Transmeta Corp. took the wraps off the top-secret Crusoe chip last week, revealing a processor with extremely low power consumption that can run Intel Corp. Pentium-compatible applications.
Corporate users said they're hoping the chip can hasten the arrival of small, wireless, mobile computers capable of running full-fledged PC software.
Crusoe's low power consumption is truly revolutionary, said one analyst, but he added that much of the rest of the chip is old technology that may have potential memory and performance problems.
The Crusoe chip gets around Intel's Pentium patents by processing X86 instructions in its accompanying software, translating them into simpler instructions that the chip can execute very quickly, said Tom Halfhill, senior editor of "The Microprocessor Report" newsletter in Sunnyvale, Calif.
"It's a just-in-time compiler that emulates an X86 processor," he said.
The chip may also require 16MB or more of computer memory simply to process instructions, which could impact its use in smaller devices, Halfhill said.
"The first test results we've seen suggest it will run at about half the speed of an equivalent Pentium II processor," he said.
Mark Fleischmann, Transmeta's software program manager, said subsequent Crusoe processors would likely overcome the memory problem. "We think our 700-MHz processor will run faster than a 500-MHz Pentium III," Fleischmann said.
"Cutting the cord - the power cord - is what makes the Crusoe exciting for us," said John Lester, information systems director at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital's neurology department.
"We want our employees to be with patients, not off in the corner with computers, so we're investing heavily in wireless mobile technology to get there," Lester said. "Crusoe is a very positive step."
Santa Clara-based Transmeta announced the first two chips in the Crusoe family.
First is the 400-MHz TM3120, intended for use in Linux-based Internet appliances, handheld computers and other small devices. The second, the 700-MHz TM5400, was designed for use in ultralight Windows notebook computers.
"Just being X86-compatible gives Crusoe a real appeal," said Robert Zinnel, chief technologist at GTE Intelligent Networking in Irving, Texas. "Every application you'd want is already written for it."
Prototypes of the first Crusoe-powered devices could appear by fall. S3 Inc.'s Diamond Multimedia division in Santa Clara, Calif., announced plans to release Crusoe devices by early next year. The first Crusoe products, Internet access devices known as webpads, will sell for less than $1,000.
Zinnel said the chips' ability to produce lightweight, fully functional PCs could spur wireless networking in offices.
An experiment five years ago failed, he said. "Nobody would carry a heavy laptop around all day."