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Nvidia’s nForce 780a chipset has had a long and troubled gestation period but the silicon has finally arrived and we have an MSI K9N2 Diamond on the test bench. It’s an AMD AM2+ motherboard that supports the Phenom processor and as this is an Nvidia chipset you won’t be surprised to learn that the emphasis is firmly on the graphics side of things. There are three PCI Express 2.0 slots so you can use Tri-SLI provided you have the necessary budget. The first graphics slot always gets 16 lanes of PCI Express and if you run SLI with two graphics cards the second slot also gets the full 16 lanes. If you go for Tri-SLI the second set of 16 lanes are split between the second and third slots and they get eight lanes each.
At first glance the 780a has a fair amount in common with the nForce 780i and 790i chipsets but in fact it marks a change in direction for Nvidia.
In the past it has been general practice for motherboard manufacturers to stick an integrated graphics chip on lowly Micro-ATX motherboards that are destined for cheap and cheerful mainstream PCs. High end gaming systems never use integrated graphics as the IGP takes up die space on the chipset, the outputs occupy room on the I/O panel and the whole lot adds to the cost of the motherboard. This combined with the fact integrated graphics are far too feeble for gaming means you will inevitably plug in one or more graphics cards, which disables the IGP and makes it redundant.
This all changes with the 780a as it introduces a new feature called HybridSLI which is actually two technologies in one. First we have GeForce Boost which is pretty much the same as AMD’s Hybrid Graphics technology. You have a lowly IGP as part of the motherboard chipset but when you plug in a graphics card the drivers combine the two chips in CrossFire or SLI. The benefit is fairly modest and only works if the graphics card is similar in performance to the IGP, so in the case of AMD you’re limited to a Radeon HD 3450 and with the K9N2 Diamond and other 780a boards you’re looking at a GeForce 8400 GS or an 8500 GT. That might be OK for playing Sims but it’s hopeless for the vast majority of games on the market.
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