Summary: Besides GeForce FX, there were several other interesting things to see at Comdex this year. In our final Comdex 2002 article, we'll report on Hammer sightings (including one fully-running system that escaped AMD's censors!), NVIDIA's CK8 chipset for Hammer, GeForce4 Ti 4800, SiS' Rambus-based chipset, and one RADEON 9700 PRO card that doesn't need a fan for cooling! Read all about these topics and more in our latest article!
We were unable to show you much in our first Comdex report, which is why we wanted to go back and give you more details. The RADEON 9500 PRO launch and the Thanksgiving holiday all fell within a week of our return from Vegas so we were unable to sit down and look over our notes in more detail until now. The following is a wrap of everything else that took place that week; we hope you enjoy it!
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First things first, it was readily apparent that AMD’s “Hammer” line of CPUs is delayed, not due to infrastructure problems, but AMD is responsible for the holdup themselves. Practically every motherboard manufacturer that was present in Las Vegas had their Hammer motherboards on display, the only exception being ABIT. In fact, some manufacturers had multiple lines of Hammer boards available, some with VIA chipsets, others using AMD’s Hammer chipset. FIC was even demonstrating small form factor systems based on AMD’s Hammer platform!
And in case you were wondering, these were fully functional products, not units for show. AMD literally had several demonstration units shut down once they learned that motherboard manufacturers were displaying live Hammer demonstrations for onlookers. AMD never caught SiS’ Hammer demonstration system however, at least they hadn’t when we visited their suite on Wednesday.
The motherboard manufacturers were more than happy to tell us that their Hammer products were ready to enter full production; they were simply waiting on AMD to launch the processor. So if Comdex 2002 is any indication, the K8 launch should go considerably smoother than the K7 launch three years ago from an infrastructure perspective. Only a handful of manufacturers were willing to jump on the Athlon platform when it was initially launched in 1999.
As far as we can tell, the main holdup for Hammer appears to be clock speeds. The demonstration units most of the motherboard manufacturers were running were limited to 1.4GHz. AMD is shooting for a clock speed of 2GHz for Hammer, so it appears they’re still shy of that goal. AMD did announce the name for the desktop variant of Hammer – Athlon 64. However, Microsoft still hasn’t firmly committed to providing a 64-bit version of Windows upon Hammer’s launch, but we do know that it’s in the works.
AMD and Epic demonstrated a 64-bit version of Unreal Tournament 2003, which is a big endorsement of AMD’s 64-bit technology. The Unreal engine it’s based on will power many upcoming games that will be released next year, so AMD must be excited about the early adoption potential among gamers.
Of course, even if AMD’s 64-bit technology is slow to take off, Hammer will still outperform AMD’s current Athlon processors based on the K7 core in 32-bit applications, in part thanks to its integrated memory controller.
Speaking of the memory controller, AMD executives stated that they will not have a problem updating the controller to support the latest memory technologies as they become available. They did specify that they plan to stick with JEDEC approved standards rather than supporting the incremental speed grades that will be released over the course of next year.
SIDEBAR: We were told that a single programmer from Epic was able to convert UT2003 to 64-bit in just over a week.
400MHz Athlon bus?
Besides Hammer, there was quite a buzz surrounding NVIDIA’s demonstration of 400MHz nForce2 platforms. These systems were powered by CPUs utilizing AMD’s “Barton” core. Barton differs from today’s Athlon XP chips in that it contains 512K of L2 cache, twice the amount of cache present in today’s Athlon XP processors. By doubling the cache size, Barton will offer improved performance although the downside is that it will be more expensive for AMD to produce.
The big news from Intel was the release of its latest roadmap just a few days prior to Comdex. The most notable update was in its Springdale chipset, which is poised to bring dual channel DDR memory support down to the desktop level when it launches in the second quarter of next year. Intel’s current dual channel DDR chipset, E7205 or “Granite Bay” (which was launched last Monday) has always been intended for use in servers and workstations.
The “Ultimate” 9700 PRO?
If you recall back to our earlier RADEON 9700 PRO articles, we reported on the fact that third party manufacturers were utilizing ATI’s reference design for their 9700 PRO products. In fact, quite a few of them were simply buying their boards directly from ATI and selling them under their own brand name.
Unlike conventional 3D accelerators that utilize a heatsink/fan cooling setup to cool the graphics core, Sapphire has implemented a heat pipe solution for the Atlantis 9700 PRO Ultimate that doesn’t require a fan. As a result, the Atlantis 9700 PRO Ultimate Edition is completely silent, and since it lacks a fan, there’s one less part that can break on the card. In theory, you could say this increases its longevity. The Atlantis 9700 PRO Ultimate Edition also ships with a copy of Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Soldier of Fortune II – not a bad gaming bundle at all.
If the heat pipe technology used on the Atlantis 9700 PRO Ultimate Edition proves popular among gamers, Sapphire will implement the technology on its other cards. But as of right now, Sapphire has no official plans to offer the Ultimate Edition for anything beyond the RADEON 9700 PRO.
Besides the 9700 PRO Ultimate, Sapphire was also proud to announce that it has secured the rights to produce ALL-IN-WONDER cards here in North America (Hercules still has the exclusive rights in Europe). The company is hard at work at bringing an ALL-IN-WONDER 9000 PRO and 8500DV to market, with RADEON 9500/9700 PRO also being a possibility.
Besides these cards, Sapphire has a full lineup of video accelerators built on the RADEON family. Regardless if you want a PRO or non-PRO model, Sapphire delivers it. We have a feeling that their 9500 PRO, 9700, and 9700 PRO cards will be very popular among gamers this holiday season.
SIDEBAR: We used Sapphire’s RADEON 9500 in last week’s RADEON 9500 PRO review. It shipped with 128MB of memory.
GeForce4 Ti 4800
MSI was the only manufacturer with GeForce4 Ti 4800-SE cards on display at Comdex. Are you unfamiliar with the Ti 4800-SE designation? This is because NVIDIA is devoting most of its marketing efforts to GeForce FX now that it has been announced. As its name suggests, the GeForce4 Ti 4800-SE is nothing more than a GeForce4 with AGP 8X.
In the case of the GeForce4 Ti 4800-SE, this is simply a GeForce4 Ti 4400 with AGP 8X support; the clock speeds remain the same (275/275). The GeForce4 Ti 4800 is a GeForce4 Ti 4600 with AGP 8X.
As far as we can tell, this is mainly an OEM play to hold NVIDIA over until GeForce FX debuts next year. Perhaps we’ll see a few card manufacturers attempt to differentiate their Ti 4800 products by overclocking the core/memory but as of right now those plans aren’t in the works. With 9500 PRO now shipping to retailers and offering much of the same performance as the GeForce4 series it will be interesting to see how NVIDIA and its partners responds to this product. Are price cuts in NVIDIA’s future?
MSI also had a number of Pentium 4, Athlon XP, and Hammer motherboards on display at their meeting room in the Venetian. The board you’re probably interested in the most is their K7N2, which is based on the nForce2 chipset. Right now MSI is still trying to determine the proper way to market their nForce2 products, since they feel that KT400 is so similar. As you can see the board MSI had on display wasn’t as feature-packed as their KT400 offering, the KT4 Ultra. Features such as Serial ATA/RAID weren’t present on the board. In any case, MSI is putting the finishing touches on the K7N2, we’re fairly certain that they will be offering multiple variants, the boards should hit US shores in the next few weeks.
Also on display at the MSI suite was their Granite Bay motherboard, the GNB Max. The GNB Max is MSI’s new flagship product for the Pentium 4 and supports such features as Serial ATA (via a Promise controller), Gigabit LAN, and 5.1 audio. MSI-USA just received their samples of the GNB Max so it should begin appearing on store shelves next week, if it hasn’t already.
The other products that caught our interest were MSI’s motherboards based on the SiS 655 chipset and their VIA-based Hammer motherboard. We’re really looking forward to checking out motherboards based on the SiS 655 chipset as they offer more features than Granite Bay and will be priced much more competitively. Right now it’s looking like most Granite Bay motherboards will cost in excess of $180, at least initially. If SiS 655 is priced near the $150 mark or lower, it could put a dent in 845PE and Granite Bay sales.
SIDEBAR: MSI had a great Need for Speed setup in their booth. Dan had to take me out in the final portion of the race in order to beat me.
It’s raining Hammer products!
Of all the motherboard manufacturers, FIC’s Comdex suite arguably contained the most gems. Thanks to its booming OEM business, FIC had quite a few products from ATI and NVIDIA, the only manufacturer we’ve seen with products from the archrivals.
The most eye-catching demonstration was the small form factor Hammer system. AMD had the system shut down, but that didn’t stop us from taking a few pictures of it.
In addition to the working Hammer PC, FIC was also demonstrating two motherboards based on NVIDIA’s CK8 (“Crush” K8) chipset for the Hammer platform. CK8 essentially fuses everything that we’ve loved about the nForce chipset into a platform designed for AMD’s Hammer processors.
The HU31 is their microATX CK8 motherboard. It offers Gigabit LAN and Serial ATA as well as NVIDIA’s 5.1-channel audio. Its bigger brother is the HU11, it offers all of the same features but it’s built on an ATX form factor with six PCI slots.
As you can see from the images, CK8 is a single chip solution, much like the SiS 735 was when it debuted.
Besides the CK8 chipset, FIC will also be producing a Hammer platform based on VIA’s K8T400 chipset. Like their CK8 products, FIC will be manufacturing microATX (HV31) and ATX (HV11) variants of this chipset.
In the more immediate future, FIC will be producing motherboards based on NVIDIA’s nForce2 chipset. The AU11 will be the company’s value product and will utilize NVIDIA’s SPP-128 with the MCP serving as the South Bridge. If you want an nForce2 board with a little more oomph, FIC offers the AU13 Chameleon. The AU13 Chameleon will utilize NVIDIA’s IGP variant of nForce2, along with the MCP-T South Bridge. This means that the board will offer built-in graphics as well as Dolby Digital audio and NVIDIA’s DualNet connectivity. FIC will also be throwing on Serial ATA and Firewire support, so this could be one very nice motherboard once FIC is finished with it. They’re currently shooting for a late December launch for this product.
FIC will be among the first with a motherboard based on ATI’s IGP 340 chipset. The IGP 340 is designed for Intel’s Pentium 4 platform and should give 845GE quite a run for its money in the OEM segment.
FIC was indirectly responsible for the KT400A leak during Comdex. While AMD also had KT400A motherboards on display in their Comdex booth, FIC was the only manufacturer that listed KT400A as a dual-channel (DDR400) solution. This KT400A product, the AN19P, should hit retail channels sometime in January, but according to FIC it’s currently under performing in comparison to nForce2. FIC will also be including Serial ATA, Gigabit LAN, and 5.1-channel audio on AN19P.
On the video side of things, FIC plans to stick with ATI’s RADEON solutions for now. They’re currently hard at work on their own variant of the RADEON 9700 PRO with clock speeds higher than the default 325/310MHz configuration for RADEON 9700 PRO cards.
SIDEBAR: The IGP 320 and IGP 340 and built off ATI’s RADEON VE graphics core.
SOYO was the only motherboard manufacturer demonstrating VIA’s dual-channel DDR platform for the Pentium 4, P4X600. This isn’t too surprising considering SOYO’s history with VIA, they were also the only major manufacturer to really promote their P4X400 product here in the US.
Besides P4X600, SOYO was also demonstrating its motherboard for the Hammer platform, the SY-K8 Fire DRAGON. Unlike the other Hammer motherboards we saw at Comdex, the K8 Fire DRAGON was the only product based on ALi’s Hammer chipset, M1687/1563. Considering ALi’s limited adoption among motherboard manufacturers up to this date, we were quite surprised to see SOYO go with them, but supposedly ALi’s solution is practically a replica for AMD’s 8000 chipset for the Hammer platform so compatibility and availability shouldn’t be a problem for ALi or SOYO.
Over at the SiS booth, we were able to get a live demonstration of AMD’s Hammer platform in action. The processor was running at 1.4GHz on the SiS 755 chipset. SiS was running a loop of DroneZ on their Xabre 600 GPU, which was also launched during Comdex.
Xabre 600 is intended to compete with the RADEON 9000 and GeForce4 MX series, and one ups them in clock speed: the Xabre 600 sports a 300MHz core/300MHz memory configuration and is built on SiS’ 0.13-micron manufacturing process with aluminum interconnects. This officially makes SiS the first graphics manufacturer to make the transition to 0.13-micron, as GeForce FX won’t be available until February of next year at the soonest. In Q1 of next year SiS plans to unveil Xabre 2, their 8-pixel pipeline DirectX 9 architecture intended to compete with GeForce FX and RADEON 9700. Xabre 2 is currently in the final stages of design with mass production planned for the second quarter of next year.
SiS was also demonstrating its three Pentium 4 chipsets: SiS 648, SiS 655, and the Rambus-based SiS R658 during Comdex. You’re probably already familiar with SiS 648, as it has been available for quite some time now. The 648 chipset was the first Pentium 4 chipset with AGP 8X graphics support, although we’ve run into some issues with it and the RADEON 9700 VPU. Currently, the SiS 648 chipset doesn’t support Hyper-Threading, but SiS is implementing Hyper-Threading support in a future stepping of the chipset that is due in December.
As far as SiS 655 is concerned, the chipset offers native support for Intel’s Hyper-Threading technology and supports DDR333 memory (providing up to 5.4GB/sec of bandwidth), a feature that isn’t present on Intel’s Granite Bay chipset. SiS 655 is currently sampling among motherboard manufacturers with availability set for December.
The most surprising chipset on display at the SiS booth was definitely R658. With Intel essentially abandoning RDRAM in favor of dual-channel DDR memory, the timing of SiS’ R658 announcement was very startling. Right now SiS views the R658 as a technology statement, although they claim to have a few potential partners they may work with. Like 850E, SiS R658 supports dual channel PC1066 RDRAM but differs in the fact that it supports AGP 8X. It will certainly be interesting to see if any motherboard manufacturers jump on the platform.
SIDEBAR: The Xabre 600 contains 25 million transistors.
Gigabyte and ABIT were also displaying their wares at Comdex, although their suites weren’t quite as stocked as the ones we’ve mentioned previously.
The gem with the most potential at the ABIT booth was their nForce2 product, the NF7-S. The “S” designation denotes that the board features NVIDIA’s SoundStorm technology. ABIT will also be releasing a version without Dolby Digital sound support. The NF7-S utilizes NVIDIA’s SPP North Bridge meaning it doesn’t offer integrated graphics. As ABIT’s target audience for the NF7-S is hardware enthusiasts and gamers there’s obviously no need for the integrated GeForce4 MX graphics. And while the South Bridge used on the NF7-S is the MCP-T, the NF7-S doesn’t offer NVIDIA’s DualNet networking. In fact, we can’t recall seeing a single motherboard with DualNet support, suggesting that NVIDIA is having a tough time getting motherboard manufacturers to adopt this feature.
ABIT also had its Granite Bay board, the GB7 on display at Comdex, but ABIT officials were quite frank with us when they stated that it may be a limited release. With Intel’s Springdale chipset right around the corner offering more performance at a lower price, ABIT isn’t certain how they’re going to market the product.
This makes a lot of sense to us, as Granite Bay is an expensive product to produce and has an incredibly short life cycle. With ABIT’s typical customers being the knowledgeable, high-end crowd, they may pass on Granite Bay in favor of Springdale or the cheaper 845PE chipset. ABIT is still looking into SiS 655, as of right now they have no plans to support the chipset but that could change if market conditions turn in its favor.
To sum it all up, ABIT plans to really endorse its 845PE and KT400 products. They’ve built MAX and non-MAX products based on these chipsets and all of these motherboards will be offered with multiple configuration options. NF7-S motherboards should hit retail within the next few weeks, and next year ABIT plans to offer a KT400A product. The future for Granite Bay isn’t quite as clear, and even dimmer for SiS 655. We’ll see how ABIT’s strategy plays out, remember they deftly avoided Intel’s 820 chipset for the Pentium III a few years ago, and kept their Pentium 4 motherboards in limited production until Intel adopted the 478-pin interface. The situation is a bit different this time around, but ABIT’s conservative strategy could ultimately prove to be the right one for the company. By passing on SiS 655 and placing GB7 in limited production, they could be in a perfect position to produce and market their 800MHz FSB products. After all, they won’t have to worry about clearing out their inventories of either dual channel product.
SIDEBAR: ABIT is putting the finishing touches on its 2nd generation 5.1 speakers. They had them on display with their upcoming line of server motherboards as well.
Gigabyte was demonstrating their Granite Bay motherboard, the “6-dual miracle” GA-8INXP. Unlike conventional motherboards, the GA-8INXP features a dual three-phase power system. This provides a backup if one of the power system’s goes down, while during normal operation it acts as a six-phase power solution. Gigabyte claims that their six-phase implementation will result in better stability at higher clock speeds, especially when overclocked. They also believe their dual power solution extends the life of the motherboard. Depending on how well it’s received, Gigabyte may implement dual power systems on future motherboards.
Besides their E7205 motherboard, the only other notable products Gigabyte was displaying were their Hammer motherboards. As of right now they plan on producing two products, the GA-K800V (based on the VIA K8T400 chipset) and the GA-K800A, which utilizes AMD’s 8151 chipset.
Surprisingly, Gigabyte has no plans to produce a product based on NVIDIA’s nForce2 chipset. While they passed on the original nForce platform, we assumed that they’d be all over nForce2. Instead, the company plans to focus on VIA’s KT400 chipset. On display were the GA-7VAXP and GA-7VAXP Ultra, both KT400 products. The Ultra model essentially adds Serial ATA to the motherboard’s list of features.
That’s a wrap
Obviously from a gamers' perspective, the highlight of this year’s Comdex was GeForce FX. Unfortunately, hard independent numbers weren’t available in time for launch, but GeForce FX will still be an interesting product to watch. Will it have enough to compete with the latest and greatest from ATI? Right now, it’s hard to say. What we can tell you is that the product is roughly three months late today, so by the time it ships it will be nearly six months late to the party.
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