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VIA PT894 & PT880 Pro Chipset Preview
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Date: Jan 31, 2005
Section:Motherboards
Author: Chris Angelini
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Introduction and PT894 Specifications

 

VIA is perhaps most notable for its contributions as a supplier of chipsets for AMD's Athlon XP/64 processor families. The company's work with Intel's offerings has ranged, over time, from clandestine manufacturing of unlicensed core logic (in Intel's eyes, at least) to the manufacture of a respectably leading edge product in the form of its PT880.

Up until now, however, all of VIA's products have featured AGP graphics connectivity and it doesn't take a gifted mind to realize that the industry is trudging forward with PCI Express. So, while all of its competitors have already made that pivotal transition on the AMD side, VIA is now unveiling its family of Pentium 4 chipsets with PCI Express support.

The move is significant for a couple of major reasons. Not only does it allow VIA to compete against Intel, one-upping whatever plans NVIDIA and ATI might have to contend for Pentium 4 chipset supremacy, but it also represents the first chipset family outside of NVIDIA's nForce4 SLI to officially support multiple display adapters, adding appeal to the Pentium 4 in financial and content creation markets.

Specifications Of The VIA PT894 Chipset
VIA's Proactive Move for P4
Support for Intel Pentium 4 processors on 533, 800, and 1066 MHz front side buses, including the upcoming 6xx series.

20 Lanes of PCI Express Connectivity
·
_PT894 north bridge includes one x16 link for graphics and two x1 links for peripheral connectivity
·
_VT8251 south bridge adds two more x1 lanes for attaching peripherals

VIA StepUp Technology
·
_Flexible memory architecture supports DDR/DDR2 memory
·
_DDR 266/333/400
·
_DDR2 400/533/667

VIA Ultra V-Link
·
_Proprietary interconnect between north and south bridges transferring up to 1 GBps of data

VIA Vinyl Audio
·
_Compliance with HD Audio standard
·_Stylus audio drive with QSound technology and Immerzio gaming support
·_Six-channel audio through VIA Six-TRAC AC'97 codec
·_Eight-channel audio through VIA Envy24PT PCI controller
VIA DriveStation
·
_3Gbps with VT8251 south bridge
·
_RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and 5
·_Management through V-RAID software interface
·_Port multiplier support
·_RAID morphing, disk alert, spare disk allocation

VIA Connectivity
·
_Fast 10/100 Ethernet
·
_Eight USB 2.0 ports
·_Standard PCI bus

 


PT894, the mid-range offering in VIA's three-member PCIe lineup, looks very similar to previous VIA products, at least from a block-diagram perspective. However, notice that the PT894 north bridge offers one x16 link and a pair of x1 lanes for peripheral connectivity. It also supports Pentium 4 processors with 1066 MHz front side bus speeds - a relevant improvement over Intel's 925X, which officially tops out at 800 MHz. Then, there's memory support. From VIA's point of view, DDR2 hasn't seen widespread adoption quite yet, justifying support of both DDR and DDR2 memory technologies. The PT894 supports DDR at 266, 333, and 400 MHz, in addition to DDR2 at 400, 533, and 667 MHz (DDR2 667 isn't listed in the block diagram; VIA still claims support in its press material).

Moving down the hierarchy, PT894 connects to a south bridge - either VT8237 or VT8251 - through Ultra V-Link, a proprietary bus interconnect capable of transferring more than 1 GBps. It looks like the first of these new PT-series motherboards will employ VT8237. However, the VT8251 should follow shortly and indeed, our reference samples both feature the updated south bridge.

VIA's latest I/O controller also includes PCI Express connectivity through two single-lane pathways. There is a pair of IDE interfaces, accommodating up to four ATA133 devices, and an integrated Serial ATA controller boasting four ports. The SATA implementation supports the second-generation 300 MBps standard as well as NCQ and port multiplication. Previously, each SATA port allowed a connection to one hard drive only. Port multiplier devices will make it possible to attach several drives to each port, better utilizing the copious data ceiling enabled by SATA II. The storage package is rounded out by RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and 5 support through the SATA channels.

Like its predecessor, VT8251 still offers eight USB 2.0 ports and ordinary Fast Ethernet, rather than Gigabit. And while it may be disappointing that VIA didn't beef up the networking feature set to match NVIDIA's the PT894 does boast HD Audio compliance thanks to its advanced Envy24 controller. Naturally, each motherboard manufacturer will have to evaluate the utility of high-def audio on a board-by-board basis, but VIA at least enables the capability, drawing even with Intel in that regard.

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PT880 Pro Specifications

 

The high-end of VIA's value line, PT880 Pro, is more of a transitional product that appeals to the cavernous ravine separating Intel's older 865PE AGP chipset and its latest 915P PCI Express product. Between the two you'll find DDR and DDR2 memory support; however, the adoption of PCI Express graphics is required with 915P in addition to LGA775 processors.

PT880 Pro streamlines the entire upgrade process by supporting a bevy of different memory technologies, AGP and PCI Express graphics, and the entire range of front-side bus speeds currently represented by Intel's processor lineup.

Specifications Of The VIA PT880 Pro Chipset
VIA Knows Value
Support for Intel Pentium 4 processors on 533, 800, and 1066 MHz front side buses, including the upcoming 6xx series.

4 Lanes of PCI Express Connectivity
·
_PT880 Pro north bridge includes one x4 link for graphics

VIA Universal Graphics Interface
·
_Allows connection of AGP and PCI Express graphics cards on the same motherboard at the same time

VIA StepUp Technology
·
_Flexible memory architecture supports DDR/DDR2 memory
·
_DDR 266/333/400
·
_DDR2 400/533/667

VIA Ultra V-Link
·
_Proprietary interconnect between north and south bridges transferring up to 1 GBps of data

VIA Vinyl Audio
·_Stylus audio drive with QSound technology and Immerzio gaming support
·_Six-channel audio through VIA Six-TRAC AC'97 codec
·_Eight-channel audio through VIA Envy24PT PCI controller
VIA DriveStation
·
_1.5Gbps with VT8237 south bridge
·
_RAID 0 and 1
·_Management through V-RAID software interface
·_Support for four ATA133 devices

VIA Connectivity
·
_Fast 10/100 Ethernet
·
_Eight USB 2.0 ports
·_Standard PCI bus

 


In its default configuration, you'll probably see PT880 Pro north bridges paired with VT8237 south bridges, though the architecture is modular and it's possible that some manufacturers may opt for the more robust VT8251. In those cases, you'll see the same SATA, Audio, and PCI Express features you'd expect from the PT894.

The principal differences between the two chipsets lie in their north bridges, of course. Whereas PT894 emphasizes PCI Express through its x16 graphics connection and x1 peripheral ports, PT880 Pro boasts connections for both AGP and PCI Express graphics cards. The AGP slot is full 8x, while the PCI Express connection is x4. Given the bandwidth similarities between the two, you shouldn't be alarmed. Just know that it isn't a full x16 PCIe you're getting there. After all, VIA's original intention was to enable existing AGP graphics cards and a migration to PCI Express whenever the end-user is comfortable making that jump. However, it has been discovered that the chipset supports simultaneous use of both interfaces, opening up possibilities for four-monitor display configurations.

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PT894 Pro Specifications

 

At the other end of VIA's spectrum sits its PT894 Pro chipset, flagship of the entire PT-series. Like the other two offerings, PT894 Pro centers on that impending move to PCI Express and it goes one step further by exposing a second x16 connector for multi-card operation. It's important to be very specific here, because VIA isn't claiming that the chipset will work in conjunction with NVIDIA's SLI multi-rendering technology. In fact, VIA concedes that if you connect SLI-capable cards and install the necessary drives, you won't see an option to enable SLI. SLI may be an available option in the future, however.  Rather, PT894 Pro makes it possible to inexpensively use up to four monitors.

Specifications Of The VIA PT894 Pro Chipset
Higher-end features
Support for Intel Pentium 4 processors on 533, 800, and 1066 MHz front side buses, including the upcoming 6xx series.

22 Lanes of PCI Express Connectivity
·
_PT894 Pro north bridge features 20 PCI Express lanes for one x16 graphics slot and one x4 slot (with a x16 physical connector)
·
_VT8251 south bridge enables two more x1 PCIe lanes for peripheral connectivity

VIA DualGFX Express
·
_Enhanced Multi-Display using any two PCI Express graphics cards

VIA StepUp Technology
·
_Flexible memory architecture supports DDR/DDR2 memory
·
_DDR 266/333/400
·
_DDR2 400/533/667

VIA Ultra V-Link
·
_Proprietary interconnect between north and south bridges transferring up to 1 GBps of data

VIA Vinyl Audio
·_Stylus audio drive with QSound technology and Immerzio gaming support
·_HD Audio Compliant
·_Six-channel audio through VIA Six-TRAC AC'97 codec
·_Eight-channel audio through VIA Envy24PT PCI controller
VIA DriveStation
·
_3Gbps with VT8251 south bridge
·
_RAID 0, 1, 0+1, and 5
·_Port multiplier support
·_Native Command Queuing
·_Management through V-RAID software interface
·_Support for four ATA133 devices

VIA Connectivity
·
_Fast 10/100 Ethernet
·
_Eight USB 2.0 ports
·_Standard PCI bus

 


The highest-end PT chipset is well-equipped with every feature found on VIA's PT894 chipset, in addition to DualGFX support for simultaneous use of two PCI Express graphics cards. Because the north bridge offers a total of 20 lanes, the first graphics slot is a full x16 link, while the other is considered secondary with four lanes. As mentioned, it isn't possible to run an SLI configuration on the PT894 Pro quite yet (VIA isn't ruling out the possibility given proper driver recognition and SLI certification with NVIDIA), but the two cards can be used to independently render different screens in a 3D environment. More likely, you'll see productivity-driven professionals using the technology to drive several monitors.

With the addition of 1066 MHz front side bus support and official recognition of DDR2 667 memory, PT894 Pro has the potential to be a home-run for VIA with enthusiasts disillusioned with Intel's high prices and moderate performance. It remains to be seen, however, if VIA is able to deliver these top-end north bridges in a timely manner. As it stands, the VT8251 south bridge is purportedly not quite ready for prime time, though it's expected in a month's time or so.

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VIA's PT894 Reference Board

VIA's PT894 Reference Motherboard

PCIe, DDR2, and LGA775

 

VIA's reference PT894 motherboard is quite similar to any other retail product you might pull off of a store shelf. Granted, component layout isn't a top priority, but VIA still managed to leave plenty of room around its LGA775 interface for oversized cooling. The power connectors aren't placed optimally; however, that's less of a problem in an open-air test bench environment.

The PT894 north bridge is covered by a small passive heatsink, indicating that VIA's latest core logic is free from the thermal constraints that often plague other high-end chipsets. Moreover, the VT8251 south bridge is able to run without cooling at all--a testament to the benefits of smaller manufacturing processes. Surely some motherboard manufacturers will opt to use more robust cooling, nevertheless.

 

The reference board is actually well-equipped with peripheral connectivity, too. You can see on the back panel that there are two RJ-45 jacks, which interface with an add-on Broadcom Gigabit controller and VIA's VT6103 PHY with 10/100 Mbps capabilities. There are also three 1/8" stereo jacks enabled by VIA's VT1617A Eight-TRAC codec. Finally, four USB 2.0 ports grace the back panel; retail boards will undoubtedly include extra headers to expose the chipset's remaining four ports.

Because the north and south bridge combination offers a total of 22 PCI Express lanes, VIA does its best to employ them all. You'll find one x16 slot for graphics, one x4 slot for another high-speed peripheral, and a single-lane x1 slot, leaving just enough room for two standard PCI slots.

Four memory slots support up to 4GB of DDR2 RAM. VIA claims that the PT894 chipset actually works with 667 MHz memory, but the initial reference BIOS doesn't offer that setting quite yet. Instead, we had to content ourselves with DDR2 533 running at 3-3-3-8 latencies in a dual-channel configuration. Theoretically, such a configuration would yield up to 8.5 GBps of bandwidth, but as you'll see, our real-world throughput was significantly lower.

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VIA's PT880 Pro Reference Board

VIA's PT880 Pro Reference Motherboard

PCIe, AGP, and LGA775

 

For the most part, VIA's PT880 Pro is laid out similarly to the PT894. Power connectors are in the same place, there's still plenty of room around the processor socket, and you see the same back-panel configuration, too. Most of the notable differences pop up when you look at the onboard slots and south bridge setup.

The PT880 Pro north bridge is covered by the same aluminum heatsink found on the PT894 board and the VT8237R south bridge is, like the 8251 seen previously, uncovered.

 

As mentioned, the board's back panel remains unchanged. And while the same eight-channel codec is included, VIA doesn't offer the Broadcom Gigabit controller, leaving the second RJ-45 connector unused. This seems like it'd be a common configuration for many third-party manufacturers looking to maximize the potential of VIA's chipset without going over-the-top on extras that unnecessarily inflate prices. As is, the reference PT880 Pro board makes a great platform on which to build performance machines without breaking the bank.

Naturally, the board's flashiest feature is its dual graphics card support via one PCI Express slot and one AGP 8x connector. Rather than find hooks into the PCI bus and add AGP support to the chipset, as many manufacturers did with Intel's 915-series, VIA insists that this is a fully-featured AGP 8x slot. If you turn the board over, however, it's immediately clear that only a few of the PCI Express traces are being used and indeed, the PCI Express slot communicates across four lanes of connectivity. At the very least, VIA is giving its value-conscious buyers flexibility when it comes to choosing a graphics card.

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Benchmark Configuration and Sandra 2005

 

HotHardware's Test Systems
Powered by Intel's Pentium 4
SYSTEM 1:
Intel Pentium 4 3.4 GHz Extreme Edition

Intel D925XECV2 Motherboard
Intel D915GUX Motherboard

2x512MB Corsair PC4400 Pro Series
CL3 (3-3-3-8)

NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra PCI Express


On-Board Gigabit Ethernet

WD Raptor 36GB Hard Drive
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows XP Pro SP2 (Fully Patched)
NVIDIA Forceware v66.93
DirectX 9.0c
SYSTEM 2:
Intel Pentium 4 3.4GHz Extreme Edition

VIA PT880 Pro Reference Motherboard

VIA PT894 Reference Motherboard

2x512MB Corsair PC4000 Pro Series DDR

CL3 (3-4-4-8)
2x512MB Corsair PC4400 Pro Series DDR2
CL3 (3-3-3-8)

NVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra PCI Express


On-Board 10/100 Ethernet

WD Raptor 36GB Hard Drive
10,000 RPM SATA

Windows XP Pro SP2 (Fully Patched)
NVIDIA Forceware v66.93
DirectX 9.0c
SiSoftware SANDRA 2005
Synthetic Memory Benchmarks

There are a few points to make here. First, processor performance is fairly constant across the four tested platforms. No matter who you go with, Intel or VIA, the Pentium 4 turns in stable numbers. Memory bandwidth is another story entirely, though. Intel's 925XE sweeps the bandwidth test with DDR2 memory running aggressive 3-3-3-8 timings. The 915G board isn't equipped with voltage settings and consequentially isn't capable of those settings. Even still, it turns in respectable numbers at 533 MHz.

VIA's PT880 Pro does fairly well using standard DDR400 memory configured with ultra-tight 2-2-2-5 latencies. It doesn't quite keep up with Intel's chipsets, but that's to be somewhat expected from a value-oriented platform. The real surprise comes when VIA's PT894 is put through its paces. Despite running DDR2-533 at 3-3-3-8, the chipset simply delivers underwhelming performance akin to what we saw from VIA in the early days of its DDR memory controllers. It may be premature to judge, especially considering the early reference sample we're examining here, but we hope VIA is able to improve memory performance and stability.

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CCWS 2004 and BWS 2004

 

Content Creation Winstone 2004
Performance in today's authoring apps

The Content Creation 2004 scores clearly favor Intel's 925XE, followed by the 915G chipset. VIA's PT894 finishes the metric, but a measurable distance behind the competing platforms. Our VIA PT880 Pro reference board wouldn't even complete the test, freezing at the same point on each run.

Business Winstone 2004
Poring through professional programs

All four motherboards get through Business Winstone without an issue and again, Intel's 925XE takes a first-place finish. The more modest 915G comes in second place, and the PT880 Pro, purportedly VIA's value offering, claims a third-place finish. The PT894, curiously enough, lags behind the pack, perhaps due to such disappointing memory bandwidth scores.

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Doom 3, Half-Life 2, and 3DMark05

 

Doom 3
Gaming performance with PCIe x4

Intel rules the gaming benchmarks here, both with the 925XE and 915G chipsets. The PT880 Pro doesn't do very well with its PCI Express slot populated (the x4 slot scores about 78 frames per second with a GeForce 6800 Ultra), so we used an AGP 6800 Ultra instead, yielding better results. Oddly enough, the PT894 seems to also suffer from lackluster performance using PCI Express graphics.

Half-Life 2
Gaming on the latest from VIA

We tried a couple of different configurations in order to get the PT880 Pro working in Half-Life 2, including AGP graphics cards, PCI Express graphics cards, and difference memory modules. No matter what, though, the game wouldn't run through a timedemo. Given the performance of the PT894, we doubt it would have been able to match Intel's performance anyway.

3DMark05 CPU Module
Synthetic benchmarking

The same story we've seen several times before is retold in the 3DMark05 CPU module. Mainly, Intel dominates while VIA's PT880 Pro trails slightly, followed by the PT894.

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Windows Media Encoder 9 and Conclusion

 

Windows Media Encoder 9
Measuring Platform influence on encoding performance

The graph is fairly even when it comes to encoding media on our various platforms. The only real variation involves a slowdown affecting VIA's PT894.

VIA seems to have the right idea in approaching today's Pentium 4 market. Existing DDR2/PCI Express platforms aren't exactly popular in part because they force so many simultaneous upgrades without a significant return on investment. By opening the door to augmented memory flexibility and interchangeable graphics on the PT880 Pro, VIA is essentially appealing to those customers turned off by Intel's strategy. Adding a second graphics slot on the PT894 adds value above and beyond what Intel is currently offering to its customers, too.

However, in order to beat Intel at its own game, VIA needs to execute as well, if not better. And though the PT880 and PT894 chipsets look great on paper, our early tests indicate that there's still some work to be done under the proverbial hood. From a core logic level, DDR2 memory performance appears to be lacking somewhat. Moreover, PCI Express support appears to be dodgy, as our PT880 Pro sample wouldn't complete several benchmarks armed with PCIe graphics and the PT894 board demonstrated some odd screen refresh artifacts. While it may pertain to driver immaturity, the VT8251 south bridge currently won't allow Serial ATA hard drives to load Windows, although it recognizes the drives during POST. VIA has already said that the VT8251 bridge isn't quite ready for prime-time, so perhaps when the finishing touches are applied, all sub-systems will function as intended.

There's a lot in store for VIA's product lineup, according to representatives at the company. The next-generation of chipsets is already on the drawing board and set for manufacturing at 110 or 90 nanometers. Faster north-to-south bridge links are planned as well, and DDR2 memory at up to 800 MHz is under investigation. Believe it or not, VIA even plans to transition its core logic product to single-chip implementations a la NVIDIA. But that's all in the future. What's immediately important is the PT880 Pro, PT894, and PR894 Pro chipsets.

Retail motherboards are expected before the end of the first quarter and there's a good chance those boards will employ the VT8237 south bridge. Moreover, they'll need to either sell at a deep discount or boast better performance attributes than what we saw today. Here's hoping VIA is able to iron out the PT-series' kinks; we're looking forward to using three- or four-display setups.

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