Transmeta revs up Crusoe

The TM 5800 should be half as fast again as the TM 5600 - extra oomph that will open new doors for the upstart chipmaker, say analysts
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor

Transmeta will release a new Crusoe chip later this month, as it continues to try to win its first deal with a US notebook maker.

The TM 5800 will offer a 50 percent performance increase over the TM 5600, the upstart chipmaker said on Wednesday. The company boasts that the chip offers a faster clock speed, a more efficient version of code-morphing software, and faster double-data rate (DDR) SDRAM. The combination will reduce overall power consumption by 20 percent, Transmeta said.

Analysts say the extra oomph could open new doors for the chipmaker, which to date has specialised in energy-saving processors for mini-notebooks. So far, only Japanese notebook makers have chosen to use Transmeta's chips, which first hit the market in January 2000.

"Anything (Transmeta) can do to improve the performance makes the part more competitive. That will help them penetrate more segments," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research.

Analysts say the faster chip has the potential to push Transmeta chips into the category of larger notebooks, dubbed thin and light, which are much more popular than mini-notebooks.

Mini-notebooks, which weigh three pounds or less, are the smallest machines that are still considered notebooks. Thin-and-light notebooks weigh four pounds to five pounds and include a slot for a floppy or CD drive. They offer larger screens and faster chips than mini-notebooks, which usually exclude a drive bay.

The current Crusoe, the TM 5600, reaches a maximum speed of 667MHz. Transmeta will soon announce three to four speeds for the new TM 5800, ranging from 600MHz to 800MHz. The slower versions of the chip will likely find their way into mini-notebooks from current Transmeta customers, while the faster chips are expected to show up in larger, future notebooks.

"The performance begins to extend Transmeta's reach beyond the...mini-notebook realm," IDC analyst Alan Promisel said. "Incorporating higher processor speeds with low-voltage capabilities gives Transmeta a good foot in the door into the...thin-and-light category. That's the sweet spot of the market right now."

But don't expect it to happen overnight, he cautioned. That's because US notebook makers are notoriously reluctant to adopt new technology right out of the chute for fear of getting burned.

"It needs time," McCarron said. "Usually an individual product does not result in a change in the path a company is on."

Executives at Transmeta say the company is willing to bide its time and let the market come to it.

"What's really critical (to future notebooks) is the performance you get running off a battery. In the next six to 12 months, wireless (networking and access are) going to be integrated into these devices," said Ed McKernan, director of marketing for Transmeta. Such advances mean more draw on the battery.

Consumers should ask how well wireless notebooks perform, he said. "With wireless coming on, it changes the whole dynamic of what's appropriate for a notebook."

While typical notebooks last two to four hours on a battery, companies with Transmeta-based notebooks tout their current machines as lasting four to six hours.

Boosting performance of the TM 5800 will be the new version 4.2 of Transmeta's code-morphing software, which translates instructions meant for Intel chips into a language Crusoe can understand. The code-morphing software monitors how its translation works, tweaking the translation as it goes. The software also stores translated instructions in memory to speed up repeated operations, which means the arrival of DDR SDRAM will speed Crusoe-based computers even more.

Though Transmeta chips are offered by all of Japan's top notebook makers, their US counterparts have yet to choose Transmeta's technology. In addition to ignoring the Crusoe because it's so new, US notebook makers say there are other reasons for turning a cold shoulder. Last fall, for example, IBM decided the power savings weren't great enough to make the switch to Transmeta.

In addition, sources say that Compaq Computer, which sells desktop computers and notebooks with Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon chip, will stick with Intel chips for a forthcoming mini-notebook, which it plans to unveil later this month.

However, analysts assert that it's only a matter of time before U.S. notebook makers pick up a Transmeta chip to offer an alternative to Intel in their smaller models. For larger models, PC makers have the option of choosing AMD's Athlon 4 as an Intel alternative.

Intel, the leader in power-saving notebook chips, will make a low-power showing at the end of the month. The company is expected to demonstrate its new 0.13-micron "Tualatin" Pentium III processors for notebooks. Those chips, which will also have improved energy efficiency and faster clock speed, are expected to ship in July.

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