Is Via Viable in the Low-Cost Notebook Market?

While Intel is making noise with Atom, Hewlett-Packard taps Via's low-volt processor for its $499 Mini-Note PC.

Via Technologies is looking to make some noise in the growing low-cost PC market.

When Hewlett-Packard announced its $499 Mini-Note PC for the education market April 8, it did not turn to Intel, which has been touting its line of Atom processors for these low-cost notebooks, but to Taiwan-based Via.

While Via controls less than 1 percent of the worldwide x86 market, its line of low-watt, low-cost processors seems tailor-made for a new type of notebook market that doesn't require chips with the latest and greatest clock speeds and that sell for premium prices.

For its Mini-Note PC, HP tapped Via's C7-M ultralow-volt processor, which offers a top clock speed of 1.6GHz and works within a power envelope of 3.5 watts. Earlier in 2008, Via announced a new series of chips built on new microarchitecture, called Isaiah, which is geared toward ultramobile PCs and other low-cost notebooks.

For now, Via represents a small challenge to Intel, which announced that its Atom processors for MIDs (mobile Internet devices) are ready and that new processors for what it calls "netbooks" are on the way. The Intel platform is expected to keep these notebooks between $250 and $300, which is a price range that has appeal in the education market as well as with some small businesses or companies looking for secondary laptops that employees can take on the road.

Intel estimated that this market could be worth about $10 billion, and it's determined to make a lot of noise. At this point, Advanced Micro Devices, Intel's main rival in the mainstream notebooks market, has not yet announced a specific processor with the same sort of capabilities, although it is working on several products that could make it competitive.

Although some believe the low-cost market could be huge, IDC said it believes that Intel and Via are targeting a market that will ship less than 10 million units by 2012.

Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research, said while Via cannot compete with Intel in terms of sheer volume and marketing muscle, the emerging market of low-cost PCs and ultramobile PCs plays to the company's strengths, namely low-cost chips with decent performance that do not use large amounts of power. The chips also fit well in small form factors.