Transmeta Goes Inside

Chip maker offers low-power processors for x86 embedded systems.

Semiconductor upstart Transmeta Corp., known for its Crusoe line of low-power, low-heat processors, is expanding its product stable with a suite of chips for x86-compatible embedded applications. To help the move, the company is lining up an impressive list of big-name software developers to support the technology.

The Crusoe SE (Special Embedded) processor line, which will be unveiled this week, is the latest effort by Transmeta to try to chip away at the dominance of Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

"We believe we do a better job [than Intel] of offering the right balance of price, performance, battery life and energy dissipation," said Transmeta President and CEO Matthew Perry.

The Santa Clara, Calif., company will release the first three Crusoe SE chips at 667MHz, 800MHz and 933MHz and target them for use in medical and scientific devices, retail kiosks, and point-of-sale terminals.

The embedded chips boast attributes similar to those in other Crusoe processors—energy efficiency, optimization for x86 applications and integrated Northbridge technology for compact board design. But some of the code-morphing software in the embedded products was changed and the testing increased to address the demand for long-term reliability in embedded systems, Transmeta officials said.

To emphasize the Crusoe SE chips compatibility with x86 architecture, since many embedded systems use x86-optimized software, Transmeta will be joined in its Crusoe SE announcement by almost a dozen other companies, including Microsoft Corp., Red Hat Inc. and x86 BIOS software maker Insyde Software Inc.

The chips build on Transmetas introduction in November of its 1GHz Crusoe TM5800 chip, which is being featured in Hewlett-Packard Co.s Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 and in RLX Technologies Inc.s ultradense server, the ServerBlade 1000t.

Officials are also talking up the next version of Crusoe, dubbed the TM8000 Astro, which will go into production in the third quarter. Astro will enable Transmeta to move up the notebook chain into products with 12- to 14-inch screens and compete with Intels highly touted and forthcoming Banias chip, Perry said.

Despite the road map, analysts said Transmeta may have difficulty becoming more than a niche player in embedded systems for the same reasons it has struggled elsewhere—Intel and AMD already dominate these markets.

And while users of Crusoe-powered devices are content with what the technology gives them, some also say they use Intel processors when possible.

Wuchun Feng, team leader of the Research and Development in Advanced Network Technology unit at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico, is building a 480-processor cluster dubbed The Green Machine, using RLXs Crusoe-powered 1000t blade servers.

"Our environment is a very hot, dusty, confined space," Feng said. "What Id like to do is use a lot of Intel [processors], but I cant. [The Transmeta technology] allows us to put in a much larger cluster and to run it reliably. Now, theyre maybe going to run half as fast [as more powerful Intel-based systems], but theyre going to run."

Transmeta has won some OEM converts as well. Tri-M Systems and Engineering Inc., which makes hardware for embedded systems, this quarter will ship its TMZ 104 module that uses a Crusoe SE chip. President and CEO Doug Stead said the Transmeta chip enables Tri-M to create boards that can dynamically adjust power usage.

"Transmeta allows us to [use a lot of power] when we need to and draw down to microamps when we dont need it," said Stead, in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia.