Review AMD's new 690 chipset comes in two varieties. There's the vanilla 690V with an integrated ATI Radeon X1200 graphics core that only supports a VGA connection, but the one that interests us is the 690G with Radeon X1250 graphics. This core supports both analogue and digital connections, and that gives the motherboard manufacturers a huge range of options.
Take, as an example, the Asus M2A-VM motherboard. It has two video outputs on the I/O panel, supporting an analogue monitor with maximum resolution of 2,048 x 1,536 at 85Hz and a digital display with maximum resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 at 60Hz. It's a DVI-D connection that can't be converted to RGB so twin analogue displays aren't an option.
Asus sells a second version of this mobo in the shape of the M2A-VM HDMI. Priced at £55 - £6 more than the vanilla M2A-VM - it's exactly the same board with the addition of a riser card that plugs into the PCI Express x16 slot to provide HDMI, s-video and two composite-video connections.
The Radeon X1200/1250 core is based on Radeon X700 technology and supports Vertex Shader 2.0 and Pixel Shader 2.0b so technically it's slightly inferior to the Shader Model 3.0-supporting GMA X3000 core that Intel builds into its G965 chipset or Nvidia's aged GeForce 6100/6150. In practice, the new ATI core is significantly faster than those chips as it has four pixel shaders running at 400MHz, which eclipses the two shaders employed by Intel and Nvidia, even though they run at a higher clock speed.
So, if you've been waiting for integrated graphics that will allow you to play Half Life 2 at a reasonable frame rate, your wait is over. AMD's 690G delivers the goods but that's only part of the story. The new core includes Avivo video support which takes a substantial load off the CPU when you're watching high quality video. This means that you can watch H.264 with a lowly Sempron in your PC without suffering dropped frames. This reduces the cost of the hardware that you need to watch movies in two ways. First, this is a budget chipset so the £50 selling price of the Asus M2A-VM is typical, while a more expensive fully featured version will cost about '80, which compares well to Intel and Nvidia motherboards.
Secondly, if we ignore all this talk of Semprons and instead look at the sort of processor that you might actually use in a new PC you'll find that the cheapest Core 2 Duo is the 1.80GHz E4300 at £105 while you can get an Athlon 64 X2 3600+ for £60. That gives the AMD platform an advantage of £50-80 which is a fair chunk of change in the world of budget PCs. AMD has a further trick up its sleeve as the 690 chipset draws a miniscule 10W of power, so both the North Bridge and South Bridge chips sport tiny passive heatsinks and barely rise above 40°C even when they're hard at work. This means that you can build the Asus into a tiny case with minimal cooling and stick it next to your TV where it will make less noise than a Sky HD box.
In our testing we used a £135 Athlon 64 X2 5000+ on the Asus M2A-VM and compared it with a £325 Intel Core 2 Duo E6700 on an £85 Intel DG965OT motherboard. Not a direct comparison, true, but that was the hardware we had to hand.
PCMark05 1.2 Benchmark Results
The E6700 CPU has about 25 per cent higher performance than the X2 but broadly speaking when you run on integrated graphics the two platforms are very similar, even though the Intel combo costs considerably more than the AMD set-up. The area of separation is gaming on integrated graphics as the Intel G965 chugs along while the AMD 690G manages the job with some aplomb.
3DMark Benchmark Results
Plug in a £115 Sapphire PCI Express Radeon X1950 Pro graphics card and Intel wipes the floor with AMD, just as you'd expect.
Half-life 2 - Lost Coast Benchmark Results
So what do we think of the AMD 690G chipset? If you intend to build a small, quiet PC with integrated graphics and you're keen to save money on your processor and motherboard then the 690G is a winner. If you want a motherboard with integrated graphics that can support two monitors or you're connecting to an HDTV over HDMI then, again, the 690G is the chipset of choice.
It's quite possible that the Nvidia MCP68 will upset this particular apple cart when it launches later this month. However, on past form, the Nvidia chipset will be relatively expensive.
That's the chipset covered so now let's quickly turn to the Asus motherboard. This Micro-ATX design has a reasonable list of features but there are a couple of notable omissions. The Realtek HD audio only has three 3.5mm audio sockets with no option for digital output, and while you can easily plug a sound card into one of the two PCI slots that rather misses the point with a highly integrated motherboard like this one is supposed to be. We would have appreciated a Firewire port and, ideally, a couple more USB 2.0 ports. There are three USB headers on the board, which is handy if you have ports mounted in your case, but you don't get any brackets in the package. The single parallel ATA connector is laid down to make cable routing easier and the four SATA connectors are neatly positioned in the corner.
Lord knows why Asus has included a Parallel port.
Asus M2A-VM Specifications
North BridgeAMD 690G
South BridgeATI SB600
MemoryFour slots for up to 8GB of 800MHz DDR 2
GraphicsATI Radeon X1250
Expansion1 x PCI Express x16, 1 x PCI Express x1, 2 x PCI
Ports DVI-D, VGA, 2 x PS/2, 1 x parallel, 4 x USB 2.0
Storage 1 x ATA133 for two drives, 4 x 3Gbps SATA with RAID 0, 1 and 10
Ethernet Gigabit by Realtek
It's hardly an exciting design but it is neatly laid out with the power connectors at the edges of the board and there are two spare fan connectors in the unlikely event that you feel the need for more cooling.
The new AMD 690G chipset is a superb bundle of budget silicon that delivers the best integrated graphics money can buy. The graphics are an incremental improvement over the previous X300 core, but brings scope for HDMI output and multi-monitor support. The price is low and the power draw is even lower, and those are two very appealing features.