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Transmeta revs up Crusoe

The company will release a new Crusoe chip later this month, as it continues to try to win its first deal with a U.S. notebook maker.

Transmeta will release a new Crusoe chip later this month, as it continues to try to win its first deal with a U.S. notebook maker.

The TM 5800 will offer a 50 percent performance increase over the TM 5600, the upstart chipmaker said Wednesday. The company boasts that the chip offers a faster clock speed, a more efficient version of code-morphing software, and faster double-data rate (DDR) SDRAM. The combination will reduce overall power consumption by 20 percent, Transmeta said.

Transmeta is also likely to use the Tech Expo NY trade show, which begins June 25, to discuss plans to increase the clock speed of the TM 5800 to the 1GHz mark next year. The additional clock speed should aid Transmeta in its efforts to compete with Intel.

Analysts say the extra oomph could open new doors for the chipmaker, which to date has specialized in energy-saving processors for mini-notebooks. So far, only Japanese notebook makers have chosen to use Transmeta's chips, which first hit the market in January 2000.

"Anything (Transmeta) can do to improve the performance makes the part more competitive. That will help them penetrate more segments," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research.

Another two new Crusoe chips are coming in the second half of 2002, said Mike Swavely, chief operating officer of server maker RLX Technologies, which plans on using the chips in its designs that cram as many chips into as small a space as possible.

The next chips, he said, are code-named Astro and Solo--coincidentally the product names of Gateway's all-in-one PC and its laptop line.

The new models are likely to run at 1GHz to 1.5GHz, Swavely said.

One of them will support more memory--4GB compared to current Crusoe support for 512MB--and offer error-correcting code technology to cut down on errors when sending information from the chip to memory and back. Both these memory technologies are an important factor for servers. The other new chip will integrate more features on the chip itself, likely including graphics and other systems, he said.

Transmeta originally didn't anticipate use of its chips in servers. But RLX, which approached Transmeta as soon as the chip company revealed its product strategy, now has frequent discussions about plans for future Crusoe models, Swavely said. "We're talking to Transmeta every day," he said.

Meanwhile, analysts say the TM 5800 has the potential to push Transmeta chips into the category of larger notebooks, dubbed thin and light, which are much more popular than mini-notebooks.

Mini-notebooks, which weigh three pounds or less, are the smallest machines that are still considered notebooks. Thin-and-light notebooks weigh four pounds to five pounds and include a slot for a floppy or CD drive. They offer larger screens and faster chips than mini-notebooks, which usually exclude a drive bay.

The current Crusoe, the TM 5600, reaches a maximum speed of 667MHz. Transmeta will soon announce three to four speeds for the new TM 5800, ranging from 600MHz to 800MHz. The slower versions of the chip will likely find their way into mini-notebooks from current Transmeta customers, while the faster chips are expected to show up in larger, future notebooks.

"The performance begins to extend Transmeta's reach beyond realm," IDC analyst Alan Promisel said. "Incorporating higher processor speeds with low-voltage capabilities gives Transmeta a good foot in the door into the...thin-and-light category. That's the sweet spot of the market right now."

But don't expect it to happen overnight, he cautioned. That's because U.S. notebook makers are notoriously reluctant to adopt new technology right out of the chute for fear of getting burned.

"It needs time," McCarron said. "Usually an individual product does not result in a change in the path a company is on."

Executives at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Transmeta say the company is willing to bide its time and let the market come to it.

"What's really critical (to future notebooks) is the performance you get running off a battery. In the next six to 12 months, wireless (networking and access are) going to be integrated into these devices," said Ed McKernan, director of marketing for Transmeta. Such advances mean more draw on the battery.

Consumers should ask how well wireless notebooks perform, he said. "With wireless coming on, it changes the whole dynamic of what's appropriate for a notebook."

While typical notebooks last two to four hours on a battery, companies with Transmeta-based notebooks tout their current machines as lasting four to six hours.

Boosting performance of the TM 5800 will be the new version 4.2 of Transmeta's code-morphing software, which translates instructions meant for Intel chips into a language Crusoe can understand. The code-morphing software monitors how its translation works, tweaking the translation as it goes. The software also stores translated instructions in memory to speed up repeated operations, which means the arrival of DDR SDRAM will speed Crusoe-based computers even more.

Though Transmeta chips are offered by all of Japan's top notebook makers, their U.S. counterparts have yet to choose Transmeta's technology. In addition to ignoring the Crusoe because it's so new, U.S. notebook makers say there are other reasons for turning a cold shoulder. Last fall, for example, IBM decided the power savings weren't great enough to make the switch to Transmeta.

In addition, sources say that Compaq Computer, which sells desktop computers and notebooks with Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon chip, will stick with Intel chips for a forthcoming mini-notebook, which it plans to unveil later this month.

However, analysts assert that it's only a matter of time before U.S. notebook makers pick up a Transmeta chip to offer an alternative to Intel in their smaller models. For larger models, PC makers have the option of choosing AMD's Athlon 4 as an Intel alternative.

Intel, the leader in power-saving notebook chips, will make a low-power showing at the end of the month. The company is expected to demonstrate its new 0.13-micron "Tualatin" Pentium III processors for notebooks. Those chips, which will also have improved energy efficiency and faster clock speed, are expected to ship in July.

CNET's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.