VIA P4M266 - Mainstream Commercial P4 Platform
Thursday, November 29, 2001
The P4 has been slow to gain traction in its initial position as a high-end consumer PC processor, meeting consistent competition from AMD. But in the commercial or business PC space, Intel will have a fighting chance to force a transition to the P4 if it gives the market what it wants – low cost processors and platform solutions based on mainstream technologies. Even after the launch of Intel’s 845, the market is still searching for new platforms that precisely meet the range of price and performance demanded by this important segment.
The commercial market has historically preferred straightforward platforms like the BX and VIA’s Pro133 for the mainstream, and SMA solutions like Intel’s 810 for the low end. But in the last year, Intel’s UMA 815 chip set has taken up commercial market share in the mainstream as well as the low end. This sets the backdrop for the market’s expectations from the P4 generation in the commercial market.
SMA has proven to be an attractive solution because of its balanced cost and performance profile for 2D business applications. Though UMA systems deliver 3D performance that gamers would describe as ‘barely tolerable’, this is precisely the functional balance sought by IT departments (since gaming is not high on their list of supported applications).
The P4’s entry into the commercial market is complicated somewhat by Intel’s exuberant and long standing positioning for the P4 as the world’s fastest Quake3 gaming processor, notwithstanding its weak performance on mainstream business software. With so much water under the bridge on this message, it will be very challenging to change impressions about the P4.
Intel is between a rock and a hard place, and has no choice but to drive clock speeds through the roof and pricing through the floor to try and alter market perceptions about the processor and achieve competitive business application performance. But this alone is still insufficient to drive a successful transition in the commercial market. The final missing element is to deliver exactly the right cost / performance balance at the platform level. Intel is hoping that the 845 will be the answer, but from the perspective of the commercial market, the 845 has two gaping holes in its cost/performance profile. It leaves two vital commercial platform requirements conspicuously unsatisfied - namely:
DDR memory support
The need for UMA is proven based on its cost advantages and performance balance. But in addition, volume buyers and OEMs know that DDR has reached price parity with PC133 SDRAM. Thus, they want to take advantage of the CPU & 2D performance boost available from this well understood technology.
Against this backdrop, VIA is delivering a new and vital SMA DDR chip set for the P4, called the P4M266. While this product clearly satisfies the needs left unmet by Intel’s 845, it also offers comprehensive, long standing software driver support required by the commercial market, and offers pin and platform compatibility with the P4X266 chip set (non-UMA for high end applications). This chip design strategy is greatly appreciated by OEMs and board makers, which must streamline their R&D and customer support workloads to satisfy a broad range of user and market requirements from each platform development. Beyond its obvious and compelling north bridge features, VIA’s offering also includes an advanced peripheral feature set as well. In addition to an integrated 3COM network interface controller option, VIA offers a second option with its own cost optimized integrated LAN solution.
But VIA’s latest interesting feature is the addition of ATA133 support in the south bridge to speed up hard disk access. ATA133 also provides a much-needed solution to the current 132 gigabyte hard disk capacity barrier now faced by the IT industry. Considering the rapid pace of capacity expansion in hard disk technology, this issue cannot be ignored by IT managers around the world. In all, VIA promises to deliver world-class storage capabilities and performance to client PCs based on this new technology.
The leading incumbent in the commercial PC space during the last year has been Intel’s 815 chip set with the P3 processor at speeds up to 1GHz. In order to help precipitate the transition to P4, Intel has priced the 1.7GHz P4 at $193, which is the same price range as the P3 at 1GHz and 1.1GHz. But for the P3, this seems to be an artificially high price since a 1GHz Athlon or Duron can be had for about $50. Nonetheless, Intel’s pricing is meant to send a message about how it intends to position its products, and it is clear that Intel wants to replace the P3 with the P4.
Without UMA capability it is hard to contrast the 845 vs. the 815, so it seems a three-way comparison is in order. We feel it appropriate to contrast the 815 vs. P4M266 based on similar processor cost, similar platform cost and similar feature sets. We will use ATA100 mode for now on the VIA platform in order to ensure a fair comparison. This will help us to evaluate if the P4 can become an attractive option for the commercial market compared to what is currently available and popular in the P3 commercial market.
Since the 845 does not offer UMA capability, we must configure the P4M266 with an equivalent 3D accelerator card in order to conduct a fair comparison. Though this is not the cost/performance balance ideally sought by the commercial market, it is the only ‘equivalent cost’ comparison scenario that can be constructed between these two platforms.
Finally, with these comparisons in mind, we can contrast the cost and performance of VIA’s UMA solution compared to the 845 with its required graphics accelerator. Though this comparison obviously favors VIA on price, and on the surface may seem to favor Intel on performance, it is perhaps the most interesting comparison of all, showing a rather surprising outcome.
Since the target market and audience for this project is the commercial market (and white box market), we have elected to use only business applications based benchmarks. Games and synthetic tests were excluded completely. We chose SysMark 2000 and 2001, WinStone 2001 (Business and Content Creation) and finally OfficeBench 2001 with mail and multimedia background tasks. The OfficeBench score is reported as run time in seconds (lower is better), but all others are reported as a performance index (higher is better).
All systems were configured with Windows 2000 (SP2) and with 256MB of memory. Both the 815 and 845 platforms were tested with PC133 SDRAM. VIA''''''''s P4M266 employed DDR PC2100 memory.
P4M266 vs. 815 (both with integrated graphics)
This is a baseline comparison of equal cost platforms. If the 1.7GHz P4 is to replace the 1GHz P3 it must do so at the same platform cost while offering a noteworthy performance increase. This cannot be accomplished without UMA graphics and mainstream DRAM technology. Now that DDR has reached price parity with PC133, this memory technology will be a key factor for Intel in this transition.
The chart below assigns the 815+P3 performance level as a baseline for comparison, showing the performance improvement available from the VIA P4M266 platform.
With a 21% overall performance advantage, the P4M266 platform offers a noteworthy performance advantage. In particular the P4 puts forth a strong showing in the SysMark 2001 Content Creation test. This is largely attributable to the intense SSE load presented by that benchmark, which is unlike most other business applications and benchmarks.
Though this is not enough of a performance advantage to persuade an existing 1GHz P3 owner to replace his PC, it is enough to persuade volume PC purchasers (such as IT departments) to consider switching to the P4 + VIA P4M266 platform.
P4M266 vs. 845 (both using AGP accelerators)
In order to conduct a fair comparison with Intel’s 845 chip set, we configured the P4M266 and 845 with GeForce2 GTS accelerators with 64MB of DDR in a 128-bit configuration. Other than that system configurations remained as previously described. In the chart below P4M266 performance is shown as a percentage delta vs. the 845 baseline performance.
VIA’s P4M266 platform delivers a surprising 9.2% overall performance advantage over the similarly configured 845. The P4M266 makes a strong showing in the OfficeBench multitasking test. Other than that, most other tests show a consistent performance advantage of 6-10%. This performance boost is equal to perhaps one or two P4 speed grades favoring the P4M266.
After demonstrating strong performance advantages over Intel’s platforms when similarly configured, the acid test now for VIA’s P4M266 is to see how it stands up in UMA mode to Intel’s 845 with its AGP graphics accelerator.
P4M266 (with integrated graphics) vs. 845 (with AGP accelerator)
Only after observing the strong performance advantage of VIA’s P4M266, would we consider the following comparison. In most cases UMA systems fall far short of equivalent systems with high-end accelerators. The GeForce2 GTS accelerator used in our test configurations is available in OEM packaging for about $60-70. This would introduce a system level street price delta of perhaps over $100 - hardly a fair comparison. But as seen below, the P4M266 performs admirably.
Considering an overall benchmarkable performance delta of only 0.1%, we can say that users will not be able to observe any difference between these two platforms under typical business applications. Due to its intense 2D graphics load, OfficeBench favors the 845+GeForce2 by a small margin, but in contrast SysMark favors the DDR based P4M266 because of its intense CPU and memory load.
While it is true that the 845+GeForce2 platform will offer excellent gaming performance, this is not something sought after by the commercial market. In fact, the commercial market segment will prefer a performance balance that favors business software performance and disfavors the performance needs of entertainment software. The P4M266 seems to be the perfect fit for the P4 in this market segment.
This comparison demonstrates a huge competitive achievement for VIA. Perhaps 6 months ahead of any competitive offering from Intel, VIA is delivering what seems to be the ideal vehicle for the P4’s entry into the commercial mainstream market. It should also be noted that in order for a platform to be considered competitive in this market segment it must be accompanied by world class driver software support for the chip set, graphics controller and for integrated LAN (3COM in VIA’s case). The P4M266 measures up extremely well in every respect.
The final consideration in this case is availability. While VIA is currently facing a legal dispute with Intel, this should not prevent the channel from gaining access to this important new platform. In response to Intel’s threat to block VIA’s entry into the market, VIA has embarked on an aggressive VIA branded motherboard distribution campaign. With strong brand recognition in the channel, and with close ties to tier one US OEMs that do not fear Intel’s legal threat, we expect this product to be widely adopted and available in many forms across the market well ahead of any competitive platform from Intel.
By: Bert McComas, Inquest Inc.
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