A Brief History of Mini-ITX
To understand how Mini-ITX happened, we could
look as far back as June 30 1999, when VIA bought
Cyrix from National Semiconductor for about $175 million,
two years after National had paid more than $500 million in
stock for it. National had purchased the technology to be
a player in the potentially emerging "network computer"
market, but this hadn't happened as they expected. 5 weeks
later, VIA consolidated their purchase with the acquisition
of Centaur from Integrated Device Technology Inc, who
were losing millions of dollars a month to their microprocessor
VIA was a supplier of core logic chipsets
and only had a limited technology licensing
agreement with Intel, which Intel had recently revoked.
National Semiconductor however had settled a long lawsuit
with Intel the previous year, and had in the process extended
a 1976 agreement allowing it to manufacture Intel clones.
Although their primary short-term aim may have been to skirt
around Intel restrictions and produce their Intel-compatible
133 MHz SDRAM based chipsets, VIA's purchases also gave it
the ability to remove Intel from the equation altogether and
produce a low power consumption Celeron clone using Cyrix
and Centaur technology.
Cyrix III Processor
decided to produce the successor to the Cyrix MII, codenamed
"Joshua", whilst the Centaur team worked on the
successor to that, their WinChip 4 core based "Samuel"
technology. Samuel was internally called the "C5".
After many delays, the Joshua project was shelved and the
ahead of schedule 500/533MHz Samuel ("C5A") was
renamed and released as the Cyrix III in June 2000. The
Cyrix III was (and still is) targetted as a low-cost
mass-market x86 processor, and had the benefit of low
power consumption due to a simple microarchitecture.
By 2001, the Samuel II ("C5B") was
released, this time just as the VIA C3. Samuel II ran at a
higher clock speed and added a Level-2 cache, but required
a lower 1.6V voltage and was available in an Enhanced Ball
Grid Array version. EBGA allowed the CPU to be mounted directly
onto a motherboard without using Intel's costly Socket 370.
The next version C3 (internal name "C5C") was the
"Ezra" running at 1.35V and designed to run at 800-1000MHz.
The Ezra-T ("C5M") was to follow that, adding PIII-Tualatin
socket compatibility. The C5N Ezra-T C3 added a 0.13 micron
copper process and faster transistors.
VT6009 ITX Reference Design
In March 2001, CeBIT 2001 saw the release
of VIA's "ITX" motherboard reference
design. The 215mm x 191mm VT6009 ITX Reference Board was
demonstrated in "Information PC" and Set Top Box
form factors, and was designed by Robert Kuo, VIA's chief
R&D expert. He would later go on to design the Mini-ITX
form factor. The VT6009 had a Socket 370 to support both VIA
and Intel processors and used VIA's Apollo PLE133 chipset.
It had TV-Output through an S-Video or RCA / S/PDIF socket,
Motion Compensation for DVD playback, two IDE connectors,
no Floppy connector, 2 USB ports, Firewire, one PCI slot,
audio ports, and an optional RJ45 Ethernet connector through
an ACR slot.
The ITX form factor was never taken up by
manufacturers, who instead produced smaller boards based on
the very similar 229mm x 191mm FlexATX form factor. One such
manufacturer was Shuttle, who in April 2001 released their
FV24 motherboard, utilising VIA's PL133 chipset.
In October 2001, VIA announced
a new motherboard division, to provide standardised infrastructure
for lower-cost PC form factors and focus on "embedded"
devices. In the same month, Shuttle announced the SV24
- a barebones system incorporating their VIA/Intel CPU compatible
FV24 motherboard into a small cube-like aluminium enclosure.
In November 2001, VIA tried again and released
the smaller 170mm x 170mm VT6010 "Mini-ITX" Form
Factor Mainboard Reference
Design. The reference design introduced a new fanless
variation of the Samuel II / Ezra, the "Eden
ESP" processor architecture, and once again it was
touted as the Information PC - an low cost entry level x86
computing platform or the "Information Station"
- a small, silent PC capable of surfing the web and playing
DVDs on a television.
Mini-ITX Reference Design
After very positive responses at CeBIT 2002,
on the 3rd April 2002 VIA introduced their "EPIA
Mini-ITX Mainboards" featuring a choice of the VIA
Eden ESP processor for fanless applications, or the C3 E-Series
(Ezra) processor for more multimedia rich applications. The
EPIA 5000 (fanless 533MHz Eden
processor) and EPIA 800 (800MHz
were almost identical to the highly integrated VT6010 reference
design. Due to their heritage, both had the advantage of low
noise and power consumption.
(About 6 weeks later, a merry band of small
PC enthusiasts in the UK bought some boards, decided they
weren't *just* suited to embedded solutions and deserved a
website to prove it - but that's another story)
By mid 2002, Shuttle had stuck with the FlexATX
form factor but moved away from VIA chipsets. Where VIA had
stuck with their Low Power, Low Cost, Low Noise approach,
Shuttle sacrificed low noise for power and tried to fit fully
featured AMD or Intel desktops into FlexATX cubes. Their SiS
chipset based SS51
was their first system to feature an AGP slot, and they were
already eyeing up NVidia's NForce architecture.
EPIA M Mini-ITX Motherboard
Mini-ITX grew in popularity, and VIA realised
more power was needed to improve media playback. December
2002 saw the release of the EPIA
"M" series of Mini-ITX motherboards, featuring
improved MPEG2 decoding support from the Apollo CLE266 chipset,
and adding 5.1 audio, USB 2.0, Firewire and Floppy support
to the standard EPIA features. The EPIA M range consisted
of the EPIA ME6000 (fanless 600MHz
Eden) and EPIA M9000 motherboards
(933 MHz Ezra-T C3). The line was later widened with variations
on the "Classic" EPIA design, the EPIA V featuring
floppy controllers - the EPIA VE5000
and EPIA VE8000.
VIA's roadmap in 2002
was to have seen the C5X "Nehemiah" C3 debuting
at 1.2GHz (VIA originally considered calling it the C4). The
Nehemiah (C5X) was to use a new microarchitecture with more
pipeline stages, and a completely reworked full speed floating
point unit, 256K L2 cache and two MMX and SSE units. The next
generation C5Y "Esther" CPU was to take the C3 to
2GHz. Both these CPUs were to have lower power C5XL and C5YL
versions, and then to be followed in 2003-4 by a completely
new VIA processor, codenamed C5Z or CZA - a 0.1 micron Pentium
4 clone. However, these releases did not happen to schedule
and the Nehemiah was delayed - eventually arriving in 2003, with slightly different specifications - the C5XL / C5Y / C5YL / C5Z CPU roadmap presumably
following after that.
The EPIA M10000
was originally intended to be the first C3 Nehemiah based
EPIA, but was released as
an Ezra-T board. Finally, the Nehemiah version of the
M10000 has arrived. We shall take this opportunity to test
the Nehemiah M10000, in comparison with all previous EPIA
"Mark" prototype - C3 and CLE266
in one package
At CeBIT in 2003, VIA also added a couple
of new products to their roadmap - the "Mark" platform
combines a Nehemiah C3 with a supporting CLE266 chipset in
a smaller single package. "Nano-ITX" is a new embedded
platform proposed by VIA, utilising Mark and measuring a fraction
of the size of current Mini-ITX boards.