GeForce 9300 by MSI
Introducing the P7NGM-Digital
The GeForce 9300 arrived at The Benchmarking Sweatshop riding MSI's P7NGM-Digital motherboard. As one might expect from an integrated graphics platform, the board uses a Micro ATX form factor that can easily slide into unobtrusive desktop and home theater PC enclosures. Using the smaller form factor does limit expansion capacity a little, but the whole point behind an integrated graphics chipset is to avoid having to farm out functionality to discrete components.
MSI expects the P7NGM to start selling today with a street price between $110 and $120. That price range puts the board right in the thick of things with rivals based on the G45 Express, 780G, and GeForce 8300. Motherboards based on AMD's 790GX chipset tend to run around $150, although Biostar makes one that sells for close to $100
Either because motherboard makers are less particular when it comes to budget models or because limited Micro ATX real estate squeezes designers, the P7NGM's layout is hit and miss. The primary power connector is nicely placed along the edge of the board where associated cabling won't mess with chassis airflow, but the auxiliary 12V plug is a little too far down the board for my liking. I prefer to see auxiliary 12V connectors pushed to the top edge to ensure that cabling doesn't sit between the processor heatsink and where most enclosures put their exhaust fans.
Even with all its functionality consolidated in a single chip, the GeForce 9300 needs only a small passive heatsink to stay cool. This heatsink leaves plenty of clearance for the sort of larger aftermarket processor coolers that one might want to put inside a silent home theater PC.
South of the socket, we find the board's collection of Serial ATA ports. Six internal SATA ports should be more than enough for a budget system, and I could actually stand to see that total drop to five, with the sixth routed to an eSATA plug in the port cluster. Sadly, however, the P7NGM lacks external Serial ATA connectivity.
Even without adding eSATA, MSI could have done a much better job arranging the board's SATA ports. Longer double-wide graphics cards like Nvidia's GeForce 9800 GTX block access to the top four ports, leaving only two easily accessible. Granted, you're unlikely to run a gargantuan video card on an integrated graphics motherboard, but proper port placement should be easy for board designers to get right.
We don't find any surprises in the P7NGM's slot stack. In addition to a full-bandwidth PCI Express x16 slot, the board also features an x1 slot and a pair of standard PCI slots.
Around the back, the port cluster serves up everything we'd expect, including a trio of video outputs, analog audio ports, and a dose of Firewire. Ideally we'd like to see a digital S/PDIF audio output included here, particularly because this is the P7NGM-Digital. However, you can at least pass multi-channel digital audio over the board's HDMI output, provided you're feeding a compatible receiver or TV.
Realtek predictably provides the hardware behind the board's audio outputs with a basic ALC888 codec chip that doesn't support on-the-fly Dolby Digital Live and DTS encoding like the fancier ALC889A. Surprisingly, the crab also supplies a RTL8111C Gigabit Ethernet chip that supplants the GeForce 9300's embedded GigE MAC. Nvidia chipsets have long integrated networking capabilities, but it seems MSI is more taken with Realtek's latest Gigabit chip.