Transmeta releases new Astro details

Transmeta Corp. released more details on Monday about its next-generation Crusoe processor, which will have a completely redesigned architecture and new bus technology when it is introduced later this year.

The Crusoe processor has been on the market since January 2000, and is a low-power processor designed for ultraportable notebooks and Tablet PCs. It uses code-morphing software that both interprets x86 instructions from applications, and also translates frequently-used x86 instructions into the Crusoe’s VLIW (very long instruction word) instructions. This reduces the number of transistors that are needed on the chip by moving the complexity of the processor into software, which saves power, said John Heinlein, director of system marketing for Transmeta.

The TM8000, codenamed Astro, features a higher-performance version of the code-morphing software, Heinlein said. It also increases the 128-bit VLIW engine to a 256-bit design that will allow Astro to execute 8 separate 32-bit x86 instructions per clock cycle, he said.

This allows Astro to deliver more performance per clock cycle at lower voltages than other mobile processors, Heinlein said.

Performance per clock cycle is a contentious issue between the other major PC chip vendors, Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD). AMD has long contended that its Athlon XP processors do more work per clock cycle than Intel’s Pentium 4 processors, implementing a model number rating system to underscore the argument that its chips perform as well as Intel’s despite their slower clock speeds.

Vendors generally refer to peak performance per clock cycle when citing these figures, which doesn’t always reflect real-world performance, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research Inc. in Cave Creek, Ariz. “The more execution units you have, the less likely they are to be full,” he said.

Transmeta also included three new bus technologies in the forthcoming Astro processor. The company will use Hypertransport, a point-to-point interconnect technology, for the processor’s front-side bus. AMD, among others, has been a big proponent of Hypertransport, which will be used in AMD’s Athlon64 processor.

Astro will support DDR400 (double data rate at 400MHz) memory, but maintain backward compatibility with the more widely used DDR266 and DDR333 memory standards. The chip’s graphics performance will also be increased with the use of an AGP (accelerated graphics port) 4x bus that allows for very high-speed graphics for Windows applications, Heinlein said.

The current TM5800 Crusoe processor runs at 1.0GHz, and Astro will make its debut at a higher clock speed, Heinlein said, declining to provide a specific number. Transmeta is scheduled to start mass production of the chip in the third quarter, and systems will be ready to ship around that time, he said.

Astro was created to compete against Intel’s Centrino technology with the Pentium-M processor, and Transmeta will likely price Astro below the cost of the Pentium-M, based on historical trends, said Tim Bajarin, president of market research firm Creative Strategies Inc. in Campbell, Calif.

For its part, Intel admitted at the recent Spring Intel Developer Forum that it decided to develop its Pentium-M processor, designed specifically for a mobile environment, as a response to Transmeta’s low-power approach to chip design with the original Crusoe processors. After more than two years of development, Intel will launch Centrino, a combination of the Pentium-M, a chipset, and a 802.11b wireless chip, on Wednesday.

Transmeta, based in Santa Clara, Calif., is still unprofitable, but is starting to regain some of the momentum it had when the Crusoe processor was first introduced. Hewlett-Packard Co. has been pleased with the sales of its Tablet PC with the TM5800, and several Japanese notebook vendors have chosen to release designs based on the chip. Transmeta is hoping that momentum continues with the release of the TM8000, which it will market to server and desktop vendors as well as its traditional notebook allies.

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