Via, the second largest chipset maker after Intel, announced on Wednesday that it has begun volume shipments of its Apollo P4X266 chipset for Pentium 4. The chipset allows a processor to communicate with other PC components, including memory.
The new Via offering means Pentium 4 PCs using double data rate (DDR) memory could show up as soon as the end of next month, well ahead of Intel's own schedule for introducing DDR in its chipsets.
However, Intel may attempt legal action against Via, which has no publicly disclosed license for the Pentium 4 bus, the pipeline that shuttles data between the processor and memory.
Intel has taken legal action in the past against Via, settling out of court last summer in a similar patent suit over Intel's Pentium III bus. At the time, Via had been manufacturing an unlicensed Pentium III chipset for some months.
Via acknowledges the new chipset is not licensed.
"As far as we know--and nobody has informed us otherwise--currently the Pentium 4 chipset doesn't violate any patents," said Richard Brown, Via's director of marketing. "Therefore, we feel we have the right to bring it to the market."
To be covered, Via must have a direct license from Intel or manufacture the chipset at a fabrication facility that has a license from Intel, such as one owned by IBM, an Intel licensee.
It's also possible that the chipset could also be covered under S3 Graphics' patents. S3 acquired rights to license chipsets from Intel, including a P4 chipset, and later formed a joint venture with Via. The joint venture, 50 percent of which is owned by S3 and 48 percent by Via, holds the former S3 patents.
Legally, that may be sufficient for Via to make the chipset under an S3-Via brand. It is also possible that Via has the rights to the Pentium 4 bus under the Pentium III agreement reached last summer; details of that settlement were not made public.
"Our position is that Via does not have a license for chipsets that are compatible with the Pentium 4...and that's it," said Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy.
"We don't speculate on what we may or may not do on the legal front," he added. However, "It is our belief that the S3 agreement doesn't apply."
Aside from legal issues, the Via chipset works towards some of the same goals Intel has laid out for Pentium 4 of late. Intel has said it wants to reduce the price of the Pentium 4 itself and the systems it goes into to push down the price of Pentium 4 PCs as low as $800. Today's Pentium 4 PCs start at about $1,049.
The Via chipset allows PC makers to create less expensive Pentium 4-based PCs by using DDR rather more costly Rambus-based memory.
Via is also planning for the first half of next year a related Pentium 4 chipset with integrated graphics processor, S3's ProSavage4. The chipset would allow PC makers to further reduce system cost by eliminating the need for a separate graphics processor or graphics board.
Meanwhile, Via says the new P4X266 chipset provides equivalent performance to current Pentium 4 systems with Rambus memory.
Reviews of early P4X266 systems showed the Via chipset outperformed Intel's 850 chipset with Rambus memory on certain benchmark tests such as Winstone, which measures everyday computing tasks. It trailed Rambus memory, but only slightly in other, more graphics intensive benchmarks.
Via's chipset also supports standard SDRAM memory, but the company doesn't think many PC makers will choose to use the memory because DDR's "cost is the same and the performance is far superior," Brown said.
Intel won't support DDR until early 2002.
Instead, the company's 845 chipset, expected in systems in the first week of September, supports only SDRAM at first.
Via said major PC makers are evaluating its Pentium 4 chipset.
"There's strong interest across the board," Brown said.
IBM, for one, has used Via chipsets in the past. Other PC makers, such as Dell Computer, are more likely to stick with Intel and adopt the 845.
Meanwhile, though Via's chipset is the most widely recognized, Acer Labs, ATI Technologies and Silicon Integrated Systems (SIS) also have licensed the P4. SIS recently announced its Pentium 4 chipset, the 645.