Last week we visited the local VIA labs in Australia where they showed us their new line of PT chipsets for the Pentium 4 platform - namely the VIA PT880 Pro, PT894 and PT894 Pro. VIA has been relatively quiet over the past year or so but are today hoping to make some inroads into the Pentium 4 chipset market, with their still shiny new Pentium 4 chipset cross license agreement, which is largely dominated by Intel - and we have to admit it will be nice to see some more choices in this section of the market as it promotes competitiveness and that is only a good thing as a consumer.
Currently your only choice for a performance Pentium 4 motherboard is the Intel 915 or 925X or even the 925XE if you have the money to blow. The Intel 915 chipset allows motherboard manufacturers to implement DDR and DDR-II support on their boards but only provides support for PCI Express graphics cards. This can be tough (from a financial standpoint) for some users as they may want to merge their old AGP graphics cards into their new system since PCI Express at this stage doesn't provide much performance increase at all. This is much like the move from AGP 4x to AGP 8x - just a few frames per second here and there at best. This theory especially applies with an expensive graphics cards such as the ATI Radeon X800 XT AGP. Unless you have an unlimited bank to play with or are just plain crazy, you wouldn't drop this card for the PCI Express version and loose money on your investment - well, at least the regular end-user wouldn't, which is 90% of the personal computer market.
And the same applies for users with DDR memory and again especially high-end DDR memory from companies like Corsair and OCZ which would have just about cost an arm and a leg to buy not too long ago. There are some motherboard manufacturers (Gigabyte for one) who produced an Intel 915 motherboard with both DDR and DDR-II slots on the board but for the most part on other competitor motherboard solutions you had to choose from DDR or DDR-II which makes life less flexible since your future upgrade options are minimized. While DDR-II increases memory bandwidth, the majority of the time it doesn't result in any remarkable real-world performance increases (especially in games) at least in the early transitional stages (now).
Intel tried to force DDR-II and PCI Express (along with other things such as SATA) down the throat of us all with the intent of trying to speed up the market and to a degree it has worked but this isn't the best thing for the budget conscious end-user as DDR-II memory is still quite a bit more expensive than regular DDR memory and the performance increases from the 875P platform (DDR and AGP) to the 925X platform (DDR-II and PCI Express) is not great enough to warrant the upgrade - at least not at this stage when really all you get is an AGP graphics card ported over to PCI Express with some new chipset features.
VIA hope to really penetrate the Pentium 4 chipset market this year with three new chipsets that have the aim of maximizing end-user upgradeability and value for money by allowing you to use your AGP graphics card AND PCI Express graphics card together with all the mod cons along with the ability to choose between using DDR or DDR-II memory. Unfortunately we were unable to benchmark any of the boards we saw in action at the local VIA labs but we'll document each chipset and show you some photos of the chipsets in action and what they are capable of doing and why we think they just might do okay in the market when they become available soon.
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