Via trots out mini notebook, mobile motherboard

Taiwanese company, trying to up its market share, unveils tiny NanoBook, plus hardware for smart phones.Photos: Via's little mobos
Written by Michael Kanellos, Contributor
Via Technologies has unfurled a prototype for a mini notebook that will compete against similar small computers touted by Samsung and Intel, but sell for less.

The Taiwanese company is also showing off motherboards that will appear in smart phones in about a year.

The mini notebook and mobile-phone motherboard--which are being shown at the Computex trade show in Taipei, Taiwan, this week--are part of Via's strategy to eke out market share in the portable space. (Via has less than 3 percent of the market.) The company's C7 processors do not provide as much performance as chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, but the C7 also doesn't consume a lot of power.

Via motherboards

Lower power means less heat. As a result, hobbyists have gravitated to the company's motherboards and chips for turning PCs into cigar boxes and Star Wars shrines. Portable computer maker Oqo has put a Via chip into its latest pocket-size PC.

The NanoBook will run for about five hours on a battery charge when running Windows XP, said Richard Brown, vice president of marketing at Via. The computer comes with a 1.2GHz C7 chip, a 30GB hard drive and up to 1GB of memory.

The NanoBook also comes with a seven-inch screen, sports a regular (albeit slightly smaller) keyboard and weighs about 1.8 pounds. PC makers will sell it for $599 or less, cheaper than similar computers. Samsung said its latest Q1 ultramobile computers, powered by Intel chips, will cost between $799 and $1,199. Oqo charges $1,499 for its PC.

So far, one European manufacturer has agreed to produce a NanoBook. Via may also land a deal with a U.S. manufacturer in about a month, Brown added. NanoBook prototypes are being made by FIC, a Taiwanese manufacturer (FIC and Via grew out of the same family fortune).

Mini notebooks and portable computers currently only occupy a small niche. Consumers worried about the smaller screens, comparatively high prices, smaller keyboards and other factors have typically stuck with regular notebooks.

Demand, though, could start to pick up, argued Brown. Broadband is more widespread now and blogging and online photo sites have changed the relationship many consumers have with their PCs. Rather than lug a full-size notebook around, some consumers will opt for the smaller version.

"You've got to carry a notebook everywhere these days, even if you're taking the kids out," he said. "I look at it as extreme mobility."

The motherboard for smart phones is now a design concept, but Via hopes to have working prototypes and possibly products on shelves by next year. The chip will be based on the x86 architecture, the same one used inside the vast majority of the world's notebooks and PCs. The goal is to get the processor on the motherboard to consume only a quarter of a watt, relatively low for a so-called x86 chip.

Right now, most phones use chips based on the ARM architecture. ARM chips typically consume less power, but don't provide the same level of performance as x86 chips.

"The challenge is for the x86 guys to scale down," Brown said. "But the phone guys will have to scale up."

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