Here’s a motherboard Intel very quickly wanted to forget about:
It’s the Intel CC820—or Cape Cod—desktop board, a product that was late to market (not unusual) and within a few months, the subject of a recall (quite unusual). As the CC820 designation suggests, the board was built on the ill-fated Intel 820 ‘Camino’ chipset.
The Camino chipset was supposed to be released roughly in mid-1999 as a replacement of the workhorse 440BX chipset for mainstream desktops. At the same time, Intel changed how it segmented the market. The 440BX supported up to two processors, while the 820 didn’t (though the 820DP variant did); the 820 chipset was targeted for typical desktops, while the Intel 840 chipset was meant for high-end workstations with two processors. Note that the Intel 810 chipset was meant for “value” PCs, and played that role quite successfully.
The 440BX chipset was limited to 100 MHz FSB; the 820 supported 100 and 133 MHz FSB for the then-new Coppermine Pentium III processors. The 440BX chipset was limited to ATA-33, while the 820 supported ATA-66. The 440BX only supported AGP 2x, while the 820 provided AGP 4x capability.
But that wasn’t all. The 820 chipset also supported RDRAM, or Rambus DRAM. And therein lay the problem.
On paper, RDRAM was great, providing much higher bandwidth than SDRAM (synchronous DRAM), the most common memory type then in use. For boards based on the Intel 820 chipset, there were just two problems: In 1999, RDRAM was vastly more expensive than SDRAM, and Intel realized late in the game that while two RDRAM modules (or RIMMs) worked reliably with the 820 chipset, three or four didn’t (in retrospect one has to wonder if the high price and scarcity of RDRAM hid the problems for a time, because getting more than two RDRAM modules was so hard).
Intel “solved” the reliability problem by only providing two RIMM slots on its own 820-based board, the VC820 (VC for Vancouver). But that still did nothing for the price problem.
Intel’s solution was the 82805AA Memory Translator Hub (MTH) which could service two SDRAM DIMMs and made them look like Rambus DRAM to the 82820 MCH (Memory Controller Hub).
If it sounds like a hack, that’s because it was. And because it was a hack conceived late in the game, it turned out not to work terribly well. Naturally the added translation step did not add anything to performance, and the CC820 board was slower than the 440BX chipset it was supposed to replace when using the exact same PC100 SDRAM (note that with RDRAM, the 820 chipset was in fact slightly faster than 440BX, at least on some benchmarks).
So the choice was to get a board with the 440BX and give up on modern niceties like AGP 4x, or buy a board with the Intel 820 chipset and pay a vast premium for RDRAM, or buy a board with the 820 chipset and SDRAM and pay a performance penalty instead.
Adding insult to injury, it turned out that the 820-based boards with SDRAM slots (i.e. boards with the MTH) were not only underperforming but also unreliable. That led to a recall of the SDRAM boards with the Intel 820 Camino chipset, or Caminogate, in May 2000—about six months after the boards were released.
Buyers of the Intel CC820 boards had two options: Either a refund, or a replacement VC820 board with 128MB RDRAM (again, VC820 was the “purebred” RDRAM-based sibling of the CC820). For owners of non-Intel boards with the 820 chipset and MTH, the options were roughly the same but getting refunds or replacements was possibly much more complicated.
The MTH and the CC820 were put on a shipment hold, never to return again. Intel of course claimed that only a “small number” of boards were affected, but if their explanation is to be believed, the MTH was sensitive to electromagnetic noise and it’s quite possible that most if not all boards were affected, but not all were used in a noisy enough environment for that to matter.
The unreliable MTH often led to system instability (crashes/reboots), but could also cause silent data corruption, which is something that’s extremely undesirable in a core computer component. Intel probably felt that an unreliable chipset/board was worse than none, and decided to weather the storm and await the arrival of Willamette Pentium 4, while doubling down on RDRAM (which is a different tale of hubris and failure).
What makes the Cape Cod episode especially embarrassing for Intel is that RDRAM for Pentium III was very much a solution in search of a problem. The Pentium III (especially a single CPU) was not a particularly memory-hungry CPU and expensive RDRAM didn’t really pay off. The dual-CPU 840 chipset perhaps benefited from RDRAM, but the 820 Camino chipset with RDRAM was roughly as fast as the older SDRAM-based 440BX chipset, while 820 with MTH+SDRAM was clearly slower than 440BX with the same memory. It’s no wonder that the 820 chipset went nowhere.
The final BIOS for the Intel CC820 board is dated April 28, 2000, just before the recall. It appears that the recall was the end of the Cape Cod boards and also the end of the MTH idea. Intel left the recall notice on their site for quite a while, and existing CC820 documentation, BIOS, and drivers were available for download, but that was it.
The VC820 board lived on noticeably longer, with the final BIOS update dated May 10, 2001. But overall the Intel 820 chipset did not do well at all, with the 440BX holding on much longer than Intel expected, the 810 chipset taking over the low-end market, third-party chipsets (e.g. VIA) doing well with Socket 370/SDRAM Pentium III boards, and the Intel 840 working well enough with Coppermine Pentium III until those were replaced by Willamette Pentium 4 on the high end in November 2000.
The CC820 board now in the OS/2 Museum’s possession clearly survived the recall, either because its previous owner was happy enough with it or because the board wasn’t really used. The board is functional and runs fine with a 733 MHz Coppermine Pentium III, although it wasn’t subjected to a thorough stress test which might uncover some instability.
There is no way to tell how many CC820 boards survived to this day. It won’t be a lot since the board was only on the market for a few months and then recalled, and the board was never all that great to begin with. But that’s exactly what makes it a true museum piece.