PCI Speed and Overclocking: A Closer Look at A64 and P4 Chipsets

Sometimes things are not as they appear. Nowhere is this more true than the Computer Industry. Technology should be very straightforward, but all too often, marketing concerns get thrown into the mix and we end up with specifications with a marketing slant. It has been observed in reviews of the nForce3-150 boards that they often overclock better than VIA K8T800 boards. The nF3 sports a PCI/AGP adjustment in BIOS and it is usually stated that the nF3 should overclock better because of the fixed AGP/PCI bus.

Generally, we have also seen that Intel chipsets with Northwood processors reach incredible overclock levels. Intel has a widely published PCI/AGP lock in 865/875 chipsets, and it is clear that speeds like DDR550 (275×4 FSB) could never be reached without the fixed or locked AGP/PCI speeds. Most peripherals simply can’t handle a PCI speed of 45.8 (275/6) or AGP of 91.7 (275/3) when specification is 33/66. Our Radeon 9800 PRO cards can rarely handle anything above about 70-72 on the AGP bus; this is typical of most current AGP cards.

Many tests have demonstrated the ability of Intel chipsets to lock the PCI/AGP bus, but questions are being raised again with the introduction of VIA’s new PT880 chipset for the Pentium 4. VIA has been historically the only chipset maker not to utilize a PCI/AGP lock, but in the new PT880, VIA claims that they have implemented an asynchronous PCI/AGP bus. This is another way of saying that the processor and memory bus run at one speed and the PCI/AGP bus is not run at fixed divisors of that speed. This keeps the sensitive PCI and AGP cards in specification and allows a potentially higher overclock of the CPU and memory. Since this is VIA’s first AGP/PCI, many are asking whether VIA really pulled this off – it has been such an issue with their chipsets in the recent past.

The most effective way to measure PCI/AGP bus speed is probably oscilloscope testing of bus input frequencies. To see an example of how this is done, you may want to check out tests on the nForce3-150 PCI bus at Lost Circuits. There is also a simpler tool available with the feature of measuring and displaying PCI bus speed, and that is PC Geiger. This device is a card that is mounted in a PCI slot and a digital display that provides all kinds of information – post codes, bus utilization, and PCI speed. The Taiwanese company, IOSS, markets PC Geiger in a joint venture with VICS in Japan. While PC Geiger provides many types of information, we will only be looking at PCI speed for these tests.

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