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Transmeta starts shipping its chip of choice

The chipmaker sends its latest notebook chip to computer manufacturers, a crucial, tangible step in the start-up's plan to become a force in microprocessors.

Transmeta has begun shipping its latest notebook chip to computer manufacturers, a crucial, tangible step in the start-up's plan to become a force in microprocessors.

Dave Ditzel, CEO of the obsessively secretive Santa Clara, Calif.-based processor maker, told an audience at this week's Hot Chips conference at Stanford University that the company has begun shipping its Crusoe 5600 processor to computer makers, according to a report in Semiconductor Business News.

The chip, which will come out at speeds between 500 MHz and 700 MHz, will be featured mostly in ultrathin notebooks and consume less power than chips from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices, according to the 5-year-old start-up. To date, most start-ups that have tried to break into the PC processor market have failed.

Although the 5600 is the successor to the Crusoe 5400, it will probably be the first Transmeta notebook chip that the public actually sees. IBM executives said in June that the 5600 will be the processor inside its ThinkPad. The 5400 has been sent to computer makers but has not been publicly released.

The news of the chip shipments will likely reinforce some of the growing optimism about the company. Although many analysts have praised the company's technology, much of the debate has been based in theory.

Analysts contacted have said they don't have sample systems yet. In addition, standard performance benchmarks have yet to be posted, and demonstrations of the technology have been tightly controlled.

Often, for instance, Transmeta executives show Crusoe notebooks running DVD movies but give less attention to how these notebooks run standard office applications, noted Kevin Krewell, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources.

The distinction is crucial because a debate exists over how well the chip will actually work. On one hand, Crusoe chips will give notebooks better battery performance, making it ideal for applications like DVD.

On the other hand, the Crusoe processors do not read Windows applications directly. Instead, the chips apply a process called "code morphing," which even Transmeta admits slows performance a bit. A 600-MHz chip, for instance, may in reality run more like a 500-MHz one.

"Benchmarks may not show it in the ideal light," Krewell said.

While few in the real world have seen the chip, commercial acceptance is growing. IBM and Transmeta executives have confirmed that IBM will release its slim Crusoe-based ThinkPad. It will likely cost between $2,000 and $2,400. This past week, Sony revealed its plans to come out with a similar product for the Japanese market. NEC, Fujitsu and Hitachi have also shown off prototypes.

Compaq Computer and Transmeta executives have said that the Houston-based PC maker is intently investigating Crusoe notebooks.

"There are two to three companies getting ready for products," Jim Chapman, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Transmeta, said last month. "The total focus is to ramp these companies into production."

Chapman spoke after IBM, Hitachi, Fujitsu and NEC had already shown off their Transmeta products, but before Sony executives spoke.

Gateway, meanwhile, is coming out with a Web pad containing a Crusoe chip. Quanta, a Taiwanese contract manufacturer, will manufacture IBM's notebook and Gateway's Web pad. The company also recently signed notebook manufacturing deals with Compaq and Sony.

All of these companies are investors in Transmeta. The investments came "at the request of our customers," Brian Hurst, director of worldwide sales, said in June.

Recently, Transmeta said it is producing prototypes of its chips at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, which could expand the supply of these chips. Currently, IBM does all of the manufacturing for the company.