Transmetas Efficeon: Good Technology, Too Late?

The new chip offers plenty of innovation, but Intel may have a lock on the market. Are there still openings for something different?

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?