Nvidia's chipset debut may open new doors

Analysts say the nForce offers significantly improved graphics performance. It also represents an important strategic move for Nvidia and a potential new ally for AMD on the desktop.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
4 min read
Advanced Micro Devices and Nvidia will make a show of nForce next week.

The new Nvidia nForce chipset for AMD Athlon/Duron, announced in June, will make its debut next week in motherboards and desktop PCs, an Nvidia representative said.

A slew of motherboard makers and some smaller PC makers are expected to announce products based on the new chipset. A chipset is a key component inside a PC, a cluster of chips that serves as the go-between for the processor, system memory and input/output devices such as hard drives. More recently, chipsets including the nForce have grown to adopt graphics as well.

Large brand-name PC makers, including Compaq Computer and Hewlett-Packard, are said to be considering the new chipset for use next year. A Compaq representative, for example, said the company is "evaluating" nForce, but had no immediate product plans for it.

nForce seeks to lure customers by granting moderately priced AMD PCs better overall performance, with much-improved integrated graphics and audio. But the chipset also represents an important strategic move for Nvidia and a potential new ally for AMD on the desktop.

PCs using the chipset will be priced at $900 and up, while motherboards are expected to sell from the "low $100s to the high $100s," depending on configuration of the chipset, the Nvidia representative said.

Analysts say the chipset hits its intended mark, offering significantly better graphics performance than is available in competing chipsets. The additional graphics performance along with other performance tweaks should offer much more bang for the buck in an overall better-performing system, analysts say.

In tests, "the graphics performance on nForce is quite strong," said Dean McCarron, principal at Mercury Research. "It's basically on par with the GeForce2 MX product," he said, which PC makers use widely.

Key puzzle piece
The chipset is an important piece of the performance puzzle for a PC, as evidenced by benchmark tests of Via's KT266A chipset, which pairs Athlon with DDR (double data rate) SDRAM. PCs with the chipset and DDR SDRAM showed as much as 20 percent better performance than similar PCs with AMD's 760, several testers have told CNET News.com.

nForce also represents Nvidia's first foray into the PC chipset business, where it has been working to increase its market share. The chipmaker is also providing a chipset for Microsoft's Xbox game console, based on the same technology.

For AMD, nForce represents a new phase in the evolution of Athlon, now dubbed Athlon XP. AMD recently discontinued its homegrown 760 chipset for desktop PCs. The company will now rely on third parties, including Nvidia, Via Technologies and Silicon Integrated Systems (SiS), to create chipsets for Athlon and Duron chips.

The 760 has "done its job admirably" said an AMD representative, who indicated that AMD feels it is time to move on. The company stopped taking orders for the chipset Oct. 19 but will continue shipments through the end of the first half of next year, he said.

AMD has always favored third-party chipsets for Athlon, preferring to dedicate resources to other areas. Though the strategy has worked well, it has produced setbacks at times. HotRail, for example, abruptly changed strategies and abandoned a project to develop multiprocessor server chipsets for Athlon. (AMD continues to sell its 760MP, its own dual-processor chipset.)

For Nvidia, nForce is the key it hopes will unlock the door into a large chunk of the PC graphics business: chipsets with integrated graphics.

A wave of change
The graphics business has changed drastically in the past couple of years, with low-end PCs integrating graphics directly into the chipset to save costs, abandoning the need for separate graphics chips or boards.

"The market has really moved toward integrated" graphics, said Mike Feibus, principal at Mercury Research. "Everyday users don't need a high-end graphics card."

Three years ago, integrated graphics chipsets were only a small part of the market for PC graphics--about 5 percent, according to Mercury Research. At the end of the second quarter of 2001, integrated graphics chipsets represented 50 percent of the market for PC graphics.

Nvidia must jump into the game or limit itself to only the top half of the PC market, Feibus said.

But nForce takes risks in that it aims to create a market niche where none existed before, a middle-of-the-road between high-end chipsets with no graphics and low-price chipsets with integrated graphics.

Past integrated graphics chipsets, whether for Intel or AMD, have been aimed mainly at the low end of the PC market, where reducing costs is the primary goal and performance is only a secondary consideration.

In PCs where low price is emphasized, "performance isn't the first p that matters," Feibus said

Nvidia maintains that the chipset will be priced competitively and has added the ability to add a separate graphics card. This would allow a PC maker or a consumer to add the board by way of the chipset's AGP port, boosting graphics performance.

Although Nvidia has no formal announcement planned for the upcoming Comdex trade show, the nForce chipset is likely to crop up at the show in both motherboards and PCs.

nForce might someday appear with different processors as well. Nvidia has the technical ability to manufacture a similar chipset for Intel's Pentium 4 chip. However, an Nvidia representative said no such licensing agreement has been granted.

The nForce chipset will come in two flavors: a high-end version, the 420, and a more pedestrian 220. The chipset will include features such as a GeForce2 graphics core and a DDR SDRAM memory controller.