Transmeta promises to pump up the power

Under fire for its first crop of Crusoe chips, Transmeta says it will boost power and cut battery consumption with new products

Transmeta, under fire from some critics for chips seen as underpowered, hopes to eradicate that complaint with its next-generation Crusoe 2.0.

After less than a year in the market, the startup chipmaker is already at work on its next processor, with the aim of continuing to reduce power consumption while pushing the envelope on performance.

The new chip, in development for mid-2002, will be capable of performing twice as much work per clock cycle as the current Crusoe 5000-series processor. At the same time it will consume about half the power of the 5000-series.

"We're going to essentially double our performance and as a result, save power," said Ed McKernan, director of marketing for Transmeta.

Transmeta will boost the performance by moving the hardware portion of the chip from 128 bits to 256 bits in order to allow it to handle more data per clock. The new measure, company officials said, will yield better performance and reduce power consumption by decreasing the clock speed needed to tackle applications. The chip will be able to handle a maximum of eight instructions per clock, as opposed to the current chip's four instructions.

The chip will likely run at gigahertz-plus speeds at introduction. Its typical power consumption will be half a watt or less, compared with the average of 1 watt of power that the current Crusoe chip consumes.

While the company will increase the processing prowess of Crusoe's hardware, it will also update its Code Morphing Software. Combined, the upgrades should increase Crusoe performance by about 40 percent, company officials said.

Code Morphing Software serves as part of the processing engine that is Crusoe, by translating code from the X86 instruction set into its own very long instruction word (VLIW) language. Code Morphing Software also takes steps to optimize the translated instructions so that they could be more easily processed, leading to faster performance on tasks that are repeated often.

Transmeta will update its Code Morphing Software every six months, McKernan said.

The first new version of the software is due in the first quarter of next year.

By optimising the way that instructions are translated, the new Code Morphing Software will increase performance on existing Transmeta TM5600 chips by about 20 percent. The new version is dubbed CMS 4.2.

The new CMS 4.2 was demonstrated as being more efficient, allowing a TM5600 chip to run 33MHz slower than a version of the chip running CMS 4.1 on the same DVD movie.

The CMS 4.2 demo also consumed about 1.3 watts of power on average, while the CMS 4.1 demo sucked up about 2.2 watts.

Transmeta says that it is possible to update current processors with the new Code Morphing Software because the software is stored in flash memory inside each notebook.

However, individual PC makers will be able to make the call on whether or not they will offer upgrades for existing machines or roll the upgrades into new systems only. "We're leaving it up to them [PC makers] to decide what they do with their customers," McKernan said.

New TM5600 chips will also increase performance by offering faster clock speeds. New 667MHz and 700MHz TM5600 chips are planned for the first quarter of 2001. Starting in the second half of the year, Transmeta is scheduled to step up to a new processor, the TM5800. The chip will be Transmeta's first offering on a 0.13-micron process and will debut at 800MHz. Transmeta expects to debut Version 4.3 of its Code Morphing Software by this time.

Transmeta believes the PC makers will use the chips to create somewhat larger, more powerful notebooks than those that use its chips now. Those Crusoe-based notebooks, similar to Hitachi's Biblo notebook, would weigh three to four pounds and offer a swappable drive bay for a DVD drive or an extra battery.

Transmeta exhibited a number of new notebooks based on its Crusoe chips. They included examples from Hitachi, Casio, NEC, Sony and Fujitsu, as well as Gateway's new Touch Pad appliance.

Though executives staffing the company's Venetian Hotel Comdex suite were not willing to discuss future relationships with PC makers, they acknowledged that the chipmaker might take some time to win over larger PC makers, especially those that have criticised its technology.

Some PC makers, such as NEC Computers, the North American arm of NEC, are evaluating releasing Crusoe-based notebooks in North America. NEC Computers is likely to bring NEC's LaVie notebook to market in North America sometime next year. It is likely that the new notebook will be sold for use in vertical markets.

"Personally, I have a 500MHz [Intel-based notebook] and it's perfect for me. If you're using [a 500MHz notebook] for everyday use, it's fine," said Larry McCain, senior product marketing manager for mobile products at the company. "I see no performance difference [between my Intel notebook] and Transmeta."

However, IBM officials had a much different perspective. The company's mobile group recently abandoned a project to use Crusoe in a redesign of its ThinkPad 240 mini-notebook.

"What we found in that analysis was there were a lot of opportunities in other areas of the subsystem to reduce power [besides the processor]," said Leo Suarez, director of worldwide product market for IBM mobile systems. "Intel's brand recognition and lower-power chip set was a better value for the customer."

IBM executives hinted strongly that the company plans to use Intel's ultra-low-power Pentium III chip in forthcoming mini-notebooks.

See Chips Central for daily hardware news, including interactive roadmaps for AMD, Intel and Transmeta.

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