In the year since its release, Nvidia's GeForce 9400 integrated graphics chipset has popped up in a surprisingly diverse collection of products. The chip made a flashy debut as the GeForce 9400M inside Apple's unibody MacBooks back in October of last year. Next, the 9400 found its way into desktop motherboards designed for LGA775-based Core 2 processors. True to form, Nvidia then came up with fresh Ion branding for the chipset before strapping it to Intel's Atom CPU. Under its Ion guise, the GeForce 9400M has since slipped into several Mini-ITX motherboards, nettops, and netbooks.
If you're at all familiar with Intel's integrated graphics solutions, the GeForce 9400M's appeal is obvious. Simply put, it offers vastly superior gaming performance to Intel's best Graphics Media Accelerator. Plus, you get a fancy video decode engine that enables smooth Blu-ray playback, even with a wimpy Atom CPU, and all of the connectivity you'd expect from a modern core-logic chipset, neatly wrapped on a single slice of silicon.
Given the GeForce 9400M's credentials, it's a wonder the chipset hasn't been more popular in notebooks. Justifying the need for Ion's superior graphics horsepower might be difficult when you're dealing with an Atom CPU that chokes on older titles like Call of Duty 4 and Half-Life 2. However, a proper notebook CPU should be able to take much better advantage of the GeForce 9400's pixel-pushing prowess. Yet the selection of notebooks that feature the GeForce 9400 remains limited at best.
At least the GeForce 9400M has escaped the clutches of MacBook exclusivity and made its way into more affordable systems, such as Dell's Studio 14z. Starting at $750, the Studio 14z pairs the 9400M with a Core 2 CPU, a 14" display, sensibly up-to-date connectivity, and a slew of configuration options covering everything from the screen resolution to keyboard backlighting to the color scheme. In many ways, the Studio 14z feels like the anti-MacBook. But is it any good?
Based on the system's spec sheet, it certainly should be. The star of the show is, of course, the GeForce 9400M. Wait, make that the GeForce 9400M GNvidia's apparently gone on another rebranding kick.
Despite the name change, the 9400M's internals remain the same. The integrated graphics core houses 16 DirectX 10-compliant stream processors and can write four pixels per clock. When running at full speed, the graphics core ticks along at 450MHz, while the SPs run at 1100MHz. Those clock speeds drop to 200 and 400MHz, respectively, when the system is idling at the Windows desktop.
Rather than using dedicated video memory, the 9400M carves out a slice of system RAM to call its own. In the Studio 14z, 256MB of system memory is dedicated to the integrated GeForce. Desktop motherboards typically allow users to change the amount of memory available to an integrated graphics processor, but such an option isn't available in the Studio's BIOS.
The GeForce 9400M has a dual-channel memory controller, which the Studio pairs with DDR3-1066 RAM, offering plenty of bandwidth for the CPU and integrated graphics. 1GB of memory is soldered directly onto the motherboard, leaving a single SO-DIMM slot open for a secondary module. Dell offers 2GB and 4GB SO-DIMM options for that slot. Either way, you're going to end with a lot more memory on the secondary channel.
According to Nvidia, the 9400M deals with this disparity by allowing the first 1GB of memory on the auxiliary module to run in dual-channel mode with the motherboard RAM. This arrangement gives the first 2GB of system memory the performance of a dual-channel config, while allowing additional memory to run in single-channel mode. The GeForce 9400M wisely pulls its share of system RAM from the 2GB dual-channel pool.
|Processor||Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 2.4GHz|
|Memory||3GB DDR3-1066 (2 DIMMs)|
|Chipset||Nvidia GeForce 9400M G|
|Display||14" TFT with WXGA (1366x768) resolution and LED backlight|
|Storage||Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB 2.5" 5,400-RPM hard drive|
|Audio||Stereo HD audio via IDT codec|
2 USB 2.0
1 Hybrid USB/eSATA
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek controller
1 1394 FireWire
2 analog line/headphone output
1 analog microphone input
|Expansion slots||1 ExpressCard34 slot|
|Communications||802.11b/g Wi-Fi via Dell Wireless 1397|
"Full size" keyboard
Trackpad with dedicated, chiral scrolling
|Camera||1.3 megapixel webcam|
|Dimensions||13.2" x 9" x 0.79-1.22" (336 mm x 229 mm x 20-30.9 mm)|
|Weight||~4.6 lbs (~2 kg)|
|Battery||8-cell Li-Ion 74Wh|
Dell pairs the 9400M with your choice of several Core 2 processors. The 2.4GHz P8600 in our review unit isn't actually available as a configuration option anymore. However, you can choose between the T6600 and P8700 models. The T6600 has 2MB of L2 cache and runs at 2.2GHz on an 800MHz front-side bus, while the P8700 has 3MB of cache and is clocked at 2.53GHz on a 1066MHz FSB. Neither CPU is a member of Intel's Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage (CULV) family, so despite being manufactured using 45-nano process technology, TDP ratings are in the 25-35W range. By comparison, the Core 2 Duo SU7300 belongs to the CULV family and has a TDP of just 10W, although to be fair, it runs at only 1.3GHz.
Fortunately, the GeForce 9400M shouldn't be much of a power hog. The chip's 12W TDP is actually identical to the thermal design power rating of the Intel GS45 Express integrated graphics chipset used in the vast majority of CULV-powered notebooks. The fact that the GeForce is able to slip into the same thermal envelope while packing a far more robust graphics processor is quite impressive.
The GeForce 9400M also has a complete suite of core-logic functionality, including a Gigabit Ethernet controller that Dell curiously shuns in favor of a Realtek GigE chip. Our test system came with one of Dell's own wireless cards, although this particular one doesn't support 802.11n or Bluetooth. Both are available as optional extras and are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Studio's configuration options.