What is a chipset? What are its functions? What is its importance? What is its influence in the computer’s performance? In this tutorial we will answer all of these questions and more.

“Chipset” is the name given to the set of chips (hence its name) used on a motherboard.

In the first PCs, the motherboard used discrete integrated circuits. Therefore, many chips were needed to create all the necessary circuitry to make the computer work. In Figure 1, you can see a motherboard from a PC XT clone.

PC XT MotherboardFigure 1: PC XT clone motherboard

After some time, chip manufacturers started to integrate several chips into larger chips. Instead of requiring dozens of small chips, a motherboard could now be built using only a half-dozen big chips.

Around the mid-1990s, motherboards using only two or even one big chip could be built. In Figure 2, you can see a motherboard for 486-class CPUs circa 1995 using only two big chips with all necessary functions to make the motherboard work.

486 MotherboardFigure 2: A motherboard for 486-class CPUs; this model uses only two big chips

With the release of the PCI bus, a new concept, which is still used nowadays, could be used for the first time: the use of bridges. Usually, motherboards have two big chips: the north bridge and the south bridge. Sometimes, some chip manufacturers can integrate the north and south bridges into a single chip; in this case, the motherboard will have just one big integrated circuit. Or, depending on the CPU architecture, it may require only the south bridge chip.

In the past, several different companies provided chipsets for the PC. Nowadays, however, only Intel, AMD, and VIA are still manufacturing chipsets, and they only design products for motherboards that will use their CPUs. (VIA also used to design chipsets for CPUs from both Intel and AMD.) Other companies that used to manufacture chipsets include ATI, NVIDIA, VIA, SiS, ULi/ALi, UMC, and OPTi.

A common confusion is to mix the chipset manufacturer with the motherboard manufacturer. For example, because a motherboard uses a chipset manufactured by Intel does not mean that Intel manufactured this board. ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI, ECS, ASRock, Biostar, and also Intel are just some of the many motherboard manufacturers present on the market. So, the motherboard manufacturer buys the chipsets from the chipset manufacturer and builds motherboards.

Gabriel Torres is a Brazilian best-selling ICT expert, with 24 books published. He started his online career in 1996, when he launched Clube do Hardware, which is one of the oldest and largest websites about technology in Brazil. He created Hardware Secrets in 1999 to expand his knowledge outside his home country.