Chipsets For P6 Pentium Pro/II/III Class

Just as Intel clearly dominated the Pentium chipset world, it is also the leading vendor for chipsets supporting its P6 processor families. As discussed earlier, the biggest reason for this is that, since the Pentium first came out in 1993, Intel has been introducing new chipsets (and even complete ready-to-go motherboards) simultaneously with its new processors.

This makes it hard for anybody else to catch up. Another problem for other chipset manufacturers is that they are required to license the CPU bus interface design before they can produce a matching chipset.

Note that because the Pentium Pro, Celeron, and Pentium II/III are essentially the same processor with different cache designs and minor internal revisions, the same chipset can be used for Socket 8 (Pentium Pro), Socket 370 (Celeron/Pentium III), and Slot 1 (Celeron/Pentium II/III) designs. Of course, the newer P6-class chipsets are optimized for the Socket 370 architecture and nobody is making any new designs for Socket 8 or Slot 1.

Intel 450KX/GX (Orion Workstation/Server)

The first chipsets to support the Pentium Pro were the 450KX and GX, both code named Orion. The 450KX was designed for networked or standalone workstations; the more powerful 450GX was designed for fileservers.

The GX server chipset was particularly suited to the server role because it supports up to four Pentium Pro processors for symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) servers, up to 8GB of four-way interleaved memory with ECC or parity, and two bridged PCI buses.

The 450KX is the workstation or standalone user version of Orion and as such it supports fewer processors (one or two) and less memory (1GB) than the GX. The 450GX and 450KX both have full support for ECC memory—a requirement for server and workstation use.

The 450GX and 450KX North Bridge comprises four individual chip components—an 82454KX/GX PCI bridge, an 82452KX/GX data path (DP), an 82453KX/GX data controller (DC), and an 82451KX/GX memory interface controller (MIC). Options for QFP or BGA packaging were available on the PCI Bridge and the DP. BGA uses less space on a board.

The 450's high reliability is obtained through ECC from the Pentium Pro processor data bus to memory. Reliability is also enhanced by parity protection on the processor bus, control bus, and all PCI signals. In addition, single-bit error correction is provided, thereby avoiding server downtime because of spurious memory errors caused by cosmic rays.

Until the introduction of the following 440FX chipset, these were used almost exclusively in fileservers. After the debut of the 440FX, the expensive Orion chips all but disappeared due to their complexity and high cost.

Intel 440FX (Natoma)

The first popular mainstream P6 (Pentium Pro or Pentium II) motherboard chipset was the 440FX, which was code named Natoma. Intel designed the 440FX to be a lower-cost and somewhat higher-performance replacement for the 450KX workstation chipset. It offered better memory performance through support of EDO memory, which the prior 450KX lacked.

The 440FX uses half the number of components that the previous Intel chipset used. It offers additional features, such as support for the PCI 2.1 (concurrent PCI) standard, support for USB, and reliability through ECC.

The concurrent PCI processing architecture maximizes system performance with simultaneous activity on the CPU, PCI, and ISA buses. Concurrent PCI provides increased bandwidth to better support 2D/3D graphics, video and audio, and processing for host-based applications. ECC memory support delivers improved reliability to business system users.

The main features of this chipset include

  • Support for up to 1GB of EDO memory

  • Full 1GB cacheability (based on the processor because the L2 cache and tag are in the CPU)

  • Support for USB

  • Support for Bus master IDE

  • Support for full parity/ECC

The 440FX consists of a two-chip North Bridge. The main component is the 82441FX PCI Bridge and Memory controller, along with the 82442FX Data Bus accelerator for the PCI bus. This chipset uses the PIIX3 82371SB South Bridge chip that supports high-speed Bus Master DMA IDE interfaces and USB, and it acts as the bridge between the PCI and ISA buses.

Note that this was the first P6 chipset to support EDO memory, but it lacked support for the faster SDRAM. Also, the PIIX3 used with this chipset does not support the faster Ultra DMA IDE hard drives.

The 440FX was the chipset used on the first Pentium II motherboards, which have the same basic architecture as the Pentium Pro. The Pentium II was released several months before the chipset that was supposedly designed for it was ready, so early PII motherboards used the older 440FX chipset.

This chipset was never designed with the Pentium II in mind, whereas the newer 440LX was optimized specifically to take advantage of the Pentium II architecture. For that reason, I normally recommended that people stay away from the original 440FX-based PII motherboards and wait for Pentium II systems that used the forthcoming 440LX chipset. When the new chipset was introduced, the 440FX was quickly superseded by the improved 440LX design.

Intel 440LX

The 440LX quickly took over in the marketplace after it debuted in August of 1997. This was the first chipset to really take full advantage of the Pentium II processor. Compared to the 440FX, the 440LX chipset offers several improvements:

  • Support for the new AGP video card bus

  • Support for 66MHz SDRAM memory

  • Support for the Ultra DMA IDE interface

  • Support for USB

The 440LX rapidly became the most popular chip for all new Pentium II systems from the end of 1997 through the beginning of 1998.

Intel 440EX

The 440EX was designed to be a low-cost, lower-performance alternative to the 440LX chipset. It was introduced in April 1998, along with the Intel Celeron processor. The 440EX lacks several features in the more powerful 440LX, including dual processor and ECC or parity memory support.

This chipset is basically designed for low-end 66MHz bus-based systems that use the Celeron processor. Note that boards with the 440EX also fully support a Pentium II but lack some of the features of the more powerful 440LX or 440BX chipsets.

The main things to note about the 440EX are listed here:

  • Designed with a feature set tuned for the low-end PC market

  • Primarily for the Intel Celeron processor

  • Supports AGP

  • Does not support ECC or parity memory

  • Single processor support only

The 440EX consists of an 82443EX PCI AGP Controller (PAC) North Bridge component and the new 82371EB (PIIX4E) South Bridge chip.

Intel 440BX

The Intel 440BX chipset was introduced in April 1998 and was the first chipset to run the processor host bus (often called the front-side bus, or FSB) at 100MHz. The 440BX was designed specifically to support the faster Pentium II/III processors at 350MHz and higher. A mobile version of this chipset is the first Pentium II/III chipset for notebook or laptop systems.

The main change from the previous 440LX to the BX is that the 440BX chipset improves performance by increasing the bandwidth of the system bus from 66MHz to 100MHz. Because the chipset can run at either 66MHz or 100MHz, it allows one basic motherboard design to support all Pentium II/III processor speeds based on either the 66MHz or 100MHz processor bus.

Here are the Intel 440BX highlights:

  • Support for 100MHz SDRAM (PC100); the now-common PC133 RAM can also be installed, but it will still run at just 100MHz

  • Support for both 100MHz and 66MHz system and memory bus designs

  • Support for up to 1GB of memory in up to four banks (four DIMMs)

  • Support for ECC memory

  • Support for ACPI

  • The first chipset to support the Mobile Intel Pentium II processor

The Intel 440BX consists of a single North Bridge chip called the 82443BX Host Bridge/Controller, which is paired with a new 82371EB PCI-ISA/IDE Xcelerator (PIIX4E) South Bridge chip. The new South Bridge adds support for the ACPI specification version 1.0. The 440BX was a popular chipset during 1998 and into 1999. It offered superior performance and high reliability through the use of ECC, SDRAM, and DIMMs.

Intel 440ZX and 440ZX-66

The 440ZX was designed to be a low-cost version of the 440BX. The 440ZX brings 66MHz or 100MHz performance to entry-level Celerons (with or without Level 2 cache) and low-end Pentium II/III systems. The 440ZX is pin compatible with the more expensive 440BX, meaning existing 440BX motherboards can be easily redesigned to use this lower-cost chipset.

Note that two versions of the 440ZX are available: The standard one runs at 100MHz or 66MHz, and the 440ZX-66 runs only at the slower 66MHz.

The features of the 440ZX include the following:

  • Support for Celeron and Pentium II/III processors at up to 100MHz bus speeds

  • These main differences from the 440BX:

    • No parity or ECC memory support

    • Only two banks of memory (two DIMMs) supported

    • Maximum memory only 256MB

The 440ZX is not a replacement for the 440BX; instead, it was designed to be used in less expensive systems (such as those based on the micro-ATX form factor), in which the greater memory capabilities, performance, and data integrity functions (ECC memory) of the 440BX are unnecessary.

Intel 440GX

The Intel 440GX AGP set is the first chipset optimized for high-volume midrange workstations and lower-cost servers. The 440GX is essentially a version of the 440BX that has been upgraded to support the Slot 2 (also called SC330) processor slot for the Pentium II/III Xeon processor. The 440GX can still be used in Slot 1 designs, as well. It also supports up to 2GB of memory, twice that of the 440BX. Other than these items, the 440GX is essentially the same as the 440BX. Because the 440GX is core compatible with the 440BX, motherboard manufacturers could quickly and easily modify their existing Slot 1 440BX board designs into Slot 1 or 2 440GX designs.

The main features of the 440GX include the following:

  • Support for Slot 1 and Slot 2

  • Support for 100MHz system bus

  • Support for up to 2GB of SDRAM memory

This chipset allows for lower-cost, high-performance workstations and servers using the Slot 2–based Xeon processors.

Intel 450NX

The 450NX chipset is designed for multiprocessor systems and standard high-volume servers based on the Pentium II/III Xeon processor. The Intel 450NX chipset consists of four components: the 82454NX PCI Expander Bridge (PXB), 82451NX Memory and I/O Bridge Controller (MIOC), 82452NX RAS/CAS Generator (RCG), and 82453NX Data Path Multiplexor (MUX).

The 450NX supports up to four Pentium II/III Xeon processors at 100MHz. Two dedicated PCI Expander Bridges can be connected via the Expander Bus. Each PXB provides two independent 32-bit, 33MHz PCI buses, with an option to link the two buses into a single 64-bit, 33MHz bus.

The 450NX supports one or two memory cards. Each card incorporates an RCG chip and two MUX chips, in addition to the memory DIMMs. Up to 8GB of memory is supported in total.

The primary features of the 450NX include the following:

  • Slot 2 (SC330) processor bus interface at 100MHz

  • Support for up to four-way processing

  • Support for two dedicated PCI Expander Bridges

  • Up to four 32-bit PCI buses or two 64-bit PCI buses

The 450NX chipset does not support AGP because high-end video is not an issue in network fileservers.