s a price premium associated with the G45 Express. Motherboards based on the G45 typically cost $10-40 more than those based on AMD’s 780G, which is our current integrated graphics chipset of choice. That’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but it’s something to keep in mind, particularly when building a budget rig.

The MSI G45M-FIDR we tested today should hit the market at around $120, and it’s a decent board overall. I particularly like the inclusion of the ICH10R south bridge chip, since falling hard drive prices continue to make RAID more attractive for desktops, if only for redundancy. However, the G45M-FIDR doesn’t play to the G45’s strengths, which are its Blu-ray playback acceleration and abundance of digital output options. We can only hope MSI’s home-theater-PC-oriented take on the G45 does better on that front.

Comments closed
    • ew
    • 11 years ago

    I’d just like to say that this was an excellent review and the photography was superb as usual. Thanks!

    • flip-mode
    • 11 years ago

    AMD’s SATA performance is stupid.

    I’d take a G45 mobo in a second. Good performance where it counts, and no illusions of having gaming performance for free.

    Thanks for the article TR.

      • Krogoth
      • 11 years ago

      What are you smoking?

      780G’s SATA performance is pretty much the same as compention.

      The reason why IOmeter performance seems lackluster is here in the review.

      q[

        • MadManOriginal
        • 11 years ago

        How does your post even make sense? You say one thing and then post a quote from the article which directly refutes it. If the AHCI mode isn’t working correctly and that causes poorer performance then it’s poorer performance, the reason doesn’t matter, the other chipsets do perform correctly with AHCI and therefore have an advantage.

          • Krogoth
          • 11 years ago

          IOmeter is a synthetic benchmark that only reflects multi-user loads to some degree. It is meaningless for single-user loads (desktop/workstation).

          Secondly, because AHCI/NCQ was disabled on 780G. Any comparison to AHCI/NCQ-enabled competition is apples and oranges at best. It just shows much of an impact NCQ has for multi-user loads (servers).

          780G’s single-user IO performance benches are about the same as the competition. They matter far more to G45 and 780G’s intended market.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 11 years ago

            Ok I see what you’re saying about IOMeter not being important for desktop use. But the only other SATA benchmarks are HDTach which is also unfortunately not useful for guaging general performance. Just look at HD tests, some drives that dominate in HDTach don’t do well in broader storage benchmarks because STR isn’t everything. The useful parts of that test are access time and CPU usage, G45 doesn’t do well in the latter.

            I still disagree that comparing AHCI to non-AHCI isn’t fair though, in this case it’s a matter of one not being implemented correctly so it’s the reality of how it will be used in an actual system. Whether broader storage benchmarks show that AHCI helps or not is different from using it when it can be used and not using it when it can’t.

            • DrDillyBar
            • 11 years ago

            considering the problem is … the problem.

    • axeman
    • 11 years ago

    Once again, Intel IGP is a shining beacon for all things that suck. Sure, they’re not in the discrete GPU business so they don’t have that IP to borrow from, but with all their millions of BushBucks, this is the best they can do?

      • UberGerbil
      • 11 years ago

      What makes you thnk they were trying to do any better than this? This is the best they /[

    • Peldor
    • 11 years ago

    r[

    • DrDillyBar
    • 11 years ago

    Well, it’s good to see that they are atleast improving on non-gaming usage scenarios. And after using a 915GM for a few years, the fact that this one will actually RUN games, even at like 5FPS is still an improvement in my books.

    • Hattig
    • 11 years ago

    No HD decode image quality analysis?

    • Rza79
    • 11 years ago

    Geoff are you using a Vista install that has SP1 slipstreamed? Because the new Vista DVD’s with SP1 slipstreamed don’t give any issues with AMD AHCI anymore.
    I’m using SB700 AHCI with Vista SP1 without any problems. Microsoft implemented the fix the offered before into the SP1 install.

    • donkeycrock
    • 11 years ago

    Interesting side not:
    I just built some budget computers for my friends. When i first started out, I intended to use a intel CPU. But after looking at the choices with integrated graphics; I ended up going with an AMD CPU just so i could use 780g.
    I think its funny that the CPU didnt decide what platform i chose, but the motherboard did, which is usually just a peripheral choice for me.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 11 years ago

      I wouldn’t call that strange. When you’re instending to use the IGP the mobo becomes a much bigger consideration. About a year ago I put together a PC for a family member and chose a 680G because there were almost no Intel options with digital video output.

      • kuraegomon
      • 11 years ago

      Yup. I’ve built two Office/web/email-targeted boxes (with some expected video playback duties) in the last 4 weeks, and the 780G was absolutely the deciding factor.

      I put an Athlon X2 6000+ in the lighter-duty one, and a Phenom 9550 in the other (which I might use occasionally), and 4 GB of RAM. To my mind, those are sealed boxes – I’ll never upgrade them. Future software/Windows choices will use multi-core better, and 4 GB of RAM should be good for a 5 or 6 year lifecycle. Really nice general-purpose budget platform.

      It’s taken me years to accept that there’s such a thing as “good enough” processing power for casual users, but once you make that mental leap, AMD has a lot to recommend it as an overall solution.

      Meanwhile, I personally run a Q6600 overclocked to 3.2 GHz, with 8 GB of RAM and 4-way RAID 0 (AMCC 9650 hardware RAID) for my (regularly backed-up) OS partition. So don’t mistake me for an AMD fanboy, or a “who needs more CPU grunt?” advocate. For my uncle/girlfriend, though, these types of platforms make all the sense in the world.

        • eitje
        • 11 years ago

        q[

          • kuraegomon
          • 11 years ago

          Note to self – be more precise in future.

          And yes, my uncle and girlfriend are completely different people. Just so we have that clear 😉

    • Voldenuit
    • 11 years ago

    Modern IGPs are good for HTPCs, not gaming. When considering that a Radeon HD46xx can be had for under $100 these days, there really is no place for IGPs in gaming.

    However, not everyone is a gamer. I think an IGP makes a lot of sense for a media box, especially one in a small enclosure by the TV. I’m glad that TR didn’t seem to have as many driver issues as Anandtech did when testing the G45 – hopefully, this means intel is finally fixing their bugbear of lousy graphics drivers.

    Still, with Nehalem and X58 due in a month, it’s hard to get excited about the G45. If it had come out 3-6 months ago, then we’d be talking. Hopefully, the G/P55 will be a contender – my guess is that it will be paired with the lower-spec 2-channel Core i7 due next year.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 11 years ago

    Darn, no factory oc’d IGPs? I’m afraid this article’s comments won’t be nearly as numerous or intense as the GTX260 Core 216’s 🙁 Damage keeps all the good stuff for himself eh?
    =====
    Joking aside, nice overview. No mention of the G45 delay though? It was supposed to be out by the end of August or earlier originally iirc.

    The only other thing I can say atm is that some board makers continue to get big FAILS on certain simple layout things. Blocked SATA ports is not acceptable, there are right-angle ports out there or at least put them inline with PCI slots, Asus has been bad with this on various boards for a long time you’d think they’d know better as the market leader. And wow! look at the ATX power connector on the Asus! MSI gets a downrating for putting the PCIe 1x slot next to the PCIe 16x in aqdditoina to the CPU power header. Gigabyte even gets a semi-fail here, putting a card over the IGP heatsink seems like a bad idea to me, even with the smaller process of P/G45 I bet that NB gets hot.

      • eitje
      • 11 years ago

      Well, if you have a flip-flopped PSU in your computer’s case, then the 12V plug is actually in a better position than if it were along the top edge.

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 11 years ago

    Okay. So Intel is making some strides with their IGPs. Not that it was benchmarked, but I bet you could build a decently priced WoW box off this. And the performance would be acceptable, I think.

    And btw, at first glance I would’ve figured that board to be a Gigabyte. The colors! The colors!

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