Efficeon nets PC industry backing

Transmeta has picked up a range of prominent collaborators in its efforts to break into the mainstream, including Microsoft and Nvidia

Chipmaker Transmeta said on Wednesday that a wide range of PC infrastructure companies -- involved in technologies such as firmware, chipsets, and graphics technology needed for basic PC operations -- have agreed to support its upcoming Efficeon processor.

Efficeon, to debut in notebooks later this year, is a key part of Transmeta's attempt at a comeback, and of its ongoing efforts to create a niche for itself alongside AMD and Intel. Transmeta's processors are designed to be compatible with standard PC x86 architecture while using far less power than Intel and AMD chips.

So far, Transmeta has had mixed success in getting its chips into mainstream computers. Signing up the support of a number of high-profile PC infrastructure companies could be a step toward persuading PC makers to adopt Efficeon.

The partners announced on Wednesday are Alliance Semiconductor, American Megatrends, Atheros Communications, General Software, the HyperTransport Technology Consortium, Insyde Software, Microsoft, Nvidia, Phoenix Technologies, Silicon Motion, ULi Electronics and XGI Technology.

Alliance, Atheros, Nvidia, Silicon Motion, Uli and XGI make chips for linking the internal parts of a PC, for graphics or wireless connectivity, while the HyperTransport Technology Consortium promotes a technology for high-bandwidth chip-to-chip communications. Microsoft, American Megatrends, Insyde Software, General Software and Phoenix Technologies make operating systems, firmware or BIOS.

Formerly code-named Astro, Efficeon will dramatically improve upon the efficiency and performance of some of Transmeta's earlier processors, the company is promising. The chip will initially appear in mini-notebooks and tablet PCs, two relatively small markets where Transmeta chips are already found. But they will start being used in more standard-sized notebooks, those with 12- to 14-inch screens, by the first quarter, he added.

Transmeta admits it is in need of a product boost. When it launched in early 2000, the company promised that its Crusoe chips would tackle one of the major problems in notebook computing: short battery life caused by processor power consumption. The company struck deals with a number of Japanese and Taiwanese manufacturers in fairly rapid succession and then held an initial public offering at the end of 2000.

Then Intel began to pour more efforts into reducing power consumption, a push that culminated in the Centrino chips it released this past March. Although some analysts noted that Crusoe chips did consume less power, users said their overall performance could be clunky.

Manufacturing problems with the Crusoe 5800, the 2001 successor to the first products, led to product delays, defections of notebook manufacturers, declining revenues, increased losses and a bevy of managerial changes. In the second quarter, revenue came to $5.1m (£3.18m), but net losses were $22m.

Efficeon differs from its predecessors in that it can process eight instructions per clock cycle rather than the three or so executed by other high-end processors. (A 1Ghz chip has one billion cycles per second.) Processing more instructions at once will increase the performance of Efficeon over earlier Transmeta chips by 50 percent on standard applications and 80 percent on multimedia applications, according to the company. Increasing the work per clock cycle also further reduces energy consumption.

The chip will debut at over 1GHz and include HyperTransport, a fast chip-to-chip interconnect found on the Opteron processor from AMD that advocates say can boost computer performance.

Transmeta plans to release more complete benchmarks for Efficeon at the Microprocessor Forum this month. Manufacturers will start to receive chips for incorporation into notebooks before then, and notebooks will appear on shelves in the fourth quarter.

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.