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[ The PC Guide | Articles and Editorials | Industry Update: November 2000 ]

Chipset Update

Comdex provided a nice opportunity to grab all of the catalogs from the major motherboard manufacturers and do some analysis on their offerings. Of the top 15, I missed only ASUS and Soyo (working on those). The database I created has 289 motherboard models from these manufacturers, which provides some interesting statistics.

The number of motherboard models each manufacturer's chipsets is used on is a telling statistic: VIA (174) leads by far, with Intel next (87). AMD (12), ALi (9) and SiS (6) had only a few offerings, most of which are upcoming DDR boards. This proves that VIA owns 60% of the chipset market for non-Intel made motherboards, while Intel has around 30%.

For the record, the manufacturers represented in this survey include, Abit, AOpen, Biostar, Chaintech, DFI, EPoX, FIC, Gigabyte, IWill, MSI, Shuttle, Transcend and Tyan.

Intel Chipsets

The past six weeks has seen the introduction of two new Intel chispets - the i815EP and the much-anticipated i850. The i815EP is essentially the i815E without the integrated video, while the i850 is the dual channel DRDRAM chipset to support the Pentium 4.

By removing the integrated video in the i815EP, Intel can price it lower while maintaining the best SDRAM performance of any PC chipset. Cost has been one of the primary complaints against the i815E and has limited the acceptance of the chipset, because integrators and OEMs could save a few bucks using equivalent VIA chipsets. This is important for Intel, as they have lost significant chipset market share this year. Most likely, however, this will only cause a short-term reversal (and even then, it seems to be a relatively small reversal) due to DDR capable chipsets that are poised to enter the market. There are about 10 or so motherboard designs being shown at Comdex using this chipset.

With the release of the i850 chipset, Intel has again shown their commitment to DRDRAM, fitting the chipset with dual channel capabilities and effectively a 400MHz FSB. Hardware reviews released this week show that the chipset's 100MHz 'quad pumped' FSB, coupled with dual-channel DRDRAM support, results in spectacular memory subsystem performance, though most current applications do not take advantage of this. Unfortunately, the price will initially be quite high for the mainstream market, and the requirement for 6-layer motherboard PCBs will add even more cost. In addition, because the chipset does not support dual processors, it will not likely convince a large percentage of workstation users to jump onboard quickly.

Discussions at Comdex with three of the 4 manufacturers using this chipset revealed that most are not anticipating a big demand for i850 products. Most of the manufacturers spoken with, whether they had an i850 based board or not, indicated that they are anticipating the Brookdale (PC133 SDRAM, possibly DDR) chipset to spur demand. Both the Brookdale and Tehama-E (DRDRAM) chipsets will be available in Q3 to support the Northwood processor, according to published Intel roadmaps.

VIA Chipsets

VIA is on the verge of releasing their Apollo Pro266 chipset, which will support both SDR and DDR SDRAM for the Socket 370 platform. At Comdex, there were approximately 20 motherboards shown that were based upon this chipset, with several other non-attending manufacturers also indicating they have designs in the works also. This appears to be one of the most desirable chipsets of the season, outpacing the i815EP offerings by almost a 2-to-1 margin.

Also highly anticipated is the KT266 chipset, which will support DDR SDRAM for the Socket A platform. Unfortunately, this chipset will likely not be released until late Q1, or even mid-Q2 2001. Unlike the other chipsets for the Athlon, this one will support both DDR and SDRAM DIMMs on the same motherboard.

The KT133A, which will support the 266MHz FSB Athlon with PC133 SDRAM was seen on a few motherboards, but the real question is whether this product is truly viable. Assuming DDR SDRAM is about the same price as standard SDRAM within a few months of introduction, there does not appear to be much of a market for this product. Most thinking people would likely prefer to get the full benefit of the 266MHz FSB by spending an extra $100 or so.

Though Intel has not yet officially licensed 3rd party manufacturers (i.e., VIA, ALi and SiS) to produce a Pentium 4 chipset, VIA has admitted they are working on one that will also support DDR SDRAM. Based upon discussions with motherboard manufacturers, this chipset is not expected until Q3 2001, and will likely be intended for use with the Northwood processor.

Other Chipsets

ALi has been claiming to be the first to ship a DDR capable chipset (the MaGiK1) since August, however there are still no motherboards available. Representatives for several manufacturers involved with the DDR enablement have indicated that this chipset has been suffering from timing and compatibility problems. Most recently, however, several motherboard makers have indicated that they believe all of the issues have been resolved, and boards will be shipping in early December. IWill has been working very hard to be the first manufacturer to actually ship a DDR board using any chipset, with the current expectation being the first week of December.

Several manufacturers indicated that their tests show much better performance from the ALi chipset vs. the AMD chipset. In addition, the AMD chipset appears to be limited to only 2 DIMMs, while motherboards sporting the ALi chipset mostly come with 3 DIMMs. Though the chipset does support both DDR and SDRAM, there appears to be a significant performance penalty when both types are implemented on the same board, so all of the manufacturers have opted to support only DDR.

The ALi booth at Comdex showed 8 manufacturers products based upon either the MaGiK1 or the M1651 (PIII w/DDR), including ASUS (A7A266), Soyo (K7ACA-R), Gigabyte (GA-7AM), IWill (KA266-R), EpoX (EP-8LKA), Chaintech (7RJD), MSI (MS6375) and Jetway (849B5). Discussions with several of these manufacturers, however, revealed that there are still some worries about the chipset and a few are planning to wait until late Q1 before introducing them.

The AMD 760 chipset was announced at the end of October, and currently enjoys solid support from manufacturers, with at least a dozen products being shown at Comdex from almost every major motherboard manufacturer. Two of these companies indicated that their OEMs are requesting the AMD 760 chipset over any others, including VIA, proving that AMD has gained quite a good reputation as a chipset designer in just over a year of shipping products. AMD insists that they do not wish to be in the chipset business, but will continue to design 'enabling' products for their upcoming platforms. In the meantime, VIA hinted that while they will continue to support both Intel and AMD at the high end, the intro of their own low-end processors is changing their attitude towards this, and it may change in the future if the situation calls for it.

It would seem that AMD may have little choice than to manufacture chipsets for their own processor line, just as Intel, and now VIA, are doing, if they want to maintain or improve their position in this marketplace. To that end, the 760MP (multiprocessor capable) chipset looks like it will become available in about March. Tyan was showing their dual Athlon design at Comdex behind closed doors, though the chipset is under a strict NDA. According to one source close to AMD, the chipset needs to go through at least one more revision before it can be considered ready for release.

Next: Motherboard Update

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