Platform Trends: Budget GPUs Galore

Friday Sep 12th 2008 by Vince Freeman
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Sure, AMD and Nvidia have fast, fire-breathing graphics cards, but the rivals are now tempting bargain hunters. How do these strategies stack up against each other -- or against price cuts on last year's cards?

The loudest buzz in the PC graphics market is usually about Nvidia's and AMD/ATI's latest ultra-high-end products -- cards with graphics processing units (GPUs) strong enough to whip any game on the market, more onboard memory than your current desktop, and power requirements that could shut down the grid. But what about the rest of us, who may not require enough graphics horsepower to render the next Pixar movie? Well, Nvidia thinks it has the answer with a new entry-level offering, while AMD is making do with motherboard graphics while waiting for the next Radeon HD 4000 wave to hit.

Low, Low Prices!

Nvidia has been constantly fine-tuning its GeForce 9 Series, adding new cards, rebranding others, and plugging various gaps in its lineup. Now, not long after the July debut of the value-priced GeForce 9500 GT, comes the even more economical GeForce 9400 GT, a card designed to offer DirectX 10 goodness for less than $60.

The GeForce 9400 GT graphics processing unit is based on the same 55-nanometer-process G96 core as the GeForce 9500 GT, but with some architectural changes. For starters, the stream processor count has been cut in half, down to 16 from 32. That cuts GPU performance in half, even with clock speeds matching the older card at 550MHz core and 1400MHz shader.

To keep costs low, Nvidia's reference specification also calls for low-end DDR2 memory, running at an 800MHz effective speed. Memory architecture is also decidedly entry-level, with a 128-bit link to the onboard DDR2 for a meager 12.8GB/sec of memory bandwidth. Memory capacity, on the other hand, is actually above average for an entry-level card, with a default of 512MB that can be doubled to 1GB at vendors' discretion.

This sounds a lot like a rebadged, overclocked, slightly enhanced 55-nanometer version of the old GeForce 8500 GT, and it likely is, but these are only the base specifications. As with all GeForce cards, vendors are free to tweak the design and offer higher-clocked versions depending on market demand. Power and thermal specifications are nominal, with the GeForce 9400 GT sporting a maximum power rating of 50 watts -- low enough for even a humble 300-watt desktop PC power supply -- and a maximum GPU temperature of 105 degrees C.

On the feature side, the GeForce 9400 GT is a full-fledged PCI Express 2.0 card, supporting features such as Nvidia's PureVideo HD playback, PhysX game physics, CUDA programming interface, and DirectX 10/OpenGL 2.1.

AMD Pushes its 790GX

Meanwhile, while AMD has not officially launched a low-end member of its Radeon HD 4000 line, the company has put the integrated graphics segment in its sights. The AMD 790GX motherboard chipset is a higher-end version of the 780G, which incorporates the feature set and performance of the previous 790X while offering integrated graphics on a HyperTransport 3.0 Socket AM2+ platform. Moreover, the 790GX doesn't suffer the higher-clocked Phenom jitters that the 780G did, and can handle the company's entire desktop processor line right up to the 140-watt Phenom 9950 Black Edition.

The main feature of the 790GX chipset is of course its graphics -- an onboard version of the Radeon HD 3300 GPU, stepping up from the HD 3200 platform of the AMD 780G. This is a fully DirectX 10.1-compatible graphics core, with a clock speed of 700MHz versus 500MHz for the 780G.

The 790GX makes use of onboard DDR2 memory for framebuffer and textures, utilizing the motherboard's DDR2-800MHz speeds and the HyperTransport 3.0 architecture. As always, using system memory does limit performance compared to a discrete graphics solution, but the 200MHz increase in core clock speed is still significant: The HD 3300 has now leaped past the 600MHz Radeon HD 3450 card in GPU power and real-world gaming performance, so the 3300 label is a bit of a misnomer.

But that's not the end of the story, as the AMD 790GX adds another neat trick by incorporating onboard display cache or sideport memory. The high-end 790GX configurations include 128MB of onboard DDR3, which can yield up to a 15-percent jump in gaming frame rates. In short, the strategy is not only to provide the top integrated graphics solution but to outperform entry-level dedicated graphics cards.

The 790GX also supports Hybrid Graphics technology, which allows the onboard GPU to team up with a dedicated Radeon HD 2400, 3450, or 3470 card in CrossFire mode. Both the optional DDR3 buffer and CrossFire support deliver real-world benefits, with a noticeable jump in gaming benchmarks when both features are enabled.

The Approaching HD 4000 Wave

So far we've covered the present, but September is expected to see perhaps the biggest entry-level splash yet: While AMD has already unveiled the high end of its ATI Radeon HD 4000 series, the Radeon HD 4650 and 4670 are poised to attack the mainstream -- read GeForce 9600 -- market while two new Radeon 4400 cards strike the segment below.

The Radeon HD 4450 and 4470 will use the same basic GPU, but the base architecture of their upcoming ATI RV710 has come under dispute: Depending on which source you listen to, it could feature 40, 80, or even 120 stream processors. We think 80 sounds about right, with DDR2 memory likely for the Radeon HD 4450 and a GDDR3 option for the HD 4470. Memory bandwidth and overall performance won't be anything outrageous, but should be enough to put Nvidia on the defensive in this price range.

While we do welcome more competition in the entry-level graphics market, this sector is getting pretty crowded and seems to grow larger every month. Part of this is due to newly released sub-$100 products, but mostly it's a combination of accelerated development schedules and the filter-down effect of older mainstream (or even high-end) cards falling off the radar, then reappearing at a fraction of their original price. Repositioned mainstream cards like the GeForce 9600 GSO, GeForce 8800 GS, and Radeon HD 3850 might make life tough for the under-$100 newcomers.

Intel CPU Prices

Other than a few random drops here and there, Intel Core 2 price levels have stayed remarkably stable. This is a surprise, especially in light of AMD's consistent price cuts on the Phenom X3 and X4 processors, the vast majority of which now sit below $200. Though Intel still has the high-end market to itself, it's a tough match-up in the $100 to $150 range.

As for our top Intel performance choice, we're sticking with the 3.16GHz Core 2 Duo E8500, the company's highest-clocked dual-core CPU, which sits just below $190. The 3.0GHz Core 2 Duo E8400 is another good option, while quad-core shoppers have some attractive choices in the 2.5GHz Core 2 Quad Q9300 ($260) and 2.83GHz model Q9550 ($320), as well as the old Core 2 Quad Q6600 standby for under $200.

Entry-level Intel processor options revolve around the dual-core Celeron E1200 (1.6GHz) and E1400 (2.0GHz) chips. With no change in the price of either model -- around $50 and $65, respectively --there's no reason not to spend the extra $15 and hit the top clock speed. Since alternatives from Intel are limited, your may want to explore the low-cost AMD dual-core selection, where you can snag a 2.7GHz Athlon 64 X2 5200+ for less than $75.

Intel Upgrades

In this section, we evaluate potential upgrades for Core 2-compliant Intel systems, using platforms that fully support Intel multicore processors. Whether upgrading or buying a new system, the 3.16GHz Core 2 Duo E8500 is a killer option and a steal of a deal at around $190. The only problem is that older platforms may not be fully compatible with both the 1333MHz front-side bus and 45-nanometer architecture of this CPU.

Moving to an older 3.0GHz Core 2 Duo E6850 solves the 45nm portion, but you'll still need a system that can handle FSB1333. The safest route, and the only one for older dual-core platforms, is to stick with a first-generation 65nm/1066MHz processor such as the 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600.

Before making any CPU upgrade, first confirm the front-side bus speeds your current Intel platform supports, along with ensuring proper BIOS, memory, and cooling requirements. Most older platforms are still dependent on motherboard BIOS support, so check your vendor's Web site to confirm exactly which processors your board can accommodate. Unless you have a relatively new motherboard with confirmed CPU support, it's best to avoid the latest 45-nanometer and 1333/1600MHz Core 2 processors.

AMD CPU Prices

The Phenom X3 and X4 processors have enjoyed some consistent price cuts over the past couple of months, but right now we seem to be in another lull -- last week's only notable drop brought the 2.4GHz Phenom X4 9750 below $180, though at least there were no price increases to report.

There are some good values throughout the Phenom line, especially for existing platform owners. The 2.1GHz Phenom X3 8450 is hovering around $100, with the 2.2GHz Phenom X4 9550 is now under $150. We also like the new price of the Phenom X4 9750, as it supplies a 2.4GHz quad-core for only $10 more than the triple-core X3 8750.

Compared to the Athlon 64 X2 family, even the limited price activity in the Phenom camp must have looked like a wild party: The only price change in AMD's dual-core line was a few dollars off the Athlon 64 X2 5200+. For now, the 2.6GHz Athlon 64 X2 5000+ ($66), 2.8GHz X2 5400+ ($87), and 3.0GHz X2 6000+ are all good bets for entry-level AMD systems.

AMD Upgrades

Now that Socket AM2+ is the new standard platform for new AMD systems, existing Socket AM2 systems represent an incredible upgrade opportunity, as you can not only select an Athlon 64 X2 processor but also take the plunge and try out a new Phenom X3 or X4. AMD has introduced the Phenom 9150e (1.8GHz) and 9350e (2.0GHz) processors, which feature a very low thermal design power of 65 watts --an important feature for upgrades. The 2.4GHz Phenom X3 8750 triple-core and the 2.5GHz X4 9850 quad offer higher performance, and TDP ratings on par with high-end Athlon 64 X2 parts.

The choice of Socket AM2 upgrade CPUs is still dependent on motherboard support, so be sure to check platform, BIOS, memory, and CPU specifications before making the buy. Newer multicore processors may require a BIOS update at the very least, so confirm support before making any purchase. Due to the higher TDP of Phenom X3 and X4 processors, please check your cooling solution and upgrade it if necessary. A configuration-info page on AMD's Web site confirms motherboard support for a given CPU.

Memory Trends

While there were no sweeping changes to the overall price of DDR memory, we did find a few small price drops. In the single-module area, this affected high-end 1GB PC3200 modules, while matched-pair savings were most visible among low-latency 2x1GB PC3200 and faster kits. Otherwise, it was another very stable week, as the majority of DDR listings continue to stagnate.

There is a distinct line between the single-module and matched-pair DDR2 markets, with the former staying consistent from week to week while the latter offers some noticeable price drops. Last week brought virtually no change in the single-module DDR2 listings, but we found discounts in many matched-pair areas, especially the DDR2-800 2x2GB range.

The pace of DDR3 price decreases has been tailing off lately, and although this remains the most active area of the memory market, we're no longer seeing across-the-board drops. Lately, a few DDR3 dual-channel kits have shown significant drops, but the majority have stayed put, forcing DDR3 deal-hunters to look a bit harder than usual.

For Detailed Listings...

... along with information on how we find OEM and retail CPU and memory prices and how individual prices can help you gauge broader trends for buying or upgrading decisions, see our sister site Sharky Extreme

This article was first published on Sharky Extreme.

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