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VIA launches PCI Express chipsets for Pentium 4

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Much later than initially anticipated, VIA has launched its latest chipsets that provide PCI Express support for Pentium 4 processors. Having had several meetings with VIA in the past year, I was originally told that these chipsets would launch before its AMD solution was ready, but somewhere along the line, VIA changed its plans. There are no less than three chipsets launched today and these are the PT880 Pro, PT894 and PT894 Pro.

Starting with the PT880 Pro, we have a chipset that is quite different from the PT880 as it not only adds support for PCI Express graphics, but it can also accept DDR2 memory all the way up to 667MHz. It also adds support for bus speeds of 533, 800 and 1066MHz. The unique feature of the PT880 Pro is that it supports native AGP 8x support as well as PCI Express and indeed, the sample board that VIA supplied to TrustedReviews featured an AGP 8x and a x16 PCI Express slot. VIA’s implementation of PCI Express differs from Intel’s and the reference board has no additional PCI Express slots. The chipset design does allow for a further two x1 slots to be added to future board revisions however, once the new VT8251 south bridge is launched, but this is still a little while away.

Although I only had the reference board for a short time, I still managed to run a fairly comprehensive set of benchmarks on the board, with both an AGP and a PCI Express graphics card, though the only card available to us in both AGP and PCI Express was one based on the nVidia 660GT. Interestingly, the productivity benchmarks scored higher with the AGP card in place, while the gaming benchmarks scored higher with the PCI Express card.

Another interesting aspect is that this board supports what VIA refers to as Dual GFX, which enables you to use one AGP and one PCI Express card at the same time. This means that you can have four monitor outputs for a fairly low cost, although you won’t gain any performance in games and the graphics cards have to be supported by the same drivers, or it won’t work.

It is still early days and the sample board from VIA didn’t have the final spin of the chipset. I was also told that it required a small modification to work at 1066MHz bus, but this is something that won’t be an issue with production boards. Another issue, is that the reference board only supported DDR memory, so there are no results with DDR2 in this preview, but as this is a manufacturing option, there might be retails boards with DDR only support.

Looking at the scores from the PT880 Pro board, all of the test results are pretty much in line with what you would get from an Intel 915 chipset based motherboard. This is not bad for a chipset targeted at those interested in an easy upgrade path and at system integrators looking at a flexible solution that can adapt to price changes in the memory and graphics card market. Performance should hopefully improve with the final spin of the chipset, especially once mature drivers replace the beta drivers used here.

If you’re interested in the performance of the PT880 Pro and the PT890, please have a look at the graphs. However, as this is a preview these results are only to be used for reference and do not necessarily indicate the performance of final production boards.

The PT894 is a native PCI Express only chipset, supporting bus speeds of 533, 800 and 1066MHz. As with the PT880 Pro it supports DDR and DDR2 memory, but again the reference board from VIA only featured DDR support. The PT894 features support for a x16 PCI Express slot as well as two x1 slots and a further two could be added to future versions when the VT8251 south bridge is launched.

The PT894 will be VIA’s medium to high-end solution and the reference board VIA supplied for testing featured a VIA 802.11g wireless controller, but as VIA didn’t supply any drivers, I was unable to test it. VIA seems to be branching out in several new directions every time it launches a new core chipset and with the wireless market expected to grow at an enormous rate over the next couple of years, this seems like a worthwhile investment by VIA. As you’ll see from the graph, Far Cry wouldn’t run on the PT894, though we are sure that this is just a side effect of receiving an early PT894 sample and that the problem will be resolved on the final silicon.

The Pro version of the PT894 will be the first chipset from VIA to support Dual GFX for PCI Express, which adds the option of using two graphics cards simultaneously, although this is not like nVidia’s SLI as it will not combine the performance of the two cards. However, should nVidia release a driver compatible with VIA’s chipset, it would in theory be possible to run SLI on the PT894 Pro. As with the PT880 Pro you would have to use two cards that are supported by the same drivers, which rules out using one nVidia and one ATI card.

Overall it looks like VIA is challenging Intel head-on with its latest range of chipsets and the good news is that VIA is expecting to sell them far cheaper than Intel’s solutions. Considering the price increase of the current generation of chipsets from Intel compared to the previous generation, we could see a swing to VIA, especially for price sensitive solutions. So far though, there has been little news of who will use these new chipsets and the only tip off so far is that Gigabyte will be launching a product.

Overall, I was impressed by these new products from VIA, although performance increases from the final versions would certainly help sway the argument to move away from Intel. This aside, the new features ensure that the three new chipsets are excellent, if somewhat late, additions to VIA’s chipset family.

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