High stakes for Transmeta's new chip

The chipmaker's latest effort, the Efficeon, will debut in notebooks later this year, a key element in the struggling company's comeback attempt.

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Transmeta's latest chip, the Efficeon, will debut in notebooks later this year, a key element in the struggling company's comeback attempt.

Formerly code-named Astro, the Efficeon will "dramatically increase performance and take care of some of the performance issues" of some of Transmeta's earlier processors, said Mike DeNeffe, director of marketing at Transmeta.

The chip will initially appear in mininotebooks and tablet PCs, two relatively small markets where Transmeta chips are already found. But they will start being used in more standard-size notebooks, those with 12- to 14-inch screens, by the first quarter, he added.

If there is a company in need of a product boost right now, it's Transmeta. When it held its coming-out party in early 2000, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company promised that its Crusoe chips would tackle one of the major problems in notebook computing: short battery life caused by processor power consumption. The company struck deals with a number of Japanese and Taiwanese manufacturers in fairly rapid succession and then held an initial public offering at the end of 2000.

Then reality hit. Intel began to pour more efforts into reducing power consumption, a push that culminated in the Centrino chips it released this past March. Although some analysts noted that Crusoe chips did consume less power, users said their overall performance could be clunky.

Manufacturing problems with the Crusoe 5800, the 2001 successor to the first products, led to product delays, defections of notebook manufacturers, declining revenues, increased losses and a bevy of managerial changes.

In the second quarter, revenue came to $5.1 million, but net losses were $22 million.

Efficeon differs from its predecessors in that it can process eight instructions per clock cycle rather than the three or so executed by other high-end processors. (A 1GHz chip offers 1 billion cycles per second.) Processing more instructions at once will increase the performance of Efficeon over earlier Transmeta chips by 50 percent on standard applications and 80 percent on multimedia applications, according to the company. Increasing the work per clock cycle also further reduces energy consumption.

The chip will debut at over 1GHz and include HyperTransport, a fast chip-to-chip interconnect found on the Opteron processor from Advanced Micro Devices that advocates say can boost computer performance.

Transmeta plans to release more complete benchmarks for Efficeon at the Microprocessor Forum in October. Manufacturers will start to receive chips for incorporation into notebooks before then, DeNeffe said, and notebooks will appear on shelves in the fourth quarter.

"Efficeon," a name derived from the chip's efficient use of energy, wasn't the company?s first choice, but it worked, DeNeffe said.

"We looked at lots of different versions of Astro: Astrino, Aztro," he said. Unfortunately, many of the Astro trademark variations were owned or controlled by Hanna-Barbera, creators of "The Jetsons" cartoon. Astro was the family dog on the show.

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"Trademarking and branding are getting more and more difficult," DeNeffe said. In print, the chip is spelled Efficeon. But in product branding, a small line appears over the second "e" to connote a long vowel sound.

"It has got kind of a French feel to it," DeNeffe joked.

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