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VIA PT880

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Since the end of VIA’s chipset lawsuit with Intel there has been little surge in the uptake of VIA solutions for the Pentium 4. Of course VIA hasn’t produced the most exhilarating chipsets for the Pentium 4 platform which could account for the state of play. The PT880 is however set to change all this with support for Dual Channel DDR memory and a host of other tweaks to the chipset to improve the performance.

VIA has dubbed its Dual Channel memory controller DualStream64 and according to VIA it offers enhanced data prefetch protocol and improved memory branch predictions. But the feature that makes it stand out is the asynchronous bus design, which allows you to run a wide mix of CPU and memory speeds that none of its competitors can equal.

The remaining improvements are fairly minor, such as a faster V-Link bus at 1066Mbit/sec between the northbridge and the southbridge. This enables improved bandwidth for S-ATA drives and high-speed USB 2.0 devices and should allow for less congestion when large amounts of data are being processed.

There is of course built in support for 5.1-channel audio, but VIA also has an option for 8-channel audio. Integrated 10/100Mbit networking is also an option, while VIA also offers a separate gigabit Ethernet controller, but this is using the PCI bus which could possibly slow down other PCI devices. The VT8237 southbridge has support for S-ATA and together with an optional Silicon image S-ATA PHY there is support for up to four S-ATA devices. The VIA S-ATA controller features RAID support, but it’s limited to RAID 0, 1 or 0+1, but this is fairly normal for most integrated RAID controllers.

The PT880 chipset does of course support the latest 800MHz FSB Intel Pentium 4 processors as well as the new Prescott core Pentium 4. But it’s also backwards compatible with older 400 and 533MHz bus speed processors. In terms of memory support the PT880 supports PC2100, PC2700 and PC3200 DDR SDRAM which are currently all the ‘standard’ types of DDR memory available.

The feature set is impressive, but not out of this world and Intel provides similar specifications on its own chipsets. But where VIA should be nosing ahead is in the value stakes, as VIA chipsets have traditionally been cheaper than Intel’s. Low prices are all well and good, but PC hardware rarely sells unless the performance is solid and even though the motherboard tested here is a VIA reference sample, the numbers look very impressive. Mind you, reference boards are almost always faster than production boards so the test results should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The benchmark numbers are nonetheless impressive and the PT880 chipset sits in-between the Intel 865 and 875 offerings in terms of performance. This is very impressive, especially as this is VIA’s first attempt to produce a dual channel chipset for the Pentium 4. If you compare the scores of the PT880 reference board to those in the motherboard group test you’ll find that it’s only in SYSmark 2002 that Intel has the lead. In both PCMark 2002 and 3DMark 2001 the VIA board is at the top of the charts. As we’ve changed some of our benchmarks since the group test some of the results are not comparable. The PT880 reference board was also benchmarked with a Crucial Radeon 9800Pro graphics card to show off the potential gaming performance. The results again came out very strong and there is very little to complain about in terms of general performance.

There is however one issue and that’s availability. So far there are very few motherboard manufacturers that have taken on the new VIA chipset and even fewer that sell them in the UK. This should hopefully be remedied in the near future and looking at the motherboard manufacturers’ websites big names like MSI, Gigabyte and Abit have taken on the new chipset.

Verdict

The VIA PT880 is a big step forward for VIA, but currently the uptake is slow and only time will tell if it’s a success or not. The performance and features are there, but will end users choose VIA over Intel?

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