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VIA has been a popular supplier of chipsets for motherboards that support both Athlon 64 and Pentium 4 processors, and it’s about to refresh their P4 offerings with a new line of “PT Series” chipsets.

The first offering is the PT880 Pro, aimed at what VIA calls the “Performance Mainstream” market. It’s targeted at customers eyeing motherboards based on Intel’s 865 or 875 chipset. This chipset is especially interesting for its ability to support past-generation and new-generation technologies simultaneously. It can support both DDR and DDR2 memories, and both AGP 8x and PCI Express graphics. Some motherboards using this chipset will feature both AGP and PCIe graphics slots, as well as both DDR and DDR2 memory slots. This allows users to upgrade their core CPU and motherboard without throwing out their current RAM or graphics card. Note that the PCIe graphics slot is not a full x16 configuration, but rather an x4. This might incur a small speed penalty, but the compatibility advantages may be worth it for users trying to upgrade one part at a time. The PT 880 Pro will use VIA’s venerable VT8237 south bridge.

Next is the PT894, which targets more performance-minded mainstream users and provides competition for Intel’s 915P chipset. Like the PT880, it supports the new Pentium 4 processors with a 1066MHz front side bus, and both DDR and DDR2 memories. This chipset doesn’t support AGP graphics at all, but instead provides a full PCIe x16 graphics slot and a pair of x1 PCIe expansion slots. It will be paired with VIA’s new VT8251 south bridge.

The PT894 Pro is aimed at the enthusiast market, for those buying the more pricey 925 and 925X Intel motherboards. It will still support 1066MHz front-side bus processors and both DDR and DDR2 memory, but offers dual PCIe graphics slots. The first slot is a full x16 configuration, the second is an x4 PCIe slot. This varies from nVidia’s solution for their SLI-capable motherboards, which operate in a full x16 mode for a single slot, or can be configured to run with two x8 PCIe slots. Will VIA’s board support nVidia’s SLI technology? The company told us they believe there is no technical limitation that would prevent it from working with their x16 and x4 dual-slot chipset, but the nVidia SLI drivers specifically look for nVidia motherboard chipsets and will only function with them. If this issue can be worked out, VIA believes their board will function with nVidia’s SLI graphics. In the meantime, it is geared at enthusiasts who run multiple cards on multiple monitors. Continued…

The VT8237 south bridge chip has handled I/O functions for VIA based motherboards for some time now, and is getting a bit long in the tooth. Enter the new VT8251, which updates the capabilities of the motherboards that use it (at this time, the PT894 and PT894 Pro).

For starters, it provides a greater wealth of high-speed connectivity—two x1 PCIe lanes for add-in cards and four SATA II hard drive plugs. The RAID capabilities have been updated to support not only RAID 0 and RAID 1, but also RAID 5. With prices of hard drives dropping, using a three-drive RAID 5 array may be a great compromise between the reliability of RAID 1 mirroring and the speed of RAID 0 striping.

The VT8251 also provides eight USB 2.0 ports and a 10/100 Ethernet controller. Surprisingly, the company didn’t choose to step up to Gigabit Ethernet with the integrated controller, but VIA claims that most motherboard vendors would rather use an external motherboard-down GigE controller from reliable companies like Marvell. The chip provides either AC’97 8-channel audio or an HD Audio compatible interface. Some motherboards using this south bridge will include an onboard Envy24PT chip, offering true 24-bit 96KHz audio processing and outputs. With some of the improvements to VIA’s audio driver, including new QSound technology, VIA could make for a much improved motherboard audio solution.

We should have motherboards based on VIA’s new chipsets in the next two to three months, and we’ll take a close look as these products become available. Keep your eye on ExtremeTech for performance- and feature-set comparisons of new motherboards.

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