3 min read

Powerful Chip Is No Energy Hog

Transmeta challenges Intel with a processor that promises high performance and uses little power
Transmeta Corp. last week debuted the most important product in the company's brief history: a powerful yet energy-efficient processor the company hopes will take root in the markets for blade servers, PCs, notebooks, and handheld devices.

Transmeta's Efficeon can run RISC-based apps or translate x86 code. Built using 130-nanometer technology, Efficeon can process eight instructions per clock tick--twice that of its Crusoe TM5800 predecessor--and features a 1-Mbyte cache size, an increase over Crusoe's 512-Kbyte cache. Efficeon can also run at a speed of 1.1 GHz while drawing 7 watts of electricity.

Transmeta's challenge hasn't been so much the quality of its technology or its message of high performance and low power. Rather, it's been keeping the competition at bay. "Each time Transmeta finds a niche, Intel chases them out," says Martin Reynolds, a fellow at research firm Gartner. With Efficeon, Transmeta must demonstrate performance improvements, power efficiency, and competitive pricing, as well as a product road map that will keep it ahead of Intel, the analyst says.

Transmeta launched its Crusoe processor in 2000 to be an energy-efficient chip for the mobile-computing market. To that end, Transmeta has been successful selling its chips to notebook computer makers such as Fujitsu, Sony, and Toshiba, as well as RLX Technologies, a maker of server blades. Transmeta's Efficeon takes energy efficiency and processing power "to a whole new level," says John Heinlein, director of systems marketing. Efficeon's performance and energy-conservation attributes make it a candidate to be used in notebook PCs with screens as large as 14 inches, says Art Swift, Transmeta's senior VP of marketing. The Crusoe is effective for use in notebooks with up to 10-inch displays.

Even though Transmeta commands less than 1% of the processor market, it has an advantage over its competitors, Gartner's Reynolds says. Transmeta processors don't directly run x86 processor code, which means they can also be used in RISC-based servers.

This versatility might not be enough for Transmeta to keep Intel and other chipmakers off its turf. The most illustrative example of the company's difficulty in emerging markets came a couple of years ago when RLX decided to expand its lineup of blade servers to include both Transmeta and Intel versions. Previously, RLX had been committed to building Transmeta-only products, Reynolds says.

RLX has since May 2001 been using Transmeta Crusoe processors in its entry-level line of blade servers, which are designed for low power consumption. At the time, Intel didn't have a 5-watt chip in that form, says Bob Van Steenberg, RLX's chief technology officer and VP of development. Still, less than a year later, RLX introduced an Intel-based blade server.

RLX's newest Transmeta-based blade, the ServerBlade 1000t, runs a 1-GHz Crusoe TM5800 processor with integrated 512-Kbyte Level 2 cache. Its ServerBlade 800i and 1200i run 800-MHz Pentium III and 1.2-GHz Pentium III Processor-M chips, respectively.

Van Steenberg says Transmeta will continue to play a role in RLX's ServerBlade lineup for the immediate future. The 1000t lets users put 336 blades in a single rack that remains cool to the touch, even at the top, where most heat collects, he says. But as RLX considers its development options for 2004, the company will weigh the Efficeon against Intel's Pentium-M. "The decision will depend on performance and price," Van Steenberg says.

Transmeta's road map for Efficeon includes a 90-nanometer version in 2004 that can run as fast as 2.0 GHz at 25 watts. The company will also introduce the next generation of its Long Run power-management technology next year. In 2005, Transmeta plans to release a 65-nanometer version of Efficeon.