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Intel's 845PE and 845GE chipsets

Intel blesses DDR333

AT LONG LAST, Intel is bringing DDR333 memory support to its chipsets for the Pentium 4. That means Intel's dizzying array of P4 chipsets is about to grow by two. Say hello to the 845PE and 845GE chipsets, successors to the 845E and 845G core-logic chips, respectively.

Now, you may be a little perplexed, because VIA and SiS have had DDR333 for what seems like ages now. However, Intel isn't one to jump the gun on memory standards, to say the least. They like to hang back, make sure all the standards are finalized and the interoperability is there before they do anything. Then they like to sip lemonade and kick back in the hammock for a few months. When Intel does move, however, the whole PC market moves with it. Put it this way: if you bought a Pentium 4-based system from Dell or HP before today, you probably had your choice of DDR266 or RDRAM. Now that these new chipsets has arrived, DDR333 memory will probably become the industry standard in a matter of weeks.

There's not much more for me to tell you about the 845PE and GE chipsets that you can't deduce from here. These chipsets add official support for DDR333 memory, though in the case of 845G, the chipset has been unofficially quite capable of running DDR333 memory since its launch. Beyond that, the features are familiar: AGP 4X support, an ATA/100 disk interface, a 533MHz bus, and nothing much new.

But I can tell you quite a bit about Pentium 4 chipsets overall, because we've lined up nine different configurations and tested them against one another to see who comes out on top. Can Intel's new 845PE and GE chipsets match up with the latest chipsets out of VIA and SiS? Can DDR memory finally slay the RDRAM performance dragon once and for all? Would I really spend a perfectly good weekend testing core-logic chipsets and making graphs? Keep reading to find out.

Surveying Blue Mountain
The biggest surprise of this whole experience for me has been playing with Intel's new 845PE-based motherboard. This board, dubbed "Blue Mountain" internally at Intel, looks like something out of Taiwan, not a typical mobo from Intel's button-down desktop board division. Traditionally, Intel boards have compromised performance and tweakability for stability and simplicity. They have also been light on the fancy features—perfect for a corporate desktop, but nothing an enthusiast would care to put into his system.

In fact, Intel boards have been something of a problem for us, because their relatively low performance has made chipset comparisons like this one difficult. For instance, we reviewed the original 845 chipset with DDR support using an Intel board and weren't too impressed with the performance. Then, shortly thereafter, we were forced to reconsider once we got our hands on Abit's 845 implementation.

Survey the Blue Mountain, and you know things have changed. This mobo comes with an array of on-board multimedia and I/O features unparalleled this side of Vegas, including Firewire, USB 2.0, Serial ATA RAID (courtesy of a Silicon Image controller chip), Ethernet, six analog sound ports, and optical and coaxial digital audio outputs. On a black PCB, for gosh sakes. There's even an optional dancing midget.

(OK, I admit it: I made up the part about the Firewire ports. But you get the idea.)

Blue Mountain's backplane: more ports than the California coastline

Most importantly, perhaps, both Intel's 845PE and GE boards now offer BIOS options for manual tuning of memory timings. With memory timings set aggressively, I'm happy to report that these boards perform quite well. That gives us the chance to see how the 845PE and GE chipsets really compare to the competition. Intel says these expanded BIOS options are here to stay, too, so Intel boards should be a little more adjustable from here out.

A fancy 845PE motherboard like this makes sense, because the 845PE chipset is, like its predecessor the 845E, Intel's entry in the performance desktop market. Swanky mobos like Abit's IT7-MAX are based on the 845E, but those boards have been hampered a bit by the 845E's lack of support for DDR333 memory. The 845PE chipset addresses this shortcoming.

The ICH4 I/0 controller hub