New VIA Chip Ready to Take On Intel, AMD

For years, chipmaker VIA Technologies has not competed with Intel and AMD in the desktop and notebook space, but now it’s challenging them with a very low power processor that even runs the notoriously taxing game Crysis.

The VIA Nano, developed under the code name “Isaiah,” is a single-core, 64-bit superscalar x86-compatible processor with a power draw ranging from 5 to 25 watts, considerably lower than anything from Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) and AMD (NYSE: AMD).

VIA has traditionally stuck to the ultramobile and embedded markets with its C3 and C7 x86 processors, but with Nano, it feels it can compete for the low-end laptops and desktops markets.

“With the C7, we had been focused on miniboards and miniATX, but not in huge volume,” Richard Brown, vice president of international marketing at VIA, told “What Nano will allow us to do is address the much larger mainstream PC market. There’s very good performance and excellent power consumption, so that gives it a chance to be competitive.”

VIA backs up the Crysis claim because it is working with nVidia (NASDAQ: NVDA), a company rumored to be considering purchasing VIA just a few months ago, to make chipsets and graphics cards that will work with Nano systems.

The Nano product line ranges from the 1.8GHz L2100 processor, with an 800MHz frontside bus and a 25-watt power draw, down to the U2300 processor, which runs at 1.0GHz and draws only 5 watts. It is pin-compatible with the C7, so existing C7 systems can upgrade their chips and get a two to four-fold performance boost.

The Nano supports new instructions for Streaming SIMD Extensions, or SSE , and has two 64KB L1 caches and a 1MB L2 cache, with advanced juice and thermal management that can drop the power draw into the single digits when idle. Its PadLock security engine allows for real-time cryptography with on-die support for AES Encryption Engine, NX-bit, and SHA-1 and SHA-256 hashing.

Jon Peddie, president of the Jon Peddie Group, thinks VIA can compete on the merits of the chip, but says, “It remains to be seen if they can do it in terms of matching the marketing dollars Intel and to a lesser degree AMD can throw at the problem,” he said. Intel and AMD practically co-market laptops with the OEMs, something VIA doesn’t have the spare money to afford.

However, purely on a technology basis, Peddie sees potential for the chip. “I think it’s a real contender. Do we need quad core? No. Do we need dual core, I doubt it. They certainly can make smaller, thinner notebooks. Whether OEMs do it is another question.” He added that HP has used VIA processors and some OEMs such as Lenovo and Gateway would likely be open to considering the Nano.

In addition to going after mainstream parts, Nano will take on Intel’s Atom embedded processor. Here, Brown also feels there is an advantage in that Intel made a design mistake with Diamondville, the code name for the Atom motherboards.

“If you look at what Intel is doing with Atom, it’s restricting certain parts of the platform,” he said. “A Diamondville board won’t have PCI support. We have no restrictions. So it gives customers a wide variety and price points around a single platform.”

Peddie agreed Intel made a mistake. “I think Intel has shot themselves in the foot in the short term by not having a PCI Express bridge with Diamondville, but I think Intel will correct that. In the short term, anybody who wants to be in that space has the advantage of hooking up to a power GPU via PCI,” he said.

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