by Dustin Sklavos
nVidia's GeForce 8400M GS is, quite frankly, ubiquitous at this point. It is the go-to mass dedicated graphics part for both Dell and HP, the two biggest notebook retailers in North America. If you're getting dedicated graphics in your laptop, chances are it's going to be one of these (with nVidia's 8600M parts running a moderate second).
Hardware wise, the 8400M GS boasts a minimal 64-bit memory bus and 16 unified shaders, offering the bare minimum for basic gaming performance. It remains comparable to its desktop counterpart.
Of course, the big question is: can it actually game halfway decently? Certainly a lot of people on the forums here will attest to this, but I figured I'd examine its performance for myself.
Test Systems and Settings
My 8400M GS is one of the lesser ones, featuring only 64MB of dedicated memory. The more common 128MB and 256MB versions will try to leverage nVidia's TurboCache shared memory technology, but this is the only one that's going to really need it.
It comes to me in a custom-built HP dv2000t. Not long after I ordered my notebook, HP refreshed the line, bumping the GeForce 8400M GS in it from 64MB to 128MB of video memory. With the increased video memory should come a small but respectable boost in performance.
My unit features the following specifications:
HP Pavilion dv2000t
By ordering the dv2000t with the GeForce 8400M GS, my unit also includes a very handy HDMI port, but sacrifices a USB port to get it.
I've retired Unreal Tournament 2004 from my test suite; modern dedicated graphics will have no problem whatsoever with maxing out this game and probably even applying a little anti-aliasing. I have, however, added Crysis. Crysis is unquestionably the most demanding game available, and bears inclusion as a representative of what games in the future (probably at least six months into the future) may require of hardware.
Doom 3 should probably be retired for Quake 4 or Enemy Territory in the future, but for now it's a decent gauge of OpenGL performance. Here, the 8400M GS acquits itself admirably as nVidia hardware traditionally does in these games.
At 1280x800 High Quality, the 8400M GS yielded 37fps in Doom 3's built-in timedemo. Gameplay is plenty smooth and viable in this game, a game that just a few short years ago was being used to punish hardware just like Crysis is today.
HALF-LIFE 2: LOST COAST
As traditional, I used the built in stress test that comes with Half-Life 2: Lost Coast, which I think is an excellent indicator of how the card will handle Source engine games.
Set at 1280x800 with all settings maxed except for Anti-Aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering, the stress run of Lost Coast yielded an average of 44fps. The run definitely dipped and chopped a little in parts, but was for the most part very smooth.
As a sidenote, a friend of mine played through the vast majority of Portal on this system at these settings and it was definitely smooth enough there. The 8400M GS has no problems with Source engine games.
The more time I spend benchmarking FEAR, the more of a curiosity I find it. Generally regarded as still a fairly punishing the game, my experience with it has found it to be remarkably forgiving of even integrated graphics hardware. More often than not, it just seems like there's a specific level of performance the game wants to produce.
Here, mercifully, that performance is again playable. In a fairly impressive feat for the 8400M GS, I ran FEAR at 1280x800 with all settings at Maximum, no AA or AF, and no Soft Shadows and achieved 29fps average, with a 14fps minimum. A little bit of tweaking can probably bring that 29 up over 30, but I found it plenty playable at these settings. The 128MB version of the 8400M GS would have no problems here.
UNREAL TOURNAMENT 3
This was actually kind of a struggle. I had a notebook with an 8400M G (not GS, half the shader power) that handled the demo for UT3 at 1024x600 medium settings plenty playably, but on the GS with HP's drivers, the best I could really do was 800x600 at the same middle-of-the-road settings.
UT3 is definitely playable here, but Unreal Engine 3 in general seems to really throttle memory bandwidth, as I was met with similarly poor performance in Rainbow Six: Vegas and Bioshock. So consider this a heads-up: games based on Unreal Engine 3 are gonna struggle big time on hardware with a 64-bit memory bus.
Guild Wars, now ancient but a bit more demanding on hardware than World of Warcraft, runs flawlessly on the 8400M GS. I was able to get it to max out at 1280x800, even with 2xAA. So MMORPG fans take note: Guild Wars and WoW will be quite happy on the 8400M GS.
Here's the first place where the 8400M GS struggled more than I'd expected it to. Far Cry isn't exactly more demanding than FEAR, yet the 8400M GS performed better in FEAR. Far Cry ran fine maxed out in indoor areas, but the instant I went outdoors the game crawled badly. I had to drop all the settings down to High and from there, the game ran fine.
Far Cry is a pretty old game at this point, materializing around the same time Doom 3 did, and with the kind of shader power modern graphics leverage (sixteen unified shaders is still pretty healthy) it should be a non-issue.
Ultimately, the game was playable at 1280x800 High settings (water on Ultra High), and handled very well there. It's just a bit of a drag that it didn't perform better.
My feelings (read: general disdain) for Crysis are pretty well known on the forums here, but it bears mentioning that the 64MB 8400M GS struggles horrendously with Crysis even on minimal settings. While I'm sure you could probably play through it on here, you wouldn't do it happily. I suspect the 128MB version would fare somewhat better, but I doubt it'll let you really turn anything up.
But then, Crysis is dragging desktop GeForce 8800s to their knees at 1280x800 (if set to Very High). It stands to reason it'd murder cards a tenth as powerful.
While the GeForce 8400M GS is a pretty respectable performer, especially given its commonality, it does suffer from one major problem: it's an nVidia part. nVidia's driver quality, while substantially improved from when Vista came out, is still pretty much a dog. It's disheartening because nVidia used to be the industry gold standard for quality drivers.
On my laptop, I've had errors relating to nVidia's driver, and my desktop on Vista x64 has fared worse still.
Features that were exposed in XP are also absent here, at least in the driver my notebook came with - the same driver most users will stick with rather than going through the hassle of using a laptopvideo2go driver. Specifically, there's no way to create a custom resolution, and popular compromise resolution 1024x600 is absent here.
For the frugal gamer, the GeForce 8400M GS has a lot to offer, with performance that plays all modern games fairly well, excepting Crysis, which has the misfortune of Tri-SLI'ed 8800 Ultras being just a little too big to fit in a laptop. But all other games should have few problems with the 8400M GS.
As a sidenote, I've found the 8400M's impact on my battery life to actually be a fairly minimal one, and a nice bonus to running it in Vista is not having to mess with PowerPlay settings at all on the battery; gaming performance on the battery is identical to performance plugged in because the GPU automatically ramps its clock speed back up as needed.
The nice thing about this review is being able to see how far we've come in just a couple short years. The 8400M GS is more or less the bottom of the barrel for mobile dedicated graphics, yet it offers very reasonable performance and runs modern games at better-than-minimum settings. The performance in FEAR was particularly striking; FEAR is still being used to punish high end hardware in reviews, yet the 8400M GS handles it with aplomb.
It's not all bread and roses, though, as true next generation games start trickling in. Unreal Engine 3 games make the 64-bit memory bus on the 8400M G and GS cry bloody murder, and Crysis barely runs playably. The recently published requirements for the PC version of Assassin's Creed also border on downright terrifying.
And then there's the story of DirectX 10, which is revealing itself to be a very ugly technological transition. Something that promised us improved performance instead strangles even high end hardware, leaving it as a checkbox feature on lower class parts. Thus far, the only game whose DirectX 10 mode doesn't massacre performance is Bioshock, but Bioshock barely uses DirectX 10 anyhow.
Still, the 8400M GS is a fantastic choice for older games, and a pretty reasonable one for modern and future games. It's not going to break speed records or win awards and it should NOT be relied on as a gamer's only graphics hardware, but it'll do in a pinch and it's ideal for the MMORPG geek who has to feed her addiction even when she's not in front of her desktop.
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