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Thursday, 20 January, 2000, 16:22 GMT
Crusoe chip - the verdict

David Ditzel: David Ditzel: "Chips explicitly designed for mobile computing"

By BBC News Online's Damian Carrington

Transmeta, the secretive computer chip company, have come out into the open with two new low power chips which promise fast processing but low battery usage.

Crucial Crusoe facts
Low battery use (1W)
Software replaces complex hardware
Compatible with 20 operating systems
Manufactured by IBM
One chip on sale now
No manufacturers on board yet
One of the new processors competes directly with Intel's chips for laptop computers. The second is designed for smaller devices devoted to web browsing.

The key advance for consumers appears to be extended battery life. This is achieved, say Transmeta, by shifting much the complexity of the processor out of silicon and into software. This means the chip is simpler and needs less power.

Heavy hype

The launch of the Crusoe chips was preceded by significant hype, largely because of the heavy-hitting staff line-up.

Transmeta team
Linus Torvalds, creator of the operating system Linux which is starting to rival those of Microsoft
CEO Dave Ditzel, formerly chief architect at Sun Microsystems
Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder
George Soros, billionaire financier
However, industry experts agreed that the much-vaunted threat to Intel had not materialised. Some believed Crusoe would enter a niche market, others said Intel's power management system, SpeedStep, was at least as good as Crusoe's LongRun.

Joe Fay, managing editor of Microscope magazine, told BBC News Online he was concerned that no manufacturer had yet committed to using the chips in devices: "The chips are ready to ship but there's no sign of anybody using them. It reminds me of NextGen, a company who said they were going to be a big challenge to Intel but they didn't have anyone else on board and failed."

Niche market

Mr Fay believes Crusoe may find a niche, however: "Transmeta are correct in saying Intel and AMD are not strong in the sub-notebook market."

He believes UK chip developer ARM may be more at risk from Transmeta but notes that their chips are in devices already.

Linus Torvalds: His operating system Linux is on the chip Linus Torvalds: His operating system Linux is on the chip
Mark Hachman, who is a Senior Editor on Electronic Buyers' News and based in California, said: "I'm cautiously optimistic about Transmeta's future.

"But there still remain several questions," he told BBC News Online. "Will manufacturers choose to purchase a chip from an unknown supplier? The analysts I've spoken to believe that they'll choose to wait, with smaller, second-tier vendors taking the risk first.

"There's also the question of manufacturing. IBM, which will make the chip, has a well-earned reputation for quality but with additional demand for chips of all flavours, will it be able to manufacture enough?"

Most chips in mobile computers today were designed for servers or PCs - they have just been crammed into smaller boxes
David Ditzel
Mr Hachman added that the chip will directly compete against National Semiconductor's Geode microprocessor, which saves additional space by integrating graphics functions into the chip.

"But I do know that extra battery life is a godsend," said Mr Hachman. "I'd sure like to have a PC that is useful on a transatlantic flight, rather than turn into a paperweight halfway across."

Deep sleep

The TM3120 chip is aimed at portable web browsers - a simple, small, touch-activated screen was on display at the news conference.

The TM5400 chip will ship in mid 2000 The TM5400 chip will ship in mid 2000
The processor has two versions, with speeds of 333MHz or 400MHz and costing $65 and $89 respectively. Transmeta say it hopes Linux-based web pads could be priced between $500 and $1000.

The second chip, the TM5400, is designed for laptop computers running the Microsoft Windows operating system. It will be offered in a range of performance levels from 500MHz ($119) to 700MHz ($329).

The company hoped this would allow very light laptops to be available at between $1,200 and $2,500.

Pre-emptive strike

On Tuesday, Intel had launched a pre-emptive strike with their own new set of chips designed for mobile computers. It says its 650MHz chip is the most powerful processor ever in a laptop and can step down its processor speed to save power when running on batteries.

The Crusoe chip appears to outstrip the Intel chip, but Intel's share price has held steady in New York.

In contrast, shares in ARM Holdings dropped by about 7% in London on Wednesday. The chip design company has significant chip interests in "portable communications, hand-held computing and embedded solutions".

However, Andrew Griffin, an analyst at Merrill Lynch, told BBC News Online: "I think it's unlikely Transmeta and ARM will be playing in the same space - I think the share price fall in ARM is unwarranted."

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See also:
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Intel forges chip alliance
30 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
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Pentium III bug in new chips
25 Oct 99 |  The Company File
Intel deal boosts chip firm
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Free software taking on Microsoft
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