TAIPEI, Taiwan Core logic stole the spotlight at this week's Computex 2001 trade show.
Most of the major chip set players, and a newcomer, are primed for a double-data-rate chip set brawl next year as the DDR memory standard moves closer to the mainstream.
Nvidia Corp. introduced its core logic offering dubbed the nForce which is aimed at the mid- to high-performance market. Nforce transfers some of the graphics computations normally done on the CPU to the north bridge device.
Via Technologies Inc. also released its new Pentium 4 DDR SDRAM chip set. Acer Labs Inc. (ALi) and Silicon Integrated Systems (SiS) are also readying their DDR offerings for the second half.
Only Intel Corp. which introduced its PC133 SDRAM-enabled i845 chip set remained the odd man out in the rush to support DDR. Taiwan's motherboard manufacturers have had samples of the 845 chip set, code-named Brookdale, since late April or ea rly May. But questions remain as to when Intel will allow Taiwan's system and motherboard companies to turn the crank on DDR-enabled systems.
Edward Chang, a field applications engineer at Intel's Taiwan branch, said that while the two-chip Brookdale chip set is capable of supporting both PC133 SDRAM and DDR SDRAM, the first wave of motherboards are expected to ship in September with PC133 modules. Because SDRAM DIMMs are selling for less than $50, about half the cost of a Rambus memory module, many users will opt for systems based on the P4 processor and the 845 chip set, he said.
"Price is the biggest concern of many customers," Chang said. Lower memory prices will override concerns about the 400-Mbit/second front-side bus being choked by the limited memory bandwidth of the PC133 modules.
After a validation period to make sure the DDR modules are compatible, Intel will give the go-ahead to ship the 845 chip set with DDR memory modules. That is expected early next year or even earlier. Chang dec lined to say if Intel would support PC200 (a DDR implementation of the 100-MHz SDRAM) or PC266 DDR memories, though most expect the PC266 to get the nod.
There is plenty of speculation about Intel's plans for DDR, focusing on whether the company will reel in the launch to the fourth quarter. Intel faces mounting pressure from Advanced Micro Devices, which continues to push for market share by boasting a roughly 10 percent system performance benefit after matching its CPUs with DDR.
Nearly the same looks to be true for Intel's P4. On Tuesday (June 5), Via Technologies claimed it had attained about a 7 percent system performance increase by matching the P4 with DDR memory. Only hours before Via was to host a press conference on its new C3 Ezra mobile chip, the company decided to tack on a demo of its Pentium 4 DDR chip set, dubbed the P4X266, because it was surprised by the benchmark results of the beta version.
Using 3D Mark 2001, Via ran a 1.5-GHz P4 with the X266 chip set and the GeForce2 GTS Pr o at 1,600 x 1,200 x 32 resolution on a reference board. Then it tested a similar setup with the i850 chip set on an Asustek P4T motherboard. The i850 scored 1,391 and the X266 scored 1,484. "We were shocked," said John Gatt of Via's technology support team. "Intel processor reps are probably dying for us to get it out because it will increase sales for the P4, but their chip set reps and motherboard reps won't be happy at all."
Via is the first third-party chip set maker to roll out its P4 chip set for the mainstream PC market. The company said it will ship the P4X266 in August, with or without a fresh license with Intel.
Via's closest competitors, SiS and ALi, already have P4 bus licenses but have not rolled out demos of their DDR core logic. ALi's standalone P4 DDR chip set will roll out for production in the fourth quarter, with samples shipping in July or August. SiS will have production-ready silicon in September.
Yet all eyes will be on Intel. Chin Wu, president of ALi, said there's "no do ubt" Intel has to give motherboard makers the go-ahead on using DDR with the 845 before the memory standard can gain wide acceptance. They have influence. . . . They have to be there," he said.
Although the 845 is capable of supporting DDR, motherboard makers said they will wait for Intel's OK before shipping such boards.
As the P4 chip set field fills out in the second half, there undoubtedly will be greater potential for Intel to push a containment policy against Advanced Micro Devices' (AMD's) Athlon 4, as cheaper DDR memory drives down the cost of a P4 system without necessarily sacrificing performance. But AMD may get a slight boost from a newcomer to core logic.
One of the most watched introductions of the week at Computex was Nvidia's nForce Platform Processing Architecture, a high-performance chip set that the company said will deliver five times the graphics performance of any integrated chip set on the market.
The nForce will work exclusively with AMD's processors and use the compa ny's HyperTransport system bus with its 800-Mbit/s data-transfer speed. Nvidia said it currently has no plans to provide a Pentium-compatible chip set because it lacks a front-side bus license for the Pentium 4.
The nForce chip set is based on the GeForce2 graphics processor, includes integrated Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and applies a proprietary TwinBank Memory Architecture. The TwinBank consists of two independent 64-bit DDR memory controllers that work together to deliver up to 4.2 Gbytes/second of peak memory bandwidth.
Nvidia said this "crossbar" design means the memory controllers on the north bridge allow simultaneous and independent access to the system memory, improving throughput and reducing latency between the CPU or any other devices in the system as they vie for access to the memory.
"It's a very good design," said Peter Glaskowsky, a graphics analyst with MicroDesign Resources. "In addition to the advantages Nvidia describes, the dual banks also increase the number of open pages, wh ich makes page hits more likely. The ability to populate the two banks with different kinds and amounts of memory is a valuable convenience to OEMs and end users."
Although there is concern among a few motherboard makers, such as Asustek Computer Inc. and Gigabyte, over how stable the chip set will be, Nvidia has said the top five Taiwanese board makers will ship products in late August. "As far as smoothly running, we still have to work on that," said an Asustek spokesman. "But it's such a revolutionary change that some bugs should be expected."
MicroDesign's Glaskowsky said the product should be popular across a fairly wide range of system configurations.
Nvidia would not comment on pricing, but Glaskowsky estimated the range would be between $50 and $80. Eddie Lin, a product manager for Gigabyte, said the price for the DDR chip set is "still too high." But, he said, "the price will come down when it gets into higher mass production."
Nvidia said it is committed to core logic and will use its graphics skills to overcome its inexperience in chip sets. Nvidia gained experience in north bridge technology through its development of the integrated graphics processor for Microsoft's Xbox, but south bridge architecture was still relatively unfamiliar territory.
"One of the nice things about I/O and audio is that there isn't infinite headroom," said Jeff Fisher, vice president of worldwide sales for Nvidia. "With graphics there is infinite headroom, so that's actually the harder part of the problem. Every generation has to be at least twice if not 10 times faster than the previous generation."
A cloud still hangs over the introduction of the nForce. Via is mulling a lawsuit against Nvidia because it suspects the graphics chip maker infringed patents to design its south bridge. Some analysts have wondered if the potential lawsuit is a defensive move, to slow Nvidia's entrance into the core logic space, and say it is reminiscent of Intel's suit against Via, which was only settled last summer.
But Chen Wen-chi, Via's chief executive officer, said this assumption and comparison is unfounded. He said there is a possibility that Nvidia's south bridge technology was obtained via AMD, a close partner of Via.
Chen said he welcomes competition. "But don't use our [intellectual property] without our acknowledgement," he said. Chen added that he has not decided whether to take action because Via is still looking into the matter.