Some weeks ago AMD quietly introduced a new motherboard part without many people noticing.  The 740G was not released to make some big waves as the previous 780G did, or the very new 790GX is doing.  Instead the 740G is positioned as an extreme value part which brings quite a few nice features to the scene.  The heart of the 740G is essentially the same as the previous 690G.  The X700 based integrated part is SM 2.0 compliant, and it has the newer Avivo HD/UVD portion fused onto the design.  All of this is then rolled up in one 55 nm package.  The 690G broke new ground in terms of features and performance when it was released last year, but the design was shackled to the older SB600 southbridge which had its obvious I/O issues and relatively limited connectivity.  The 740G is designed to overcome some of those limitations, as well as provide a fresh product for motherboard manufacturers to base inexpensive products around.

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The 740G keeps the same 400 MHz core clockspeed that the previous 690G had, and so overall performance in 2D and 3D settings is unimproved.  The upgraded video decoding portion is a bit of a mystery here.  In testing with a Athlon X2 4050e (2.1 GHz 65 nm), I was able to do 720P playback with a Blu-ray device at good rates.  Though in certain scenes we would notice dropped frames as well as some color distortion.  When I used the new Athlon X2 5400 (2.8 GHz 65 nm) then the issues cleared up.  It seems that the same basic limitation of the 690G is still there, which is that users need dual core processors at 2.4 GHz or above to enjoy 720p or 1080i/1080p playback at reasonable quality.  Throwing in the Phenom 9350e also solved those problems, even though that particular part is “only” clocked at 2.0 GHz.  Since video decoding is another inherently parallel function, a quad core running at 2 GHz gives theoretical throughput that is comparable to a 4 GHz X2 core (hooray for simple math).

The bigger upgrade comes from the SB700 southbridge that these products will mostly be packaged with.  The SB700 fixes a lot of the I/O performance issues with SATA and USB, and it also adds another pair of USB 2.0 ports and SATA ports.  Performance overall in I/O applications still does not match that of competing products from Intel and NVIDIA, but the performance delta in most cases is not all that significant when comparing daily workloads.

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This is the board I used for testing, and it is pretty robust in features.  The 6 SATA ports are nice, and the 3+1 phase power array should allow the use of 95 watt processors (both X2s and Phenoms).  Too bad on the non-HDMI board HDCP through DVI does not work.

Two big downsides to this product is the lack of a AM2+ connection between the northbridge and the CPU, as well as no PCI-E 2.0 support.  So while a low power Phenom can be plugged into one of these boards (likely the max power that can be supported is around 95 watts), the connection is running at the older HT 1.0 spec.  Also, the board I was using advertises HDCP through the DVI port… but it didn’t actually have the functionality.  I was unable to play protected BD content on my HDCP compliant TV.  When I used a separate video card with HDCP, it all worked fine.  This is something of a big mistake by Gigabyte to be advertising HDCP functionality when there is in fact none on the board.

The greatest strength of this platform is likely the power consumption.  At idle, with 2GB of memory, a 500 GB HD, a BD drive, and a X2 4050e, the system is pulling a very meager 55 watts from the wall.  At full load it is pulling 91 watts.  If we consider that the Atom and Nano platforms that Ryan tested last week were around the same idle power, it is impressive to think that a comparatively fast dual core processor with a fairly robust integrated graphics portion is sitting in the same area at idle, and at full bore it is about 20 watts higher than the Nano with its VIA/S3 Chrome based chipset and about 30 watts higher than the Atom and the 945 chipset.  When we consider availability and cost, the combination of a 740G with a 4050e processor is one which will appeal to many users who are looking for low heat, low power, but robust features and connectivity.  Also consider that the platform is fully Vista Aero and 64 bit compliant.  Neither the Nano or the Atom platform were able to run Vista 64 for Ryan.  The AMD combination runs pefectly fine, even with full Aero enabled in Vista.

The 740G is not a world beater, but for those looking to create a low power multi-media machine, or a productivity machine that can actually play a few games and render video fairly well, then the product will find a very happy home in many places.  Expect a full review within the next week.