Transmeta loses a vote on eve of Crusoe update

Transmeta hasn't even officially launched its next Crusoe processor and the chip appears to have hit a snag. A major vendor has quietly withdrawn plans to announce a Crusoe TM5800-based notebook in conjunction with Transmeta's 26 June launch, citing an insufficient supply of the chips.

Transmeta officials deny a TM5800 supply problem exists and say they will launch the chip at the PC Expo trade show in the US as planned. Production will ramp to volume levels over the course of several months, says Phillip Bergman, company spokesman.

Denials aside, the vendor's decision is a blow to Transmeta, which is counting on the TM5800 to help polish a somewhat tarnished image. The chip is the company's first with a new 0.13-micron process and will reach speeds up to 800 MHz in the second half of this year. It will be launched at 600 MHz or better. Its sibling, the TM5500, will also be initially available at these speeds but will have half the TM5800's 512KB of secondary cache.

After introducing its Crusoe processors last year, the company weathered sharp criticism that it over-promised on performance and power-saving capabilities. Then several major vendors, including IBM and Compaq, very publicly withdrew plans to ship Crusoe-based notebooks.

"This is an important chip for (Transmeta)," says Mike Feibus, analyst with Mercury Research. "Nobody has jumped with both feet into Transmeta's camp."

While all the major Japanese notebook vendors now offer at least one Transmeta-based notebook, some of them shipping in the United States, few have embraced the chip in more than a few products. And although Transmeta chips appear in servers from some US companies, none of those companies is marketing Crusoe-powered notebooks.

Questions about supply won't improve Transmeta's standing, Feibus says. The company needs to deliver the new TM5800 chip, and its sibling, the TM5500, on time. And the new chips need to perform well to win over sceptics, he says.

Notebook vendors are a conservative bunch, and until the Crusoe chips deliver as promised, few companies will commit more than a product or two to the chip, Feibus adds. To find success, the company needs to secure more volume buyers.

"There are plenty of dabblers, but dabblers do not a business make," Feibus says.

Transmeta's big promises

The Crusoe TM5800 has the specifications to win over sceptics--assuming it performs the way the company says it will.

"We're expecting up to 50 per cent higher performance and 20 per cent lower power consumption over the TM5600," Bergman says. The fastest TM5600 runs at 667MHz; the TM5800 will launch at speeds of at least 600MHz, with an 800MHz chip appearing by later this year, he says. The company plans to launch a 1-GHz chip next year.

The TM5800's performance and battery-saving improvements are a result of changes to the chip, as well as the software that runs it.

One of the chip's major improvements comes in its manufacturing, says Ed McKernan, Transmeta's director of marketing. With the TM5800, the company moves from a 0.18-micron manufacturing process to a 0.13-micron process. The new process lets it produce a smaller chip that actually has more on it, such as the large L2 cache.

Transmeta doesn't actually produce the chip but contracts the manufacturing to other companies. IBM Microelectronics and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing are its current manufacturers. The company hasn't announced which company is producing the TM5800.

The new chips will also use the latest version of Transmeta's code-morphing software (version 4.2). By carrying out a portion of its job in software, a Crusoe chip uses less power--and creates less heat--than do similar chips from other vendors, McKernan says.

To complement that, Transmeta has its LongRun software, which raises and lowers the Crusoe's speed to match application needs.

McKernan says the new TM5800 also supports DDR (double data rate) memory, which should help improve both system performance and battery life. DDR is faster than SDRAM (synchronous dynamic random access memory), which will come in handy, because the code-morphing software relies on main memory. DDR also consumes less power than the older SDRAM.

Battle with Intel

Intel, looking to curtail Transmeta's entry into the thin-and-light notebook market, has introduced numerous new low-power processors for notebooks. Transmeta's McKernan claims Intel often overstates the capabilities of its chips, and he says Transmeta's technology is better suited to the ultra-thin and light segments of the market.

"Intel has claimed better performance than Crusoe at half the power," McKernan says -- but he says it's not accurate.

Although Intel's products may run at an average of less than a watt of power, they still create more heat than do Crusoe chips, McKernan says. To keep the processor cool in a very small notebook, Intel must throttle down the chip's performance, he contends.

"Thermal issues will become more important as products get into the $US1000 price range," he says. "And our advantages will grow over time."

Manny Vera, Intel spokesman, disputes both of Transmeta's claims. "We claim much better performance at lower power," he says. Intel has never said its chips use half the power, because it's not sure how much power Transmeta's chips actually use, he adds.

In regard to Intel throttling its chips' performance, Vera responds simply: "That is not true."

Benefits of a two-vendor market

Even if vendors don't bite on Transmeta's promise of growing advantages with Crusoe, it's clear they all appreciate the company's role in a competitive market, says analyst Feibus.

"PC vendors have learned to love having two vendors," he says, noting the price and performance advantages vendors reaped as AMD began to challenge Intel in desktops. That said, Transmeta must still ship its products out on time if it is going to become successful. Suggestions that TM5800 production is slipping do not bode well.

"That puts a lot of pressure on a young upstart company," Feibus says.

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Tom Mainelli

PC World
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