Transmeta shoots for 700 MHz with new chip

The highly secretive start-up finally unveils its technology plans and makes it clear that it aims to compete against chip giant Intel.

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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
SARATOGA, Calif.--The highly secretive start-up Transmeta finally unveiled its technology plans yesterday and made it clear that it aims to compete against chip giant Intel.

At a technology disclosure conference here that has been anticipated for months, Transmeta said that it will come out with two fairly inexpensive, low-voltage processor families that can run the same software that Intel chips can because of Transmeta's "code-morphing" software. With Crusoe chips, customers will be able to buy cheaper notebook computers that can run all day on batteries without recharging. The chips can also be upgraded remotely, the company said.

Although Silicon Valley knew of the company, Transmeta's actual ambitions have been shrouded in secrecy. Details of the exact plans were largely based on speculation and information gleaned from patent filings. As an example, more than 2,000 non-disclosure agreements were signed prior to the announcement, the company said.

Despite the anticipation, acceptance could take a while for the company, analysts said, and success in this cost-crunching market has never been easy.

The first chip, a low-power chip called the Crusoe 3120, will run at about 400 MHz and go into handheld devices and Internet appliances running Linux, said Steve Johnson, head of software operations at Transmeta. A version of Linux called "Mobile Linux" will be released for this chip, said Linux creator and Transmeta employee Linus Torvalds. The chip will cost between $65 and $89 and is in production. IBM will manufacture the chips.

A second chip, called the Crusoe 5400, will run at between 500 MHz and 700 MHz and include a 256K secondary cache integrated into the chip. This chip will be targeted at Windows-technology and will run on one watt of power, far less than its Intel counterparts. Coming midyear, the 5400 will cost between $119 to $329, depending on the speed. The new chips make it clear that Transmeta is both trying to capitalize on some of the shortcomings of Intel's processors while avoiding the mistakes made by processor companies that have tried and failed to break into this market.

Transmeta's chips will consume little power, a lingering problem for Intel. The 3120, for instance, will consume an average of one watt compared to a typical Celeron processor that consumes between four and 10 watts.

Power consumption is one of the more important considerations for mobile devices. The more power the chip consumes, the shorter battery life gets. Power-consuming chips also require device manufacturers to come up with more novel, and often expensive, insulating techniques.

Although Intel has invested heavily in reducing the overall power consumption of its processors, power use continues to go up. Yesterday, for example, the company released new Pentium IIIs for mobile devices with specially designed power-management features. The chips, however, consume more juice in certain circumstances than some earlier chips. A demonstration showed that these chips consume around 11 watts of power when plugged in and six watts while the notebook runs on batteries. Several notebook executives said they expect the "thermal envelope" to grow again by the end of the year.

Though chip speed doesn't mean everything, especially with such a radically different technology as Transmeta's, its clock speeds compare favorably to Intel's. Intel's fastest mobile Celeron chip runs at 466 MHz, though faster versions are in the works.

In the past, competitors have not been able to produce volumes of chips at certain speeds, which became a fatal mistake for some.

Still, a performance gap will exist. The Transmeta method uses special "code-morphing" software that translates instructions intended for an Intel chip into instructions the Crusoe chip can understand. Initially, this means slower performance, but within about a second, the translation is over and the translated code can be re-used.

The performance of the 5400 running at 667 MHz is about the same as a Pentium III running at 500 MHz, said Doug Laird, vice president of product development. However, Transmeta is encouraging the use of benchmarks that account for the temporary lag during the translation and for the extended battery life the chips will enable.

The use of software to handle most of the technology's features means that further performance improvements and bug fixes can be distributed later without having to resort to cumbersome changes to the chip design itself, said Jim Chapman, vice president of marketing.

Another potential Transmeta problem looms in manufacturing costs and market acceptance, analysts have said. Transmeta will have to manufacture its chips in foundries. This adds costs. Cyrix, which was sold to Via, cited foundry costs as one reason the company had difficulty competing. Cyrix used IBM as a foundry.

Device makers would also have to adopt the chip, and the qualification process can be long and involved. In the handheld market, Transmeta will not only compete against Intel, but also Hitachi, MIPS and other established companies.

Any mention of actual customers was conspicuously absent from the Transmeta conference yesterday, though chief executive Dave Ditzel promised that would change soon.

Initial devices to be introduced will be "Webpads" and other portable devices smaller than PCs costing $500 to $1,000. And later, by midyear, laptops weighing between 3 and 4 pounds and costing $1,200 and $2,500 will be released, Transmeta said.

The processor-software combination has serious potential but isn't an immediate threat to Intel, said Linley Gwennap of the Linley Group. He doesn't expect major computer manufacturers to get on board until the chip has had a chance to prove itself.

"Transmeta has a long way to go before they can be a serious threat to Intel," Gwennap said. "I'd be surprised if any of the top notebook makers are adopting this technology right off the bat."

Intel, which introduced new "SpeedStep" power-saving technology of its own yesterday, is a powerhouse, Gwennap said. The company currently sells about 20 million processors a year for mobile uses, he said.

One key part of the Transmeta approach is protection from Intel's patent lawyers.

Transmeta is shielded to some extent from the litigious fury that Intel has unleashed on all other companies that have tried to clone its chips, Gwennap said. As previously reported, this is because software instead of hardware reads and executes the instructions ordinarily designed to speak the Intel chip language, called x86, Gwennap said.

Intel's patents apply to hardware, not software. "In this case, the approach is so different that Intel (would have a hard time) coming up with anything (to which) their patents would apply," Gwennap said.

The 3120 will be made on the 0.22-micron manufacturing process while the 5400 will be made on the more advanced 0.18-micron process. Both chips will use a combination of hardware and software to emulate an Intel compatible chip.

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.