SANTA CLARA, Calif.--With Rambus-based systems still too expensive for mainstream desktop PCs, Intel Corp. next quarter plans to release its Solano chip set, supporting 133-MHz synchronous-DRAM technology. But Intel's chip set operation is playing catch-up to Via Technologies Inc., which last week began shipping its Apollo KX133 chip set for Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s Athlon processor. The chip set supports PC133 memory, an AGP-4X graphics port and AMD's 200-MHz front-side bus.
The shootout between the Solano and Apollo KX133 could make this "one of the most interesting years in a long time, because we have competing, alternative architectures," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Intel's stumble on the road to Rambus memories may have handed a market advantage to Via in chip sets and to Advanced Micro Devices in processors that could last the next several months, analysts said.
Intel's Solano chip set is likely to be renamed the 815 when it goes into production. It is considered an intermediary step between the 810 chip set with integrated graphics and the 820 "Camino" product, which supports the Rambus memory technology. Both the 820 and the latest version of the 810 family, the 810E, feature a 133-MHz front-side bus. Solano is expected to include both an integrated graphics core and an AGP-4X port for users that want to upgrade performance with an add-in graphics card.
Peter Glaskowsky, who tracks chip set and graphics technologies at MicroDesign Resources in Sebastopol, Calif., said Via's KX133 chip set for the Athlon is "essentially equivalent" to Via's Apollo Pro133A chip set for Intel-based systems, which also supports a 133-MHz front-side bus.
Until now, anyone who bought an Athlon-based system didn't get PC133 or the AGP-4X graphics port, which Via supported only on Intel-based systems.
"The OEMs can say, 'now you get all the right features,' and in my opinion, the performance is going to be very good," Glaskowsky said. "Via ships very high-quality chip sets these days. It has put a lot of resources into chip sets over the last two years, and the company ships a much better product now than it did two years ago."
Chip set design is becoming extremely complex, he added. Those difficulties were evident in Intel's 820 line, which was "a big disappointment to OEMs. In order to have a system faster than one based on the older BX product line, they have to use Rambus memory, which is prohibitively expensive." The 820, said Glaskowsky, provides "a way to re-equip the system with a translator that can work with SDRAMs, but that brings on performance problems. So Solano is hopefully going to fix those problems, and I believe it does."
The Solano will be an important product this year because Intel's chip set division has fallen behind its competitors in both desktops and low-end servers. "Intel does offer good desktop chip sets, but they are not as good as Via's right now," said Glaskowsky. "I think they have accepted that and decided to do something about it with Solano. But the situation we are in right now is kind of weird. Here we have this big, successful Intel that has missed out on the sweet spot of the desktop market. And they also have missed out in the 2X and 4X server market where Reliance Computer Corp. is doing so well. That indicates some failing in Intel's chip set operation."
By the middle of this year, Mercury's McCarron expects the PC market to be focused on PC133-based desktops, running a 133-MHz front-side bus, making Solano a crucial product.
"There is a huge vacuum developing in the market, and that is exactly where Solano fits in," McCarron said. "Depending on how long it takes for Intel to fill that gap, it gives Via an entry." Via's advantage will be "pretty much erased by midyear," he added.
The KX133 is equally important for the Athlon camp, because it will help maintain a performance edge over Intel. "Putting faster memory onto the already-fast 200-MHz Athlon bus should give systems a performance boost of 5% to 10%," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for market research firm Insight64 in Saratoga, Calif. "The Athlon is currently running neck and neck with Intel's Coppermine chips, so this chip set is critical for AMD."
In large part, Solano takes on added importance because of Intel's missteps with Rambus DRAMs. Not only are the RDRAM chips expensive, but Intel dropped the ball twice in high-profile delays getting the attendant 820 chip set to market. That caused bad blood with OEMs like Dell Computer, which had bet heavily on the Rambus technology.
With few DRAM companies shipping Rambus DRAMs in volume, and with premiums hovering in the 50% range compared with SDRAMs, McCarron said the RDRAM/820 systems will remain pigeonholed at the very high end this year. "We've heard about continuing yield problems, which are partly due to the fundamental die size penalty on the RDRAMs," he said. "Demand has not been as high as expected."
Michael Slater, editorial director at MicroDesign Resources, said Intel "did misjudge the costs of the RDRAMs. Whether that proves to be a transient problem or a big mistake remains to be seen. There is resistance, but I still expect in the long run that the Rambus technology will be successful." Still, he added, "One thing is clear: The memory market will never be as homogenous as it was last year, when SDRAMs dominated everything."
Slater said AMD appears to be hitting its Athlon production targets, shipping about 800,000 in the fourth quarter of 1999.
Steve Lapinski, director of product marketing at AMD, confirmed that the company is able to meet demand. The company's new fab in Dresden, Germany, is "on track for production in the second half of 2000, using copper" interconnects, he said. At a financial analysts meeting in November, AMD demonstrated a copper-based Athlon running at 900 MHz, he said.
Lapinski said the OEMs using the Athlon are planning to transition to double-data-rate SDRAMs toward the end of this year, rather than to RDRAMs.
"We have a Rambus agreement, but it is our customers that really make the choice of what memory to support," he said. "They have not been asking us to support Rambus."
Avo Kanadjian, who recently left Samsung to join Rambus Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., as marketing vice president, said he is confident the price premium for RDRAMs will decline sharply in the next few months. "I'm not too worried about the premiums," said Kanadjian, who worked for Samsung Semiconductor in marketing positions for seven years. "In this industry, none of the major DRAM makers wants to be totally dependent on one product, SDRAMs. There is always pressure to lower the price per bit, and the same situation will happen with Rambus DRAMs."
True price competition will start once multiple suppliers go into production. "Samsung clearly has the lead now, but a number of others are ready to start mass production. They are confident enough to go into mass production," he said.
The delays in Intel's 820 chip set, and RDRAM manufacturing challenges, caused "everything to be shifted by a quarter in terms of the price curve. If we allow for that shift, things are still on track," Kanadjian said.