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Use the nForce, Intel

In Socket 478 days, there was really only one chipset choice if you wanted to build a performance Pentium 4 system – Intel’s 875P, aka Canterwood. But the decision is not so clear-cut since the move to LGA775. The mainstream Intel chipsets, 915 and 925, have met with a lacklustre response to say the least. Even the 925XE update, with its 1,066MHz memory support, hasn’t whipped up much excitement.

"...the downsides of the Netburst architecture have become truly apparent"

Some of this is due to Intel’s continuing inability to overcome the AMD competition in the benchmarks hardware enthusiasts are most interested in, ie games. But Intel has also faced little real competition in the chipset business since it launched 865 and 875 nearly two years ago. The company wasn’t the first to the dual-channel DDR party, primarily because of its extended and abortive flirtation with Rambus, but when it did start to offer the technology, it did so with aplomb. Intel also finally offered decent overclocking potential with 875P, at last recognising the burgeoning enthusiast community. I’d even go so far to say that Canterwood was a classic chipset up there with 440BX. Its Xeon support has even kick-started a burgeoning dual-CPU overclocking community, primarily revolving around 2cpu.com.

Since moving to LGA775, though, the downsides of the Netburst architecture have become truly apparent. Initial motherboards based on 925X exhibited all sorts of problems for overclockers. Much of this was focused around the inability to lock the PCI Express bus, and an unofficial 10 per cent overclock ceiling deliberately implemented by Intel. But Prescott Pentium 4s are also pretty hard to push past 4GHz, which is somewhat measly when you’re starting at 3.6GHz. If you’re planning on using advanced cooling such as refrigeration to push the clocks to their max, 875P and a Socket 478 CPU is still the partnership of choice. Sadly, this means missing out on advancements like PCI Express and DDR2, although the latter has yet to prove its worth for the enthusiast community.

At last, though, Intel has some heavyweight competition for its latest PCI Express core logic. No sooner had details of ATi’s RS400 Pentium 4 chipset leaked out, when an official announcement arrived that Nvidia has finally settled its differences with Intel over the licensing of the latter’s FSB technology. Nvidia has had working Intel chipsets ever since Nforce saw the light of day – it’s the chipset in the Xbox, after all, which is basically a Pentium III 733 PC. But Intel had refused to let Nvidia use the Pentium 4 FSB technology, in much the same way as it has struggled with VIA until earlier this year. This does make you wonder whether 875P was so good because nobody else was allowed to produce anything better.

It seems that all the wrangling is over, though. Sometime in 2005, there will be credible alternatives to both 915 and 925. ATi’s RS400 is shaping up to be decent potential competition for 915G. The Radeon X300 may make a rather poor graphics card upgrade. But as integrated graphics go it can certainly show Intel’s misnamed Extreme Graphics 2 a clean set of heels, if benchmarks reported on the Inquirer are to be believed (see here for more details on this).

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James Morris


And Nvidia’s forthcoming Pentium 4 spin of Nforce 4 could well be the chipset hardcore enthusiasts have been looking for. As Bit-tech reported recently (see this thread), SLI support will definitely be on the menu. Even though Intel got the initial press for the new era of dual graphics card with its Tumwater chipset, few of us are going to buy a £4,000 dual Xeon PC you can’t even overclock, just for gaming. Instead, Nforce 4 SLI plus an Athlon 64 FX has been shaping up to be the high-end entertainment platform of choice. Intel has clearly realised the quickest way to compete was to give Nvidia the chance to port Nforce 4 SLI over to the Pentium 4.

"Canterwood was a classic chipset up there with 440BX"

How much this will really help Intel – or if it needs helping at all – is a different question entirely. SLI may be grabbing the headlines, but it’s a bit like the Ford Focus RS on the front cover of your favourite car mag. You love to read about it, but most people are going to end up with a more sedate and practical vehicle, better suited to the weekly shopping. The same is true of the overclocking limits of 915 and 925 – your slipper-wearing dad won’t even notice when he buys his Packard Bell from PC World.

Whilst the new ATi and Nvidia chipsets certainly look like a step in the right direction, for the enthusiast they probably won’t be enough to put Intel back at the top of the benchmark charts. With the cancellation of the 4GHz Pentium 4, we’ll have to wait until the next generation of Intel CPUs for that possibility, and that could well mean a move to dual-core. It still remains to be seen if the higher frequency LGA 775 Prescotts are capable of the stellar overclocks of their Northwood predecessors, given the right chipset support, but it’s unlikely. Perhaps Intel should license the rest of its Pentium 4 processor technology to another company, so they could have a crack at it. I wonder if AMD would be interested…