Radeon XPRESS 200’s Performance
Anytime a new chipset comes to the market, especially one from a vendor that is new to the area, there are always going to be questions, doubts and speculations about the performance. When ATI tried to enter the Intel S478 market a year or so ago, their offering there didn’t take off as they had liked, mainly because the performance and feature set were below par when compared to the rest of the market. Fortunately for ATI, with the K8 platform, a healthy part of the performance questions are no longer an issue. The memory controller is one of the most complex parts of the north bridge logic in other chipsts, and now that it has been moved inside the processor on the Athlon 64s, chipset designers have a lot less to worry about.
The main performance factors that remain for chipset designers are graphics buses and storage buses; PCI Express and IDE/SATA in this case. From my understanding, with the new PCIe specifications, there is even less that can be configured or tweaked by the host logic than could be done with the AGP specifications, and thus storage is on front stage. NVIDIA has spent a lot of time and released (privately at least) quite a few incremental enhancements on their IDE and SATA controllers and drivers for them. VIA has done so as well over the past 2 years for their 8237 south bridge. ATI’s XPRESS 200 chipset is still new and thus the same amount of tweaking hasn’t yet been done. That is why we are seeing the slightly lower results in the PCMark, Sysmark, Webmark and Winstone scores. If ATI is taking this chipset venture seriously, then I’d expect to see driver releases that can address this issue of storage speed. We’ll wait to get our hands on some retail boards from ATI to judge for sure, giving ATI some time to come up with something for us.
Radeon XPRESS 200’s Integrated Graphics
You’ll notice that we didn’t do a lot of testing on the performance of the integrated graphics performance on the new ATI XPRESS 200 chipset. We did some testing on the Quake III, UT2003 and older 3DMark benchmarks, but that was it. My reasoning for this is that if you are a gamer planning on playing new games (like Doom 3, Half Life 2 or Far Cry) you really shouldn’t consider having the integrated graphics being your only GPU. It simply isn’t going to cut it with the lastest games and those coming out in the future. Older games, such as those we featured with the IGP benchmarks, can work pretty well with the XPRESS 200. So if that is all that you intend to do with the system you may be building with this chipset, then by all means, use the integrated graphics as you see fit.
This has always been the problem with integrated graphics on enthusiast-based motherboards: the IGP is always significantly slower than the mainstream parts of the time. This is because of the increased cost in adding a more complex GPU, the time of design-to-market that it takes to integrate a GPU onto a north bridge and the fact that ATI and NVIDIA don’t want to gut the sales of their higher-end GPUs (that can be priced higher) with a chipset (that has to have a low price to compete). It is unlikely, because of those three reasons, that we will see integrated graphics on a core logic release anytime soon that is within reach of the current gaming levels of performance.
The ATI XPRESS 200 chipset does fit a void that has been left empty for AMD users since the release of the nForce2 IGP chipset. Users looking for a simple, reliable and inexpensive all in one setup for a second machine, or a family’s machine, will find that area occupied now by the ATI XPRESS 200 chipset motherboards.
Radeon XPRESS 200’s Features
By looking at the spec sheet on our reference board, you’d have to admit that the ATI XPRESS 200 chipset seems to be behind when it comes to features when comparing it to the recently released NVIDIA nForce4 chipset. It doesn’t have any integrated Gigabit Ethernet, or complementing Firewall software with hardware integration. It doesn’t have overclocking software or a RAID utility to offer a lot of usebility to the user. It doesn’t have RAID 0+1 or SATA 3.0Gb/s support. The majority of these offerings are software based, and NVIDIA has spent a lot of time working on this aspect of their technology, and nothing can take that work away from them.
ATI’s offering does include RAID 0 and 1 and 4 SATA device support. ATI claims that Gigabit Ethernet is better served on the PCIe bus anyway, so integrating one into the chipset is useless in today’s market anyway. ATI is also claiming the ability to match their north bridge (with integrated graphics) to any south bridge that uses PCI Express as the interconnect, making it possible for some interesting motherboard chipset combinations from board vendors.
One other feature you may be asking about is SLI support from the ATI XPRESS 200 chipset. While technically, it looks like the north bridge has all the internal workings to support the NVIDIA SLI graphics card technology, just as the VIA chipset does, ATI has no plans of going that route with their chipset. After all, why would ATI want to promote a graphics technology that is going to be NVIDIA-only for the forseeable future? ATI counters with on-board graphics that allows users to have two video cards in their system for four monitor support, just not with any combinational performance benefits.
This chipset release from ATI was a surprise to me when it came up, and now it is just as surprissing now that the testing has finished. ATI has proven themselves a contender in the market with their first attempt at a K8 chipset. The ATI Radeon XPRESS 200 chipset is not just another chipset offering for AMD users; it brings PCI Express to the market as well as a rebirth of the integrated graphics solution for the non-OEM market. The X300-based graphics core isn’t quite ready for heavy gamers, but for users looking at expanding their monitors setups inexpensively, the XPRESS 200 is going to look very appealing. As we expect with K8 chipsets, the XPRESS 200 doesn’t offer anything new in terms of performance, in fact it looks like the IDE and SATA drivers need to be improved a bit. I definitely think that ATI has this chipset in mind to do something along the lines of NVIDIA SLI’s for their own GPU line — it won’t be in this chipsets lifetime, but they need a stepping stone to get there.
Now lets get some retail boards from all these PCIe-based chipsets, VIA’s K8T890, NVIDIA’s nForce4 and now ATI’s XPRESS 200, so we can get some real comparisons going on what future AMD users are going to have inside their systems.