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Transmeta shows the fine print on Efficeon

The chipmaker unveils the technical details about a completely revamped processor that it says will provide better performance than that of its predecessors.

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
SAN JOSE, Calif.--Transmeta on Tuesday unveiled the technical details behind its Efficeon chip. The question now is whether customers will bite.

Efficeon, formerly code-named Astro, is a completely revamped processor that will provide far better performance than that of its predecessors, according to Transmeta founder David Ditzel, speaking at the Microprocessor Forum here.

The company redesigned the chip--which will ship at 1.3GHz later this year--and wrote a new version of the "code morphing" software that allows the chip to run Windows and applications originally written for Intel-based PCs. At the same time, power consumption will remain low, a key factor for notebooks.

"The entire processor has been redone from a blank sheet of paper," Ditzel said. "With good performance and aggressive pricing, we won?t be held out of high-volume market opportunities."

The chip will be complemented in notebooks by the Nvidia nForce3 Go120 Media Communications Processor (MCP), which handles input-output functions. Transmeta announced the nForce3 on Tuesday as well.

Ditzel also demonstrated LongRun 2, a new version of the company?s power-saving technology. LongRun throttles back electricity consumption in chips by slowing down or shutting off certain transistors when they are not in use.

The first version of LongRun focused on core voltage, or the power used to run a processor. LongRun2 curbs power consumption by focusing on threshold voltage, which is the minimum amount of voltage that's required to turn a transistor on, according to Transmeta CEO Matthew Perry. Controlling the threshold voltage should help cut down on leakage--power that gets sent to the processor but dissipates before it can be used--Perry said. LongRun2 will come in a future version of Efficeon.

Transmeta, however, faces a challenge in gaining acceptance. Although it managed to line up a number customers earlier on, such as Sony, Fujitsu and NEC, the company in the past two years has struggled through a series of problems such as slow sales and increased competition.

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Hewlett-Packard, for instance, which had been using Transmeta chips in its tablet PCs, will use an Intel Pentium M in its next tablet. HP, however, will offer a Transmeta chip as an option in its bladed desktop system, called the Consolidated Client Infrastructure, coming this fall, according to sources. Ditzel declined to comment on any HP deals.

Efficeon could also help the company branch out of the ultrathin notebook segment and into the larger market for notebooks with 12-inch to 14-inch screens.

"I think there is still interest. It looks like (Transmeta is) attacking a broader part of the market" said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. "For the success of the product, no one is going to know until the next round of design wins, which will be next spring."

Under the hood
For the most part, chip companies do not radically redesign their chips after a few years, because a new chip would have to be backward-compatible with existing software. Transmeta can do this, said Ditzel, because its chip executes only one piece of software directly--the code-morphing software Transmeta designed itself.

But the intermediate software layer can impede performance. To avoid any hindrance, the company beefed up the chip. Efficeon will execute up to eight instructions per clock cycle--theoretically getting more work done per cycle than similar chips can.

"The eight-issue machine really has a lot of crunching ability," Ditzel said. According to benchmarks Transmeta provided, a low-powered Transmeta chip will outdo Intel?s most energy-efficient Pentium M.

The code-morphing software was also refined to enable redundant or repetitive calculations to be performed more quickly or be eliminated entirely.

Performance will also be increased through HyperTransport, a high-speed link between the processor and the rest of the computer, and the Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP), a dedicated graphics pipeline between the processor and the graphics chip. To date, Transmeta chips have not supported AGP, something that has prevented the company from getting into the mainstream notebook market, Ditzel said.

The chip will debut at speeds ranging from 1GHz to 1.3GHz and come with 512KB or 1MB of cache. By the middle of 2004, the chip will run at 2GHz. It will cost about $100 in volume quantities.