VIA takes on Intel (again), moves into China

It's a set-top box world

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CeBIT VIA Technologies pulled out all the stops at CeBIT yesterday with launches in five product families.

First up, and probably most significant in terms of the company's main line of business today, is the Apollo P4X333 chipset. Next, we have a mobile version of the low-power C3, taking VIA's budget-price x.86 CPU family into the notebook and subnotebook sectors for the first time. Third on the block is the P4MA, a DDR266 mobo for the Pentium 4; fourth, there are new ethernet and DVD switch controllers; and last, but by no means least, the company has announced a new set-top box platform targeted at emerging markets.

Rewind to the P4X333. VIA has packed this chipset with fast I/0 connections: check out the 533MHz bus; 2.7GB/s memory bandwidth; AGP 8x; double speed V-link - 533MB/sec - eliminating the PCI bottleneck, VIA says; USB 2.0 and ATA/133. At every pinchpoint, The P4X333 is faster than today's nearest Intel equivalent, the 845DDR. Will this be enough to get the OEMs climb on board? Acer last week confirmed that it was to use VIA chipsets for the Pentium 4 for the first time, the first major public win for VIA in the P4 market. However, Intel's legal dispute against VIA, and sundry distributors, over the Taiwanese firm's rights to produce technology for P4 without its explicit say-so, is still putting a dampener on VIA sales. This is where the P4MA steps in. If VIA can't get the mobo makers to sign up, it'll market and make P4 mobos itself (or rather contract another firm to make them).

The mobile C3 processor is, VIA claims, the "coolest running processor in the market today". It comes off a 0.13m production line, has a typical power consumption of 6 watts and voltage of 1.35 volts. More spec? OK, there's 128KB level 1 and 64Kb level 2 cache, up to 933MHz clock speed, support for 100/133MHz front side bus and MMX and 3DNow! multimedia instructions. Later versions will feature VIA's power management technology, called LongHaul, the only information about which we have right now is that it comes with a trademark.

And onto the set-top box gig. Speaking at CeBIT, Richard Brown, international marketing director, noted that PC sales in some emerging markets were slowing down. In China, for example, target customers -i.e - those with money -were already saturated with PCs. The goal then is to produce what VIA calls an "enhanced buyer experience", translated from marketing speak into English by Brown as "a polite way of getting the prices even lower than they are now." Translated into product, this means a wide array of devices to meet different requirements, supplied at consumer electronic price points, and potentially all supplied by VIA. Certainly, VIA will move beyond silicon, into designing the components or "building blocks" for such devices (hence switch controllers and the like).

A case in point is the company's alliance with a telecoms company in Hangzhou, a city in mainland China with six million residents. The city is rolling out fibre to the home, cabling all new apartment blocks with high-speed connectivity. But what to do with this infrastructure? VIA has designed a set-top box reference platform, producing the IC components - CPU, chipset, audio codec, LAN - and is handing over the production to various OEMs in China. It's a Windows CE implementation, according to Brown, so that should delight Microsoft, not exactly a winner to date in the set-top world. The first boxes are to ship in June 2002. ®


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