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Abit's BG7 motherboard

Intel's 845G chipset incarnate

WE'VE HAD AN EARLY sample of Abit's BG7 motherboard here in Damage Labs for a while now. Today is the official launch date for Intel's 845G chipset, on which the BG7 is based, so we thought it was time to finally pull the curtain back on this exclusive look at Abit's newest motherboard. The BG7 packs the key features of the 845G, including 533MHz bus support, USB 2.0, and downright decent integrated video, plus—thank goodness—an AGP slot. Of course, the BG7 also carries Abit's trademark SoftMenu III suite of overclocking options and a built-in NIC and sound.

In fact, you can run the BG7 as a fully functional computer without a single card installed in an expansion slot. Eerie.

Of course, we weren't content to just look at the BG7 and its Intel 845 chipset in a vacuum, so we rounded up a total of six comparison systems, based on six different chipsets, to see how this thing stacks up against the competition. Not only that, but we'll show you just how the 845G's built-in graphics handle. We'll compare them to the competition from SiS, and we'll measure their impact on overall system performance. You might be surprised at what we found.

The BG7's foundation: 845G
Intel's new 845G chipset, which powers the BG7, is poised to become the biggest selling Pentium 4 chipset ever. Because of its integrated graphics, this is the bread-and-butter chipset that will make its way into zillions of corporate desktops and low-cost PCs. The 845G is one of three new chipsets from Intel capable of supporting Pentium 4 processors with 533MHz bus speeds. We recently looked at the RDRAM variant, the 850E, right here. The 845E, meanwhile, is simply an 845G without the integrated graphics. The 845E/G chipsets also include Intel's new ICH4 chip (known around these parts as a south bridge). The ICH4 adds support for USB 2.0, raising USB's peak transfer rates from 12Mbps to 480Mbps, according to Intel.

Intel reportedly has plans to introduce a cut-down version of the 845G, called the 845GL, with no AGP slot and only a 400MHz front-side bus. No doubt the new Pentium 4-derived Celerons will be paired up with the 845GL in droves of low-cost PCs. (If you see one of these PCs in the store, cover your wallet and back away slowly. Check in with TR as soon as possible for further instructions.)

Intel's (secret!) new ICH4 chip bridges things down south

Conspicuous by their absence in Intel's new chipsets are a number of features already present in Taiwanese competitors. Let's break those down one by one:

  • Support for PC2700 memory — DDR333 memory has been around for some time now, and standards body JEDEC recently ratified a PC2700 memory standard. VIA's new P4X333 is screaming fast with PC2700 memory, and the SiS 645 series chipsets have had DDR333 support since last year. Intel obviously plays things conservatively when it comes to DDR memory, but now seems like the right time for DDR333 to go mainstream. Too bad it's not included here. Intel's high-performance alternative is the 850E chipset with RDRAM.

  • ATA/133 support — This one will have less of an impact on real-world performance, at least in the short term, than the lack of PC2700 memory support. Still, competing chipsets and I/O controller chips are beginning to support the ATA/133 standard, as are some hard disk drives. Intel may be biding its time here, preparing to cast its lot with the competing Serial ATA standard instead. Oddly, the ICH4 doesn't include support for either of these standards.

  • AGP 8X — This feature is more bleeding edge than leading edge, but it is a little strange to see Intel lagging behind VIA when it comes to implementation of new AGP standards, since Intel was the driving force behind AGP's inception.

  • Faster intra-chipset interconnects — SiS's MuTIOL and VIA's V-Link connect the two chips in their respective chipsets together at 533MB/s peak transfer rates. Intel's hub architecture is only half that speed. Without ATA/133 support or DDR333 memory, speedier chip-to-chip communications may matter less for the 845E/G, anyhow.
Obviously, Intel isn't so concerned about having the latest specs and features included with its chipsets as is the Taiwanese competition. That's understandable, since Intel is the incumbent in the Pentium 4 chipset market—the default choice, if you will. VIA is entangled in a licensing dispute with Intel, and SiS has so far made few inroads with motherboard makers. Also, Intel closely guards its reputation for compatibility and stability; adding bleeding-edge features isn't always consonant with that goal. We'll see how these things impact performance below.