We always like to look back at things we have said in the past and use that as a starting point to introducing new technology.  Keeping in line with what we’ve done historically, here is an excerpt from the conclusion to our first review of the Intel Pentium 4 from November 20, 2000:

“While it's a good idea for Intel to attempt to take the price of RDRAM out of the picture by bundling two sticks with each boxed CPU, this isn't a true solution to the problem. The solution that needs to be implemented is that the Pentium 4 needs a DDR SDRAM platform, preferably one from Intel (VIA hasn't always had the best memory performance) and it needs one before it's too late. According to Intel, the Brookdale chipset (DDR SDRAM for the Pentium 4) won't be out until the first quarter of 2002, by that time even Dell will be begging for AMD chips if there is no DDR chipset for the Pentium 4. If Intel doesn't come through with one it seems like it will be up to VIA, luckily their DDR memory controller is already sampling in Apollo Pro 266 chipsets so it’s mainly a matter of licensing the bus from Intel and implementing it in a North Bridge design.”

There are a couple of points made in the above paragraph that require some digestion.  First of all, the price of RDRAM has come down considerably since we originally published that statement.  It still has yet to achieve a price parity with SDRAM or DDR SDRAM, but it’s much cheaper than it used to be.  In spite of this, it costs approximately twice as much to purchase RDRAM as it does to purchase SDRAM/DDR SDRAM; this is especially true because of Crucial’s very aggressive pricing of DDR SDRAM.  One competing manufacturer informed us that they have to produce four times as much memory now to maintain the same profits from before the aggressive Crucial price drops.

Secondly, VIA has continued their improvement process over this past year.  Although the KT266 chipset was plagued with problems initially, today it is a viable solution for many users.  The KT266’s DDR memory controller is working perfectly fine, and although it doesn’t offer the highest level of performance, it is still respectable. 

Third, Intel’s i845-D (Brookdale with DDR SDRAM support) is still on track to be introduced in the first quarter of 2002.  In spite of sluggish Pentium 4 sales Intel has not pulled the 845-D in any closer.  Even if they did, with only DDR200 (PC1600) SDRAM support the i845-D wouldn’t offer that much of an advantage over the regular i845 with PC133 SDRAM.  Intel has yet to qualify DDR266 (PC2100) for use with their platforms. 

Fourth, in order for VIA to enter the Pentium 4 chipset market they will have to have a license for the Pentium 4 bus.  Intel was willing to grant VIA a license for the bus, but at very high costs.  Our sources gave us estimates of between $10 and $20 per chipset in licensing fees.  VIA’s chipsets rarely sell for more than $40, with $30 being the sweet spot.  With Intel taking 25% - 50% of that for licensing fees, it’s definitely cost prohibitive for VIA to enter that market.  Luckily VIA has another alternative, because of their acquisition of S3 Graphics VIA claims to have inherited licensing rights to Intel’s buses which were originally given to S3. 

The culmination of those four points has surfaced today in the form of VIA’s first Pentium 4 chipset, the P4X266.  What’s so special about this chipset and what’s so irritating to a handful of people at Intel is that the P4X266 does not support Rambus DRAM like Intel’s i850; rather, the chipset is designed for use with DDR SDRAM.

Today it’s time to find out whether RDRAM’s incredible bandwidth is necessary for the Pentium 4 to perform well or if DDR SDRAM is more than enough. 

The P4X266

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