AMD, Intel budget chipsets go head to head

AMD's 785G and Intel's P55 chipsets vie for dominance in the value PC market

AMD's 785G chipset

The 785G offers a lot of features when incorporated with the Asus motherboard. First and foremost, the 785G chipset provides integrated video via the relatively powerful ATI Radeon HD 4200 GPU, along with 128MB of SidePort memory, which helps to increase performance. That's important, because traditionally most integrated graphics solutions used slower shared system memory to function, which meant less memory was available for your operating system and programs.

Other features include Asus's Express Gate instant-on OS (which is a rebranded version of DeviceVM's Splashtop) as well as four DDR3-1800 memory slots and one PCI-Express x16 slot. Other niceties include one eSATA and five SATA 3.0 ports; Gigabit Ethernet; 7.1 channel audio; D-sub, DVI and HDMI outputs; and an Energy Processing Unit (EPU) for higher energy efficiency.

Intel's G41 chipset

Although it's older than the 985G chipset, Intel's G41 still offers a plethora of features, especially when incorporated into the Gigabyte motherboard. Buyers will find a good array of I/O ports, including DVI-D and HDMI ports. Video comes from an integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X4500, which uses shared system memory.

The board features Gigabit Ethernet, as well as three PCI slots, four SATA 3.0 connectors and a PCI Express x16 slot. The GA-G41M-ES2H also provides energy-saving technology, as well as support for 8GB of RAM using four onboard DDR2-800 RAM slots. Eight-channel high-definition audio rounds out the onboard offerings; the board works with most LGA 775 socket Intel CPUs.

Intel's P55 chipset

Intel's P55 chipset may very well be the most advanced chipset available to the value PC buyer. When incorporated into the DP55KG motherboard, it became evident that the chipset/motherboard combo is geared towards those looking to maximize performance and not skimp on features.

The DP55KG supports as much as 16GB of DDR3 1600 SDRAM memory. It offers 10 channel of 7.1+2 audio, 13 USB 2.0 ports, eight serial ATA (3.0 Gbit/s) ports, two IEEE-1394a ports, one PCI Express x16 slot, one PCI Express 2.0 x8 slot and a pair of standard PCI slots. One standout feature is the inclusion of Bluetooth technology, which will allow Bluetooth wireless devices to be used with the motherboard. This could prove to be a real market differentiator for those that synchronize handheld devices with their PCs.

Going head to head to head

The trick here was to measure the performance of the chipsets, which really comes down to comparing video performance and how well the chipset leverages the processor and main memory. I found the easiest and quickest way to come up with some concrete answers was to build three basic PCs, with components that were very similar.

For example, I used the same Corsair CMPSU-620HX power supply and the same WD VelociRaptor hard drive for all three systems; I also installed Windows 7 RTM in all three.

I had to use different memory, because each chipset used different types of modules. For the AMD and Intel P55 systems, I used 2GB of Kingston DDR3 1600MHz memory, while for the Intel G41 system I had to use 2GB of Kingston DDR2 800MHz memory, which is slower than the DDR3 memory, because it couldn't accept the other.

First, I tested memory performance with CPU-Z, a utility that identifies processor, BIOS and chipset specifics, and tests various memory and CPU performance features.

According to CPU-Z, the AMD system showed 47 nanoseconds of memory latency, while the Intel G41 system exhibited 84 nanoseconds, almost twice as slow as the AMD rig. This shows that the AMD system can retrieve and store data to system memory much faster, improving application performance. On the other hand, the Intel P55 dropped the latency to just 41 nanoseconds, easily surpassing AMD's value combo.

I delved deeper into memory performance using Stream, a freeware utility that measures throughput. With Stream, the AMD system exhibited 12223 Gbits/second of throughput during a copy operation, while the Intel G41 system managed only 5499 Gbits/second, less than half the throughput of the AMD system. The Intel P55 system came in at 11627 Gbits/second, not as fast as the AMD system, but quite an improvement over the Intel G41 system.

DDR3 memory costs about 20 per cent more than DDR2 memory, but that is a small price to pay for a gain in speed of over 50 per cent when comparing the AMD to the Intel G41 system. However, while the speed of the memory did impact performance, the difference in performance between the AMD and Intel G41 systems could not be fully attributed to the speed of the memory alone -- it was also attributable to efficiencies designed into the chipset and how the chipset interfaces the CPU to the memory bus.

For video performance testing, I used Tech ARP's x264 HD Benchmark utility, which measures video encoding performance, and I also checked frame rate performance by using the popular game Left 4 Dead. Using the x264 benchmark, the AMD 785G system was able to encode 38 frames/second into HD video, while the Intel G41 system managed 30 frames/second, about 12 per cent slower than the AMD.

Because the Intel P55 chipset does not include onboard video, it is pretty hard to fairly compare the Intel P55 to either the Intel G41 or AMD 785G systems. Simply put, with a P55 system, if you need better video performance, then just buy a better, more expensive video card. The video card I used with the P55 system was an inexpensive, entry-level card, but the P55 system was still able to offer performance on par with AMD, with a rating of 36 frames/second.

The frame rate test with "Left 4 Dead" rounded out the video and CPU testing, with the AMD 785G able to maintain 37 frames/second, while the Intel G41 system managed 15 frames/second and the P55 system managed 33 frames/second.

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