Weekly Platform Trends: The AMD DDR Socket A Platform

With the release of the Athlon 1.3 and 1.33 GHz processors, AMD has yet another weapon in the escalating processor war. AMD is also making waves with their support for DDR memory, and are promoting it as the perfect match for their 266 MHz DDR processors. The AMD DDR platform has also been helped immensely by the large selection of DDR-capable motherboard chipsets. AMD states a figure of “more than 50 DDR-based motherboards from 20 different motherboard manufacturers” which are either available or in development for their Socket A platform, so it looks like a prime area for further exploration.


The AMD DDR Socket A Platform

The main reason for the AMD transition to DDR (Double Data Rate) memory was simply one of necessity. The AMD DDR EV6 system bus is already double-pumped and able to transfer data on both edges of the clock cycle. As processor speeds increased, the ability of basic SDRAM to keep up was sorely tested, especially with the higher clocked, 100 MHz FSB (200 DDR) processors. Once AMD ramped up their 133 MHz (266 DDR) Athlons, the issue of available memory bandwidth was lessened but it did not go away. Adding DDR to the Socket A mix allows the new 266 DDR Athlons to really strut their stuff, and translates into a balanced 2.1 GB/s of bandwidth for both the system and memory bus.

The most prevalent AMD DDR chipset is the AMD 760, and it is featured in a multitude of motherboard and system configurations. In fact, on the AMD Recommended Motherboard list, no product but the AMD 760 is listed for any of the 266 MHz DDR Athlons. The AMD 760 is a basic performance chipset, with very few amenities or integrated features. The ASUS A7M266 is has a reputation as the AMD 760 performance leader, though the Gigabyte GA-7DX, the MSI K7 Master (MS-6341) and the AOpen MK7A are also quality products.

With the popularity of the KT133 and KT133A chipsets, it is no surprise that VIA Technologies is also a player in the AMD DDR platform market. The VIA KT266 is a powerful Socket A DDR chipset, but one that also features integrated AC-97 audio and modem options. Although it is still very early on, the KT266 does not seem to be garnering the market support of previous Socket A chipsets. There are a few name brand KT266 products available, such as the MSI K7T266 Pro.

ALi (Acer Laboratories Inc.) is also at the forefront of the Socket A DDR platform and was actually the first to formally announce a DDR Socket A chipset. Their ALiMAGiK 1 chipset is quite innovative in that it not only supports PC2100/PC1600 DDR RAM, but also 66/100/133 MHz SDRAM as well. The ALiMAGiK 1 includes integrated audio through the M1535D+ Southbridge and allows the addition of software modem capabilities as well. Popular ALiMAGiK 1 motherboards include the ASUS A7A266, the Iwill KA266-R, the MSI K7MG Pro, and the Soyo SY-K7ADA.

Although not as well known as the other AMD DDR solutions, SiS also has its own Socket A DDR chipset, the SiS735. Like the ALiMAGiK 1, the SiS735 features an integrated DDR/SDRAM memory controller, allowing it to support both memory formats. Another very attractive feature of the SiS735 is that its Southbridge controller provides a total communication solution incorporating both 10/100Mb Fast Ethernet and 1Mb/10Mb HomePNA and making it a natural for office or home networking implementations. Although motherboards featuring the SiS735 are just starting to appear, ChainTech has announced their upcoming CT-7SID.

The major motherboard companies seem to have adopted the DDR RAM platform in one form or another. This acceptance of AMD DDR solutions has taken place with very few exceptions, and the major players such as ASUS, AOpen, MSI, Gigabyte, Soyo, etc. all have at least one AMD Socket A DDR product. The only curious abstention is ABIT, which continues to stick with the popular KT133A/SDRAM platform for their current performance Socket A motherboards.


CPUs and DDR Memory

AMD is positioning the new Athlon 1.33 GHz/DDR combination as the highest performing x86 platform available. This translates into high-end AMD workstations or SOHO PCs, using with the most demanding applications. The link between the 266 MHz DDR Athlons and DDR memory is a valid one, given that when using a standard 200 MHz DDR Athlon or Duron, the DDR data rate also ramps down to match the system bus. This lack of asynchronous memory speeds means that when looking to get the most performance from the AMD DDR platform, one of the faster 266 MHz DDR processors is almost a requirement.


AMD CPU Prices


The majority of Athlon processors did not see much of a price decrease, except at the very high end. Both the 1.0 GHz (266 DDR) and 1.1 GHz models had a noticeable price drop, while the rest of the line remained stagnant or moved down only a few dollars. This week’s sweet spot is either the Athlon 1.0 GHz or 1.1 GHz, both of which offer incredible price performance ratios. Due to the release of the 1.3 GHz and 1.33 GHz Athlons, next week may herald another round of price decreases, especially for those of the 266 MHz DDR variety.


At their current rock-bottom pricing structure, there is really very little room for the AMD Duron to move. As such, prices remained relatively static and only two models even had nominal price decreases. For those seeking a value configuration, the Duron 750 is a great deal at under $50 but for a higher performance platform, the Duron 850 is still a very practical choice. The Duron ‘s low price makes it a very flexible processor and it can be combined with a value, integrated solution or paired with a higher end KT133/A for an economical, mid-range PC.

AMD Upgrades

The ability of the processor market to equalize itself never ceases to astonish. Last week, the incredible price point of the Slot A Athlon 950 stood out like a sore thumb, and this week it heartily gained $27. While it is still a very good deal, the Athlon 900 has a slightly better price point, especially if upgrading from a lower-end Slot A Athlon 500-600 MHz platform. As with the Intel Slot 1 processor market, those looking to upgrade are advised to watch the processor prices closely and make the call when the time is right. The Athlon 950 example should illustrate quite nicely the potential for price volatility in the CPU upgrade market.


Intel CPU Prices

Pentium III

The nucleus of the Pentium III line takes a slight price dip this week, with the Pentium III 700 to 1 GHz models easing down the price scale. This leaves the Pentium III 750 to 850 MHz models at a very attractive price point, and the 133-MHz 800EB version enjoys a discount over its 100 MHz brethren. With both Intel and VIA chipsets fully supporting the 133 MHz FSB and PC133 priced so low, there is no reason to buy a 100 MHz Pentium III for a new system or fleet purchase. Those are primarily for the upgrade market, and hence the slightly higher prices.


While there is some action at the very low end of the Celeron line, many of these chips are not available in volume and have slide off the current platform charts. The mainstream Celeron 633-800 prices look frozen in time, with no change from the previous week. Competition from both Duron and Pentium III options makes the Celeron seem to be a viable platform only when paired with a highly integrated motherboard in a value configuration.

Pentium 4

Last week we witnessed a bit of equalization between the Pentium 4 Retail and OEM versions, with the OEM dropping and the Retail standing pat. This time out, both sides of the Pentium 4 coin drop noticeably, and the P4-1.5 GHz OEM particularly. This is good news for companies transitioning to a new Pentium 4 fleet, since as the OEM prices go, so do the major system integrators. The Pentium 4-1.4 GHz OEM achieves the best price point once again, being a mere $10 more expensive than the 1.3 GHz OEM but well under the 1.5 GHz pricing.

Intel Upgrades

Owners of older Intel LX/BX systems get more bad news as prices continue to be higher for the Pentium III 533, 550 and 600 MHz Katmai processors. The lower speed Pentium III 500 did experience a price drop, though it is still much more expensive than the Coppermine variety. On the high end, we see the Pentium III 1 GHz/100 MHz experience yet another price hike up to almost $300. At this rate, this high demand/low supply processor will soon be more expensive than an entry level Pentium 4. Those looking for a quick system or fleet upgrade should bite the bullet and place their orders before prices go higher and supplies dwindle even more.


Memory Prices


Last week’s flattening of the SDRAM pricing has been replaced by a slight downward trend this week. SDRAM prices are still relatively flat, and represent an excellent opportunity for major client PC or workstation memory upgrades. This is also a perfect time to raise the base memory requirements for new computer purchases, as prices are low but may not stay there over the longer term.


On the PC1600 low end of the DDR spectrum, the price of 64 MB actually crept up a bit, while the PC2100 DDR modules remained the same as last week. This helps DDR RAM maintain its competitive pricing with SDRAM, and ensures that the growing AMD DDR platform will have an economical and accessible memory source. The wide selection of Socket A DDR chipsets is also a good omen, and increased market penetration may help to maintain or even lower current DDR RAM pricing levels.


The PC600 and PC700 RDRAM formats continue to see wild swings in overall pricing. This is highly representative of after-market demand, and for those contemplating new Pentium 4 systems, the PC800 price is the only one that should matter. In this area, the news is very good and there have been major price cuts to both 64 MB and 256 MB modules. RDRAM is still more expensive than either SDRAM or DDR RAM, but as the weeks go by the price differential continues to shrink.


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