Intel plan: New chip sets, faster PCs

They're not the glamour products of the semiconductor business, but Intel's new chip sets promise a performance boost for consumers
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor

Intel is readying a summer blockbuster of its own: a new chip set that will crank up the performance of value and mid-range desktop PCs.

Due June 19, according to sources, Intel's new 815 chip set will yield higher overall system performance for consumers, while granting PC makers more flexibility when it comes to designing systems.

Chip sets exist to aid a computer's processor, performing jobs such as delivering data and controlling system components.

For consumers, the 815's most important new feature is support of 133MHz synchronous dynamic RAM. Because PC133 memory's data bandwidth is higher than that of the PC100 memory now supported by Intel chip sets, it should boost PC performance. PC 100 offers bandwidth of 800MB per second, while PC133 delivers 1GB per second.

The chip set will come in two flavors, called 815 and 815E. The 815E adds Intel's new ICH2 memory controller hub, which includes an ATA 100 disk drive interface, integrated LAN (local area network) and an additional Universal Serial Bus port, sources said.

The new chip set will also support 66MHz, 100MHz and 133MHz bus speeds. The system bus provides a data pipeline between the processor and system memory, among other components.

Most PC makers, it is expected, will go with the 815E chip set over the 815.

Meanwhile, Intel will introduce on Monday a new version of its 820 chip set, called 820E, sources said. The 820E is a minor update, adding only the IHC2 hub. PC makers shipping Rambus Dynamic RAM memory are expected to add the new chip set into production without fanfare.

How much more speed will faster PC133 memory yield? Once source suggested that it would offer the equivalent of moving up one notch in processor clock speed. Therefore a PC with a 667MHz Pentium III chip and PC133 memory would be as fast as a PC equipped with a 700MHz Pentium III and PC100 memory.

Intel officials would not comment on specifics. However, a spokesman said, "The 815 chip set is on schedule and will launch this quarter."

The 815 also adds increased graphics performance, moving to 4X AGP from 2X AGP. The 4X AGP had previously only been available on the more expensive 820 product.

When it comes to processors, the 815 is designed to work with both Celeron and Pentium III chips. However, Intel is recommending that PC makers go with recent Coppermine-based processors when building PCs using the chip set. Coppermine is the code-name for the processor core used by the Pentium III chip, running at 533MHz and faster, as well as Celeron chips at 566MHz and faster. Intel's design guidelines do not prevent PC makers from pairing the chip set with older Pentium III and Celeron chips, but essentially do so at their own risk.

Where PC makers are concerned, the 815 will create the opportunity to simplify their product lines, saving money.

While the 815 is based on the same architecture as the Intel 810, 810E and 820, the newest chip set is more flexible, supporting a wider range of PC configurations, from low- to high-priced systems. This is because the 815 includes an integrated graphics-processing engine, similar to that of the 810 chip set, but also allows for the attachment of an AGP graphics card.

Thus a PC maker could offer a lower-cost PC, using a lower clock speed Pentium III or Celeron chip and no graphics card in the same line with more expensive models that offer graphics cards and faster Pentium III processors. Standardizing a single chip set for mainstream PCs would allows PC makers to save money. However, it is unlikely that the majority of PC makers will do this from the beginning. PC makers are moving in this direction. Compaq, as reported by ZDNet News, is looking tap 815 to simplify its DeskPro line of desktop PCs.

Compaq, along with Dell and IBM are expected to announce support for the 815. Systems are expected to begin to appear later this summer.

This move would also please corporations, whose information technology staff generally likes to have all of their PCs based on the same hardware, in order to make them easier to support.

The 815 chip will also be significant to notebook users also be Intel's first major new mobile chip set in some time. The chip set, later in the year, will be used as a mobile chipset.

Analysts expect the 815 chip set to be well-adopted, because it fills a role as a mainstream chip set. It will, for example, eliminate the need for PC makers and motherboard makers to offer the 820 chip set with SDRAM. On the other hand, it will provide higher system performance than Intel's 810 or 810E chip sets.

Despite its expected popularity, Intel does not anticipate the 815 to take over the top place in its chip set lineup. Intel still believes performance seekers will choose PCs based on its 820 chip set and Rambus Dynamic RAM.

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