If you haven't heard the term low power in reference to mobile processors lately, you've probably had your head buried in your laptop a little too long. But you've certainly heard the cries for longer battery life. Everyone wants longer battery life, and why not? It's every mobile worker's dream to have a CPU with great computing power that runs at a cool temperature, for an entire day, on one battery charge.
One reason for the low-power craze is Transmeta and its Crusoe processor that debuted this January. It has the industry buzzing and believing all-day-power dreams can come true. Transmeta itself has shrouded the development of Crusoe in mystery, creating huge industry interest long before anyone knew how the product would perform. The company claims that industry expectations are founded on its ability to offer something other manufacturers can't.
"The buzz around this company has to do with the architecture of the processor," says Mike Deneffe, director of notebook marketing for Transmeta. "It is a very simple processor, surrounded by code morphing software, which will translate X86 instructions for the hardware. What that allows us to do is run with a lot fewer transistors."
Transmeta says its code-morphing software learns as users do repetitive tasks, such as typing, and optimizes power settings accordingly. One result of code-morphing is it can produce misleading benchmark test results, the company says, because such tests don't mirror the real world where repetitive tasks are common. Benchmarks have been seized upon as a weakness by Transmeta's detractors.
But Transmeta asserts that its processor will run longer, cooler and allow for smaller designs than anything currently on the market. Part of the reason for this is its LongRun power management, which allows Crusoe to adjust its operating speed and voltage hundreds of times per second to match the needs of the application workload, thereby extending battery life. It's similar to Intel's Speedstep technology, although Transmeta says that LongRun is more advanced. "The difference is Intel's Speedstep is like having two gears in your car--first gear and fifth gear," explains Deneffe. "LongRun can ratchet down in increments of 100 or sometimes 50 MHz, so it'd be like having 10 gears in your car."
So far, Transmeta has lived up to expectations, at least on Wall street. An initial public offering of 13 million shares at $21 was trading at $43 the first week, up more than 100 percent. Also, the promise of low power has enabled Transmeta to round up some big-time support. The chipmaker counts America Online, Compaq, Sony, Hitachi and Fujitsu among its backers.
Transmeta processors are being used in several devices currently available in Japan, including the Fujitsu Biblo Loox ultra-portable, the Hitachi Flora 270TX notebook and the Acer WP300 Web slate. All boast eight to 11 hours of battery life. Also, Gateway will soon introduce the Connected Touch Pad, an Internet device running the Mobile Linux operating system, and ViA has announced that it will also be using the new Transmeta 700MHz processor in its new generation of wearable computers. So far, however, the Sony PictureBook PCG-C1VN, a 2.2-pound notebook with 5.5 hours of battery life, is the only one available in the United states.
While it sounds like Transmeta is safely on its way to making CPU dreams come true, all has not been rosy for the young company. Compaq, which had been working to design Crusoe into a model in its Armada line, may have passed on Crusoe in favor of a forthcoming Intel chip (although a source says that Compaq will debut a product in Japan soon). This came on the heels of IBM's announcement to cancel a project using Crusoe in a ThinkPad mini-notebook. IBM said Crusoe was unable to offer significant power savings compared to the upcoming Intel chip, as well as noting IBM's reluctance to adopt a new chip supplier.
Herein lies perhaps another cloud on the horizon for Transmeta: the sleeping giant that is Intel. Transmeta's seeming meteoric rise to prominence may have caught Intel napping, but not for long. Since the introduction of Transmeta's Crusoe, Intel has announced several new low-voltage mobile chips, in particular a soon-to-be-released 500MHz Pentium III processor that the company says will offer comparable power savings and better performance than a Crusoe 600MHz chip. The company maintains that it had begun work on low-power solutions long before Crusoe's launch.
Competition to supply longer battery life through lower-power processors continues to build, and the ultimate winners will be the end users. For the moment, a war of words clouds the issue. But soon, Transmeta and Intel will have to put up or shut up as products make their way to market, and then customers will decide who's winning the low-power struggle.