The Quick VIA Guide

VIA Technologies is a Taiwanese company once known primarily for their motherboard chipsets. In 1999, they decide to expand into processors, acquiring most of the remains of Cyrix and Centaur. They have been selling low-power processors ever since.

The History

VIA was founded in 1987. They carved out a significant niche making chipsets for motherboards, especially those using AMD processors. The Intel-based market has always been more challenging, because it means competing with chipsets made by Intel itself. VIA captured a modest share of the Intel-based market by targeting low-cost motherboards, which would become something of a VIA hallmark.

In 1999, they acquired most of what was left of Cyrix (essentially gaining all of the intellectual property except the MediaGX, which went to AMD and later became the AMD Geode) from National Semiconductor. Critically, this meant they gained control of Cyrix's x86 license, which gave them a free hand to market x86-compatible processors. In August of that same year, they also acquired Centaur from IDT. From these two acquisitions they formed a processor design group based in Texas (that looked a great deal more like Centaur than Cyrix).

Although the newly-formed VIA processor group's first product was originally planned to be based on a Cyrix design (the Cyrix MII), performance troubles prevented that plan from getting off the ground. Instead, a design based on Centaur's WinChip 3 was used (but sold under the name Cyrix III, as VIA had already invested in publicizing that name). This set the stage for all future product releases: all have shared a Centaur heritage.

The Technology

Of the two processor designers that VIA acquired, neither had a reputation for top-end performance. So it is perhaps not surprising that VIA's subsequent products have not been high-performance parts either. Some of this owes to the (relatively simple, compared to some competing products from Intel or AMD) design of its chips, and some of it owes to the fact that (unlike both Intel and AMD) VIA does not own any of its own fabrication facilities. VIA is a fabless chip designer, not unlike NVIDIA. It cotnracts all manufacturing out to companies like Taiwan Semiconductor.

So VIA has found other ways to compete. They have done this partly on the basis of cost; VIA's most expensive processors do not begin to touch the $1,000 price tags of some of Intel's highest-end chips. Some of this is simply competitive pricing, but the relatively small die sizes (and therefore manufacturing cost) of VIA chips gives them a pricing edge. Primarily, though, they compete by differentiation.

VIA designs generally focus on low-power operation, with adequate performance. This is then married with VIA's chipset experience to produce an integrated processor/motherboard combination that uses little power and is physically small. VIA has pioneered ever-smaller devices with its ITX family of form factors. This has allowed them to build a cult following among enthusiasts that want to build small, quiet systems, but also (and more importantly) has allowed them to establish their place in the embedded device market.

At the same time, VIA designs have also pursued technological differentiation. VIA has sought to integrate unique functionality such as a hardware random number generator and encryption/decryption engine marketed as PadLock. VIA's processor/motherboard combinations include integrated video as a matter of course. Some of the processors intended specifically for embedded use have video integrated into the processor itself.

The Products

In essence, VIA has produced 2 generations of products so far, with another one under development. This chronology was illustrated in our Timeline of Major Microarchitectures.

The first generation used the C5 microarchitecture. This included the Cyrix III (launched in 2000) and most (earlier) C3 chips. C5 was an incremental change from Centaur's WinChip 3. Performance in many applications was weak, in large part because the Floating Point Unit (FPU) had to operate at half the core speed of the processor.

The C5X microarchitecture, unveiled in 2003, stepped up performance and added features. The last generation of C3 products, as well as all C7 and C7-D products, use this microarchitecture. The FPU was brought up to the full speed of the core clock, support for Intel's SSE instructions was added, and the speed of both the Front Side Bus and the core processor clock were ramped up. Although these chips still trailed AMD and Intel in performance, they made a much more respectable showing.

After an aborted attempt at another incremental update known as CZA, VIA's next microarchitecture will be Isaiah. Isaiah is being billed as a radical, essentially ground-up redesign. Isaiah is expected to need even less power while continuing to provide respectable performance. VIA has indicated that they intend to release their first dual-core products, based on Isaiah, in 2009.

Editor's note: This article is part of the expansion plan for the Big Processor Guide. It will make a lot more sense in the near future.

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