By Intel: the 3 and 4 Series
Before we get going, let’s take a minute to understand what these alphanumeric chipset designations mean
Luckily Intel simplified its system greatly in the last two generations. The first letter designates which type of chipset it is: P is the most common, suiting most users, G indicates the board has integrated graphics, Q means corporate stable (limited integrated graphics and extra remote administration options), and X are the high end enthusiast boards, dealt with in the next article. P and X based boards are ATX and the G and Q come mostly in μATX format. The second character is the series, or when the chipset was released: it will either be 3 for last year or 4 for the ones that came out in the last couple months. The final number establishes how functional or stripped a chipset is: 5 means denotes a chipset in full swing, 1 means a severely limited implementation that is usually attractive only to OEMs, and 3 chipsets are somewhere in between. Note that the enthusiast X chipsets always end in 8.
Intel’s P35 and P45 Motherboards
Let’s look at what is probably the most popular chipset for the home builder today: the P35. We know it is suitable for mid-ranged users provided they don’t plan on using integrated graphics because of the P, and that it has been around for a year because of the 3. The 5 means that this is the full implementation of the P3* chipset. So we know what Intel had in mind when they brought out the chipset, but an important note is that many manufacturers incorporated support for FSBs and memory times onto their higher end P35 boards that allow them to venture into the enthusiast territory Intel tries to reserve for its X type chipsets.
The 4 series steps up to PCI-E 2 support, but doesn’t appear to have the performance or other advantages necessary to justify its price premiums over the 3 series, at least for now (see update below), with the former still being rather new. Furthermore, some combination of Intel making their chipsets more suitable for overclocking and manufacturer efforts have closed the gap on nVidia’s chipsets’ ease of overclocking. With many board makers’ offerings based on the P35 including bios support to run a 1600 FSB CPU, this is indeed a very suitable chipset for a lot of users. Someone not demanding PCI-E 2 and planning to run a single GPU, or two Radeons and doesn’t mind that one of the cards only gets x4 bandwidth, could definitely be very happy with this board.
Things are not as rosy for someone who wants to use integrated graphics and an Intel CPU, though. While the G boards share much with their P counterparts and are more than fine in that regard, AMD and nVidia’s integrated graphics solutions for AMD CPUs are head and shoulders above what Intel has on its boards. While Intel is certainly improving its integrated graphics, the X4500HD on the G45 has an excellent complement of video connectors on the back panel and the ability to shoulder some of the HD video decoding burden off the CPU for instance, AMD and nVidia are putting actual GPUs farmed from their Radeon and GeForce cards right on the motherboard. Admittedly, they are dated, entry-level GPUs, but there is a big difference between even a mediocre graphics card and what is traditionally available in terms of integrated graphics. If you will be using the integrated graphics for anything more than Vista, you will at least want to consider what is happening on the AMD side.
Next Page: Nvidia’s Mainstream Intel Boards, and Recent Updates
By nVidia (nForce 630i, 650i, 750i SLI)
nVidia’s trump card in the chipset market has always been tied to their GPU offerings: if you want to use SLI, i.e. run two or more GeForce GPUs together, you have to have a motherboard with an nVidia chipset, thank you for coming, that will be all!
nVidia won’t license SLI to Intel, though it would arguably increase its GPU sales, for one of two reasons, depending on who you ask: either it doesn’t want to pit its chipsets head to head against Intel’s so it jealously monopolizes SLI, or Intel is using its size to try to low-ball nVidia on the license. The truth might be out there, but it is largely irrelevant to us; we build what we can with what parts and budgets allow, and right now that means that SLI ties you to an nVidia chipset. Note that some very high end, current (the engineering workstation retooled for gamers called Skulltrail) and forthcoming (the X58 that will accompany Nehalem, called Tylersburg) chipsets from Intel, support SLI, and interestingly the agreement sees Intel buying an nVidia PCI-E controller for these designs. Of course SLI might not be the trump card it once was, more on that in the Enthusiast Chipset section.
Other benefits of nVidia chipsets seem to be born of that multi-GPU enthusiast womb; they tend to be more tweakable than Intels, not necessarily hitting faster overclocks, but making it far easier to find a suitable overclock with a lot less work.
So if nVidia is known for making enthusiast oriented chipsets, aren’t these mainstream lines kind of an oxymoron deserving close scrutiny? In a word, yes.
The nForce 650i SLI and 750i SLI are essentially stripped down versions of their bigger 680i and 780i brothers, the latter overclocking better and having 6 SATA and 2 PATA instead of 4 and 4 like the former. Their appeal is to the gamer oriented OEM or the gamer that is looking for something that runs two GeForces as cheaply as possible, even if they each only get an x8 PCI-E lane. The 650i Ultra doesn’t even have multiple GPU support, making it a real question mark in nVidia’s line up. The 750i’s advantages over the 650i include PCI-E 2.0 support and full Penryn compatibility (the 650i only runs 45nm Core 2 Duo’s (Wolfdales). Available for under $150, boards based on the 750i are a solid option for a midrange gaming rig.
nVidia’s entry level chipset (yes they even have entry level enthusiast chipsets down nVidia way), the 630i, can, interestingly enough, handle Penryns up to 1333 FSB, but not much else, with support for a truly anemic 4 SATA and 2 PATA connections. The 630i also underpins nVidia’s integrated graphics offerings (their only μATX mounted chipsets) for Intel CPUs, where things are even worse; there is no DX10 support to speak of and only the top of the line GeForce 7150 has an HDMI output.
So, as one might expect, a company known for enthusiast chipsets makes pretty disappointing chipsets for the mainstream, though the 750i certainly has its uses. Do nVidia’s products match up better against Intel’s at the sharp end? The next article looks at Enthusiast Chipsets from nVidia and Intel for Intel CPU’s.
Updates: June 09
Intel’s 4 series have dropped in price, and graphics cards are beginning to use the extra bandwidth of PCI-E 2, so there is no reason to choose from the 3 series. Their on board graphics, however, haven’t advanced at all. Nvidia, on the other hand, now offers DX10 compatible 9300 and 9400 boards that make great little systems. If you are dropping in a graphics card, the Intel chipsets are a little more fully featured (unless you want SLI), but if you plan on using motherboard integrated graphics, you should give them a pass.
Further articles in this series: