Compaq, Dell shy off Crusoe chip

Performance issues keep Compaq and Dell from embracing Transmeta's microprocessor -- for now. Compaq exec says the current Crusoe will 'disappoint' consumers
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor

While Crusoe's ship appears to have come in, some large PC makers have decided to hold off on adopting the new chip for notebook PCs. At least for now.

Upstart microprocessor maker Transmeta stole the show at PC Expo on Tuesday. As the temperature soared past 90 degrees, Transmeta showed off its cool-running TM 5400 Crusoe chip for notebook PCs at its "Gilligan's Island"-style booth -- unveiling a number of product designs by several different PC makers that use its processor. On display were notebooks from Hitachi, IBM and NEC, as well as the motherboard from a notebook currently in development by Fujitsu.

The Hitachi notebook appears to be the closest to a shipping product. The notebook, shown in both blue and green, weighs 3.5 pounds and includes a DVD drive. It is expected in the October timeframe, a Transmeta official said.

IBM is also bullish about Transmeta's technology, including its notebook chip and LongRun power management software. Big Blue is showing a technology demonstration based on its ThinkPad 240 mini-notebook, modified to run a TM 5400 chip. The TM 5400 chip will be available at 500MHz, 600MHz and 700MHz. Typically, its average power consumption when running an application such as DVD is between 1- and 1.5-watts.

However, even with its benefits to consumers, including a small form factor and long battery life, some original equipment manufacturers opted to take a pass. Others, including Hewlett-Packard and Gateway, are rumoured to be showing off TM 5400 notebooks behind closed doors at the show.

For now, though, Compaq is taking a pass. Compaq has invested in Transmeta and has Transmeta prototypes in its research and development labs, but company officials say they would like to see the Transmeta TM 5400 chip and its code-morphing software "mature" before releasing it in a product. And no small part of the maturation process is increasing the performance of the chip.

Compaq will offer a notebook with the chip, "When I can give the customer full-size notebook performance," said Kyle Ranson, vice president and general manager of Compaq's Transactional Business Segment. "A lot of customers are going to buy into the hype and be disappointed ... with this generation."

When asked about Transmeta sources at Dell reported that the company has been impressed with the technology. Transmeta's TM 5400 chip runs applications well and, when combined with Transmeta LongRun software, delivers advertised battery life, the sources said. However, Dell is yet to announce plans for a Transmeta-based notebook due to concerns with performance. According to sources, Dell has found that the performance of the current TM 5400 chips is not yet up to par with similarly rated mobile chips from Intel.

IBM, despite an extemely bullish stance on the product, has also said that it would not release a notebook based on Crusoe if it could not offer equivalent performance and price to other small form factor notebooks.

Despite the somewhat harsh words of some PC makers, the good news for Transmeta is that, according to sources, both Compaq and Dell expect the chipmaker to improve performance in coming generations. If the expected improvements to both the TM 5400 chip and Code Morphing Software are achieved, Compaq and Dell will most certainly adopt them. Code Morphing Software translates code, such as an application, written for X86 processors such as an Intel Pentium, into the language of Transmeta's own chip architecture, which is known as VLIW or very long instruction word.

Transmeta is unique in that it can offer software upgrades to its processors.

Code Morphing Software, Transmeta says, will go through at least one revision per year. The upgrades will be released to PC makers, who will then decide whether or not to make the upgrades available to customers. (Once the act of downloading an upgrade was completed, Code Morphing Software, which is stored in flash memory, could be upgraded in a manner similar to that of a BIOS upgrade.)

These upgrades are expected to yield performance gains, as Transmeta figures out methods to speed up Code Morphing Software. Software updates can also fix bugs and add new features to the chip.

The resulting performance increases on existing notebooks, "could be the equivalent of a couple of speed grades over a generation," said Ed McKernan, director of marketing for Transmeta.

Other options, McKernan suggested, are to offer an upgrade package that includes additional features or applications, such as games to the notebook for a minimal cost, usually of less than $100.

"I don't think all the product managers (at notebook makers) have through it through yet," McKernan said.

Meanwhile, Transmeta also showed off, in its booth, a number of new appliances. They included a wireless WebPad now being designed by a Japanese firm. The WebPad, running Transmeta's Mobile Linux OS, was able to display Web pages downloaded via and 802.11 wireless connection.

Also in the booth was Rebel.com, which announced plans to utilise Crusoe 3000 series chips, which are aimed at Internet appliances, in its Linux server/Desktop computer.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.

Take me to the Linux Lounge

Take me to Chips Central

Editorial standards