Marius's Left Over Bits

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By Marius Gleeson

The latest shipment of motherboards using the new Triton chipset from Intel have finally arrived in Australia. The chipset controls the movement of data around your motherboard, from throwing info to your video card, or reading it from memory. So therefore, the better the chipset the better your machine should run. This new chipset uses the new standards for the PCI bus architecture which includes a new type of burst mode, it can take advantage of a new type of cache memory called Pipelined Burst SRAM, and a new type of main memory known as EDO RAM.

EDO RAM (which stands for Extended data out) allows the CPU to read previously available data while the next memory access is being initiated. This cuts down the waiting time of the CPU when performing main memory access. The new SIMMs will fit into normal 72pin slots and will probably replace standard 72pin SIMMs over the next year or so.

The new cache should give a marginal increase in speed over standard 15ns cache but the actual difference will only be known once some reliable benchmarks have been performed.

There is a catch though, and that's finding these new bits and pieces. Many places can get motherboards with the new chipset, but at the moment you will only be able to get normal cache and standard 72pin SIMMs. Over the next month though you should start seeing ads with the new cache and if you hunt really hard I would suspect you could find someone to get you EDO RAM. By the end of the year they it should all be fairly common place. But what will these new slabs of silicon and plastic do for your system?

Even with just the Triton chipset you will probably get about an extra 10% to 20% increase in overall system performance. There is massive amounts of traffic on the bus lines in a normal system, with data travelling between graphics cards, hard drives and memory. The better this data flow is organised the faster the computer can operate. Most of the tests I have seen show that a system with a Triton chipset will be considerably faster than one without.

I have not seen any reliable benchmarks using Pipelined cache yet, but in theory there should be an improvement that is worth while. Today's fast CPUs need as much information as they can get and the faster they get it the happier they are, especially when talking about the higher end Pentium. This means a lot of memory access and because all memory access is performed by checking in the cache first, the quicker the communication between CPU and cache, the better. There should be at least a couple of percent increase in speed, especially with CPU's like the Pentium 120 and faster.

EDO RAM will give up to a 5% increase in system speed, but will also carry a price tag of about 5% more than normal RAM.

All these improvements should amount to a much smoother running system. At first you may pay a slight premium, but that will disappear once they become more mainstream. The Triton chipset actually costs less to make than previous chipsets but at the moment you will have to pay for it. Something that every new motherboard that has come out recently has, is a built in I/O, hard and floppy drive controller. They all support Enhanced IDE peripherals which mainly include hard drives or CD-ROMS.

Your normal EIDE hard drive uses a special mode called MODE 3. There is however an improvement to this which has appeared over the last month or so and that is MODE 4 compatible hard drives. Mode 3 drives operate at 4500 rotations/sec and give a throughput of up to 11.4 Meg/sec compared to about 2.5 Meg/sec on standard IDE. The newer MODE 4's however will spin at 5400 rpm and have a maximum of 16.7 Meg/sec throughput. To take advantage of these new drives you will also have to buy a Mode 4 controller card, as well as buying the drive.

Newer motherboards (All the ones that are using the Triton chipset) are coming with MODE 4 controllers built in. This is a good reason why it might be worthwhile holding off buying that new system for a few more weeks. There are currently only two hard drive manufactures that are shipping MODE 4 EIDE drives. These are the Seagate Decathlon and the Quantum Fireball. Both are supposed to be nosier than a normal EIDE drive (I can vouch for the Seagate. It quite happily drowns out the noise of my Western Digital) but the quantum is supposed to be the quieter of the two. Western Digital should have one out soon.

The main manufacturer that is shipping motherboards with the Triton chipset is ASUS. The product number for the board with 512k 15ns normal cache is PCI/I-P54TP4, and with 256k (this is the maximum amount for the board) of pipelined cache the code is PCI/I-P55TP4XE (This board should be available around August). There are other companies building boards with Triton, Intel amongst them, but I have not seen many of these in Australia as of yet. Chip designers like VLSI, OPTi and SIS will soon be producing their own chipsets that will have the features of the Intel design. So if your hunting for a new system, or you must have the latest in everything before it becomes standard, I would suggest you find a place that can get you some of these new toys.