To VIA Or Not To VIA – That’s The Question

Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game?

Casey Stengel led the New York Yankees to ten pennants and seven World Series in twelve years. He got fired for not winning a World Series. He soon found himself managing what is arguably the worst baseball team of all time, the 1962 Mets, flustering him enough to utter those words.

Overclockers have had their New York Yankees in the BX board, a chipset that has spawned legendary motherboards capable of overclocking feats virtually unheard of in PC history, delivering triumph after triumph. From the PII 333 and Deschutes 300s through the Celerons and finally the PIII 450, the BX board has spoiled us rotten.

Looking around, I see the motherboards available out there, and got reminded of old Casey. Rather than having the New York Yankees to rely on, it looks more like the Not Yet Ready For Prime Time Players are competing for our motherboard dollars:

And just who are they?

Frankenstein’s Favorites: Yes, the Athlon came out, and yes, it was good, and yes, it could overclock, but did the old Alpha team have to recreate the megawattage required to run the monster, too? The .25 Athlons required about twice the usual wattage, which separated the men from the boys when it came to power supplies, not to mention cooling. It is not good when you get spontaneous reboots because your 300-watt power supply can’t quite keep up. It’s less than great when you can’t run a motherboard faster than 110Mhz, and “golden fingers” mean something outside of a Asian massage parlor. Sure, it was the first generation of motherboards for a powermonger chip that was going to move on shortly to less demanding .18 micron chips, so they were a little rushed and a little flaky. That doesn’t help you if you own one.

AMD has been asking a lot out of mobo manufacturers. First, they wanted something that would run the initial Athlons right away. Next, the KX133 generation of motherboards that can run at 133Mhz FSB are due out shortly. A few months after that, motherboards are supposed to be out that run PC266 memory, and yet others that will run the AthCeleron, oops, Spitfire. A lot of different models to expect within nine months.

I’m not saying AMD is not going to get it right. Late next summer, early next fall, I bet there will be some great motherboards running 1Ghz+ Athlons. That is not now. You aren’t going to see high-performance, affordable .18 micron Athlons around for a while. They will come, just not now or soon.

Intel’s Ineptitudes: What has Intel done over the last six months? First, they decided it was about time to get something out of their half-billion dollar investment in RAMBUS. So they decided that what was good for Intel was good for everyone else, even though RAMBUS was little if any better and cost five times more. Like everyone was complaining bitterly that they weren’t paying enough money for RAM.

Well, everyone started complaining that they didn’t want to go retro on this, but who the hell were they anyway, customers? Besides, the Athlon had hurt Intel’s ego, so Intel decided to do a Chechnya to show just who was boss. First, they came out with the 810, a “challenged” motherboard that must have been designed by the cacheless Celeron team. Then came The Great Successor to the BX boards, the 820, that did everything but work. “OK, OK”, said Intel, “maybe you don’t need RAMBUS right away, so we’ll kludge the board so it can use PC100, but not too well. Remember, you WILL need RAMBUS.”

By this point, some of the major PC OEMs who had bought Intel motherboards and chipsets more faithfully than most Christians go to services realized that Intel was leading them off a cliff for Christmas. So a few did the unspeakable and found those brazen VIA people who had the nerve to offer what everyone but Intel wanted in the first place, a motherboard that could comfortably run at 133Mhz. A little slow, maybe, but better than charging Mac prices for a PC or using yet another BX board. And it was good enough. And they sold. And people didn’t care that there was less Intel Inside.

So Intel decided to sue the messenger, and finally make the right product. Not that they had much choice; they had already made all the wrong ones. Enter Solano (also known as the 815). Will it be good? Who knows? Not like Intel’s had a string of stellar successes lately. But when the only other competition around isn’t as good as a BX board for a lot of things, especially for gaming, you might want to wait.

VIA Vagaries: What about those VIA vagrants with their Apollo Pro and Pro+ motherboards? What do they have? Well, they have a motherboard that does run at 133Mhz without making your expensive video card do unnatural things. The Pro+ does support AGP 4X, too. On the other hand, it’s a little slower than one would like, and while that can be overlooked by the average user, it is weakest at AGP, which is what a gamer does not want. Maybe VIA can come up with better AGP drivers; show me.

There aren’t a whole lot of them out there, either, and while the usual overclocking suspects are starting to come out with them, companies like Abit and AOpen are coming out with the AGP 2X Pro, not the AGP 4X Pro+. The few companies who have come out with Pro+ motherboards so far don’t exactly have the overclocker in mind.

Old Faithful Just Getting Old: Finally, the venerable BX board. Despite its age and AGP limitations, it still is competitive against the new kids on the block, but that AGP 2/3 ratio is a killer. Right now, you want a motherboard that can run 150Mhz to get the most out of these new Coppermines. That means running your video card at 100Mhz rather than 66Mhz. This is bad, but not for the reason most suggest.

I don’t think you are really running your video card 50% faster; simply because I don’t think a single one of them would hold up if that were actually happening. What I think is really happening (and if someone has benchmarking data that contradict this, please let me know) is that these video cards are going into some sort of accelerated 1X AGP mode. Do a little math and you’ll see that one channel going 50% faster is not as good as two regular speed. You may not notice it in most gaming because the game doesn’t push the video card to the 2X max, but when and if you do, I suspect you’ll see that math in action on your screen. Or you may see something much more dramatic and damaging.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and you are risking burnout at any time.


OK, you don’t care. What you should care about is that your video card could well hold you back on the degree of your overclock. The 500E doesn’t seem to be having any problem hitting 750 based on’s database, it is the systems that are holding some back, and AGP speed is the biggest problem.

So What Are We Supposed To Do?

Forgive me, but I’m going to have to use a four-letter word, the worst obscenity anyone with technofever can hear. Wait.

I know you hate that, but if you’re a gamer, you want something that will work well. You have enough folks out to kill you in your games without adding your video card to your list of potential enemies.

“But I can buy a Voodoo 3 PCI card!” Sure you can, but that costs more than a new motherboard, and what are you going to do when you want an NV15? You still have to replace the mobo.

One thing is certain, if you wait a little bit, the Coppermines will get cheaper. In some cases, a lot cheaper. The 500E will drop about $50 in price after Intel’s January price cuts, but the 550E will drop more like $130, down to about the same price the 500E costs now. There’s initial indications the 550E can hit 825. If you wait just a couple weeks, you may get a processor that runs 10% faster for the same price you’d pay today. If the 550E isn’t quite up to that, you can always buy the 500E and save half the price of a new mobo.

Wait another month, and the 600E hits affordable range. I’m more skeptical it will hit 900 (at least initially) with no sweat, but we’ll have to see.

Wait for at least a review of the Solano. If it is as good as a BX with AGP 4X and a 1/2 AGP ratio, it will be worth the wait for gamers over the VIA boards. If it’s any better, that’s gravy. If it sucks, then go out and settle for the Pro+ boards that should be out by then. Or buy the Coppermine in a few weeks, try to get it running for a while on the old BX boards, then replace the board when a good Solano comes out (but I’ve warned you about the video card).

If you really can wait, then figure next fall and a 1Ghz Athlon with one of these 266Mhz bus motherboards.

For right now though, WAIT. Buy the product that suits you. Don’t reward manufacturers by buying lousy products; they might just keep it up. Buy the ones that do.

Email Ed

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