Date: October 1, 2007
Author(s): Rory Buszka
Gigabyte’s new GA-MA69GM-S2H board has HTPC written all over it, with no fewer than six possible video output types, optical Toslink output, and AMD’s 690G chipset with Radeon X1250 IGP. In our review, we find more than a few reasons to recommend it to anyone who’s considering a new HTPC.
It’s no secret that the popularity of motherboards in the Micro ATX form factor has seen a huge boost in the last few years. Micro ATX motherboards make it possible to build a fully-functional PC on the cheap, thanks to the fact that they’re the exclusive domain of integrated-graphics chipsets, which eliminate the need for discrete graphics acceleration when 3D gaming performance isn’t an absolute necessity. Simply add a case, PSU, hard drive, optical drive, and your choice of CPU and memory, and you’ve got a machine that can – at the very least – get you off the ground.
However, Micro ATX motherboards have never truly been thought of as cutting-edge technology – at least until recently, with the huge popularity of the Home Theater PC concept. The compact size of Micro ATX motherboards is the real draw here, since HTPC chassis designs typically attempt to stay within the dimensional constraint of other home A/V gear. The concept is that a home theater PC should be able to fit in a rack of typical a/v gear and not look out-of-place. While we’ve seen a few HTPC chassis designs that can accommodate full-ATX boards, the fit is almost always extremely cramped, or else the enclosure is large enough that it won’t fit in with other gear.
This popularity of Micro ATX motherboards for home theater PC use has prompted several manufacturers to design new Micro ATX motherboard models that are completely fitted out for the purpose, with newer high-performance IGP chipsets from NVIDIA (the nForce430/Geforce 6100 series) and AMD (their new 690G), as well as multiple types of onboard video output for connecting directly to a variety of televisions. The two IGP chipsets I’ve mentioned above are capable of hardware-accelerated HD-resolution video decoding, and can even handle the lightest of 3D graphics duties (such as the visual effects in Vista’s Aero Glass interface), and even some gaming, if you don’t mind sticking to older titles like Counter-Strike: Source.
Gigabyte’s GA-MA69GM-S2H is just such a motherboard. It’s a Socket AM2 motherboard, based on the relatively new 690G chipset from AMD (which began life at ATI as the Radeon Express X1200 chipset, but finally saw the light of day under AMD’s ownership as the Radeon Express X1250). The 690G IGP’s performance is on par with the previous favorite for HTPC builders, NVIDIA’s GeForce 6150, but even beyond the chipset, this new motherboard from Gigabyte looks to be a nicely rounded performer.
Among the other features that make the GA-MA69GM-S2H such an attractive option for Home Theater PC builders are its on-board HDMI connector and optional YPbPr and S-video component output (by way of an expansion slot module). With an adaptor, the S-Video output can be converted to composite video, for a grand total of 6 different video output connections. The board can also drive its HDMI and component outputs simultaneously. Add to that a 7.1-channel onboard audio chipset with Toslink digital output and the ATI chipset’s AVIVO processing (which includes hardware decoding for H.264, VC-1, MPEG-2, and WMV9 video formats for reduced CPU overhead), and this is a motherboard built from the ground up to serve the needs of HTPC enthusiasts.
As a company, Gigabyte serves the DIY and small system integrator market almost exclusively, so a lot is riding on their ability to develop attractive, meaningful packaging. The box for the GA-MA69GM-S2H features vivid branding, as well as a prominent “S2” graphic. The Gigabyte S-series (which incorporates only AMD Socket AM2 offerings) is organized into four groups based on the number of “S” features the product contains. These features are “Safe” (which could be interpreted as ‘stable’, “Smart”, “Speed”, “SLI”, and “Silent-Pipe” (a fanless cooling solution using heatpipes). The box also offers a comprehensive feature and specification list on the back panel. Overall, the external packaging design will have broad appeal for both DIY consumers and professional system builders.
Inside, the box is portioned into two spaces, with the included accessories resting on top of a white cardboard divider. The GA-MA69GM-S2H hardware bundle includes a pair of locking SATA cables, a colorful custom I/O panel, an attractive manual, and an expansion slot cover with component video (YPbPr) and S-video outputs. Unlike some of the other new 690G-based motherboards with HDMI, the Gigabyte board’s HDMI connector is right on the motherboard itself, which means you can omit the expansion slot module if you wish.
Beneath the cardboard divider and wrapped in a metallic-coated mylar anti-static bag rests the GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard itself, well-protected by the sturdy box. There’s little more we could ask from Gigabyte when it comes to packaging a value-level component such as this.
|Model||GA-MA69GM-S2H||The S2H designation indicates that this motherboard is designed for stability, and offers intelligent features like Gigabyte’s Xpress BIOS Rescue and EasyTune software.|
|Form Factor||Micro ATX||The Micro ATX form factor is enjoying renewed popularity in enthusiast machines, thanks to the HTPC revolution.|
|PCB Dimensions||24.4 cm H x 24.4 cm W||Compact Micro ATX motherboards allow PCs to fit into racks of home audio electronics.|
|CPU Socket Type||Socket AM2||Even as new socket technologies such as AM2+ and AM3 loom on the horizon, Socket AM2 remains a viable and relatively future-proof socket. AMD seems determined not to repeat their past mistakes with prematurely discontinuing Socket 939 products.|
|FSB||2000MHz||AMD’s Hypertransport bus offers competition-humbling memory bandwidth with an effective 2GHz link between the CPU, memory, and northbridge.|
|Chipset||AMD 690G||The AMD 690G chipset consists of the RS690 northbridge (which integrates an X1250 graphics core, effectively half of a Radeon X700) and SB600 southbridge.|
|Memory Type||DDR2 800/667/533/400||The GA-MA69GM-S2H supports the full gamut of available DDR2 memory speeds. Memory voltages up to 1.8v are supported.|
|Memory Slots||DDR2 DIMM x4||Four memory slots used to be a rarity on Micro ATX motherboards, but now it’s essentially the norm. Remember, however, that you can’t effectively use a full 4GB of memory in a 32-bit operating system.|
|Graphics Interface||PCI Express X16||This provides an excellent upgrade path from the onboard video.|
|Expansion Slots||1 PCI Express x 16 slot, 1 PCI Express x 4 slot; 2 PCI slots||The GA-MA690GM-S2H offers plenty of expandability, including an upgrade path for the onboard graphics core. SLI and Crossfire remain off-limits on Micro ATX motherboards (for now).|
|Video||Integrated Radeon X1250 core||The integrated Radeon X1250 graphics core in the RS690 northbridge offers somewhat better 3D performance than the GeForce 6150, as well as hardware video decoding acceleration.|
|SATA Controller||AMD SB600 integrated (SATA2 3.0 GB/s; RAID 0, 1, 0+1 supported)||The integrated SATA controller in the SB600 southbridge offers enough flexibility and throughput to support the appropriate storage schemes for an HTPC.?|
|Onboard LAN||Realtek RTL8110 PHY(10/100/1000Mbit)||There’s plenty of bandwidth here to enable quick video transfers to remote PCs, or to a central home server.|
|Onboard Audio||7.1-channel HD Audio||This board provides a variety of audio output options, including a Toslink optical digital connection and digital output on the HDMI video output port.|
|Onboard Audio Controller`||Realtek ALC 889A with DTS Connect||Gigabyte claims this chipset is capable of delivering a 106dB SNR, which is competitive with the Creative SB Audigy/2/4 range of sound cards.|
|IDE ATA||1x ATA 133, 1x FDD||This card supports both Dolby Digital and DTS output, for receivers and preamp/processors that support the two formats. This is useful for HTPCs, but is standard fare for most sound cards. Not all receivers or pre/pros support input at the full 192kHz rate, however.|
|Rear panel I/O||1 PS/2 keyboard port, 1 PS/2 mouse port; 1 D-Sub port, 1 DVI-D port, 1 HDMI port; 1 Optical SPDIF Out port; 1 IEEE 1394a port, 4 USB 2.0/1.1 ports, 1 RJ-45 LAN port; 6 audio jacks (Line In / Line Out / MIC In/Surround Speaker Out (Rear Speaker Out)/Center/Subwoofer Speaker Out/Side Speaker Out)||The GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard provides an excellent array of input/output options. Legacy serial and parallel ports have been 86’ed in favor of the trio of VGA, DVI-D, and HDMI video ports. In addition, a Toslink optical connector offers an easy connection to a home theater receiver or a multichannel speaker system with an optical digital input.|
|Hardware Monitoring||System voltage detection, CPU / System temperature detection, CPU / System fan speed detection, CPU / System warning temperature, CPU fan failure warning, CPU Smart Fan function||A broad array of monitoring functions are available, and the CPU fan thermal speed control is more tweakable than many others we’ve seen.|
|Power Connectors||ATX12V 2.2 compliant 24-pin power connector, 4-pin CPU power connector||Nothing out of the ordinary here. Move along, then.|
|BIOS; Other Features||Use of licensed AWARD BIOS; PnP 1.0a, DMI 2.0, SM BIOS 2.3, ACPI 1.0b; Supports @BIOS; Supports Download Center; Supports Q-Flash; Supports EasyTune (only supports Hardware Monitor function); Supports Xpress Install, Xpress Recovery2, and Xpress BIOS Rescue||Many of these additional features refer to software utility interoperability, which makes things like BIOS-flashing possible. While it’s disappointing to see that full EasyTune functionality isn’t enabled, that’s about par for the course when it comes to value-level parts.|
Next, let’s look at the features of the board itself.
The appeal of Micro ATX motherboards is that they allow a fully-functioning system to be assembled in a simple fashion, with a minimum of expenditure. That’s made them a particularly desirable target for the Home Theater PC community, which tends to focus more on value than high performance. Where 3D performance may be sacrificed, Micro ATX motherboards with their onboard IGPs are a perfect solution. It appears that the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H is designed specifically for that crowd — those looking for a functional HTPC platform with minimal complexity and cost. Let’s take a look at what makes the GA-MA69GM-S2H such an attractive option for media center and HTPC applications.
From a general vantage point, the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H is an attractive board, with Gigabyte’s bright yet tasteful color scheme and signature blue PCB. Overall, its visual characteristics and prominent branding identify it instantly as an enthusiast part. However, while an appealing color scheme can be the icing on the cake in choosing a particular motherboard, in our experience you can’t replace substance with style, especially in such a value-driven market segment as this.
The board features four memory slots in dual-channel configuration. One gripe with this particular arrangement is that it repeats the silly mistake of grouping both slots for a single memory channel so closely together that heat builds up between the inner faces of the DIMMs. Alternating slots for the two memory channels would make significantly more sense, and allow effective convection cooling of configurations that use only two memory modules.
Recognizing that noise is the enemy of an HTPC, Gigabyte has outfitted both the RS690 northbridge and SB600 southbridge with passive heatsinks. The southbridge runs slightly warm to the touch, while the RS690 IGP runs somewhat hotter, but not enough to cause concern. The northbridge heatsink has a low profile (as compared to the northbridge heatsink used on ASUS’s 690G-based motherboard), but its large base makes for greater dissipating area overall. The low profile heatsink is used to ensure that a card may be inserted in the PCI Express X4 slot to the left without ‘bottoming out’ on the heatsink.
The GA-MA69GM-S2H board features a total of four expansion slots. The topmost slot (orange in color) is a PCI Express X4 slot, though X1 and X2 cards may be used in this slot. The board also features a single PCI Express X16 slot, which allows an avenue for upgrading from the board’s IGP. The Gigabyte board also features two ordinary PCI slots, since PCI remains the dominant expansion interface on the market.
This board also offers four SATA ports, which are mounted parallel to the board’s surface. This allows for the cables to be routed more cleanly inside the case, and it’s a nice touch. The SB600’s internal SATA2 controller supports Raid 0, 1, and 3 (also called 0+1). Higher-level RAID configurations will require an expansion card, however. Still, it’s unlikely that a RAID 5 array will be desired inside a home theater PC.
The onboard Ethernet and audio solutions are both provided by Realtek. The RTL8110 onboard Ethernet chipset is not considered to be a high-end solution, since it’s known to create more CPU overhead while communicating. The ALC889 audio controller chip is also considered not to be a high-end solution, it too being known for hogging more of the CPU during operation. These are passable solutions, included for cost savings and not for increasing performance.
The GA-MA69GM-S2H board features two fan headers – a 4-pin header for the CPU fan and a 3-pin header at the bottom of the board for one case fan. When Rob took a look at the GA-P35C-DS3R motherboard in July, he also commented on its sparse apportionment of fan headers. We would at least have liked to see another header for a front case fan. However, the GA-MA69GM-S2H features plenty of connections for front and rear-mounted USB ports, with the ability to support six additional USB ports via headers on “Gadget Row”, the row of front-panel connections along the bottom of the motherboard. An additional two Firewire 400 ports are also supported. The front-panel audio header is located further up the board, beside the rear-panel audio output jacks. The expansion slot video output module connects via another header near the CPU VRMs.
The GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard offers a broad array of rear panel I/O ports – in fact, it’s one of the most impressive we’ve seen. The only ‘legacy’ ports present on the rear panel are ports for connecting a PS/2-compatible mouse and keyboard. There are also four USB 2.0 ports, a single Gigabit Ethernet port, a single Firewire 400 port, a DVI-D port, and a D-Sub VGA port.
However, HTPC enthusiasts will be particularly interested in the remaining two ports, a HDMI port (complete with HDCP crypto-ROM onboard) and an optical digital audio output. These two ports allow direct compatibility with most home A/V gear. If for some reason you haven’t yet jumped on the HDTV bandwagon, the expansion slot video output module provides component video (YPbPr) connections, as well as a S-Video connection which may be adapted to a composite video output using a dongle, if desired.
Finally, a couple notes about the layout. Micro ATX motherboards provide a unique set of challenges due to the close packing of components that’s necessary to fit full functionality into a small space. From a general vantage point, two areas of concern are apparent. First of all, the big electrolytic capacitors beside the CPU cooler bracket may interfere with the installation of large coolers like those that we typically recommend for passive cooling, the Scythe Ninja and OCZ Vindicator. A cooler such as the Thermalright HR-01 or Noctua NH-U12F may be a better choice here.
Secondly, the RAM slots encroach upon the CPU cooler’s space as well. The largest coolers may block the first two DIMM slots, which can cause problems if you intend to use four 512MB DIMMs to achieve 2GB of memory. In addition, DIMMs installed in the first two slots may impair the airflow of some smaller coolers, requiring the CPU fan to run faster to be effective.
Next, let’s dive into the BIOS of the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H, and see what tweaking potential lies therein.
The BIOS of the GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard is based on AWARD bios software, and offers an impressive array of tweaks (and a few bombs as well). Let’s start at the top (level).
The Gigabyte board’s BIOS structure experiences a duality of sorts, in that its advanced options (like overclocking adjustments – the tweaks we’re really interested in) are hidden. It’s like a secret club – if you don’t know the secret handshake, you can’t get in. This, for one thing, is silly. Gigabyte is a brand that services the DIY enthusiast market first and foremost, so it’s hard to imagine why Gigabyte feels they need to hide advanced options from their users – most enthusiasts know what they’re doing, or at least know enough to know that they don’t know. At any rate, the ‘secret handshake’ to display advanced BIOS options is CTRL+F1. Press that key combination, and the “Advanced Chipset Features” menu entry appears.
The “Advanced Chipset Features” menu contains all the most meaningful tweaks you’ll make to this board – memory timings, FSB speed, CPU multiplier, HyperTransport and PCI Express bus controls, and tweaks to the IGP. Directly from this menu, you can make changes to the CPU operating parameters such as FSB speed and multiplier, but the GA-MA69GM’s overclocking abilities are hindered by the inability to adjust the CPU voltage. Testing was performed with an ‘energy efficient’ CPU that’s likely to be used in a home theater PC, but AMD’s energy efficient 65W processors operate at a lower voltage than their 89W counterparts, and the inability to adjust CPU voltage severely limited our ability to overclock either the 65W Athlon 64 X2 4200+ EE or the 45W Athlon BE-2300 that we also had on hand.
The IGX Configuration section of the Advanced Chipset Features menu allows adjustment of the IGP’s clock frequency. This is a good thing, because we couldn’t use our old standby ATITool to adjust the IGP speed from within Windows. While LegitReviews was able to overclock their ASUS 690G-based board’s Radeon X1250 IGP to 525MHz without artifacts using ATITool (an ability that was locked out by a later bios release), the IGX Configuration menu of the Gigabyte board allows the IGP’s clock frequency to be independently raised to 500MHz, without affecting any of the other components of the RS690 northbridge. Indeed, we found our IGP ran just fine at this frequency, though all testing was done with the IGP running at its stock speed of 400 MHz.
The DRAM configuration section of the Advanced Chipset Features menu allows adjustments for memory clock speeds and timings. Gigabyte has provided every feature you could want for tuning your memory for maximum performance…except voltage selection. As with the CPU, you may find your memory overclocking options narrowed somewhat by the exclusion of memory voltage controls in the BIOS.
Gigabyte’s BIOS also throws in advanced configuration options for the PCI Express bus and HyperTransport link. The settings labeled ‘GFX’ actually affect the PCI Express 16 slot on the motherboard itself, while the settings labeled ‘GPP’ refer to general-purpose processors such as Ageia’s PhysX (though the promised PCI Express variant of the card hasn’t surfaced yet). Settings for the HyperTransport link are also tweakable as well for maximizing things like memory bandwidth. While the casual overclocker may not have much use for these settings (with the possible exception of the ‘GFX Overclocking’ option), more adventurous enthusiasts will appreciate the added flexibility they offer.
The familiar PC Health Status screen (accessed from the main menu) displays temperature readings from various heat-affected motherboard components, in order to ensure that safe temperatures are being maintained. The GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard supports smart CPU fan control to keep operating noise at a minimum while providing cooling on demand, however no additional channels of fan control are provided for the single case fan header. For advanced fan speed control settings, you’ll need to use the provided EasyTune software.
Next, let’s take a look at the Gigabyte EasyTune control program.
Gigabyte’s EasyTune utility provides a software interface for making direct changes to motherboard BIOS settings on-the-fly, which includes instant overclocking (on some boards) and instant RAM settings adjustment. In addition, EasyTune lets users keep tabs on power- and thermal-related operating statistics, and set the parameters of the intelligent thermal fan control circuit.
The main screen of the EasyTune utility displays the current CPU speed and available options. Not all of EasyTune’s available options are supported by all Gigabyte motherboards, so those options that are unavailable are grayed out and inaccessible. On a system using the GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard, the initial display is the PC Health section, which allows access to the Hardware Monitor screen, as well as configuration of alarms and monitoring settings.
EasyTune’s Hardware Monitor consists of a tabular-format display that organizes PSU voltages, component temperatures, and fan speeds.. Unfortunately, there are no data-logging functions, so you’ll need to watch this window like a hawk while testing your CPU under load. If you use low-speed case fans (like we did), you might see an alarm in that section of the table, but the alarm threshold can be lowered to 0 if desired, or disabled altogether.
Advanced fan speed control settings may be changed from the Smart Fan section of EasyTune. These options include turn-on voltage, turn-on temperature, maximum voltage, and the maximum temperature point. The BIOS then adjusts the CPU fan voltage along a linear curve between the two points defined in software. This is a more tweakable fan control feature than we’ve seen on many motherboards at this price level. However, these advanced options aren’t available from the BIOS, which only allows the smart fan control to be enabled or disabled.
Now that we’ve taken a look at the hardware and software features of the GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard, let’s look at some performance results.
The big news here is the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H’s use of the AMD 690G chipset, which is still a relatively new contender in the IGP arena. It was originally conceived to go toe-to-toe with the reigning champion of the IGPs, the NVIDIA nForce430 chipset with integrated GeForce 6150 graphics core. In our testing, we decided it was appropriate then to do a direct comparison between the GA-MA69GM-S2H and a GeForce 6150-based board from another premier motherboard manufacturer, ASUS (specifically the M2NPV-VM).
All testing here was performed using the same CPU and memory, and a fresh install of Microsoft Windows for each board from a disk image of a clean and working Windows install that had the benchmarking tools pre-installed, but no other non-generic drivers of any sort. During testing, all unnecessary applications and background processes were stopped or closed, and the machine was disconnected from the LAN.
The memory bandwidth test of SiSoftware’s Sandra XI 2007.SP3 benchmarking suite was used in testing the memory performance of both motherboards. The 2008 version of Sandra became available while this article was being prepared, though we had already produced the first set of benchmark results using Sandra XI 2007. A cursory check revealed virtually no differences in the results delivered by the old version and the new version, so we stuck with Sandra XI 2007.SP3 for this article. Future articles will use the new version of Sandra, however.
This test evaluates the memory throughput offered by both motherboards. The IGPs of both boards each claim a small share of the system memory for their frame buffer, so the relative efficiency of HyperMemory as compared to NVIDIA’s TurboCache technology may have some effect on the overall results here. Three trials were run here, and the results were averaged to yield the final number.
From the outset, it’s clear that the 690G chipset has a real leg up when it comes to memory bandwidth. We tried everything we could to give the GeForce 6150-based board a boost, but in the end the Gigabyte 690G-based board consistently won out. This is one performance parameter that will have a real effect on the board’s performance in other applications.
PCMark2005 is a widely-used and respected synthetic benchmark that tests performance in a wide variety of tasks, from video encoding to physics calculations. It’s also a favorite of the Techgage staff because of its flexibility. Here, we’re using it to test the overall system performance as well as the performance of the memory subsystem.
The PCMark2005 overall score is based on a suite of 11 tests that simulate various types of system usage and stress all the major subsystems of the PC, including the CPU, memory, and graphics systems. This suite also contains multi-threading tests and simultaneous multiple-subsystem stress tests. The score generated can be compared directly with any other machine.
Here we see that the 690G-based GA-MA69GM-S2H outpaces the M2NPV-VM board by about 5%. This is a small margin, likely due to the GeForce 6150-based board’s lower memory bandwidth coming back to haunt it.
This score is calculated based on only those system tests that stress the CPU. The significance of this test in the context of a motherboard review is to prove that differences in overall performance are not due differences in the amount of CPU overhead during the testing of each board. As you might imagine, the results of this test are primarily CPU-dependent.
The results here are sufficiently close (less than 0.04%), so it’s reasonable to conclude that what we’re measuring here are true honest-to-goodness performance variations. This is more of a data validation test than anything else.
This score is calculated from tests that stress the memory subsystem. We already have an idea of what to expect, based on the performance difference we saw in the Sandra XI memory bandwidth test.
As predicted, the GeForce 6150-based board is outperformed by the 690G-based board. What we see here is a definite superiority of the 690G chipset’s memory performance, which translates into improved performance in most applications that aren’t exclusively CPU dependent.
The next three tests will evaluate the admittedly limited 3D performance of the two motherboards in our comparison. IGPs still have a good distance left to travel before they become viable solutions for all but the very lightest 3D gaming loads (the Radeon X1250 graphics core of the 690G chipset being roughly equal to half of a Radeon X700), but 3D gaming still remains one of the best ways to test a system’s overall performance, because 3D rendering stresses every subsystem of a machine. All of these tests were performed at 1024×768 resolution without anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering to ensure that meaningful frame rates could be sustained.
Each release of Futuremark’s popular 3DMark 3D gaming benchmark utilizes the latest technologies available during that year. In this case, 3DMark2003 represents games that are between three and four years old. 3DMark2003 was the first edition of 3DMark to support Microsoft’s DirectX 9 (version 9.0a).
This score incorporates the full set of game and feature tests, and provides a picture of what sort of performance can be expected in the earliest DirectX9 titles. Both the 690G and GeForce 6150 boards essentially flew through these tests, which weren’t particularly strenuous. It’s realistic to assume that games of this vintage would be playable at the low resolution we used in testing.
This 3DMark release featured support for DirectX 9.0c, as well as Shader Model 2.0. The X700-derivative X1250 video core of the RS690 northbridge only supports up to SM 2.0, while the GeForce 6150 IGP supports SM 3.0 and HDR, which may mean more for improved image quality.
Once again, we’re simply running the default suite of tests to get an overall score. The DirectX 9.0c tests will stress the video card with an increased level of detail and complexity characteristic of two-year-old games, as well as Shader Model 2.0 features and improved image quality.
From these results, we can see two things – first of all, playability suffers dramatically with the increased complexity of the 3DMark2005 tests, with scenes like Return to Proxycon chugging along at between 5 and 10 frames per second. Scores are also significantly lower. As a comparison, the same CPU, memory and hard drive loaded into a system with a 256MB Radeon X1650XT discrete video card scored 7443 3Dmarks, nearly seven times the score of the Gigabyte board’s X1250 integrated graphics core.
Also apparent is an increasing performance rift between the GeForce 6150 and Radeon X1250 graphics systems, with the 690G possessing a 34% performance advantage. Let me take this moment to remind you that both video processors are operating with their default settings – there’s no overclocking or foul play going on here. In fact, we tried to see if we could increase the GeForce 6150 IGP’s score and narrow the margin, but nothing we tried (short of overclocking) had any meaningful effect.
If you’ve ever toyed around with benchmarking apps to any major extent, you’ve probably noticed that many of the tests in 3DMark 2006 look similar to those in 3DMark 2005. In fact, many of the same tests appear to have been recycled in 3DMark2006, but look closer – the 3DMark2006 tests feature full Shader Model 3.0 usage, including HDR (High Dynamic Range) technology. Here, we expect to see better image quality with the GeForce 6150 chipset, but will that added rendering complexity throw a major bottleneck into the works?
The default battery of tests was used again, allowing 3DMark2006 to select the tests most appropriate to the hardware we were using. HDR and Shader Model 3.0 tests were automatically enabled for the GeForce 6150 IGP, while the Radeon X1250 IGP was allowed to skip those tests.
Both boards turned in scores that were depressingly low, in addition to near-unplayable frame rates. However, again the GeForce 6150-based motherboard suffered an approximately 34% performance deficit, likely penalized for its attempting to render complex SM3.0 and HDR scenes. The Radeon X1250 IGP’s significantly higher performance in this test demonstrates the advantage in efficiency of simply jettisoning SM3.0 and HDR support altogether. In an IGP, graphics processor engineers need to fight for every FPS in order to achieve a result that is barely playable, even if it means that features need to be thrown out in the process. Here the cleverness of the decision to omit SM3.0+HDR is proven.
As part of every 3DMark test battery, a CPU-rendering test is also included. This score gives the GPU a short breather while the CPU huffs and puffs its way through rendering a simple scene. These tests tax the CPU to its maximum, as well as stressing the memory subsystem and chipset.
As we see, the results are fairly even, with the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H having a slight advantage in this test. It’s likely that memory bandwidth played a part here.
The synthetic gaming benchmarks tell part of the story, but what about real-world gaming performance? Next, we’ll compare the two motherboards’ performance in a pair of popular games.
To test the performance of the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard in real-world gaming applications, we chose two popular, widely-played games: Valve’s CounterStrike:Source HL2 mod and THQ’s Company of Heroes.
Company of Heroes is known for its demanding DirectX 9 engine, which makes for seriously engaging gamplay, and a serious load on your hardware. For this test, we’re using the built-in graphics settings test, which plays the opening cinematic sequence to a single-player game. This sequence is designed to be as visually impressive as possible, and throws everything it can at the graphics subsystem. In the end, the test returns an average and minimum FPS number.
Let’s be realistic here – we’re testing IGPs, so we’re going to need to dial back the graphics settings quite a bit. In response to this need, we’ve developed a standard ‘low quality’ settings matrix for use in Company of Heroes, specifically for testing GPUs and IGPs that have limited graphics capabilities. The idea here is to maximize frame rates on these smaller, less-powerful GPUs.
|Model Quality||Low||Tree Quality||Low|
|Texture Detail||Medium||Effects Fidelity||Low|
|Post Processing||Off||Model Detail||50% (Slider)|
CoH Test Results
Here, the differences in IGPs were painfully apparent. While the Radeon X1250 core of the Gigabyte motherboard delivered a playable average frame rate, the Geforce 6150 didn’t even come close, turning in a number that was just 53.4% of the number turned in by the X1250, even with settings backed as far off as they were.
We decided to choose Counter-Strike:Source as our second benchmarking game not only because of its ubiquity, but because of its ability to give meaningful results on less powerful graphics hardware, and its inclusion of a graphics stress test for more hassle-free benchmarking. We let the program set our graphics settings automatically, which was just fine with us because it maxed out most of the parameters anyway. The inclusion of HDR in our settings matrix will likely prove advantageous to the Radeon X1250 IGP core.
|Model Detail||High||Texture Detail||High|
|Shader Detail||High||Water Detail||Reflect World|
|Shadow Detail||High||Color Correction||Enabled|
|Antialiasing Mode||None||Filtering Mode||Trilinear|
|V. Sync||Disabled||HDR||Full (As available)|
Here, things look significantly better for the Geforce 6150-based ASUS motherboard, which is able to manage a barely-playable 22 FPS. However, the Radeon X1250 solution is much more solidly in ‘playable’ territory, averaging about 27 frames per second. It’s likely that the video stress test in CounterStrike:Source does not make use of HDR or Shader Model 3.0 functionality, which is why we don’t see the enormous gap that we saw in Company of Heroes testing. The Half-Life 2: Lost Coast tech demo’s video stress test would probably have brought out a greater performance disparity, since its map makes use of HDR.
Overall, though they’d likely both serve well for Windows Vista’s Aero Glass interface, neither the GeForce 6150 nor the Radeon X1250 IGPs would be a terrific solution for budget gaming, or even very low-budget gaming. Low-end discrete graphics solutions like the GeForce 7300 or 8400, such as they are, still rule the roost for ultra-scrooge gaming performance. However, gaming tests still provide the most meaningful measure of a system’s overall performance by stressing all the major subsystems of the PC. Even in our synthetic general-usage benchmarks, however, the 690G chipset still managed an impressive lead over the nForce 430.
The arrival of motherboards featuring new chipsets from AMD and NVIDIA shows that all is not quiet on the Socket AM2 front; indeed, the industry activity has simply migrated to more affordable solutions as AMD’s hold on the high-end market slips away. Of these new socket AM2 motherboards based on the AMD 690G chipset, the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H is arguably one of the finest. It seems thoroughly positioned as a premium part for home theater PC enthusiasts, though it’s also a very attractive option for anyone who is looking for a value-oriented platform for a second PC, or for a non-enthusiast home/business machine.
The primary appeal of the GA-MA69GM-S2H is its robust feature set, providing every connection one could conceivably want for use in a home theater setting, with the possible exception of DisplayPort. The onboard ATI Radeon X1250 graphics chipset proved its superiority over the outgoing GeForce 6150 IGP in our testing – though it lacks support for Shader Model 3.0 and HDR, it offers AVIVO hardware-accelerated video processing, which has been shown in other testing to yield better image quality than NVIDIA’s PureVideo processing.
What’s more, the greater memory bandwidth of the 690G chipset solution gave the GA-MA69GM-S2H a respectable edge in performance over the nForce 430-based solution we also tested. In addition, its compact Micro ATX form factor makes it a perfect choice for use in a compact home theater chassis like the Antec NSK 2400, which we reviewed in late March. Couple that with Gigabyte’s great customer service and quickly growing reputation, and there’s very little not to like about this motherboard.
We had a couple quibbles with the board layout, though. Narrow clearances on either side of the CPU socket mean that you might be S.O.L. if you decide to try larger CPU coolers. We could resign ourselves to using only two of the available four memory slots, but the five tall capacitors on the left side of the socket present a major obstacle to many large tower-style CPU coolers. Also, the lack of voltage adjustments for either the CPU or the memory left us out in the cold when it came to any sort of overclocking of our energy-efficient CPUs.
All in all, we’re pleased with the product and the presentation of the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H motherboard, and we wouldn’t hesitate to choose it for our own HTPC rig. Gigabyte definitely hits it on the mark for home theater PC enthusiasts with this board. We award the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H a Techgage score of 8/10 – it’s an excellent representative of its market category.
Since the 690G chipset debuted, NVIDIA has released its answers to the 690G, the GeForce 7000-series IGPs. NVIDIA offers two 7000-series IGPs, the GeForce 7025 and GeForce 7050. We’ll be taking a look at motherboards based on those chipsets in the coming months, and keep you apprised of any performance improvements the new NVIDIA offerings provide, as well as evaluating their suitability for home theater PCs.
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