Transmeta, Intel in a battle for notebooks

The companies will slug it out next year as they release new low-powered chips for laptop computers.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
LAS VEGAS--Transmeta and Intel will slug it out next year with a slew of low-powered chips for notebooks.

Comdex 2000:
Back to the future In the first quarter of next year, Transmeta announced Monday, it will release version 4.2 of its code-morphing software that significantly reduces processor power consumption. Code-morphing software is a software layer on top of a chip that picks up a number of the duties that would normally be handled by the chip itself and thereby cuts power consumption.

"We made a substantial difference (in power consumption) in essentially what is the same silicon," Dave Ditzel, Transmeta CEO, said Monday in an interview with CNET News.com at the Comdex trade show here.

In addition, Transmeta in the first quarter of 2001 will come out with new versions of its 5600 Crusoe processor that run at speeds of up to 700 MHz. In the second half of the year, the company will release the Crusoe 5800, an improved version of the 5600.

Transmeta also announced Monday it will come out with an entirely new version of Crusoe in 2002 that, according to the company, doubles the performance and cuts power consumption in half.

Intel, meanwhile, is here showing off a prototype of an IBM ThinkPad notebook that uses an ultra-low power Pentium III. The chip will come out in the middle of next year, although IBM has not committed to a notebook using this chip.

The war of words between the two companies is becoming increasingly heated as Transmeta's products come to market.

Proponents say Transmeta could carve out a significant chunk of the notebook and device market. They add that Transmeta-based notebooks ideally can weigh less because they use less power and therefore require less insulation. Critics, however, say Transmeta's performance claims can't always be substantiated.

Ditzel said his company plans to take on Intel, as well as Transmeta critics, by showing that in real-world circumstances, Transmeta-based notebooks are the better buy. Ditzel acknowledged that, because of code morphing, a Transmeta chip running at 700 MHz will perform slightly less optimally than an Intel chip running at the same speed. But a Transmeta-based notebook is far more convenient, he asserts.

Code morphing works as a pre-processor, digesting lines of code for the actual chip itself and thus saving battery power.

"With a DVD movie, in the first second or two, you've translated all the code you need for a two-hour movie. We trade off the first few seconds of execution for hours of battery life," he said. "What is really important is how much does (the notebook) weigh, and how long does the battery last?"

In a comparison, Ditzel said that NEC built two identical notebooks except that one had a Crusoe chip and one had a Pentium III. According to Ditzel, NEC said the notebook with the Crusoe got 40 percent better battery life. "In their view, that was a very substantial improvement," he said.

So far, Crusoe chips have been used in Internet appliances and mini- or sub-notebooks. But in the future, the chip will find its way into larger notebooks with 12-inch screens.

In addition, Crusoe-based notebooks containing double data rate (DDR) RAM will appear in the middle of 2001.

One of the difficulties in gauging the effectiveness of either company's power conservation techniques comes from the fact that most of the data is coming from the companies themselves. An Intel demonstration showed that the upcoming low-power Pentium III, combined with a chipset, consumed on average about 1.6 watts of power.

Transmeta showed different tests with its current Crusoe processors consuming 2.13 watts. However, according to the company, a Crusoe using the new code-morphing software will consume 1.29 watts.