Chipsets For P5 Pentium Class

With the advent of the Pentium processor in March 1993, Intel also introduced its first Pentium chipset: the 430LX chipset (code named Mercury). This was the first Pentium chipset on the market and set the stage as Intel took this lead and ran with it.

Other manufacturers took months to a year or more to get their Pentium chipsets out the door. Since the debut of its Pentium chipsets, Intel has dominated the chipset market.

Intel 430LX (Mercury)

The 430LX was introduced in March 1993, concurrent with the introduction of the first Pentium processors. This chipset was used only with the original Pentiums, which came in 60MHz and 66MHz versions. These were 5V chips and were used on motherboards with Socket 4 processor sockets.

The 430LX chipset consisted of three total chips for the North Bridge portion. The main chip was the 82434LX system controller. This chip contained the processor-to-memory interface, cache controller, and PCI bus controller. There was also a pair of PCI bus interface accelerator chips, which were identical 82433LX chips.

The 430LX chipset was noted for the following:

  • Single processor

  • Support for up to 512KB of L2 cache

  • Support for up to 192MB of standard DRAM

This chipset died off along with the 5V 60/66MHz Pentium processors.

Intel 430NX (Neptune)

Introduced in March 1994, the 430NX was the first chipset designed to run the new 3.3V second-generation Pentium processor. These were noted by having Socket 5 processor sockets and an onboard 3.3V/3.5V voltage regulator for both the processor and chipset.

This chipset was designed primarily for Pentiums with speeds from 75MHz to 133MHz, although it was used mostly with 75MHz–100MHz systems. Along with the lower voltage processor, this chipset ran faster, cooler, and more reliably than the first-generation Pentium processor and the corresponding 5V chipsets.

The 430NX chipset consisted of three chips for the North Bridge component. The primary chip was the 82434NX, which included the cache and main memory (DRAM) controller and the control interface to the PCI bus. The actual PCI data was managed by a pair of 82433NX chips called local bus accelerators.

Together, these two chips, plus the main 82434NX chip, constituted the North Bridge. The South Bridge used with the 430NX chipset was the 82378ZB System I/O (SIO) chip. This component connected to the PCI bus and generated the lower-speed ISA bus.

The 430NX chipset introduced the following improvements over the Mercury (430LX) chipset:

  • Dual processor support

  • Support for 512MB of system memory (up from 192MB for the LX Mercury chipset)

This chipset rapidly became the most popular chipset for the early 75MHz–100MHz systems, overshadowing the older 60MHz and 66MHz systems that used the 430LX chipset.

Intel 430FX (Triton)

The 430FX (Triton) chipset rapidly became popular after it was introduced in January 1995. This chipset is noted for being the first to support extended data out (EDO) memory, which subsequently became very popular. EDO was about 21% faster than the standard fast page mode (FPM) memory that had been used up until that time but cost no more than the slower FPM.

Unfortunately, although it was known for faster memory support, the Triton chipset was also known as the first Pentium chipset without support for parity checking for memory. This was somewhat of a blow to PC reliability and fault tolerance, even though many did not know it at the time.

The Triton chipset lacked parity support from the previous 430NX chipset, but it also supported only a single CPU. The 430FX was designed as a low-end chipset for home or non-mission-critical systems. As such, it did not replace the 430NX, which carried on in higher-end network fileservers and other more mission-critical systems.

The 430FX consisted of a three-chip North Bridge. The main chip was the 82437FX system controller that included the memory and cache controllers, CPU interface, and PCI bus controller, along with dual 82438FX data path chips for the PCI bus. The South Bridge was the first PIIX (PCI ISA IDE Xcelerator) chip that was a 82371FB.

This chip not only acted as the bridge between the 33MHz PCI bus and the slower 8MHz ISA bus, but also incorporated for the first time a dual-channel IDE interface. By moving the IDE interface off the ISA bus and into the PIIX chip, it was now effectively connected to the PCI bus, enabling much faster Bus Master IDE transfers. This was key in supporting the ATA-2 or Enhanced IDE interface for better hard disk performance.

The major points on the 430FX are

  • Support for EDO memory

  • Support for higher speed—pipelined burst L2 cache

  • PIIX South Bridge with high-speed Bus Master IDE

  • Lack of support for parity-checked memory

  • Only single CPU support

  • Supported only 128MB of RAM, of which only 64MB could be cached

That last issue is one that many people are not aware of. The 430FX chipset can cache only up to 64MB of main memory. So, if you install more than 64MB of RAM in your system, performance suffers greatly. At the time, many didn't think this would be that much of a problem—after all, they didn't usually run enough software to load past the first 64MB anyway.

That is another misunderstanding because Windows 9x and NT/2000 (as well as all other protected-mode operating systems including Linux and so on) load from the top down. So, for example, if you install 96MB of RAM (one 64MB and one 32MB bank), virtually all your software, including the main operating system, loads into the noncached region above 64MB.

Needless to say, performance would suffer greatly. Try disabling the L2 cache via your CMOS Setup to see how slowly your system runs without it. That is the performance you can expect if you install more than 64MB of RAM in a 430FX-based system. Some thought this was a Windows limitation, but it is instead caused by the chipset design.

Intel 430HX (Triton II)

Intel created the Triton II 430HX chipset as a true replacement for the powerful 430NX chip. It added some of the high-speed memory features from the low-end 430FX, such as support for EDO memory and pipeline burst L2 cache. It also retained dual-processor support.

In addition to supporting parity checking to detect memory errors, it added support for error correcting code (ECC) memory to detect and correct single bit errors on-the-fly. And the great thing was that this was implemented using plain parity memory.

The HX chipset's primary advantages over the FX are

  • Symmetric multiprocessor (dual processor) support.

  • Support for ECC and parity memory.

  • 512MB maximum RAM support (versus 128MB).

  • L2 cache functions over 512MB RAM versus 64MB (providing optional cache tag RAM is installed).

  • Memory transfers in fewer cycles overall.

  • PCI Level 2.1 compliance that allows concurrent PCI operations.

  • PIIX3 supports different IDE/ATA transfer speed settings on a single channel.

  • PIIX3 South Bridge component supports USB.

The memory problems with caching in the 430FX were corrected in the 430HX. This chipset allowed for the caching of the full 512MB of possible RAM as long as the correct amount of cache tag was installed. Tag is a small cache memory chip used to store the index to the data in the cache.

Most 430HX systems shipped with a tag chip that could manage only 64MB of cached main memory, although you could optionally upgrade it to a larger capacity tag chip that would enable caching the full 512MB of RAM. The 430HX chipset was a true one-chip North Bridge.

It was also one of the first chips out in a ball-grid array (BGA) package, in which the chip leads are configured as balls on the bottom of the chip. This enabled a smaller chip package than the previous plastic quad flat pack (PQFP) packaging used on the older chips, and, because only one chip existed for the North Bridge, a very compact motherboard was possible.

The South Bridge was the PIIX3 (82371SB) chip, which enabled independent timing of the dual IDE channels. Therefore, you could install two different speed devices on the same channel as master/slave and configure their transfer speeds independently.

Previous PIIX chips allowed both devices on a single cable to work at the lowest common denominator speed supported by both. The PIIX3 also incorporated the USB for the first time on a PC motherboard. Unfortunately at the time, no devices were available to attach to USB, nor was there any operating systems or driver support for the bus. USB ports were a curiosity at the time, and nobody had a use for them.

The 430HX supports the newer PCI 2.1 standard, which allowed for concurrent PCI operations and greater performance. Combined with the support for EDO and pipelined burst cache, this was perhaps the best Pentium chipset for the power user's system. It offered excellent performance, and with ECC memory it offered a truly reliable and stable system design.

The 430HX was the only modern Intel Pentium-class chipset to offer parity and error-corrected memory support. This made it the recommended Intel chipset at the time for mission-critical applications, such as fileservers, database servers, business systems, and so on.

Intel 430VX (Triton III)

The 430VX was designed to be a replacement for the low-end 430FX chipset; it was not a replacement for the higher-powered 430HX chipset. As such, the VX has only one significant technical advantage over the HX, but in almost all other respects it is more like the 430FX than the HX.

The VX has the following features:

  • Supports 66MHz SDRAM

  • No parity or ECC memory support

  • Single processor only

  • Supports only 128MB RAM

  • Supports caching for only 64MB RAM

Most notable was the support for SDRAM, which was about 27% faster than the more popular EDO memory used at the time. Although the support for SDRAM was a nice bonus, the actual improvement in system speed derived from such memory was somewhat limited.

This was because with a normal L1/L2 cache combination, the processor read from the caches 99% of the time. A combined miss (both L1 and L2 missing) happened only about 1% of the time while reading/writing memory. Thus with SDRAM, the system would be up to 27% faster, but only about 1% of the time. Therefore, the cache performance was actually far more important than main memory performance.

As with the 430FX, the VX has the limitation of being capable of caching only 64MB of main memory. Therefore, installing more than 64MB of memory actually slows down the system dramatically because none of the memory past that point can be cached. Because Windows loads from the top of memory down, installing any amount of memory greater than 64MB in a system using this chipset dramatically decreases performance.

The 430VX chipset was rapidly made obsolete in the market by the 430TX chipset that followed.

Intel 430TX

The 430TX was Intel's final Pentium chipset. It was designed not only to be used in desktop systems, but to replace the 430MX mobile Pentium chipset for laptop and notebook systems. The 430TX had some refinements over the 430VX, but, unfortunately, it still lacked support for parity or ECC memory and retained the 64MB cacheable RAM limitation of the older FX and VX chipsets.

The 430TX was not designed to replace the more powerful 430HX chipset, which still remained the chipset of choice for Pentium class mission-critical systems. The TX chipset features include the following:

  • 66MHz SDRAM support

  • Cacheable memory still limited to 64MB

  • Support for Ultra-ATA, or Ultra-DMA 33 (UDMA) IDE transfers

  • Lower power consumption for mobile use

  • No parity or ECC memory support

  • Single processor only

Third-Party (Non-Intel) P5 Pentium Class Chipsets

The development of non-Intel Pentium-class chipsets was spurred by AMD's development of its own equivalents to the Pentium processor—the K5 and K6 processor families. Although the K5 was not a successful processor, the K6 family was very successful in the low-cost (under $1,000) market and as an upgrade for Pentium systems.

AMD's own chipsets aren't used as often as other third-party chipsets, but AMD's capability to support its own processors with timely chipset deliveries has helped make the K6 and its successors—the Athlon, Athlon XP, and Duron—into credible rivals for Intel's Pentium MMX and Pentium II/III/4/Celeron families and has spurred other vendors, such as VIA, Acer Laboratories, and SiS, to support AMD's processors.

Major third-party chipsets for Pentium-class processors include:

  • AMD 640

  • VIA Apollo VP1, VP2, VPX, VP3, MVP3, and MVP4

  • ALi Aladdin 4, Aladdin 5, and Aladdin 7

  • SiS SiS540, SiS530/5595, SiS5598, SiS5581, SiS5582, SiS5571, SiS5591, and SiS5592

Most computers that use these chipsets have been retired.