Transmetas Efficeon: Good Technology, Too Late?

By Rob Enderle  |  Posted 2003-10-18

Transmetas Efficeon: Good Technology, Too Late?

Editors note: The Enderle Group, of which Rob Enderle is principal analyst, has a business relationship with the companies mentioned in this article.

Transmetas Efficeon represents a make-or-break proposition for the company. Unveiled at last weeks Microprocessor Forum, the processor is small and light. And Transmeta portrays it as being more than competitive with the Pentium M, which forms the core of Intels Centrino platform).

Unlike the Centrino Bundle, Transmetas new part is optimized for third-party support from companies such as Nvidia, Atheros and Broadcom. Transmeta claims that Efficeon can achieve between 1.3 and two times better performance with its approach (largely thanks to Nvidias graphics component). This improvement will help differentiate it from the Intel systems. And the chip is aimed at all notebooks but the performance-level models; blades (for both PCs and servers because of its lower thermal output); and some of the larger embedded devices running Windows XP or Linux.

Third-party tests are not yet available; we dont know how it will perform in actual use. At face value, however, Efficeon can be a best-of-class solution that trades off battery life for impressive performance—or more precisely, it can trade performance for better battery life than the Centrino.

One of the interesting technologies Transmeta showcased is better management of leakage power. Whats that? The denser a microprocessor is packed, the more susceptible it is to power leakage. If not adequately controlled, this power drain can destroy the efficiency of the increasingly small microprocessors coming onto the market.

Transmeta has updated its power-management product (now called LongRun2) to address this power-leakage issue. The results can be seen in low-power modes and particularly with standby, where the power draw from the Efficeon with LongRun2 will only be 1.5 percent of what it would be otherwise.

Unfortunately, while this technology was announced, it was not launched with Transmetas new chip. (The company said it will be available as a flash upgrade at some future point.)

If power technology were king, then Transmeta would be all set. While Efficeon may provide a better solution in terms of flexibility, price and performance, Intel remains predominant as a trusted brand in the key areas where Transmeta wants to play.

In addition, Intel is entrenched in a number of Efficeons target markets, which will make it very hard to wring design wins from vendors.

Key to Transmetas success will be the willingness of branded vendors to accept risk in exchange for a differentiated product. Historically, the greatest difficulty has been to separate vendors from reliance on Intels co-op marketing dollars, which have become a critical part of their budget.

Next page: Where might Transmeta stand a chance?

Openings for Transmeta


Still, there could be several openings for Transmeta.

For the most part, vendors have been relatively happy with the Pentium M. However, the radio implementation in the Centrino bundle has been a problem both in terms of performance and support. Intel said it will address this problem by replacing the Philips-engineered radio component with its own design. But for now, this missing link does provide an opening, albeit a narrow one.

In addition, the strongest potential for the Efficeon may be the emerging class of modular computers. This category is being led to market by Antelope Technologies, which has its device currently in manufacturing.

These modular computers have surveyed as the most desired form factor for mobile computing. However, the devices are having pronounced birthing problems in a market where investment dollars for hardware are incredibly scarce. Eyes remain on Paul Allens Vulcan Ventures and Samsung, both of which have the funding and resources for a broad market offering.

However, the LCD displays for this class of computer have now become a problem because the leading manufacturer, Toshiba, has decided to discontinue the small form factor, high-resolution flat panel required by the class.

On an interesting side note, Via Technologies, last week also launched a low-power, low-cost processor aimed at the mobile market. Via has been taking the third-world Linux market by storm and is beginning to scare AMD and Intel.

Of course, that "scare" might mean more to AMD than Intel. The latter companys financial results indicate that it is far from hurting, and its focus has recently been much better than previous years.

Transmetas challenge, like that of the other chip vendors, is to make the Intel technology appear inadequate for the needs of some system vendors. If the Intel technology is seen as "good enough," a vendor will not take the financial and technical risks associated with a non-Intel solution.

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.

Rocket Fuel