Summary: VIA is rarely one to hide from the limelight, but their P4X266 chipset is trying tofly below the radar of Intel's legal team. This 'unauthorized' chipset has been slow to develop supporters, and we were just able to get 2 motherboards together for testing. So, politics aside, is this the Pentium 4's equivalent of KT133A? Find out here!
One chipset, two boards
When we think of roundups, we think of an article that takes a look at many different products that exists the same category. In that case, a two-motherboard roundup would somewhat be an oxymoron. Even before talking about anything remotely technical, the size of this comparison is a serious indication of how low key P4X266 based boards are on the market. You’ll likely have a difficult time finding a P4X266 motherboard, and an even tougher time finding a board from your favorite motherboard manufacturer such as Abit, Asus, Giga-byte, Leadtek (yes, they make motherboards now), MSI and Supermicro.
Follow the leader
Intel’s plans were to first release i845 SDR, which it did with good success mainly in the professional market. The primary reason for bringing out a P4 platform that is a heavy underperformer was to encourage customers to move from Pentium 3 or competing Athlon systems to P4 systems. Once it determines that enough users are using P4 processors, Intel will deploy the i845 DDR chipset. The new chipset is identical to current the i845 in virtually every manner except that it supports DDR RAM while the current i845 is limited to SDR RAM.
Born to be DDR
Compared to the i845 SDR chipset from Intel, the P4X266 is in a much better position to offer raw bandwidth for enthusiasts and gamers. Because the P4 relies on a quad pumped 100MHz/64-bit bus, it needs a memory bus that’s able to provide approximately 3.2GB/sec of data to perform at its peak. Realistically, standard PC133 SDRAM modules are only able to provide about 1.0GB/sec of usable bandwidth.
Kind of like Gabriel vs. Yu-law
Back in our i845 coverage, we noted that while the i845 was released as a chipset supporting only PC100 and or PC133 SDRAM, it internally was already hardwired to support PC1600/2100 DDR RAM. The i845 enjoys native support for DDR RAM by having a write cache directly on the chipset die. This enables it to write information extremely fast into the P4. Along with a L3-like write cache, the i845 also had deep buffers which keep data flowing at peak performance and eliminates spikes and valleys in data flow. Data is kept flowing to the P4 smoothly, and frequently used data is moved to the P4 even faster.
The motherboards and their features
We’re taking a close look at Shuttle’s AV40-R and Tyan’s Trinity 510 boards. ECS had sent us a board to test as well, but it turned out to be an i845, and couldn’t resubmit a P4X266 based board in time for the roundup.
The Shuttle AV40-R is definitely the more featured-filled motherboard in this comparison, although Tyan does offer a different skew of the Trinity 510 with onboard audio (by chipset codec) and LAN using an Intel 100 controller. The AV40-R’s onboard audio is also using the chipset codec instead of utilizing one of the few available hardware options like the C-Media controllers commonly found on boards from Asus and Iwill. Although not an Audigy killer by any means, the C-Media 6-channel solutions are actually very good if you play lots of games but don’t listen to much music, or you listen to music but don’t like paying through your nose for high-end PC speakers. Often times, you’ll actually get better audio by going with better speakers than by going with a better sound card.
We generally don’t like anything onboard and most definitely if it’s onboard audio. This is because most solutions are just hard coded codecs that are processed by the host CPU and take up precious CPU cycles. There will always be those who won’t mind either way, simply because today’s processors are fast enough that most onboard codecs don’t show noticeable performance hits.
Both boards come equipped with overclocking options but the Tyan Trinity 510 is very limited in options compared to the Shuttle. Both boards come with FSB and clock multiplier settings but the Shuttle AV40-R comes with all that and options for tweaking voltage for practically all facets of the motherboard. Interesting to note is that the Award BIOS for P4X266 boards only allow you to adjust clock multiplier 3 bins above the actual setting. For example, both the AV40-R and the Trinity 510 only allowed us to set a maximum of 23X for our 2GHz P4 CPU. If you’re using a 1.5GHz CPU, you’ll be locked at 18X max. While this may first seem a little disappointing to some, it’s worth noting that 3 full bin jumps is quite large for the P4 and you’ll almost always be more successful tinkering with FSB settings.
Shuttle’s first iteration AV40-R deserves some consideration. Being only one of the few companies producing P4X266, Shuttle decided to use its relatively small company size to take advantage of Intel’s ignorance for Shuttle’s market share. Knowing that it’s safe from Intel’s wrath, Shuttle has produced one heck of a product. Our board comes with onboard sound and Promise RAID but there exists a “supreme” version that also includes USB2.0 built-in! Too bad Shuttle didn’t send us that board; we have a USB2.0 CD-RW drive we’d like to take a look at.
Physical features aside, the AV40-R’s BIOS is an overclocker’s dream BIOS. Shuttle has included the following options:
Front-side Bus adjustment up to 160MHz
Clock multiplier adjustment for 3 bins higher than CPU default
VCore CPU voltage adjustment up to 1.85v
DDR memory voltage adjustment up to 2.70v
P4X266 chipset voltage adjustment up to 2.65v
We tried taking advantage of the AV40-R’s 160MHz FSB limit, but time and time again, we were rejected like a bad blind date. We found that the highest the AV40-R was able to stay stable at was 109MHz. That’s actually extremely good considering it’s an effective overclock of 180MHz, setting our final CPU speed at 2.18GHz. We were able to overclock to 2.2GHz but nothing worked after POST, even with voltage increases. In spite of everything, 2.18GHz is very respectable.
As good as it is, the AV40-R isn’t without its downsides. We had trouble getting the board to cooperate with certain types of memory modules from different manufacturers ranging from ATP to Corsair to Mushkin and even Crucial. We weren’t able to get in contact with Shuttle for its take on the situation but Tyan’s board also had the same issues, so we took their answer instead. Apparently, the P4X266 chipset is extremely picky with the types of memory modules that are installed. A quick glance at Tyan’s Trinity 510 memory compatibility page will reveal a very small list. This is quite disturbing. Even back in the early days of the Athlon, things weren’t as bad as this. We can only hope that VIA will tackle this issue head on. We also discovered that the AV40-R objects to being used with most registered memory.
The AV40-R comes with standard ATX12V power supply connectors so those hoping to reuse their existing ATX 2.03 power supply are out of luck; and the board did crash on us twice for no apparent reason. Chalk it up to poor memory support.
SIDEBAR: For some reason, our Trinity 510 failed to boot up one time for whatever reason – we still can’t figure it out. But Tyan told us to use a hair dryer and heat it up. To our surprise and humorous reaction, it worked.
More than just stability this time
By now, one pretty much comes to expect that Tyan produces rock solid boards with very limited extra features. Unless you’re talking about its high-end workstation and server boards, you’ll be hard pressed to find any consumer level Tyan boards with onboard video, onboard SCSI, or IDE RAID. While there have been some boards from Tyan that do feature IDE RAID, they’re generally lack luster in terms of performance and other features relating to BIOS and an equally featured filled and better performing board can be had from the likes of Asus or other manufacturers.
In Tyan’s defense, it has included what no other P4X266 based board has, and that’s full support for 4 DIMM slots. While the Trinity 510 does have similar memory compatibility issues as Tyan, it’s not as severe and Tyan does include a compatibility list on its website that is routinely updated. We had trouble getting the Trinity 510 to work with Mushkin DIMMs but had absolutely no trouble fitting in modules made by ATP. We filled all four DIMM slots, each with one stick of registered 256MB PC2100 ATP modules and did not experience any issues. Further testing of the fourth DIMM slot revealed that the Trinity 510 is capable of supporting up to 512MB with either registered or unregistered memory. During out tests however, we found that the Trinity 510 worked best with registered memory and a quick glance at the Trinity’s memory compatibility page reveals the same conclusion.
Getting there, but still corporate
Users, who purchase Tyan products, generally are after one thing – stability. They know that Tyan tends to sacrifice extra features such as audio and IDE RAID to ensure that its boards stay rock solid. The more components you add onto a motherboard, the more likely that there will be a conflict or compatibility issue. VIA is only beginning to show its customers that it can design stable chipsets so it’s best for a company with such focused market like Tyan to stick to tried and true technology. While we’re not saying that the P4X266 is an unstable chipset, its relatively low memory compatibility is something we would like to see go away.
Test System Setup
Intel Pentium 4 2GHz
Performance between the Shuttle and Tyan boards are virtually indistinguishable in terms of real life usage. You definitely will not notice that one board is slower or faster than the other board. While the P4X266 is not as fast as an i850 based platform, it still holds up very nicely. These days, bandwidth is everything and the cream of the crop for bandwidth is still the i850 chipset using PC800 RDRAM. With the release of PC2700 DDR RAM, the performance gap is closing rapidly.
Content Creation Winstone 2001
All the boards in this stack up well with each other in this bench. The P4X266 even takes over the i850 platform by a small margin. Both the Trinity 510 and the AV40-R stay relatively close with the Trinity 510 falling just a bit behind; again, not a significant difference by any means.
Business Winstone 2001
Not much excitement going on in this test. Shuttle is taking an expected lead so far as it has never been Tyan’s forte to concentrate on tweaking its boards for maximum performance.
Shuttle is definitely showing that it can produce a high performance board regardless of what the community may think about its products. A significant amount of bandwidth is being used with rendering 3D scenes in real time and the i850 RDRAM platform shows that DDR needs to mature much more before it can pose a serious threat in terms of performance.
Quake 3 Arena Retail
The i850 here eclipses its competition easily in Quake 3 but at this speed, it’s hard to tell the difference. Strangely the i845 platform stacks up quite well with the P4X266 platform. This is likely due to the fact that Quake 3 is more graphics performance, AGP bandwidth and CPU dependant than it is memory bandwidth.
While both Quake 3 and Serious Sam use OpenGL to render graphics, Serious Sam doesn’t scale as well as Quake 3 does. This goes to show that code and engine optimizations go a very long way in performance. Someone who only plays Serious Sam and never plays Quake 3 would likely think their system performs relatively poor because they’ve been hearing how other similarly equipped systems dish out far more frames than theirs in Quake 3. It’s best to try a variety of games on a system before making final judgment.
The Pentium 4 platform is has come a long way from where it started but it still has yet a longer road to travel. The introduction of DDR is just the tip of the iceberg for the P4. Just recently, Intel announced the new i845D chipset for the P4, giving it official DDR support from Intel. From what we’ve seen however, the i845D needs to mature before it can seriously compete with the likes of Intel’s own i850, the VIA P4X266 and SiS’ 645 chipset.
What to ask yourself
The real question begging to be asked is should people even consider P4X266 motherboards? More and more Pentium 4 DDR chipsets are emerging from all fronts and VIA is finishing its validation process on its P4X266A chipset. The new revision seems to be more of a tweaked stepping than a features stepping but it will likely also come ready to support UltraATA/133 hard drives. We also have SiS and its 645 DDR chipset – a real trial blazer. Shocking practically everyone in the industry, SiS’ 645 outperforms a PC800 RDRAM P4 platform with regular PC2100 DDR RAM. The 645 is also very stable and runs very cool to the touch, not even requiring a passive heatsink. Finally, we have Intel’s i845D chipset but we doubt many of you who read FiringSquad would even consider an i845 solution. Even though it now officially supports DDR RAM, it does carry over its limitation from its SDRAM days.
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