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Digest 2004: Technologies, Chipsets, Motherboards, Barebones

January 27, 2005



The last year will certainly be recorded in history under the "PCI Express" sign. Introduction of this bus alone, which is going to supersede PCI as the Main System Bus, would have been enough for 2004 to get the "technological" status. However, it happened so that in 2004 there appeared products on the market with some more milestone innovations, that's why this review will be started with technologies.

Technologies

PCI Express

Serial bus instead of an old parallel one (PCI), with great throughput capacity per channel and excellent scalability options – you will find detailed analysis of this bus architecture in our articles. But here we shall only mention that PCI Express is sufficient as any internal system bus (there is no need in proprietary designs) and it will not slow down any modern peripheral device. It's obvious that products with PCI-E will be wide spread – it's only a matter of time, and this process had been started in summer with the announcement of Intel 915/925 Express chipsets.

However, it should be noted that while no one doubts the useful nature of the PCI Express bus as such, the new interface it dictates for video accelerators – PCI Express x16 – was bad news for owners of old video cards. Though the PCIEx16 port is theoretically faster than AGP 8x, in practice there are no video accelerators that would have taken full advantage of the latter capacities. That's why the necessity to upgrade a video card because of the transition to a "more progressive" platform did not always evoke enthusiasm. Even the first results of testing motherboards on new Intel chipsets made it obvious that video cards' performance (based on the same GPU) does not depend on the interface. Taiwanese chipset manufacturers even announced their intent to create "hybrid" solutions allowing both graphics slots on a motherboard. But such projects have never seen the light, and all chipsets announced in the second half of the year provide only the PCIEx16 slot. However, there still was one model, but we'll describe it later in a separate chapter.

What concerns connecting peripheral devices for typical desktop systems (PCIEx1 slots), there were designed new south bridges for Pentium 4 (Intel ICH6 (4 slots), VIA VT8251 (2), SiS965 (2)), and for AMD64 – northbridges as well (ATI Xpress 200 (4), VIA K8T890 (arbitrary 4), NVIDIA nForce4 (arbitrary 4)). The shelves are not overloaded with expansion cards for PCI Express yet, but as we have already mentioned it, that's a matter of the nearest future. And for now motherboard manufacturers integrate peripheral controllers with this interface into their boards.

DDR2

DDR2 is the new generation of memory that has gone into the masses, actively promoted by Intel. But, concerning the masses – the question remains open so far, because by the end of the year the share of DDR2 modules in the total sales volume runs only to a few percents instead of dozens. Magic figures (DDR2-533 versus DDR400) did not produce proper impression on consumers, the speed of current modules of the new type is almost always lower than that of their predecessors, the output of effective chips is rather low, and the prices are correspondingly high. On the whole, it was a very unsuccessful year for DDR2, there even started talks that the history with Rambus DRAM might repeat itself. Out of all chipset manufacturers for Pentium 4 only SiS (except for Intel, of course) announced a chipset (SiS649/SiS656) supporting this memory type. And AMD processors are not going to change their integrated DDR controller so far.

It will be right to expect events in the coming year that will improve the current state of affairs. Increased output of effective chips will lower the prices and will allow modules with smaller timings. Intel will launch more popular processors with 1066 MHz FSB, which will give the high bandwidth of DDR2-533 a chance to show itself. Perhaps the reduced heat dissipation of new models will at last come in handy in miniature systems. Time will be the ultimate judge, but now, according to the annual results, DDR2 obviously came off worst.

Serial ATA

Serial ATA technology is steadily penetrating users' computers, accompanied by RAID features and the increased total number of ATA ports on motherboards. Besides, there start to appear SATA AHCI technologies (sort of NCQ) in chipsets, which increase performance and convenience of use. Serial ATA has brilliant prospects in desktop systems, manufacturers are also ready to support the coming Serial ATA II, though its doubled speed (3 Gbit/sec) is not required by the existing drives.

Gigabit Ethernet

Gigabit network adapters hadn't appeared in 2004, but it's this year that they got the status of a regular system element. Cheap gigabit controllers are shyly soldered even on low end motherboards, near lonely cheap audio codecs. Two network controllers? Both of them are gigabit? Last year that was no surprise either. Moreover, PCI Express support in chipsets allows to connect controller with this interface, which lifts the problem of insufficient throughput [PCI bus]. Thus, in many cases motherboards on new chipsets have "sterling" gigabit network support based on PCIE adapters from Broadcom or Marvell.

Wi-Fi

It hasn't come to WiMax components integrated into desktop systems yet, but Wi-Fi 802.11b and 802.11g is already a usual element of a modern computer. There are two main integration implementations: either the motherboard manufacturer includes a proprietary expansion card with a standard interface, or it solders the corresponding chip on the motherboard, leaving only an external antenna up to users. The potentially third option – implementing [part of] the wireless networking features in a chipset (Intel ICH6(R)W) – was a complete failure, there are almost no motherboards with this southbridge, and there are no corresponding expansion cards on sale anyway. Wireless networks hold the future, so the new year will surely bring a lot of news in this field.

HDA (High Definition Audio)

For a couple of years AC'97 audio, integrated into motherboards, has been successfully ousting cheap sound cards from the market. In 2004 Intel announced and presented its implementation of the updated standard for integrated audio. Quite a good start: HDA is based on 24-bit 8-channel audio support at 192 kHz sampling rate, plus it supports all modern audio formats (including Dolby, DTS, DVD-Audio), plus Jack Retasking (changing the audio jack function depending on the type of a connected device). As always, the resulting audio quality is more or less degraded by the audio codec used and PCB layout, but our analyses of motherboards on Intel 915/925 chipsets demonstrated that the overall quality was slightly improved. Chipset manufacturers are careful to support the Intel's initiative, but we haven't seen announcements of real products with HDA support (except for i9xx) yet.

BTX

This ATX heir is not yet available on the market, though it has been in the focus of IT mass media for the first half of the year. Advantages of BTX are obvious: considerably improved temperature conditions, reduced noise level, more convenient and considered mounting hardware, etc. But for now these advantages are outweighed by the wealth of technologies and devices for the old platform in manufacturers' opinion, while regular users do not feel like replacing their computers entirely for another time. All the more interesting to note the tendency of BTX advancement on the market: this is done not by "low-profile", "engineering" companies like Intel and motherboard manufacturers but by system integrators (Gateway and such) and manufacturers of ready solutions (Shuttle XPC). Only they can analyze the prospects and have enough financial resources to be able to select and order componentry for their designers. Nevertheless, by the end of 2004 there were several announcements about readiness to supply the regular retail market with BTX componentry. So the mass-scale upgrade to the new form factor can be most likely expected in about a year.

SLI is back?!

This technology with a nostalgic name (though read differently now) has suddenly become one of the hottest topics of the season in defiance to common sense. Witnesses of the birth and fast growth of 3D accelerator industry certainly remember this proprietary feature of 3Dfx Voodoo2 to be able to work in a pair and thus provide almost doubled rendering speed. But in 2004 NVIDIA (who bought the remnants of 3dfx) shook the dust from the happiness formula and offered it to the general public. And what's more interesting: it worked! 3D accelerator manufacturers are thinking of such complex chips that it's either impossible to create them in silicon or they would cost a hell of money. As a result, top video accelerators in new series appear only half a year after their announcements. Retail prices for top video cards easily reach five or even six hundred dollars. Who would want to buy two top 3D accelerators on such conditions and to combine them into a single superorganism using SLI?..

Nevertheless, after the announcement of GeForce 6800 with a SLI connector (for a special interface bridge) NVIDIA declared its plans to provide SLI support in its future chipset. At this point other chipset manufacturers perked up (to sell the same product several times is a cherished marketing dream) and hurriedly announced their products supporting two graphics interfaces. What makes it considerably easier is that "two graphics interfaces" in case of PCI Express can be actually one regular PCIEx16 channel, physically split into two slots. But this trick wouldn't have been possible for AGP. A new interesting game appeared – "Invent you SLI formula": PCIEx16 throughput can be equally distributed between two slots (8+8), or the second slot may use one of the peripheral PCIEx1 channels (16+1), one can think of many options. This hobby has been taken up by motherboard manufacturers, who justly think that if there is a ready chipset with PCI Express support on the market (Intel 915/925 Express series), SLI can be implemented on its base, fortunately no PCIEx1 peripheral devices can be seen anyway. As a result, "needless" PCIEx1 channels are used for the second graphics slot.

Strange technology, strange enthusiasm of manufacturers. It only remains for ATI to launch its modifications of paired video accelerators, fortunately the platform for such "tandems" will be already provided.

Chipsets and sockets

Technologies are one thing, but consumers use final solutions. What 2004 has brought us? Let's see the situation with chipset sockets in chronological order.

Socket 462 (Socket A)

Even the launch of Sempron series has not stirred up manufacturers' interest to this socket. Chipsets for Socket A have been sold several times (under different names with insignificant modifications), and there is no point in releasing new motherboards for these processors at the price "below $50". Probably the next year our news lines will not be disturbed by the words "Socket A".

Socket 754 Socket 940

These sockets are also gradually vanishing from users' sight. The former is interesting only to the current owners of such systems (as a launching pad for upgrades); and the latter returns to its legal residence as an Opteron base – desktop systems shouldn't deal with it in future.

Socket 939

The new socket for AMD64 has drawn all attention to itself. As this solution has settled for long, every chipset manufacturer felt obliged to release its own new-old chipset for Socket 939 (it's unnecessary to remind you that AMD64 processors are not tied to certain sockets). As a dowry, the new chipsets officially support 1 GHz 16-bit HyperTransport bidirectional bus. In fact, they couldn't announce any more features, except for releasing a new southbridge with expanded functionality.

Proceeding to the brief comparison of selected solutions, let's note VIA K8T800 Pro and SiS755FX as products with basic functionality, widely spread at the time the socket was announced. A tad later NVIDIA offered an integrated gigabit network adapter in its nForce3 series chipsets. Then there was a pause followed at the end of the year by the number of announcements of products with PCI Express: VIA K8T890 (20 PCI-E channels in the northbridge and two channels in the updated southbridge), SiS756 (16 PCI-E channels in the northbridge, two channels in the updated southbridge, plus two SATA ports supporting RAID, plus MAC Gigabit Ethernet controller), NVIDIA nForce4 (20 PCI-E channels, plus nForce4 SLI support, plus two SATA ports with RAID support, plus SATA II support – nForce4 Ultra/SLI version, plus two USB 2.0 ports). We have also witnessed the debut of ATI on the AMD64 solutions market with its Xpress 200/P chipsets (16+4x1 PCI-E channels in the northbridge, plus two SATA ports with RAID support), which were the first to offer integrated video on the gaming level for this platform.

With the appearance of inexpensive Sempron processors for Socket 939, this socket should have completely become the only object of interest of AMD fans.

Socket 478

This socket has ended its way as a base for new products, so it's not very interesting to us. Though, some motherboard manufacturers keep on inbreathing life into the outdated plastic by adapting new Intel chipsets for Socket 478, but in future, Pentium 4 and Celeron/D users will probably switch their full attention to Socket 775.

Socket 775 (Socket T, LGA775)

Increased power consumption of new Intel processors and the high-quality cooling required resulted in the appearance of a strangely looking socket with radically reworked CPU installation system and cooler mounting. Intriguing recommendations of some motherboard manufacturers not to exceed the specified limit of CPU installations into the socket has become the plot of Summer 2004 – is this socket really so weak? But we have never seen motherboards failed for this reason in our lab. These recommendations can most likely be explained by manufacturers playing safe.

The appearance of the new socket was accompanied by the release of Intel 915/925 series chipsets, which used the whole constellation of new technologies – just PCI Express and DDR2 count for a lot. As a result, flexibility of the new products and the time-proven quality of i865/875 were more than enough for motherboard manufacturers to provide a set of various models for Socket 775 based only on Intel chipsets. Unfortunately, this entire variety offered not much of price diversity, the highest prices for the recent time. Motherboards on the new chipsets cost above $100, while top models – above $200.

High prices for motherboards, sometimes – new memory required, guaranteed necessity to buy a new video card for the different graphics interface – all these factors left almost no opportunities for "gradual" upgrade into the new Intel platform. Besides, most users would have to change their power supply units as well, because the thermal emission limit of top PCIE video cards was raised to 75 W, which will almost certainly require a more powerful supply unit. Designed as an expansion of the standard 20-pin ATX power connector, 24-pin EATX power connector was soldered in absolutely all new motherboards, forcing users to upgrade instead of just using adapters as it was possible in times of ATX 2.03 migration. Upgrade is dead, say what you like.

An interesting tendency in chipset manufacturing is the appearance of integrated video, which allows decent gameplay in 3D games, to say nothing of working in usual applications. The natural instigator here (after NVIDIA gave up integrated solutions) is ATI (Radeon 9100/Pro, then Radeon Xpress 200/P), but there suddenly followed the third generation of integrated video from Intel, i915G chipset. As a result, fast integrated video for AMD64 just started to appear by the end of the year, while Intel processors have no problems with it for a long time.

Barebone-kits

Rapidly developing barebone-kits market certainly didn't stand back from the events in this field. A new socket/chipset announced? – Manufacturers of barebone-kit series (like Shuttle XPC or Soltek Qbic) announced a couple of models. BTX? – New concepts are ready. Certainly, the market offers solutions of all colors and design styles, many top models are approaching the increasingly complex PC cases of usual self-assembled units and solutions from system integrators. We want to note several masterpieces of original design and functionality, the catchiest of them is ASUS DiGiMatrix. Iwill seemed to bring to the sales stage its project of a dual system on Opteron processors in a miniature case of the usual for SFF PC size. Apologist of the opposite approach (VIA Technologies) announced a super miniature (12x12 cm motherboard) EPIA-N concept model with cool Eden-N processor (this product hasn't reached the serial production though). As you can see, the full set: from giants (in performance) to dwarves (in dimensions), from luxurious "limousines" to ascetic "cartons".

That's how we'll remember 2004 – a year of revolutionary changes, which will be taking root now, growing bells and whistles in 2005.

 
Sergei Pikalov (peek@ixbt.com)
January 27, 2005



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