Via moves away from the 'monolithic PC'

With upcoming consumer-PC blueprints and a new processing platform, Via Technologies is trying to eradicate the familiar big beige tin box
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

Via Technologies is building on its success with small form-factor PC platforms to gain a foothold in consumer electronics with reference designs and processor platforms appearing later this year.

Among them will be products based on the CoreFusion platform, which allows manufacturers to build a 1GHz processor-based PC into devices with flat-panel displays, including tablet PCs, televisions and in-car telematics systems. Via is also promoting reference platforms for other types of PCs that look more like rack-mounted audiovisual production equipment or a car stereo than a traditional desktop computer.

Via has achieved niche popularity with its Mini-ITX form-factor motherboards, which are 17cm square, and which have been built into a variety of tiny PC systems. The key to the success of Mini-ITX, and of Via's future reference designs, is an emphasis on flexibility over raw clock speed, the company said. "This is very much about looking at the key performance metrics and improving those without increasing noise and system heat," said Richard Brown, Via's associate vice president of marketing.

Many IT vendors have launched plans to move the PC into non-traditional places, such as tablet PCs and entertainment computers, but Via has been one of the more successful at spurring the appearance of actual new products. This is partly because the Mini-ITX form factor has attracted PC enthusiasts, whose efforts are detailed on mini-ITX.com, and smaller companies such as Hush Technologies.

For example, an entertainment PC reference design that made its debut at CeBIT earlier this month uses a dedicated MPEG-2 decoder, allowing it to play DVDs without booting up Windows, and meaning that the PC can get by with a less-powerful processor that doesn't generate as much heat, Brown said. "We're after a more balanced and lower-heat design," he added.

Via sees a big future for PCs that are tailored for specific markets, such as the Silent Mini-ITX PC from Hush Technologies, a fan-less PC that looks like a Hi-Fi component. Manufacturers "have been previously focused on the monolithic PC, but people want the PC to be more like the devices they've used for years," Brown said.

The entertainment PC reference design, including a remote control, is designed to double as a DVD player, and does not require users to boot up the operating system to play movies and CDs. It is somewhat similar to Via's earlier Hi-Fi PC concept, but uses a low-profile form factor that imitates a DVD player or Hi-Fi component.

The CoreFusion, or "Mark", platform includes a 1GHz C3 processor with an integrated Pro Savage CLE266 Northbridge chip, which connects the processor to high-speed components such as memory and PCI bus. The integration of the two chips allows the PC machinery to take up less space, meaning it can be integrated into other devices. At CeBIT, for example, Via demonstrated the StarHub, a 17-inch flat-screen television with integrated CoreFusion PC.

CoreFusion will be available in the early second half of this year, Brown said, and more Mini-ITX reference designs will be coming soon.

"The question is, how do you add that computing intelligence to another device. It doesn't matter if it's a TV or a PC with TV capability, the key is to get it into as many different devices as possible," Brown said.

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