By Dan Jones VIA Technologies Inc has revealed the first fruit of its acquisition of the Cyrix x86 processor unit, a CPU codenamed ‘Joshua’ which is intended to challenge Intel Corp’s Celeron in the low-cost PC marketplace. VIA’s somewhat incredible plan is to drive Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc from the sub-$1000 PC market […]
By Dan Jones
VIA Technologies Inc has revealed the first fruit of its acquisition of the Cyrix x86 processor unit, a CPU codenamed ‘Joshua’ which is intended to challenge Intel Corp’s Celeron in the low-cost PC marketplace. VIA’s somewhat incredible plan is to drive Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc from the sub-$1000 PC market when it rolls out the chips in 1999 and 2000.
The Taiwanese company unveiled Joshua at series of seminars entitled ‘PC200’, which it held in Tokyo, Japan last week with AMD, Nvidia Corp, Micron Technologies Inc, S3 Inc and others. Joshua is a modified version of Cyrix’s MII design, using a new core called Cayenne and featuring 3D extensions and a highly pipelined floating point unit (FPU). The chip uses a Socket 370 connection and is packaged in a ceramic pin grid array (CPGA) package. The Celeron also uses a Socket 370 and VIA has chosen to highlight the advantages it claims that Joshua has over Intel’s value processor, even though the chip also has a GTL-plus connection and could theoretically compete with the Pentium II and III.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Joshua design is its unified cache unit. VIA claims that the 64k level one and 256k level two cache design gives the chip a total of 320k addressable cache. In comparison, VIA claims that the Celeron’s cache architecture gives it a total addressable 128k cache. If these claims hold water – and nobody has seen anything more than a prototype version of the chip running yet – the chip may offer a significant performance hike for applications that heavily call on the cache memory, such as games and multimedia streaming.
VIA showed a 350MHz demonstration version of Joshua at the seminars. However, it expects to launch the processors before the end of 1999 running at over 500MHz. Intel’s roadmap has the next revision of the Celeron arriving in 2000, running at 550MHz plus.
So can VIA succeed where others have failed and beat Intel out of the value CPU market? One obstacle in its way is Intel’s impending legal action against VIA. If Intel can prove that VIA has no rights to use the National Semiconductor x86 license, which was part of the deal when it bought the Cyrix unit, or the Centaur license acquired from its IDT deal, then VIA’s plans are scuttled. Assuming that doesn’t happen then three factors come into play: price; performance and brand loyalty.
VIA has frequently boasted that it will be able to beat Intel on pricing and can meet demand because of its close ties with the large Taiwanese foundry plants. Indeed, at the Intel Developers Forum last month, Intel senior vice president of desktop products, Pat Gelsinger, said that his company was more paranoid about VIA than it was about AMD. Initially, at least, VIA looks as though it will keep pace in the clock speed race. And on the industry side, VIA will be able to push forward with its PC133 memory specification, as the chip supports either a 66, 100 or 133MHz front side bus. This may be a factor for some chip infrastructure and OEM vendors. However, on the consumer side, brand loyalty may become a factor. Intel is a name that consumers know, whereas Cyrix – although it helped to create the value processor market – was soon beaten down by Intel and AMD.
However, it seems that VIA could be planning to redefine exactly what a low-end processor costs and where entry-level begins. Typically, an $800 PC system contains $200 to $300 worth of chips. VIA says that it is aiming its new processor at systems costing approximately $500. As a chipset designer, VIA has been steadily whittling away at the price of PC infrastructure and integrating more functions into the chipset. The Joshua processor is the next step in reducing these costs and would certainly be in tune with industry trends towards free and extremely low- cost PCs.
Certainly, Peter Glaskowsky, analyst at the Microprocessor Report, thinks that changing the nature of the market is VIA’s strategy. If VIA could redefine ‘entry level’ to include systems that sell for, say, $400 or less, then it may well be able to dominate this space simply because AMD and Intel may not be interested in selling a microprocessor, chip set, and possibly a graphics accelerator as well for a total cost of under $100, he said. However, he warns against writing Intel off just yet. I still wouldn’t bet against Intel, however. It has better design and fab resources than VIA, and I believe it could match VIA step-for-step in any market segment if it felt there was money to be made there, he said. And the move towards ‘internet appliances’ and different systems for home computing could make VIA’s PC-centric strategy outdated, Glaskowsky warns: if I were VIA, I’d also be very concerned about competing with Sony’s Playstation 2 and the Nintendo Dolphin. Both of these systems will sell for under $400 and will be much more than mere video- game consoles. They should be a better fit than any Windows PC for entry-level computing needs.