Astro to propel Transmeta's comeback

The chipmaker has suffered through a difficult year and a half, but it's gearing up for a comeback with Astro, a newly designed microprocessor that will debut in 2003.

LAS VEGAS--Transmeta, which has suffered through a difficult year and a half, is gearing up for a comeback with Astro, a newly designed microprocessor due out in 2003.

Astro, which is being shown off for the first time in a hotel suite at the Bellagio Hotel during Comdex Fall 2002, is the company's second-generation Crusoe processor, an energy-efficient chip for notebooks. It will consume less power than the company's first Crusoe chips, the TM 5000 series, but offer substantially more performance, said Chief Technical Officer David Ditzel.

"The TM 5000 was designed in my basement," he said. "We looked at what we did right and what we did wrong and figured out how to do it all over."

The chip differs from its predecessors in that it can issue eight instructions per clock cycle. Current Transmeta chips, and other competing chips, issue only four instructions per cycle, the company said. As a result, more work can be accomplished per clock cycle. Increasing the work per clock cycle also lowers energy consumption, which increases battery power.

Astro will come out toward the middle of 2003 and be manufactured on the 130-nanometer process. Officially, it will kick off the TM 8000 family of Crusoe chips.

Additionally, Astro is fairly small, which means that the chip will likely cost little to produce, an important factor in the current notebook environment. Although notebook sales continue to grow, more manufacturers are touting sub-$1,000 PCs, a price that requires an inexpensive processor.

The chip will compete directly against Banias, a low-power chip coming from Intel in the first quarter that will effectively become the company's primarily mobile chip and replace the Pentium 4 in notebooks. Transmeta executives, though, indicated that the company would beat Banias in price.

"You're not going to get more than $120" for a notebook chip, said Matthew Perry, Transmeta's CEO. Intel's Pentium 4 mobile chips sell for between $171 and $348, although mobile Celeron chips float around the $100 level.

The chip comes out at a challenging time for the company. Although it racked up a series of impressive design wins with major manufacturers in 2000 and 2001, several product delays and the decline in the PC market decimated the company's revenue.

Recently, however, the company has landed some high-profile wins. Hewlett-Packard uses a Crusoe in its tablet PC, which came out earlier this month.

Sharp also uses the chip in its Muramasa notebook, a full-fledged Windows XP notebook that weighs a little more than 2 pounds, making it one of the lightest notebooks ever, if not the lightest. Sharp has started to sell the Muramasa in Japan, and it will likely come to the United States next year, sources said.