Intel Atom rival ships; larger Netbooks coming?

Via finally begins commercial shipments of its Intel-compatible Nano processor, and a Via executive says demand for larger Netbooks is strong.

Brooke Crothers
Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
3 min read

Are Netbooks ripe to be resized? Via Technologies thinks so. The Intel-compatible chipmaker says larger Netbooks are on the way.

Via Nano processor
Via Nano processor Via Technologies

In an interview, Glenn Henry, the head of Via Technologies subsidiary Centaur Technology, said that Via has just begun commercial shipments of its Intel-compatible, power-sipping Nano processor. Centaur headed up development of the Nano processor.

"We just started shipping to customers last week and this week--literally right now," Henry said.

Henry said there is a lot of demand for larger form factors. "Everyone wants to build a (Netbook) of some variety these days. Most of the interest we see from customers is for a larger screen than the HP (2133). There's a lot of demand to move those things up to higher screen sizes. I've heard customers say they want to build 12- or 13-inch notebooks," Henry said.

Via's most illustrious customer is Hewlett-Packard, which currently uses the older Via C7 processor in its 2133 Mini-Note PC.

Though Henry refused to talk about design wins, he did say that there is interest from major companies. "We've given them (HP) samples," he said. Though Henry qualified this by saying that Via has given samples to a lot of potential customers. "There's a great deal of interest in the part from people whose name you would recognize," he said.

The Nano processor is seen as the only real competition for Intel's popular Atom chip, which is used in Netbooks from a long list of companies including Acer, Asus, Lenovo, and Dell.

2.6-pound HP 2133 Mini-Note uses the Via C7 processor
The 2.6-pound HP 2133 Mini-Note uses the Via C7 processor. Hewlett-Packard

There is one crucial difference with the Atom. Nano has a thermal envelope of 5 watts at 1GHz. Though this is low compared with a standard Intel Core 2 mobile processor (typically drawing 25 watts to 35 watts), this is higher than Intel's single-core Atom chip for netbooks which tops out at just 2 watts. At 1.3GHz, Nano has a thermal envelope of 8 watts, approaching that of Intel's dual-core Atom.

Why the difference? Nano uses a more sophisticated superscalar, out-of-order design, while Atom has a more simple "in-order execution" architecture. Because of Nano's more complex design, it may deliver better performance than Atom in some cases.

The thermal envelope, however, is important because it can influence the design of a Netbook-type device. Typically, parts with lower thermal envelopes can go into smaller devices.

On the upside, Nano can be plugged directly into a design that uses the older C7 processor. "One of the very interesting things about the Nano is that it's plug compatible with our current C7s. You can plug the part into the same socket." Though some adjustments must be made: A BIOS upgrade is necessary and "more importantly the part has a different power-versus-megahertz (paradigm) compared to the current part because it's running benchmarks two times faster," Henry said.

He said products using the Nano processor will not appear immediately. "No product that actually uses this is for sale to the end customer (yet). So the parts we're shipping are going into the (customer's) manufacturing process or development process."

And what about a Via dual-core processor? "We're working on it. When you see it, who knows. We're implementing it but it's not near at hand," Henry said.

(Note: There are several ways to categorize a design as a netbook. One is screen size. Typically netbooks have 7-, 8-, or 9-inch screens. But this definition is in flux with, for example, the newest Atom-processor-based Eee PC 1000 that sports a 10-inch screen. So, as netbooks get redefined upward, the silicon inside--and other hardware--becomes the defining factor, i.e., low-power, low-performance processors and graphics that dictate how the computer should be used: primarily as a Net-centric device for Web browsing and email. Prices will also typically be lower than standard notebooks.)