Unannounced Intel P4 chipsets appear in Tokyo

Once again, the component shops in Tokyo's Akihabara electronics district have beaten Intel to the punch by putting on display computer motherboards based on engineering samples of two unannounced Intel chipsets.

The first board, produced by Taipei's Asustek Computer Inc., is based on Intel's 845G chipset, which the semiconductor maker is expected to officially unveil in mid-May. A chipset works alongside the processor and handles the interface between the processor and the rest of the computer. In the case of the 845G, the chipset is designed to work with Intel's Pentium 4.

At present, the connection between the processor and chipset, called the front-side bus, operates at 400MHz on Pentium 4s, although with the 845G Intel is starting the move to the higher speed of 533MHz. The nearly one-third jump in speed is expected to deliver performance benefits to users when coupled with Pentium 4 processors that support the new speed, which are also expected to be unveiled next month.

In addition, the 845G chipset includes an integrated graphics processor, thus removing the need for PC makers to include a separate graphics card. This should lead to lower costs on finished systems. However, not wishing to drive away customers who want higher performance graphics than the chipset can deliver, support for an AGP (Advanced Graphics Protocol) graphics board is retained.

Alongside the new 845G sample board, a sample board based on another yet to be announced Intel chipset, the 845GL, is on display. Like the prior chip, the 845GL has graphics support on board, although it does not support an additional AGP graphics board. It also does not support the faster 533MHz front-side bus, offering support for the current 400MHz speed only, and so is likely to be used in lower-end systems built around Intel's value line of Celeron processors.

The Asustek P4B533-VM board, which is based on the 845G, offers a single AGP slot, 3 PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) slots, 2 slots for DDR266 memory and integrated graphics, audio and Ethernet support, while the Asus P4BGL-VM, based on the 845GL, offers 3 PCI slots, 2 slots for DDR266 memory and integrated audio and Ethernet support. Both are expected on sale in mid-May, said staff at the Faith store in Akihabara.

It is not the first time retailers in Akihabara have been able to obtain Intel products before they have been officially announced. As recently as two weeks ago, versions of Intel's 2.4GHz Pentium 4 processor were on sale -- several days before its official launch -- and last year retailers managed to beat both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) several times. Most of the chips and boards are obtained from manufacturers in neighboring Taiwan, who receive them before the launch date to enable systems with the new chips to be available from the day they are announced.

With the Intel-based boards expected to hit the market in around one month, boards based on the 645DX chipset from Intel rival Silicon Integrated Systems Corp. (SiS) and offering support for the 533MHz front-side bus went on sale this week. Officially, the 645DX only supports the 400MHz front-side bus, but "it can be overclocked to 533MHz," said Jessie Lin, a spokeswoman at Hsinchu, Taiwan-based SiS.

This SiS chipset does not include integrated graphics however does support DDR333 memory, which is the next speed up from the DDR266 supported in the Intel chipset and also promises better performance for users. A board from Asus based on the 645DX, the P4S333, offers 6 PCI slots, 1 AGP 4X slot, 3 memory slots supporting DDR333 memory and is on sale for around ¥17,000 (US$130) at several retailers in the area.

(Sumner Lemon, in Taipei, contributed to this report.)

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Martyn Williams

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