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Chapter 6. Chipsets

Buy a microprocessor, and it's just an inert lump that sits in its static-free box, super-powered silicon with extreme potential but no motivation. It's sort of like a Hollywood hunk proto-star before he takes acting classes. Even out of the box, the most powerful microprocessor is hardly impressive—or effective. It can't do anything on its own. Although it serves as the centerpiece of a computer, it is not the computer itself. It needs help.

The electronics inside a personal computer that flesh out its circuitry and make it work are called support circuits. At one time, support circuits made up everything in a computer except for the microprocessor. Today, most of the support functions needed to make a computer work take the form of a few large integrated circuits called a chipset. Support circuits handle only a few low-level functions to take care of the needs of the chipset.

In current designs, the chipset is second in importance only to the microprocessor in making your computer work—and making your computer a computer. Your computer's chipset is the foundation of its motherboard, and a computer-maker's choice of chipsets determines the overall capabilities of your computer. The microprocessor embodies its potential. The chipset makes it a reality.

Although the chipset used by a computer is rarely mentioned in advertisements and specification sheets, its influence is pervasive. Among other issues, the chipset determines the type and number of microprocessors that can be installed in the system; the maximum memory a system can address; the memory technology used by the system (SDR, DDR, or Rambus); whether the system can detect memory errors; the speed of the memory bus; the size and kind of secondary memory cache; the type, speed, and operating mode of the expansion bus; whether you can plug a video board into an Accelerated Graphics Port in your computer; the mass-storage interfaces available on the motherboard and the speed at which they operate; the ports available on your motherboard; and whether your computer has a built-in network adapter. That's a lot of power packed into a few chips—and a good reason for wondering what you have in your computer.

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