The low-powered, low-heat Crusoe microprocessor from Transmeta Corp. is starting to pop up in more laptops and Internet appliances.
Walking the floor of Comdex, participants could see that several vendors are implementing the once oh-so-secret chip into their machines. Although some vendors like IBM Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. have decided to hold off on using the x86-compatible Crusoe chip, others are believers that the Santa Clara-based chipmaker's processor is ideal for smaller portable machines.
Crusoe gains its low-power capabilities by using software to help execute instructions, which takes the load off the silicon. Called "code morphing," the technology converts instructions written for x86-type processors such as Intel Corp.'s Pentium III into VLIW (very long instruction word) instructions that can be read by Crusoe's underlying hardware.
At Sony Electronics Inc.'s booth, the Crusoe is used in the Vaio PictureBook C1VN. It runs on a 600MHz version of the chip, which allows the 2.2 pound sub-notebook to gain about 1.5 hours to 2 hours of battery life, said spokesman David Yang. The C1VN, which costs US$2,299, is currently the only offering from Sony in the U.S. with the Transmeta chip, but Yang said that does not mean that Sony won't put Crusoe in other products.
"We are obviously looking into it," Yang said at the Sony booth. "Especially with the sub (notebook), it makes a lot of sense."
While Crusoe has been earning more hype than a new Harry Potter book, Sony's booth didn't highlight the fact that the PictureBook runs on one of Transmeta's chips. In fact, one user who studied the C1VN for several minutes wasn't even aware that it did. When informed that the notebook didn't have "Intel Inside" he was a little more hesitant.
"I would think twice about it now, because I'd be worried about things like compatibility," said Joseph Desol, a sales manager with Retrotech of New York, who was combining a vacation with his trip to Comdex. "But because it's from Sony and runs Windows ME, that relieves my concern a bit."
Hitachi Ltd. has two Crusoe products on display at the show. There is the Flora 220TX laptop, which runs on a 600MHz version and is only available in Japan. The 3.7 pound (1.7 kilograms) Flora can offer about 10 hours of battery life with a nine-cell battery, said Shingo Kato, a product manager for Hitachi. A more traditional three-cell battery, however, will offer the user about two to three hours of battery life. The Flora 220TX was introduced in late October and costs 220,000 yen or about $2,300, Kato said.
Users examining Hitachi's mini-notebook, available with a Transmeta Crusoe TM 5600 chip, said that they're intrigued by its promises of longer battery life.
"You need to be able to have in a single battery the time for flying across the (United States), at least four to five hours," said Ernie Rapiere, who said he travels frequently for his job as an analyst at market research company VisionQuest 2000 Inc. in Moorpark, California. Most laptops he's used, he said, have a realistic battery life of one and a half to two hours. "If you're doing meaningful work, you're going to be loading and swapping files, and that drains the battery more quickly," he said.
Rapiere, who said he changes machines every year or two, said he'd rate speed and performance, as well as monitor size, as more important than battery life, though "all are important factors."
Bruce Bower, who runs LAN Crafters, a small business in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said he has yet to buy a notebook computer, though he's starting to look for one. "They tend to have (a battery life) of two or three hours, which isn't enough," he said. The Hitachi machine, which touts a battery life of up to 11 hours using a second battery, still isn't ideal, he said, but "it's starting to get better."
Hitachi also has on display its Pia prototype Internet appliance. It runs on a 400MHz Crusoe chip, possesses 192M bytes of RAM and runs an embedded version of the mobile Linux operating system. The operating system runs off of a 48M byte CompactFlash and has no hard drive. The Pia, which has not been priced, could be released as early as December in Japan, Kato said.
Gateway Inc. has its own Internet appliance on display, just a few days after its launch. The new Gateway Connected Touch Pad uses the Crusoe chip and starts at $599. The touch-screen device, offered in conjunction with America Online Inc., will be in Gateway Country stores by late November.
Casio Computer Company Ltd. showed off its new Cassiopeia FIVA sub-notebook, which will come with either a 500MHz or 600MHz Crusoe chip, said Scott Nelson, a product manager for Casio. The 2.1 pound (.96 kilograms) machine will begin shipping worldwide in the first quarter of 2001 and cost under $2,000, he said.
The Cassiopeia FIVA gets six hours of battery life with a six-cell battery, or five hours of use with a three cell battery, Nelson said. It comes with an 8.4-inch SVGA (800 by 600 pixels) TFT (thin film transistor) LCD (liquid crystal display).
In addition to the laptops and Internet appliances on display with Crusoe, the chip is in Rebel.com Inc.'s Netwinder Internet server appliance. This features a 533MHz Crusoe chip and will begin shipping in the later half of January 2001. Rebel.com, based in Ottawa, Ontario, uses Intel Corp.'s 110MHz StrongArm chip in its existing Netwinder Internet server appliances. A significant factor in deciding to change to the Crusoe is that it is x86 compatible, said Michael Whitehead, Rebel.com's vice president of research and development.
The Internet server appliance will come with 128M bytes of RAM, and a 10G byte to 12G byte hard drive, and will sell in the mid-$2,000 range, Whitehead said.
Acer Inc. also showed its WP300 Web Slate, which offers up to eight hours of battery life using the Crusoe, while First International Computer Inc. (FIC) had its I-Surf Web Slate on display, featuring instant-on functionality and wireless connectivity.
NEC Corp. showed its Crusoe-based LaVieMX notebook, announced earlier this fall, and Fujitsu Ltd. displayed it Biblo Loox S and Biblo Loox T models, which feature Transmeta's chip. Wearable computer maker Via Inc. is also displaying its newest offering that includes a 700MHz Crusoe chip.
James Niccolai contributed to this report.
(Editors: An image to accompany this story is available in the IDG News Service Image Bank)Transmeta, in Santa Clara, California, can be reached at +1-408-919-3000 or at http://www.transmeta.com/. Sony Electronics Inc., in San Jose, California, can be reached at +1-408-432-1600, or via the Web at http://www.sel.sony.com Hitachi, in Tokyo, can be contacted at +81-3-3258-1111, or via the Web at http://www.hitachi.co.jp/. Casio, in Tokyo, can be contacted at +81-3-5334-4111 or found online at http://www.casio.co.jp/. Gateway, in North Sioux City, South Dakota, can be reached at 1-605-232-2000 or http://www.gateway.com/. Rebel.com, in Ottawa, Ontario, can be reached at http://www.rebel.com/.