Sometimes an excellent operating system can be made even better
- Versatile integrated graphics, plenty of connections, four memory slots, supports Phenom CPUs
- The 'hybrid' feature isn't documented in the manual
Gigabyte's latest motherboard is small, but it packs plenty of punch. It includes modern connectivity options and even allows you to run two monitors off its integrated graphics. If you're on a budget and want to build a small, yet potent PC, this board is a worthy choice.
Price$ 125.00 (AUD)
AMD has launched a new chipset – the AMD 780G – to coincide with the release of its new low-power CPUs, and Gigabyte has put it to good use on its GA-MA78GM-S2H motherboard. It's an all-in-one board – meaning it also has integrated graphics – and its small micro-ATX form factor makes it the perfect foundation for a home theatre-based PC. But, can it be used for more?
On the surface, Gigabyte's board is primarily aimed at users who want to build a media centre PC; it comes equipped with HDMI and DVI ports and its AM2+ CPU socket will run AM2-based Athlon 64 X2 CPUs, as well as AM2+ based Phenom CPUs. The AMD 780G chipset has enough graphics power to drive a 1920x1080 video stream through its HDMI port, so it's a neat solution for a media centre that will be connected to a high-definition TV. You can even use the motherboard's graphics chip to run two monitors off its D-Sub and DVI ports. However, while the board has both DVI and HDMI ports, only one of those can be used at a time.
With 10 USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port and an e-SATA port, the board is fully stocked with modern connectivity, yet it also includes PS/2 ports and two PCI slots for older peripherals and add-in cards. Plenty of memory can be added through the board's four DDR2 slots, and there is also a PCI Express x16 slot for a graphics card.
The graphics slot will come in handy should you want to build a media centre capable of running games at high resolutions, but the integrated graphics chip itself is adept at playing many older games smoothly at a resolution of 800x600 and without visual enhancements such as antialiasing turned on. The integrated graphics chip is called the Radeon HD 3200; it's a DirectX 10-based chip with 40 stream processors and a clock speed of 500MHz, but it relies on shared system memory instead of a dedicated frame buffer. In essence, it's very similar to the ATI Radeon HD 3450 graphics card, except that it's a little slower and doesn't have its own memory.
But the most interesting feature of the integrated graphics chip is its 'hybrid' mode, which will only work under Windows Vista. Similar to CrossFire (in fact, to enable 'hybrid' mode you must enable CrossFire), the integrated graphics chip can contribute to the graphics processing load even if a dedicated graphics card is installed. Unlike previous implementations of integrated graphics, where you could use either integrated or discrete graphics solutions, the 780G implementation allows you to use both in a bid to improve your graphics performance.
There is a caveat. If you already have a mid- to high-end graphics card (such as a Radeon HD 3850), then 'hybrid' mode won't work. But paired with a $60 Radeon HD 3450, this motherboard can be used to build the ultimate budget gaming system. Sure, you won't get great performance, but for the price of a mid-range graphics card (anywhere from $250-$330), you can get this motherboard as well as a low-end graphics card for much less than $200!
Unfortunately, 'hybrid' mode isn't documented anywhere in the motherboard's manual. To enable it, you must enable the 'Surround View' option in the 'Advanced' section of the BIOS. Then when you install a Radeon HD 3450 card in the PCI Express slot, the CrossFire option will show up in the driver, which will allow both the new card and the integrated graphics to work simultaneously.
Using this mode at a resolution of 1024x768 with a Sapphire Radeon HD3450 graphics card, the board recorded a frame rate of 27fps (frames per second) in FEAR, which is 10 frames more than the Radeon HD 3200 chip recorded on its own. At 800x600, CrossFire mode recorded 42fps, which is more than double what the Radeon HD 3200 recorded.
As a bonus, 'Surround View' will let you connect up to four monitor's to your system, too.
The 780G chipset is linked to the CPU via a HyperTransport 3.0 link, which offers plenty of bandwidth for transferring data to and from the CPU, and especially from the CPU's integrated memory controller. However, this will only work with CPUs that also support HyperTransport 3.0, such as the Phenom. CPUs such as the Athlon 64 X2 will run at their native HyperTransport 1.0 speed.
For storage, the board has five Serial ATA ports, as well as the aforementioned e-SATA port while old-timers will appreciate the IDE and floppy ports. These ports are all located along the right-hand edge of the board, which should allow for efficient cable management. The SATA ports, in particular, are perpendicular with the board, instead of parallel, so they shouldn't be a hindrance in most home theatre-style cases. You can use RAID with this board, too (modes 0, 1 or 10) and if you use notebook-sized Serial ATA hard drives, you can build a machine that's not only very quiet and cool-running, but also one that won't consume too much power.
Running 2GB of RAM, an Athlon 64 X2 4850e CPU, a Seagate Barracuda ES hard drive, and a Serial ATA-based optical drive, along with the board's integrated graphics, our machine idled at around 70W of electricity, so unless you plan on installing a fast Phenom CPU and mid- to high-end graphics card, as well as more than two hard drives and a few case fans, you won't need a large power supply to run this board at all.
In our tests, the board detected our Athlon 64 X2 and Phenom CPUs without any arm twisting and it ran them reliably. We didn't have any problems setting it up either, as the supplied driver disc's 'one-click' installation program detected and installed all of the board's components smoothly (although we did have to use a separate disc for the graphics driver). It also ran very quietly. Using our aforementioned Athlon 64 X2 4850e CPU, and the integrated graphics (which are part of the passively cooled 780G chipset), we could barely hear the system running. This bodes well for PCs that will be planted in lounge rooms or bedrooms.
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