||Computex 03: Day 2
September 23, 2003 Chris Angelini
Summary: Chris is back again with another day of coverage from Computex 2003. In today's report, he takes a look at a dual RADEON 9800 card from Sapphire, Shuttle's next generation of XPCs, ALi's upcoming chipset plans, and new products from DFI. Get the full scoop right here!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 4 )|
The second day of Computex 2003 has come and gone. With it, we’ve seen the first official performance indicators associated with AMD’s Athlon 64; plus, we can talk freely about Intel’s Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, which won’t emerge in quantity for another month or two. There are a few significant differences between the two processors, of course, but a couple of the most important are their respective hardware implementations their influence on the future of computing.
Today we spent some more time talking to motherboard manufacturers about their Athlon 64 plans. Most of them are unveiling multiple products with Socket 754 interfaces, based on VIA’s K8T800 or NVIDIA’s nForce3, but the Socket 940 boards are rare. Most manufacturers, it seems, are taking a “wait and see” approach, questioning the availability of Athlon 64 FX processors and the interface’s life span, especially with 939-pin processors slated to emerge midway through 2004. As we meet with more motherboard manufacturers, we’ll gather more information and report back in the days to come.
We ventured into Sapphire’s media suite expecting a brief on its latest products and maybe a bit about the status of the RADEON 9100 IGP. Instead, we were presented with a graphics card eerily familiar to the Rage Fury MAXX of yesteryear. The unnamed board featured a pair of R350 graphics processors, presumably 256MB of memory, dual-DVI outputs, IEEE 1394, diagnostic LEDs, and a pair of RAGE Theater chips.
Unfortunately, Sapphire will never manufacture such a product, which would debut at $800 or so. Even the sample in Sapphire’s suite is a non-functional piece of work (is there any need for two Rage Theater chips, and where is the AGP bridge that ATI claims it would need to replicate its MAXX technology on a modern video card?).
There is, however, a market that regularly pays in excess of $2,000 for high-end cards and is able to utilize dual-DVI outputs. We’ll let you ruminate on the possibility of multi-chip solution in that space. After all, ATI’s FireGL lineup isn’t exactly competing with NVIDIA’s Quadro FX 3000 or 3DLabs’ Wildcat4 families and it could use a performance boost to vie for the high-end professional market.
What Sapphire would confirm for us is that it is developing a front panel extension to fit comfortably in a 3.5” drive bay. When it is released (Sapphire is giving us a December timeframe), the panel will offer DVI output, TV output through S-video and composite ports, a temperature readout, cooling fan speed, and a knob for adjusting the fan. The hardware will tie into Sapphire’s Redline utility, derived from Rage3D.com’s own tweaking application. Unfortunately, Sapphire’s current product lineup doesn’t support the expansion panel, which requires an onboard header for connectivity. Instead, you can expect the full range of RADEON cards to include the header around the same time as the panel is finalized.
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SIDEBAR: The big joke in Sapphire’s suite is that its front panel connector will ship with an “FX Emulation mode,” toggling a loud fan noise.
| ALi||Page:: ( 2 / 4 )|
A Quick Peek at ALi
After our meeting with Sapphire, we noticed that ALi’s suite was nearby, so we poked our heads in to see what was on display. For the most part, ALi chipsets have been muscled out of the Pentium 4 and Athlon XP markets. Nevertheless, it continues to offer Pentium 4 core logic, which a representative claims is capable of up to 1200MHz front side bus settings. Further, it employs an 800MHz HyperTransport between the north and south bridges, facilitating up to 1.6GB per second of bandwidth. We didn’t get a chance to speak with an ALi product manager, but we surmise that the M1683 platform is oriented for mainstream consumption.
ALi also has its unannounced Athlon 64-compliant M1689 on display. Though the chipset is an early revision, it’s the first Socket 939 chipset we’ve seen. The single-chip solution adds Serial ATA support to ALi’s repertoire, along with dual-channel, non-registered memory support for what will become AMD’s flagship early in 2004. M1689 is also being shown paired to a Socket 754 interface with single-channel memory support.
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For the time being, M1687 is ALi’s only Athlon 64 platform. Unfortunately, while we’ve known about the M1687 for quite some time, motherboard manufacturers are slow to adopt it. Clearly, if ALi wants to compete in the chipset market, M1689 needs to demonstrate a compelling combination of performance and useful features.
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The company isn’t banking on an overwhelming comeback in the chipset market, though. It now offers a complete line of peripheral controllers and DVD decoders; the suite is full of USB 2.0 cameras, memory cards, and even MP3 players. An adjoining room houses ALi’s DVD offerings, ranging from decoders to controllers to RF signal processors. Though ALi is apparently finding success in diversification, we’d like to see the firm polish its new chipsets and compete with the likes of NVIDIA, VIA, and Intel.
SIDEBAR: ALi’s corporate overview indicates a transition away from PC exclusivity and toward convergence devices.
| Shuttle||Page:: ( 3 / 4 )|
Yesterday, we reported on Biostar’s small form-factor lineup for the duration of 2004. Despite a saturated market and heavy competition from a number of other motherboard manufacturers, Biostar’s iDEQ series is a relative success.
But Shuttle is responsible for igniting small form-factor inferno, and it isn’t about to let another company displace it as the most influential figure in the market. Admittedly, Shuttle’s current designs have tired over the past couple of years, which is perhaps one reason it has seen so much competition as of late. The engineers at Shuttle are hard at work, though, developing new aesthetic designs and internal features, in addition to researching the technologies that promise to enable smaller cases and quieter operation.
Intel’s recently unveiled BTX form-factor is receiving a lot of attention and Shuttle concedes that the design will facilitate much smaller motherboards than the ATX layout. BTX boards will employ the same power connector as today’s ATX systems, but Intel is interested in quieter, more efficient power sources. Thus, it is co-funding research with Shuttle to develop internal and external power sources. Shuttle expects that its research will evolve into a new generation of smaller form-factor systems that plug into the wall via external power brick, similar to a laptop.
For now, though, Shuttle is concentrating on a number of upcoming products. Its Athlon 64 solution, SN85G4, is already shipping (though they haven’t yet materialized on Pricewatch). And whereas other manufacturers worry about processor availability for their systems, Shuttle has hashed out a deal with AMD to bundle Athlon 64 3200+ processors with units that ship to system builders. Apparently, AOpen and ASUS have a similar arrangement with AMD. Enthusiasts unfortunately won’t be able to buy the package deal from resellers, but there is always the possibility that online outfits may sell the XPC and processor together if availability proves problematic.
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Further, Shuttle is also preparing its ST61G4, based on the ATI RADEON 9100 IGP. Rogers speculates that the system will emerge in the November timeframe, but at this point, ATI seems to be the culprit for delaying the game. Thus, you can expect that any manufacturer with a RADEON 9100 platform will release it in sync with its competitors. Shuttle is adding a twist, though. It has an even smaller variant of the ST61G4, dubbed ST62K, which weighs in at a fraction of the other system’s size. Slated to debut a couple of weeks after its big brother, the ST62K will support an 800MHz front side bus, dual-channel memory, Firewire, USB 2.0, and of course, integrated graphics. The system’s placard claims AGP 8x, but we’d guess this is a reference to the onboard RADEON graphics rather than an expansion slot.
During the course of our meeting, Shuttle mentioned an online survey it had run to explore the uses of its XPC systems, and characteristics customers looked for before buying. One of the primary uses reported was gaming, so Shuttle is spending time to develop a gaming LCD display. The prototype is relatively lightweight, with a framed stand that serves to protect the unit and offer support when it is set down. A plastic cover also protects the display’s front from damage. Of course, we’ll be reporting on further developments.
SIDEBAR: Shuttle’s survey also found that quality and performance were the top two considerations in buying a small form-factor PC. Incidentally, Shuttle utilizes 6-layer motherboards while most of its competitors are using 4-layer designs.
| DFI||Page:: ( 4 / 4 )|
DFI offers a comprehensive line of motherboards, but its most lauded products are the high-end LANPARTY boards. Designed specifically with the gaming and modding communities in mind, the LANPARTY series features ultra-violet reactive fixtures, RAID, Gigabit Ethernet, dual Ethernet ports, and even a carrying case. All of the high-end boards are being revised, though, after a press conference today that announced a new feature that DFI is adding called CMOS Reloaded.
Created to enhance overclocking, CMOS Reloaded employs an onboard memory to save specially selected settings as profiles. Depending on the necessary level of stability, users can boot into any given profile by toggling a hotkey. Imagine a sports car, for instance, with a definable traction control threshold. Once you find the car’s limit, you can back down a notch, set the traction control and drive aggressively while maintaining control. The LANPARTY line offers four configurable settings, while the more conservative Infinity family features two.
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We also discussed DFI’s strategy moving forward. In a market that seemingly dictates diversification for survival, DFI is making a bold statement by focusing solely on motherboards and competing against Tier 1 manufacturers that obtain their materials at discounted prices. Nevertheless, DFI has a roadmap populated with interesting products. Its first Athlon 64 board will probably center on the VIA K8T800 chipset utilizing a Socket 754 interface. Or, it may develop an nForce3 platform based on the K8S designation that includes integrated Gigabit Ethernet and a Serial ATA controller. DFI is also thinking about revising its nForce2 LANPARTY board with NVIDIA’s upcoming MCP-S 1000, purportedly an update to the existing MCP-T, which will also include integrated Serial ATA and Gigabit Ethernet.
Day Two Impressions
Today is a good day for the gaming community. With the anticipated arrival of AMD’s Athlon 64 series, we’re seeing a new level of gaming performance, enabled, in part, by the chip’s on-die memory controller. Motherboard manufacturers here at Computex may be worried about the Athlon 64 FX’s availability, but a prevalence of Socket 754 boards speaks volumes about their confidence in the mainstream Athlon 64.
Intel’s salvo in the foray (that is, the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition) may not be as potent in games, but we’ve seen it perform admirably in other intensive applications, like content creation suites and encoding metrics.
Finally, we can’t help but think what a dual-processor graphics card based on ATI’s R350 VPU might mean for the one market in which it might be a viable sell. Sapphire’s sample may not be a functional piece of hardware, but ATI has an AGP bridge chip of its own capable of enabling a multi-chip board and the company’s workstation division simply isn’t pacing NVIDIA and 3DLabs at the high end. And with PCI Express on the horizon, a bridge chip wouldn’t even be necessary. If nothing else, it’s one of those things that make you go hmm…
Until tomorrow, when we’ll cover a slew of upcoming meetings, ciao.
SIDEBAR: What do you think of Sapphire’s dual R350 card? Perhaps Shuttle’s Athlon 64 XPC is more suited to your taste? Chat about all the cool upcoming hardware in the news comments!