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The system chipset and controllers are the logic circuits that are the intelligence of the
motherboard. They are the "traffic cops" of the computer, controlling data transfers
between the processor, cache, system buses, peripherals--basically everything inside the
computer. Since data flow is such acrit ical issue in the operation and performance of so
many parts of the computer, the chipset is one of the few components that have a truly
major impact on your PC's quality, feature set, and speed.
What exactly is a "chipset"? It sounds like something very complex but really is not,
although many of the functions it performs are. A chipset is just a set of chips. (He ducks
to avoid the flying vegetables. :^) ) At one time, most of the functions of the chipset were
performed by multiple, smaller controller chips. There was a separate chip (often more
than one) for each function: controlling the cache, performing direct memory access
(DMA), handling interrupts, transferring data over the I/O bus, etc. Over time these chips
were integrated to form a single set of chips, or chipset, that implements the various
control features on themotherboard. This mirrors the evolution of the microprocessor
itself: at one time many of the features on a Pentium for example were on separate chips.
There are several advantages to integration, but the two primary ones are cost reduction
and better compatibility (the more things that are done by a single chip or group of chips
from one manufacturer, the simpler the design is, and the less chance of a problem).
Sometimes the chipset chips are referred to as "ASICs" (application-specific integration
circuits), which I suppose they are, although there are many other types of ASICs as well.
video cards. The name is used because the concept is similar: a highly-integrated circuit used to perform a set of functions. However, this is a totally different type of chipset, and is not the same as a motherboard (system) chipset.
This section describes the various functions performed by the system chipset, and the
various PC features that the chipset plays a key role in supporting. In doing so, it touches
upon the various system features that are enabled by the choice of chipset made by the
of modern Pentium and Pentium Pro class machines. The structure of 486 class and
earlier chipsets can be quite different, especially for those machines that use a different
local bus than PCI.
One of the most important decisions made by anyone choosing or building a new PC is which processor is desired. The key to making the decision of what type, speed and even what number of processors to use is the motherboard, and in particular the chipset that controls it.
A chipset is designed to work with a specific set of processors in mind. In general, most
chipsets only support one "class" or generation of processors: most chipsets are geared
specifically for 486 type systems,Pentiu m class systems, or Pentium Pro / Pentium II
systems. The reason for this is simple: the design of the control circuitry must be different
for each of these processor families due to the different ways they employ cache, access
memory, etc. For example, the Pentium Pro and Pentium II have level 2 cache within the
Most good motherboards that support Pentium processors also support their equivalents
(or near-equivalents) from AMD (the K5 and K6) and Cyrix (the 6x86 and 6x86MX).
Since they were designed specifically to beIntel alternatives, they work with Intel
chipsets (in most cases), although they sometimes need a different jumper setting.
Another optimization factor to consider is that these compatibles are not always identical
to the Intel chip they are intended to replace, and in some cases they add additional
performance features that can only be taken advantage of by the chipset.
Of course, since Intel is the largest manufacturer of Pentium and Pentium Pro chipsets,
that puts AMD and Cyrix at a significant disadvantage. This disadvantage is diminishing,
especially with regard to socket 7 motherboards, as non-Intel chipsets become more
Pentium with MMX is dependent only on the voltage regulators, not the chipset. MMX is
an instruction set extension and does not require a chipset change compared to the
The introduction of AMD'sK6 and Cyrix's6x86MX processors has clouded the
definitions of "processor generation" quite a bit. Functionally, these two processors are
really sixth-generation, but they are designed to fit into a fifth-generation (Pentium class)
Faster processors require chipset control circuitry capable of handling them. The
specification of the processor speed is done using two parameters: the memory bus speed,
and the processor multiplier. These are discussed in detail in the section on processor
The memory bus speed is the processor's "external" speed, the speed it talks to the rest of
thecomputer at (as opposed to its internal speed). The memory bus speed also (normally)
dictates the speed of thePCI local bus, which in most motherboards runs at half the
memory bus speed. Typical modern memory bus speeds are 50, 60, 66 and 75 MHz. The
multiplier represents the factor that the processor multiplies the memory bus speed in
order to obtain its internal speed. Multipliers on modern PCs are normally 1.5x, 2x, 2.5x,
3x, 3.5x, 4x, 4.5x or 5x.
The range of the processor speeds supported by the chipset is indicated, generally, by
looking at the range of supported memory bus speeds and multipliers. For example, a
typical classicPentiu m chipset will support bus speeds of 50 to 66 MHz with a multiplier
range of 1.5x to 3x. This yields speeds of 75, 90, 100, 120, 133, 150, 166 and 200 MHz
(along with some in-between values that don't correspond to any processors actually on
the market; for example, 50 MHz and 2.5x yields 125 MHz, a pair of settings not
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