had just became aware, after working with a fast P3 on a VIA chipset, and reading up about
the problems with AMD's Irongate chipset that only Intel seems capable of making good
chipsets. Ok, it's not that extreme, but Intel DOES make the best chipsets. But now, Intel
is killing off the BX chipset in favor of i820, a solid chipset, but one which requires
very very very very (very) expensive RAMBUS RAM to work well. This leaves the consumer
searching for a fast P3 system in somewhat of a catch-22 situation. Either go with a good
chipset, the i820 and pay a premium of around $1000, or pay no premium and go to a poor
performing VIA chipset. Even if one opts to ditch the P3 and go for the Athlon, there are
still problems; the AMD Irongate chipset has problems with AGP 2x. What it all boils down
to is that chipsets are making a larger impact than ever. Unfortunately, it's a bad
Chipsets, Only Intel?
Whether it's because Intel is the one who designed AGP and
most of the other protocols used in x86 systems or not; Intel remain the leader in high
performance chipsets. All Slot 1 chipsets not released by Intel were and still are
failures in the performance market. For example, the VIA AGP2x chipset (Apollo 693) took
the performance of a P3/800 from around 100fps in Quake3/640x480 (w/GeForce DDR) to under
53. With various BIOS hacks, the performance went up to ~67 which is still far from the
target of around 100 and the stability compromises of the "hacked" BIOS are
serious. In business applications and similar non-intensive computations, the non-Intel
chipsets can compete with Intel counterparts but the purpose is lost; high performance
systems aren't used to word process.
Ditching the P3, Still Problems
Even if one chooses to go with an Athlon solution over the
P3/Coppermine, the only chipset readily available now, the AMD Irongate chipset cannot
handle AGP properly. This causes cards to resort to AGP 1x "command mode" which
somewhat slows down the card. Realize that AGP 1x "command mode" is NOT AGP 1x,
textures and other data is still retrieved at AGP 2x speed. However, even AGP 1x
"command mode" still has a problem, and that problem becomes evident when we
look at what's wrong with the Irongate chipset.
Essentially, the Irongate chipset has a bug in it which
corrupts data/etc. sent through the AGP bus. In the case of things such as texture data,
the number of corrupt bytes is very small; in actual gameplay, one or two pixels which are
not what they are supposed to be will never be noticed. However, if a graphic command is
passed through wrong, the effects can cause even a system crash. For this reason, BIOS
fixes for Irongate chipsets play it safe and resort to AGP 1x when sending commands. It is
interesting to note that once applications begin to make extensive use of T&L, the
sparse data errors can cause hugely noticeable effects, for example, entire polygons may
be severely skewed or completely missing if simply one bit is flipped. Hopefully VIA's
recently released Athlon chipset will bring about good things for Athlon.
[UPDATE: Irongate DOES NOT support AGP 4x ... Sorry about
the confusion ... should be AGP 2x ]
And Now We Can't Count On Intel....
So, Intel can make chipsets, but, unfortunately, they have
ditched the BX chipset and are now fully promoting RAMBUS, and only RAMBUS, for the high
end. Unfortunately, the price premium is way to extreme to even be considered by 99.9% of
all mainstream users. This isn't to say i820 is a bad chipset; quite the contrary, i820
benchmarks have shown that it is faster than BX and much faster than non-Intel solutions
in CPU intensive graphical applications, a subset of the few types of applications which
really need top of the line power. Regardless, the price makes it unattractive and recent
attempts at using SDRAM on i820 based solutions have been largely unsuccessful, both in
terms of performance and stability. The most interesting part about this whole deal is
that Intel is shooting themselves in the foot, temporarily at least. i820 won't be selling
huge quantities anytime soon, especially since most systems manufacturers have opted to
use much cheaper SDRAM based solutions which use chipsets not manufactured by Intel. OEMs
would like to use BX based solutions but the BX is discontinued and getting large
quantities of them is impossible. While there are other solutions available from Intel
(other than i820), such as i810e, it is ludicrous to suggest running a $700 Coppermine
processor on a cheap i810e board intended for low end Celeron processors. The other
solution is i840 which absolutely screams in graphic apps but the cost is even crazier
And this leaves us where?
The end result is a giant loss for the enthusiast consumer.
Newer Coppermine systems are either extremely expensive or hampered in graphical
applications by a poor chipset while current Athlon solutions have troubles running boards
in AGP 2x mode, and who knows how fast the Athlon would be if Intel made the chipset.
Until RAMBUS ram goes down in price or until there is a true quality chipset for Athlon
processors (the latest VIA looks like a step in the right direction), we're left with
nothing which works right. Maybe in a several months we'll see a reasonably priced
platform, which, ummm, works? Let's hope so.