Taiwan based VIA Technologies has announced the introduction of its new energy-efficient multi-core architecture that has a TDP (Thermal Design Power) of only 27.5 watts and running at 1.2+ GHz. The VIA QuadCore processor is said to be 21% more energy efficient than the nearest competitor. VIA QuadCore processors combine four ‘Isaiah’ cores on two dies which enables multi-tasking and multimedia performance.
Years back when VIA released 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.
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.
Considering all that, 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 2000s 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. There’s also seen a dramatic shift in the x86 realm to specialized, lower power processors. It seems its gotten to a point 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.
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 feature set and performance of other integrated solutions from NVIDIA, AMD, and Intel.