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Via to throw hat in 64-bit x86 chip ring

Taiwanese firm makes mulitmedia performance a key measure of its upcoming processor.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Via Technologies, a Taiwanese chipmaker, is following Advanced Micro Devices and Intel with a compatible 64-bit x86 processor design of its own.

Via detailed the chip, code-named Isaiah and internally called CN, Tuesday at the Fall Processor Forum but didn't reveal when it planned to ship the new product. "CN has both the AMD and Intel variants of the...64-bit architecture," said Glenn Henry, president of Centaur Technology, Via's processor development unit.

The chip also will have much better performance, particularly when handling video and audio information, Henry said. However, it won't depart from Via's emphasis on low cost, small size and modest power consumption.

Via isn't the only low-power chip designer gunning for 64-bit support. Transmeta, whose chips run x86 software through a translation technology, is also working on 64-bit support, Chief Technology Officer David Ditzel said at the show.

The 64-bit support permits easy access to more than 4GB of memory, which isn't a problem for most of today's mainstream desktop applications. Linux works on the 64-bit x86 chips today; Sun Microsystems' Solaris 10 will support them by the end of 2004; and Windows is expected to support them in 2005.

The small, lower-end systems that use chips such as Via's Eden aren't likely to need 64-bit features soon, Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood said.

"I can't imagine Eden boxes with 8GB of main memory," Brookwood said. But, he added, "If you're doing a new design, it's silly not to do...64 bits."

Via considered adding the 64-bit support to an earlier processor, called the C5J, he said. "We decided that we could add it, but it would be a kludge. We came to the conclusion that if we were going to do 64 bits, which we are, we'll do it right," Henry said.

Intel's x86 chip family--whose name stems from the company's 80286, 80386 and 80486 chips--have an immense base of available software. That popularity has attracted numerous competitors, though most haven't done much to dent Intel's dominance.

Transmeta is angling for very lightweight laptops with its x86-compatible designs. Ditzel spotlighted the company's new Efficeon 2 chip, which made its debut Sept. 9 in a 2.8-pound Sharp laptop with a 1.6GHz processor, a DVD drive and a 10.4-inch LCD screen. Ditzel also showed a Transmeta-powered handheld computer called the FlipStart PC.

Efficeon 2 is built by Fujitsu on a manufacturing process that permits 90-nanometer features. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Transmeta sells it in five versions that run from 1GHz to 2GHz

Transmeta said the Efficeon 3 will also run on the 90-nanometer process but that Efficeon 4 and 5 will run on a 65-nanometer process that can accommodate more circuitry on a single chip.