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AMD’s Integrated Gambit

 

690G Looks to be Better By Design

 

By Josh Walrath

 

            There is a good reason why Intel is the leader in graphics marketshare, even though it does not make a single standalone video card.  That reason is the popularity of integrated graphics for the majority of computer users.  Intel’s Extreme Graphics are just “good enough” for the majority of non-3D applications to run perfectly fine.  Word processors run, email clients send and receive, and casual 2D games work perfectly fine.  But with the advent of Windows Vista and more casual 3D games that are requiring more resources, we are starting to see a shift that no longer favors Intel and its graphics processors.

            Last year when AMD acquired ATI, they inherited a very solid chipset division that was working on what they hoped would be a class leading integrated graphics chip with competitive features and outstanding performance.  This product would evolve into the Radeon X1250 which would be integrated into both the Intel and AMD platforms.  This past Spring AMD released these products to motherboard manufacturers, and while the AMD 690G platform is thriving, only a couple of manufacturers have picked up the Xpress 1250 for Intel processors.

            To truly get an understanding of all of the benefits and pitfalls of integrated solutions, we need to look at factors such as price, heat, power consumption, and overall system performance.  AMD feels that it has a competitive solution to Intel’s latest offerings, and to back up that sentiment they sent out review kits featuring products from both Intel and AMD. 

Quick Chipset Analysis

            Intel has been doing integrated graphics since the time it bought Real3D and introduced the i740 3D chipset.  Since that time there have been some improvements in performance and features, and the latest GMA 3000/3100 series of integrated graphics have come a long ways from the original i740.  The actual G965 chip is manufactured on Intel’s 90 nm process.  The parts are centered around 4 general shaders that are often categorized as PS 2.0 parts with vertex shading offloaded to the CPU, but with the latest BIOS and driver updates these shaders support SM 3.0 functionality in a handful of applications and use these pipes for some vertex work.  Currently this is only supported in Windows XP.  Vista is supposed to be getting this update later this year. 

            This graphics functionality is included in the P965 and G33 chipsets.  Recently Intel also improved on its video playback on these chips with their ClearVideo technology.  This driver addition utilizes the general shader units and host based software to improve video output from DVD and high definition sources.

            Typically the G965 is paired with the ICH8 series of southbridges which provide extra PCI-E lanes, 2 PATA ports, 4 to 6 SATA ports, and 10 USB ports.  The G33 is paired with the newer ICH9 series which provides no PATA ports, 4 to 6 SATA ports, 12 USB ports, and the integrated Intel 10/100/1000 MAC.

            The AMD side is a little bit different.  The 690G northbridge features a graphics core that is based on the Radeon X700 chip.  This means that it is a SM 2.0 compliant part with no SM 3.0 functionality.  It has 4 pixel shaders/pipelines and 2 vertex shaders.  It contains the entire X700 featureset, such as AA and AF support, as well as the addition of Avivo video playback technology.  The chip itself is an 80 nm part.

            The Avivo portion is one of the most interesting aspects of this product, as it is guaranteed to handle HD playback up to 720p.  When combined with a 2.4 GHz processor and above, the latest driver and BIOS packages enable 1080p playback with full Avivo functionality.  In reality that 1080p figure may be stretching things, and it could be a very choppy experience for users.  1080i and 720p are much more realistic targets for this integrated video.

            The SB600 southbridge is used with the 690G, and it features 2 PATA ports, 4 SATA ports, 8 USB ports, and 4 PCI-E lanes.  It does not feature an integrated Gig-E MAC, or many other features for that matter.  AMD relies on other chips connected to the PCI bus and the PCI-E lanes to handle the extra functionality needed by motherboard designs.

            The 690G graphics core runs at 400 MHz, but again that has been “unlocked” by the latest BIOS and driver sets.  Users can overclock the chip as desired, and it should help improve performance by a small amount in both 3D graphics and Avivo functionality.  One potential negative to this solution is that the graphics core needs to communicate to the memory through the HT tunnel linking the chip to the CPU, and then the CPU’s integrated memory controller then connects to the main memory.  This does add latency as compared to a solution with direct on-chip access to the memory controller (namely the Intel based products).

 

Next:  Cost Analysis

 

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