03/30/2001

A big letdown. A lot of people (myself included) miss the days when you could build an SMP box on the cheap by getting an Abit BP6 motherboard and a pair of low-end Celerons. I read on Ace’s Hardware this week that Via’s C3 processor is SMP-capable. The C3 is a 733 MHz chip, derived from the Centaur WinChip 3 design, that plugs into Socket 370 and costs $54 in quantities of 1,000. Since a lot of places sell CPUs at or slightly below that cost and make their money on shipping, you can expect to buy it for under $60. The drawback with the C3 is weak floating point performance. For applications use that doesn’t make much difference, so for people like me who just want to multitask a bunch of productivity apps wicked fast, it would be nice.

But I was skeptical. Earlier Cyrix and Centaur CPUs (VIA now owns both design houses) didn’t support Intel’s APIC protocol for SMP due to patent problems. So Cyrix and AMD invented their own protocol, called OpenPIC, and prototype SMP chipsets existed but were never commercially released, probably due to lack of demand. AMD attempted to solve this problem by licensing the Alpha processor bus (and therefore its SMP architecture) for the Athlon/Duron and getting into the chipset business.

It was a Herculean labor for VIA to get the rights to use Intel’s P6 bus. I’d be shocked if they managed to wrestle SMP out of Intel as well. But if these rumors were true, it would have ushered in a whole new era of inexpensive SMP, albeit with a slightly limited audience due to the C3’s poor (but better than the AMD K6-2) gaming performance.

But VIA’s site made no mention of SMP. None of the reviews of the C3 or its predecessors mentioned SMP. Finally, I found confirmation of the truth on www.viahardware.com . The C3, in spite of photos of dual configurations originating at Cebit, doesn’t support APIC and therefore won’t do SMP. Bummer.

Want another letdown? OK. The C3 doesn’t do out-of-order execution like every other modern CPU (including even the Cyrix 6×86) does. That’s part of the reason why the C3 struggles to keep up with an equivalently-clocked Celeron, even if the Celeron is running on a 66 MHz FSB while the C3 runs on a 133 MHz FSB. For OOO, you’ll have to wait for the next revision of the processor, due later this year.

The lone drawing point, besides price, for the C3 is its cool operation and low power consumption. It can operate with just a heatsink, no fan. You could team it up with a fanless 135W power supply, a 4400 RPM hard drive (or a very quiet 5400 rpm drive), and an integrated motherboard to have a silent PC. You can’t do that with anything from AMD or Intel. So for quiet PCs, the C3 has an audience.

Hey, someone could take that chip, put it on a microATX board, and put it in a tiny squarish Lucite case with the CD-ROM drive up top, so you put the CDs in like toast in a toaster, and sell the computer on size, quietness, and looks alone. Oh, wait a minute. Someone already tried something like that.

You’ll also notice VIA is scrapping the Cyrix brand name, which is probably a good move. Cyrix chips weren’t bad; they weren’t ideal for 3D gaming but for everything else they were a fine chip. Cheap and fast. Unfortunately they were usually paired up with very cheap and very low-quality hardware (particularly cheap power supplies) and when the systems had problems, everyone blamed Cyrix. But my friends and I, pairing Cyrix CPUs up with Abit, Asus, and AOpen motherboards and Diamond video cards and Creative or Ensoniq sound cards, never had any problems whatsoever with the CPUs.

Discussion groups. I’ve often longed for the days of the old-style BBS. I never ran a BBS myself–in the golden age of BBSing, I was just a teenager, and a good BBS required a US Robotics dual standard modem, a 386, and a gigabyte hard drive, all of which could easily set you back $2,000.

The Internet has so many advantages to those BBSs. When you dialed in, it was very easy to spend an hour online. In the meantime, no one else could use the BBS. With 24 hours in a day, even with an average call length of 15 minutes, fewer than 100 people would get in, and that makes it hard to facilitate meaningful discussion. It happened, but unless the BBS was part of a network, the communities stayed small. The Internet doesn’t have those disadvantages. The line’s never busy (if you’ve got a decent ISP at least), so the community can be much larger.

The discussion groups facility on this site have always been very under-utilized. I think a grand total of four people have posted messages here. That’s largely my fault; I never configured the discussion area, nor did I ever get rid of that stupid skull and replace it with something intuitive (like, say, the word “Discuss…”). I started looking into configuring it, and lo and behold, it’s possible to create a nice discussion board with Manilla. The interface is a little different from UBBS, which seems to be what most of the popular discussion groups of today use, but it’s not bad.

Like most other online bulletin boards, you have to be a member to log in and post. There is no charge to be a member. Let me emphasize that. There is no charge to be a member! Understood? Excellent. There’s also no validation process, none of that other stuff. Manilla does maintain a database of members that I can look at. I’ve looked at it once. I just don’t have time to go snooping around there. I’m too busy to invade your privacy.

Non-members can read messages. Messages posted are indexed by this site’s search engine. It’s really nice.

To become a member, click Join Now to the left. It will ask for an e-mail address. That address is used for two things. If you forget your password, your password hint is mailed to that address. And optionally, you can get your daily (or more, if this board gets popular) dose of the Silicon Underground e-mailed to you. Probably most people will turn that option off. If you’re concerned about spam, or concerned about privacy, feed it a bogus e-mail address. Tell my site you’re billg@microsoft.com or something. I really don’t care. Honest. (A lot of Web robots seem to have problems navigating Manilla sites, so spam harvesters may find this site more trouble than it’s worth, but I can’t make any guarantees.) And if you want to use a handle, that’s fine too.

Discussion groups get their own calendar. When you click on March 29, 2001 in the calendar, you get that day’s messages, plus the rest from the previous week. If you just want to see just that day’s topics instead, click the link that says Chronological View, and it’ll switch. Sorry, I don’t know how to make that a preference that gets saved for you.

The advantages of a discussion group are many. First, this becomes more of a community and less something that’s all about me. When you want to have your say, you can just log in and respond and it’s instantly there. When you e-mail me, I won’t see it until I get home, and then I may or may not post it, depending on a number of factors. When you post, if someone else sees it first, they can respond. So if you’re having a problem and need a quick response, someone else may see it and respond before I get to it.

You’re still free to e-mail me of course, but I had this resource here and it’s really a shame I haven’t been using it. I’ll continue to respond to mail and have it posted, for those who prefer a more moderated discussion (a small few, if page reads are any indication).

You can get to the discussion groups at least two ways. You can click on the Discussion Groups link to the left. Or you can click the Discuss link at the bottom of a message.

Here’s hoping this will become a valuable resource.

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