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VIA launches controversial Pentium 4 chipset

Intel's legal dogs yet to bite despite barks

VIA went and released its Pentium 4 chipset, the Apollo P4X266, as a full commercial product this morning - in defiance of dire threats of legal action from Intel.

The part itself hooks the P4's 400MHz frontside bus to the rest of the system, including up to 4GB of PC266 DDR SDRAM. That, says VIA, gives users twice the memory bandwidth of a PC133-based system for the same "cost structure". The upshot is a 15 per cent performance lead - as measured by Quake III framerates, among other tests - over "equivalently configured systems featuring alternative core logic chipset and memory solutions".

Speaking of "cost structures", the P4X266 is indeed as cheap as early hints suggested. The part comes in a $34 in "OEM quantities" - if you buy a lot in one go, in other words.

The chipset will also support PC133 for OEMs looking to punch out ultra-cheap P4 systems. The P4X266 will work with both Socket 423 and Socket 478 P4s.

In addition, there's the usual ATA-100 and AGP 4x support. And the chipset's north and south bridge are connected by a 266MBps bus technology called V-Link. The P4X266's own north bridge can be hooked up to a variety of south-bridge chips, depending on the level of functionality a PC maker or mobo maker wants to add.

VIA notes the P4X266's north bridge is pin-compatible with its upcoming integrated version of the part, the P4M266 - confirmation, if any were needed, that the company is indeed working on the next part in its P4 line.

Why not release the two together? you might ask. Presumably, that's a cautionary measure lest Intel follow through on its recently reiterated threats to sue the pants off any company shipping an unauthorised P4 chipset - or, indeed, any mobo maker that offers a board based on one.

Intel maintains the P4X266 isn't authorised, but when pushed on whether it will initiate legal proceedings against VIA, its spokesfolks just mumble something about waiting to see what the chipset is actually like. That suggests the chip giant reckons sabre rattling is more effective than declaring war in this case.

For its part, VIA is hiding behind its acquisition of S3 Graphics. The part may be the "VIA Apollo P4X266" but it's "manufactured by S3 Graphics", or so says the company's press release. VIA isn't fooling anyone, but it suggests the company is as uncertain of the strength of its argument as Intel is. VIA's line has always been that it bought S3 Graphics, so it owns S3's P4 technology licence, so it has the right to make P4 chipsets. Suddenly putting the ball back in S3 Graphic's court, as it were, implies VIA is worried it might not be able to win on that argument.

And if Intel does sue, the S3 Graphics manoeuvre ensures that the chip giant will have to sue the subsidiary, not the parent company. If it goes against VIA, S3 Graphics takes the hit, not the name brand. Subtle, huh? ®

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