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Review of Final i815/Solano Chipset

A Worthy Successor Of 440BX ...?

All the cracks out there know about the excellent performance supplied by Intel's old 440BX chipset running at 133 MHz FSB. The only problem with this configuration is the fact that BX133-systems are forced to run the AGP beyond spec at 89 MHz, which is not healthy for all AGP 3D cards. Now i815/Solano should finally offer an official solution for people who want a platform for Coppermine Pentium III processors that are using 133 MHz FSB and PC133 SDRAM.

The expectations for i815/Solano are high. Intel's more than two-year-old 440BX chipset proved how excellent the combination of 133 MHZ FSB plus PC133 SDRAM is able to perform and i815/Solano should be at least as fast as its elder cousin. I made a little table to demonstrate why:

FSB Frequencies that are officially supported [MHz]66/100/13366/100/13366/100
FSB Frequencies that are practically supported [MHz]66/100/133 and more66/100/133 and more66/100/133 and more
AGP-clock at 133 MHz FSB66 MHz = within spec66 MHz = within spec89 MHz = beyond spec
PCI-clock at 133 MHz FSB33 MHz = within spec33 MHz = within spec33 MHz = within spec
Memory Clock66 - 133 and above, synchronous or asynchronous to FSB66 - 133 and above, synchronous or asynchronous to FSB66 - 133 and above, synchronous to FSB
AGP Transfer RateUp to AGP4x = 1 GB/s at 133 MHz FSBUp to AGP4x = 1 GB/s at 133 MHz FSBUp to AGP2X = 0.7 GB/s at 133 MHz FSB
ATA SpecATA33/66, higher ATA specs possible with 3rd party onboard ATA chipATA33/66/100ATA33, higher ATA specs possible with 3rd party onboard ATA chip
No. of USB ports242
Integrated GraphicsYesYesNo
Maximal Memory SupportUp to 512 MB PC133 SDRAMUp to 512 MB PC133 SDRAMUp to 1 GB PC133 SDRAM

You can see that i815 looks pretty strong compared to 440BX. The only disadvantage that i815/Solano has versus 440BX is the memory support of only 512 MB. It's certainly not far fetched to expect that Solano should perform either as good or even better than 'BX133', because most i815-specs are identical if not better than BX133, as in case of the ATA standard and the AGP spec.

Ugly Politics

We should not forget that nowadays not performance, but politics are actually ruling the IT world. It's not the better product that wins the market, but the one that's pushed harder. Otherwise the Rambus-stock would be at some well-deserved $5 and nobody would buy RDRAM systems. It's not exactly in Intel's interest to make i815 perform way better than their RDRAM chipsets i820/i840, even though well informed people know from BX133 how well it could perform. Intel needs i815 to offer its disgruntled chipset customers an alternative to RDRAM platforms, but the Rambus-chipsets still need to be pushed and therefore Intel could not let i815 perform significantly better than the much more expensive Rambus solutions. Basically you can say that if i815 should perform as well as or even better than BX133, there was no sensible justification for i820/i840 and RDRAM anymore at all. So Intel had to make a choice. Either i815 would be designed to perform as great as 440BX, which would completely destroy the RDRAM hype, or i815 would be deliberately slowed down, which would upset only the well-informed minority and the overclockers of this world, the other people wouldn't know about this cheesy issue and Intel could still 'prove' that Rambus is better than SDRAM. It's not too surprising that Intel went for the latter. I can tell you already now that i815/Solano will still not be able to reach BX133 performance in the majority of benchmarks, but at least it's beating all the rest, including even Intel's dual-Rambus-channel 840 chipset, in most benchmarks.

The Specs Of I815/Solano

First of all, there are 'two Solanos', the i815/Solano and the i815E/Solano2. Both chipsets are using the same 'north bridge', called 'GMCH' = Graphics Memory Controller Hub. The difference lies in the 'south bridge'. The i815 is using the well-known 'ICH' = I/O Controller Hub that we already know from i810, i810E, 820 and 840. ICH supports ATA66, AC97-stuff and 2 USB ports. The i815E comes equipped with 'ICH2', which adds ATA100, 4 USB-ports and 'Advanced Communication & Network Riser' CNR-slots, which are a beefed up AC97 plus networking. The 'ICH2' can be found in new i820 and i840 boards too, which makes the name of those chipsets change to 'i820E' and 'i840E' as well.

Besides those south bridge features, the 'GMCH' supports processor front side bus clocks of 66, 100 and 133 MHz and the memory clock for the supported SDRAM can be chosen between 100 and 133 MHz as well. Therefore i815 is a platform that can host Celeron processors as well as the latest Coppermine Pentium III processors with 133 MHz FSB. At the same time you can use PC100 as well as PC133 SDRAM. You can also see that i815 does mark an improvement over ZX/BX and i810 for Celeron owners. You can run your Celeron at 66 MHz FSB, but the memory will run at 100 MHz at the same time, thus improving performance.

Most of you already know that i815/Solano includes integrated 3D graphics, which we have not tested yet. In the 3D gaming field the expectations aren't high for this integrated solution, but it's just fine for office applications. People who want to use a high-end 3D-accelerator of their choice can do that by plugging it into the AGP-slot. As soon as that is done, i815 turns its internal graphics off.

Benchmarking Setup

We ran the tests in the same configuration as we used for 'The Giga Battle - Part 2 '. This way we were able to compare our i815 results with the scores of BX, i820, i840 and VIA Apollo Pro 133A without having to re-run the whole batch of benchmarks. Therefore we used the driver release 5.08 for the GeForce graphics card. I still checked if there's a significant difference to the scores under the latest rev. 5.22 drivers and could only find that the Q3-results dropped a bit from 5.08 to 5.22. Hence we feel that there's even a lot of sense in preferring 5.08 over 5.22.

We used the Asus CUSL2 motherboard for this test. We have already reported on this board from Computex in Tom's Computex 2000 News - Part 2 . The platform was very stable and easy to install, as we are used to from Intel-based platforms.

Platform Information
Graphics card for all testsNVIDIA GeForce 256120 MHz Core, 300 MHz DDR-RAM 32 MB
Hard Drive for all testsSeagate Barracuda ATA ST320430A
CPU for all testsIntel Pentium III 1 GHz, 133 MHz FSB
Intel i815E Chipset Final
MotherboardAsus CUSL2, BIOS 1002
Memory128 MB, Wichmann WorkX MXM128 PC133 SDRAM CAS2, settings 2-2-2, 5/7
IDE InterfaceOnboard ICH2, ATA100 capable
Network3Com 3C905B-TX
VIA Apollo Pro 133A Chipset
MotherboardAsus P3V4X, ACPI BIOS 1002 final, March 2000
Memory128 MB, Enhanced Memory Systems PC133 HSDRAM CAS2
IDE InterfacePromise Ultra66 PCI card
Network3Com 3C905B-TX
Intel 440 BX Chipset
MotherboardAsus P3B-F, ACPI BIOS 1005 beta 01, March 2000
Memory128 MB, Enhanced Memory Systems PC133 HSDRAM CAS2
IDE InterfacePromise Ultra66 PCI card
Network3Com 3C905B-TX
Intel 820 Chipset
MotherboardAsus P3C-L, ACPI BIOS 1020 beta 05, March 2000
Memory128 MB, Samsung PC800 RDRAM, RDRAM clock adjusted in BIOS
IDE Interfaceonboard
NetworkOnboard i82559
Intel 840 Chipset
MotherboardOR840, special unreleased BIOS
Memory128 MB, Samsung PC800 RDRAM128 MB, Samsung PC700 RDRAM, running as PC600 RDRAM
IDE Interfaceonboard
NetworkOnboard i82559
Driver Information
Graphics DriverNVIDIA
viagart.vxd for VIA Chipsets4in1 4.17AGP-driver 3.56
ATA DriverPromise Ultra66 driver rev. 1.43Intel Ultra ATA BM driver v5.00.038
Environment Settings
OS VersionsWindows 98 SE 4.10.2222 AScreen Resolution 1024x768x16x85Screen Resolution 1280x1024x32x85 for SPECviewperf
DirectX Version7.0
Quake 2Version 3.20command line = +set cd_nocd 1 +set s_initsound 0Crusher demo, 640x480x16
Quake 3 ArenaRetail Versioncommand line = +set cd_nocd 1 +set s_initsound 0Graphics detail set to 'Normal', 640x480x16Benchmark using 'Q3DEMO1'
ExpendableDownloadable Demo Versioncommand line = -timedemo640x480x16
Unreal TournamentVer. 4.05bhigh quality textures, medium quality skins, no tweaks640x480x16Benchmark using 'UTBench'.