Motherboard Chipsets

We can't talk about modern motherboards without discussing chipsets. The chipset is the motherboard; therefore, any two boards with the same chipsets are functionally identical. The chipset contains the processor bus interface (called front-side bus, or FSB), memory controllers, bus controllers, I/O controllers, and more.

All the circuits of the motherboard are contained within the chipset. If the processor in your PC is like the engine in your car, the chipset represents the chassis. It is the framework in which the engine rests and is its connection to the outside world.

The chipset is the frame, suspension, steering, wheels and tires, transmission, driveshaft, differential, and brakes. The chassis in your car is what gets the power to the ground, allowing the vehicle to start, stop, and corner. In the PC, the chipset represents the connection between the processor and everything else.

The processor can't talk to the memory, adapter boards, devices, and so on without going through the chipset. The chipset is the main hub and central nervous system of the PC. If you think of the processor as the brain, the chipset is the spine and central nervous system.

Because the chipset controls the interface or connections between the processor and everything else, the chipset ends up dictating which type of processor you have; how fast it will run; how fast the buses will run; the speed, type, and amount of memory you can use; and more.

In fact, the chipset might be the single most important component in your system, possibly even more important than the processor. I've seen systems with faster processors be outperformed by systems with slower processor but a better chipset, much like how a car with less power might win a race through better cornering and braking.

When deciding on a system, I start by choosing the chipset first because the chipset decision then dictates the processor, memory, I/O, and expansion capabilities.

Chipset Evolution

When IBM created the first PC motherboards, it used several discrete (separate) chips to complete the design. Besides the processor and optional math coprocessor, many other components were required to complete the system.

These other components included items such as the clock generator, bus controller, system timer, interrupt and DMA controllers, CMOS RAM and clock, and keyboard controller. Additionally, many other simple logic chips were used to complete the entire motherboard circuit, plus. Of course, things such as the actual processor, math coprocessor (floating-point unit), memory, and other parts.

In addition to the processor/coprocessor, a six-chip set was used to implement the primary motherboard circuit in the original PC and XT systems. IBM later upgraded this to a nine-chip design in the AT and later systems, mainly by adding more interrupt and DMA controller chips and the nonvolatile CMOS RAM/Real-time Clock chip.

All these motherboard chip components came from Intel or an Intel-licensed manufacturer, except the CMOS/Clock chip, which came from Motorola. To build a clone or copy of one of these IBM systems required all these chips plus many smaller discrete logic chips to glue the design together, totaling 100 or more individual chips.

This kept the price of a motherboard high and left little room on the board to integrate other functions. In 1986, a company called Chips and Technologies introduced a revolutionary component called the 82C206—the main part of the first PC motherboard chipset.

This was a single chip that integrated into it all the functions of the main motherboard chips in an AT-compatible system. This chip included the functions of the 82284 Clock Generator, 82288 Bus Controller, 8254 System Timer, dual 8259 Interrupt Controllers, dual 8237 DMA Controllers, and even the MC146818 CMOS/Clock chip.

Besides the processor, virtually all the major chip components on a PC motherboard could now be replaced by a single chip. Four other chips augmented the 82C206 acting as buffers and memory controllers, thus completing virtually the entire motherboard circuit with five total chips.

This first chipset was called the CS8220 chipset by Chips and Technologies. Needless to say, this was a revolutionary concept in PC motherboard manufacturing. Not only did it greatly reduce the cost of building a PC motherboard, but it also made designing a motherboard much easier.

The reduced component count meant the boards had more room for integrating other items formerly found on expansion cards. Later, the four chips augmenting the 82C206 were replaced by a new set of only three chips, and the entire set was called the New Enhanced AT (NEAT) CS8221 chipset.

This was later followed by the 82C836 Single Chip AT (SCAT) chipset, which finally condensed all the chips in the set down to a single chip. The chipset idea was rapidly copied by other chip manufacturers. Companies such as Acer, Erso, Opti, Suntac, Symphony, UMC, and VLSI each gained an important share of this market.

Unfortunately for many of them, the chipset market has been a volatile one, and many of them have long since gone out of business. In 1993, VLSI had become the dominant force in the chipset market and had the vast majority of the market share; by the next year, VLSI (which later was merged into Philips Semiconductors), along with virtually everybody else in the chipset market, was fighting to stay alive.

This is because a new chipset manufacturer had come on the scene, and within a year or so of getting serious, it was totally dominating the chipset market. That company was Intel, and after 1994, it had a virtual lock on the chipset market. If you have a motherboard built since 1994 that uses or accepts an Intel processor, chances are good that it has an Intel chipset on it as well.

More recently, Intel has struggled somewhat with chipsets because of its reliance on RDRAM memory. Intel originally signed a contract with Rambus back in 1996 declaring it would support this memory as its primary focus for desktop PC chipsets through 2001.

I suspect this has turned out to be something Intel regrets (the contract has since expired). RDRAM memory has had a significantly higher price than SDRAM memory—although the prices have recently come down a bit—and it does have some performance advantages when used in a dual-channel mode.

There is a lot of momentum in the market for supporting double data rate (DDR) SDRAM. Consequently, Intel introduced the 845 chipset (code named Brookdale), which supports DDR-SDRAM with the Pentium 4. Intel's latest chipsets for Pentium 4, the i865 (code named Springdale) and i875P (code named Canterwood), continue the trend of support for faster DDR SDRAM memory and FSB bus speeds.

Intel is not alone in the Pentium 4 chipset business: Silicon Integrated Systems (SiS), ATI, and ALi Corporation all make licensed chipsets for the Pentium 4. VIA Technologies also makes Pentium 4–compatible chipsets, but without a license, which has greatly limited their popularity with motherboard makers.

Although AMD has developed its own chipsets for the K6 and Athlon family of processors, it now emphasizes encouraging third-party chipset developers to support its products. Today, VIA Technologies is the leading developer of AMD Athlon/Athlon XP/Duron chipsets for both discrete and integrated uses.

The popularity of AMD processors has also encouraged SiS, ATI, NVIDIA, and ALi Corporation to develop chipsets for both Intel-and AMD-based systems.

It is interesting to note that the original PC chipset maker, Chips and Technologies, survived by changing course to design and manufacture video chips and found a niche in that market specifically for laptop and notebook video chipsets. Chips and Technologies was subsequently bought out by Intel in 1998 as a part of Intel's video strategy.