iXBT Labs - Computer Hardware in Detail






x86 platforms

March 21, 2001

Today we are dealing with more than twenty chipsets from five top manufacturers (Intel, VIA, AMD, ALi, SiS). Motherboards on them are still being produced or at least lie on the shelves, that is why they serve the base for the modern x86 PC. And since we used the word "modern" the Socket 7/Super platform will be left aside. Earlier, the Socket 7 was popular due to its low price, but the release of the AMD Duron and VIA Cyrix III, as well as a huge number of quite cheap chipsets with an integrated core made the Socket 7 less attractive.

That is why today we will consider only those chipsets which support Intel Pentium II/III/4 and Celeron, VIA Cyrix III, AMD Athlon (Slot A/Socket A) and Duron. Moreover, we decided to pass over server and other high-end chipsets (e.g. i440GX or i840).

For your convenience we have divided all x86-systems (and the chipsets, correspondingly) into four big groups:

  1. "Hard-edged" high-end systems. The systems which must satisfy the requirements on the maximum possible performance.
  2. "Compromise" high-end systems. Performance also matters, but the emphasis is on the cost.
  3. Middle class. Working machines for which the speed of program implementation is important, but in the first place we put an optimal balance of performance and price.
  4. Low-end systems. The computers should be as cheap as possible but at the same time they must provide running of the most popular applications (as a rule, business ones) with the speed enough to prevent troubles for a user.

Besides, we will often refer to the summary table of characteristics where you can find the most important data on the chipsets, specifications they support and other technical nitty-gritty.

"Hard-edged" high-end systems

Intel i850

The i850 chipset is intended for production of motherboards for Intel Pentium 4. More detailed information can be taken in the article on this processor.

It's impossible to compare its efficiency with other chipsets since the Pentium 4 works only on the i850. That is why we can judge only the whole platform: i850 chipset + Pentium 4 + RDRAM. Currently, its performance is high but varies from app to app: some applications which work hard with video and audio data and implement data encoding/decoding and compression run quite swiftly on the Pentium 4, and some other work slower than when even on the Pentium III. Besides, we should account that soon the processor, according to Intel, will be updated and get a new form-factor, and it will be impossible to install the CPU on those motherboards which are currently produced on the i850 basis.


The AMD chipset is intended for Socket A (Athlon/Duron), has FSB 133 (266) MHz and DDR SDRAM support. We have lately written about the AMD 760, and apparently, for AMD fans this chipset must become a hit of the year both in performance and in functionality.

The system on the AMD Athlon + AMD-760 + DDR SDRAM shows much higher performance in the majority of the apps than the Pentium III based systems. Comparison with the Pentium 4 leaves a bit different impression. Well, yes, in many applications the AMD-760 based systems still win but the number of such apps has decreased, and in some cases the Pentium 4 is an indisputable leader with quite a big margin. As a result, a leader among two the most powerful high-end platforms is defined by the software used.

VIA Apollo Pro266

This chipset with DDR SDRAM and Socket 370 support (Intel Pentium III/Celeron) was released by VIA not so long time ago, so we haven't tested it, and therefore we can't define its performance. But we still can make some assumptions judging by the architecture of the Intel Pentium III.

An effect that DDR SDRAM has on the AMD Athlon is partially caused by high bandwidth of the EV-6 (200 (266) MHz). In the case of the Pentium III we can see that the AGTL+ bus works at max 133 MHz, and the DDR-like technology is not used here. It means that the resulting AGTL+ bandwidth corresponds to the real frequency. That is why PIII won't get so considerable performance with DDR SDRAM, as it was with the AMD platform.

But on the other hand, VIA Apollo Pro266 has every chance to become the fastest chipset for Pentium III. Due to their price (lower than that of the Pentium 4) and popularity it's clear that the chipset has a bright future. Besides, there are still no multiprocessor platforms for AMD Athlon, whereas the VIA Apollo Pro266 allows dualprocessor configurations.

"Compromise" high-end systems

Intel i815 (E, EP)

We take the i815EP as a base chipset for the whole i815x family. An integrated graphics core in the modern high efficient chipset intended for Intel Pentium III looks strained. That is why the i815EP, inheriting all the best features from the i815E (4 USB ports on the dual channel controller, Ultra ATA/100 support) and lacking the i752 graphics core, was chosen to represent the Intel i815x family.

The chipset is well balanced: the max frequency of the FSB 133 MHz corresponds to the analog max memory clock speed. So, in case of top models of the Pentium III in combo with the PC133 SDRAM the memory-processor channel is completely synchronous what positively tells upon the performance. It's an adequate competitor for the i440BX. Moreover, despite the fact that Intel doesn't give the i815 chipset a multiprocessor support, some manufacturers have announced such cards. It means that the i440BX will be soon replaced by the newer chipset in this sector.

Intel i440BX

Despite the release of the i815, the i440BX based boards are very popular today since it proved to be a very fast and reliable solution. Apparently, the i440BX will yield to the i815 or another newer chipset, but uni- and dual-processor boards on it with the FSB 100 MHz show higher performance, are cheap and can be quite competitive with installation of an external PCI Ultra ATA/66 IDE-controller in order to add some missing functions.

VIA Apollo KT133A

Unlike the AMD-760 with a stylish DDR SDRAM, the KT133A works with an ordinary PC133 SDRAM. But the chipset is modern due to the fact that it is compatible with AMD Athlon that has FSB 133 (266) MHz. In general, FSB 133 MHz is the only that differs the KT133A from the older KT133. So, this chipset is a classical high-end solution which combines a possibility of installation of top CPUs and a moderate price for the chipset and boards on it, plus usage of a cheaper and more popular memory type. In our opinion, the i815EP with VIA Apollo KT133A will take the adequate place in the high-end group with a moderate price.

VIA Apollo Pro133A (Dual)

The VIA Apollo Pro133A itself belongs to the middle class, but the multiprocessor support and attractive price allow to place the dual-processor boards in this class. A dualprocessor system on the VIA Apollo Pro133A lags behind the i440BX in performance. But lower cost allows us to assemble a cheaper dual-processor system; and applications which can benefit from the SMP (Symmetric Multi-Processing) get a good performance gain on any system with more than one CPU.

ALi MAGiK 1/Aladdin Pro 5

The chipsets differ only in the processors supported: Aladdin Pro 5 supports the Intel Pentium III/Celeron (Socket 370), the ALi MAGiK 1 supports the AMD Athlon/Duron (Socket A). The both chipsets support two memory types: normal SDRAM (PC133) and DDR SDRAM. And motherboards with the both corresponding DIMM connectors are possible to appear. And a user with such a board receives an upgrade possibility: first he replaces a motherboard (old PC133 memory modules are delivered onto the new ALi Aladdin Pro 5 or ALi MAGiK 1 based board), and then he replaces SDRAM by DDR.

It seems that due to the DDR SDRAM support these chipset should have been considered in the previous section, but the efficiency level of the ALi MAGiK 1 is still lower than that of the AMD-760. Plus, Acer Labs emphasizes not the speed but the price/performance correlation, which is optimal primarily due to the price.

Middle class

Intel i440ZX

The i440ZX is a crippled version of the i440BX. Its performance is similar to the i440BX. It lacks for the possibility of operation with ECC-memory, multiprocessor support and RAM size is limited by 256 MBytes.

The i440ZX is an appropriate solution for a computer without huge size of memory. The system is not suitable for upgrade since the chipset doesn't work with the FSB higher than 100 MHz and lacks for Ultra ATA/66 support. In other words, it may be useless to buy a i440ZX motherboard today, but you still shouldn't hurry with its replacement.


Again there is quite an old set of chips for the AMD Athlon/Duron platform (Slot A/Socket A). Some time ago it was the only chipset for the AMD Athlon when it was released in its first slot variant. Unlike the VIA Apollo KX133, the AMD-750 (Irongate) turned out to be compatible both with new Athlon (Thunderbird) and with Duron.

But such feature didn't help the Irongate. We know only one board on the AMD-750 with Socket A: GigaByte GA-7IXE4. A poor support of the AGP 2X, full synchronism and, therefore, limitation of the SDRAM by 100 MHz, a quite weak south bridge - all these disadvantages were well noticeable as compared with the VIA Apollo KX133.

But efficiency of the systems on the AMD-750 + Slot A Athlon just slightly differs from the analog systems on the VIA KX133, and now, when the both chipsets are considered to be outdated, their differences do not matter much.

Not so long ago, though, the Slot A platform was on the top again due to sharp decrease in prices of the corresponding products. After the Taiwanese manufacturers had emptied their stocks selling the products at knock-down prices the AMD Athlon 550--650 MHz of the Slot A form-factor could be bought at $80, the AMD-750 boards were selling at $60. Still note that today the Slot A can be considered a dead platform, though some samples still can compete against middle level computers assembled on the more modern base.

VIA Apollo KT133

It was for a long time a single chipset for the Socket A platform. Both users and testers say that the Apollo KT133 turned out to be a quite successful model. The KT133 features a support for nearly all modern standards, shows high stability and reliability.

Until the KT133A was released the chipset was considered the best for the Socket A platform. However, even on the release of the new version the KT133 was not less valuable: we just got two models: a mainstream KT133 for AMD Duron (without official support of 133 MHz FSB) and middle level Athlon, and KT133A suitable for systems which require efficiency higher than in the middle level systems.

VIA Apollo KX133

It's a functional analog of the previous model and a earlier KT133, it is intended for Slot A motherboards. Despite the fact that old Athlons are hard to reach today and it's too difficult to upgrade Slot A processor, it doesn't mean that you should immediately upgrade the whole platform. Performance of the AMD Athlon Slot A based computers is quite good, and if efficiency of the installed Athlon 500 or 550 is insufficient than you'd better replace your CPU for a more powerful one (e.g. Athlon 700 MHz) instead of applying to Socket A.

VIA Apollo Pro133(A)

Despite the support of the majority of modern specs and high functionality the VIA Apollo Pro133 and Apollo Pro133A can't be considered high-end solutions. They are slower in memory access than the i815 (and, therefore, in efficiency in almost all real applications).

The Apollo Pro133/133A based boards cost approx $40 less than the boards on the i815 modifications, that is why they are chosen by those who prefer lower price to some extra fps in games or less waiting time in serious applications.

I think that the Apollo Pro133/133A will live as much as the Pentium III Coppermine, and it will be a solution that is attractive not for its performance but for a rational balance of price and efficiency. With the release of the VIA VT82C686B south bridge with Ultra ATA/100 support many manufacturers renewed their mobo series on the VIA Apollo Pro133A, including models with this chip (thus they pulled the chipset up to the level of the latest computer standards).

Intermediate class

We have put some chipsets exactly in this class since their technical characteristics do not correspond to one or another specified group. With an integrated graphics core the systems belong to low-end sector. But they also have a possibility of installation of an external AGP video card, thus providing much higher performance (the price grows as well).

Intel i815(E)

The i815E differs from the i815EP in an integrated graphics core what makes unnecessary a separate video card. The i815E is higher than the middle class systems and it allows to upgrade a low-end computer up to the high-efficient level without replacing a motherboard. The only disadvantage is that the price of such boards doesn't allow to place such system among low-end ones.

VIA ProSavage PM133/KM133

Roughly speaking, the ProSavage PM133 is Apollo Pro133A with an integrated graphics 3D core from Savage4 and 2D from Savage2000. The KM133 is an analog variant on the Apollo KT133. With an external video card the performance of PM133/KM133 is the same as of the parental chipsets. But unlike the i815/815E, the cost of the PM133/KM133 based boards makes the corresponding systems cheaper, and at the same time easy to upgrade up to higher level. We think that the PM133/KM133 are more balanced solutions than i815/815E as for price/equipment/performance correlation.

SiS 630S/730S

They are interesting one-chip integrated solutions from SiS. In functionality and technical characteristics the both chipset are twins (see table), the only difference is that the first (SiS 630S) is intended for Intel Pentium III/Celeron and VIA Cyrix III (Socket 370) systems, and the second (SiS 730S) supports Socket A AMD Athlon/Duron. There is nothing we can say about the price/performance ratio, but according to the general price policy of SiS it can be assumed that the company will position SiS 630S/730S as competitors for the VIA ProSavage PM133/KM133. Among advantages of the SiS platform we see a normal PCI sound (and not AC'97 Audio integrated in the VIA PM133/KM133) and an integrated 10/100 Mbps Ethernet-controller with only one additional connector.


Intel i810x

It is an integrated chipset produced as i810, i810-DC100 (with a built-in 4 MBytes display cache) and i810E (with FSB 133 MHz support, the display cache is obligatory and can work at 133 MHz). Despite the fact that i810/810E are ones of the oldest chipset with an integrated graphics core, they are still on the top in combination of such characteristics as performance and equipment (in their class).

On the whole the i810 series proved to be excellent due to "flawlessness", high efficiency and debugged drivers. The only problem we saw is that on some samples (on the i810) the image was too soapy even at 800 x 600. It's not a drawback of the chipset, it caused by incompetent layout of the definite model of a motherboard.

Intel i440LX/EX

It's old phased out Intel chipsets. As to functionality the both chipsets can be equated with i440ZX. The difference is only that the i440LX/EX doesn't support FSB 100 MHz. But it's not a downside for the Celeron with FSB 66 MHz, that is why cheap systems which are not intended for Pentium III can be assembled on the i440LX/EX. The main drawback is that they are not integrated chipsets (you will need a video card to assemble the system).

VIA Apollo PLE133

A functional analog of the VIA ProSavage PM133, but without a possibility to install an external AGP video card and with a simpler graphics core from Trident Blade3D. A classical variant for office systems offers not very high efficiency (lower even than the i810/810E and VIA ProSavage PM133), though the functionality provided is quite enough. With the appropriate price the boards will definitely take a certain market sector.

VIA Apollo Pro/Pro Plus

The VIA Apollo Pro supports processors for Slot 1 and Socket 8 (the latter is intended for Pentium Pro), whereas the VIA Apollo Pro Plus is compatible with Slot 1 and Socket 370 CPUs. The chipsets differ in north bridges used - VT82C691 for Apollo Pro and VT82C693 for Apollo Pro Plus. But they are identical in characteristics, and therefore, will be considered together.

The low-end market contains not only chipsets directly intended for it but also chipsets which were quite successful, but the time flies, and now they also belong to this sector. The price for motherboards based on these products fell down, and for Intel Celeron working at FSB 66 MHz the difference between VIA Apollo Pro Plus and more modern Apollo Pro133A is unnoticeable. The only drawback is that Apollo Pro/Pro Plus and Intel i440LX/EX are not integrated chipsets, therefore you have to use an external video card. As compared with i440LX/EX, the Apollo Pro/Pro Plus has an advantage - FSB 100 MHz support what allows to install not only Celeron but also Pentium III in the system.

SiS 630E

It's quite attractive one-chip low-end solution with an integrated graphics core on the SiS 300 chip and network 10/100 Mbps Ethernet-controller. Not so long ago we tested a motherboard on its base which turned out to be quite attractive.

ALi Aladdin TNT2

An interesting solution from ALi - a chipset with an integrated graphics core from NVidia Riva TNT2 M64 3D-chip. The chipset is quite interesting but even the TNT2 M64 core didn't allow it to reach an acceptable performance in modern 3D-games, and the only board we know is costy.

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