It's been a big week for chip maker Transmeta. Wednesday saw the startup introduce a new model of its Crusoe chip, the TM5600, at the Hot Chips conference, and then came the news that Sony has been added to Transmeta's growing roster of clients.
The TM5600 is a 700MHz chip designed for use in ultra-light notebook computers and is based on Transmeta's 128-bit VLIW (Very Long Instruction Word) technology. Just as with Transmeta's other Crusoe processors, the TM3200 and TM5400, the TM5600 requires far less battery power than most processors, according to the company, which says that the new chip consumes 10 percent less power than its already low-power Crusoe predecessors.
The new chip is simply an extension of Transmeta's existing architecture, according to Kevin Krewell, senior analyst for PC processors at MicroDesign Resources, publishers of the MicroProcessor Report. While the TM5600 adds cache, and thus will increase performance over the TM5400, this is not much more than an incremental upgrade, Krewell said.
Another question on Krewell's mind, as well as on the minds of others in the industry, concerns performance. Santa Clara, California-based Transmeta has yet to release any firm performance benchmarks, Krewell said, and thus it is unclear how the Crusoe processor compares to offerings from leading chip makers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).
It is likely that Crusoe chips outperform their Intel-compatible colleagues in some functions, like DVD (digital versatile disc) decoding, but lag behind in others due to the chip's architecture, he said.
Though Transmeta's processors are not based on the x86 architecture, the one that underlies Intel and AMD chips, they are fully compatible with that standard. The process of achieving that compatibility slows down the Transmeta processors, Krewell indicated.
Performance concerns haven't deterred Sony from adding itself to a list of laptop makers using Transmeta chips that already includes such industry heavyweights as IBM, Fujitsu, Hitachi and NEC. Sony confirmed that it will in fact ship a future model of its VAIO laptop computer with the Crusoe processor at its heart.
Published reports said the laptop will ship by the end of the year. Sony said that the notebook will be added to the existing VAIO C1 line of ultra-light portables. The C1 series includes a digital camera built into the top of the screen, is slightly more than one inch thick and weighs in at just over 2 pounds.
Transmeta processors are targeted at exactly this type of lightweight computer, which focuses on battery life over performance, according to Krewell.
"The processor alone can't double battery life," he said, noting that factors such as display types and hard drive use also play large roles.
Sony has previously only used Intel Pentium chips in its portable line, and the Transmeta deal is the first time the Japanese computer maker has used anything other than an Intel chip in a US notebook, Krewell said. Intel is bound to be unhappy that such a loyal customer has strayed to Transmeta, he said.
Transmeta's Crusoe chips are the result of years of secretive work, during which the company became one of the most talked about, but at the same most mysterious, companies in the high-tech world. Transmeta finally unveiled its first offerings, the TM3120 and TM5400, in January 2000.