Generally speaking it is safe to say that integrated graphics are useless for 3D gaming. If you want to build a cheap PC for general office use then it makes perfect sense to buy a motherboard with integrated graphics, audio and 10/100Mbps LAN, but if you want to play games you’re going to have to buy a dedicated AGP graphics cards.
The one exception to that rule is the Nforce2 chipset for Athlon processors with its GeForce MX graphics, which are rather good, although the motherboards tend to be fairly expensive. If you fancy a new Pentium 4 PC then you’re lumbered on the integrated graphics front, or at least you have been up until now.
The big news is that ATI has released its Radeon 9100 IGP chipset for Pentium 4. Codenamed RS300, this chipset has made it into production where previous projects crashed and burned. On paper the specification looks very similar to Intel’s 865G, so it supports 400/533/800MHz FSB models with up to 4GB of PC3200 memory in dual-channel mode.
Naturally it also supports Hyperthreading, and as well as the integrated graphics you get an AGP 8x slot. There is a choice of three Southbridges (IXP 150, IXP 200 and IXP 250), so the exact feature list can vary quite dramatically from one motherboard to another. In the case of the Sapphire Axion 9100 it’s a micro-ATX design with a decent list of features, with the emphasis on a low price.
In addition to the AGP slot, there are three PCI slots and two memory slots, much as you would expect on a micro-ATX board. Then there are two ATA100 controllers, plus a floppy controller and a few controller chips. The over-riding impression is of a very tidy design, which is helped by the passive heatsink on the Northbridge and the bare Southbridge.
The only feature that could be said to be absent would be a pair of Serial ATA connectors. Both the ATX and 12V power connectors are located on the edge of the board and are simple to connect up.
Moving to the back-plate, Sapphire has left off the legacy serial ports. Of course the VGA connector replaces one port, but in place of the second serial port you’ll find a coaxial SPDIF output for the six-channel Realtek ALC655 audio.
There’s an Ethernet connector for the Realtek 10/100Mbps LAN, but only two USB 2.0 ports, although you also get one Firewire port. We would have been far happier with more USB ports. You only get USB 2.0 with Windows 2000 or XP; running Windows 9x will drop the speed dramatically to USB 1.1.
Sapphire includes a bracket with one serial port, which most users can safely ignore, but the second bracket is of far greater interest. It carries coaxial and S-Video TV-Out connections, so you can use your PC with a TV rather than a monitor.
Ah yes, the ATI graphics. The 9100 name is a little misleading, as this is a renamed Radeon 8500 core, which supports DirectX 8.1, rather than DirectX 9 as you may assume. Having said that, every other integrated graphics solution on the market supports DirectX 7 at best so this is a significant step forward.
In the Bios you can choose to allocate 32MB, 64MB or 128MB of system memory to the graphics. We tested with 64MB and got a score of 5,145 on standard settings in 3D Mark 2001. That’s definitely up to gaming standards, and it’s very impressive for an integrated graphics core.
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