- Intel Core 2 Extreme, Quad, Duo, Pentium and Celeron families for Socket 775 with front side bus support up to 1,333MHz
- Nvidia GeForce 9300 or 9400 graphics core
- Dual Channel DDR2 up to 800MHz and DDR3 up to 1,333MHz
- One PCI-Express 2.0 x16
- Four PCI-Express 2.0 x1
- Six SATA 3Gbps ports with MediaShield support
- Five PCI slots
- One PHY Gigabit Ethernet connection with FirstPacket Technology
- Twelve USB 2.0 ports
- High-Definition Audio support
- Dual-link DVI, HDMI 1.3 or DisplayPort, with dual digital output supported
- VGA out
It's almost the time of year for an nForce 780i SLI replacement, and unless Nvidia has a GeForce 9500 + NF200 up its sleeve, we're not going to see these extra benefits. Currently Nvidia has nothing compelling in the middle sector where Intel's P45 is scooping up sales left, right and centre and to be honest we think Nvidia has made a bit of a mistake not replacing the nForce 750i SLI with this by allowing the single x16 lane to be split into two x8s to match the P45. The core feature improvements like six SATA, lower power and less board space, and DDR3 support would provide a fantastic alternative.
Compared to the previous 7-series (skipping the 8s for AMD only) the core improvements are very necessary and as Nvidia's first Intel chipset with PureVideo HD included, potentially of great benefit too. Previously the 7100 and 7150 MCPs lacked PureVideo - only the 7050PV included it and that was AMD only, so finally we've got a solution for Intel CPUs that isn't from Intel. The MCP7a is built on TSMC's 65nm process making it low power, and the single chipset MCP reduces the board space needed too. To be exact, it's a combination of the GeForce 9-series northbridge/IGP along with the nForce 730i southbridge component.
Aimed squarely at Intel's G45 integrated graphics chipset, the PureVideo HD should provide a perfect comparative to Intel's ClearVideo. If you do care about playing games on the cheap, then even without benchmarking it Nvidia still provides a better solution simply because we know its driver support is light years ahead, and the GeForce 9300 MCP still offers GeForce Boost support with a GeForce 8400 GS.
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If you're unfamiliar with GeForce Boost, basically it means you can run the onboard GPU in conjunction with a particular PCI-Express x16 card, exactly like you would normal SLI, yet for a small cost it can increase the performance more than you will by either buying the motherboard or graphics card on its own. As much as those reading our site wouldn't like to admit it - most graphics card sales are in the mid to low end, so this is actually relevant technology that both Nvidia and ATI have pushed in the past year.
The northbridge supports all current Intel CPUs up to 1,333MHz FSB, but we don't expect 1,600MHz FSB Extreme Editions to be dropped into a motherboard based on a mainstream chipset. DDR2 is limited to 800MHz, not 1,066MHz, however simple overclocking should achieve this. DDR3 is supported up to 1,333MHz making it the second Nvidia chipset to offer it, however this one is decidedly cheaper. When we asked Nvidia about DDR3 boards arriving, we were told the plan for most partners was sometime next year - right now it's pretty much DDR2 exclusive.
The upgraded PCI-Express is now all Gen-2.0 and the modest four lanes should be enough for a variety of extra features that motherboard manufacturers want to include. Nvidia also becomes the second company to drop IDE from its chipset line-up too, after Intel did way back with ICH8. Six SATA 3Gbps ports make up for it and we're all better off without the fat cables considering a new SATA DVDRW drive costs all of £15, however don't fret because the likelihood is that most companies will throw in a chip to provide IDE like they do for Intel boards. The physical layer Gigabit Ethernet MAC frees up an extra PCI-Express lane and the twelve USBs should be more than enough to go round.
Probably the best feature Nvidia kits this chipset with though is dual digital display outputs. No one has done this before, natively, so it's a huge bonus Nvidia has over the competition. If we consider the support for DisplayPort, dual-link DVI and HDMI 1.3 it offers a whole load of options from 30" panels, to new connector types, to TVs or Amps that support 7.1 channel LPCM audio over HDMI 1.3.
Intel's G35 and G45 were the first to support this full HD uncompressed audio standard, however G35 availability was limited to say the least and G45 has a HDCP repeater issue that has turned off some HTPC enthusiasts. What should perk interests is that PureVideo HD supports hardware acceleration for h.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2, as well as features like Inverse Telecine, sharpening and noise reduction, contrast enhancements and even dual stream support for the picture in picture function on Blu-ray movie media - the full complement of features, bar Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master HD. Nvidia even claims a "perfect" HQV and HDHQV score, and when we tested this for ourselves we found the deinterlacing in HQV needed some work still, but we couldn't fault the HDHQV performance at all.
Instead of having to rewire the S/PDIF or processed audio back into the chipset via an ugly cable, Nvidia has designed it integrated into the motherboard now, yet it stops short of actually including a "sound processor" like ATI's UVD technology. AMD's current 780G lacks this support as it only features a "last generation" Radeon HD 3200 with a first generation UVD which only allows 5.1 channel S/PDIF at DVD quality.
As we said, Nvidia's chipset is built on the 65nm TSMC process but what bumping material it uses we are unsure. Nvidia has already admitted problems with its mobile products, but recently HP has since issued specific warranty replacements
for slimline desktop PCs that exclusively contain Nvidia integrated graphics products. Kept properly cool, there should be absolutely no problem unless you're one of the few who want to stuff one of these boards into a cramped HTPC setup with very little airflow to be as quiet and low profile as possible. In that situation, we'd advise being wary, but outside of this we doubt anyone else will ever have a problem.
On paper, the Nvidia GeForce 9-series IGPs stop quite a way short of being everything we wanted and were told it would be released earlier this year, meaning it's more than a little late. Despite this though, MCP7a does still appear to be a great chipset on paper provided you're interested in HTPC features. Using Nvidia's on words though - a slideshow is one thing, but actually using the final product is another - so check out our Zotac GeForce 9300 review
to find how we actually get on with it.