Fast Forward: VIA's new Isaiah Processor

Nathan Edwards

These are exciting times for mobile PCs. A new category of sub-$500 subnotebook computers is emerging, inspired by last year’s Asus Eee PC (see March column) and the Everex Cloudbook. By the end of this year, you’ll find a dozen or more different models of teeny-weeny PCs in stores. Some prices will fall below $300.

As I wrote last month, Intel and VIA Technologies are introducing new low-power x86 processors for these systems. In affluent markets, Intel and VIA hope their OEM customers will sell these new PCs to people who already own a regular desktop PC and perhaps a regular notebook as well. In developing markets, the targets are first-time buyers. Intel nicknamed the subnotebook computers “netbooks,” emphasizing their built-in wireless Internet connectivity. Even smaller are handheld computers called MIDs (mobile Internet devices).

VIA’s Isaiah processor is definitely a contender in this game. It’s a completely new x86 design from VIA’s Texas-based Centaur subsidiary. To some degree—although VIA doesn’t welcome the comparison—Isaiah will compete with Intel’s new Silverthorne processor, recently named Atom, which I’ll talk about next month.

In recent weeks, I have carefully analyzed Isaiah. Unlike VIA’s Centaur C7 series, Isaiah is a full-featured 64-bit x86 processor with three-way superscalar pipelines, out-of-order instruction processing, speculative execution, the latest virtualization extensions, strong multimedia performance, and a fast FPU. Isaiah can deliver two to four times more throughput than the C7-M when running at the same clock frequency.

Although Isaiah still isn’t as fast as Intel’s Core 2 processors, it consumes much less power. Remarkably, Isaiah holds the line on power, relative to the C7-M. Initially, Isaiah will draw only about 3.5W at 1GHz or 6W at 1.5GHz. Those specs are worst-case thermal design power (TDP)—typical power consumption is lower. The initial version of Isaiah can reach 2GHz, but power rises to 16W. Ultralow-voltage versions will consume only about 5W TDP at 1.2GHz.

Isaiah is more power-hungry than Intel’s Atom, but early benchmarks suggest it’s faster. Both chips should thrive in subnotebooks. Soon we’ll have our choice of affordable PCs small and light enough to fit comfortably in a backpack or airline carry-on bag without displacing other stuff—and with longer battery life, too.

Tom Halfhill was formerly a senior editor for Byte magazine and is now an analyst for Microprocessor Report .

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