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VIA PT800 preview - Getting acquainted
VIA, still the market leader in chipsets on the AMD platform, albeit in a walking wounded state after NVIDIA's bullish gains in that segment through their hugely popular nForce 2 chipset; today launch their first Pentium 4 chipset after it's long running but recently ended litigation with Intel. It is also the first chipset to be officially licensed from Intel. Given the PT800 label VIA have managed to garner support from a number of the large motherboard manufacturers, whom we've seen virtually desert them in the past 8 months. With names such as Asus, Abit, Gigabyte, and MSI thrown into the mix, VIA are pushing hard to build a name for themselves in the Pentium 4 market.


Just before we discuss the PT800 in further detail, it's important to inspect the Pentium 4 chipset market. With 865 and 875P Intel have targeted the lion share of the Market with the former going for the mainstream and the latter aimed squarely at the high-end/workstation segment. In the past year we have witnessed a great turnaround from the Santa Clara giant, from using strong arm tactics to get rid of competitors they have produced several good chipsets in succession. The first big move was the 845PE/GE (and to a lesser extent 845GV) and then in April came 875P otherwise known as Canterwood. Following that Intel produced its mainstream and value offerings in the shape of Springdale, or 865PE/P/G. But things going all Intel's way aren't always a good thing and a couple of weeks ago we were pretty excited about ATI's new integrated offering, the Radeon 9100 IGP.

The Radeon 9100 IGP is aimed at the value and low-end sectors of the market. Whilst this isn't as lucrative as the mainstream sector, it does offer a great stepping stone for the future and we shouldn't forget that this is ATI's first chipset. Even their great rival NVIDIA had a hard time selling their first chipset, the nForce, but came back with what can only be described as an all conquering product in the form of nForce 2. Whilst VIA maybe licking their wounds in the AMD sector, they are far from being down and out. The mainstream Pentium 4 market is worth a lot more than the equivalent AMD market and VIA wants a slice of that pie. The only problem is, with the 865P and G versions also aiming to take that same pie, there will be a fight for who ends up with the bigger piece.

The way VIA sees the market and aims the PT800 is something like this :


One thing that is definitely correct with that diagram is its shape. The mainstream is where most of the volume in sales occurs and therefore ends up being the most lucrative segment of the lot. Don't count out the high-end or workstation segments either, whilst they may not have the volume to match the mainstream, there is great deal of pride that comes from having the best product in the high-end. Technology follows a waterfall pattern, where what is at the high-end becomes the mainstream after a certain time period.

VIA is targeting the mainstream pretty aggressively offering features we really wouldn't class as mainstream, at least not yet. Things like Serial ATA are interesting to see in the mainstream, however we shouldn't complain as it is the consumer who benefits from aggressive feature listings. With Intel launching HyperThreading processors throughout their line, VIA were definitely correct to offer support for this.

What maybe a little more suspect is the price range VIA believe the high-end starts at. The problem from VIA's point of view is that the 865 chipset isn't meant for the high-end segment and pricing follows accordingly. With the likes of Asus, Abit and MSI all offering 865P and 865PE offerings around the 80 mark that leaves a very small gap for the PT800 to fit in. One can even purchase motherboards based on Intel's high-end offering, the 875P for around the 110 mark (sans gigabit Ethernet).

VIA's aim is to position the PT800 in-between Intel's aging 845 chipset and the 865/875 duo. It's going to be a very tight squeeze with 845PE chipset motherboards selling around the 55-65 range (on average), there isn't a great deal of room to play around with. Manufacturers are going to have to place their PT800 based units around the 55-65 mark. VIA sees it around the 70, but we hope that motherboard manufacturers have the sense to price it lower, as at that price Intel's 865 offers similar features plus a few more. As we'll find out the PT800 does have many advantages over the old 845, so it should eat that up for breakfast. But it's a tricky balancing act.

Now we've talked about the environment the PT800 has to live and fit into, so let's take a look at the product itself.