Friday, October 29, 2010

Golden ages of technology never to return. Part1: Intel 440BX

The mere mention of the Intel 440BX motherboard chipset still runs chills down my spine (as it should for all self respecting nerds).  It serves as a great example of a piece of hardware that lasted way way longer than its builder intended.  Its compatibility started with the 0.35 micron Pentium II 233mhz processor of 1997, and ended with the 0.13 micron Pentium III-S 1.4ghz Tualatin processor of 2001.  That is four generations of Moore's law!  In addition, Tualatin benefited from an unusually elegant design that allowed it to outperform 2ghz processors sold years later. (0.18 and 0.13 micron processor generations required slocket adapters like this, and in a future post we will also note another great role the slocket served ;-)  From a system builder's perspective, the 440BX represented the epitome of upgradeability, and reinforced in us the value of building our own computers.

The amazing dominance of the 440BX chipset may have partially inspired hubris at Intel that lead to a series of bad decisions, like RDRAM (Rambus) and the 33-stage pipelines of the Pentium 4.  Once pride was swallowed, Intel backtracked into better products that used standard memory and efficient pipelines.  In order to increase sales, however, they began a practice of requiring new motherboard chipsets each processor generation, and this continues to today.

In this way the 440BX represents the greatest period of computer upgrading in history, a golden age of technology that will seemingly never be repeated.  In a future post we will see similarities with Microsoft's WindowsXP product, which was also followed by bad decision making, a poor product cycle, and continuous incompatibility.

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