A chipset or “PCIset” is a group of microcircuits that orchestrate the flow of data to and from key components of a PC. This includes the CPU itself, the main memory, the secondary cache and any devices situated on the ISA and PCI buses. The chipset also controls data flow to and from hard disks, and other devices connected to the IDE channels. While new microprocessor technologies and speed improvements tend to receive all the attention, chipset innovations are, in fact, equally important.

Although there have always been other chipset manufacturers – such as SIS, VIA and Opti – for many years Intel’s “Triton” chipsets were by far the most popular. Indeed, the introduction of the Intel Triton chipset caused something of a revolution in the motherboard market, with just about every manufacturer using it in preference to anything else. Much of this was down to the ability of the Triton to get the best out of both the Pentium processor and the PCI bus, together with its built-in master EIDE support, enhanced ISA bridge and ability to handle new memory technologies like EDO and SDRAM. However, the new PCI chipsets” potential performance improvements will only be realised when used in conjunction with BIOSes capable of taking full advantage of the new technologies on offer.

During the late 1990s things became far more competitive, with Acer Laboratories (ALI), SIS and VIA Technologies all developing chipsets designed to operate with Intel, AMD and Cyrix processors. 1998 was a particularly important year in chipset development, with what had become an unacceptable bottleneck – the PC’s 66MHzsystem bus – to finally being overcome. Interestingly, it was not Intel but rival chipmakers that made the first move, pushing Socket 7 chipsets to 100MHz. Intel responded with its 440BX, one of many chipsets to use the ubiquitous Northbridge / Southbridge architecture. It was not long before Intel’s hold on the chipset market loosened further still, and again, the company had no-one but itself to blame. In 1999, its single-minded commitment to Direct Rambus DRAM (DRDRAM) left it in the embarrassing position of not having a chipset that supported the 133MHz system bus speed its latest range of processors were capable of. This was another situation its rivals were able to exploit, and in so doing gain market share.

The following charts the evolution of Intel chipsets over the years, from the time of its first Triton chipset. During this time there have also been a number of special chipsets optimized for the Pentium Pro or designed for use with notebook PCs.

PC Components | Processors (CPUs) | PC Data Storage | PC Multimedia | PC Input/Output | Communications | Mobile Computing

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