Summary: NVIDIA isn't the only game in town when it comes to a PCI Express chipset for the Athlon 64 platform, as today ATI has announced their RADEON XPRESS 200 chipset. This is actually the first integrated Athlon 64 offering with built-in DX9 graphics, and also includes ATI's triple monitor feature known as SURROUNDVIEW. See how it compares and performs in comparison to the nForce4 Ultra in this preview article!
This success has won AMD a loyal following among the gaming community (especially the hardcore crowd), but hasn’t translated into huge market share gains for AMD. Sure, AMD has picked up a few points from Intel, but considering the adoption rate AMD is currently enjoying from the do-it-yourself crowd, you’d think their share would be even higher. Part of the reason AMD hasn’t been able to gain a sizeable chunk of the PC market is production. Quite simply, Intel has significantly more resources (read: Fabs) than AMD, allowing them to churn out millions more processors than AMD in a single quarter, not to mention an entire calendar year.
Another factor hurting AMD has been the price of their Athlon 64 processors. For months the least expensive Socket 939 chip was the Athlon 64 3500+, which was a $450+ chip for most of the summer. In the past two months AMD has released a slew of new less expensive Socket 939-based chips, and also introduced a value Sempron line in August, but these moves haven’t had a significant impact on AMD’s bottom line just yet.
The problem for AMD hasn’t just been directly tied to their processors, the Athlon 64 infrastructure plays just as big, if not a bigger role in AMD’s ability to gain share. Today’s Athlon 64 motherboards are still pretty pricey. Only recently have nForce3 motherboards hit the sub-$100 price point, but these are all Socket 754-based products, which may, or may not appeal to consumers and system integrators. VIA K8T800 Pro chipsets were buggy initially. OEMs buy systems in the massive bulk AMD needs to gain share on Intel, but with the lack of inexpensive motherboards AMD hasn’t received many design wins from Tier One players like Gateway and HP up to this point.
Part of the problem is a lack of a solid integrated chipset for the Athlon 64 platform. All of the top Athlon 64 chipsets are discrete products, meaning a system integrator not only has to incorporate the motherboard and memory in their designs, but also an external graphics card. On the Intel side there are a wealth of chipsets that feature built-in graphics capability manufactured by Intel, ATI, VIA, and SiS, giving system integrators and OEMs a wide variety of solutions to choose from. Since AMD doesn’t produce their own chipsets, they’ve been forced to rely on their chipset partners to provide a counter to this.
To date, none of AMD’s partners have been able to address this problem. Even NVIDIA, a company which significantly upped the ante for integrated graphics performance with the original nForce chipset has elected not to provide an integrated solution for their latest Athlon 64 chipset, nForce4.
Realizing the opportunity this has presented, ATI has been busily preparing their RADEON XPRESS chipset for the Athlon 64/Sempron platform. ATI has set out to create the world’s first PCI Express discrete and integrated chipsets, and have been shipping them to customers since October. But is XPRESS enough to make us forget about nForce4? Let’s find out!
Since AMD has integrated the memory controller on the Athlon 64 CPU itself, performance has become less of a differentiating factor between the respective Athlon 64 chipsets. Quite simply, the variable that affected chipset performance the most has been moved off the chipset, and onto the processor, ensuring that AMD is able to deliver a more consistent performance experience than they were able to do in the past with Athlon XP. As a result, the feature set and stability of the system chipset is more important than ever before. We’ll start by taking a look at the North Bridge of the RADEON XPRESS first.
Up top ATI provides all the standard bells and whistles you’d expect out of a modern chipset. Twenty PCI Express lanes are supported, giving motherboard manufacturers the ability to populate their RADEON XPRESS boards with one x16 PCI Express graphics slot and four x1 PCI-E additional peripherals. ATI feels the most popular x1 PCI Express card will likely be a Gigabit Ethernet network controller. Like other Athlon 64 chipsets, RADEON XPRESS supports both dual and single channel memory operation, and supports the latest memory types. Also like other newer Athlon 64 chipsets, RADEON XPRESS supports 1GHz HyperTransport with 16-bit links for both upstream and downstream, ensuring optimum performance.
On the graphics side, the RADEON XPRESS 200 is powered by a cost-reduced derivative of ATI’s RADEON X300 VPU; this gives the chipset native DirectX 9 graphics capability. The IGP sports two pixel pipelines versus the four-pipeline configuration found in RADEON X300, and runs at up to 350MHz. As an added performance option, ATI has integrated 16MB of memory for the graphics core on the reference motherboard itself; you can still use local system RAM as well, but with a performance penalty. For the best integrated performance, motherboard manufacturers can incorporate up to 128MB of dedicated frame buffer memory, but this will obviously come with a huge increase in price.
Our overall impressions of the RADEON XPRESS IGP are generally positive. We’ve run a few numbers with the RADEON XPRESS 200’s IGP at 350MHz on the following pages and found that while its performance is nothing to write home about if you’ve already got a RADEON 9500/9600 level card, it’s still more capable than anything else currently planned for the Athlon 64 market, and its DVI connection was a nice touch, outputting decent 2D quality to a Samsung 213T flat panel monitor. A VGA connection was also provided on the reference ATI board. The beta driver we were issued with our reference board had problems with DOOM 3, but we had no visual quirks with Far Cry and UT 2004.
If you’ve already got a decent PCI Express graphics card, or plan on picking up one of the new X700 or GeForce 6600s, you’ll probably want to opt for the RADEON XPRESS 200P, which features the same North Bridge, minus the integrated graphics core. And, if you do wind up with a RADEON XPRESS 200 motherboard and decide you wish to upgrade your graphics at a later date all you have to do is drop in a PCI-E graphics card in the x16 slot. The RADEON XPRESS 200 chipset will automatically detect the external graphics card and disable the IGP, or, if you happen to populate the x16 slot with a RADEON X300 card or better, SURROUNDVIEW will kick in. With SURROUNDVIEW, you can drive three separate displays on your system, two are powered by the external graphics card, while the third monitor is driven by the XPRESS 200 IGP.
Storage and audio
The South Bridge supports up to four Serial ATA drives with RAID Levels 0 (striping) and 1 (mirroring) for added flexibility. In case you haven’t made the move to PCI Express just yet, the chipset also provides support for traditional parallel ATA drives (up to four can be used). Unlike NVIDIA’s nForce4 chipset, RADEON XPRESS doesn’t support cross-controller RAID operation, all drives in your RAID array must be Serial ATA drives. Native Command Queuing also isn’t supported, nor is 300MB/sec Serial ATA.
For networking duties, ATI is relying entirely on external, dedicated PCI-based or PCI-E based solutions for networking functionality. ATI feels that the performance of PCI Express-based GigE solutions in particular can meet or possibly even exceed the performance of native solutions such as those used by Intel and NVIDIA. By going the external route, ATI also argues that motherboard manufacturers have the freedom to choose whichever provider(s) they’d like, potentially resulting in a cost savings for manufacturers.
Lock On: Modern Air Combat (Mig-29 custom demo)
Unreal Tournament 2004 – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
IL-2 Sturmovik: FB - OpenGL
Lock On: Modern Air Combat – Direct3D
Unreal Tournament 2004
Splinter Cell – Direct3D
Tomb Raider – Direct3D
Halo – Direct3D
Far Cry – Direct3D
DOOM 3 – OpenGL
In this regard, ATI’s RADEON XPRESS 200 in particular excels -- it’s the only integrated Athlon 64 offering out there at the moment. AMD is happy because they’ll finally have an integrated platform for Sempron to really flourish on. Look for AMD and ATI to team up and really attack the $500 PC market that Intel’s Celeron continues to dominate in. AMD has had the best value processor on the market for some time now, but because of their infrastructure woes we’ve mentioned previously, they haven’t really been able to take advantage of it. The introduction of RADEON XPRESS 200 gives AMD a solid DX9 capable platform they can potentially use to gain design wins among Tier One OEMs, something which they haven’t really done up to this point with Sempron. Combine a RADEON XPRESS motherboard with a RADEON X700 card and you’d have one killer SURROUNDVIEW setup on your hands. It’s because of the integrated capability that ATI has already begun shipping RADEON XPRESS 200 to OEMs.
On the retail side the situation isn’t quite as decisive for ATI. From a features perspective, RADEON XPRESS 200/200P is nice, but not quite up to the same level as NVIDIA’s nForce4. Both chipsets are equally average in audio capability, but NVIDIA bests ATI in storage, networking, and connectivity. The ATI RADEON XPRESS 200 chipset lacks support for native command queuing and 300MB/sec SATA, as well as native GigE with Firewall. And while both ATI and NVIDIA’s chipsets lack Firewire support, NVIDIA’s USB implementation is a little bit better than ATI’s.
Because of these factors, we’ve got to give the features edge to NVIDIA. ATI may be able to one up NVIDIA by pairing RADEON XPRESS to THEATER 550 at some point in the future, potentially making for one killer Shuttle (or any other manufacturer for that matter) small form factor box, but until that product ships this is only a pipe dream.
Of course, the real kicker for retail success will be price. If ATI can undercut nForce4 in pricing, they could have a real winner on their hands with RADEON XPRESS 200.
Currently, all the RADEON XPRESS allocation is going to system builders, with retail availability expected at the end of this month. It remains to be seen how fully featured final retail motherboards will be, manufacturers may decide to play it conservative with their final designs in order to hit certain price points, choosing to build the Deluxe, decked-out boards on other chipsets instead. We definitely don’t expect to see an IGP board with a dedicated 128MB frame buffer anytime soon.
But make no mistake about it, if NVIDIA and VIA didn’t take ATI seriously as a chipset manufacturer to this point, they do now. With their first Athlon 64 chipset, ATI has delivered a very compelling product. Already the incumbent chipset manufacturers are playing catch up to ATI’s XPRESS 200, and who knows, perhaps the discrete XPRESS200P solution as well? The entrance of another player in the AMD chipset market is definitely a good thing for consumers.
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