Via upgrades C3 processor with low power Nehemiah core

Via Technologies has upgraded its C3 processor with a new core, codenamed Nehemiah, which includes a random number generator integrated at the hardware level, the Taipei company announced Tuesday.

The new processor will launch at 1.0GHz, and will process 3D media applications 70 percent faster than Via's existing Ezra core, said Richard Brown, director of marketing at Via.

Known primarily as a manufacturer of chipsets and motherboards for PC processors, Via is attempting to bring better digital media performance and low power consumption to low-cost PCs and other home media devices. It recently upgraded its Epia mainboard, and will sell that product coupled with the new Nehemiah C3 to PC manufacturers as a complete platform, similar to what Intel plans to do with its Centrino platform for notebooks, Brown said.

Via C3 processors are currently selling in some of the least expensive PCs on the market from Microtel Computer Systems, available for around US$200 to US$300 on Walmart.com. The new processors will also be targeted at users looking to build home networks or customers in emerging markets such as China and India, Brown said.

"PC product managers need new choices. They need to add significant value beyond just assembling PCs, and a lot of innovation is taking place in emerging markets," he said.

Rival PC chip makers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) are willing to let Via have that low-end of the market, said Kevin Krewell, senior editor of the Microprocessor Report and general manager at market research company In-Stat/MDR.

"There is a niche there, and (Via) can provide both a processor and a chipset solution at a price lower than what Intel and AMD can accept, in modest volumes," he said. The new C3 processor will cost US$45 in 1,000-unit quantities.

The low power consumption of the chip makes it ideal for home media devices, in addition to PCs, Brown said. Via will market the Epia mainboard platform to consumer electronics companies for devices such as set-top boxes and personal video recorders, he said.

The new core also includes a random number generator, known as Padlock. In order to generate software keys needed for data encryption, a good random number generator is extremely important, and random numbers generated by software or hardware add-ons are not good enough to keep up with sophisticated hacking attempts, said Glenn Henry, president of Centaur Technology, a processor design subsidiary of Via.

Via also chose not to use a device driver to pass the random numbers generated by the processor to the application, since that creates a potential security breach, Henry said.

"Anytime some software fools with random numbers that is not under (the user's) control, that's bad," he said. "Intermediate software in the world of serious security is a bad thing."

The random number generator promises greater confidentiality for users on wireless networks, as well as for embedded devices such as kiosks or gaming machines, Brown said.

By the end of 2003, Via will scale the C3 Nehemiah processor up to 1.4GHz, Brown said. Like AMD, Via designed its chip for more efficiency per clock cycle, as compared to Intel's chips, he said.

The Nehemiah core is comparable to processors on the low-end of Intel's Pentium 4 line that run around 2.0GHz, he said. However, Via will not introduce a performance rating system for its processors similar to what AMD has done, preferring to educate customers on the unique benefits of its low-cost technology, Brown said.

A mobile version will be out around the end of the first quarter, and Brown alluded to a forthcoming Tablet PC announcement around the same time.

The chip is available worldwide to PC manufacturers as of Tuesday. No major PC vendors such as Hewlett-Packard or Dell Computer have jumped on board, but Via expects to continue its relationship with Microtel, Brown said.

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