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AMD 800 series chipsets
Processor manufacturer AMD has launched a large range of value-orientated CPUs in the last two years. The company's current line-up includes single-, dual-, triple, quad-, and even hexa-core chips. Split by the number of cores, these are further differentiated with respect to clockspeed, cache levels and underlying architecture.
The entire range of chips may be confusing but AMD keeps consistency amongst the CPUs by manufacturing them on a single form factor, meaning that all chips can be installed into a single motherboard. The latest form factor is Socket AM3, launched in February 2009, and it's used in the very latest chipsets that are known as the AMD 800-series.
AMD manufactures the vast majority of chipsets for its own CPUs, so if you want to know which motherboard to buy for your new AMD processor, and what it will offer, this TekSpek will take you through the latest choices.
AMD's 800-series chipsets
As all 800-series chipsets are based on the AM3 form factor, they support all AMD chips released since February 2009. These include all desktop Phenom II (X2, X3, X4, X6), Athlon II (X2, X3, X4), and Sempron CPUs. Together they represent over 50 models which span an etail price range of £30-£200.
Just as the various AM3 CPUs are broadly differentiated by budget, so are the four 800-series chipsets. Motherboard manufacturers such as ASUS and Gigabyte then purchase these chipsets from AMD and build complete motherboards around them. The 800-series is split into four models of which two feature integrated graphics - 880G and 890 GX - whilst the remaining two - 870 and 890FX - require an add-in graphics card, connected via PCIe, for video purposes. Let's start with the cheapest version that is known as 870.
The 870 chipset is designed to feature in low-cost motherboards where value is of primary concern. In common with all the 800-series chipsets, the 870 supports dual-channel DDR3 memory.
The chipset features a total of 22 PCIe 2.0 lanes, of which 16 are reserved for graphics and the remaining six used to connect high-speed features such as USB 3.0 and Gigabit networking from the motherboard to the appropriate ports located on the back.
Whilst not officially acknowledged by AMD, motherboard manufacturers can use the 16 PCIe lanes for graphics and split them into two x8. The reason for doing so means that the board can support two AMD/ATI graphics cards that are connected together to form what is known as two-way CrossFireX, or multi-GPU graphics processing.
Split into two chips known as northbridge and southbridge, AMD leaves motherboard partners with the choice of pairing the 870 northbridge with a choice of southbridges - SB600 through to the latest SB850 - that offer increasing levels of performance and features.
As the 870 chipset's specifications are so flexible and left up to the motherboard partner that adds its own range of features on top, AMD 870 chipset-based boards cost between £60 and £100.
If 870 is all about flexibility and value, 890FX, the very best desktop chipset offered by AMD, is all about performance and features.
The chipset features a total of 42 PCIe 2.0 lanes for ultimate expandability. It can support up to four graphics cards, in CrossFireX, by allotting each with a x8 electrical interface from card to motherboard. A further 10 PCIe 2.0 lanes can be used for connecting high-speed features to the chipset.
The 890FX is the only 800-series chipset that supports what is known as an Input/Output Memory Management Unit (IOMMU). A high-end feature often seen in server-level motherboards, it enables virtualised operating systems to use a device's native driver rather than resorting to inefficient emulation.
Paired up with the very latest SB850 southbridge that offers integrated SATA 6Gbps support, 890FX boards are designed with the enthusiast in mind. Companies such as ASUS and MSI use the 890FX chipset and then outfit a motherboard with all the latest features - USB 3.0 and high-end audio, for example - and overclocking-specific goodies such as beefed-up cooling and granular control over frequencies and voltages via an expanded BIOS.
890FX boards tend to be expensive as a result of the focus on features and performance. Starting at £140 and rising up to £200, they are best paired with high-performance CPUs from the AMD Phenom II X4 and X6 ranges.
Released in March 2010 and thereby making it the first 800-series chipset on retail shelves, the 890GX offers many of the features of the 870/890FX but also integrates basic graphics capability into the chipset.
The integrated video, known as Radeon HD 4290, enables partners to launch boards that don't require a dedicated graphics card in order to output to an external display such as a monitor or TV. 890GX's IGP is able to connect to displays via various formats that include VGA, DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort.
The graphics are good enough for basic gaming and, perhaps more importantly, for processing DVD and Blu-ray without imposing a large load on the CPU.
The chipset itself support an 870-matching 22 PCIe lanes, and this means that most 890GX motherboards will offer support for two-way CrossFireX, but, like the 870, the PCIe lane arrangement drops to x8 in this case.
Usually paired with the SB850 southbridge that supports SATA 6Gbps and often loaded with features akin to the 890FX, motherboards based on this chipset usually etail for between £90 and £120.
Launched a little later than 890GX, 880G is a cut-down version of the 800-chipset with integrated graphics. AMD reduces the speed of the IGP core - called Radeon HD 4250 in this instance - by around 25 per cent, and motherboard partners remove some of the more enthusiast-specific features in order to save cost.
880G's focus on value means that the cheapest boards do not have official support for multi-GPU CrossFireX or robust overclocking potential, but the chipset is a good option for people looking for a low-cost PC that supports a wide range of CPUs.
Motherboards based on this chipset tend to cost between £70 and £90, with the higher-priced models featuring partner-implemented CrossFireX compatibility and a more feature-rich southbridge such as the SB850 found on 890FX and 890GX.
Let's now group them into an easy-to-understand table.
|CPU support||All AM3||All AM3||All AM3||All AM3|
|Ideal CPU||Phenom II X4 or X6||Phenom II X2 or Athlon II X2, Sempron||Phenom II X4 or Phenom II X2, X3||Phenom II X2 or Athlon II X2|
|CrossFireX support||Yes up tp 4-way||Yes up tp 2-way||Yes up tp 2-way||Yes up tp 2-way|
|Integrated Graphics||No||No||Yes (HD 4290)||Yes (HD 4290)|
|Southbridge support||SB850||Up to SB850||Up to SB850||Up to SB850|
|Form factor||Full ATX||Full ATX/mATX||Full ATX/mATX||Full ATX/mATX|
|Price (May 2010)||£140+||£60-£100||£90-£120||£70-90|
AMD's 800-series chipsets provide up-to-date support for all of the company's chips released in the last year. Broken down into four categories - two each for discrete and IGP boards - there's something for everyone. Prices start at around £60 for the basic 870, rising to over £150 for the 890FX that's equipped with the proverbial kitchen sink.
AMD's processor pricing is such that it's good advice to pair a chip up with a motherboard of the same price. For example, a dual-core Phenom II X2 555, costing £80, would be a good fit with an 880G board, whilst a six-core Phenom II X6 1055T, etailing at £160, fits in nicely with a top-of-the-range 890FX.
Leading motherboard manufacturers such as ASUS, MSI and Gigabyte all have numerous boards on each chipset. Now that you know what each chipset has to offer in terms of specification, a shortlist can be made to fine-tune your prospective purchase.