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Core 2 chipsets compared


New hotness versus old repurposed
— 12:00 AM on September 21, 2006

INTEL'S CORE 2 DUO PROCESSOR has the chip giant enjoying a renaissance of sorts among enthusiasts. For the first time in recent memory, Intel has a processor lineup with better performance, lower power consumption, and even more attractive prices than AMD's finest. Some fanboys still stubbornly cling to their favorite underdog, but most enthusiasts have seen the light and are looking at Core 2 for their next upgrade or system build.

The prospect of a Core 2 system build can seem a bit daunting for enthusiasts who have spent years focused solely on the Athlon 64. Core 2 processors need new motherboards for those switching from the Athlon 64, and that requires navigating a whole new world of core logic chipsets. Since the Core 2 processor relies on the chipset for its memory controller, one's chipset choice can also have a much more profound impact on performance.

To guide you through the brave new world of Core 2 chipsets, we've rounded up the latest core logic that Intel and Nvidia have to offer. Read on to see which should be at the heart of your next Core 2 system.


Catching up with the Intel world
Before diving into some of the more interesting features you'll find in these chipsets, I should take a moment to highlight a couple of contenders that are still missing in action. The most conspicuous absentee from today's round-up is Nvidia's nForce 590 SLI, a chipset that launched for the Athlon 64 months ago and was supposed to be available for the Intel platform by now. Nvidia initially intended for the 590 SLI Intel Edition to lift off this summer, but it pushed back the release date several times before finally asking reviewers not to publish articles about the Nvidia reference board at all. Our subsequent attempts to pry information about the nForce 590's release from Nvidia have gone unanswered, and even motherboard makers have been unwilling to comment on the chipset. Rumor has it that they were unhappy with the chipset's north bridge component, and that a replacement is coming in October.

ATI's long-awaited RD600 chipset is also expected in October, complete with the SB600 south bridge that debuted in CrossFire Xpress 3200 chipsets for AM2 processors. However, the company's recent acquisition by AMD has left RD600's future in doubt.

Fortunately, there's little doubt surrounding Intel's chipset offerings. Several of Intel's designs are compatible with its new Core 2 chips, including the older 975X Express. However, it's the new P965 Express chipset that's stealing the show. This "mainstream" chipset is being used on mid-range and high-end motherboards alike, and that puts it right in the sweet spot for enthusiast boards.

Although it's classified as a mainstream chipset, the P965 sports a number of new memory controller features that Intel refers to as Fast Memory Access. These features mainly deal with the intelligent reordering of pending memory access requests to reduce latency and improve performance. Pending requests are monitored to determine which can be issued concurrently without interfering with a current memory request. Intel calls this feature just-in-time command scheduling. Also, out-of-order execution allows the memory controller to bump up pending requests that refer to memory pages that are already open.

Previous Intel memory controllers accumulated write requests in a pending queue that was only flushed when "certain watermarks were reached." Unfortunately, flushing the write queue monopolized the memory controller, forcing pending read requests to wait. To improve the continuous flow of data, the P965 memory controller is capable of opportunistically issuing write requests during idle times and when they won't interfere with read operations.

In addition to a bunch of swanky memory controller features, the P965 Express chipset comes with a new line of ICH8 south bridge chips. These chips add support for a couple of extra Serial ATA drives, but for the most part, they're similar to what Intel had offered with the previous generation ICH7.

Speaking of similarities, Nvidia's supposedly next-gen nForce 570 SLI chipset bears an uncanny resemblance to older nForce4 designs. The most obvious give-away is the filename of the chipset's driver package: nForce4_intel_8.22_winxp2k_english_whql.exe. More surprising, however, is the fact that the chipset has a single integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller with no hardware TCP/IP acceleration. The nForce 570 SLI for AMD processors, on the other hand, sports dual hardware-accelerated GigE controllers. That chipset also boasts additional Serial ATA and USB ports, making us question why these two products are tagged with the same nForce 570 SLI moniker.

To be fair, though, the Intel version of the nForce 570 SLI does boast support for Nvidia's FirstPacket networking quality of service feature. FirstPacket debuted with the nForce 590 SLI for AM2 processors, and allows users to prioritize outbound packets on an application-by-application basis. That should help keep BitTorrent uploads from lagging your Counter-Strike game, but since FirstPacket can't prioritize incoming packets, downloads will still give you an excuse for dying.