VIA PT-series P4 chipsets
They're late - but are they worth the wait?
Preview Much later than initially anticipated, VIA this week launched its latest chipsets, which provide PCI Express support for Pentium 4 processors. Having had several meetings with VIA in the past year, I was originally told these chipsets would launch before VIA's AMD solution was ready, but somewhere along the line the company changed its plans, writes Lars-Goran Nilsson.
There are three chipsets launched this week: the PT880 Pro, PT894 and PT894 Pro. Starting with the PT880 Pro, we have a chipset that is quite different from the PT880 as it not only adds support for PCI Express graphics, but it can also accept DDR 2 memory all the way up to 667MHz. It also adds support for bus speeds of 533, 800 and 1066MHz. The unique feature of the PT880 Pro is that it supports AGP 8x as well as PCI Express and indeed, the sample motherboard we tested featured an AGP 8x and a PCI Express x16 slot. VIA's implementation of PCI Express differs from Intel's, and the reference board has no additional PCI Express slots. The chipset design does allow for a further two x1 slots to be added to future board revisions, however, once the new VT8251 south bridge is launched, but this is still a little while away.
Although I only had the reference board for a short time, I still managed to run a fairly comprehensive set of benchmarks on the board, with both an AGP and a PCI Express graphics card, though the only card available to us in both AGP and PCI Express was one based on the Nvidia GeForce 6600GT. Interestingly, the productivity benchmarks scored higher with the AGP card in place, while the gaming benchmarks scored higher with the PCI Express card.
Another interesting aspect of this board is that it supports what VIA refers to as DualGFX, which enables you to use one AGP and one PCI Express card at the same time. This means that you can have four monitor outputs for a fairly low cost, although you won't gain any performance in games and the graphics cards have to be supported by the same drivers, or it won't work.
It is still early days and the sample board from VIA didn't have the final spin of the chipset. I was also told that it required a small modification to work with a 1066MHz frontside bus, but this is something that won't be an issue with production boards. Another issue was that the reference board only supported DDR memory, so there are no results with DDR 2 in this preview, but as this is a manufacturing option, there might well be retail boards with only DDR support.
Looking at the scores from the PT880 Pro board, all of the test results are pretty much in line with what you would get from a board based on Intel's 915 chipset. This is not bad for a chipset targeted at those interested in an easy upgrade path and at system integrators looking at a flexible solution that can adapt to price changes in the memory and graphics card market. Performance should hopefully improve with the final spin of the chipset, especially once mature drivers replace the beta drivers used here.
The PT894 is a native PCI Express only chipset, supporting bus speeds of 533, 800 and 1066MHz. As with the PT880 Pro it supports DDR and DDR 2 memory, but again the reference board from VIA only featured DDR support. The PT894 features support for a PCI Express x16 slot as well as two x1 slots, and a further two could be added to future versions when the VT8251 south bridge is launched.
The PT894 will be VIA's medium to high-end solution. The reference board VIA supplied for testing featured a VIA 802.11g wireless controller, but as VIA didn't supply any drivers, I was unable to test it. VIA seems to be branching out in several new directions every time it launches a new core chipset and with the wireless market expected to grow at an enormous rate over the next couple of years, this seems like a worthwhile investment by VIA. As you'll see from the graph, Far Cry wouldn't run on the PT894, though we are sure that this is just a side effect of receiving an early PT894 sample and that the problem will be resolved on the final silicon.
The Pro version of the PT894 will be the first chipset from VIA to support DualGFX for PCI Express, although this is not like Nvidia's SLI as it will not combine the performance of the two cards. However, should Nvidia release a driver compatible with VIA's chipset, it would in theory be possible to run SLI on the PT894 Pro. As with the PT880 Pro you would have to use two cards that are supported by the same drivers, which rules out using, say, one Nvidia and one ATI card.
It looks like VIA is challenging Intel head-on with its latest range of chipsets and the good news is that VIA is expecting to sell them far more cheaply than Intel does its solutions. Considering the price increase of the current generation of Intel chipsets compared to the previous generation, we could see a swing to VIA, especially for price-sensitive solutions. So far, though, there has been little news concerning who will use these new chipsets and the only tip off so far is that Gigabyte will be launching a product.
I was impressed by these new VIA chipsets. The new features ensure that the three new chipsets are excellent, if somewhat late, additions to VIA's chipset family.
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