COMDEX: Transmeta challenges Intel with Crusoes

Prepared to repeat its success within the Japanese portable PC market in the Intel Corp.-led United States portable PC market, chip maker Transmeta Corp. laid out its next-generation chip road map here at Comdex.

Transmeta's flagship Crusoe processor line has enjoyed widespread adoption from Japanese PC makers such as Sony Corp., Toshiba Corp., NEC Corp., Fujitsu Ltd., Casio Computer Co. Ltd., and others, but the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company has its sight set on the domestic portable PC market with a number of upcoming chips, according to Dave Ditzel, vice chairman and CTO of Transmeta.

The Crusoe TM5500 and TM5800 will arrive in volume production by the end of 2001 as vendors design mobile systems around the chip. Running at clock speeds between 677MHz and 800MHz, the two chips will accelerate to speeds reaching 1GHz by the first half of 2002. The TM5500 hosts 256KB of Level 2 cache, the TM5800 offers twice that. Both chips are built to 0.13-micron architectures by wafer fabs owned by IBM Corp.

Key to mobile devices where low power consumption means longer battery life, the TM5800 consumes only 0.91 watts of power when running at 800MHz, Ditzel said.

Experts such as Dean McCarron of Mercury Research Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz., believe the TM5500 and TM5800 will better equip Transmeta to compete against Intel in the low-voltage processor market.

At Comdex, Intel launched a 700MHz Ultra Low Voltage Pentium III chip that the company claims consumes only 1.1 volts during normal operation.

Transmeta's Ditzel said benchmarks performed by Intel on their low-voltage chips are abnormally low, as they do not take into account real-world drains on power resulting from core logic components surrounding the chip such as memory and system buses. Transmeta's power-consumption benchmarks, on the other hand, do take such factors into account, he said.

In the second half of 2002, Transmeta will unveil a Next Generation Crusoe, as well as a new TM6000 processor, Ditzel said.

The Next Generation Crusoe chip will be based on a completely new chip architecture and will offer two to three times the performance of the TM5800.

The TM6000 will be a complete x86 "system on a chip" running at speeds of 1GHz and offering ECC (error correcting code), Ditzel said.

A number of experts have blamed the lack of ECC in previous versions of Crusoe for Transmeta's inability to compete with Intel in the fledgling server blade market, a market that calls for low-power, low-heat chips. Transmeta's Crusoe was the first choice of early server blade startups such as RLX, but industry stalwarts such as Compaq Computer Corp., IBM, and Hewlett-Packard Co. have each opted for Intel's low-power chips for their server blades, mainly due to the availability of ECC on Intel chips.

Ditzel agrees for the most part that Transmeta was hurt by the loss of customers such as Compaq and IBM who used ECC as a deciding point for choosing Intel over Transmeta, and calls the ECC available on the TM6000 "a marketing check-off item."

"It's a red herring," Ditzel said of ECC. "It's not really necessary, and if you use it, it runs up the cost of your DRAM."

ECC works in relationship to a computer system's memory by checking additional bit of code that alert the system to an error in the code sequence. But according to Ditzel, memory systems such as DRAM have become so infallible that looking to ensure a system has ECC is a method of thinking that is a relic of days gone by. Customers these days will generally have to re-boot a Windows operating system more often than they will ever need to be concerned with code error, Ditzel said.

"How often will DRAM fail? What are the FIT [failure in time] rates? Once every 14.9 years? And compare that to how often do you have to re-boot Windows?" Ditzel asked.

Transmeta will also attack the domestic market with low pricing passed on to the manufacturers, Ditzel said.

A recently released Fujitsu LifeBook P Series laptop with a Crusoe TM5800 chip inside starts at US$1,499.

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