June 2001 Industry Update

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Motherboards and Chipsets

Last year VIA was on top of the world, taking almost 50% of the chipset market from Intel. Unfortunately, either the resource requirements of being at the top were too great, or they forgot what got them there, because they seem to now be fighting to maintain their position. While spearheading the move to DDR in late 1999, they failed to produce a DDR chipset until late in 2000, and even then it was for the Socket 370 platform where it provides almost no benefit. In the meantime, ALi was able to gain some recognition with the MaGiK1 DDR chipset for Athlon. At the end of 2000, VIA announced the KT133A chipset for Athlon, which provided almost as much benefit as a full DDR chipset because of the 266MHz chipset to CPU interface. Once the KT266 hit the streets it was almost a non-event, and now VIA is finding itself trying to convince manufacturers to use this chipset.

If this were not bad enough, VIA found itself in a controversy regarding the 686B South Bridge and data integrity that turned out to simply be a compatibility problem with the Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live! Card. However, there are now some reports that a manufacturing problem has surfaced with the KT133A chipset. Reportedly, all chipsets shipped since April are unable to operate reliably at 133MHz, causing VIA to offer to reimburse motherboard makers the difference in price between the KT133 and KT133A. Some motherboards with these bad chipsets have apparently been shipped, but VIA may have dodged a bullet due to the industry slowdown. Many of the larger manufacturers seem to have a lot of inventory, so most of the newly manufactured boards had not yet hit the street before the problem was discovered. Unfortunately, these motherboard makers are not happy that they now have a large stock of boards that cannot be sold for what they cost to make, so the offer by VIA is not good enough, and VIA likely does not have the funds to pay for actual losses.

The near future looks very cloudy for VIA right now. They are embroiled in a legal dispute with Intel over the P4 chipset that VIA has announced, and most motherboard makers are not anxious to make a product that could get them dragged into court. With ALi and SiS having the right to produce a P4 chipset, there seems to be little chance that VIA will be able to convince anyone to use theirs. Another problem seems to be that VIA has a new North Bridge coming out for KT266 that will require a motherboard redesign, and it may also be doing the same for the KT133A to resolve their manufacturing problem. Motherboard makers are not happy with VIA at this time it would seem. And, I would suspect, neither is AMD…

At a recent AMD event that I attended, both ALi and nVidia were there promoting their products. VIA was neither in attendance nor mentioned in any literature or discussions. The nVidia nForce chipset has generated quite a bit of excitement in the market, due to its advanced memory controller design, data prefetch capability and use of AMD’s HyperTransport technology to improve the bandwidth between the North and South Bridges. The question has been, of course, how stable and compatible this chipset will be since it will be nVidia’s first offering of a core logic chipset, but it also has to be recognized that their experience in designing products for X-Box has given them a significant head start.

AMD announced their 760MP chipset earlier this month, which is the first AMD dual processor solution. This has generated some excitement in the DIY market, however the power requirements are somewhat staggering (minimum recommended PS is 460W) and the infrastructure (heatsinks, power supplies, etc.) is still somewhat lacking. Though acceptance by major OEMs is non-existent at this time, depending upon how well a dual Athlon system performs, and how reliable that system is, it at least is an offering for this market segment, which is an important step for AMD. There do not appear to be any 3rd party dual Athlon chipsets in the works for this year.

Of course, Intel makes a few chipsets too, and they too have some plans in the works, it seems. Most are aware that the i815 has a new stepping to support the upcoming Tualatin and its lower voltage. Questions abound whether ‘older’ chipsets will support the Tualatin, and one manufacturer mentioned that anything from the i440LX on up can technically support the processor. Most manufacturers, however, are unlikely to do the research to figure out how to implement the correct voltage (1.1v?), and Intel isn’t offering the information, apparently. Early next year it appears that i810 will also get a facelift to support Tualatin processors.

Motherboards using the i845 (P4 w/SDRAM) should be available around September, initially for the Willamette (Socket 423). While DDR support is supposedly already built in (at least in one version of the chipset), Intel is so far sticking to their decision to wait until Q1 ’02 to allow DDR implementations. The i850 (DRDRAM) will continue to be the performance chipset for the desktop and there does not appear to be any move to change that, even next year.

In the mobile market, it is interesting to note that the i440BX is still used and apparently will continue to be used through the end of this year. Later this year, the i830 chipset in various flavors (similar to the variations for i810 and i815) will appear to support the mobile Tualatin processor, and even a version of the i845 will eventually be used in the when Northwood begins to move into this segment.

The server market is where Intel seems to be focusing right now, and probably for good reason. Competition on the desktop has eroded margins considerably, and if AMD has their way, this will also occur in the mobile segment eventually. The one market Intel has a virtual lock on at this time is the server segment, and AMD has nothing to counter with for at least a year. The Itanium has now been officially announced, and the i460GX chipset provides support for it with 2MB and 4MB L3 cache. The i870 chipset will follow later to support McKinley. Other server chipsets include the i860 and i850.

ServerWorks has been making server chipsets for Intel processors for some time, and now Micron has an entry in this market with their Copperhead chipset. This chipset will be used for the server version of the Tualatin. Previously, it seemed that Intel was content to let ServerWorks develop the most advanced chipsets for high-end servers, however it appears that now Intel has decided to focus more on this market, most likely so they can enable their own technology advances very quickly and ensure reliability, just as they did for the desktop market with the Pentium.

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