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

Chipset and Motherboard Update

Almost one year ago in the January 2000 Industry Update, I reported a surprising fact - that VIA had actually grabbed a very significant market share with their chipsets due to price and the lack of leadership from Intel. I am now prepared to claim that this same trend is beginning to become apparent with Socket A vs. Socket 370 boards, though it is not quite as dramatic as the change in chipset market share.

Sources close to many motherboard manufacturers have indicated during the past several months that anywhere between 30% and 50% of their shipments are Socket A motherboards. These reports have also indicated that with few exceptions, Socket A motherboards are the number one selling model. In addition, discussions with several resellers and integrators have revealed a similar trend - almost half of the desktop motherboards and systems sold are Socket A based.

There are still a few manufacturers who are clinging primarily to the Socket 370 platform, though all offer at least a few Socket A boards. What seems to have prevented the Socket A platform from gaining even more market share is the lack of chipset options, and the manufacturing limits of AMD. Upcoming products from VIA should address the first issue.

Socket 370

Motherboards using the i815EP chipset are beginning to appear, and manufacturers are hoping this will spur some sales for the Socket 370 platform. While the number of Socket 370 motherboards still outnumber Socket A boards by about two to one, the lack of a performance chipset to replace the i440BX has dampened enthusiasm in the past several months. While the i815E does have good performance, the integrated graphics has prevented it from being considered a true performance chipset. It would appear that the i815EP will change that - but it may be a little too late due to the apparent upcoming move to DDR SDRAM on most performance systems.

VIA will address the DDR issue on the Socket 370 with their PM266 chipset. Motherboards with this chipset should appear in early to mid January. The only real question is going to be how well the Pentium III processors can take advantage of the improved memory bandwidth compared with the Athlon. In addition, the clock speed limitation of 1GHz may affect the popularity as well.

SiS has just announced their 635 chipset, with DDR support for the Pentium processor. It is sampling now, and should be available by February, according to the SiS press release for the product.

Socket A

One of the issues mentioned above is that the lack of chipset solutions for all market segments has limited the growth of the Socket A platform, but that now appears to be changing rapidly. With only the KT133 chipset, manufacturers were previously limited in the variety of motherboard models and in the markets they could target. Two new chipsets from VIA should change that situation fairly quickly.

VIA has just announced the availability of the KT133A chipset, to take advantage of the soon-to-be-announced 133MHz FSB Athlons. The question here is whether motherboards using this chipset will be very popular, particularly since DDR SDRAM should cost only a few percent more than SDR SDRAM, according to several industry sources. If one is going to replace the motherboard and CPU, it would seem that the extra $100 or so for 128MB of DDR SDRAM would be worth the additional performance - so it will be interesting to see how the market reacts.

What does make the KT133A a very important product is the Power-Now! support for mobile Athlons. Since the K6-x processors have topped out at 550MHz, Intel has been able to take some of the mobile market back from AMD due to their faster Celeron and Pentium III processors. The KT133A will allow AMD to attack the mobile market with Palomino mobile processors in the near future, followed by Morgan.

AMD has admitted that the Duron processor has been selling very slowly vs. it's 'big brother' Athlon, due to poor infrastructure. What this translates to is that the KT133 chipset is too costly for the very low end where Celeron systems seem to prevail. The KM133 chipset, with its integrated Savage Pro graphics controller should change this. It is expected that at the same price point, Durons based systems should sell very well because of their favorable performance vs. the Celeron. In fact, for most applications likely to be run on a low-end system, the Duron performs almost as well as the Athlon (see our comparison article on this issue).

The VIA KT266, supporting DDR SDRAM for the Socket A platform, has been widely anticipated for many months, but it looks like it may still be several months before we see products based on this chipset. Though VIA has been very successful in the past 18 months, they still seem to prefer releasing one major product at a time, and perfecting it before moving on to the next product. Generally, this is determined by the market share they believe the product can grab, so typically Socket 370 based solutions are given priority. The current situation is no exception, as the PM266 was focused on first. Though the KM133 and KT133A have also been released, they are essentially variations on the current KT133 chipset. There are some indications that VIA may be re-evaluating this situation because of the rapidly growing popularity of the Socket A platform.

Motherboards based upon the ALi MaGiK1 (M1647) chipset should be announced very shortly. Apparently, the B revision of the chipset had some AGP problems that have now been resolved. Motherboard manufacturers will be using the C revision on their offerings, which some are hoping will allow them to release motherboards before the end of the year. However, since the Christmas season has been all but missed, most are now stating that they will likely announce in the first week or two of January. There are a number of manufacturers who have boards designed for this chipset, including Gigabyte, IWill, Transcend, EPoX, Chaintech, Soyo and ASUS. Initial benchmarks run on pre-production boards seem to indicate that the chipset is a better performer than the AMD 760, though it might require some BIOS tweaking to get the best performance.

The AMD 760 chipset is the one that the majority of enthusiasts seem to be looking towards to lead the DDR charge on the Socket A platform. Unfortunately, a problem described as 'excessive noise' was detected on the S2K bus (memory controller to CPU) when the processor is running at 266MHz. AMD sent out a document in October describing the problem and providing a workaround, so the majority of manufacturers have already made the necessary adjustments. Motherboards based upon this chipset are also expected in the first few weeks of January.

The permanent fix will require a new chipset revision, but AMD apparently has not given any date when this will be available. Micron Electronics announced a short while ago that they were delaying shipment of their PC2100 Millenia XP machines due to this issue, and that their fix would be more 'robust' than the one recommended by AMD, as they opted to respin the PCB with 6-layers instead of four.

There have been several rumors that the AMD 760MP chipset supporting dual Athlons will be available in the first quarter, but sources close to AMD indicate that this is not very likely. A much more likely timeframe is mid-Q2 or later. There has also been speculation that the Clawhammer will be able to utilize current Socket A chipsets/motherboards, however a knowledgable source has indicated that this is very unlikely. Expect a new chipset to support this processor when it becomes available.

SiS has also announced their 735 chipset, which will support DDR on the Socket A platform. This chipset is scheduled to sample in January, with volume production in March. This would make four different DDR chipset options for the Socket A platform going into Q2, which can only be seen as a plus for AMD. We may actually soon see as many Socket A motherboard models as there are Socket 370 models.

Socket 423

i850 based motherboards from 3rd party manufacturers are apparently not selling well, at least according to some reports. With the very negative reviews given the Pentium IV processor, it seems that few do-it-yourself builders have any interest. There have been reports, however, that there are certain markets that have shown relatively strong interest in this platform, primarily using Intel built motherboards.

Next: Processor Update

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