Secret Crusoe processor finally revealed

By : |January 23, 2000 0

A Silicon Valley start-up that has shrouded itself in secrecy for the past
five years finally revealed its Crusoe microprocessor, which the company
believes could set the microprocessor market on its ear. The chips not only
match up to some of the best CPUs made by Intel and AMD, they use a fraction of
the power, a key requirement in future wireless Internet appliances.

After five years of development and $100 million in venture capital support,
Transmeta said its new line of four Crusoe processors is the first
microprocessors to use software, instead of silicon transistors for many of the
functions performed by traditional microprocessors. Besides being able to
upgrade and add new feature to an existing microprocessor by way of software
upgrades, the Transmeta chips consume much less power as the software
continuously monitors the load on the CPU and adjusts power consumption
accordingly.

Another key advantage of the software approach is that software makes it
possible for the processor to "learn” about an application while it runs
and use that experience to extend battery life. The Crusoe chips will enable
manufacturers to design a new generation of mobile computer, communications, and
Internet appliances with two or more times longer battery life. Notebook and
other systems could be left on all day, instead of a few hours. The Crusoe
Line-up Transmeta said it would immediately ship the first two chips in the
Crusoe line. The first, the 333MHz TM3120, uses the Linux operating system and
sells for just $65. It will target Internet appliances and other hand-held
gadgets.

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A $400 MHz version costs $89. A second chip, the TM 5400, will be aimed at
ultralight notebook computers running Microsoft Windows and NT operating
systems. The TM 5400 chips come in 500 and 700 MHz varieties and cost $119 and
$329, respectively. Transmeta chips will be manufactured by IBM. "Computing
is going mobile, and microprocessors must too. Cellular phones became more
pervasive when they were made smaller and provided greater battery life. We
believe that Crusoe will bring about a change of similar magnitude in mobile
Internet computers,” said Transmeta CEO Dave Ditzel, a former microprocessor
designer for Sun Microsystems and AT&T’s Bell Laboratories.

Low power has long been regarded as the Holy Grail of mobile computing. But,
in the race to produce ever more powerful processors, companies like Intel and
AMD have focused mostly on raw silicon computing power, which usually means new
chips will be power-hungry. Ditzel explained that the cellular telephone market
didn’t take off until the phones started to offer longer battery life. His
company believes the same will be true for a new generation of Internet
appliances and other mobile computing devices. By doubling the battery life, the
Crusoe can become a major player quickly.

Some 200 people worked on the Transmeta project, including software gurus
like Linux OS creator Linus Torvalds. Investors include Microsoft co-founder
Paul Allen and billionaire financier George Soros. The Crusoe was named after
the literary Robinson Crusoe to connote images of travel and adventure. Ditzels
said a key aspect of the Crusoe design is its software-based power management
system that constantly adjusts the processor’s speed and voltage, depending on
the workload, thus squeezing more energy out of a battery, it said. "We
rethought the microprocessor from the ground up. Crusoe is the first processor
to deliver all three of the key requirements for mobile Internet computing: low
power, high performance and full PC compatibility."

Analysts said they were impressed by the new chips. "This attacks Intel
right at their highest margin and fastest growing product,” said Giga
Information analyst Rob Enderle. "Crusoe should be very scary for a big
system provider.” Dataquest analyst Joe Byrne said only time – and tests – will
prove the true strength of the Crusoe chips. "They look impressive, but
we’re going to need to see some objective tests and we need to see the systems
these will run on,” he said.

While many Crusoe-based devices are expected to enter the market this summer,
the first system is expected next week as S3 said it has developed a sub-$1,000
Web pad built around the Crusoe. The pad, about the size of a book, is a
Linux-based Internet appliance that users can carry with them to surf the Web,
download music or stream live video. There is a slot in the pad for a modem so
users don’t have to be plugged into a wall to use the system.

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