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Via gets small with latest chip, boards

The Taiwanese chipmaker takes the wraps off its upcoming Eden-N chip and its Nano-ITX motherboard, which take up less space than rivals and so promise to help shrink notebooks.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Via Technologies is out to shrink your notebook.

At the Microprocessor Forum here on Tuesday, the Taiwanese manufacturer discussed a series of processors, chip packages and motherboards designed to take much of the bulk out of portable computers.

The upcoming Via Eden-N notebook microprocessor, for instance, will fit inside a package that measures 15 millimeters by 15 millimeters--a space smaller than a penny, said Glenn Henry, president of Centaur Technology, Via's processor development unit.

The Via Eden-N chip, along with a chipset and graphics chip, will then be placed on Nano-ITX motherboards. These small motherboards measure 12 centimeters a side, less than comparable motherboards. A similar Intel board is about three times the size, Henry said. Smaller boards lead to smaller computers.

Via's chips will also consume little power and come with built in security features that will allow users to encrypt their files, Henry added. The chip will sell for $30 or less, he said.

"We tried to get it to run as fast as possible at the lowest voltage," Henry said. "We added a lot of new functionality."

Henry, who has held high-level positions at IBM and Dell, may be considered one of the fathers of the Bauhaus movement in microprocessors, which emphasizes minimalism and functionality. Rather than try to compete in megahertz or performance terms or both against Intel or Advanced Micro Devices' products, Henry and his design teams have mostly tried to reduce cost and power consumption.

Not surprisingly, Via's inexpensive processors mostly get sold in developing nations. Several hobbyists also use Via's existing chips and its Mini-ITX motherboards (which are small, but larger than the Nano-ITX boards) to turn lunch pails and other household objects into computers.

The Eden-N is a small core and is very power-efficient, said Kevin Krewell, senior editor at the Microprocessor Report newsletter, organizers of this week's chip conference. "Over half of (Via's) chips are sold offshore. They have chips in the $199 Linux PCs," Krewell said.

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A case in point is the transistor count for the new Eden-N chip. Eden-N is a derivative of the Eden desktop processor released in January. Integrating security functions into the chip required adding 180,000 transistors to the basic processor. But by streamlining other functions, Via was able to remove 280,000 transistors, leading to reduction of 100,000 transistors. Typically, designers add transistors when coming up with new chips.

Although the company mostly concentrated on power consumption and size, Via also did boost the clock speed. The chip, which is shipping in samples now to manufacturers, will run at 1.4GHz when it comes out and come with a 200MHz system bus, according to Via.

The design of a successor, code-named Esther (after the Biblical character), is currently being finished, Henry added.

Via's processor development efforts got a boost earlier this year, when the company and Intel settled a long running legal dispute that allows Via to make Intel-compatible chips and chipsets.