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Nvidia's GeForce 9300 chipset

Best integrated graphics chipset ever?

For PC enthusiasts exposed to an almost constant stream of fresh, high-performance hardware, integrated graphics chipsets aren't terribly exciting. They often arrive astride budget motherboards that lack the features, tweaking options, and attention to detail to which we've grown accustomed. What's worse, the integrated graphics cores themselves are rarely impressive. Game compatibility tends to be a highlight rather than a given in this segment of the market, with performance testing a matter of quantifying how low one must drop the display resolution and in-game detail levels to get even adequate frame rates.

What integrated graphics chipsets lack in spine-tingling excitement they make up for by being rather important products. IGPs dominate the desktop market, and for good reason—gaming performance simply isn't a priority for the vast majority of PC users. Integrated graphics cores also migrate to budget and thin-and-light notebook platforms where discrete GPUs often aren't an option. And, of course, the recent addition of Blu-ray decode acceleration has made integrated graphics attractive for home theater and desktop systems tasked primarily with video playback.

AMD's 780G chipset kicked off this latest generation of integrated graphics products in surprisingly spectacular fashion. It was the first to offload Blu-ray decode, bringing smooth HD movie playback to systems with even budget processors. The 780G also debuted a reasonably competent graphics core ripped from a discrete Radeon GPU, guaranteeing game compatibility and setting a new standard of IGP performance.

Nearly eight months have passed since the 780G launched, and it's still our favorite integrated graphics chipset. Nvidia took a shot at the champ with its GeForce 8300, and while it largely matched the 780G's capabilities, it wasn't quite good enough to win us over. Then AMD piled it on this summer, releasing a 790GX chipset with an even faster graphics core that raised the bar higher still. Intel sells more integrated graphics chipsets than AMD and Nvidia combined, but when its latest G45 Express joined the party, a distinct lack of graphics horsepower kept it from challenging for the integrated graphics crown.

The next integrated graphics chipset in line to take a shot at AMD's platform prelude to Fusion is Nvidia's new GeForce 9300. This latest nForce GeForce MCP sports a Core 2-compatible front-side bus and enough graphics punch to take on the 790GX, at least according to Nvidia. If the GeForce 9300 really is that good, it could very well be the best integrated graphics chipset on the market. Naturally, we've rounded up the 780G, 790GX, GeForce 8300, and G45 Express, and we've pitted them against the 9300 to find out. Buckle up, folks. This is as exciting as integrated graphics gets.

GeForce MCP
As one might expect, the GeForce 9300's graphics core is its most compelling component. This one element has the potential to take an otherwise drab diesel econobox and turn it into an adorable little hot hatch. At least on paper, the 9300 looks every bit the part. The graphics core is packed with 16 "CUDA processors," which is twice as many as you get in the GeForce 8300. These shader processors run at 1.2GHz with a 450MHz graphics core. Nvidia is also prepping a GeForce 9400 that bumps clock speeds up to 1.4GHz and 580MHz, respectively. If that sounds familiar, it's because Apple just announced a new line of MacBooks that will feature GeForce 9400M integrated graphics—a mobile variant of the very GeForce 9300 silicon we'll be looking at today. Integrated graphics may not be exciting, but at least now it's cool.

Calling what were formerly shader units CUDA processors might seem like a cheap marketing ploy, but Nvidia has spent a great deal of its marketing focus on its general-purpose GPU computing initiative of late. It may eventually pay off. We have seen early examples of CUDA being used to accelerate video encoding and Folding@home, among other tasks. And the GeForce 9300's shaders can perform PhysX calculations, too.

While it's probably not a good idea to saddle an IGP with a combined graphics and physics load, the 9300 supports Hybrid PhysX, which allows users to crunch physics calculations on the motherboard GPU while a discrete GPU handles graphics. Nvidia recommends that a GeForce 9500 GT be paired with the 9300 for Hybrid PhysX, stating that using a faster discrete graphics card can actually result in slower performance.

Nvidia hasn't forgotten about more traditional GPU teaming with the GeForce 9300. The performance-enhancing component of Hybrid SLI, known as GeForce Boost, is supported, except again, it only works with relatively low-end graphics cards. Motherboard and discrete GPUs must be evenly matched for GeForce Boost to improve performance, and that limits the GeForce 9300 to working in tandem with the GeForce 8400 GS and 8500 GT, and presumably their newer GeForce 9-series derivatives.

Even support for HybridPower has made it into the GeForce 9300, although according to Nvidia, it will only be available "in select designs." This unique-to-Nvidia technology allows a powerful discrete graphics card to be completely shut down at idle, with the motherboard GPU taking over graphics duties until additional horsepower is required. HybridPower can dramatically reduce a gaming rig's idle power consumption, so it's good for your carbon footprint, but not terribly applicable to most integrated graphics systems.

These days, integrated graphics cores are more than just 3D pixel-pushing engines. The GeForce 9300 also features dedicated hardware for Blu-ray decode acceleration across MPEG2, VC-1, and AVC/H.264 formats. Decode acceleration can be applied to two video streams, allowing the 9300 to smoothly play back newer titles that feature picture-in-picture video commentary tracks. Nvidia's PureVideo HD umbrella includes a full suite of post-processing capabilities, too, although we've found that commercial Blu-ray movies tend not to need additional image quality massaging.

The GeForce 9300's robust graphics core is backed by a wide selection of output options, including VGA, DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort. Up to two digital displays can be powered simultaneously, which is a nice perk for multimonitor desktops. Home theater PC aficionados will no doubt appreciate the chipset's ability to output lossless multi-channel LPCM audio over HDMI, as well. Neither the 780G nor the 790GX supports multi-channel LCPM output over HDMI, although the G45 Express and GeForce 8300 both do.

Since Intel's current processors don't have integrated memory controllers, Nvidia had to build one of its own for the GeForce 9300. This dual-channel controller takes advantage of dirt-cheap memory prices with support for DDR2 DIMMs up to 800MHz, and it's set up nicely for the future with support for DDR3 memory up to 1333MHz.

The GeForce 9300's memory controller sits on a front-side bus that scales up to 1333MHz. That's fast enough for all of Intel's existing processors, with the exception of the Core 2 Extreme QX9770, which is entirely too expensive to pair with a budget motherboard. The latest GeForce MCP is up-to-date on the PCI Express front, too. Nvidia has endowed the 9300 with 20 lanes of gen-two connectivity, leaving enough bandwidth for a full-speed x16 slot and a small collection of expansion slots and peripherals.

AMD 780G AMD 790GX Intel G45 Express Nvidia GeForce 8300 Nvidia GeForce 9300
Processor interface 16-bit/2GHz HyperTransport 16-bit/2GHz HyperTransport 800/1066/1333MHz front-side bus 16-bit/2GHz HyperTransport 800/1066/1333MHz front-side bus
PCI Express 1.1 lanes 0 0 6 0 0
PCI Express 2.0 lanes 26* 26* 16 19 20
Multi-GPU support CrossFire CrossFire NA SLI SLI
Chipset interconnect PCIe 1.1 x4 PCIe 1.1 x4 DMI NA NA
Interconnect bandwidth 2GB/s 2GB/s 2GB/s NA NA
Serial ATA ports 6 6 6 6 6
Native Command Queuing Y Y Y Y Y
RAID 0/1 Y Y Y* Y Y
RAID 0+1/10 Y Y Y* Y Y
ATA channels 2 2 0 1 1
Max audio channels 8 8 8 8 8
Audio standard AC'97/HDA AC'97/HDA HDA HDA HDA
Ethernet N N 10/100/1000 10/100/1000 10/100/1000
USB ports 12 12 12 12 12

Normally, this is where I'd try to come up with a clever interconnect segue down to the south bridge, but the GeForce 9300 is actually a single-chip solution. The chipset's graphics and core logic functionality are neatly consolidated on a single piece of silicon. So, back to the chipset's features.

The rest of the GeForce 9300's payload doesn't differ from what's already available in the GeForce 8300 chipset. On the storage front, Nvidia serves up six 300MB/s Serial ATA ports with full support for RAID and AHCI. You also get a dozen USB ports and an integrated Gigabit Ethernet MAC.