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ATI set to kickstart PCI-Express in the mainstream enthusiast sector?

by David Ross on 9 September 2004, 00:00

Tags: AMD (NYSE:AMD), ATi Technologies (NYSE:AMD)

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ATI set to kickstart PCI-Express in the mainstream enthusiast sector?

HEXUS have managed to track down several people who are ‘in the know’ to find out more about ATI’s up coming technology.

ATI seem to have a competitive offer in almost every sector of the market, but had been noticeably ‘light’ in one particular area, and that's high-performance chipset support for AMD processors.

Since the introduction of the nForce 2 chipset, NVIDIA have clearly had the run of that field and, of course, once Athlon 64 and FX shipped, ATI were left truly out in the cold with their focus being predominantly on Intel platforms.

When deciding which chipset buyer to go after first, ATI seem to have initially followed the volume market and went after Intel's chipset customer base. We suspect that another reason for this is because of the level of importance with which ATI holds its special relationship with (Intel's biggest customer) DELL. This certainly seems to have paid off for them; as our understanding is that the majority of the impressive “1 million PCI-Express VPU's shipped” claim were to a large extent snapped up by DELL

Now on the AMD chipset front, things seem really set to change for ATI, as our sources have told us that testing of ATI's PCI-Express core logic for AMD Athlon 64 Socket 939 platforms is “developing well, and a solid Q4 launch date is imminent”.

The majors (ironically perhaps including DELL) would all have been involved in this process for some time, and will already have received several generations worth of silicon for testing and feedback to ATI.

Some of the same labs have also been evaluating VIA's forthcoming K8T890 PCI-Express chipset but it seems that ATI's offering is looking particularly appealing, though how it squares up performance and price-wise remains to be seen.

Indeed our intelligence from multiple sources is that mainboard manufacturers seem to have originally been sampled with A13 silicon as far back as July, but even more sources now confirm that since around the beginning of August, R&D labs in Taiwan have been working with A21 parts, and in the last week and a half seem to have a refreshed spin of the ATI Southbridge yielding greater performance gains.

As previously reported by The INQUIRER in a story at the tail end of last year, which linked to an AMD Presentation in South East Asia, internally, the ATI Northbridge with IGP (Integrated Graphics Processor) for AMD platforms has the code name RS480.

ATI’s strategy with the Southbridge is to offer a number of variants – based on feature set – and to then let the mainboard manufacturer choose the parts which best suit their need. Around the same time, there will also be an ATI RS400 IGP Northbridge for Intel PCI-Express platforms A good thing too (for Intel) we hear... read on...

Could there even be some RS4xx technology in the vicinity of IDF we wonder?... we think so, as despite this being Intel's gig, it's a place where the manufacturers have access to key English speaking players that have commercial interests which don't lie solely with Intel's view of the planet.

Seems to us that there's a really good chance that ATI's RS480 could be the foundation for the very first PCI-Express motherboard for AMD processors on the market. Mainboards based upon ATI's RS480 for AMD-64 platforms will almost certainly be the first to feature integrated, true-hardware full DirectX 9.x graphics. These boards will have been designed for mass market appeal (read - for those who attribute 'value' highly).

The question we're asking is ‘just how fast is it?’

Is acceptable DOOM III and Far Cry performance going to be a reality on a mainboard featuring a value-focused Integrated Graphics Processor?

Early testing by our sources shows that if you try and run FarCry on an Intel 'Grantsdale P' 'board then you may have an unplayable experience – with “IQ corruption” specifically mentioned. This may be attributable to the overall architecture of 'Grantsdale P' which offloads Vertex Shading to the systems host processor.

Indeed our sources say that ATI RS400/480 will be the first integrated solutions that will run DOOM III - at all!

So what does the reality of a ‘Fall launch’ mean to you and I?

Well, it's most likely to mean that the mainboards based upon ATI RS400 and 480 are going through final QA testing, and should be sampled to key journalists perhaps in the next 6 to 8 weeks… Along with sites like Beyond 3D, HEXUS have a relationship of trust with ATI, so watch this space!

Whilst ATI have been making AMD chipsets for some time - Sapphire's A3 series mainboards coming to mind –ATI were on the original steering committee for PCI-Express development – so maybe it's no surprise that ATI have been forward looking to take the lead in this area.

AMD confirmed that HyperTransport 2.0 was perfectly compatible with PCI-Express a long time ago – so it will be interesting for us to get our hands on one of these RS480 boards and see just how good a solution it provides users in the real world.

The one prominent criticism leveled at ATI with the earliest version of its original RS300 chipset (for Intel platforms) was with regards to an apparent memory latency issue, but obviously as the forthcoming RS480 for AMD processors doesn't need a memory controller (as the lowest latency memory controller currently available is already integrated within Athlon 64 class processors) we think that ATI could do with PCI-Express RS480 what its R300 VPU did for its graphics business.

We see a number of strengths in ATI's IGP feature line up as giving some potential cause for concern for NVIDIA and Matrox.; one being the (existing) capability for an ATI's integrated VPU and device drivers to operate concurrently with any current generation add-in twin-head ATI 3D graphics accelerator.

This feature basically gives triple-head functionality (the ability to drive three independent monitors) at a fraction of the cost when compared to say Matrox Parhelia, and installing an NVIDIA card in an Force2 will simply disable the integrated graphics.

Combined with ATI's easy to use Hydravision software (bundled free) we think that this will make for an attractive proposition for the DCC markets, other content creators like video editors, and perhaps financial analysts in the corporate workplace.

For the enthusiast, hopefully, like VIA's K8T800 PRO, ATI's RS480 will have an AGP/PCI lock for the hardcore overclockers amongst you.

Here at HEXUS we're really enthusiastic to see whether ATI's forthcoming RS480/RS400 chipsets will help to really kickstart PCI-Express in the mainstream enthusiast sector – we think it will.