Choices in the marketplace
At present, consumers interested in purchasing a system based on Intel's Pentium 4 processor are left with one platform to choose from: Intel's 850 chipset with RDRAM. It can be argued that this lack of alternative solutions has held Pentium 4 sales at bay to date.
For instance, when the Pentium 4 launched last November, the selection of Pentium 4 motherboards was extremely limited: only Gigabyte, MSI, and ASUS had products on the market, and prices were well in excess of $200 on the retail market. In addition, RDRAM memory was considerably more expensive than other memory types such as SDRAM or DDR SDRAM.
Since this time, component prices have fallen dramatically. Take the Pentium 4 1.4GHz and 1.5GHz for example. When both CPUs were launched, they were priced at $644 and $819 in quantities of 1,000 respectively. Today, the 1.5GHz Pentium 4 is priced at $256 and the 1.4GHz P4 at $193. Even Intel's fastest Pentium 4 processor (1.8GHz) is officially sold for $562. Prices in the motherboard and memory markets have changed drastically as well, with prices on both components roughly half of what they were at the beginning of the year -- what a difference a few months can make!
Taking the P4 mainstream
Despite this, Intel wants to take the price point of Pentium 4 systems even lower. While previous roadmaps had the transition from Pentium III to Pentium 4 taking place in the first half of 2002, Intel's been steadily pushing that crossover point to the beginning of the year, if not sooner. Besides component price cuts, another way to accomplish this is to increase the number of platforms available for the Pentium 4. After all, alternative platforms bring additional choices (although your economics professor would define these as supply), and with this increased competition prices naturally fall.
One alternative to Intel's 850 chipset comes from the boys in blue themselves. Chances are you've already seen this chipset mentioned on the web (and this site) before: Intel's 845 chipset. Formerly known as Brookdale (its codename during development), 845 bonds the Pentium 4 to SDRAM memory. While SDRAM is clearly the industry's predominant memory type, it only offers 1.06GB/sec of bandwidth to the processor. With the Pentium 4's blazing-fast 400MHz bus topping out at up to 3.2GB/sec, we've got a major discrepancy here. On one end we have a high-speed 1.3GHz+ CPU churning out instructions faster than a Porsche 911 Turbo and on the other we have an aging memory type that's struggling to keep up. Clearly the memory becomes the bottleneck, resulting in decreased system performance.
Exactly how much slower will 845 be in comparison to 850? While we can't get you the exact numbers just yet, Intel's General Manager of Intel Architecture Group, Paul Otellini, gave us a hint of its performance during Intel's 2001 New York analyst meeting: "the performance differences between SDRAM and RDRAM or even DDR at the kinds of frequencies we'll be shipping in the latter part of this year is not that dramatic, we're talking about 10% or less difference. As the frequency goes up to 2GHz and above, there becomes a much more dramatic difference between SDRAM and RDRAM, it really starts pulling away…the lack of RDRAM would constrain the performance of the bus of the Pentium 4 at speeds above 2 [GHz]"
To make up for this, Intel's 845 chipset also natively supports faster DDR SDRAM. With up to 2.1GB/sec of bandwidth, DDR SDRAM offers a considerable improvement over conventional SDRAM. However, Intel doesn't plan on releasing an 845 product with DDR memory support enabled until the beginning of 2002.
Fortunately, there are a few other chipset manufacturers that plan on bringing DDR to the Pentium 4 before this year is out. One such company is VIA Technologies, and its product is the P4X266 chipset.