What Is an Intel Chipset?
By David Perez
Updated September 15, 2017
An Intel chipset is a computer component housed on motherboards compatible with Intel brand processors. The chipset consists of two chips, the northbridge and the southbridge, that control communication between the processor, memory, peripherals and other components attached to the motherboard. According to Ron White, author of “How Computers Work,” the chipset is second only to the processor in determining the performance and capabilities of a PC (See Reference 1)
The northbridge, sometimes referred to as Graphics and AGP Memory Controller (GMCH) on some Intel machines, works with the graphics card to relieve the processor of some of the burden of high-demand operations associated with video editing and gaming software. It also links the processor to the Random Access Memory (RAM) modules installed on the motherboard, thus providing the processor with the data it needs to execute the instructions needed by any application in use. The northbridge synchronizes the operation of all the above-mentioned devices by controlling the main pathway between them, the “front side bus.” (See Reference 2)
Unlike the northbridge, the southbridge, or, in some cases, the I/O Controller Hub (ICH), is not directly connected to the processor. It coordinates the function of slower hardware devices; enabling the hard drive, mouse, keyboard, USB and FireWire devices to communicate with the northbridge as needed by software demands. The southbridge also controls fans, temperature sensors and the BIOS. The main difference between a traditional southbridge and the ICH used in some Intel chipsets is that the ICH controls the PCI bus; a pathway used to communicate with hardware devices (controlled by the northbridge in other configurations). Also, the bus used to transfer data to and from the ICH is twice as fast as that of a conventional southbridge. (See Reference 2)
The chipset is the most limiting factor in a computer’s upgrading potential. It determines what models and speeds of CPU and the type and amount of RAM that can be installed. It also dictates the user’s options in terms of graphics cards, sound cards and number of USB ports. Lower end Intel motherboards often include an integrated graphics card that cannot be changed. Higher end motherboards include graphics card slots and chipsets designed to work with different cards.
For those using more than one hard drive, some of Intel’s Express Chipsets include a “Matrix Storage Technology” that stores copies of data on multiple drives. Thus, a drive can fail without data loss. (See Reference 3)
High Definition Audio
As of mid-2010, the latest Intel Express Chipsets utilize a High Definition audio interface for decoding and encoding digital and analogue sound signals. The interface is capable of handling up to eight channels of audio, resulting in higher quality surround sound with multiple channels. Intel’s HD Audio also allows one computer to play two or more different audio streams in different locations simultaneously. (See Reference 4)
Certain Express chipsets allow users to enable and disable individual USB ports and SATA hard drive ports.This feature helps prevent malicious use of USB ports and the unauthorized addition or removal of data to or from the hard drives. (See Reference 5)
- “How Computers Work, 9th Edition,” Ron White; 2008; p.24
- Acronis: Northbridge, Southbridge All Around The Bus
- Intel: Matrix Storage Technology
- Intel: High Definition Audio
- Intel: P55 Express Chipset Overview