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VIA's New Pentium 4 Chipset

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VIA's New Pentium 4 Chipset

VIA Technologies (www.viatech.com) has become one of the worlds leading chipmakers by exploiting coverage gaps in Intels product line and by building high-performance chipsets for AMD Athlon and Duron processors. Their new P4X266 chipset for the Intel Pentium 4 is a case in point: it provides a way for system makers to produce Pentium 4-based systems using the current family of P4 processors without being restricted to the expensive RDRAM that Intels 850 chipset requires.

Something Borrowed, Not Much New

VIA was able to bring the P4X266 into existence so quickly because its Athlon chipsets have provided both inspiration and components for the new chipset. The high-speed connection between the P4X266s VT8753 North Bridge (which features AGP 2x/4x and a 400MHz FSB) and South Bridge chips is VIAs proven V-Link technology. Both V-Link the South Bridge chip used in the P4X266, the VT8233, were used in the KT266 chipsets. The VT8233 supports up to six PCI slots, up to three USB root hubs (providing a total of six USB ports) and ATA100/66/33 IDE hard disk interfacing. The VT8233C version of the chipset also boasts an integrated 3Com 10/100 Fast Ethernet networking controller, while the VT8233 version contains a 10Mbps Home PNA 2.0 controller.

Support for Low-Cost High Performance DDR Memory

Instead of pairs of RDRAM RIMMs (which sell for a very high price premium compared to SDRAM and DDR SDRAM DIMMs), the new P4X266 chipset uses the same 184-pin DDR SDRAM modules used by todays fastest Athlon-based systems. Pricewise, this means that systems whose motherboards use the VIA P4X266 chip are a lot less expensive to populate with memory modules than systems which use Intels 850 chipset. For example the major online memory vendor Crucial (www.crucial.com), which is the factory outlet store for memory manufacturer Micron Technologies, currently offers 256MB PC2100 DDR SDRAM modules (supports 266MHz FSB) for $35.99 as of 9/26/2001, while most other companies sell 256MB PC800 RDRAM RIMM modules for $121, which is more than triple the price. In practical terms, since you can mix and match DDR SDRAM memory modules on systems which use the P4X266 chipset, and you must buy matching (and three times more expensive!) RIMMs on systems using the Intel 850 chipset, VIAs Pentium 4 solution is very friendly to the pocketbook when its time to buy the system or add memory later. And, if the skys the limit when you decide to add memory, you can install twice as much memory to a P4X266-based system (4GB total) as you can on an i850-based system (2GB total).

Does Lower Memory Cost Lead to Lower Performance?

However, while its great to have low-cost memory to use on a system, what about performance? Intels forthcoming "Northwood" version of the Pentium 4 (due out in October), which uses a different socket than current versions, has been criticized because Intel will be supporting it with the 845 chipset, whose initial versions will use PC133 SDRAM instead of faster memory types. Rambus, the developer of RDRAM, and Intel have long proclaimed RDRAM as being the king of high-performance memory, even when compared to DDR SDRAM. So, while the P4X266 chipset saves you money, what do you give up in terms of performance?

The short answer is, "very little". AnandTechs extensive benchmarking of the P4X266 versus the Intel 850 chipset reveals that the i850s theoretical performance in memory transfers is quite a lot faster, but when it comes to actual work, the P4X266 gets virtually every type of workplace task done in about the same amount of time. From office suites to enterprise-level computing, theres not much difference in the two. While the Pentium 4 did better playing Quake III Arena, most other gaming benchmarks (which generally put the most strain on PC hardware) showed little difference. Toms Hardwares game-oriented benchmark testing showed similar results: while the i850-bases system was a little faster on games (and a lot faster in theoretical memory benchmarks), it didnt blow the doors off the P4X266 in any real-world test. SIMMtesters business-oriented benchmarks showed the i850 and P4X266 in a virtual dead heat in most tests. And, if youre wondering how the P4X266 compares to the forthcoming economy chipset from Intel, the i845, the results arent even close; the i845s relatively slow PC133 memory makes it a very distant third place.

Flexibility Adds to the Appeal of the P4X266

Unlike Intel, which has "married" the current Pentium 4 Socket 423 design to its i850 chipset and the new Northwood Socket 478 design to its new i845 chipset, VIAs P4X266 can support either flavor of Pentium 4 processor, and can also support older PC133 and PC100 SDRAM. This means that you may be able to choose from a wide variety of price points on P4X266-based systems and motherboards, depending upon the performance and growth potential you demand. For example, a P4X266-based motherboard which supports Northwood processors and DDR SDRAM would provide the greatest future processor upgrade potential and the best performance, while an "economy" platform could use PC100/133 RAM and use the current Socket 423-based Pentium 4 processors.

Legal Troubles

Intel, which just signed a cross-licensing agreement with Rambus and has been the biggest supporter of Rambus and its controversial RDRAM memory, isnt sitting still as VIA launches its new chipset. Intels contention is that since it didnt explicitly license the Pentium 4 bus to VIA, VIAs P4X266 chipset is a patent infringement. VIA contends that its purchase of cross-licensing agreements from S3 (now SonicBLUE) allows it to use S3s rights to Intel bus designs, and has offered to pay the legal fees of any motherboard makers who are sued as a result of producing motherboards based on the P4X266 chipset. VIA is also suing Intel over its alleged violation of VIA patents, anti-competitive practices, and destruction of VIAs property at the Computex 2001 trade show held in Taipei, Taiwan in June 2001. It will be interesting to see what happens on the legal front.

Who Will Be First Out of The Gate with a P4X266 Motherboard?

All reviews of the VIA P4X266 chipset so far are based on a reference design, which is a prototype motherboard which chipset makers build to provide guidance to their motherboard partners. Its difficult to say when the first P4X266-based motherboards or systems will ship, given the Intel/VIA litigation over the P4X266 chipset. Many of VIAs motherboard vendors are starting to ship i845-based motherboards, and may be concerned about rocking the boat with Intel. Whenever the P4X266 chipset finally reaches the market, the Pentium 4 market will finally have a cost-effective motherboard that doesnt throw out performance.

For More Information

Toms Hardwares "Bringing Pentium 4 to the Masses" review is located at:

AnandTechs "VIA's P4X266: The Pentium 4 gets DDR" review is located at:

CST Inc.s "The P4 Goes Mainstream with DDR" review is located at:

VIAs P4X266 website is located at:

Copyright©2002 Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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