A year ago today, sorting through the chipset solutions for the AMD Athlon 64 platform was pretty easy for the most part – there was NVIDIA and then there was everybody else.
Now don’t get us wrong, there were plenty of alternatives to NVIDIA’s nForce4 family, particularly in the integrated graphics segment, but on the discrete side, NVIDIA’s nForce4 lineup was dominant, particularly in enthusiast circles. Most hardware enthusiasts weren’t asking which chipset to go with, but rather which nForce4 chipset was best for their needs: nForce4 Ultra or nForce4 SLI.
Part of the reason the nForce4 chipset was so dominant isn’t because of the strength of the nForce4 chipset line itself (although NVIDIA does have a compelling case here, providing some features that were ahead of anyone else on the market) but also because of perception – if you ask any motherboard manufacturer about offering a fully-featured enthusiast-level motherboard based on an alternative chipset they’ll respond with a blank stare. In large part due to the success of their previous nForce chipsets (particularly the nForce2), NVIDIA is perceived
to be a premium manufacturer of desktop chipsets for the AMD platform. Because of this, when it comes time to develop a high-end motherboard with all the bells and whistles, motherboard manufacturers choose the nForce4 chipset rather than one of the alternatives from ATI, SiS, or VIA.
Now of course, as we mentioned before, NVIDIA’s integrated some compelling features into nForce4 that no one else has, and that’s gone a long way towards helping their position, but just as SiS learned back in the original Athlon days during the DDR transition (where their SiS 735 chipset smoked everything else in existence
) having superior technology isn’t always enough. SiS is perceived as a value player in the chipset market, therefore, SiS 735 motherboards from motherboard manufacturers tended to have features that would cater to the value segment rather than enthusiasts, even though the chipset itself was more powerful than anything else out there.
ATI’s sold millions of chipsets for both AMD and Intel platforms to practically every Tier One OEM and system manufacturer, but they’re perceived as being a mainstream/integrated offering – not a high-end enthusiast-level player like NVIDIA. This is due in part to the strength (or lack thereof) of their previous products; their Radeon 9100 IGP chipset had a nice feature set, but it wasn’t as complete as Intel’s 865 line. ATI’s South Bridge didn’t offer GigE networking or native Serial ATA with RAID (motherboard manufacturers had to provide these features with external chips), while performance wasn’t up to par with competing chipsets from Intel and SiS, and the chipset definitely wasn’t known for its overclocking prowess. The core strength of the Radeon 9100 IGP chipset was its integrated graphics and support for SURROUNDVIEW (this is all basically summarized in our ASUS P4R800-V Deluxe review
Because of this perception, for most of last year motherboard manufacturers predominantly used ATI’s XPRESS 200 chipset in their less expensive micro-ATX motherboards. The only high-end XPRESS 200 motherboard that was ever released was Sapphire’s PURE Innovation PI-A9RX480
, but this board came to market too late to make any inroads among enthusiasts for ATI.
Now with their CrossFire XPRESS 3200 chipset (previously codenamed RD580), ATI’s taking another shot at the high-end segment.