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During the month of March, I had an opportunity to speak with the Intel PC Chipset Group to get some input about Intel's current direction, and to discuss the issues they are facing. Though mostly a presentation of Intel's philosophy and direction, I did get some useful information.
The chipset group emphasized that the Intel's focus is to provide the platforms necessary to meet the application requirements of each market segment, and that they are dedicated to provide a high quality and stable platform through 'forward looking validation'. This means that they attempt to anticipate the applications that users might encounter during the life of their product, and build in the ability to cope with whatever might come along. In my own testing of the i810 and i820 chipsets, I've found that the stability is indeed very good, seemingly better than any other 1st generation chipset that I have tested. Of course, Intel had their share of problems during the initial introduction of both the i810 and i820 chipsets, which caused them to 'recall' the product in order to fix it, so perhaps we are really looking at the 2nd generation of these
It is Intel's belief that streaming Internet video, MPEG2 decoding, digital video and other similar applications will be prevalent in the next few years, requiring high-bandwidth and the ability to deal with several concurrent tasks. For this reason, they have made the architectural changes to enable this in the way they feel is best, including implementation of the 'hub' architecture use in the i8xx chipsets (i810, i820E, i820, i840 and the upcoming i815). Intel claims that this architecture provides priority for real-time data types and frees up the PCI bus, allowing better performance in a concurrent environment.
Integration is another focus for Intel (though they are not alone in this). OEMs see integration as the key to lower platform costs, which is not a new idea at all. Standardized features have been integrated into the chipsets for quite some time, including parallel and serial controllers, IDE and floppy controllers, and more recently audio and video controllers. Expect this to continue with integrated LAN, Modem and IEEE1394 controllers. The eventual goal, of course, is to integrate the processor and memory as well. Not all segments will accept this, so the approach is to try and balance power, bandwidth and performance for each segment by integrating what makes sense. In the long run, however, we can certainly expect that integration will occur for all segments of the market to some degree.
Marketing theory aside, demand for the i820 chipset continues to be very weak, with several motherboard manufacturers claiming that they did not ship any i820 based boards in March. In discussing this, the Intel spokesperson admitted that acceptance hasn't been as great as Intel would have liked, mostly because of RDRAM pricing issues. An updated i820 (dubbed 'Camino II') is slated for release in Q2 (likely June) which will include ATA/100 and USB 2.0, as well as mobile (low-power) features. This chipset will also apparently allow for the 3-RIMM and '2+2' memory support (SDRAM and RDRAM on the same board) that the original i820 was supposed to provide.
Also scheduled for the June timeframe is the Solano (i815) chipset, which will have PC133 SDRAM support, ATA/100, USB 2.0 and will have integrated graphics. This is a highly anticipated chipset, not only because it will be Intel's first chipset officially supporting PC133 memory, but also because it will support an AGP 4x graphics card that will override the on-board graphics adapter. Even though 'volume shipments' are scheduled in June, some motherboard manufacturers have indicated that Intel intends this chipset to initially be available only to OEMs, until September. This means that the DIY market may have to wait until Q4 for availability of motherboards using this chipset.
Motherboard manufacturers have indicated that availability of the i440BX chipset is getting much better, however, the interest in the chipset is waning at the same time. The lack of PC133 memory, AGP 4x and UDMA/66 is causing most manufacturers and OEMs to switch to VIA based solutions. This is not a good sign for Intel, as the BX chipset is still their best and most cost effective solution for the DIY market.
Almost non-existent sales of the i820, and declining interest in the i440BX would seem to indicate that the Intel chipset business is looking somewhat bleak at the moment. While the i810 chipset is still selling in some segments, it isn't as popular as some would like, and the i840 sells to a niche market, so there isn't much help there.
One interesting bit of information I was given is that the i820 chipset was introduced at a lower price than any previous chipset. Though the reason was not provided, it would seem that competition from VIA, and concerns from motherboard manufacturers regarding the cost of building 6-layer motherboards might have had a lot to do with it. In addition, I have been told that Intel is looking to license some Taiwanese manufacturers to produce the chipset, because Intel is not making any money on it.
As reported last month, VIA chipset sales continue to increase. A VIA spokesperson indicated to me that they have been increasing production capacity as fast as possible, and are still unable to keep up with the demand. Motherboard manufacturers have indicated that the Apollo Pro133A (694x) chipset is by far their most popular chipset. Current estimates indicate that VIA is manufacturing close to 3.5 million chipsets per month. There have also been some reports that VIA is negotiating with TSM to double capacity by year end, which would mean up to 7 million per month. With an estimated 10 million PCs sold per month, this could make VIA the dominant chipset manufacturer, assuming that the demand is there.
The 694x chipset is the number one seller, accounting for at least 40% of all chipset shipments, according to one source. The VIA spokesperson I talked with would not give any numbers, but did say that there is strong demand for the chipset, and VIA is working hard to keep up with demand. In the June timeframe, a DDR enabled version of the Apollo Pro chipset will be sampling, but volume shipments will likely not occur until late Q4 or early Q1. Volume, in this case, means millions of units per month.
Because of the focus upon the Pentium II/III market, rollout of the KX133 chipset has been somewhat hampered. VIA apparently only shipped a few hundred thousand in January, and not many more in February. March shipments were close to 500,000, and April should see even larger numbers.
VIA is currently sampling the KZ-133 chipset, which is the Socket A version of the KX-133. The expected date of 'release' is about the June timeframe. Apparently, there are some power issues that require special 'tuning' of the chipset for the Socket A processors. This means that a single motherboard will likely not be able to handle both a Slot A and Socket A processor using a socket adapter, as is possible with the Socket 370/Slot 1 processors. In addition, a KM-133 chipset will also be introduced, which will have integrated graphics (Savage S4) for the 'value' segment of the market.
Next: Motherboard Update