ANAHEIM, Calif. Two Taiwanese chip vendors are in the final stages of completing chip sets to link Intel Corp.'s Pentium 4 microprocessor with double-data-rate SDRAM. The release of these parts will be a big boost for Intel, which needs the chip sets to hit the market in order to assist the ramp of its flagship processor.
At the same time, the chip sets pose a potential embarrassment, since they will compete this year against Intel's own upcoming chip set, which uses standard SDRAM and will likely be overshadowed by the faster DDR SDRAM designs.
Both Acer Laboratories Inc. and Via Technologies Inc. hope to release their chip sets soon. Acer is already shipping a DDR chip set for Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s top-of-the-line Athlon processor, and Fred Leung, assistant vice president for sales and marketing, said it would be "not too long" before the Pentium 4 version rolls.
Via is also selling an Athlon-based DDR chip set, and Paul Ayscough, vice president of marketing, said the company's Pentium 4 version "could be released in the not-too-distant future."
Intel DDR version in 2002
Intel, meanwhile, is working on its own chip set, code-named Brookdale, which will link the Pentium 4 to standard SDRAM. It will be unveiled sometime in the second half of this year, and the company will follow up in the first quarter of 2002 with a DDR version. Intel currently offers the only chip sets that can be used with the Pentium 4, and they work only with Rambus memory.
Intel says that combining the Pentium 4 with Rambus DRAM components creates a compelling performance advantage over competing platforms. But the fact that RDRAM is significantly more costly than SDRAM has limited the deployment of the processor, said Bert McComas, founder and principal analyst for InQuest Market Research (Higley, Ariz.).
Intel has granted Pentium 4 bus licenses to a handful of companies to develop chip sets, including Acer and Silicon Integrated Systems Corp., but not Via. Ayscough contended that his company does not need a license, because of a complicated cross-licensing agreement between Intel and graphics vendor S3 Inc.
In 1997, Ayscough said, S3 acquired some of the patented intellectual property of a failing company called Exponential, which contained features critical to the Pentium 4. After protracted negotiations, S3 and Intel struck a 10-year patent cross-licensing deal that gave Intel the ability to launch its processor, and S3 the right to develop parts that work with the Pentium 4.
When Via and S3 formed a joint venture last year, that cross-licensing agreement moved to the new company, equally owned by both. So, "We already have a license on the table to make chip sets for the Pentium 4," said Ayscough. "The agreement was for 10 years, so we are future-proofed for the next eight years."
Though Intel notes that all the major PC OEMs have Pentium 4-based systems, analyst McComas said the market reception has been weak, as potential customers wait for systems equipped with the more affordable DDR SDRAM.
"Intel needs Via to bring this part out," he said. McComas expects to see Via's chip set on the market shortly, but predicted the Taiwanese company is waiting till Intel launches Northwood, a 0.13-micron version of the P4 that is expected to hit 2 GHz or better, to validate the DDR chip set on both iterations of the processor.
"I believer Via is very close to having this ready to go," McComas said. "Everybody wants to see this part out in the market."
An Intel spokesman said that OEMs have responded favorably to the Pentium 4 used with RDRAM, and that the Brookdale chip set will bring more affordably priced systems to the market. He noted that the company has supported independent chip set vendors such as Acer in order to facilitate the transition of the Pentium 4 into a mainstream product.
However, Dean McCarron, principal analyst for Mercury Research (Scottsdale, Ariz.), said that Intel's planned ramp of the Pentium 4 is based primarily on its own chip set road map, not upon parts from third-party vendors. "If Intel was expecting any third-party parts to help their ramp, it would have been more proactive about granting those licenses early on, and in helping those companies," he said. "And it hasn't."
Via's and Acer's chip sets, once they launch, will be positioned against the SDRAM-only Brookdale, a clear mismatch. "Intel has set themselves up for an embarrassment," said InQuest analyst Greg Fawson. "Comparing the Brookdale, which will use 133-MHz SDRAM, against a DDR chip set from Via [or Acer] will be utterly embarrassing."