Originally Published: Tuesday, 25 January 2000 Author: Jessica Sheffield
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Transmeta Revealed

Many of us were glued to our monitors last Wednesday watching Transmeta at last reveal what it's been so darned secretive about. So many of us tried to view or mirror their site, http://www.transmeta.com, that the site was inaccessible to most of us for nearly an hour. While speculations had run wild as to specifics, most everyone agreed that "The Announcement" was going to concern a new, software-driven processor. But Transmeta had other surprises up its sleeve....

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Many of us were glued to our monitors last Wednesday watching Transmeta at last reveal what it's been so darned secretive about. So many of us tried to view or mirror their site, http://www.transmeta.com, that the site was inaccessible to most of us for nearly an hour. While speculations had run wild as to specifics, most everyone agreed that "The Announcement" was going to concern a new, software-driven processor. But Transmeta had other surprises up its sleeve.

Curtain Number One: Crusoe

Of course, Transmeta's biggest announcement was the one we all knew was coming - their Crusoe processor. Detailed specs are available at Transmeta's site. Crusoe is designed specifically for mobile applications, which means we won't be seeing it in desktops any time soon (until someone hacks one together). Presently, the Crusoe TM3120 (333-400 MHz) is in production, and the TM5400 (500-700 MHz) is only available in samples. In designing the chips, Transmeta addressed three important concerns in mobile computing: power consumption, temperature, and size. They also made extensive use of their Code Morphing software, which translates blocks of x86 commands into Crusoe-speak.

Concerned about the battery life in your laptop? Transmeta says such worries will be a thing of the past in Crusoe-powered laptops. The Crusoe TM5400 (the 700MHz processor, due out later this year) boasts less than one watt power consumption in average use (such as office suite applications), one to two watts in high-power applications (i.e., DVD playback), and as low as .008 watts (yes, that's eight milliwatts) in deep-sleep mode. Crusoe also manages power on the fly, dropping the power consumption between keystrokes and other times the machine idles, and assigning only as much processing power to applications as they require. This, says Transmeta, leads to a thirty percent reduction in power usage and can extend typical battery life up to eight hours.

The reduction in power consumption means a corresponding reduction in operating temperature, a nice break for laptop users. Crusoe runs at over 100 degrees F (55 degrees C) cooler than conventional processors (nifty infrared pictures available at http://www.transmeta.com/crusoe/lowpower/). The low temperature of the chip, combined with Code Morphing technology which replaces much of the hardware, will also lead to smaller sized laptops, as the processor does not have the cooling requirements of conventional chips.

Code Morphing is software that 'surrounds' the Crusoe processor, giving it the ability to read instructions from the x86 instruction set. It's a Universal Translator for Crusoe; anything written to run on an x86 platform can run on the Crusoe by passing through this layer. After decoding the instructions once, Crusoe stores the translation, so the next time the operation runs even faster. The advantage to Code Morphing, says Transmeta, is that the hardware and software can be upgraded independently of one another, erasing lag in design.

How much can you expect to pay for one of these beauties? Well, they aren't available over the counter. Diamond has plans for a Web pad using the chip, and NEC is said to be 'evaluating the chip'. The TM3120 chips will cost manufacturers $65-$89 USD, considerably less than comparable traditional x86 chips. If the savings carry over to the finished product, we should see a drop in laptop prices soon, as Intel and AMD lower their prices to compete.

Curtain Number Two: Transmeta

A hot topic of discussion in the #transmeta channel on openprojects came about when Transmeta announced that they currently employ 200 people among their offices in California, Japan, and Taiwan. The feeling was one of disbelief that a company so large could keep such a big secret for so long. Another interesting tidbit was the announcement of Mobile Linux, a Linux distribution specifically designed to run devices with no hard drives, such as PDAs or webpads. Mobile Linux, not surprisingly, will be released as open source... but the Code Morphing software will not. Since this is as good an example of a Trade Secret as any, it's not surprising that Transmeta wants to keep their source of revenue a secret.

One thing that really wowed us in #transmeta was the impressive employee roster. With names like Mark Allen from NVidia, Douglas Laird from Sun, and Murray Goldman from Motorola, it's easy to see how venture capitalists were drawn to Transmeta. In fact, one item that made me smile was the note that Paul Allen(of Microsoft fame)'s VC firm was an investor in Transmeta. Along with Linus Torvalds, Transmeta seems to have the best of both worlds.

And just what is Linus' role in all this? According to Transmeta's web site, Linus is part of the 'very talented' software development team that developed Code Morphing. As we know from watching the webcast, he's also good at helping demonstrate products... by dying in Quake. Quickly. Repeatedly.

Curtain Number Three: The Future

What's next for Transmeta? Once laptops with Crusoe processors start appearing on shelves, the world will have a chance to see what the hype was all about, and we'll have a whole new set of articles to write detailing their performance. The rollout of the higher-end Crusoe chip later this year should also cause some ripples.

But don't rule out the competition just yet. There will always be the desktop market, and I rather expect that we'll see some innovations from Intel and AMD in the mobile computing arena in response to Transmeta. However, Transmeta has the money, the talent, and the attention to make some waves in the mobile computing world. In the end, it's the consumers who'll benefit from the lower prices and better hardware Transmeta and its competition will produce.

Jessica Lee Sheffield, starlady@linux.com





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