Crusoe discovers the desktop

Transmeta has unveiled the first Crusoe desktop, as it seeks to boost its sales to critical mass and avoid being stranded in a niche market

Chipmaker Transmeta and Japanese PC giant NEC have announced the first desktop computer running on Transmeta's innovative Crusoe processors, a move that puts Crusoe more squarely into competition with the likes of Intel and AMD.

NEC on Wednesday began selling two Mate-series desktop PCs for the Japanese market, the MA90 and MA80, one running a Crusoe TM5800 at 900MHz and the other with an 800MHz version of the chip.

The Crusoe processor has an instruction set designed for very low-power consumption, and uses a technique called code-morphing to translate Intel-compatible code and run Windows software. On the desktop the advantage of the resultant low wattage is a quieter machine -- 84 percent quieter than Mate models using chips from Intel, according to Transmeta. The machine emits about 20 decibels -- which Transmeta explains is a similar level to "leaves touching" -- and eliminates the need for CPU and power supply fans.

The higher-end machine sells for 246,000 yen, or about £1,313.

Transmeta has been expanding out of its original niche of ultra-light notebooks -- which has seen it adopted by most major Japanese notebook makers as part of their domestic product lines -- in a bid to reach critical mass. Last year the company moved into "blade" servers and began to pitch its products for embedded devices like set-top boxes, and in April start-up OQO announced a pocket-sized Windows XP computer running on an 800MHz Crusoe chip.

What all these devices have in common is a need for low power consumption and heat output. While power and heat aren't as much of an issue on the desktop, analysts say they do come into play when designing what are known as small form-factor PCs, the best-known example of which is Apple's flat-panel iMac.

The MA90 and MA80 are similar to the iMac in that there is no beige box -- the processing and input-output capabilities are built into a flat-panel display. Chipmakers like Intel, AMD and Via Technologies are all developing special low-power chips to make such designs easier to build.

While the market for small form factors is still small, consumers and businesses are showing increasing interest in such designs. "Consumers are moving away from the big grey box, they want the form factor and aesthetics of the PC to fit more into their homes and lifestyles," said Andy Brown, research manager for mobile technologies with IDC.

Businesses are also interested in simpler PCs that are easier to install and maintain, Brown added. As a result, small form-factor computers are the fastest-growing segment in the desktop market.

Transmeta needs to move into other markets to boost its overall sales, according to analysts. Although the company landed a number of high-profile deals with major notebook manufacturers in Crusoe's first year of availability, analysts say Transmeta runs the risk of being wedged into a niche market.

The company sold approximately 500,000 chips in its first year of delivering products, according to Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. While that's an impressive debut, companies eventually need to hit about one million units in annual volume just to stay in the market, he said.

Crusoe has been shipping in products since October 2000 when Sony released a Crusoe-based Vaio laptop in Japan.

CNET's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

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