Intel 4x chipset series has been launched approximately a year after the Intel 3x series that introduced a significant overhaul of key system features. But in this case improvements are not that important. Truly radical changes await us in solutions designed for the new Nehalem processor microarchitecture. As for now, we see the last generation of classic chipsets, just adding finishing touches. In fact, there are not many touches left to add: all "supporting" technologies are always implemented at top priority, so the only more or less burning issue left is PCI Express 2.0, a trademark of new products.
Intel P45 and P43 (Eaglelake)
Well, let's take a look at key features of Intel's new generation of discrete chipsets:
P45 Northbridge key features:
Let's have a closer look at these points.
There are no changes relative to Intel 3x as far as CPUs are concerned. Support for a 1600MHz FSB is still not implemented (although motherboard manufacturers boasted of its support in products based on Intel 3x), this feature is reserved exclusively for Intel X48. However, there is still only one [expensive] desktop processor with this FSB frequency. There will certainly appear more such products prior to Nehalem, but not enough to make the difference in the market.
Perhaps when Intel 3x chipsets were announced, the company hoped that it would be the only generation to use a combined DDR2/DDR3 memory controller. However, the transition took longer than they thought: DDR3 memory is still too expensive, its high bandwidth is not relevant with the existing FSB organization, so motherboard manufacturers actively design new models with DDR2 support, and even manage to use Intel X48 for such products (for example, MSI), which does not work with DDR2 officially. At this conjuncture it looks reasonable to preserve a memory controller from the main line, which still supports DDR2 and DDR3 (memory modules of different types won't work together though). What concerns new features, we can mention the maximum supported DDR2 memory volume of 16 GB. But it's not the chipset to praise -- it's a natural result of certifying new memory modules and chips. This memory volume will also be available to DDR3 in good time.
PCI Express 2.0 support for graphics is the key highlight of the new chipsets. However, higher bandwidth for a single graphics card does not matter in most cases. It's just a key to the future -- keeping ahead of the infrastructure. The same concerns the doubled bus power: existing graphics cards do not rely on bus power supply (that's how they provide full backward compatibility with PCI Express 1.1). However, this feature may come in handy in future.
We've got an interesting situation with CrossFire (for marketing reasons, Intel chipsets are still not certified for SLI support): in fact, Intel 4x products and NVIDIA chipsets currently have similar positioning. Indeed, top X48 supports two graphics interfaces PCI Express 2.0 x16. Mid-End P45 chipset -- 2 x PCI Express 2.0 x8 (that is, it can use two graphics cards together, but with reduced bandwidth). And finally, P43 is the Low-End chipset in the series -- the same PCI Express 2.0 x16 graphics interface as in P45, but it cannot be split into two ports for CrossFire.
In fact, this is the only difference between P43 and P45. As a rule, the line of discrete chipsets from Intel used to have only two models (High- and Mid-End) and sometimes entry-level products. But now we have two Mid-End chipsets. No wonder motherboard manufacturers pay much more interest to the cheaper P43, announcing models on this chipset in the first place. Besides, if a manufacturer wants to attract attention to its motherboard using a cheap marketing trick, it may install two PCIEx16 slots operating as PCI-E 2.0 x16 + PCI-E 1.1 x4 (from Southbridge), as it was done in previous chipsets. Moreover, performance of this budget CrossFire in most cases shouldn't be much lower.
Heat release of these chipsets is another story. We remember how negatively PCI Express 2.0 affected this parameter in NVIDIA nForce 780i SLI chipset. We can recall better, but still hot nForce 790i SLI products. Fortunately, P43/P45 chipsets are manufactured by the new 65-nm fabrication process, and their heat release hasn't grown much versus Intel 3x: TDP = 22 W (9 W idle) for P43/P45 versus 16 W (~6 W idle) for P35. As a result, motherboards on the new chipsets usually come with regular heatsinks. Although they get quite hot under maximum load (especially in games), there are no reasons to panic, which makes Intel 4x look very good in comparison with competing chipsets from NVIDIA.
Intel has designed ICH10 Southbridges for the new generation of chipsets. They do not feature many innovations, which is quite explainable: there are currently no new technologies in the market, which must be supported by modern chipsets at all costs. Here are the key features of the new Southbridges:
As always, Southbridges with letter R in their names differ from the basic modification of ICH10 by RAID support for SATA drives. But the number of SATA ports in both modifications is identical now, although the RAID modification used to offer two additional ports. Only ICH10R supports Intel Turbo Memory. However, we haven't seen such memory modules designed for desktop motherboards for the past year. Both modifications of the Southbridge support Viiv technologies. PATA support has not returned, by the way.
As we have already mentioned, ICH10 can boast of almost no new features -- in fact, common users may be only interested in more SATA ports in the basic modification of the Southbridge. Besides, chipsets have no real need to update their peripheral support at present: USB 3.0 is in the process of development so far, and we cannot recall any other promising desktop technologies. They could have added support for the second version of PCI Express not only for graphics ports, but also for peripheral ports in the Southbridge. However, it would have come in handy in the really distant future, while power consumption would have peaked immediately. Adding more features to the built-in Gigabit Ethernet MAC controller makes even less sense, as usual desktops don't use it at all, it's used only in corporate systems vPro.
What concerns Intel X48, we can recommend this chipset for a new system, although with a great reserve. But Low-End chipsets of the 4x series have practically no attractions that could make them a choice better than the previous generation. The official support for the 1600MHz FSB and higher DDR3 frequencies (in Intel X48 and NVIDIA nForce 790i SLI) can be regarded as a reason to choose a motherboard for future uses. But as far as P45 and P43 products are concerned, manufacturers have to lure customers by other means that do not involve chipset features. It does not make such motherboards bad, of course. Just keep in mind that you are not forced to choose a motherboard on a modern chipset only.
Almost the only useful feature added to this chipset is PCI Express 2.0 support for graphics (and an opportunity to use fully-fledged CrossFire on a Mid-End chipset instead of a top product. But most potential users do not care about it. Fortunately, DDR3 memory is not forced upon you in this case. So if motherboards on P43/P45 are not much more expensive than P35-based products, you can choose the former and go with a little increase in system temperature.
And, finally, we are not even going to touch upon performance issues of new chipsets. According to dedicated reviews of P43/P45 motherboards, there are expectedly no differences there: memory bandwidth in modern systems is too high to defeat competing products by means of chipset (motherboard) memory controller tweaks.
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