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VIA PT880 Pro Chipset: Long-awaited Flexibility of the Socket 775 Platform

March 23, 2005




VIA PT880 Pro chipset

Let's have a look at the flowchart of the new chipset and enumerate its features:




  • Supports Intel Pentium 4, Pentium 4 XE and Celeron D processors with the FSB frequency from 400 to 1066 MHz
  • Dual channel memory controller (up to 4 GB) operating with DDR (DDR266/333/400) or with DDR2 (DDR2-400/533[/667]) – not at the same time!
  • PCI Express graphics interface (operating speed is not specified)
  • AGP 8x graphics interface
  • South Bridge is connected via Ultra V-Link bus with the redundant throughput of 1 GB/sec
  • Up to six PCI slots
  • Up to 2 Serial ATA ports for two SATA150 devices
  • Interface for 2 more Serial ATA ports (an external PHY controller is required)
  • Supports RAID 0 and 1 (as well as 0+1 in case of 4 ports) from SATA disks
  • Up to four ATA133 devices (2 channels)
  • Up to eight USB 2.0 devices
  • MAC controller for 10/100 Mbit/sec network (Fast Ethernet)
  • AC'97 audio (5.1) and MC'97 modem
  • Binding for low-speed and outdated periphery.

South Bridge is still based on VIA VT8237 (it's now called VT8237R due to the problems with registered trademarks). We have been looking forward to a replacement for this veteran for a couple of years, but the VT8251 is still expected at the second quarter of this year. So it's theoretically possible to see the PT880 Pro together with the VT8251, but considering the low-end positioning of this chipset, the chances are not very high. However, VT8237 still looks good against its competitors, though it doesn't support PCI Express peripheral devices (they are nowhere to be found), gigabit network (this cannot be mended due to the lack of PCI-E ports), or HDA.




But North Bridge is a feast for the eyes. It supports all FSB frequencies including 1066 MHz, which is not shared between two chipsets as in Intel i925X/XE. It allows two memory types (DDR – up to 400 MHz; DDR2 – up to 667 MHz). Besides, the reference design provides for simultaneous installation of slots for both memory types (again unlike Intel). And finally, a dream of upgrade mongers – it contains the PCI Express graphics interface, but AGP 8x is not abandoned either! Intel explained the lack of AGP in i915/925 by overloaded North Bridge contacts and the resulting complexity of PCB layout, among other things. VIA goes great guns here as well – the reference motherboard has 4-layer design (against 6 layers in i915/925)! Too good to bee true, where is the catch?

There is one. It's for a reason that the PCI-E graphics interface is shyly referred to as "PCI-Express Graphics" without any mention of its speed in the PT880 Pro documentation. In fact, the engineers didn't manage to provide the sterling x16 operating mode, they had to content themselves with x4. How bad is it? It's impossible to say anything without tests – at one time the appearance of AGP 8x interface brought absolutely nothing compared to AGP 4x. On the other hand, the cards that are available on the market these days are different.




Unlike memory slots, the two graphics slots on a motherboard with PT880 Pro can be used simultaneously. The only use for this functionality is multi-monitor configurations (up to four monitors, if both video cards have two video outs). There were times when two monitors on a desk seemed pompous luxury, but now a couple of monitors may be not enough for some users. A little practical joy – peaceful coexistence of two video card manufacturers in the system area of the task panel :)





Click the picture to see a screenshot of the extended Desktop

Performance tests

Testbed configuration:

  • CPU: Intel Pentium 4 560 (18x200 MHz = 3.6 GHz), Socket 775
  • Motherboards:

  • Memory: 2x512 MB PC3200(DDR400) DDR SDRAM DIMM Corsair, 2-2-2-5
  • Video cards:
    • [PCIEx16] Leadtek NVIDIA GeForce PCX 5900 128 MB
    • [AGP 8x] Manli ATI Radeon 9800Pro 256 MB

  • HDD: Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (SATA), 7200 rpm

Software:

  • OS and drivers:
    • Windows XP Professional SP2
    • DirectX 9.0c
    • VIA Hyperion Pro 1.22.21
    • Intel Chipset Drivers 6.2.1.1001
    • NVIDIA ForceWare 67.02
    • ATI Catalyst 4.11

  • Test applications:
    • RightMark Memory Analyzer 3.42
    • 7-Zip 4.10b
    • WinRAR 3.41
    • Mainconcept MPEG Encoder 1.04.02
    • DivX 5.2.1 Pro codec
    • SPECviewperf 8.01
    • Doom 3 (v1.0.1282)
    • FarCry (v1.1.3.1337)
    • Unreal Tournament 2004 (v3339)

Test results

Unfortunately, the engineering sample of a motherboard on VIA PT880 Pro that we tested has only DDR memory slots and does not support 1066 MHz FSB (it's a limitation of the motherboard). Thus, out of all "dual" features of the chipset we could test only two graphics interfaces. We chose Intel products for competition (i865PE with AGP and i915G with PCI Express), having tested the DDR modification, so that the system couples differed only by the chipset. When our test lab get hold of a volume-produced model with full VIA PT880 Pro features, we'll certainly compare it with i925XE as well as with the other chipsets supporting DDR2.

First of all, as always we'll carry out low-level memory tests using RightMark Memory Analyzer. As all the tests are carried out with the same processor, we are not interested in stress tests (the results are guaranteed to be the same). But what concerns typical marks, i865PE outscores the VIA chipset by 5–10%. And a tad higher writing speed in i915G is compensated by a slower reading speed.

Pseudo random access latency in VIA PT880 Pro is somewhere between the two Intel chipsets; i865PE is again the leader; the difference between the contenders is not very large here. Note that the choice between AGP or PCIE video accelerators has expectedly no effect on the results demonstrated by the VIA product.



The low-level evaluation of performance is certainly interesting, but the results of tests in real applications are more important. The tendency is crystal clear here: i915G and VIA PT880 Pro demonstrate absolutely the same results, while i865PE is 2-5% behind (probably due to the lower FSB frequency), except for WinRAR archiving (its latency advantage tells). Have a look at the bottom line of the archiving diagram: simultaneous installation of two video cards has absolutely no effect on the VIA chipset performance.

Summing it all up, memory operating speed in the engineering sample of VIA PT880 Pro is on a par with one of the fastest i915G motherboards. It's an excellent result and there is a chance to see performance gain in volume-produced motherboards from famous manufacturers. The performance ratio in i915/i865 is a more complex issue, considering our previous analyses. But on the whole, i915 with DDR is no slower than i865, so the VIA chipset must look confident among low end solutions for Socket 775.

One of the popularity reasons of 3D modeling package SPECviewperf in our methods of testing is its variety of 3D engine dependences. Their total number is eight, so we are guaranteed to find at least one test where we'll see the difference due to memory throughputs or graphics interfaces of the systems under review. And of course a processor and a video card are of an immense contribution. In this case the VIA PT880 Pro/Intel 865PE pair demonstrates approximate parity: 6 tests demonstrate the difference not exceeding 2%, only in two tests the Intel chipset scores about 5% higher. But PCI Express performance in VIA PT880 Pro invites some questions: this system looses over 15% to i915G in four tests (24% in one of them!), in the other two – over 5%, and just two tests demonstrate approximately equal results. Such a difference obviously does not appear due to a tad lower memory operating speed, so we can draw a conclusion either about a lame implementation of the PCI Express graphics bus in VIA chipset, or about insufficient PCIEx4 bandwidth for SPECviewperf.

However, the majority of our readers are hardly interested in professional 3D modeling performance. On the contrary, a 15–20% defeat in games may bury the VIA PT880 Pro potential, so let's pay close attention to this area.

Both pairs are approximately on a par in Doom 3 in all modes.

A similar picture can be seen in FarCry, though Intel chipsets are 3–4% ahead once in a while in low resolutions. However, they let through "counter strikes" from their opponents every so often.

And finally, in Unreal Tournament 2004 i865PE (in low resolutions again) sometimes scores a couple percents higher, but on the whole we cannot but admit that the results are equal. When two video accelerators are installed, VIA PT880 Pro results get a tad lower, but not low enough to be worthy discussing or remembering.

Conclusions

Beyond any doubt, VIA offered interesting functionality in its PT880 Pro. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to test all of the mentioned features, we're looking forward to production samples. Nevertheless, we can expect this chipset to be popular due to its support for two memory types, two graphics interfaces, and 1066 MHz FSB.

The price for end user solutions is promised to be low due to the low disbursing price for the chipset as well as a simple PCB layout, and rich integrated functionality. There were no production motherboards on PT880 Pro in Moscow retail at the time this article was written, but this information can be trusted: prices are a wonted advantage of VIA.

It was good to discover that the performance of the reviewed chipset is on a par with the corresponding solutions from Intel, except for the case with the insufficient throughput of integrated PCI Express interface. Fortunately, we have come across problems only in a single application, and we still hope for a better situation in production samples. On the other hand, a higher-performance PCIE video card will probably demonstrate lagging in other applications, including real games. We'll check it out.

Bottom line: VIA PT880 Pro is a product, which is noticeably late on the market, but still undoubtedly interesting. We'll carry out a complete complex of tests for this chipset and its competitors as soon as possible.




Sergei Pikalov (peek@ixbt.com)
March 23, 2005



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