Rambus-powered PCs in the works

PC makers are gearing up to introduce new desktops based on Intel's 820 chip set

The twice-delayed chip set, whose announcement is expected in two weeks, will be at the core of new high-end PC models from a number of original equipment makers. Compaq, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, are all expected to support the chip set. They will likely announce these models in tandem with Intel's 820 announcement.

Compaq, for example, will announced Deskpro desktops and workstations with the chip set and Intel's new memory technology, Dynamic Rambus DRAM, according to sources. Pricing for the new PCs is not available.

The new chip set is significant for Intel because it replaces the ageing 440BX chip set, which offers a 100MHz system bus and support for synchronous dynamic RAM. For end users, the 820's faster 133MHz bus and Rambus support promises to increase performance of high-end PCs.

Therein also lies the problem. Rambus memory has been criticised for what will be a high initial cost for only a small overall improvement in performance. At the same time, Rambus has been at the root of both 820 delays.

The 820's introduction was pushed back from June until September due to problems getting the technology into volume production. It was delayed again due to memory errors that cropped up when three Rambus memory modules -- or RIMMs -- were used on the same motherboard.

"Potentially (820) is much faster (than 440BX), clock-rate wise. But it does work differently, so it depends on the applications," said Mike Feibus, principle at Mercury Research. Applications that include intense graphics or streaming video, for example, would see the greatest improvements.

Intel would not comment on timing for the release of the 820. However, "We expect to introduce 820 before the end of the year," said spokesman Dan Francisco. "We're completing final validation and we've made significant progress."

The new PCs will utilize only two RIMMs, sources said, instead of the planned three RIMMs. This is in keeping with the fix Intel said it was exploring when it announced the chip set would be delayed last September. Depending on the density of memory used, each slot can hold up to 256MB of memory.

One corporate information technology manager who has conducted extensive testing of Rambus memory in HP, Dell and Gateway desktops, along with motherboards from several manufacturers, told ZDNN that he discovered no errors with any of the machines or the boards.

Rambus was reportedly at the heart of another reported anomaly, this one a caching error seen with 733MHz Pentium III chips, the 820 chip and early Rambus modules. This anomaly, first reported in the German magazine c't, happens only when the older Rambus modules are used and should not effect end users who purchase new PCs with the latest Rambus modules, Intel officials said.

"With newer Rambus modules everything works fine," confirmed the IT manager who tested the 733MHz Pentium III and 820 with Rambus memory. "It seems that only the combination between Camino-Board and older Rambus modules is causing the cache error."

Intel chose Rambus over Double Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic RAM, another next-generation memory technology, because it believes that Rambus will offer greater performance in the form of data bandwidth. Greater bandwidth allows the PC to move data in and out of the processor faster, which translates into overall greater performance.

The 820 also supports a 100MHz bus and 100MHz SDRAM as well, should a PC maker decide to configure a PC that way. Intel has also said that it will support 133MHz SDRAM in a chip set due out next year.

Meanwhile, VIA Technologies Apollo Pro 133 and Apollo Pro 133A chip sets are being used widely by PC makers, including HP, IBM and Micron Electronics. They will soon be offered by Compaq, sources said. The VIA chip sets support a 133MHz bus, along with 133MHz SDRAM, which will make for a less expensive PC than one with the 820, Rambus combination, the companies say. HP, for example, will offer the chip set in a high-end Pavilion PC, model 8595c, later this month. With a 733MHz Pentium III chip, 128MB of RAM, a 32GB hard drive and a DVD-ROM drive, it will cost $2,399 (£1,463).

Intel says, however, that the company is no longer under license to sell chip sets for Pentium III processors. VIA was granted a contract to licensed the P6 bus, the system bus used with Pentium III chips, but later violated the terms of the license by marketing products that were not covered under the P6 license. Intel revoked the license after negotiations were cut off and then sued VIA for breach of contract. The company filed additional related suits against VIA on Monday in the United Kingdom and Singapore.

Separate suits were filed against First International Computer and KMS Components in the U.K., as well as A Quest Computer, Jet Systems and Jetway Information in Singapore. Intel filed suit against FIC America and Everex in the United States. The suits are separate in nature, focusing on system level patents for memory and graphics, according to Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy.

"The final approach here, in all cases, is part of our obligation to our shareholders to protect out intellectual property," he said.

Industry observers, however, said the suits may be related to the litigation against VIA.

Meanwhile, Advanced Micro Devices, Intel's chip rival, will support both Rambus and DDR memory; however, it appears that the company will support DDR first, sometime next year. AMD's fastest Athlon chip is now available at 700MHz. The company couples that with a 200MHz system bus.