Isaiah Turns to Nano

VIA’s Isaiah processor architecture has been getting a lot of attention for being a strong competitor to Intel’s Atom line of processors for the ULV CPU segment. Today VIA is officially unveiling the new Nano Processor line for mainstream desktops, notebooks and mini-notes (to name a few) and the specifications look impressive.
Today marks one of the most pivotal days in the history of VIA Technologies; after essentially bowing out of the chipset market for AMD and Intel processors the combined CPU/platform division that was much maligned over the past decade as being stale and out of date now becomes the company’s strongest asset.  The VIA C7 processor has actually done very well for itself as a previous generation architecture and found its way into many UMPC and small form factor machines.  More recently though VIA has been making noise about a completely new CPU architecture: the Isaiah core.  With VIA’s unveiling of the availability of the newly named VIA Nano Processor the company takes its first steps towards a much larger world.

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We have already extensively covered the VIA Isaiah processor architecture in a previous article based around our discussions with Glenn Henry, the principal architect:

The Isaiah is a truly competitive part when compared to current offerings from AMD and Intel.  It is an out-of-order, superscalar design which utilizes multiple decode and execution units that take it a big step above the previous C7 processor.  In fact, many of its design aspects do remind us of Intel’s Core 2 Duo, but with a mind towards overall power consumption.

The core utilizes three complex decoders which can take a full X86 instruction and break it down into micro or macro-ops, depending on the instruction/s.  It also features 7 execute units which can take these ops, as well as handle fused ops.  The floating point unit does look to be quite impressive, as they are saying it is one of the fastest and lowest latency units around.  It can do 2 adds and 2 muls in 1 cycle, which makes its potential throughput pretty tremendous.  It also features a 128 bit wide SSE unit which supports SSE-3.  This is something that AMD implemented in Phenom, and Intel had in their original Core 2 Duo chips.  The FP unit may not kick around the competition when put in real-world situations, but it is surely a huge improvement over the previous C7.

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Perhaps the most impressive feature of this architecture is the transistor count.  Each chip is approximately 94 million transistors, and quite a bit of that is taken up by the 1 MB L2 cache.  Compare this with the AMD Phenom which features 450 million transistors.  Though that is a four core part with 2 MB of L3 cache, we see that the Isaiah is still less than 1/4th the size.

If really want the entire story on the architecture, you should really check out Josh’s article on the subject before reading on about the final productized release today.

Introducing the VIA Nano Processor

The totality of today’s announcement revolves around the official branding of the new VIA Isaiah core processors as well as information on the actual product lines and frequencies that are going to be available. 

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There will be two lines of VIA Nano processor: the L-series is for mainstream desktop and notebook configurations while the U-series (think ULTRA low power) is intended for smaller form factors like ultra mobile devices and mini-notes.  The L-series will come in two flavors that both use an 800 MHz V4 bus speed at run at 1.8 GHz or 1.6 GHz.  The most impressive part of these two CPUs is that the max TDPs are 25W and 17W respectively. 

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The story gets even better when looking at the U-series products that range from 1.0 GHz to 1.3 GHz and above while maintaining a MAXIMUM thermal dissipation of 5-8 watts. 

All of the new Nano Processors are built on 65nm process technology from Fujitsu; all 94 million transistors.  The small transistor count is even more impressive considering the rather large 1MB of L2 cache on the die.  The very small package (21mm x 21mm) is also able to sit at idle pulling 0.1 watts – 100 mW! 

The current Isaiah architecture is only going to be made available in single-core processors though VIA has admitted that the fittings are in place for dual-core products should the need arise down the road for such a product. 

If all goes as planned, the adoption rate for VIA’s new processor should be swift as the CPU is pin-to-pin compatible with any motherboard platform built for the VIA C7 processor and uses the same bus technology and chipsets.  This is something that Intel’s Atom line of processors based around Silverthorne definitely cannot offer.  Not only that but the VIA Nano Processor and accompanying platform can support many features that Atom leaves behind like full speed PCI Express buses. 

Earlier this week, VIA unveiled a new mini-note platform dubbed the VIA OpenBook.  This Eee PC competitor uses the VIA C7-M processor but should be considered a ripe candidate for adopting the VIA Nano Processor – I am in fact surprised that the OpenBook launched without using the new Nano Processor.  VIA told me they do not have any immediate plans to migrate the platform over, but I’ll try to get some more information on this very obvious use VIA’s new processor next week in Taiwan.

Performance Preview

After looking over the materials presented by VIA on the Nano Processor, we found this white paper PDF document that gives us some comparison data on the new processors.  Of course, these numbers were run by VIA so their opinions will obviously be bias a bit – but they are interesting graphs none the less.

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All benchmarks provided by VIA Technologies

The first two graphs compare the new VIA Nano processor to the existing VIA C7 CPU, both at 1.8 GHz.  Performance gains are noticeable ranging from 1.6x on the low end to as high as 3.2x on the SiSoft ALU benchmark with the advantages obviously going to the new design. 

The power graph that looks at performance per watt directly above compares the VIA Nano and Intel Celeron-M 520 CPUs, both operating at 1.6 GHz.  The benchmark used for the comparison was OfficeBench 2007 and the VIA Nano processor appears to have the edge – VIA didn’t provide the performance scores though we can figure them out using basic math: 1.72 x 31 watts = 53.32 score for the Celeron and 3.28 x 17 watts = 55.76 score.  This indicates that both processors perform similarly but the Nano is much more efficient in its work.

Pricing and Availability

While VIA wouldn’t talk specifically about pricing since the inner workings of OEM deals largely depend on many factors outside a set price, they did insist that the Nano Processor and platforms would be priced competitively with the Intel Atom line of products.  Even though VIA’s Isaiah core and chipsets may indeed have better overall technology, VIA still knows that to beat Intel at its own game it will need to be aggressive in its pricing and marketing. 

The Nano Processors are already in the hands of key OEMs and should be making the rounds to all of them pretty soon.  Though we don’t have specifics you can expect to find actual product on the shelves using the Nano U- and L-series processors sometime in Q3 of this year.  VIA did indicate that they will continue to support the C7 and C7-M processors for the foreseeable future but if the majority of their partners start to adopt the Nano Processor (as we hope they will) this could dwindle quickly.

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For DIYers and enthusiasts – all the C7 and Nano Processors we are discussing here are not socket-based and so you won’t technically be able to build it from the ground up; what you WILL be able to do is buy a bundled/soldered VIA Nano processor and motherboard to build an HTPC or SFF around and we expect to see those products available by Q4. 

The Unknown: NVIDIA

We have already mentioned in several news posts that VIA and NVIDIA have partnered together in recent months in an attempt take on their common opponents: Intel and AMD.  NVIDIA has announced it will be making chipsets for the VIA processors and you can expect some interesting announcements around that idea come this time next week.  No, as far as we know there is not going to a buyout anytime soon, though I personally wouldn’t rule out the possibility of something happening this year. 

My immediate issue is to see how NVIDIA’s chipsets (that are not known for their power efficiency when compared to competing Intel/AMD platform options) can mesh with the extremely power-conscious community of OEMs that VIA is going to be selling Nano Processors to.  Maybe NVIDIA will have a new, impressive option up its sleeve for just this opportunity.

Initial Thoughts

The VIA Nano Processor has the potential to breathe new life into the company and give Intel’s Atom and AMD’s Puma processors and platforms a strong dose of competition.  Since we are now hearing that Atom will be delayed until the first part of August, VIA (as well as AMD) have an opening that they desperately need to take advantage of to get momentum and OEM adoption on their side.  We hope to have some VIA Nano Processors in our hands at Computex and should have complete benchmarking hardware shortly thereafter – summer 2008 is indeed going to be a busy one.

More VIA Reading:

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