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Stability and Change

Stability begets change. That may seem like a contradiction, especially when you’re talking about the personal computer—an ever-evolving creature. But when you think about the underlying platform, you suddenly realize how stable it’s been for years. The ATX motherboard and power supply have undergone relatively few changes since their introduction in 1995. Sure, we’ve seen the addition of ATX12V versions that add different power connectors, but the basic platform has remained remarkably unchanged.

This has either enabled or forced motherboard makers to be more creative and innovative with products that would otherwise be pretty mundane. To be sure, some companies, such as Shuttle and VIA, have taken risks in promoting new form factors. New ground was forged along the way, but the basic ATX motherboard still performs its yeomanlike service in the majority of today’s homebrew PCs.

That will likely change in 2005, as Intel pushes forward with its BTX platform, and other companies experiment further with new form factors. Even the area of CPU cooling has undergone radical shifts. As CPUs have become hotter, technologies previously relegated to the overclocking set have become mainstream.

In our earlier State of the Industry article on chipsets and CPUs, we discussed the product changes and industry shifts that happened during the past year. Now we’ll dust off the crystal ball, swirl the tea leaves, and study the phases of the moon to see what the upcoming year will bring. As Yoda might say, “Always cloudy, the future is.” Continued…

A big fork in the road looms ahead, known as BTX—Balanced Technology, Extended.

BTX is the new form factor from Intel. It was specifically designed to maximize cooling while minimizing fan noise in today’s increasingly hot systems. In the near term, BTX and BTX-like solutions will be available only in off-the-shelf systems, such as the Gateway E-Series BTX systems. Judging by what we’ve seen from current case manufacturers, initial BTX cases will be more suited to white-box system vendors than to homebrew PC builders.

For more on building a BTX system, see Our BTX DIY article.

For the first half of the year at least, ATX and MicroATX will still be the form factors of choice for people who build their own PCs. In the past, MicroATX boards have mostly been low-cost units better suited for budget PCs than high-performance systems. We’ve started to see a number of MicroATX cases, such as the Antec Aria and the Falcon Northwest’s FragBox 2—Falcon Northwest’s first foray into pre-modded cases for homebrew PC builders.

High-performance MicroATX motherboards have been missing in action until just recently. Intel is now shipping the D925XEBC2, which uses the 925XE chipset and offers a voltage regulation section beefy enough to accept a 3.8GHz Pentium 4. On the Athlon 64 side, we now have the MSI RS480M2-IL. Both have voltage regulator sections suitable for the highest-performance PCs. So you can actually run an Athlon 64 FX-55 processor in the RS480M2-IL board. The Intel board is available now, while the MSI board is likely to be available in the US by early March.

Full-size ATX boards are still where most of the action is, and case vendors are responding. We’re starting to see a variety of slick cases with striking cosmetics that are not influenced by the works of H.R. Giger or bad anime animators. The Antec P180 is one spiffy-looking example. Surprisingly, Soyo’s CS-S262 looks potentially interesting as well. If you want something a bit more…colorful, then the Asus Vento 3600 may appeal to your eye. Although it’s brightly colored and shaped a bit differently, you’ll find no horns, fins, eyeballs, or other garish decorations.

One case manufacturer that’s starting to make a bigger splash is Silverstone. The company’s line of home-theater PC cases has garnered a loyal following, and it continues to create interesting new designs. Other case manufacturers continue to add new features, more-attractive cosmetics, and easier access to the interior. Continued…

If the case is the home for your PC components, then the power supply is its foundation. As high-performance desktop systems demand more power, power supply manufacturers are stepping up to the plate to answer the demand. The new ATX 2.0 power-supply standard requires dual 12V rails. One 12V rail is dedicated to the CPU so that no other devices will suck current from the processor’s power feed.

The other key feature of ATX 2.0 is support for the 24-pin motherboard connector and the six-pin PCI Express graphics card connector. Most of the major power supply makers are now shipping ATX 2.0 versions, and most also include a 24-pin to 20-pin adapter that allows them to work in older motherboards with 20-pin power connectors.

The shift to PCI Express is driving a major transition in power supplies. This could cause headaches for users who want to upgrade their system while retaining their old case. In general, it’s probably not a good idea to hang on to that old ATX case if you’re moving to a high-performance processor (Athlon 64 3800 and higher or Pentium 4 3.4GHz and higher) for two reasons:

  • You really want a power supply with dual 12V rails for those power hungry CPUs that draw more than 85W.
  • Many older cases simply don’t have adequate airflow to facilitate cooling in a system with a fast graphics card and fast processor. You can mod the case for better airflow, or simply replace it.

The various power-supply manufacturers are creating innovative products in other ways. The Antec NeoPower 480 uses modular connectors so that you only need to attach the power supply connectors you actually need. PC Power & Cooling is building an SLI-capable power supply, the Turbo-Cool 510 SLI, for systems using dual nVidia graphics cards. A number of other companies are doing weird and geeky things, like building power supplies with transparent cases, mirror finishes, and other mostly cosmetic changes.

The power supply manufacturers are also starting to think about noise. Power supply fans are a major source of noise generated inside today’s PCs. Most power supplies have had temperature-controlled fans for several years now. However, we’re now seeing 12cm fans appearing on power supplies, which rotate more slowly while still creating enough airflow to keep things cool. We’re also seeing more truly silent power supplies, like the Antec Phantom, a 350W power supply built into an enclosure that’s actually a heatsink with no internal fan. Antec will be shipping a 500W Phantom shortly, which will have a fan that operates with very little noise compared with a standard power supply fan. Continued…

PCI Express is also driving a major transition in core logic. Intel was first out of the chute with its 915/925 chipsets, but PC chipsets from other companies are starting to arrive on the scene for both AMD and Intel. If you plan to upgrade your system this year, you should make the shift to PCIe for graphics hardware. Motherboards based on the Via K8T890, ATI Xpress 200, and nVidia Nforce4 chipsets are already arriving on the scene.

These chipsets are increasingly differentiated not by performance but by feature sets. For example, nVidia is offering a hardware-assisted firewall and Gigabit Ethernet with TCP offload capabilities, and it’s one of the first to ship a SATA II capable hard drive controller. Nvidia also continues to focus on its single-chip design, integrating the PCI Express graphics controller and south bridge functionality into one monolithic chip for mainstream desktop CPUs.

Another feature nVidia touts is support for SLI (Scalable Link Interface), which lets the PCIe 16-lane graphics controller divvy up the lane architecture over two slots. This, in turn, allows a pair of graphics cards to work in concert, trading off raw bandwidth (fewer PCIe lanes per card) for additional graphics computational horsepower.

The company’s nForce Professional chipsets for workstations and servers enable multi-chip configurations, allowing workstations with multiple 16-lane PCI Express graphics slots to be built.

VIA is tweaking its audio capabilities, integrating features of its Envy24 audio chipset. While early VIA-based systems will ship with the older 8237 south bridge, it’s the 8251 south bridge that will fully integrate more sophisticated audio features and will even offer a two-lane PCIe controller. The 8251 will also be offering support for Serial ATA II and even for RAID 5.

ATI is focusing more on cost, although early testing suggests that the performance of the Radeon Xpress 200P will be equal to anything on the market. For example, ATI is not integrating Ethernet into the core logic, claiming that a PCIe gigabit controller chip plus PHY costs pennies more than just a PHY.

SiS is also chugging along, but most of its core logic offerings seem to appear either in small-form-factor PCs or budget motherboards. Whether SiS will be able to continue competing against the resources of Intel, VIA, ATI and nVidia is uncertain.

In addition to supporting AMD processors, all the chipset companies are aggressively pursuing the market for Intel-based systems. Nvidia’s recent deal with Intel will result in the “nForce 5,” which rumors suggest will make its debut at the Intel Developer Forum in early March. Meanwhile, VIA has announced its PT880 chipset, a sort of hybrid chipset that supports both PCIe graphics and AGP 8x. Motherboards are slated to arrive with both slot types, allowing users to switch at leisure while still taking advantage of the newer Intel CPUs. ATI is also taking the Intel plunge, though its feature set is similar to the Xpress 200 for AMD line.

Meanwhile, Intel is looking forward, with its rumored 945 and 955 chipsets, which will likely not appear until late Spring. Support for SATA II is very likely. Although the 945 and 955 will support the Pentium 4 architecture, they’ll also be the chipset of choice for Intel’s Smithfield dual-core processors. Continued…

This year is shaping up to be the year where dual-core CPUs go mainstream. Processors with multiple cores are certainly nothing new, but putting them on a mainstream desktop system is new. Both Intel and AMD are racing to get their dual-core processors to market.

However, the desktop CPU focus for the first half of the year will be the good old single-core processor.

AMD’s top of the line FX series of Athlon 64 CPUs will finally make its transition to the 90nm process technology with a part code-named San Diego. Likely to be called the FX-57, and expected to run at 2.8GHz, it will probably still sport a 1MB L2 cache but offer a much smaller die size. Meanwhile, the Venice processor will succeed the current Winchester CPU, but will be built on the more advanced 90nm process used to manufacture the San Diego part.

Intel is updating its performance line of Pentium 4 CPUs. According to the various sources, these processors will be the 600 series, and offer 2MB of L2 cache. Intel will also finally transition the Extreme Edition to the newer, 90nm Prescott core used to build the 600 series, but will differentiate it by offering a 1066MHz frontside bus. The initial clock rate appears to be 3.73GHz for the new Extreme Edition CPU. The new CPUs will support Intel’s EM64T technology, finally bringing Intel’s mainstream processor line into the 64-bit world (Xeon CPUs have supporting EM64T for a number of months now).

AMD’s first dual-core processors will ship as Opteron workstation and server CPUs. The first Opteron dual-core processors are expected this summer, supposedly in Q3. Code-named Denmark (Opteron 100 series), Italy (Opteron 200 series) and Egypt (Opteron 800 series), these CPUs will run on socket 940. AMD is also showing Toledo on its roadmap for the second half of the year. Toledo looks to be a high-end desktop for Socket 939.

Meanwhile, Intel is feverishly working on Smithfield, its first dual-core processor, which will be built on 90nm process technology. We’ve heard mixed signals as to whether Smithfield will support 64-bit, but it’s likely that Intel’s dual-core design will not support Hyper-Threading. Note that Smithfield isn’t going to arrive until mid-to-late summer, but Intel will certainly make a big splash when that happens. Continued…

Making the upgrade choice will be difficult this year, with the flurry of new processors and more competition in core logic than ever before. Let’s consider some of the key questions to ask, and possible answers.

Should You Wait for Dual Core?

The answer is that it depends on your application mix. If you use office applications a lot, or work with video, audio, or 3D content, the answer may be yes. Those classes of applications tend to be either heavily threaded or exist in a heavily multitasking environment, so a dual-core CPU will be very useful.

Hard-core gamers, however, will probably want to stick with single-core processors. That’s because single-core CPUs will be running at higher clock rates than dual core for some time to come. Most games are not heavily threaded, so multiple processors don’t always help. Games run faster with a single higher-clocked CPU.

Why Won’t Dual Core CPUs Be Clocked Higher?

CPUs are designed for a particular thermal and power envelope. When you put two cores on a single die, they’ll generate more heat and use more power than a single-core CPU built on the same process technology and running at the same clock rate. AMD has talked about trying to hit “80%”—where the fastest dual-core CPU will run at 80% of the clock rate of the speediest single-core processor.

Meanwhile, the scuttlebutt is that Smithfield will debut at 3.2GHz, whereas the new version of the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition will run at 3.73GHz. So if you need raw speed over better multithreaded and multitasking support, then it may be worth going with a single-core CPU. With Intel, at least, you’ll get some additional benefit from Hyper-Threading.

On the other hand, Smithfield will be a new architecture. Some people are suggesting that it may have more in common with the Pentium-M than with the Pentium 4. If that’s the case, then 3.2GHz may well be faster than a higher-clocked Prescott. We’ll have to wait until the CPU actually ships to find out.

What Will Windows Support?

We haven’t heard the official word from Redmond yet, but the signs are very strong that Windows XP going forward will treat a single die as a single license. In other words, Windows won’t see a dual-core processor as a two-CPU system. What’s going to be really interesting is whether or not the rest of the industry follows suit. Many professional and high-end database applications license by the number of CPUs, and no one knows whether they’ll follow Redmond’s lead in this. Revenue models based on the number of CPUs (versus the number of processor dies) may be going the way of the Dodo. Continued…

This year will herald huge changes in the desktop PC platform. For those of us who prefer to build our own systems, many of these changes will seem confusing and contradictory. With competition in the chipset business more intense than ever and the major CPU companies beginning the transition to multiple-processor cores on one die, figuring out what to build is harder than ever. Let’s not forget that transition to 64-bit, as Windows XP 64-bit Edition will also be shipping this year.

At ExtremeTech, we’ll be keeping an eagle eye on these transitions and trying to make sense of them for you. We’ll weigh a host of issues, including price, performance, features, and applications mix as the new technologies hit the street. It will be a very busy year for us, but we hope that translates into a lot of good advice on what’s right for your system and best for your budget.