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VIA and NVIDIA offer new chips for small systems

Glaskowsky takes on the trend toward small, low-power microprocessors and systems.

It's been a big week for small systems.

On May 29, VIA formally announced (here) its "Nano" family of low-power x86 processors. These chips will be especially valuable in small laptops, UMPCs, and so-called mobile Internet devices (MIDs).

Then on June 2, NVIDIA announced (here) its Tegra 600 family, which is also being marketed for MIDs. But Tegra is a very different animal. It's based on an ARM11 processor core, which can run Windows Mobile or Linux but not Windows XP or Vista.

VIA's Nano processor
VIA's Nano processor. The chip itself, the silver rectangle in the center, is about 7.7mm x 8.3mm. Courtesy of VIA Technologies, Inc.

VIA's Nano processors are based on a new microarchitecture that is a giant step beyond previous VIA products and not far behind that of competing parts from AMD and Intel. Unfortunately, in this business, third place isn't a good place to be. VIA's older processors sold in relatively small quantities for low prices. Fortunately, they were very small and thus economical to make and sell.

The new Nano family offers much higher performance, with clock speeds from 1.0 to 1.8 GHz... but it's difficult to know what these clock speeds mean by comparison with AMD's or Intel's, and VIA isn't telling us, at least not directly. In this white paper on the Nano family, VIA only compares the performance of the new chips to its older C7 series.

But VIA does publish some numbers, so I was able to make some comparisons.

Take, for example, the Nano L2100 at 1.8 GHz vs. AMD's 2005-vintage Turion 64 ML-34 at the same speed, as found in the famous Acer Ferrari 4000 (reviewed here by PC World). The single-core ML-34 was much faster despite the clock-speed parity:

VIA Nano L2100 at 1.8 GHz vs. AMD Turion 64 ML-34 at 1.8 GHz
Scores in seconds, lower is better
Worldbench 6 test VIA Nano L2100 AMD Turion 64 ML-34 AMD advantage
Windows Media Encoder58546725% faster
Adobe Photoshop80941296% faster
Roxio VideoWave50738133% faster

Of course, the ML-34 consumes much more power than VIA's processor; the ML-34 has a 35W TDP (thermal design power) specification, whereas the L2100 has a 25W TDP. The L2100 idles at a mere 500mW, but the ML-34 probably consumes at least ten times as much when idle.

To be fair, I'm not sure these are entirely fair comparisons, since VIA didn't publish the details of their system configuration. Also, VIA's performance position probably looks better on simple productivity applications, but I prefer to look at multimedia performance since that's what we usually find ourselves waiting on. It's been a while since we had to worry about out-typing our word processor...

I'm looking forward to seeing some good performance and power figures for Intel's Atom; I think the VIA chips will turn out to be effectively faster but run a little hotter. When I get more data, I'll post a comparison.

But considering that the Nano is generally 60% to 200% faster than the C7 and much more power-efficient than competing products from AMD and Intel, the new product family will likely improve VIA's market position significantly over the next year.

NVIDIA's Tegra processor
NVIDIA's Tegra, a high-integration processor for handheld gizmos such as mobile Internet devices. Courtesy NVIDIA Corporation

NVIDIA's Tegra, on the other hand, offers no compatibility with existing PC systems or software, and its performance isn't even in the same class. The Tegra 600 family's ARM11 processor core runs at a maximum speed of 800MHz and, because it's a much simpler design, it offers a fraction of the effective performance of VIA's Nano.

So how can it possibly compete with Nano in mobile Internet devices?

Well, one answer is that Tegra is meant to deliver a much more complete solution with much lower power consumption. Instead of being just a core on a chip, like the Nano family, the Tegra 600 and 650 consist of a CPU core, a GeForce GPU, special-purpose hardware for accelerating digital video decoding and camera functions, and a dual-display controller that supports HDMI, LCDs, CRTs, and NTSC/PAL video. All of that on a chip the size of a dime, as you can see in the photo.

But the real answer is that what NVIDIA means by "mobile Internet devices" is different than what Intel (which coined the phrase), AMD, and VIA mean by it.

What NVIDIA means is basically any device with a size somewhere between that of a smartphone and a laptop, which can be used to access the Internet. But this doesn't strike me as a very useful definition; it boils down to encompassing anything like a smartphone with a larger screen. It's one thing to claim the Tegra 600 family supports a "full Internet experience" as NVIDIA did in advance briefings last month, but with the wide variety of sophisticated Web 2.0 websites out there, it really takes a PC-compatible system to deliver that experience.

Now, there's no doubt that the Tegra 600 and 650 will enable fun and interesting gizmos for people who buy lots of gizmos. (And honestly, I'm exactly that kind of person.) But I believe most people are not going to be interested in them. Anything larger than a cellphone is too big to carry around all the time. Anything with a screen smaller than about 7" to 9" isn't big enough for comfortable web browsing and movie watching. Anything with a screen that large might as well be a full Windows-compatible system.

Now, over time, these segments will inevitably blur together. Moore's Law will let us squeeze more performance into handheld devices. Software technologies like Adobe's Flash and Microsoft's Silverlight will allow more websites to work on simpler systems. Hardware like high-resolution LCDs and OLEDs and tiny projection displays will help solve size problems too.

But for now, I believe the Tegra 600 family is aimed at a market segment that isn't ready to develop, whereas VIA's Nano has a big market ready and waiting for it. The Nano won't sell as well as competing PC processors from AMD and Intel, but it should help raise awareness of VIA among PC buyers and encourage PC makers to keep pushing more functionality into smaller packages.