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Intel P55 Chipset

Supporting new Intel Core i5/i7 processors.

September 9, 2009



Today's announcement is hardly a surprise for readers who have already read the Intel X58 review. As we have expected, Intel launches a new platform for Mid-End and partially High-End segments of the market. Now Nehalem processors are going to appear in these segments as well. However, the modern Lynnfield core differs noticeably from the Bloomfield core used in the first Core i7 processors with socket S1366. (In brief, the number of memory channels is decreased to two, and there appeared the integrated graphics interface PCI-E.) From the point of view of the new platform, we are primarily interested in the fact that new processors for the new socket require new chipsets, and P55 is the first of them.

Chipset features

You shouldn't be surprised that the chipset architecture has changed much since Intel 4x. At first the memory controller moved to the processor (Bloomfield core), now the graphics controller moved there as well. So the P55 naturally abandoned the Northbridge as redundant. And now the chipset actually represents the slightly improved Southbridge. To all appearances, Intel found it unbecoming to reduce the chipset to the Southbridge, so instead of the traditional abbreviation ICH (I/O Controller Hub), the P55 bridge bears the name PCH or Platform Controller Hub.



Here are the key characteristics of the chipset:

  • Support for new processors (represented by Core i7 and Core i5 at the time this article was published), based on Nehalem, connected to DMI bus (~2 GB/s);
  • Up to 8 x PCIEx1 (PCI-E 2.0) ports;
  • Up to 4 x PCI slots;
  • 6 x Serial ATA II ports for six SATA300 devices (SATA-II, the second generation of the standard), AHCI and NCQ, hot plug, eSATA, and port splitters;
  • RAID 0, 1, 0+1 (10) and 5 with Matrix RAID function (the same array of drives can be used in several RAID modes -- for example, two drives may form RAID 0 and RAID 1, each array will use its own part of the disks);
  • 14 x USB 2.0 devices (on two EHCI host controllers) supporting hot plug;
  • Gigabit Ethernet MAC controller and a special interface (LCI/GLCI) for a PHY controller (i82567 for Gigabit Ethernet, i82562 for Fast Ethernet);
  • High Definition Audio (7.1);
  • Circuitry for legacy devices, etc.

Let's not be too strict to the new chipset: it's not just renamed ICH10R. However, it has mostly minor quantitative changes (14 USB ports instead of 12; eight PCI-E ports instead of six). But there is also an important new feature: now the peripheral PCI Express controller also complies with the second version of the standard. That is, among other things, its operating speed has been doubled. This change may be quite in handy in view of the soon to come USB 3.0 and Serial ATA III. Almost all manufacturers are planning to launch top motherboards with the P55 and SATA-III controllers. Indeed, it's really necessary to make chipset ports faster to match the significantly increased data transfer rates of these interfaces.



Support for processors is minimized: P55-based motherboards will support all processors for Socket 1156, as there exists only one bus variant. However, here lies the most interesting feature of Intel 5x chipsets. (X58 is formally the top chipset in this series, but it differs from the other models not only in its positioning, but also physically, so X58 actually belongs to a separate family.) Indeed, P55 and the coming P57 are connected to a processor with only one DMI bus. And practically identical H55/H57 will have one more interface (FDI, Flexible Display Interface) necessary to use processors with the integrated graphics core (Havendale). In this case frames will be rendered by a special unit in a processor and then output to a monitor via physical interfaces (DVI/HDMI/DisplayPort, two independent displays) by the H5x chipset. However, as far as we understand the current situation, it will be also possible to use Havendale processors in motherboards with the P55/P57 -- their integrated graphics core won't work in this case, that's all.

So is there a point in buying P5x-based motherboards with this restriction, or is it better to choose H5x? Intel does not give a clear answer, as these chipsets differ in price and SLI/CrossFire support. To all appearances, there are no architectural differences here, only the graphics interface of a processor (PCI Express 2.0 x16) can be split into 2 x x8 only in motherboards with P55/P57. So the Intel 5x family is actually broken into segments. What concerns differences between the Mid-End P55 from the High-End P57, they are absolutely insignificant. We'll touch upon them in the beginning of 2010, when Havendale processors and the other chipsets from this family enter the market. And now we can only note that the most significant advantage of the P57 is its support for Braidwood technology -- further development of Turbo Memory, announced back in Intel 3x, but practically not used in real motherboards.

We should probably say a few words about NVIDIA and its position here. With the appearance of X58, we've finally seen SLI in the desktop class of solutions, which are not based on NVIDIA chipsets. (Motherboard manufacturers got SLI license from the company for each model separately.) NVIDIA was not even going to design a chipset for Bloomfield, there are some plans for Lynnfield and future cores, but we don't know any details yet. Motherboards with P55 will use the well-established procedure with license fees. Moreover, the amount of fees seems to be reduced a little. Thus, all willing manufacturers will have no problems getting official SLI support for their motherboards. CrossFire support is announced by default for any motherboards with P55 (equipped with at least two PCIEx16 slots, of course).

Another interesting moment -- heat release of the P55. As it's a modernized Southbridge, its power consumption should be somewhere between ~5 W of the old Southbridges (plus the PCI-E 2.0 controller) and ~20 W of the old Northbridges (minus practically everything). The P55 chipset is manufactured by the 65nm process technlogy used for all modern Northbridges, while the ICH10 and older Southbridges were based on the 90nm process.


Chipset P55 PCH X58 IOH P45 MCH ICH10 (4x, X58)
TDP, W 4.7 24.1 22.0 4.5
Heat release (Idle), W 1.7 8.5 9.0 1.0

Generally speaking, the most important conclusion for us is that X58 does not have special cooling requirements. This chipset is similar to P45 in this respect. However, one look at the announcements of new motherboards is enough to understand that manufacturers are not going to abandon profiled pieces of copper and aluminum they like so much. They have become objects of image rather than engineering way of cooling.

Conclusions

This chipset is announced without alternatives, as it already happened with Intel X58: P55-based motherboards will be the only solutions for Socket 1156 for over six months. We'll analyze pros and cons of the new chipset, when the other models from this series are announced. But even now we can say that if you don't plan to use integrated graphics from Intel, you may certainly consider a motherboard with P55. If we take a look at the market in general, we must admit that this chipset provides practically maximum functionality possible these days (as far as periphery is concerned). And the integrated PCI-E 2.0 controller is a unique way to support soon-to-come new high-speed interfaces. The only shortcoming of the P55 versus top solutions is the lack of two full-speed PCI-E 2.0 interfaces for graphics. But it hardly worries most users. Besides, if it does, they may always consider X58 and Socket 1366.

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