AMD and VIA take aim at netbooks

Barely six months after its release Intel’s Atom processor has become the chip of choice for the fast-growing netbook market. But by the time Atom gets to put a candle on its birthday cake the pint-sized processor will face renewed competition from both AMD and VIA.

VIA scored some early wins in the mini-note space most notably the Linux-powered Cloudbook offered by US retailer Everex (which like many similar machines was built on VIA’s NanoBook reference design) and then HP’s original 2133 netbook.  But the tide turned with Atom’s debut as Intel won the business of Asus (which had earlier used the Celeron M in its ground-breaking Eee PC) Acer Dell Lenovo MSI and Toshiba.

Based on VIA’s Nano Reference Design the Everex CloudBook is sold as a notebook for Web 2.0 world of ‘cloud computing’

Last month HP broke ranks with VIA and got the Atom religion for its freshly-minted Mini 1000 having long admitted that it chose VIA’s C7-M processor for the 2133 only because that chip was available during the design phase of the 2133 while the Atom was still on Intel’s drawing board. The imminent refresh of the 2133 is also expected to be built around the Atom platform.

VIA’s new gameplan cedes the high ground of mainstream netbooks to Intel but sets its sights on the low-hanging fruit of what’s called BRIC – Brazil Russia India and China. These emerging markets are set to dwarf the established markets of the North America Europe and developed Asia.

Analyst firm IDC estimates that  in 2006 China had 54 million PCs Brazil 19 million and India 13 million against 225 million in the US alone. But by 2013 China will have eclipsed the US by soaring to an estimated 549 million PCs while US growth will have nudged up to just 277 million. In the same year India is expected to soar to 170 million computers with Brazil hitting 100 million.

Those phenomenal growth rates will largely be built on low-cost laptops such as the netbook rather than conventional desktop or notebook PCs and it’s here that VIA sees its greatest opportunity. The company also considers that its netbooks produced under its ‘cheap-enough and good-enough’ model could be bundled as a give-away component in deals offered by telcos and wireless broadband players.

The Taiwanese chipmaker believes its Nano processors which are considered less powerful than the Atom but also draw less power and are cheaper to manufacture will give them the edge in driving down the cost of netbooks.

VIA’s NanoBook architecture is designed to give manufacturers a ready-made platform for building their own netbook and the Global Mobility Bazaar Program is expected to adopt the same approach

To this end VIA has launched the Global Mobility Bazaar Program to bring together over a dozen partners to build VIA-based netbooks for BRIC and other price-sensitive markets. VIA’s dance card includes BIOS baker AMI flash memory supplier SanDisk and Microsoft which wants to ensure that Windows (even if it’s ‘just’ Windows XP rather than Windows 7) has a place at the table.

Epan Wu VIA’s Senior Director of CPU Product Marketing estimates that the global market for ‘affordable mobile computing devices’ will reach nearly 30 million units by 2010.

VIA is expected to appeal strongly to second-tier Taiwanese and Chinese OEMS seeking a slice of that action rather than established leaders such as Quanta and Compal (who between them make over half of the world’s PCs) Asus Clevo Wistron and Invertec (who probably supply another 25% of the global market).

In addition to netbooks VIA has its eye on powering handheld mobile internet devices such as Korea’s Wibrain B1 although this is also an area Intel is staking out with its Silverthorne-class Atom atom chips and the second-gen Atom ‘Moorestown’ platform slated for a 2010 debut.

Korea’s Wibrain B1 UMPC is based on the VIA Ultra Mobility Platform and runs a 1.2 GHz VIA C7-M processor with a 4.8 inch touchscreen a unique split thumboard and touchpad plus Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity

While VIA shifts the battleground to more advantageous terrain AMD intends to take the fight to Intel’s turf. Having previously dismissed netbooks as something to use “around the house” AMD is now readying a processor designed expressly for these devices.

Details of the new chip are expected to be revealed this week but the company says it will address both video performance and battery life citing the later as the reason for its previously lukewarm approach to the market.

“You would expect 8 or 9 hours out of a netbook… for some of the ones that I’ve tested probably the hottest one has an 1 hour 45 minutes of battery life. You’re not going to take that with you as a road warrior” said Pat Moorhead AMD’s vice-president of Advanced Marketing. (We presume that job title means he markets advanced technologies rather than being a heck of a lot better at his job than say the VP of Pretty Basic Marketing).

Moorehead has also criticised ‘price creep’ in the netbook segment where the first Asus Eee PC launched at $499 but the average price of netbooks now hovers around $699 and in some cases soars past $1000 due to their larger screens and storage.

“We do have strategies together with our OEMs for pushing our solutions both down into smaller form factors and lower notebook price points” says Dirk Meyer AMD president and CEO.

AMD is expected to leverage its ownership of ATI to beef up the video performance in its forthcoming netbook platform and will likely seek to have the chip included in its transition from the current 65nm production process to the smaller and more power-efficient 45nm stage. Intel’s Atom is already built to 45nm while the Nano is available in both 65nm and 45nm packages.