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Via launches Nano processor for mainstream PCs

Via Technologies is launching a processor that will compete with Intel's Atom processor.

Via Technologies is set to go mainstream. On Thursday, Via launched the low-power Nano processor line that will compete with Intel's Atom processor and likely give the chip supplier some mainstream PC street cred.

Via Nano processor
Via Nano processor Via Technologies

Formerly referred to by the code name Isaiah, Nano is based on the x86 architecture, meaning it can run the same software as chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

With Nano, Via is angling for more mainstream notebook and mini-notebook designs such as Hewlett-Packard's 2133 Mini-Note PC, which uses Via's current C7 processor. Low-cost desktops will also be a target market, as will designs with Nvidia's graphics processors.

Nano offers two to four times the performance of Via's current C7 but maintains the same power consumption and can be used in the same circuit board designs as the C7.

"We are plug-compatible with our existing C7," said Glenn Henry, president of Centaur Technology, the Via subsidiary that designed Nano. This means that the chip can be plugged into the same processor socket as the current Via C7 chip.

Nano will have a thermal envelope as low as 5 watts at 1.0GHz. This is higher, however, than Intel's Atom chip which tops out at just 2.5 watts. At the high end, Nano will have a thermal envelope--referred to as the TDP or Thermal Design Power--of 25 watts. (See chart)

One of the principal differences between Nano and Atom is that Intel's chip uses a more simple "in-order execution" design compared to Nano's superscalar, out-of-order design. Because of this more sophisticated design, Nano may deliver better performance than Atom in some cases, claimed Henry.

But Nano may compete with Intel's higher-performance Celeron lines too since Nano is also targeted at low-cost notebooks and desktops.

It is not clear how price competitive Nano will be since Via is not disclosing pricing. The Atom processor ranges in price from $45 (800MHz) to $160 (1.86GHz). While Intel's Celeron M (mobile) processor is listed at $86 and the lower-power version of the Celeron M is listed at $161. Intel's ultra-low-power Core Solo processor starts at $241.

"One is going to be cheaper than they are at equal power. One is going to be faster," Henry said. "That's the C7 and the Nano (respectively). Got 'em surrounded," he added, referring to Intel.

Via Nano processor lineup
Via Nano processor lineup Via Technologies

Nano is due to ship in volume in the third quarter.

Initially, the processor is expected to find its way into computers that use circuit boards based on the Mini-ITX design, said Richard Brown, vice president, corporate marketing at Via. The processor will not appear in mainstream notebooks immediately since the lead time for these designs is longer, said Brown.

"Notebooks take a longer time to bring to market even once you got the design win," he said.

The Via C7 processor is currently being used in mainstream notebook designs such as the $398 Everex gBook in addition to the HP 2133 Mini-Note PC.

Via is also planning a dual-core processor but is no hurry to bring it out. "We'll do it when Intel makes us do it," Henry said. "I don't think the devices we're talking about need dual core."

The Nano processor family uses Fujitsu's advanced 65 nanometer manufacturing process and comes in a compact 21mm x 21mm package.

Via Nano architecture highlights:
• 64-bit Superscalar Speculative Out-Of-Order MicroArchitecture
• High-speed, low-power Via V4 Front Side Bus starts at 800MHz
• High-performance floating point unit
• Two 64KB L1 caches and 1MB exclusive L2 cache