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Intel 845 B-Step Chipset Review

December 16, 2001



It is the first time when Intel gives birth to a chipset with an expected normal performance at an acceptable price (and first of all, a price of a platform).

Let's look at the new-comer: i845 B-Step, or i845DDR, or i845D.

i845D chipset

The chipset hasn't changed much since the i845 release, that is why the see our September review for the detailed specs. It should be noted only that the south bridge doesn't support USB 2.0 (but you can install an external controller to get this interface) and ATA133. Besides, the memory controller was redesigned. I think it's useless to say what Pentium 4 systems can benefit from DDR SDRAM after the release of P4X266 and SiS645. I'll just add some technical nitty-gritty details.

The DDR memory support in the i845D is provided with the new MCH stepping. The information concerning steppings is somewhat contradictory. The head of the review says that the chipset is called i845 B-step but the boards we managed to get with SDR SDRAM support have dies marked as QC27ES RG82845. According to http://developer.intel.com/design/chipsets/specupdt/298589.htm it is "A3" stepping. The boards with DDR SDRAM support that we have in our lab incorporate chips marked as QC45ES RG82845. After the announcement of the i845D chipset you will be able to find detailed information on support of different memory types by different steppings at http://developer.intel.com/design/chipsets/specupdt/298589.htm The memory used with the i845D can be a maximum of 2 GB, DDR200 and DDR266, without ECC. The engineers do not recommend using more than two SDRAM modules, but some manufacturers (e.g., ASUSTeK) have already demonstrated their samples with three memory modules. It will be interesting to test stability and performance of the system with one more slot.

What trumps does Intel have now? Undoubtedly they are speed, reliability and a special program relating to DDR. The P4X266 chipset has some problems with DDR memory. Certain motherboards on this chipset do not work with certain DDR SDRAM modules. Intel has spent a lot of time on developing detailed specifications of the memory modules. As a result, if SDRAM memory makers follow this specification, there will be almost no problems in the "memory+mainboard" system.

The competitors of the i845D were examined earlier, that is why this review will be quite short. And if you want to have a look at the components, a layout and BIOS of other contestants go here.

Intel D845BG

The design of this board differs from the previous i845-based one which had no DDR SDRAM support. But the northbridge chip (MCH) is pin-compatible with the chip of the current chipset, thus allowing changing only new connectors for the other memory type. Such saving on development costs makes me think that i845D boards differing in design from its predecessors with the SDR SDRAM will be quite rare.

The board came in an OEM package, i.e. without a box and a user's manual. There were only ATA66/100, ATA33 and FDD cables and a CD. The latter has drivers, a manual in PDF, system status monitoring utilities and several freeware programs such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, NTI CD-Maker 2000, Norton Internet Security 2001 (includes Norton Antivirus, Norton Firewall, Norton SystemWorks) and Real Player 8.

The board incorporates 6 PCI slots and has space for an unsoldered CNR one. The board is of high quality. There is an AGP Retention Mechanism which prevents wrong installation of a video card or its falling out. The traditional place of COM2 on the rear panel is taken now by a VGA connector. Unfortunately, audio-in connectors are put in front of the PCI slots. And there is only one switch - for flashing BIOS in the Recovery mode and for deleting passwords and changing a CPU multiplier in the BIOS submenu (it is the only possibility to overclock a processor). There are also unsoldered switches for changing Vcore and its frequency.

The BIOS is based on the Phoenix BIOS and doesn't have many changeable settings. If you don't like delve into computer's insides and need only high stability this board will be an excellent choice for you.

VIA P4XB-RA

The box of a typical VIA's design houses a weighty installation manual in English, two ATA66/100 and one FDD cables, a bracket with two USB ports and a CD with drivers. Unfortunately, it has no any freeware programs.

The board is of high quality and the layout is convenient. There is a sound controller for connecting a 6-piece audio system. Also, there is a connector which can help you to output audio-outs onto the front computer panel. The AGP connector has a clip which prevents a video card from falling out of the slot, but it is quite difficult to unclamp. A RAID chip from Promise allows increasing an operational speed and reliability of the disc subsystem. Of course, you can use IDE RAID connectors also for additional ATAPI devices. The core feed circuits have a three-phase voltage stabilizer. Two switches serve for clearing the CMOS and for enabling/disabling an integrated audio codec.

The BIOS is based on the Modular 6.00 from Award. It offers a great deal of settings for memory timings and frequency, provides adjustment of AGP and PCI buses and a manual distribution of interrupts among PCI slots. You can also change a CPU frequency (in 1 MHz steps), its multiplier and processor and memory voltages.

The board is really feature-rich and speedy.

Performance

Test system:

  • Intel Pentium 4, 2 GHz, Socket 478
  • Mainboards:
  • 256 MB PC2700 DDR SDRAM DIMM Kingmax, CL2
  • 2 x 256 Mb PC166 SDR SDRAM DIMM ACTRAM Tonicom, CL2
  • 2 x 128 MB PC800 RDRAM RIMM, Samsung
  • ASUS 8200 GeForce3
  • IBM IC35L040AVER07-0, 7200 RPM, 2 MB cache, 40 GB
  • CD-ROM ASUS 50x

Software:

  • Windows 2000 Professional SP2
  • NVIDIA Detonator v22.50 (Vsync=Off)
  • SiS AGP driver 1.07
  • VIA 4-in-1 4.35
  • Intel chipset software installation utility 3.20.1008
  • Intel Application Accelerator 1.1.2
  • Intel Ultra ATA Storage driver 6.20
  • BAPCo & MadOnion SYSmark 2001 Internet Content Creation
  • BAPCo & MadOnion SYSmark 2001 Office Productivity
  • idSoftware Quake III Arena v1.17 demo001.dm3
  • MadOnion 3Dmark 2001
  • eTestingLabs Business Winstone 2001
  • eTestingLabs Content Creation Winstone 2001
  • SPECviewperf 6.1.2
  • Expendable Demo version
  • DroneZmarK
  • VirtualDub 1.4.7 + DivX 4.02 codec
  • RazorLame 1.1.4 + Lame 3.89 codec
  • WinAce 2.04
  • Cachemem 2.6
  • Wstream

Here are brief characteristics of the participating boards:

Board SiS 645 reference VIA P4XB-RA ASUS P4T-E Intel D845BG ABIT BL7-RAID
Chipset SiS 645 (North Bridge SIS 645, South Bridge SIS 961) P4X266A (North Bridge P4X266A, South Bridge VT8233) i850 (KC82850 (MCH) + FW82801BA (ICH2) + 82802AB (FWH)) i845 (RG82845ES (MCH) + FW82801BA (ICH2) + 82802AB (FWH)) i845 (RG82845 (MCH) + FW82801BA (ICH2) + 82802AB (FWH))
Processor support Intel Pentium 4, Socket 478
Memory 3 DDR SDRAM DIMMs 3 DDR SDRAM DIMMs 4 RDRAM RIMMs 2 DDR SDRAM DIMMs 3 SDR SDRAM DIMMs
AGP connector with 4x mode support with 4x mode support and a clip AGP Pro with AGP4x mode support with 4x mode support and a clip with 4x mode support and a clip
PCI slots 6 5 5 6 6
AMR/ACR/CNR expansion slots ACR CNR CNR - CNR
I/O ports One port for FDD, 2 serial and 1 parallel ports, ports for PS/2 mouse and keyboard
USB 2 x USB ports onboard, 2 connectors for 2 USB ports for rear or front computer panel 2 x USB ports onboard, 2 connectors for 2 USB ports for rear or front computer panel 2 x USB ports onboard, 2 connectors for 2 USB ports for rear or front computer panel 4 x USB ports onboard, 2 connectors for 2 USB ports for rear or front computer panel 3 x USB ports onboard, 1 connector for 1 USB port for rear or front computer panel
Integrated ATA100 IDE controller 2 ATA100 Bus Master IDE channels (with support up to 4 ATAPI devices)
External IDE controller - Promise PDC20265R - - HighPoint HPT370A
Integrated network controller - - - 10 BaseT/100 BaseTX -
Sound AC'97 Audio, codec Avance Logic ALC201 PCI Audio, C-Media CMI8738/PCI-6ch-LX AC'97 Audio, codec Avance Logic ALC201 AC'97 Audio, codec Analog Devices AD1885 AC'97 Audio, codec Avance Logic ALC200
BIOS 2-Mbit
Flash EEPROM, Phoenix BIOS, supports of PnP, APM 1.2, DMI 2.1, ACPI 1.0, STR
2-Mbit Flash EEPROM, Award BIOS, supports of PnP, APM 1.2, DMI 2.1, ACPI 1.0, STR 2-Mbit Flash EEPROM, Award Medallion BIOS, supports of PnP, APM 1.2, DMI 2.1, ACPI 1.0, STR 2-Mbit Flash EEPROM, Phoenix BIOS, supports of PnP, APM 1.2, DMI 2.1, ACPI 1.0, STR 2-Mbit Flash EEPROM, Award BIOS, supports of PnP, APM 1.2, DMI 2.1, ACPI 1.0, STR
Form-factor, dimensions ATX 2.03 power supply, 34.5x29 cm ATX, 30.5x22.5 cm ATX, 30.5x24 cm ATX, 30.5x22.5 cm ATX, 30.5x24 cm

We are used to compare motherboards with other things being equal. And today we will try to outbalance the cost of DDR memory (which is still too high) by adding to the i845+SDR one more 256 MB memory module. We are just trying to find out how to increase the speed competently: it is very simple and cheap to add the second memory module, that is why it's quite attractive. Let's see whether it's worth doing.

The i845D chipset demonstrates the best memory read speed among all chipsets with DDR266 and only the SiS with DDR333 remains unconquerable. The memory write speed is almost the same for all, the SiS with DDR333 is again ahead, but to catch up with the i850 is impossible for everyone.

The situation is the same: the chipsets with DDR266 go also on a par, though the i845D comes the last.

In these tests the new-comer performs at the level of SiS645+PC2100 and falls behind the SiS645+PC2700. The VIA P4XB-RA board surprised us: if you remember, the VIA PE11-S board based on the same chipset was just at the same level with its competitors, and now the P4X266A has almost reached the level of the i850. The extra memory on the i845 doesn't boost the performance as such applications do not need so much memory.

In the semisynthetic test the chipset from Intel and VIA take turns in outscoring each other, while the SiS goes a little faster. The performance gain from the memory increase is not steady: sometimes it even disappears or becomes negative (I think it just lies within the limits of inaccuracy of measurements).

Now the VIA P4X266A takes the lead (or rather, VIA P4XB-RA " the VIA PE11-S was the last among three in the last testing).

An excellent operation of the VIA's board with the AGP allows it to keep very close to the SiS645+DDR333 and even to the i850. The i845D falls into the last place but the gap is quite narrow. The i845 with 512 MB... do you still except any decent acceleration?

The results of the other games are not worth commenting on. I just want to mark out the speed of the VIA P4XB-RA.

Conclusion

Well, despite the fact that Intel had no attractive boards for a long time already, its name is not forgotten yet :), and new boards on this chipset will be waited impatiently for.

The today's tests show that the performance of the i845D is a bit lower than that of its competitors. Will this result change? You should have a look at the results of the VIA P4XB-RA in comparison with its predecessor. Well, in case of such a minor difference between the chipsets a well developed board is able to show the best results on any of them. So, when choosing a board you should ask not for an abstract performance of a chipset but for the test results of a certain board. The situation for a buyer is excellent; he can choose even according to color: the performance will be the same.

The VIA P4XB-RA board and the SiS645 based solution with PC2700 (DDR333) look very attractive. Will the i845D from some giant be able to show better scores? " Most likely. And will one more board on the SiS645 from another or even the same manufacturer be able to ace? " Most probably. Thus, by tweaking BIOSes and adding half a fps each time they will improve their results. But for us, customers, there is another more important thing: all these chipsets and boards on them are ready. Intel came back to take its throne, but there is no more any throne.

If you are not satisfied with the current performance of your computer whose memory reached 256 MB, you'd better move to a platform with DDR SDRAM. You just have to buy a new board, and if you want to go with the Pentium 4 the i845D based one will be a good choice, not the best but not the worst.

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