Almost six months after the release of the very interesting (and even unique in some respect) Xpress 200 chipset for AMD64 processors, ATI has presented a product with similar characteristics for Intel processors. Unfortunately, like NVIDIA a tad earlier, the Canadian manufacturer decided to keep the name of the chipset, having just added "for Intel processors". Perhaps, such a nomenclature looks logical. But it's very inconvenient to speak of a product and to spell out its full name, as if enumerating all the titles of an emperor. Let's abbreviate it to Xpress 200 IE (on the analogy of the NVIDIA nForce4 SLI IE). The new chipset looks rather mediocre as far as its functionality is concerned compared to representatives of the Intel platform. It differs little from its counterpart for AMD64. That's why we decided that this article should contain the Xpress 200 IE review and a roundup of all modern integrated chipsets for Pentium 4. The reason for this comparison is obvious, as integrated video is a trump card (perhaps even the strongest aspect) of ATI products. And Intel has been developing muscles in this very area of late.
ATI Radeon Xpress 200 IE
Read about the ATI Xpress 200, because the functionality of the chipset for Intel differs only insignificantly. It goes without saying that the interface connecting the chipset with a processor is the proprietary Intel QPB bus. Memory controller is now integrated into the chipset. There is also one little difference in the integrated video core — no HyperMemory support. Indeed, we have never seen a production-line motherboard based on ATI Xpress 200, which would support this technology. Even considering that a dedicated frame buffer is (theoretically) much more necessary for AMD64 systems than for Intel Pentium 4 platform. We don't know the reasons of motherboard manufacturers, but they obviously voted with their feet. Besides, the HyperMemory idea consisted in saving power for mobile ATI chipsets in the first place: if a system is idle, the processor may go to one of the sleep modes and there is no need to wake it up to refresh the screen (this information is stored in the dedicated frame buffer).
An obvious competitor to Xpress 200 IE is the widest-spread (in its sector) series of Intel 915/925 chipsets. There start to appear motherboards on the improved i945/955 version already on a mass scale, their most important advantage being probably the support for dual core processors from Intel. (At the same time, i915-based products got cheaper.) There are practically no other modern (supporting PCI Express) solutions for the Socket 775 platform: VIA/SiS/ULi chipsets are scarcely represented in our stores and motherboards based on NVIDIA nForce4 SLI IE (as well as Intel 925/955) are too expensive and don't have integrated video, that is they cannot compete with Xpress 200 IE directly.
Thus, comparing the comparable, the ATI chipset under review is inferior to the i945 in terms of Pentium D support, but it theoretically outperforms the i915/945 as far as PCI Express peripheral slots are concerned (that's because they are connected to the northbridge instead of the southbridge). It also has an advantage over the i945 consisting in its support for both memory standards (and the fastest DDR2). It's harder to compare south bridges, as the ATI product can use ULi M1573 (or any future bridge from one of these companies), so that the lack of High Definition Audio is no longer a disadvantage of Xpress 200 IE. In brief: ATI IXP400 supports more Parallel ATA devices; but Intel chipsets offer more RAID modes (the i945), sterling SATA - not the almost useless 300 MB/s transfer rate in the i945, but AHCI functions providing real boost for SATA hard disks (in both Intel chipsets), and HDA support (also in both chipsets). The IXP400 does not have an integrated gigabit (or any other) network adapter. But we share the ATI's position on this issue (as well as positions of most other chipset manufacturers) - an external PCIE adapter is preferable (unless an integrated adapter has such interesting functions as a semi-hardware firewall).
Integrated video in the ATI Xpress 200 IE is quite a different issue. ATI prefers not to expatiate on parameters of this accelerator, just officially announcing its similarity to the Radeon X300 (Radeon 9600 modification for PCI Express). But we still found out that there are significant differences between them. Firstly, the number of pixel pipelines is halved — from 4 to 2. Secondly, the hardware T&L unit is either absent or severely limited in its functions (but T&L operations are fully supported on the driver level, they are just processed by the CPU). And finally, the operating clock of a chip is not clear: the theoretical range is 200—350 MHz (325 MHz for X300), but the only motherboard that we tested does not allow to specify/view this clock in BIOS. Memory bandwidth in the X300 is 128 bit, X300 SE — 64 bit, Xpress 200 IE — 128 bit in case of the dual channel memory mode. But it's system memory, so it's hard to tell its effective bandwidth in games, where CPU also actively accesses memory (it will hardly exceed 64 bit).
At first, let's analyze the pure performance of the ATI Xpress 200 IE in comparison with its competitors and evaluate the performance drop with enabled integrated video. Note that this chipset does not have a discrete modification, so its "pure" performance is of no interest (there is no point in overpaying for integrated video, if you are not going to use it. And the Xpress 200 IE has no other unique features).
The i915G outperforms the ATI chipset in maximum (without prefetch) memory read rate by 7%. We already mentioned that integrated video in modern Intel chipsets results in almost unnoticeable performance drop (6%), while Xpress 200 IE loses much more — about 16%. We have a curious situation with memory write rates: the chipset from ATI steadily demonstrates lower performance with an external video card. However, we are inclined to attribute this phenomenon to peculiarities of a given motherboard — future tests of motherboards on Xpress 200 IE will clear up this issue. On the whole, considering nearly zero performance loss from enabling integrated video in the i915G, the chipset from Intel wins this round easily, having outperformed its competitor from ATI almost by two thirds. Note that DDR2-667 memory provides some advantage to the Xpress 200 IE, though the expedience of this combination is questionable.
Results of the pseudo random access latency test are still more regrettable for the ATI chipset: the i915G (again almost no slow-downs with enabled integrated video) wins about 35% with an external card and over 40% without it. DDR2-667 is again a tad more efficient in the Xpress 200 IE, but it's like poultice for a coroner's client. Well, the last chance — a trial in real applications: we are not expecting a miracle, but perhaps it will not be outperformed by Intel chipsets so heavily?
Indeed, the i915G leads in archiving, but only by 10% with an external video card and by 12% in case of integrated video. As archivers are the most critical applications to memory performance, the results of other tests from our method of testing are quite predictable. For example, the difference in video encoding will be 2-3%, while audio encoding and final rendering in 3ds max will be completed practically at the same time. We could just as well finish our tests at this point. But as the priority usage of Xpress 200 IE is with enabled integrated video, the most interesting tests are still ahead — games. The competition among integrated chipsets is quite obvious. We shall also publish the results of the X300 SE (which 64-bit bus should make up for the architectural cripples of the RS400 relative to the X300).
In Doom 3, integrated video in the ATI Xpress 200 IE and the i945G is approximately on a par, the i915G is outperformed by 20—30% (it's not much actually in terms of absolute figures). The only noticeable difference is between the integrated RS400 and the external X300 SE, where the ATI chipset under review is 1.5-2 times as slow.
In Painkiller, the X300 SE also outperforms the integrated video from ATI by about 1.5 times, while the integrated video from Intel fails this test, as this game checks for hardware T&L support at startup. (It's not a sterling unit in the RS400, if it's available at all. But ATI video driver obviously reports about hardware support, while the same driver from Intel is more honest.) Interestingly, there is almost no performance drop in senior modes with high graphics quality; CPU load is very high here, minimum fps dropped to fractions of a frame per second.
In Unreal Tournament 2004 all integrated video accelerators go on a par at 640x480, the GMA900 (i915G) starts to lag behind at 800x600, and at 1024x768 the Xpress 200 IE lags behind the GMA950 (i945G) by approximately 15%. Moreover, the X300 SE (unconditional leader in low modes) goes down almost to the level of the RS400 at 1024x768 and it is also outperformed by the i945G.
The alignment of forces in FarCry remains the same irregardless of a demo, but the absolute figures and their ratios differ much in different video accelerators. We published the results in a couple of the most polar scenes. In the first case, the X300 SE outperforms the integrated video in the Xpress 200 IE at 640x480 by more than 125%, but they look the same in high graphics quality at 1024x768 (FarCry uses FSAA in High mode). This game is the only one where both Intel GMA accelerators are heavily outperformed (more than twofold) by the integrated novice from ATI. Besides, they failed to startup in High mode, because they don't support FSAA.
The gap between all the contenders is smaller in the training demo (but the alignment of forces remains the same): +70% in the external/integrated modifications of X300, +80% in the competition between the RS400 and the GMA900/950. Pay your attention that the X300 SE not only wins much in terms of the average fps, but its minimal fps is also much better.
Bottom line under the performance of integrated video in games:
ATI Xpress 200 IE is an attractive modern chipset, slightly inferior in its functionality to competing solutions from Intel, but making up for it with its low costs. Besides, its performance characteristics are not very good: the i915/945 outperforms it by 5—10% in real tasks, critical to memory performance. The only notable advantage of motherboards on Xpress 200 IE is their integrated video. However, this issue is also controversial: according to our tests in modern games, integrated video RS400 demonstrates convincing superiority over integrated video in the latest Intel chipsets only in FarCry (Painkiller is out of the question, because i915G/945G cannot cope with this game). Besides, such popular engines as Doom 3 and Unreal Tournament 2004 make no special difference between them, or even prefer GMA950 (but we cannot say the same about the GMA900 — the previous generation of integrated video from Intel looks much weaker in these tests).
Practical value of the reviewed integrated chipsets in modern games is certainly doubtful (look at the absolute figures on the diagrams), but you can try and extrapolate the results for older games/engines. You should also pay attention to the alignment of forces of the integrated video RS400 and an external video card based on X300 SE. The difference is almost always very large (1.5-2 or more times), even though the competitor is taken from the lowest end, ATI offers no slower cards (with PCI Express interface). Thereby we shall not even try and analyze the situation in games or understand the effect of defeaturing the X300 into the RS400 in terms of pixel pipelines or other parameters. ATI Xpress 200 IE should be taken as is — it's currently the most powerful integrated video on the market. However, ATI is too pressed for time to rest on its oars: Intel is steadily gaining the gap, GMA950 in i945G being quite a decent competitor.
Write a comment below. No registration needed!