Will Crusoe perform?

As Crusoe-based laptops see the light of day outside of Japan, critics wonder how to measure their real performance

The new Crusoe mobile processor from Transmeta has at last hit store shelves, but critics are already sniping about its performance. The chip, tests suggest, sacrifices speed for longer battery life -- at a price that may not be worth it.

But benchmarks may not tell the whole story, say analysts. Because of Crusoe's unusual architecture, standard benchmark tests are unlikely to reflect actual user experience -- which is the reason Transmeta gives for not releasing benchmarks in the first place.

Crusoe saves power by running standard x86 instructions in software, rather than hardware, which allows for greater control over how much power is used. During operation, the chip must recompile x86 code into native Crusoe code, which slows down performance. However, the recompiling process only has to be carried out once, meaning operation speeds up during the course of use.

"If you're performing a repetitive task, performance goes up after a couple of iterations," said Joseph Byrne, analyst with research firm Dataquest. "Benchmarks may not capture that."

Transmeta is betting that, benchmarks aside, users will find Crusoe-based laptops are fast enough, and far more power-efficient than similar processors from AMD and Intel.

"What really needs to happen is for people to say at a minimum 'This system's fine, I like it quite a bit,' and to tell their friends," Byrne said. "Or, better yet, to say 'It's really great, it's small, it's light, it has great battery life.' But at minimum it has to find an acceptance."

If Crusoe really does what it is supposed to do, it should find a niche, observers said. "Consumers are not interested in whether it's Transmeta or Intel, they're interested in what they can run on it," said Dataquest analyst Alan Brown. "It could be something like the ARM processor, which found a niche in embedded handsets, because of its low power consumption. If Transmeta can demonstrate that, and can get people to adopt it, it could be a contender."

But Intel, the world's largest chipmaker, isn't sitting on its hands. It has already launched something of a public relations war against Transmeta, calling attention to Crusoe's allegedly unacceptable performance and launching low-power chips and chipsets of its own.

Crusoe will have to perform, but Transmeta will also have to crank up its PR machine in order to get through to consumers, say analysts. "They've got a lot of marketing to do," Brown said.

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