Via blazes trail to 0.13 micron chips

Via blazes trail to 0.13 micron chips

Taiwan-based Via Technologies and its foundry partner, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC), on Tuesday left big-name U.S. and European chip makers in the dust as they roared into new chip territory, introducing a new Via C3 processor manufactured using 0.13 micron technology.

Via announced volume production of the chip, code-named Ezra, in a news conference at the Computex trade show here, at the same time announcing immediate availability of the first mobile version of the C3 processor, manufactured using the 0.13 micron process. Via declined to disclose pricing of the chips.

On Monday, also at Computex, Intel demonstrated a notebook using the low-power Mobile Pentium 3 processor code-named Tualatin, which will be made using a 0.13 micron process. The chip is scheduled to ship in the third quarter.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) also plans to make chips using a 0.13 micron process, beginning in the first half of next year with its server and workstation chip code-named Thoroughbred. The Appaloosa chip for value PCs and servers will follow with the 0.13 micron process, also in the first half.

The 0.13 micron manufacturing process allows chip vendor Via and contract foundry TSMC to pack more processing power into a given space than is possible with the 0.15 micron technique used in Intel's most advanced plants and other advanced foundries today. Many other processors are still made using a 0.18 micron process. The measurement indicates the width of the smallest gap between circuits on a chip. A narrower gap also boosts speed.

TSMC and other Taiwanese foundries do a large share of the contract manufacturing for "fabless" semiconductor vendors in the U.S. and elsewhere that develop chip designs -- including Taiwan compatriot Via, a relatively little-known brand among consumers. Tuesday's announcement showed that rather than simply serving as the world's IT factory, Taiwan has in some respects moved to the forefront of hardware development. The chips Via unveiled Tuesday are likely to power low-end Internet access devices in homes, as well as portable PCs.

TSMC has also made progress toward the next generation of processor manufacturing, 0.10 micron. It announced earlier this year that had determined the basic chip-design rules for manufacturing at 0.10 micron and plans to begin production with that technology in the third quarter of 2002. It also said it is working with several IC (integrated circuit) companies on how to make their chips with 0.10 micron.

Via announced last December that it aimed to be the first to market with 0.13 micron processors by shipping the chips in the second quarter of 2001.

The 0.13 micron C3 processor, initially available in speeds up to 800MHz, will be used in a variety of Internet appliances, such as TV set-top boxes, that were on display in prototype form at the news conference. Via plans to follow up the current processor with a 1GHz version, though executives declined to comment on when that processor will be available.

The chip is designed for low power consumption and cool operation, for use in devices including value PCs, notebooks and Internet appliances, said C.J. Holthaus, a lead engineer at Via's Centaur technology division. The low operating temperature of the chip allows it to be cooled without a fan, reducing bulk, cost and noise.

"No other processor company can passively cool a gigahertz CPU," Holthaus said.

TSMC has begun volume chip production at two fabrication facilities, or "fabs" using eight-inch silicon wafers. It has verified a 0.13 micron product on a line using 12-inch wafers, the next generation of wafers, which will deliver far more chips per wafer for greater production efficiency. Production on one 12-inch fab will begin by the end of this year and on another fab early next year, according to the company.

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