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Transmeta revs up power-saving efforts

The chipmaker is preparing a serious assault on Intel, with new software and three new power-saving chips.

HANOVER, Germany--Transmeta is preparing a serious assault on Intel, planning two major power-saving products this year and two new chips for 2002.

The plans could give an added boost to Santa Clara, Calif.-based Transmeta, an upstart chipmaker that has been battling hard against rival Intel and the giant's recent push to create similar processors that require less power to operate.

David Ditzel, Transmeta's founder and chief technology officer, pointed to the new Crusoe 5800 chip as one of the company's recent power-saving efforts. The new chip will arrive midway through 2001, Ditzel said in an interview with CNET News.com at the CeBit technology trade show here Thursday.

Because the Crusoe 5800 is built with smaller 0.13-micron features that require less voltage, Ditzel said, the chip itself will be smaller and about 20 percent less power-hungry than existing Crusoe designs built with 0.18-micron features.

Intel hasn't sat still while Transmeta has introduced its power-saving Crusoe chip systems, coming up with its own offerings for smaller and more efficient processors.

Such moves can either be interpreted as the beginning of the end for Transmeta--or a validation that the upstart chipmaker is exploiting a significant weakness in Intel's current product line.

"We hit a nerve," Ditzel said.

Though Transmeta has indeed shaken up the microprocessor industry, its chips are used chiefly in assorted Japanese portable devices and haven't penetrated mainstream corporate computing. IBM flirted with a Transmeta laptop but then backed out, saying the chip didn't save enough power to make the effort worthwhile.

In other news, Transmeta has released to manufacturing partners a new version of its "code morphing" software, the patented method by which Transmeta's chips emulate the abilities of an Intel chip.

Next year, he said, the company will release two new chips running at speeds of at least 700MHz and using a 256-bit architecture--a measurement of the amount of data a chip can swallow with each tick of its clock. Intel chips currently are 32-bit models; its high-end 64-bit designs are expected soon. Transmeta's current chips are 128-bit designs.

One new Transmeta chip will offer performance similar to current Crusoe models but will integrate more features that can expand the capabilities of handheld computers. Though Ditzel was mum on what Transmeta will add, likely candidates could include graphics or communications tasks.

The other 256-bit chip will offer more horsepower than current models--or, as is possible with Transmeta's technology, the same horsepower while consuming less power. Whereas current models consume between 0.5 watts and 2 watts, the new generation will top out at 0.5 watts, Ditzel predicted.

Crusoe's current 128-bit chips accept four 32-bit instructions each cycle, though on average they actually deal with 2.2 instructions. The 256-bit design accepts eight instructions but will typically receive about five, Ditzel said.

Though many of Transmeta's products run Windows Millennium Edition, Transmeta is an avid supporter of the Linux operating system--in fact, it employs Linux founder Linus Torvalds. One product that straddles the fence is the new Casio Fiva, a $1,500, 35-ounce laptop that boots up either Linux or Windows, depending on how a switch on the side of the machine is set.

Currently the Linux option, which turns on in about 30 seconds, is useful chiefly for playing MP3 music, Ditzel said. The Windows option takes about 90 seconds to boot.

Casio sells the Fiva in Asia, has just introduced it to Europe, and plans to introduce it to the United States this spring.

Other computers using Crusoe chips include two Sony Picturebook models, one with a 600MHz Crusoe 5400 and the other with a 667MHz Crusoe 5600; the 3-pound NEC LaVie MX; three ultrathin laptops from Hitachi; two Fujitsu BiblioLoox laptops, one with a DVD player; and Korean manufacturer eZex's Web-surfing pad that will sell for less than $1,000.

In addition, Microsoft's WebPad, demonstrated last fall, uses Transmeta CPUs. Philips offers a small LCD screen with a Crusoe-based computer packaged against the back.

FrontPath, a subsidiary that SonicBlue is spinning off, also has a Crusoe-based Web pad design it's selling to specific industries such as health care, education and finance, said Dragan Arsic, FrontPath's director of international business development.