New VIA PT Chipset Series - IntroductionIntroduction
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.
New VIA PT Chipset Series - Common FeaturesCommon Features
The best place to start would be taking a look at the chipset features which are consistent throughout the PT880 Pro, PT894 and PT894 Pro parts and then later explain the differences between each of the chipsets.
Each chipset uses the same "High Performance Memory Controller" (nicknamed "StepUp" for obvious reasons) which contains official support for both Dual Channel DDR and DDR-II memory standards - keep in mind though that you cannot run DDR and DDR-II together on the same motherboard. On the DDR side we have the expected DDR-400 support and on the DDR-II side there is official support for DDR-II 667 which will help increase memory bandwidth when running the CPU and memory with dividers. As mentioned earlier, motherboard manufacturers will be able to choose whether or not they provide DDR or DDR-II or both on their retail boards and we shouldn't have to mention again why this is important (refer to the introduction if you skipped it).
All new VIA PT chipsets contain full support for up to 1066MHz FSB processors which is a fairly big plus as on the Intel side you need to spend extra dollars to obtain 1066FSB processor support from the premium 925XE chipset. The Northbridge and Southbridge are connected through VIA's "Ultra V-Link" bus which provides a plentiful 1066MB/s link.While I haven't personally had much experience at all with VIA onboard audio, this is an area VIA seems to be pushing with the VIA Vinyl HD Audio solution which is universal among all chipsets. It supports 24/96 resolution outputs along with advanced 3D sound emulation through the integrated VIA Envy24PT sound processor. These specifications are up there with the Sound Blaster Audigy2 which shows that VIA consider audio an important part of their overall chipset product.Storage is also something VIA aren't taking lightly with full support through the new VT8251 Southbridge for SATAII which increases data transfer rates to 300MB/s which is twice the speed of current SATA drives as well as adds native support for Command Queuing
which basically optimizes the way data is collected from the hard drive and hence provides a performance increase. SATAII drives should come on the market later this year.
Through SATAII you also have the ability to use a technology called Port Multiplier
which allows you to add up to 60 drives per controller, according to VIA. It sounds very funky but the 300MB/s of bandwidth is shared between all the connected drives so in reality you probably wouldn't use anymore than 2 or 3 at most. Additionally through VIA's revised native V-RAID system you have the ability to use just about every RAID method you can think of (minus RAID 10) including RAID 5 which is RAID 0 + 1 with just three hard disk drives and it is something VIA are claiming they are first to the market with.
The Southbridge which will be used with each of the VIA chipsets is the new VT8251. It provides the support for the SATAII and V-RAID we just talked about along with an extra two PCI Express lanes, eight USB 2.0 ports, 10/100 LAN and 8 channel audio. VIA have told us that the new VT8251 Southbridge will not be featured on retail motherboards until Q2 2005, until then the older VT8237 will be used. It just may pay waiting till boards are released with this newer Southbridge.That covers just about all of the common features of the new VIA PT chipsets except graphics interfaces but that's what separates all three products so continue on and find out what is different between each chipset.
New VIA PT Chipset Series - VIA PT880 Pro - The Upgraders PlatformVIA PT880 Pro
The first chipset out of the three we are taking a look at is the VIA PT880 Pro which should prove to be the ultimate and most flexible upgrader's platform for the Pentium 4 this year.So, why do we think it will be the upgrader's choice for 2005? The reasons are clear:1) Motherboard manufacturers can choose to support DDR, DDR-II or both providing a very flexible platform for users unclear about what they want or need or who just cannot afford or justify to use newer and more expensive DDR-II memory, which is only a little quicker at this point in time, when they may have just bought DDR memory.2) As with the memory, motherboard manufacturers can choose to create retail boards with both full AGP 8x and PCI Express slots. As VIA say, this provides a very solid stepping stone for users who are unsure if they really need or want a PCI Express graphics card at this stage or who don't have the ability to spend the money to buy a new graphics cards.
And if that wasn't enough for you, we saw an early PT880 Pro reference board running both an AGP and PCI Express card at the same time in Windows XP. You read correctly - an AGP and PCI Express graphics card working together at the same time providing support for 4 monitor display output but keep in mind this is not SLI, just dual graphics. While this type of setup won't be common (and it wasn't a setup VIA engineers intended to pioneer in the initial stages), it's nice to know that people who are fans of multiple displays can still make use of their old AGP graphics cards on this platform.
We fired up Doom 3 and spanned the game across all four monitors slowly and carefully and watched in amazement not expecting it to work - it worked but the average frame rate was about 10FPS. Throw a couple Radeon X800's or GeForce 6800's into the fray and it might be a different story. Very cool nevertheless and very handy for game developers or programmers or artists who need lots of desktop space!
First up we installed an ATI Radeon X600XT in the PCI Express slot and Radeon 9600 in the AGP slot and both cards worked perfectly together. However, when trying to make an ATI and nVidia card work together, it wouldn't install correctly but as was mentioned, you wouldn't expect either ATI or nVidia to make their drivers work for dual graphics from another company.As far as overall chipset performance goes, VIA state that the PT880 Pro should provide similar results as the Intel 915P chipset with regular DDR memory - we were unable to run any benchmarks so we are unable to clarify this but the claims seem fair enough to us. Performance numbers aside, the VIA PT880 will be a dream for DDR and DDR-II / AGP and PCI Express upgraders just as long as the right motherboard manufacturers get hold of this perfect transitional chipset and create retail boards with the budget conscious end-user in mind and if they do this chipset will surely be a solid bread winner for VIA and the motherboard companies who design their boards right.If you are one of the end-users in a predicament about upgrading your system from DDR and AGP, retail boards based on the VIA PT880 Pro chipset should make life easier and much more flexible for you.
New VIA PT Chipset Series - VIA PT894 - EnthusiastVIA PT894 - Enthusiast
The VIA PT894 chipset is exactly the same as the PT880 Pro except instead of providing support for both AGP and PCI Express, it simply provides one full 16 lanes PCI Express graphics slot. VIA have designed the PT894 as an alternative to the Intel 915P chipset and it should do quite well in this market especially if boards based on the VIA chipset are cheaper considering the newer features the VIA Southbridge provides.
Again, motherboard manufacturer will be able to offer the PT894 with either DDR or DDR-II memory support but since this chipset is targeted more so at the mainstream enthusiast user you wouldn't think motherboard companies would offer DDR and DDR-II support on their retail boards. Either DDR or DDR-II would make more sense and we'd probably lean closer to DDR-II. For motherboard companies from the sales prospective, offering both memory standards would take the spotlight off their PT880 Pro boards, who would presumably be offering DDR and DDR-II as well as AGP and PCI Express on the one board but you never know.Depending on the overclockability (and if the popular VIA PCI lock is in place) and performance of the new VIA chipset, the PT894 chipset could end up doing quite well against the 915P (and even 925X and possibly even 925XE) for VIA especially considering it supports 1066 FSB processors at a reduce priced from the 925XE. In any case though, it is sure to heat up the Pentium 4 chipset market and make things more exciting as well as importantly give you guys more options before nVidia barge through with their nForce5 Pentium 4 chipset sometime soon which will bring SLI support to the Pentium 4 platform.
New VIA PT Chipset Series - VIA PT894 Pro - WorkstationVIA PT894 Pro - Workstation
The last chipset we are taking a look at is the VIA PT894 Pro which again is just like the PT880 Pro but uses VIA's "DualGFX Express Implementation" which provides two PCI Express graphics slots on the one board for dual graphics output.
The diagram above shows just how VIA's DualGFX Express Implementation works. The first slot, or the primary slot, provides the full 16 lanes which is perfect for gaming or intense 3D rendering (the 16 lanes provide more bandwidth for the data to pass through) while the second slot provides just 4 lanes which is more suited towards 2D tasks such as monitoring ICQ or sending e-mails. This type of setup is crucial for workstation users such as artists or programmers or just the average Joe who is a fan of multiple monitor setups who needs (read: wants) plenty of desktop space.Motherboard companies also have the ability to manipulate this chipset and provide two PCI Express graphics slots each with 8 lanes. This type of setup is more suited toward users wanting to span their 3D rendering applications across two monitors and not experience any slow down as you would with one x16 slot and one x4 slot. In a sense you could even consider the PT880 Pro chipset a workstation product (AGP and PCI Express) but it isn't able to offer the same performance which the PT894 Pro can do through two PCI Express graphics slots.You would expect to see motherboard manufacturers producing retail boards based on the PT894 Pro chipset with DDR-II only (considering it is targeted at the performance workstation market) but yet again through VIA's scalable chipset design, motherboard companies can provide regular DDR support, if they wish. Depending how this product is marketed, it could potentially do very well in the workstation market and again it comes down to what the motherboard companies intend on doing with the chipset.The benchmark numbers provided to us by VIA show the Intel 925XE chipset only marginally ahead of the PT894 chipset which might make Intel a little nervous and as I've said many times in this article, will heat up the Pentium 4 chipset market quite well.
New VIA PT Chipset Series - Final ThoughtsFinal Thoughts
Having thoroughly investigated all three of the new PT series chipsets today, it is quite clear to us that VIA have put a lot of plain down right intelligent thought into their new PT880 Pro, PT894 and PT894 Pro chipsets - not just technically but it shows VIA have a very clear and concise understanding of what the market is demanding at the moment with the transition between DDR and DDR-II and AGP and PCI Express. Through this obvious understanding of market demand which can be seen by their seemingly impeccable chipset plan comes the technology and we reckon VIA got the hole in one
today with just the right mix of what is needed. All they need to do now is fight against the titanic "Intel" brand name for the average user who has never or rarely heard of the name "VIA".VIA has stepped into the arena with these new chipsets and depending on how VIA's motherboard partners (ABIT, ASUS, Chaintech, Biostar, DFI, ECS, Epox, Gigabyte, Jetway, MSI and Soltek) adopt these new chipsets, the Taiwanese chipset company should be able to take up quite a chunk of Intel's Pentium 4 chipset market share with their range of new chipsets which while very small in differences provide on paper solid alternatives (as well as innovations) to what Intel have on offer with their Pentium 4 chipsets.We can't wait to see what a company like Albatron or Gigabyte will do with the VIA PT880 Pro chipset. If they can design and create the board right, it is sure to be an instant hit with budget conscious end-users wanting to upgrade to DDR-II and PCI Express or just one at the time - not everyone has stacks of money to throw away on computer hardware. While Intel attempted to make the transition to the new technology easier with the Intel 915 series of chipsets, they only went half way and didn't offer support for AGP which VIA has capitalized on here today. Similarly with the VIA PT894 chipset, we'd like to see a company such as ABIT, ASUS or MSI get hold on the chipset and tweak it for all it's worth and see what we get when compared to any one of the current Intel chipsets. It's tough to predict how the VIA PT894 Pro will go in the market but it should prove popular for the market segment it is targeting as long as the price is right.We cannot wait to get our hands on new motherboards based on these chipsets. On paper they look perfect and maybe just might get Intel sweating a little when they become available on store shelves within the next month or so.
Last updated: Apr 7, 2020 at 12:26 pm CDT