If AMD is David and Intel is Goliath, What is VIA? Cinderella?

David Berlind: Based on my conversation with VIA's Chipset Platform Group marketing Manager Keith Kowal, VIA is not a processor company that can so easily be chalked off the way Transmeta buckled earlier this year.

Download this PodcastHow many times have you heard this story?  A battle of epic proportions is underway between two titans while no one is paying attention to a third, smaller contender that comes out of nowhere to kick both their butts.  I'm not saying that's what VIA is going to do in the global battle for processor marketshare.  But, based on my conversation with VIA's Chipset Platform Group marketing Manager Keith Kowal, VIA is not a processor company that can so easily be chalked off the way Transmeta buckled earlier this year The audio version of the interview is available as an MP3 that can be downloaded or, if you’re already subscribed to ZDNet’s IT Matters series of audio podcasts, it will show up on your system or MP3 player automatically. See ZDNet’s podcasts: How to tune in.  You can also download an experimental photocast version of the interview.  Windows Media Player (Windows or PocketPC) or a PlaysForSure-compliant video capable player such as those from iRiver and Creative is required (see Introducing ZDNet's photocasts for an explanation of what a photocast is).

Kowal, a native of Canada now living in Taiwan where VIA is headquartered, is touring the US to talk about the latest addition to VIA's processor lineup -- the C7-M.  The "M" stands for mobile and, according to VIA, this processor is, watt-for-watt, the most powerful processor on the market (although it could be true, I can't verify this since no systems are shipping yet). What's so special about the C7-M? It's a 2 GHz x86-compatible processor that, according to Kowal, not only takes only 20 watts of power (Intel's latest Pentium M takes 27 and AMD's most advanced Turion, which is 64-bit capable, takes 25) but also has a built-in security co-processor that can perform AES encryption on data being transmitted across the network or stored locally on the hard drive in real time.

During the interview, Kowal and I covered a lot of ground.  Everything from whether or not VIA has any business mixing it up with AMD and Intel (answer: Yes) to whether the company has a 64-bit capable processor in the works (answer: Yes) to why the security coprocessor isn't Trusted Platform Module-compliant (answer: listen to the interview) to whether we'll ever see a $100 PC (answer: probably not).  We also talked about the embedded market, where VIA is scoring design wins and who, if anybody, has contracted with VIA for a boatload of C7-Ms.  Here are some highlights from the interview:

Kowal on why VIA can find its way in the battle between Intel and AMD when Transmeta couldn't:

There is a big battle going on – always between Intel and AMD. But our previous processor – the C3 – was very successful in some areas of the market. We’re very strong in the embedded space. We developed the mini-ITX form factor which did very well and is based on our C3 processor.  Our core design values around the C7 and the previous C3 are all about low power and low thermals that can enable a lot of very cool designs.  Much like Transmeta.  Via also has the strong backing behind it of the platform base of chipsets and the strong partnerships with the foundries.  So we come from a much stronger base level and that’s why we’ll be able to succeed.

Kowal on why VIA's technology means we'll see fanless (ultra quiet) notebook computers: 

I think with C7-M and later we’ll have some ultra low voltage parts, yes, fanless is very possible.  In fact, we expect most of the early design wins will have a minimal of cooling…. It depends on the manufacturer.  If there is a fan, it’s going to be pretty small and not making much noise. They’re using our ultra cool processors [that have] a tiny die size and a tiny transistor count.  So, therefore, they put out very little heat.

Kowal on whether or not capacity or yield will be a problem for the new mobile processors:

Manufacturing is done in IBM’s Fishkill fab in New York.  We're happy with how things are looking right now and don’t see any capacity problems.   


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