ECS GF9300T-A Black Series Motherboard Review
By Gabriel Torres on October 15, 2008
ECS GF9300T-A Black Series is a socket LGA775 motherboard based on the latest chipset from NVIDIA, GeForce 9300, which features on-board video with a DirectX 10 engine and is the first NVIDIA chipset for the Intel platform to support Hybrid SLI. In this review we will compare the performance of GeForce 9300 to GeForce 7100, Intel G31, Intel G33 and Intel G45. Check it out.
Together with GeForce 9300, NVIDIA also released GeForce 9400. Both are single-chip solutions and the only difference between the two is the clock rate under their graphics engine run. In the table below we compare the basic specs from these two new chipsets with the other chipsets with on-board video we included in our review. The clock rates for FSB, DDR2 memories and DDR3 memories are the maximum and the chipset supports devices that work at lower rates. You can only install DDR3 memories if the motherboard manufacturer added DDR3 sockets to the board. This is not the case with ECS GF9300T-A: even though the chipset supports DDR3, the motherboard has only DDR2 sockets, so you can’t install DDR3 memories on this motherboard.
All chipsets below support dual channel memory technology.
Graphics Processors Clock
USB 2.0 Ports
4 (ICH9) or 6 (ICH9R)
0, 1, 0+1, 5
0, 1, 0+1, 5
0, 1, 0+1, 5
0, 1, 10, 5 (w/ ICH10R)
0, 1, 10, 5 (w/ ICH9R)
0, 1, 10, 5 (w/ ICH7R)
1 (2 devices)
1 (2 devices)
Graphics engines before DirectX 10 used separated units for each kind of processing (pixel shader, vertex shader, etc), while DirectX 10 and above parts use a unified system where each processing unit can be used for any kind of processing. Thus comparing the number of processors available on chips using different technologies is a little bit tricky. GeForce 7100 has four pixel shader units and one vertex shader units, so we put “5” as the total number of processors. Intel G33 and Intel G31 use the same graphics engine and they have only two pixel shader units and no vertex shader units (on these chipsets this stage is performed by the system CPU).
Other features present on GeForce 9300 and 9400 chipsets include the support for GPGPU (a.k.a. CUDA) technology, which allows the graphics engine embedded inside the chipset to run regular programs, improving performance (the program must have been compiled to do that) and a full hardware-based HD (Blu-Ray) video decoder (feature also available on Intel G45), allowing the decoding of HD video to be done by the chipset instead of the system CPU, not only improving performance but also freeing the CPU to do other tasks while decoding is being performed (i.e., low CPU load during HD video decoding). They also support HDMI with audio, making these chipsets a good candidate for a media center PC (HTPC, Home Theater PC), i.e., a computer for playing movies and audio on your home theater setup.
The new GeForce 9300 and 9400 support Hybrid SLI. This technology allows the on-board video to work in parallel to a discrete video card under SLI mode, increasing gaming performance (usually when you install a “real” video card the on-board video is disabled). The video card must support this technology and in fact only a few support this. Read our tutorial SLI vs. CrossFire for further information.
In our benchmarking we will compare the performance from ECS GF9300T-A (GeForce 9300) to the one from ECS GF7100PVT-M3 (GeForce 7100), Intel DG45ID (Intel G45), MSI G33M (Intel G33) and MSI G31M3 (Intel G31).
Before going to our tests, let’s take an in-depth look ECS GF9300T-A.
In Figure 1 you can have a good look at ECS GF9300T-A. Pay attention and you will see another model name printed on it: “MCP7AT-A,” which is the name ECS was using before the official launch of GeForce 9300 chipset.
The first thing that caught our eye was the size of this motherboard. Usually motherboards with on-board video use the microATX form factor – including GF7100PVT-M3 from ECS, which is based on GeForce 7100 chipset – but ECS GF9300T-A is an exception, using the regular ATX form factor.
This motherboard provides one x16 PCI Express 2.0 slot, allowing you to install a “real” video card on it. The chipset supports GeForce Boost technology, which allows certain low-end video cards like GeForce 8400 GS and GeForce 8500 GT to work in parallel with the on-board video in SLI mode, which provides a higher performance than a single add-on graphics card alone.
Besides the PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot this motherboard also has two PCI Express x1 slots and three regular PCI slots.
Another highlight from this motherboard is the presence of four memory sockets. Usually low-end motherboards have only two memory sockets, so having four of them on this board is a blessing, as it will help you adding more memory in the future without needing to replace your current memory modules. This motherboard supports DDR2 modules up to 800 MHz, supporting up to 8 GB if 2 GB modules are used. This motherboard support dual channel technology, so you need to install two or four memory modules in order to achieve the maximum performance this motherboard can provide. If two modules are used, they should be installed on sockets with the same color.
As you could see on the first page, the chipset supports six SATA-300 ports and all are present on the reviewed board, supporting RAID levels 0, 1, 5, 10 and JBOD. GeForce 9300 chipset does not have parallel ATA ports, but ECS added a JMicron JMB361 chip to make one ATA-133 port available. This chip also controls the eSATA port available on the rear panel from the motherboard.
This motherboard has an eight-channel on-board audio with all necessary jacks for you to connect an eight-channel analog speaker system. This motherboard provides digital audio on the HDMI output, which is a great feature to have. However in order to use the digital audio output you will need to have a home theater receiver with HDMI input with digital audio extraction capability. Not all home theater receivers have an HDMI input and not all receivers that have HDMI input are capable of extracting audio from there. So it would be really nice if this motherboard had at least an on-board coaxial SPDIF output, just in case your home theater equipment isn’t capable of extracting digital audio from the HDMI output, especially since this motherboard is clearly targeted to HTPC market.
The audio codec used is Realtek ALC883, which features a 95 dB output signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and a 85 dB input signal-to-noise ratio, with 24-bit resolution and up to 192 kHz sampling rate for its outputs and up to 96 kHz sampling rate for its inputs. While the output noise level is decent for the mainstream user, people working professionally with analog audio capture and editing will be better off with a different motherboard or will have to buy an add-on sound card, as 85 dB is simply too low and will produce a lot of white noise on your work.
This motherboard features one Gigabit Ethernet port, which is controlled by the chipset, requiring only a small chip to make the physical layer interface.
In Figure 4, you can see the rear panel of the motherboard. There you will find one mouse PS/2 connector, one keyboard PS/2 connector, VGA output, HDMI output, six USB 2.0 ports, one eSATA port, one Gigabit Ethernet port and 7.1 channel analog audio outputs. As you can see there is no parallel port on the motherboard. One serial port is available through an I/O bracket that doesn’t come with the board.
This motherboard also provides other smaller yet important features. Like other members from ECS’ “Black Series” the voltage regulator circuit uses ferrite chokes (which present a lower power loss compared to the iron chokes traditionally used on this circuit) and solid aluminum capacitors (which prevent the infamous capacitor leakage problem), plus it has passive heatsinks on top of the MOSFET transistors from this section. The capacitors used on the rest of the motherboard, however, are regular electrolytic caps from OST, a Taiwanese company.
Another nice feature is the presence of the power and reset switches soldered directly on the motherboard, see Figure 6.
Before going to our benchmarking, let’s recap the main features from this motherboard.
ECS GF9300T-A main features are:
During our benchmarking sessions, we used the configuration listed below. Between our benchmarking sessions the only variable was the motherboard being tested and the addition or removal of a “real” video card (Sapphire Radeon HD 3450).
Some Information About our Methodology
All motherboards included in our comparison were configured with 256 MB shared memory.
Since we were reviewing a motherboard with on-board video, we were very interested in comparing its 3D video performance with the performance achieved by other motherboards with on-board video and also with a very low-end video card, so we could have an idea of how slower on-board video is compared to a very inexpensive video card. We chose Sapphire Radeon HD 3450 with 256 MB and 64-bit memory interface because this is one of the cheapest video cards available today.
We chose an entry-level CPU to go with the motherboard, a Pentium Dual Core E2180. It is our opinion that a regular user wouldn’t pick a high-end CPU to go with a motherboard with on-board video and that is why we kept this CPU, but of course there is space for discussion. Unfortunately there is no way to create a methodology that pleases all opinions and that is why we are sticking to ours. On other websites you can find reviews for GeForce 9300-based motherboards using other methodologies, which is great, as you can have an idea of their performance using different components and programs. It would make no sense if all websites published the same tests and results, don’t you think?
Even though we had DDR2-1066 memories, we configured them as DDR2-800 units, since entry-level PCs won’t use DDR2-1066 memories and all motherboards we included in our comparison can only access memory up to 800 MHz.
We adopted a 3% error margin; thus, differences below 3% cannot be considered relevant. In other words, products with a performance difference below 3% should be considered as having similar performance.
The new PCMark Vantage program simulates the use of real-world applications and gives scores for the following categories:
For a detailed description of each one of these tests, please download and read the PCMark Vantage Reviewer’s Guide.
You can see the results for each category below. We are not going to compare the results for the Memories and HDD suites.
This benchmarking was done using the motherboard on-board video. Usually the motherboard with the fastest graphics engine achieves the highest score on this program. See the results below.
ECS GF9300T-A achieved an overall score similar to all motherboards based on Intel chipsets (G45, G33 and G31) we included in our review. The only significant difference was to GeForce 7100, where GeForce 9300 achieved a score 12% higher than ECS GF7100PVT-M3.
ECS GF9300T-A achieved a TV and Movies score between 5% and 7% lower than the score achieved by motherboards used Intel chipsets (G45, G33 and G31). On the other hand ECS GF9300T-A achieved a score 20% higher than the one achieved by ECS GF7100PVT-M3 (GeForce 7100) on this test.
On the Gaming test ECS GF9300T-A achieved the highest score among the motherboards we included in our comparison. It achieved a score 23% higher than the one achieved by Intel DG45ID (Intel G45), 40% higher than the one achieved by ECS GF7100PVT-M3 (GeForce 7100), 76% higher than the one achieved by MSI G31M3-F (Intel G31) and 82% higher than the one achieved by MSI G33M-FI (Intel G33).
On the Music test all motherboards included in our comparison achieved similar results.
On the Communications test all motherboards included in our comparison achieved similar results as well.
On the Productivity test motherboards based on Intel G33 and G31 chipsets achieved the highest scores. MSI G31M3-F (Intel G31) achieved a score 8% higher than the one achieved by ECS GF7100PVT-M3 (GeForce 7100), 9% higher than the one achieved by ECS GF9300T-A (GeForce 9300) and 17% higher than the one achieved by Intel DG45ID (Intel G45). ECS GF9300T-A (GeForce 9300) achieved a score similar to ECS GF7100PVT-M3 (GeForce 7100), which was 7% higher than the one achieved by Intel DG45ID (Intel G45).
3DMark06 measures Shader 3.0 (i.e., DirectX 9.0c) performance. We ran this software under its default configuration. For this test we also included the result achieved by a 64-bit Sapphire HD 3450 card installed in the motherboard PCI Express x16 slot while disabling the motherboard’s on-board video, so we can have an idea of the performance of a very low-end video card compared to the on-board video of the reviewed motherboard. We also enabled Hybrid Graphics, i.e., configured our Radeon HD 3450 to work in parallel with the on-board video in CrossFire mode, to see if there was any performance gain. The results you can see below.
GeForce 9300 achieved an outstanding performance, being the first time we’ve seen an on-board video solution achieving a performance similar to an add-on entry-level video card (this feat wasn’t accomplished even by AMD 790GX, which is the chipset with the fastest integrated video on the AMD side).
ECS GF9300T-A achieved a 3D performance 94% higher than Intel DG45ID (Intel G45), 326% higher than ECS GF7100PVT-M3 (GeForce 7100), 470% higher than MSI G31M3-F (Intel G31) and 487% higher than MSI G33M-FI (Intel G33).
Half-Life 2 is a popular franchise and we benchmark the video cards using Episode Two with the aid of HOC Half-Life 2 Episode Two benchmarking utility using the “HOC Demo 1” provided by this program. We ran the game under 1024x768 with no anti-aliasing and bilinear filtering, i.e., using the lowest image quality possible. We also included the result achieved by a 64-bit Sapphire HD 3450 card installed in the motherboard PCI Express x16 slot while disabling the motherboard’s on-board video, so we can have an idea of the performance of a very low-end video card compared to the on-board video of the reviewed motherboard. The results, given in frames per second, you see below.
GeForce 9300 achieved a good very good performance on Half-Life 2: Episode Two for an embedded video solution. A Radeon HD 3450 was “only” 15% faster than GeForce 9300, which achieved twice the performance of Intel G31, Intel G33 and Intel G45 and was 233% faster than GeForce 7100.
Unreal Tournament 3 is the latest installment from this famous first person shooter franchise, supporting DirectX 10 graphics when installed on Windows Vista with a DX10 compatible card (which was our case). We upgraded Unreal Tournament 3 to version 1.2 and benchmarked it with the help of HOC UT3 benchmarking utility using the “Containment” demo, disabling anisotropic filtering and running the game at 1024x768. We also included the result achieved by a 64-bit Sapphire HD 3450 card installed in the motherboard PCI Express x16 slot while disabling the motherboard’s on-board video, so we can have an idea of the performance of a very low-end video card compared to the on-board video of the reviewed motherboard. The results are below, in frames per second (FPS).
GeForce 9300 achieved the same performance of a Radeon HD 3450 on Unreal Tournament 3, which is an outstanding feat for an on-board video solution. Its performance was 170% higher than Intel DG45ID (Intel G45) and 575% higher than ECS GF7100PVT-M3 (GeForce 7100). Intel G31 and G33 weren’t able to run this game.
Even though GeForce 7100 and Intel G45 were able to run this game, the performance achieved by these chipsets was so low that we can’t consider that they can run it, since you won’t be able to play the game at such low number of frames per second.
We upgraded Quake 4 to version 1.4.2 and ran its multiplayer demo id_perftest with SMP option enabled (which allows Quake 4 to recognize and use more than one CPU), under 1024x768 with image quality settings configured at “low.” You can check the results below, given in frames per second.
This time GeForce 9300 wasn’t faster than our Radeon HD 3450: this add-on video card was 56% faster. ECS GF9300T-A was, however, faster than other motherboards with integrated video: 44% faster than Intel DG45ID (Intel G45), 90% faster than ECS GF7100PVT-M3 (GeForce 7100), 122% faster than MSI G31M3-F (Intel G31) and 124% faster than MSI G33M-FI (Intel G33).
Since GeForce 9300 has a DirectX 10 engine and according to NVIDIA it supports CUDA (programs compiled with CUDA will run on the graphics engine rather than on the CPU, for improved performance) we decided to test if the graphics engine from GeForce 9300 could really run CUDA-compiled programs.
To test that, we installed the Folding at Home GPU client, which uses the graphics engine to make protein folding calculations.
We had only two problems, none to do with GeForce 9300. The driver ECS shipped with the motherboard didn’t support CUDA, so we had to download the latest driver from NVIDIA’s website to make the Folding@Home client recognize GeForce 9300. We had an issue with Folding@Home installing its .dll files on the wrong directory, but this is a problem with the installer.
After setting everything up Folding@Home started using the graphics engine to do math calculations. It downloaded project 5014, which gives 480 points after a work unit is processed. GeForce 9300 was taking 7 minutes and 46 seconds to process 1% of the work, so it would take 46,600 seconds to process one work unit, or 13 hours. So the maximum theoretical performance you should expect for GeForce 9300 processing Folding@Home calculations is two work units per day (maximum of 960 points/day). Even though this is a low number compared to high-end video cards (which can easily process more than five work units per day), this is two and a half times faster than a Core 2 Duo E6600 running the standard CPU client (118.100 seconds/WU). Note that this comparison is flawed as the kind of processing a work unit targeted to video cards does is different from the kind of processing a work unit targeted to CPUs does. Anyway, you will get more points running your Folding@Home client on GeForce 9300 than running it on a Core 2 Duo CPU (using the standard client).
ECS GF9300T-A Black Series provides some overclocking options, including:
This motherboard provides the great feature of allowing you to configure the memory clock independently from the CPU external clock. However, no CPU voltage configuration is provided, and this motherboard has only one memory timing adjustment (only for the CL, CAS Latency).
Memory and FSB clocks are configured using their “inflated” QDR (four times the real clock) and DDR (two times the real clock) numbers, respectively. This means that each 1 MHz that you increase or decrease on the setup actually means 0.25 MHz or 0.5 MHz, respectively.With this motherboard we could increase the external clock rate from our Pentium Dual Core E2180 (which originally runs internally at 2 GHz and externally at 200 MHz or 800 MHz QDR) up to 1,136 MHz QDR (284 MHz), an amazing 42% increase on the CPU external clock rate, which made our CPU to run internally at 2.84 GHz.
GeForce 9300, together with GeForce 9400, is today the fastest chipset with integrated video for the Intel platform, achieving in some situations the same performance of a low-end add-on video card (Radeon HD 3450 with 256 MB and 64-bit interface). Intel G45 has the same overall performance of GeForce 9300 when you are not playing games, but fails to deliver the same performance level on games.
But don’t get too excited. In order to achieve a decent frame rate you will have to lower the resolution and disable all image quality settings from your game, but at least you will be able to play it.
Support for GPGPU technology (a.k.a. CUDA) was a nice addition to GeForce 9300. We tested it and it really works, so you will be prepared to enjoy the performance boost this technology brings when mainstream programs that use it becomes available (Adobe Creative Suite 4 – i.e., Photoshop CS4, Premiere Pro CS4 and After Effects CS4 – will use this technology to increase performance).
Talking specifically about ECS GF9300T-A Black Series motherboard, it is always good to see ECS improving the quality of their products. The reviewed board comes with solid aluminum capacitors and ferrite chokes on the voltage regulator circuit, something some people would not believe ECS would ever do.
The HDMI output with digital audio support is an excellent feature, making this motherboard a natural pick for home theater PCs (HTPC). We, however, would like to see at least a coaxial SPDIF output on this motherboard, as not all home theater receivers have an integrated HDMI switch and not all receivers with this device are able to extract audio from the HDMI connector.
Speaking of audio, ECS could have used a better audio codec. Realtek ALC883 has a lousy 85 dB signal-to-noise ratio for its input, what will make your analog-to-digital audio conversions (e.g., converting LPs and tapes to MP3 or CDs and VHS tapes to digital format) to have a lot of white noise.
The motherboard ran stable, however its SATA ports came configured as AHCI instead of SATA and Windows installer couldn’t find our hard drive. This is a tricky configuration, especially because it is hidden inside the Advanced Chipset Setup instead of being listed together with the hard disk drive on the Standard Setup like it happens with other motherboards.
Overclocking capability is really good, even though die-hard overclockers will miss the voltage configuration for the CPU.
In summary, it is a good pick for the mainstream user that knows about these small limitations beforehand, but more exigent users may want a different product.