VIA used to be a confident third-place team in the x86 CPU game, but their position has been almost entirely squeezed out of the market as of late due to the engorged bodies of AMD and Intel. Conveniently, however, VIA still hold the relevant licenses required to get a functioning modern CPU into the market, and are getting back in the game through their co-owned semiconductor manufacturer, Zhaoxin.
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Previously, x86 processors have mostly been the realm of Intel and AMD, largely due to their handfuls of patents and super-secret licensing deals that make it nigh-impossible for anyone else to enter the game without their explicit permission – but there is another company with all the legal doodads lurking in the distance.
VIA don’t have the scale of manufacturing access that Intel and AMD enjoy through their favoured foundries – whether they own them or are just very, very friendly with them. VIA do, however, have the licensing required to produce x86 architectures through their past ventures in the ‘90s, during which they purchased chip designers Centaur Technology and Cyrix. VIA design their own chips and then shift them off to a manufacturer with the production-ready fabs, mainly TSMC.
Now, through their semi-subsidiary company, Zhaoxin, VIA are working on returning to the CPU market – at least in China. These initially consist of system-on-chip (SoC) designs, with the 28nm KX-5000 featuring eight-cores, 2GHz clockspeeds, PCIe Gen 3.0, and integrated 4K-capable graphics. Future designs, in the form of the KX-6000, imply a 16nm process, 3.0GHz clockspeed, and four-cores/eight-threads. Beyond this processor, the KX-7000 is stepping up support to DDR5 and PCIe 4.0.
As you may have guessed, these processors aren’t going to be game-changers for single-core benchmarks, and will likely be targeted at commercial or budget applications. It would take some serious R&D to see these processors reach comparative performance of the latest from team red and blue. VIA’s x86 license isn’t quite as sure-footed as AMD and Intel’s cross-licensing agreement either, and has been on the verge of expiration for some time.
The Zhaoxin company ethos implies they will be exclusively targeting the domestic Chinese market for their current and upcoming processors. No doubt looking to push Intel, and their Atom processors, out – at least while their x86 license still stands.