Crusoe chips set to travel light

Super-secret Transmeta Corp. has finally unveiled its long-anticipated processor. Called Crusoe, the chip has until now been best known for one of its main backers, Linus Torvalds, rather than for its technology.

The heart of the technology is a microprocessor that attempts to remove the complexity and expense of designing a processor by putting that complexity into software rather than into silicon.

Crusoe, which will be the brand name for Transmeta’s first family of mobile chips, will bring increased power and longer battery life to a range of mobile devices used to access the Internet, from full-fledged laptop computers to new types of emerging devices like Web pads and handheld computers, promised David Ditzel, Transmeta CEO.

The key to Crusoe’s capabilities is its “code morphing” technology, which converts instructions written for x86-type processors such as Intel’s Pentium III chips into VLIW (very long instruction word) instructions that can be read by Crusoe’s underlying hardware, Ditzel said.

“Transmeta’s new idea here was not to use silicon itself to solve the problem, but to use software to solve this problem,” said Ditzel, a former chief architect at AT&T Corp.’s Bell Laboratories.

Two chips were unveiled: the TM5400, for lightweight notebook computers running the Microsoft Windows operating system, and the TM3120, a processor for Internet appliances running the Linux OS.

The TM3120 processor is priced at US$65 for a 333MHz version and $89 for the 400MHz version. Transmeta said in a statement it tried to price the chips economically enough for use in Linux-based Web pads that will be priced from US$500 to US$999.

The TM5400 will be offered in a range of performance levels from 500MHz to 700MHz and aimed at ultra-lightweight notebooks that will be priced between US$1,200 and US$2,500, the company said. The 500MHz version will list for US$119, while the 700MHz version will list for US$329.

The processors will be marketed for the mobile market and consume an average of 1 watt of power, which, according to Ditzel, will greatly enhance battery life. This is achieved by a new power management technology developed by Transmeta which the company calls LongRun.

LongRun allows Crusoe to “learn” about applications as it runs them and adjust its operating speed and voltage accordingly, Ditzel said. LongRun can make such adjustments hundreds of times per second, according to a statement provided by the company.

Transmeta began sampling Crusoe last year and expects to be shipping commercial products to manufacturers by mid-year. The company will sell manufacturers the chips, along with a range of software technologies to help them design mobile Internet devices based around Crusoe.

“Transmeta has all the technical pieces to enable computer manufacturers to very quickly bring entire products to market,” Ditzel said. Those pieces include modified versions of a mobile version of the Linux operating system, he said.

The company has technology backing from IBM Corp., which will provide Transmeta with access to some of its most advanced semiconductor technologies, Ditzel said. IBM has set up a team in Burlingame, Calif., dedicated to working on Transmeta products, he said.

Transmeta now employs 200 people. Most are at the company’s Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters. Others are in Japan and Taiwan, where much of the PC manufacturing industry resides, Ditzel said.

“We’re not a small company anymore,” he said.

Other notable employees include chairman Murray Goldman, a former vice-president of Motorola’s semiconductor products division, and board member Hugh Barnes, former CTO of Compaq Computer Corp. The company also recently appointed former nVidia Corp. vice-president Mark Allen as its president and chief operating officer, Ditzel said.

The name Crusoe comes from the famous fictional traveller Robinson Crusoe, who was washed up on an island after a shipwreck.

“We think it brings a name that denotes mobility,” Ditzel said.

Transmeta clearly will find itself on a head-on collision course with Intel Corp. if it delivers on its promise of a low-power notebook chip that runs Windows applications. Power consumption has been the enemy of Intel and its rivals as they try to boost the power of their mobile chips.

Just prior to the Crusoe announcement, Intel unveiled a new technology that lets its notebook chips work in different power modes depending on whether a user is mobile or plugged into an electrical outlet.