Industry Update - Q4-2004: AMD adds SSE3 Support, Intel's 925/915 not selling and moreby Anand Lal Shimpi on November 3, 2004 1:00 AM EST
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When Intel talks about aggressive ramps of new products there's usually little attention paid to exactly how they're going to achieve such an aggressive ramp in product shipments. For example, it turns out that the market for the 915 chipsets is very soft, so motherboard manufacturers are finding that selling LGA-775 motherboards equipped with the 865PE chipset is much more in tune with their customers' desires. The result of this is that shortages of 865PE chipsets will occur (such as the one going on right now) and the only way to get more 865PE stock is to not only purchase more 865PE chipsets, but also more 915 chipsets. It has to work this way because otherwise the motherboard makers would take much longer to transition to new platforms and that wouldn't do so well for chipset or even CPU sales, and since Intel holds the power in the business relationship things like this can happen.
The problem is that right now, no one wants 915 motherboards - they simply aren't selling well at all (925X boards aren't doing any better; I leave them out of this discussion because they are generally much lower volume boards, 915 is the mainstream product so that's what matters). The same isn't true for 865PE based motherboards according to the manufacturers, but in order to get more 865PE chipsets they must buy more 915 chipsets, thus it makes more sense for them to just try to do whatever it takes to sell more 915 boards - rather than buy twice as many chipsets and still have poor sales.
Why is 915 selling so poorly? There are a few reasons for the current phenomenon:
1) The US and worldwide economies are still soft.
2) In its "optimal" configuration, the 915 chipset requires DDR2 memory and PCI Express graphics - both of which are currently more expensive than the technologies they replace.
3) PCI Express graphics cards are still relatively rare on the market. The highest end cards are all being bought up by the major OEMs, and there aren't enough entry level and midrange cards to meet demand. Graphics cards also aren't cheap, convincing users to upgrade their motherboard, CPU, graphics card and memory all at the same time is an expensive proposition.
4) Intel platforms aren't as attractive today as they were when the 865 was announced - AMD is much more competitive in price and performance.
5) Take all of the reasons above and keep in mind that even if you can make it through all of those issues, you still end up with the fact that Intel's 915 chipset doesn't really outperform the 865PE - the 915 quickly becomes one tough pill to swallow.
Help is on the way, but boosting 915 sales by the end of 2004 appears to be a lost cause. Soon there will be no more Socket-478 Intel CPUs left on the market, with the only remaining chips being LGA-775 based. Here's one of those aggressive ramping situations. By getting rid of Socket-478 Pentium 4 CPUs, Intel ensures that the only Pentium 4s you'll be able to buy are LGA-775 chips. When you buy a LGA-775 CPU you'll most definitely need a new motherboard, and with most LGA-775 motherboards being 915 based, there's a high likelihood that you'll find yourself buying a 915 motherboard as well. Then of course you'll need DDR2 and a PCI Express graphics card, so the memory and the graphics card makers benefit as well. But the chain reaction will take place tomorrow, as far as a solution today goes, unfortunately for the motherboard manufacturers - it's going to be a tough few months.
The next problem is that once 915 sales begin picking up next year, 915's replacement will be just around the corner - adding 1066MHz FSB and DDR2-667 support. I wouldn't be too surprised if Glenwood and Lakeport get pushed back to late in Q3 of 2005 rather than towards the middle of the year to at least somewhat better accommodate the motherboard manufacturers. Now you can begin to see why introducing a 1066MHz FSB variant of the 915 wasn't an option for Intel; with so much unsold 915 inventory, the motherboard manufacturers would be in a very difficult situation if they were given a 915E to sell as well.
On the AMD side things are much simpler; just about every single motherboard manufacturer has a nForce4 solution for AMD as their high end Athlon 64 platform. In fact, NVIDIA is quickly turning into the Intel of AMD chipset manufacturers, which is something we've been asking for ever since the introduction of the Athlon.
Although there is a lot of support for ATI's upcoming chipsets (you'll read about them here next week), almost all the manufacturers were saying that their ATI products will be Intel-only. The worry is that with such a strong competitor in the Athlon 64 realm that their ATI products won't sell; there's also a lack of confidence about ATI's ability to supply their South Bridges. Whether or not the fears are well founded, none of the motherboard manufacturers expressed much interest in an ATI Athlon 64 chipset just yet. We'll see what happens next week, there may just be a few changed minds.
VIA is still quite present on the Athlon 64 motherboard roadmaps, however the chipsets are only being used as entry-level or mid-range solutions, the high-end appears to be completely dominated by the nForce4. What's even more interesting is that this is without even talking about the nForce4 SLI chipset; the motherboard manufacturers appear to be quite happy with NVIDIA's latest chipset in any incarnation possible.
When we look at nForce4 SLI, as we mentioned in our most recent article, the chipset will only be shipping in two motherboards this year from ASUS and MSI. NVIDIA has been going around the US demonstrating the ASUS nForce4 SLI board, and our most recent article was done exclusively on MSI's board.
The rest of the motherboard manufacturers will have to wait until December at the earliest to begin talking about their SLI motherboards. And that's just talk, from what I've seen don't expect to see any nForce4 SLI boards from anyone other than ASUS and MSI until next year. NVIDIA would very much like for the nForce4 SLI to become their mid-range chipset, found in motherboards priced at the $150 mark instead of closer to $200, with more manufacturers making boards next year it may be that by the middle of 2005 you'll be able to pick up some bargain nForce4 SLI boards at $150 or less. Until then you can expect prices to be in the $180 - $200 range at best.
Desktop Pentium-M Motherboards
A few months ago I put Dothan (90nm Pentium M) to the test and compared it to an equivalently clocked Athlon 64 and a high-end Pentium 4. In general application performance, a 2GHz Pentium M actually outperformed the desktop chips and even in gaming and workstation applications the Pentium M was competitive, all while running at significantly lower temperatures with much lower power requirements.
The problem is that the Pentium M, although electrically uses the same bus as the Pentium 4, has a completely different pin-out, preventing it from being used in desktop Pentium 4 motherboards. There are also other voltage requirements that most desktop motherboards (and chipsets) cannot meet that prevent the Pentium M from being used as well.
It didn't take long for motherboard manufacturers to put a mobile chipset and a compatible socket on a motherboard and thus while in Taiwan I saw two of the first shipping desktop Pentium M motherboards with AGP support.
AOpen and DFI both have motherboards ready, and are both targeting the Japanese market first. DFI built their board for a particular customer and is planning an enthusiast level board based on the desktop 915 chipset with some overclocking features in the near future. We know that Shuttle has been working on a SFF based on the Pentium M for quite some time now but have yet to see anything from them.
While Pentium M processors are still priced significantly higher than desktop CPUs, the value is in the lower power consumption and cooler operation - so in '05 there may be another, quite attractive option for cool and quiet PCs.