Socket A DDR Chipset Shootout

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ALi vs. AMD vs. VIA

OK, I have now had a chance to compare three final production Socket A Mainboards from three different manufactures with three different chipsets. The contenders are the Soyo K7ADA using the ALi MAGiK1, Gigabyte 7DX using the AMD 760 (actually the AMD 761 Northbridge & VIA 686B Southbridge) and the MSI K7T266 Pro using the VIA KT266. Now I can make a fair comparison of the three and hopefully supply you, the reader, with the info needed to make an informed opinion and purchase.

First, I must admit I’m a bit disappointed but at the same time very excited. Do you find that statement a bit confusing? Well, let me tell you why. I, as most in the industry, was expecting the VIA KT266 chipset to be the leader in DDR SDRAM performance, but as you’ll see below that is not the case. In my previous tests, the ALi MAGiK1 had proven to be just a bit slower than the AMD 760, however VIA’s experience with Socket A chipsets and commitment to DDR SDRAM has created the expectation that the KT266 would at least equal, if not exceed, the performance of the AMD 760. That is the disappointment. VIA has not produced a product that has any better performance than the ALi or AMD, and in many tests the VIA is the worst performer of the three!

What do I find exciting? That ALi looks to be a truly viable option in the Socket A DDR SDRAM market, and with more ‘players’ in the market the better it will be for both the industry and the end user. In this series of tests, using a different video card than the previous tests and a final production BIOS, the ALi was in many cases the top performer. ALi is also the least expensive chipset of the three, and that, along with it’s equal performance, should allow ALi to take a good size share of the market, as long as brand recognition and reputation don’t hurt them. The AMD chipset is still very costly and AMD has stated they have no plans to be a major chipset supplier. Their goal is really to produce a product to enable new technologies and stimulate other manufacturers by providing reference chipsets, so a good alternative commercial chipset to VIA is good for the market.

When I first heard of Soyo’s plans for an ALi based Socket A board I spoke with them about whether the market would accept a mainboard using an ALi chipset. In the past, ALi had not gotten the best press coverage, and did not gain a reputation for being one of the more advanced chipsets on the market (mostly in regards to performance and some compatibility issues). ALi also does not have the name brand recognition that VIA or AMD has, so the question has been how well OEMs, dealers and end users would respond to an ALi based product (in other words, can we sell them)? Well, so far from what I’ve seen (and the results show), ALi has proven they can produce a top performer, and I have not heard of nor seen any compatibility issues. One tactic ALi is using to get market share is with the price of the chipset (they are the lowest of the three available), and from what I understand their chipset is easy to design for. As an example, of the three mainboards tested, the Soyo K7ADA costs considerably less than the others. It’s a bit hard to give an exact price difference, since I don’t know of a distributor carrying all three mainboards (I buy from Soyo direct, but purchase other brands from distributors). However, it appears that the MSI K7T266 Pro costs about $20 more, and the Gigabyte DX7 costs about $40 more than the Soyo K7ADA. Now, $20 to the end user may not be a lot (though to most it will be), but to a system builder it is a very significant amount. On a manufacturers level, here is a rough price spread for the three chipsets :

  • ALi Magik1 ~ $23.50
  • VIA KT266 ~ $32.00
  • AMD 760 ~ $40.00

I also understand there may still be issues with the AMD 760 chipset, but I have no details (or confirmation) about these issues, or if they are with the Northbridge or Southbridge (could that be why most using the AMD use a VIA Southbridge or is it a cost factor?).

There are a few differences in features between the three chipsets, with the major one being the memory speed. AMD only allows you to run the memory at the same speed as the HostClk. The ALi chipset allows you to set the memory to 100 or 133MHz if using a 100MHz FSB, but only 133MHz (at least in the case of the Soyo K7ADA) if using a 133MHz HostClk. The VIA allows you to set the memory to 100 or 133MHz when using either a 100 or 133MHz HostClk. The VIA 8233 Southbridge used with the KT266 does offer a few features the others do not, which could give it an advantage in some markets.

The Tests

So let’s get down to the tests. I think you’ll find the results very interesting. I know I did. All three mainboards were tested with an Athlon 1.13GHz 266MHz FSB CPU and 128MB of Micron PC2100 CAS 2.5 memory set at CAS 2 and with the BIOS options I found to give the best performance for each mainboard. A Visiontek GeForce II GTS 32MB AGP video card was used and set for best performance along with a WD 200BB 7200 RPM Hard Disk running in ATA/100 mode. Windows 98 SE was installed, along with the latest drivers from each manufacturer (as of April 4th 2001). The display was set for a resolution of 1024×768 with 16bit color and the monitor running at 85Hz. A D-Link 10/100 PCI NIC was installed & active, with both USB and any integrated sound disabled in the BIOS.

Please note, this is not meant to be a technical evaluation of the chipsets, their features or a particular mainboard. This is an evaluation of performance using (mostly) industry standard benchmarks to give an idea of the difference between the three chipsets in order to assist readers in making an informed purchase of a mainboard. There is no intent to try and figure out why they perform they way they do, just to publish the results.

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