Via open sources laptop designs; Will it make Via relevant as a chipmaker again?

Via open sources laptop designs; Will it make Via relevant as a chipmaker again?

Summary: Via has open sourced a laptop--computer assisted design documents, 3D models and all of the specifications--but let's be clear about the motives. Via wants to sell more chips and motherboards to power this device with hopes to become a little more relevant.


Via has open sourced a laptop--computer assisted design documents, 3D models and all of the specifications--but let's be clear about the motives. Via wants to sell more chips and motherboards to power this device with hopes to become a little more relevant.

Via calls this contraption the Via OpenBook Mini-Note reference design and will give you all the CAD designs and all the information you need to build a Vista laptop via a Creative Commons 3.0 license (statement, Techmeme). For the average bear, these documents aren't going to matter a whole lot. For instance, I registered and downloaded a few CAD documents (see gallery right) only to find out I didn't have the program to open them. But that's ok because I wouldn't know what to do with them anyway.

So what's this move really about? Simply put, it's about the Via chipset and motherboard. Years ago, Via was mentioned along with Intel and AMD as a semiconductor player. Via is still around, but in the U.S. it has lost its mojo as a known name. By open sourcing its laptop designs, Via is hoping that it takes off and moves a few chips and motherboards.


Via's OpenBook reference design allows for multiple connectivity modules including HSDPA, EV-DO/W-CDMA 3G and WiMAX. And the specifications are full featured. Here's the list:

Processor: 1.6GHz VIA C7-M ULV Processor

FSB: 800MHz

Chipset: VIA VX800 unified chipset.

Memory: DDR2 SO-DIMM up to 2GB

HDD: 80GB Hard-Disk or above

LCD Panel: 8.9" WVGA 1024X600 LED screen

Graphics: VIA Chrome9 HC3 DX9 3D engine with shared system memory up to 256MB

Video Decoding: MPEG-2, MPEG-4, VC1 and DiVX video decoding acceleration

Audio: Realtek HD Audio codec, 2 speakers

Networking: 10/100/1000 Mb/s Broadcom Giga NIC Ethernet Solution

Wireless: Broadcom 802.11b/g or GCT 802.16e

-2in1 (WiFI+ Blue Tooth) default module

-3in1 (AGPS+WiFI+ Blue Tooth) upgrade module

-WiMAX secondary wireless module option

-EV-DO /W-CDMA secondary wireless module option

-HSPDA secondary wireless module option

I/O: 4 in 1 embedded card reader

1 D-Sub Port

3 x USB (Ver. 2.0 Type A Port)

1 Mic-in audio jack

1 Headphone out

Webcam: 2.01 megapixel dual headed rotary CCD camera

Dimension: 240(W)x175(D)mm

Thickness: 36.2(H)mm ( at battery)

Weight: Under 1kg

Operating System Support: Microsoft Windows XP, Windows Vista and all popular Linux distributions

Status Indicators Power on, battery and HDD LEDs

Battery: 4 Cells, 2600ma

Options: USB interface DVD Dual RW

Leather Cover

The big question is whether other companies will use Via's designs. It's unlikely that a competitor--Asus, Dell, HP, Apple and any contract equipment manufacturer--would use them. Perhaps some upstart will Via's OpenBook useful, but open sourcing laptop designs can only go so far because most of us don't manufacture electronics for giggles.

Topics: Wi-Fi, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Networking, Open Source, Processors, Software

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  • VIA exposes open source limits

    This move exposes the logical limits of open source. You can't "open source" everything because it costs hundreds of millions to run a fabrication operation.

    The gesture of releasing the design either becomes: 1) meaningless because no one individual can afford to take advantage of it, or 2) a foolish investment because if a company does have the money to fabricate chances are it's peers also do and will copy the design and cut into the profits.

    There simply isn't an upside.

    However, the VIA chipset should stand on it's own as a power efficient and heat efficient system. The problem is, Vista sucks the life out of it so it doesn't make a good (modern) windows platform. However, as a Windows XP platform, or a Linux platform, the VIA chipset shines.
    • You do not need a fab to use these designs. A smaller player could create a

      laptop of quality equal to the established players in very little time. All of the basic parts can be bought on the market. The barrier to entry in the laptop market is falling, and this will result in cheaper laptops.
    • Not exactly

      It is not that difficult to order a custom design from a semiconductor manufacturer, or from a chassis manufacturer; in fact, if you provide them the design and materials required, it gets quite cheap once you reach a few hundred units.

      One very costly operation is designing the parts first: if this is already done and tweaked by many specialists, one detail at a time, new models from whatever manufacturer will get ever better.

      Ordering "commodity" hardware like memory, CPU, screen, HD etc. will then allow you to get a laptop in pieces, to assemble yourself at your leisure.

      Via's goal here? Maybe defining industry standards such as Intel's ATX specifications...
      Mitch 74
  • RE: Via open sources laptop designs; Will it make Via relevant as a chipmaker again?

    I'm not sure that it exposes the limits of open source, but rather may expose the limits of open-source strategy. Larry is almost certainly right as to why Via is open sourcing its hardware, as it were, but equally correct is the implicit assumption that open source won't prove to be a panacea that does much to help Via.

    Open source is a great way to extend one's business strategy, but if it's the sole strategy...? A recipe for failure.
  • Exposes Larry's limits more like

    The CAD designs are probably in Solidworks or something like that. This is universally understood in the industry and costs about $10,000 to buy.
    If you wanted to injection mold the parts, you can do it without getting Solidworks. You'd only need that if you wanted to change the design.
    Getting molds made for the plastic bits costs about $10,000.
    After that you could make 10,000 for about $1 each laptop.

    Taking the PCB to a PCB assembly plant would land you a tooling charge probably not exceeding $500, and the PCB itself could be assembled (automatic component placing and infrared reflow of the solderpaste) for perhaps $75 per PCB in quantities of 100s.

    So you've got the PCB and the case for $76, you just add on the cost of the BOM of parts. Largest cost item will probably be the battery or the LCD. Both of which will be unbelievably low to the man in the street in quantities of 1000.

    The main component on the PCB is likely to be the CPU itself.
    Which is made by VIA, hence open sourcing the designs.

    Usually most chip manufacturers supply a reference design that you see with little modification on most motherboards.

    This is just going a stage further.

    There will be a number of people making this design, I'm sure.
    It's great.
    • Agree

      I totally agreed this. Another point is that will save a lot of
      effort by modify the open source design to have a looks like
      custom design and save a lot of time and cost too.
  • RE: Via open sources laptop designs; Will it make Via relevant as a chipmaker again?

    naw, too expensive. Here's how you do it. Go to a PC recycling place, get a used, preferably unoperable laptop. Gut it and use the case and display. Go to Radio Shack and get the standard components and boards. Buy the VIA parts from a VIA dealer. Get the RAM, HDD, CDROM, etc. from where you want. Estimated cost (not including the damned CAD software you need to decipher the damned drawings...): $350.
    • You just don't get it

      People making this laptop will make 1000 or so.
      Chipmakers already give reference designs for their CPU.
      Via have gone further and suggested an entire PCB, BOM and case.

      This isn't for a one-off hack, it's for small laptop manufacturers.
  • RE: Via open source laptop- 1x D Sub Port

    Does that mean I could concievably get a machine with a 9-pin RS232 port?

    Toss the WiFi for a GPS module and you'd have a deal.
  • Now that is an interesting juxtoposition

    quote: all the information you need to build a Vista laptop via a Creative Commons 3.0 license

    I can't imagine anything sillier.
    tracy anne
    • I agree....

      Why on earth would anyone want to build a Vista laptop? That is silly!
    • read again. Vista is ONE option.

      Personally I think anyone running Vista is mad, especially if they tried to run it on this hardware.

      More likely would be the Linux Via have already packaged for it.
  • It's all about ULPC systems and making them even cheaper

    Chip makers already share a lot of information with manufacturers. For example, every NVidia-based video card (with a given GPU, of course!) you can buy looks pretty much the same aside from the heatsink and cooler designs -- that's because the boards are all based on a reference design from the company. Motherboards vary a little more, but their design usually still owes a lot to a reference design.

    What's new here is a chip manufacturer sharing mechanical designs. I don't expect the big name companies to jump in; they will prefer to do their own design work, because their physical design is a big part of their Unique Sales Proposition -- that is, what gets you to buy their product instead of somebody else's.

    But smaller makers might. If this design catches on, it could lead to commodification of the ULPC (ultra low-cost PC) space that machines like the Asus Eee have pioneered. That market is price-sensitive, so not having to spend money on mechanical design will be a draw for potential entrants. This system is competitive (at least on paper) with other systems currently in that space, though Via's new Isaiah CPU instead of the C7-M might make it even better.
  • RE: Via open sources laptop designs; Will it make Via relevant as a chipmaker again?

    This is an interesting opportunity for a small step toward commoditizing the laptop world. Design a laptop that drives the buyer to your chipsets. I personally wouldn't mind the opportunity to buy a kit and put a laptop together myself. Spec it exactly the way I want - screen, memory, drives, connectivity. I don't need a luggable workstation - I have that. I want a small, light device to use for handling communications and data needs. There ought to be a few entreprenurial spirits out there to take advantage of the opportunity. And for those so inclined, the CAD files offer the opportunity of creating a uniquely individual laptop by modification of the files. They are in a well-known CAD format, and many systems can modify the files. Want a 3D image of your face staring out of the lid? Get yourself laser scanned and provide that and the lid data to a rapid prototyping house to produce a truly unique laptop. This just seems like an opportunity for fun and business combined.
    • That's an interesting idea

      There's nothing stopping one small business making a bunch of the motherboards, and another making a bunch of the cases. Then someone else could make a modified motherboard in the same form factor, and this would let you pick and choose. This could be the start of something big.
    • 3d printer could make your case with 3d face on it for $500 or so

      For the wealthier people amongst us, this would make a good birthday present.