Crusoe problems blamed on software emulation

A software emulation technique used inside Transmeta Corp.’s Crusoe processor that hinders the performance of the low-power chip could be the reason some top PC manufacturers are falling back from commitments to ship Crusoe in future portable computer offerings, analysts are saying.

Compaq Computer Corp. on Tuesday was the latest computer maker to adopt a wait-and-see strategy concerning the Crusoe chip. Officials for Houston-based Compaq, which invested US$5 million in Transmeta earlier this year, said they would continue to follow Crusoe’s progress and consider it for use in future products.

While Compaq officials wouldn’t delve into specifics as to why the company wanted more time before committing to a Crusoe-powered system, one Compaq source said that certain “software interactions” having to do with the Crusoe chip did play a part in Compaq’s decision.

Crusoe, which officials for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Transmeta claim can run complicated operating systems such as Windows 2000 while consuming as little as 1 watt of power, uses a software emulation technique to process instructions. This technique, also known as software morphing, lets the Crusoe processor actually read incoming command lines at the software level, rather than reacting strictly from the hardware level, like an Intel-based processor does.

The advantage to software emulation, according to Transmeta, is a smarter processor that company officials agree operates more efficiently on repeated commands that the chip has already translated.

But it is the initial translation that creates an extra step for the Crusoe processor, and this step apparently robs Crusoe of needed performance.

A source close to IBM said that Crusoe’s need to translate incoming command lines created an unacceptable degradation in performance.

Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research in Scottsdale, Ariz., agreed.

“Essentially, [software emulation] can be likened to a memory cache. It takes longer when you first access it, but it’s quicker the next time, and there is no way around that,” McCarron said.

McCarron said that in the past, other companies such as Digital, which is now owned by Compaq, tried the software emulation approach with its Alpha processors but encountered the same performance degradation while the processor translated incoming code.

McCarron added that for Crusoe to regain the performance lost in translating code, Transmeta would have no choice but to turn up the clock speed of the chip, negating any power savings the chip might offer.

“Turning the clock up is the only way to speed [Crusoe] up, but if they turn it up, then the power consumption goes out the window,” McCarron said.

How then does Transmeta increase the performance of Crusoe without sacrificing its primary selling point, which is low power consumption?

“The question may not be answerable,” said Joe Jones, the CEO of Bridgepoint, an Austin, Texas-based semiconductor testing company with clients such as Texas Instruments and Philips. “How can you take low power and turn it into a permanent market position? Because the other guy has to simply figure out how to get his power lower.”

Both Intel and Austin-based Advanced Micro Devices currently ship mobile processors designed to operate with a minimal amount of power.

The news from Compaq came as the second disappointment in a week for Transmeta, which began its IPO on Monday; seven days ago, Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Corp. cancelled its plans to ship the Crusoe processor in its ThinkPad 240 model laptop computers.

IBM officials made little comment concerning the reasons for the company’s decision, outside of the fact that Big Blue would continue to look for low-power performance options for its laptop systems.

IBM, which last June began publicly testing the Crusoe processor in only three ThinkPads, never really committed to Transmeta, according to officials. IBM’s plan for Crusoe was to showcase the Crusoe-powered ThinkPads to its corporate customers and make its decision based on customer response.

Hewlett-Packard Co., which has been considering the Crusoe processor for its portable computers, has also been less than satisfied with the performance and battery-saving potential of Crusoe, according to sources close to Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP.

HP’s corporate customers are more comfortable with processors manufactured by Santa Clara-based Intel than with chips from competing companies such as Transmeta, a source said.