The Evangelist

Worldwide Technology News

You have probably already heard of Intel's Atom microprocessor, which is designed specifically for use in small devices (if you haven't, check out my article here). Intel has now expanded on the Atom with a dual-core version that sips more power but offers more processing power. While the Atom isn't as powerful as the old Pentium D dual-core desktop processors of the past, it is certainly getting close, and Atom processors are clearly more powerful than the old Pentium 4M processors that used to be found in upper-end laptops. Of course, they sip far less power and are far smaller than the Pentium D, which was made for high-end desktops; a truly impressive feat, but that's the way technology evolves.

The Atom isn't without competition, however; VIA, another company involved in the x86 (Intel-compatible) processor market has a competing product. VIA has been producing low-power chips for applications such as Tablet PCs for years, and so their producing a competitor to the Atom just makes sense.

The VIA Nano simply hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. While the Atom does not support x64 and therefore 64-bit applications, the Nano does. While this may seem minor, Microsoft has stated that Windows 7, the next release of Windows, will primarily come in 64-bit editions, and 32-bit editions, while still available, will probably take a backseat and be mostly for those who want to upgrade their older machines (many OEMs like Hewlett Packard have already started installing 64-bit editions of Vista as standard on their new PCs despite compatability worries). Also, Windows 7 may be the last version of Windows to support processors without x64 extensions. Many believe that Microsoft will take advantage of the quickly-growing netbook market with Windows 7. This may make the company change their plans and continue active support for processors without 64-bit extensions. Microsoft has not (as of yet) been very active in getting a product out in the netbook market; they have only released the stripped-down version of Windows XP Home for netbooks and Linux has done well in the market. Windows 7 with its MinWin kernel promises to at least be better for netbook applications by taking up less memory and using memory more effectively on lower-end hardware. It will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out. It seems likely that Intel will add 64-bit extensions to their Atom processors. The VIA Nano, however, offers that already.

The Nano was launched this year on May 29. It is a single-core processor based on either 65nm or 45nm technology and with a front-side bus (FSB) speed from 800 MT/s to 1333 MT/s. They have support for Error-Correcting Code (ECC) as well as hardware virtualization technology (based on Intel's implementation), which Intel usually supports only on their higher-end Core 2 chips. They also have a 128KB L1 cache and a 1MB L2 cache. If you are wondering about multimedia program comaptibility, the Nano supports the SSE, SSE2, SSE3, SSSE3, and MMX instruction sets.

A dual-core version is on track to be released in 2010. This presents an interesting parallel between current netbook chips and laptop chips of the past. Intel had released the original 32-bit Core Duo laptop processors, while AMD had released single-core Turion processors with 64-bit support. Here, we see that Intel has a 32-bit netbook processor while VIA has a 64-bit chip. The Core Duo processors outperformed the Turion processors, but the Turions were future-proofed. Of course, Intel is a marketing machine. AMD stood little chance, and VIA doesn't even have as many marketing resources at their disposal as AMD. This will likely result in the Nano being used in a smaller number of devices, which might mean that Intel will face no real competition. It's really up to the manufacturers now. Either they choose to put the Nano in their products, recognizing its merits, or they don't. To some degree, it is also up to the customer. Some will likely see "VIA" and read "not Intel so probably won't run my programs." Sure, there may be somebody there to explain, but old habits are hard to break. Even AMD has a difficult time because people don't always understand that their products are more like Intel's offerings then not.

I am afraid that the Nano will not attain much marketshare. The chip may have other effects on the market, however; in order to stay ahead, Intel may add 64-bit support and other features to their Atom processors. Competition can encourage innovation.

The Nano won't be the Atom's only competition; AMD will be entering the market, or so they say. While Intel was producing Atom chips and selling them like hotcakes, AMD was telling us that they didn't think that there was a market in netbooks and nettops and that they weren't willing to risk the investment. AMD is finally coming around, however, and their latest roadmaps indicate that they are now working on a chip that is meant for higher-end applications than the Atom but will be in the netbook and nettop market. The chip also promises to be cheaper than the Atom, but I have a feeling that Intel will try their best to ensure their dominance of the netbook market, and Intel has plenty of time to respond now that AMD has announced the product. That's the price they have to pay for reassuring their shareholders. I really do hope that AMD succeeds with their prouduct.

Here's to hoping that innovation triumphs.


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