World traveler Robinson Crusoe spent many years hidden away on a desert island. You could say something similar for Crusoe, the mobile Internet processor family that star-studded Transmeta brought out from under wraps today in San Francisco.
Specifically designed for mobile computers and Internet appliances, Crusoe saves on power and size by executing most of its operations in software, according to Transmeta. It can run applications written for any Pentium-class X86 computer, its inventors said, but is smaller, uses less power and costs less to manufacture than comparable mobile Pentium processors.
"If it does what they're saying, it would definitely be useful in the portables market, and probably better than its competition," said Tom Halfhill, microprocessor analyst and senior editor of "The Microprocessor Report."
Transmeta's first two processors, the 400-MHz TM3120 and the 700-MHz TM5400, consume about one watt of power in full operation, said company President David Ditzel. An Intel mobile processor, in contrast, needs 10 to 15 watts to operate.
Prototypes of the first products using Crusoe could appear as early as next fall, but officials said it's unlikely that any Crusoe product would ship in quantity for at least a year.
Transmeta designers, who include chip architects from AT&T Bell Laboratories, Sun Microsystems, LSI Logic and MIPS Technologies, join a management team that includes Ditzel, a key designer of Sun's UltraSPARC processor; Linux developer Linus Torvalds; Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen; and financier George Soros.
Microprocessors such as the Pentium and Compaq Computer's Alpha chip have historically improved performance by "hard-wiring" software functions into the chip hardware, noted Halfhill. Over time, however, microprocessors have grown into massive collections of transistors and have had trouble with performance and power-consumption requirements.
In contrast, said Ditzel, Crusoe chips have moved the bulk of their operations out of chip hardware and into software that accompanies the chip. What remains is a much smaller chip that executes simple instructions very quickly. Its limited footprint and low power requirements, he added, may make it possible to add full Windows applications capabilities to very small, lightweight handheld devices.
The first chips will be tuned for the Linux operating system, Ditzel said. "The general PC market has shown that if you can build a faster, cheaper mousetrap, the world won't care if it's Windows or not," said Michael Tiemann, chief technical officer for Linux developer Red Hat Inc. "Linux is a smaller package to run [than Microsoft Windows] and there's definitely no question that it's easier for a first effort."
Crusoe's very large instruction word (VLIW) technology uses a technique known as code-morphing to translate X86 instructions into much simpler commands that the chip can execute quickly.
But there are still questions about Crusoe's viability that won't be answered until the chip gets into the hands of independent testers, Microprocessor Report's Halfhill warned. "Clock speed doesn't determine a processor's performance all by itself. If the software has to do that much up front, a lot of that 400 MHz is going into the overhead of just running the software."
Intel spokesmen refused to comment on the Crusoe chips or their power and performance characteristics.
Mobile has definitely stolen the spotlight from its staid desktop and server counterparts. Intel yesterday announced SpeedStep, its new notebook Pentium III chips.
SpeedStep processors alter their operating speed depending on the source of power, an Intel spokesman said. Plugged into an AC power source, the SpeedStep processor runs at either 600 or 650 MHz. On battery power, the chip slows down to 500 MHz.