VIA: We Welcome Our New Atom Overlords


Henry, president of Centaur Technology, VIA's Austin, Tex.-based processor design subsidiary, said that Intel's new Atom brand of hardware may become the 800 lb. gorilla of low-power silicon but VIA fully expects to be No. 2 and growing.

The success of the Asus EeePC and other low-power notebooks has spurred a race among chip makers to produce processors and platforms to meet growing demand for such devices, as well as other categories built on low-voltage chips like ultra-mobile personal computers (UMPCs), mobile Internet devices (MIDs) and increasingly dynamic smart phones and PDAs.

VIA itself last week unveiled its new Nano processor family, the follow-up to the Taiwanese chip maker's successful low-voltage C7 chips. The Nano line is based on VIA's new Isaiah microarchitecture and initial offerings include five CPUs with clock speeds ranging from 1.0 to 1.8GHz and power draws ranging from 5 to 25 watts.

VIA has found a niche for itself in an x86 world dominated by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, landing its C7's in devices like OQO's 02 UMPC and Hewlett-Packard's new HP 2133 Mini-Note PC.

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Now chip giant Intel is massively upping its low-voltage ante with its new Atom hardware platform, the strongest signal yet that the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company takes the market segment very seriously indeed. With much of its associated technology designed from the ground up, Atom represents a strategic shift away from the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company's past practice of allowing architectural innovations trickle down from its high-end products to its cheaper lines.

Meanwhile, AMD has its own plans for low-cost micro notebooks and Nvidia has also joined the fray with a new line of MID chips branded Tegra.

But for Henry and VIA, all these developments mean is that the market for low-power processors and platforms is growing, and that's good for everybody involved. The Centaur Technology chief even goes so far as to welcome Intel's competition, saying the chip giant's new Atom brand can lift VIA's boat as well.

"First of all, the Atom is a good part. And I think they're going to be successful with it," Henry told ChannelWeb recently. "On the one hand, we've got Intel entering the marketplace where we've been. But that's going to make the marketplace larger and we're going to do well being No. 2.

"The mobility marketplace is potentially monstrously big. You look at things like the HP Mini-Note, which uses our C7. The market's grown a lot faster than we originally expected, faster than Asus expected, faster than anybody, including Intel, expected."

Which isn't to say that VIA thinks its new Nano line is inferior to Atom, quite the opposite, in fact.

"The C7 is going to be below Atom in a good way and a bad way. It'll be below it in cost but it's also less powerful," Henry said. "The Nano is faster than the Atom. In addition, Intel is putting a lot of restrictions on the Atom, saying it can only be run at certain speeds, etc., and we don't have those restrictions."

Ultimately, however, Intel's marketing weight is being welcomed by VIA, said Richard Brown, the chip maker's VP of global marketing.

"It's clear that it's been us tooting the horn [for low-power CPUs and devices], and our horn doesn't have a lot of dollars behind it," Brown said.