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VIA Enters the Motherboard Business How and why VIA decided that the best (and perhaps only) way to sell its new Pentium 4 chipset was to sell its own line of motherboards.

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VIA Enters the Motherboard Business
How and why VIA decided that the best (and perhaps only) way to sell its new Pentium 4 chipset was to sell its own line of motherboards

VIA's outstanding P4X266 chipset, which combines DDR memory support with the Pentium 4, has had a hard time attracting manufacturer support despite its amazing performance. Unlike VIA's other chipsets for the Intel Pentium III/Celeron processors, the P4X266 was built without an explicit licensing agreement for the Pentium 4 bus; instead, VIA has relied upon its purchase of cross-licensing agreements from S3 (now SonicBLUE) as its justification for rights to the bus. Of course Intel says this cross-license is invalid, and is entering legal action to prevent the distribution of this chipset. As a result, VIA's usual motherboard partners, who also work with Intel, have been hesitant to get into potential legal trouble as well as to avoid potential supply problems (should the case go to court and VIA lose) by building motherboards based on the P4X266. To head off further legal action VIA is reportedly negotiating with Intel for an explicit license for the Pentium 4 bus.

Time is of the essence for VIA, as Intel will very shortly be releasing the 845D (codename Brookdale-D) chipset that also supports DDR memory. Due to Intel's significantly stronger manufacturing and marketing abilities, the 845D is destined to become the most popular DDR chipset for the Pentium 4. The bottom line is that had VIA not introduced their own P4X266 boards immediately, their window of opportunity would soon be closed by the 845D.

In the meantime, VIA's solution to its partner's fears is an intriguing one: shield its manufacturing partners from trouble by becoming the brand name on the motherboard box. The VIA Platform Solutions Division (VPSD) , announced in mid-October, is offering VIA-brand motherboards using the P4X266 chipset in a variety of models for both the Socket 423 and new Socket 478 as well as upcoming "Northwood" versions of the Pentium 4 processor.

VPSD offers both ATX and Micro-ATX versions to enable you to replace motherboards in both full-size and popular retail-store computers.

VPSD models include the following:

Model #

Form Factor

CPU Socket Type

RAM Types Supported

Additional Features

PE11-L

ATX

478

DDR-266

Onboard LAN & audio

PE-11S

ATX

478

DDR-266

Onboard Audio

PE-22R

ATX

478

DDR-266

Promise IDE RAID, 6-channel onboard audio

PR22-S

ATX

478

DDR-266

Onboard audio

P4XB-R

ATX

478

DDR-266

Promise IDE RAID, AC97 audio

P4XB-S

ATX

478

DDR-266

Onboard audio

VL33-S

ATX

423

DDR-266

Onboard audio

P4XV-M

Micro-ATX

423

DDR-266

Onboard audio

P4XB-M

Micro-ATX

478

DDR-266

Onboard LAN & 6-channel audio

All motherboards, including the Micro-ATX models, feature AGP 4x/2x slots, enabling you to drop in your choice of AGP cards. This feature will make the VPSD Micro-ATX motherboards an extremely attractive upgrade choice for users of systems with slow onboard video.

Why VIA Believes It Needs VPSD

Although a few of the more obscure motherboard vendors are braving the legal waters and are rolling out P4X266-based motherboards already, including Shuttle's AV40, Acorp's 4VPX266A, and Azza's P4X2, the P4X266 hasn't taken off the way other VIA chipsets have done.

Elitegroup ESC is the only major Taiwanese "name" vendor to have produced a P4X266-based board, but it's no longer featured on its Web site, while AOpen's AX47 board has been tested, but is also not yet available. The AOpen Web site features only motherboards based on Intel's existing 845 (SDRAM) and 850 (RDRAM) chipsets. Tyan's new Trinity 510 is now the only major name-brand board using the P4X266 chipset.

Because VPSD is looking to VIA's traditional motherboard partners to build VIA-brand motherboards, VIA believes that the risk of channel conflict (competition between a supplier and its customers) is minimal. And, it has archrival Intel to thank for the business model. For years, Intel has been the biggest chipset vendor to other motherboard makers while also producing its own line of motherboards.

Look for the No-Brand Label?

Since VPSD was announced in mid-October 2001, it may be late in 2001 or even early 2002 before you can expect to see its products available at retail. However, even though VIA has a powerful brand name, your first motherboard with a P4X266 chipset onboard might not feature either the VIA or a 3rd-party vendor's brand name. Distributors such as Ingram Micro Inc., Eprom Inc, Leadman Electronics Inc, and others will begin selling unbranded P4X266-based motherboards in the near future to help establish the chipset in the US and elsewhere.

Variations and Improvements

Although the industry has been hesitant so far to embrace the P4X266, VIA has wasted little time in developing variations. Its new P4M266 integrates high-performance P4oSavage 8 (DDR) video with the features of the P4X266; early tests indicate it has better performance than typical integrated-video solutions. A faster version of the P4X266, the P4X266A, has been introduced to support ATA-133 hard drives.

Conclusion

VIA is determined to make the P4X266 a success, even at the risk of upsetting some of its existing clients. Since VIA is reported to be in negotiations with Intel for a true Pentium 4 bus license at present, some might wonder if VPSD was created simply to create pressure for an Intel/VIA deal.

Even if VIA does get a license for the Pentium 4 bus and can thus assure its motherboard-making partners that there's no longer an Intel lawsuit to fear, it appears that VPSD will continue to exist to help bring other new VIA-chipset-based devices to market. These devices include products such as the new VIA Tablet PC and mini-ITX form factor motherboards for information appliances.

The biggest problem VIA faces is the imminent introduction of Intel's own DDR chipset, the 845D. This will without a doubt become the most popular DDR chipset on the market, so VIA will have to be satisfied with carving out a much smaller market niche by being first, and hopefully also by being faster performance-wise. Since the 845D isn't available yet, performance comparisons between the P4X266 and the 845D are as of yet unavailable.

Web Resources

Learn how well the early 3rd-party motherboards using the P4X266 chipset perform in this head-to-head test from LegionHardware.com:
www.legionhardware.com/Article/P4X266_Roundup_Nov/ P4X266_Roundup_Nov_1.php

Discover who will be shipping no-name P4X266 motherboards in the near future:
www.ebnonline.com/digest/story/OEG20011116S0065

Check out the VIA Platform Solutions Division (VPSD) Web site at:
www.viavpsd.com

Discover the P4M266 integrated-video chipset with LegionHardware.com's early review:
www.legionhardware.com/Article/VIA_Apollo_P4M266/
VIA_Apollo_P4M266_1.php

Stop by the Tyan Trinity 510's online home:
www.tyan.com/products/html/trinity510.html

See the latest news and roadmaps covering processors, chipsets, and such visit:
http://www.theregister.co.uk and click on "Semiconductors".

Copyright©2002 Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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