VIA Nano Quad Core Preview
Past Nano History
One could argue that VIA jumped on the low power bandwagon before it was really cool. Way back in the late 90s VIA snatched up processor firms Cyrix and Centaur, and started to merge those design teams to create low powered x86 CPUs. Over the next several years VIA was still flying high on the chipset side, but due to circumstances started to retreat from that business. On the Intel side it was primarily due to the legal issues that stemmed from the front side bus license that VIA had, and how it apparently did not apply to the Pentium 4. On the AMD side it was more about the increased competition from NVIDIA and ATI/AMD, plus the lack of revenue from that smaller CPU market. Other areas have kept VIA afloat through the years, such as audio codecs, very popular Firewire controllers, and the latest USB 3.0 components that are starting to show up.
Considering all of the above, VIA thought its best way to survive was to get into the CPU business and explore a niche in the x86 market that had been widely ignored except for a handful of products from guys like Nat Semi (who had originally bought up Cyrix). In the late 90s and early 00s there just was not much of a call for low power x86 products, and furthermore the industry was still at a point where even mundane productivity software would max out the top end x86 processors at the time. This was a time where 1GHz was still not common, and all processors were single core. Fast forward to 2011 and we have four and six core processors running in excess of 3 GHz. We have also seen a dramatic shift in the x86 realm to specialized, lower power processors.
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It seems we have hit a spot where the combination of raw speed and pervasive, multi-core designs have become “good enough” for the majority of desktop applications out there. Certainly there are plenty of workstation class software products such as image manipulation, scientific models and simulations that require more than two cores and faster speeds, but for most users wishing to surf the internet, watch a few videos, and exchange emails, we are certainly at the level of “good enough” for a wide variety of low power/low cost processors.
The product stack that VIA relies upon for their income.
Several years back VIA was able to release their first Nano based processor, which is essentially a 9th generation x86 processor with many advanced features which make it quite similar in ways to the Intel Core 2 architecture. This super-scalar processor was very mean and lean, but initially came out in a single core solution. What made this processor quite interesting was that the design was simplified to a great degree, but it still performed at a very high level. It is said that to nearly 50% of a processor’s transistor budget is dedicated to squeezing out that last 10% of performance. Well, the Centaur design team behind Nano decided to forego that last bit of performance and just created an architecture which would still have next generation features, but will improve power consumption and die size while sacrificing some of the potential performance when compared to larger, more power hungry processors from the competition.
The Nano has done well, even though VIA only has a small fraction of the x86 market currently. Apparently it has sold quite well in Asia where cost and low heat production are key in many markets. The combination of a Nano processor combined with the current VIA chipsets has kept VIA somewhat profitable and stable as a company. The purchase of S3 graphics to design their latest GPU cores has also proven to be a good combination, as the VN1000 was able to match the featureset and performance of other integrated solutions from NVIDIA, AMD, and Intel.
With the rise of ARM, Atom, and Bobcat we are seeing low power take center stage. VIA was able to join this group in multi-core solutions when their Nano X2 debuted late last year. The top of the line product from VIA is the Nano X2 clocked at 1.8 GHz with a TDP of around 25 watts. It is typically combined with a VN1000 chipset which has a total TDP of around 7 watts, or the VX900/VX800 which are both sub-5 watts. This combination does come in at a higher TDP than for example the AMD E-350 with a Hudson Fusion Controller, but should perform at a slightly higher level in most CPU constrained applications.
Tiny, tiny webservers!
Nano has also found a home in some blade type solutions in the server market. With native 64 bit support as well as unique features like hardware AES encryption, it has seen products developed around Nano from companies such as Dell and HP. Low power and low heat, along with dual core performance and features, allows a lot of computing power to be placed in a very small space.