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Via touts chip for low-cost notebooks

New C7 processor is small and inexpensive enough to allow production of light notebooks priced at $800 or less.

With its C7 processor, Via Technologies hopes to eliminate its performance credibility gap and allow notebook makers to come out with light notebooks for under $800.

The chip, which will be shown off next week in notebooks at the Computex trade show in Taipei, sports performance roughly in the same neighborhood as that for current notebook chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, according to Via executives.

May, in fact, is a big month for processor launches. Intel on Wednesday released a new round of desktop chips while AMD is expected to unveil a desktop Athlon at Computex. Taiwanese contract manufacturers such as Quanta and Compaq also will likely show off notebooks at the show that later will be sold as Dell and HP notebooks around the world.

The Via chip, though, consumes a maximum of 20 watts of power at 2GHz--less than competing chips--and takes up only 30 square millimeters of space, a smaller size that cuts the price.

"You will see thin and light notebooks under $800 and possibly lower than that," said Richard Brown, associate vice president of international marketing for Via.

"With the C7, the (performance) gap won't be as wide."
--Dean McCarron, analyst, Mercury Research

Thin and light notebooks typically weigh 5 pounds or less and cost more than $1,000, while bargain notebooks weigh about 8 pounds and can be had for as little as $650 these days. Many of these larger notebooks, however, rarely leave home, according to PC marketing executives, and so weight has become an important factor in sales of many notebook models. The Pavilion dv1227us from HP, for instance, retails for $1,199. Mostly, C7 notebooks will come from white-box manufacturers in emerging markets, but some models will likely sneak into the U.S. and Europe.

Taiwan-based Via won't upend the processor market any day soon. Although it's one of the world's primary PC chipset makers, the company's global market share in PC processors is just north of 1 percent, according Mercury Research. (The chipset shuttles data back and forth to the processor, the primary chip that performs calculations.)

Still, the C7 represents a turning point for the company. For years, Via's chips have lagged behind in performance, forcing the company to sell almost exclusively on price. (If Intel was the gorilla in the processor world, AMD was the chimp and Via was the monkey, Via CEO Wen Chi Chen once said in an interview.)

In the U.S., Via processors landed mostly in low-cost Linux desktops or plus-size notebooks sold at Wal-Mart and in thin clients.

"With the C7, the (performance) gap won't be as wide," said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury. Just as important, it will be targeted at the PC world's hot markets. The notebook segment accounts for around 25 percent of the total number of PC processors shipped and it is growing rapidly at the expense of desktops. Notebook chips also are generally more profitable and sell for higher prices than their desktop brethren.

"The notebook market is growing, and the fastest growing segment is the value segment," McCarron added. Further, sales growth in developing regions outpaces the established markets.

Formerly code-named "Esther," the C7 differs substantially from Via's current chip, which, oddly enough, is named the C3. For one thing, IBM will manufacture the chip in its East Fishkill, N.Y., facility with its 90-nanometer manufacturing processes. In the past, Via hired Taiwanese foundries. Because of the shift, the C7 will also incorporate a silicon-on-insulator substrate--an added layer of silicon that reduces power consumption.

The chip will also incorporate a number of security features. Like many of the latest Intel and AMD processors, the C7 will come with an NX bit, which allows the processor to block many buffer overflow attacks. Via also included circuits that make it easier to encrypt documents. Another feature allows a user to encrypt a voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) call made through a notebook. The software to enable these options will come out later.

Further, to cut energy consumption, Via has included technology that will slow down the processor during idle periods or when computing loads are light. At 1GHz, the C7 consumes a maximum of 3 watts, and 12 watts at 1.6GHz. But it can be cranked up quickly to 2GHz (and a 20-watt ceiling), if needed.

"Power goes up as sort of the square root of megahertz," said Glenn Henry, president of Centaur Technologies, the name of Via's chip-design subsidiary.

By comparison, AMD's Turion chips sport a thermal ceiling of 25 to 35 watts, depending on the model, and run at 2GHz and lower. Intel Pentium M chips consume between 27 and 55 watts and run at 2.13GHz. Exact comparisons in performance and power consumption are difficult and the results in reality depend on the overall system design. Benchmark tests will likely appear soon.

The performance picture will also likely change substantially when dual-core notebook chips come out in 2006.

Henry added that Via deliberately kept the cache memory embedded on the chip small, at 256KB, to cut costs.

"If we had a 1MB cache, it would add maybe 5 percent of performance but double the cost," he said.

The first C7 notebooks will be shown at the show next week and then start hitting shelves in India and elsewhere in about six to eight weeks, said Brown. The first C7s will run at around 1.5GHz and 1.8GHz with later models hitting 2GHz. The system bus will initially run at 400MHz and 533MHz and later climb to 800MHz.

Via also will come out with different iterations of the chip to better suit the desktop and notebook segments.