Review Index:

VIA Nano Quad Core Preview

Subject: Processors
Manufacturer: VIA

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.

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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.

Read on for more details!

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.

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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.

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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.

May 12, 2011 | 06:06 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

Good write-up Josh. I'm kind of surprised that Via is still viable ;)

May 13, 2011 | 11:45 AM - Posted by Anoyingmouse (not verified)

I recall a single Samsung mini note\net book based on the first generation Nano, but I can't think of any Via design wins in the consumer market since then. Does Via have any plans to put the X2 and\or quad cores on sale? When the netbook market was in its infancy, I was quite intrigued with the prospect of a Nano\Ion alternative to the Atom(remember that awful picture of a Via guy kissing a Nvidia guy's head?), but several years later, and we're still waiting.

I realize that Via has a fraction of the production capacity, RD budget, and market visibility of AMD or Intel, but shouldn't something eventually find its way passed the slot machines, ATMs, cache registers and other such devices with embedded chips and into the mainstream market?

May 13, 2011 | 12:47 PM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Nano has a very small impact on North America and Europe, and we see very few products released in those areas featuring Nano. Where Nano does pretty well is in China and India. These emerging markets, plus some favoritism towards China/Taiwan made products in these areas, have made VIA a sustainable company in the face of the heavy competition from Intel and AMD.

Production capacity is not really an issue with VIA, as they use the same foundries as AMD does for their Ontario/Zacate products. 40 nm line space is no longer as tight as it used to be. R&D is the biggest hurdle. Intel has thousands of engineers, and the best tools in the business to design CPUs. VIA (Centaur in this case) has around 100 employees in total, and a good portion of those guys have nothing to do with the design and implementation of these processors. That they have been able to compete even at this level, without the resources of an Intel or AMD, is pretty amazing and perhaps a testament to their CPU architects.

May 17, 2011 | 02:47 PM - Posted by patfactorx

I'm excited to see more competition!

May 17, 2011 | 05:19 PM - Posted by Robert (not verified)

VIA was the fall guy for alot of things. Better than Nvidia all the way around in motherboard chipsets. Alot stabler, at times faster, and usually more likely to be standards compliant, which is very important. Nvidia just was the hero that was supposed to save everyone from the bad guy. The real bad guy was failing manufacturing techniques of the motherboard manufacturers.

VIA sound is the best, IMO. Their video, don't care for so much (although it gets the job done on Windows platforms very well), but VIA will always be VIAble. Their industry know-how is far more extensive than most people know to give credit.

May 17, 2011 | 08:33 PM - Posted by Josh Walrath

Yeah, hard to forget the nForce 150 vs. the VIA K8T800. The VIA chip ran the HT bus at the full 800 mtps speed for both upstream and downstream at 16x, while the NVIDIA chip ran at 600 mtps with 16x down and 8x up.

Too bad that VIA was so late in their updated southbridges for the AMD platform. Would have been nice to see them there as a third choice, but that Intel settlement sure took the wind out of their chipset sails.

May 19, 2011 | 05:47 PM - Posted by Jeremy Hellstrom

"but that Intel settlement sure took the wind out of their chipset sails"

You can say that again Josh

September 14, 2011 | 02:44 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I wish there was something we could do about all of that. I am a long time VIA customer and admitted fanboy. I have been cramming mini-itx boards in to stupid things since before Intel farted out the Atom.

We need to figure out how to band together to push for supplies in America. I would buy them and so would you.

Now that HTC has purchased S3 and being that the founder of VIA co-founded HTC, I have a feeling that HTC will soon purchase VIA and rebrand it as HTC. They will then try to compete with Apple more directly by pulling more of their assets under the singular umbrella of HTC. I say by 2014, VIA has been renamed to HTC.. or HTC and VIA will merge and rebrand.