Rambus finally arrives

Twice-delayed dynamic RAM will be released on Monday with Intel's 840 chipset

It wasn't supposed to be. But Direct Rambus Dynamic RAM will make its debut Monday -- along with Intel 840, a new chipset for workstations and low-end servers.

Rambus, Intel's new memory technology, has been controversial, suffering setbacks in June and again in September when the chip maker delayed the introduction of its 820 chipset for high-performance desktop PCs.

The technology was chosen as the next-generation system memory for Intel-based PCs because of its high bandwidth (600MHz, 700MHz and 800MHz versions will be available), but was criticized for not offering consumers enough bang for their buck after lower-than-expected performances in initial tests. Rambus will cost more than the 100MHz and 133MHz synchronous dynamic RAM (SDRAM) technologies that are in use now.

Rambus's long-awaited debut comes now because, on Monday, Intel will begin shipping the first 840 chipsets. (On that same day the company will also introduce a truckload of new Pentium III chips based on its 0.18 micron process technology, known as Coppermine.)

The 840 is very much like the 820 but adds dual-processor support, dual memory channels and dual PCI. The 840, for example, offers a 133MHz system bus and support for 4X AGP. It also adds AGP Pro 50 support, which provides for the use of larger amounts of graphics memory and faster geometry processors and frame buffers. This all boils down to better graphics performance for workstations. A number of PC makers are expected to announce workstations that utilise the 840 chip set in combination with new high-end Pentium III and Pentium III Xeon chips.

Sources said those vendors include: Hewlett-Packard, which on Monday will announce the new dual-processor-capable Kayak XU-800 workstation; IBM, which will announce a similar model in its Intellistation M-Pro series; and Dell, which will offer the chip set in its Precision workstation line. The new Pentium III Xeon chips expected to be announced Monday are the 667MHz, 700MHz and 733MHz versions, sources said.

The 820 chip set has been delayed since the week before its intended 27 September, but is expected to ship this quarter. The 820 chip set is significant, due to its performance-enhancing capabilities. Intel says the 820 -- with its 133MHz system bus and support for Rambus Dynamic RAM -- will significantly increase overall system performance over its current desktop chipset standard, the 440BX, which has a 100MHz system bus and supports 100MHz SDRAM.

Intel has not yet communicated with PC makers about a new ship date for the 820, a company spokesman said on Wednesday. New desktop Pentium III chips, shipping on Monday from Intel, are expected in a range from 533MHz to 733MHz. While Intel grapples with Rambus, it will also add support for 133MHz SDRAM starting next year. The 820 also handles 100MHz SDRAM.

Intel's closest competitor, AMD, says it too will support Rambus memory, but seems to be focused on another alternative, called Double Data Rate SDRAM. Under development now, the memory technology will push SDRAM speeds up to 266MHz. AMD has said it will up the bus speed of its Athlon system bus from 200MHz to 266MHz next year, and implement support for the 266MHz DDR SDRAM in high-end applications of its Athlon processor. Athlon is available now at 700MHz and supports a 200MHz system bus.