When it comes to the king of desktop processors, Intel has it all. Core 2 has given Intel the performance crown all to itself, with AMD flapping like a dying fish on the beach. Intel keeps bringing bigger and better products these days, a far cry from four years ago when Pentium 4 was bleeding Intel dry.
Now Intel has the CPU of choice and with that comes support left, right and centre. While Intel has a huge array of chipsets for its own processor, support also comes from another source, that being from the biggest 3D chipset maker, NVIDIA.
While Intel has the best enthusiast chipsets out for the platform, Intel's integrated graphics platforms simply can't compete with the likes of NVIDIA's IGP based setups. This is simply because NVIDIA has all of its 3D chip technology to call on for integration into its chipsets, keeping it ahead of chipzilla.
nForce 730i / GeForce 9300 Up Close
First off, before we get into our test board today, we wanted to give a bit of info on the new features of the GeForce 9300 and 9400 chipsets compared to the previous generation NVIDIA chipsets for the Intel platform.
CPU and Bus Support
The 9x00 series all support the same CPU and bus speeds, where the older GF7 had different speeds for its varying models. Both chipsets support up to 1333MHz FSB along with all current Core 2, Pentium D, Pentium 4 and Celeron D processors. So whatever CPU you have, its supported across this family.
Boost in Memory
Compared to the GeForce 7 series chipsets, the 9x00 gives the Intel platform a boost in memory performance. GF7 used only a single channel memory controller, limiting the bandwidth to the CPU. This is extremely detrimental when you also consider that the IGP uses some of this bandwidth when it's stealing system memory for the graphics card.
The 9x00 series uses a dual channel arrangement and either supports DDR2 or DDR3 memory, depending on the manufacturer as to what they prefer to support. DDR2 is cheaper, however DDR3 offers a higher max bandwidth, especially when using 1333MHz and above modules. One thing is evident, however. If DDR3 is supported, NVIDIA's own SLI ready memory support is not included; this is a bit of a shame as SLI 2.0 memory allows for clock speeds of up to 2GHz.
PCI Express 2.0
In order to keep today's hungry devices fed with bandwidth, NVIDIA has included 20 lanes of PCI Express 2.0 connectivity into both chipsets. With this amount of lanes you can expect to see 9x00 boards supporting a discrete GPU slot as well as a couple extra PCIe slots and onboard devices.
The GF7 series of IGPs only allowed for four SATA and two PATA devices as well as only 10 USB 2.0 spec'd ports. The 9x00 series boosts this to six SATA devices, two PATA devices and 12 USB 2.0 devices. As normal, the SATA/PATA supports Mediasheild technology so that you have the option of setting the SATA drives in RAID function if this is your wish.
Now we come down to the important upgrade to the system, the IGP. The GeForce 7 series IGPs had a generation 7 graphics card. NVIDIA has increased the specs of the 9300 series to include a G86 based card, similar to the 8400GS based discrete solutions.
However, we are definitely not expecting the IGP to perform on the same level as the discrete card for one obvious reason; the system memory has no where near the bandwidth to supply the IGP with enough memory bandwidth to keep it happy. This is also the only time we see a difference between the 9300 and 9400 mGPUs. The 9300 and 9400 share the same 16 Shader Cores, however the clock speeds are different. The GeForce 9400 clocks its GPU core at 580MHz and Shaders at 1.4GHz, where the 9300 runs at 450MHz and 1.2GHz respectively.
Hybrid SLI finally makes its way onto the Intel platform. Hybrid SLI works by adding in a discrete GPU and allowing the onboard GPU to further increase the overall performance. How this works is simple; when the system is running in low to no 3D mode (such as idle in Windows or doing 2D video and picture editing) the onboard GPU is powerful enough to handle these tasks by itself. If, however, you want to run some 3D gaming, the onboard GPU calls on the power of the discrete GPU to handle the 3D rendering tasks, allowing for a boost in system performance while keeping power usage to a minimum. When the system is in onboard-only mode, the discrete GPU is totally shut down by way of the SMBUS.
The IGP of the 9x00 series are fully DVI and HDMI compliant, so there is no reason not to see DVI-I and HDMI ports on all NVIDIA 9300 and 9400 based motherboards unless they are a cheap and nasty solution aimed only for workstations.
Now that we have looked a bit into the chipset, let's take a look at our first 9300 based motherboard for today's shootout. Supplied to us by ASUS, we have on hand the new P5N7A-VM for your viewing pleasure.
Specifications of the ASUS P5N7A-VM
Supports Intel Core 2 Series (Extreme/Quad/Duo)
Supports Intel Pentium Dual Core Series
Supports Intel Pentium D Series
Supports Intel Pentium 4 5xx/6xx Series
Supports Intel Celeron D 3xx/4xx Series
Supports Intel 45nm Series CPU
GeForce 9300 and 730i
4 DDR2 SDRAM 240pin DIMM Sockets
64/128Bit Dual Channel
Supports up to 8GB Total Memory (4x 2GB)
P4 Bus Architecture
1 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1
1 Parallel ATA port supporting 2 IDE Drives
5 Serial ATA ports
1 e.SATA port
1 Gigabit Ethernet Port
1 PS2 Keyboard/Mouse Port
12 USB 2.0 Ports (6 rear accessible, 6 via expansion bracket)
6 Stereo Audio Ports
1 Toslink SPDIF Port
1 e.SATA Port
1 RJ45 Ethernet Ports
1 D-SUB VGA Port
1 DVI-I VGA Port
1 HDMI Port
The Box and What's Inside
Package and Contents
While this is actually a review of the chipset itself and not so much the board, we decided to have a basic look at the feature set that the board comes with. The board was supplied by ASUS. ASUS' design for the boxes is like Intel based CPU boxes, using a deep blue colour. On the front the ASUS logo along with the board model can be seen as well as quite a few other logos and marketing hype.
On the back of the box ASUS has its spec list, features list and marketing hype on the 9300 chipset that the board uses. For a budget/value board, we weren't expecting to see a colour photo of the board. However, on the upper right ASUS has supplied us with one, so if you're a bargain hunter who also wants to know what you're getting before you open the box, you're going to be happy here.
As usual ASUS provides a good software and documentation bundle. The user manual is coloured the same as the box; the same deep blue. The user manual contains quite a bit of info on the specs, hardware setup, BIOS setup and software on the driver disk. The Drivers DVD contains drivers for XP and Vista in both 32-bit and 64-bit variations. There are no Linux or alternate OS supporting drivers included.
Lastly is the accessories and ASUS only provides a single IDE and SATA data cable along with the ASUS Q-Connect header ports. This is a very liberal bundle, so if you want to run more than one SATA port you're going to need to purchase more cables.
It's time for a quick look at the board itself. NVIDIA specifies a Micro-ATX layout for the GeForce 9300 series and this is what ASUS has decided to produce the board on. The PCB is the same dark brown/black that we have seen across their high-end boards.
On the layout side of things, ASUS has done a good job of keeping the cable clutter to a minimum. On the right hand side of the board are all the major and large cables. At the top right is a black FDD connector and just below it is the 24-pin ATX power connector. Both of these connectors are located behind the four DDR2 memory slots. Below the power connector is a single red IDE connector which is rotated on its side to help keep the cables out of the way of the onboard devices as well as add-on cards. A large graphics card would run afoul of the IDE cable if it was upright. On the bottom of the board at the right hand side, just beside the case switch/LED panel header are five SATA ports; these ports are run off the MCP. The sixth port is diverted to the rear I/O for a single eSATA port.
The 4-pin power connector that is responsible for supplying the CPU with power is located on the top left of the board, behind the PS/2 & USB combo tower. This is the optimal layout as Micro-ATX cases are not very forgiving when it comes to extra space.
Moving along, we now come to the CPU area. ASUS has done a good job of keeping the CPU clear of high rise components to help air the installation of large heatsinks. This is however a bit redundant as this board is most likely to find its way into a Micro-ATX case or even a HTPC case which have space constraints. The CPU is fed its power through a 4-phase voltage regulation system which is run by ASUS' own EPU-4 engine.
Moving along, it's time to take a look at the rear I/O ports. ASUS has a fantastic arrangement here. First off, there are a total of four video output options. These include a single RGB port and a DVI port for output to monitors as well as two digital ports; firstly the HDMI port which we are familiar with quite intimately and also making an appearance is the new DisplayPort which has recently been added for output to digital monitors and home theatre systems. Why a new port is needed is beyond me as HDMI seems to be doing its job quite nicely.
As for digital audio, we have a single Toslink S/PDIF port resident. For media connections we have a single eSATA port for connection to external HDDs along with USB 2.0. There are no FireWire ports on this board, which is disappointing as FireWire is the chosen interface for digital video cameras.
Now it's finally onto the expansion slots and additional chipsets that the board comes with. Thanks to the abundance of PCI Express lanes that the GeForce 9300 is equipped with, ASUS has given the board a single PCI Express x16 slot for graphics cards as well as one PCI Express x1 slot and two PCI slots. There are no additional chipsets as the MCP has its own Gigabit Ethernet controller, HD audio and enough SATA and PATA ports.
Test System Setup and Memory Performance
Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 @ 3.16GHz (9.5x333MHz)
Memory: 2x 1GB DDR2-1186 Geil (Supplied by Geil)
Hard Disk: 500GB Western Digital SE16 (Supplied by Western Digital)
Graphics Card: GIGABYTE 9800GX2 (Supplied by GIGABYTE)
Cooling: GIGABYTE 3D Galaxy II (Supplied by GIGABYTE)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows Vista SP1
Drivers: Intel INF 22.214.171.1248, ForceWare 175.16, nForce driver 20.07. Intel GMA Driver 15.23
Today we have a real treat. We are comparing the GeForce 9300 against the older GeForce 7150 as well as Intels own G45 chipset. While we were going to put AMD 780G in here along with GeForce 8300, these are AMD platforms and not relevant to the Intel platform. If you're going to go AMD or Intel, you will already have made your mind up and this chipset won't change much on that front.
All three platforms have been tested with the IGP using the most available Frame Buffer memory allocated to the GPU as well as discrete mode.
EVEREST Ultimate Edition
Version and / or Patch Used: 2006
Developer Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Product Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Buy It Here
EVEREST Ultimate Edition is an industry leading system diagnostics and benchmarking solution for enthusiasts PC users, based on the award-winning EVEREST Technology. During system optimizations and tweaking it provides essential system and overclock information, advanced hardware monitoring and diagnostics capabilities to check the effects of the applied settings. CPU, FPU and memory benchmarks are available to measure the actual system performance and compare it to previous states or other systems.
Using the IGP solutions we see that the G45 and the NVIDIA GeForce 9300 are just about dead even with memory performance. The GeForce 7150 falls behind because of its single channel memory controller.
Using discrete graphics, the NVIDIA chipset manages to just creep ahead of the G45; both still manage to keep well above the 7150's poor memory performance.
Benchmarks - PCMark Vantage
Version and / or Patch Used: Unpatched
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmark-vantage//
Buy It Here
PCMark Vantage is the first objective hardware performance benchmark for PCs running 32 and 64 bit versions of Microsoft Windows Vista. PCMark Vantage is perfectly suited for benchmarking any type of Microsoft Windows Vista PC from multimedia home entertainment systems and laptops to dedicated workstations and high-end gaming rigs. Regardless of whether the benchmarker is an artist or an IT Professional, PCMark Vantage shows the user where their system soars or falls flat, and how to get the most performance possible out of their hardware. PCMark Vantage is easy enough for even the most casual enthusiast to use yet supports in-depth, professional industry grade testing.
Synthetic PC benchmarks fall to PCMark Vantage and a very good judge of character it is. With the IGP's enabled we see that the NVIDIA GeForce 9300 manages to put the Intel option to shame, thanks to a much healthier GPU. Both platforms keep well ahead of the 7150 chipset. With discrete GPUs we see that both the Intel G45 and the 9300 are identical in performance.
Benchmarks - SYSmark 2007 Preview
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.04
Developer Homepage: http://www.bapco.com/
Product Homepage: http://www.bapco.com/products/sysmark2007preview/>
SYSmark 2007 Preview is the latest version of the premier performance metric that measures and compares PC performance based on real world applications.
SYSmark 2007 Preview extends the SYSmark family, which has been widely accepted by IT Managers, PC OEMs, press and analysts worldwide to support Windows Vista.
SYSmark 2007 Preview allows users to directly compare platforms based on Windows Vista to those based on Windows XP Professional and Home.
The new release also incorporates numerous new features and enhancements such as an improved GUI allowing streamlined start-up and run along with a heads-up-display (HUD) and automated error reporting.
SYSmark 2007 Preview is an application-based benchmark that reflects usage patterns of business users in the areas of Video creation, E-learning, 3D Modeling and Office Productivity. This new release includes a robust and refreshed set of applications.
SYSmark is more of a system test and very little 3D applications are run. Here we see the GeForce 9300 managing to take on Intels G45 with no trouble, whilst the 7150 continues to trail well behind.
Using discrete options we see the G45 and 9300 right on each others heals with the 7150 still at the bottom rung, no thanks to its lack of memory performance.
Benchmarks - Adobe Premiere Elements 4.0
Adobe Premiere Elements 4.0
Version and / or Patch Used: 4.0
Developer Homepage: http://www.adobe.com
Product Homepage: http://www.adobe.com/products/premiereel/
Buy It Here
Our test with Adobe Premiere Elements 2.0 is performed with a raw two hour AVI file. It is then compressed into DivX format using the latest version codec. We measure the time it takes to encode and then record CPU usage.
Moving into real world system benchmarking, we get into Premiere Elements 4.0. The GPU does not affect these tests as it's all video encoding handled by the CPU and system memory. With the IGP tests we see the G45 and 9300 just about dead even with the 7150 falling quite a bit behind.
Using discrete GPUs we see again the 9300 and G45 right on each others heals with the 7150 still lagging at the back.
Benchmarks - 3DMark Vantage
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.01
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmarkvantage/
Buy It Here
3DMark Vantage is the new industry standard PC gaming performance benchmark from Futuremark, newly designed for Windows Vista and DirectX10. It includes two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, several new feature tests, and support for the latest hardware.
3DMark Vantage is based on a completely new rendering engine, developed specifically to take full advantage of DirectX10, the new graphics API from Microsoft.
Gaming benchmarks start with 3DMark Vantage and here is where the GeForce 9300 managed to hold it over the G45. Intel's GMA X4500 graphics core not only runs at a much slower clock speed, it hasn't got as many shader cores either, giving the 3D performance a huge hit. The 7150 also manages to fall to the end of the spectrum.
With the IGPs disabled and the discrete GPUs running, we see the 9300 and G45 just abut dead even with the 7150 still lagging far behind due to a lack of memory bandwidth on tap.
Benchmarks - Crysis
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.1
Timedemo or Level Used: Custom Timedemo
Developer Homepage: http://www.crytek.com/
Product Homepage: http://www.ea.com/crysis/
Buy It Here
From the makers of Far Cry, Crysis offers FPS fans the best-looking, most highly-evolving gameplay, requiring the player to use adaptive tactics and total customization of weapons and armor to survive in dynamic, hostile environments including Zero-G.
Real time editing, bump mapping, dynamic lights, network system, integrated physics system, shaders, shadows and a dynamic music system are just some of the state of-the-art features the CryENGINE 2 offers. The CryENGINE 2 comes complete with all of its internal tools and also includes the CryENGINE 2 Sandbox world editing system.
Here we move into real world gaming benchmarks with Crysis. All three IGPs are no where near playable with Crysis at the lowest settings. However, the 9300 manages to pull ahead of the Intel G45 chipset quite convincingly.
Benchmarks - Video Playback
For MPEG-2 playback tests, we ran The Matrix DVD, a personal favourite of mine on each system with Hardware Acceleration enabled to check for smoothness of playback as well as CPU usage during the test. The result was with 30 minutes of playback and the CPU utilisation is the average.
Here we see that all six setups use the same amount of CPU usage as all three chipsets have hardware MPEG-2 decoding built in, making the CPU work less.
Playback for MPEG-4 was again done with the Matrix, only encoded down to MPEG-4 DIVX 6.8 codec. 30 minutes was the time run. Smoothness of playback, audio sync and CPU usage are the keys here once again.
Again we see here that the G45, 9300 and 7150 use the same CPU power to run a MPEG-4 movie back and using a discrete GPU doesn't improve anything here.
HD Video Playback
Normally we run with a 720p HD video, however NVIDIA has progressed with the ability to playback 1080p video on the chipset and we want to see just how well it is able to do this.
Here we can see that the NVIDIA 9300 GPU is able to take all of the decoding off the CPU and move it to the GPU, something that G45 is also able to do, but not quite as efficiently.
Power Usage and Heat Tests
We are now able to find out what kind of power is being used by our test system and the associated graphics cards installed. Keep in mind; it tests the complete system (minus LCD monitor, which is plugged directly into an AC wall socket).
There are a few important notes to remember though; while our maximum power is taken in 3DMark06 at the same exact point, we have seen in particular tests the power being drawn as much as 10% more. We test at the exact same stage every time; therefore tests should be very consistent and accurate.
The other thing to remember is that our test system is bare minimum - only a 7,200RPM SATA-II single hard drive is used without CD-ROM or many cooling fans.
So while the system might draw 400 watts in our test system, placing it into your own PC with a number of other items, the draw is going to be higher.
In our power usage tests we see that the 9300 GPU is able to keep the power down over the previous generation. With a die shrink we get more a power conscious setup. It even managed to keep up with the G45 based system. The 7150, despite being cut down, uses quite a bit of power.
As a new measure, we are now monitoring the heat generation from the key components on the motherboards, this being the Northbridge, Southbridge (if it contains one) as well as the Mosfets around the CPU. The results are recorded at idle and load during the power consumption tests.
Here we see that all three setups are pretty identical in terms of heat generation.
NVIDIA's chipsets for the desktop platform of late have been pretty disappointing. While we have seen quad SLI added to their 790i SLI chipsets, really this technology isn't mature enough, meaning quad SLI doesn't help much at all during gaming. And while NVIDIA claims high overclocks, they are a very finicky chipset to tweak as there are too many voltages to tweak as well as dividers and bus width to play with, requiring a degree in rocket science to overclock.
However, while this may be true of their desktop chipsets, NVIDIA really has made headway with the integrated market. When it comes to producing chipsets for the desktop market with integrated graphics, NVIDIA has the market cornered. Not only is NVIDIA a neutral partner (meaning it produces chipsets for both AMD and Intel CPUs where ATI only makes AMD chipsets now) which gives NVIDIA a double share of the market, NVIDIA has a graphics business to back it up for the GPU built into the chipset.
While Intel has been producing IGP based chipsets for quite a while, they have never had real competition and thus we have just dealt with the same old crappy graphics. With NVIDIA chomping at the bit, it's now making Intel see they have a lot of work to do to really get ahead in the integrated market.
NVIDIA's GeForce 9300 chipset is one of, if not the company's best value and budget chipset on offer. Not only does it have a reasonable graphics core that can do some basic 3D gaming (older titles will be okay on it), its GPU allows for hardware decoding of a HD video along with power savings to boot. Hybrid SLI and GeForce Boost allows for flexibility in the 3D power department along with a huge list of features you wouldn't expect on a chipset aimed at this market segment. The 9300 is truly the Digital Home and HTPCs best friend.
We would like to thank ASUS for giving us the opportunity to test out this chipset and we must iterate that this is a chipset review, not a board review. We will re-visit this board later on when we receive another model for comparison.
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