Building processors is thankless, behind-the-scenes sort of work, but on June
27, when IBM unveiled its new line of super-efficient ThinkPads at New York's
PC Expo, the processor-designers at Transmeta finally stepped into the
mobile computing limelight.
Formed in 1995, Transmeta has spent the last five years developing an
ultra-light, ultra-long-lasting processor called the Crusoe, which is currently
giving Intel and AMD a reason to sweat over portable computing.
This year, the Crusoe's energy-conserving properties attracted the attention
of both IBM and Gateway. IBM will be manufacturing Crusoe microprocessors in its
Microelectronics Division and using the chips in its upcoming line of ThinkPads.
These ThinkPads are expected to retail for prices comparable to current lines of
laptops that feature Intel and AMD chips.
Gateway, meanwhile, has orchestrated a deal between Transmeta and America
Online. Gateway and AOL will be launching a new line of hard drive-less Internet
Appliances (IAs) featuring the Crusoe processor, and running the Mobile Linux
operating system. IBM's upcoming laptops, by contrast, will be using the Crusoe
processor running a Windows platform.
IBM's ThinkPad 240 line, based upon the revolutionary Transmeta chip, will be
manufactured this year by Quanta Computer, a Taiwan-based company that is
reported to have manufactured approximately 49% of the world's laptops in 1999.
The ThinkPad 240s will run Windows with the 5600 Crusoe chip, which scoots along
at 600 MHz.
Gateway's Internet Appliances allow users to access the internet via small,
lightweight devices that employ touch-screen and handwriting-recognition
technology. These IAs will take advantage of Transmeta's Mobile Linux operating
system, which can be stored in Flash ROM -- meaning that the devices won't need
to rely on pricey hard-disk drives. The IAs' browser technology will be supplied
by the Netscape Gecko, another innovation in the world of small-size, high-power
About the Chip
So why all this fuss about the Crusoe? Put simply, it represents a
dream-come-true to owners of laptops everywhere. Batteries that once died after
two or three hours will now last up to eight or ten, thanks to the Crusoe's low
power demands and ability to slow down and speed up its power consumption
depending on what the computer's being asked to do. Transmeta's proprietary
power-management tool, LongRunT, can adjust the processor's speed hundreds of
times per second to reflect whether you're playing a video game, or whether
you're typing a document, or whether you're typing a document and pausing for
two seconds between words.
Besides such innovations in power management, Transmeta's chip is much
lighter than conventional processors. It employs embedded software, which cuts
down on both energy-consumption and weight. It generates much less heat than
conventional processors, which means no large fans are needed to keep the
computer cool. This keeps weight, power requirements and noise-levels down.
Plus, the chip requires 75% fewer transistors than comparable devices (such as
Pentium processors). All this translates into laptops that weigh less than 3
pounds and will certainly make a dent in the market. Start looking for them to
pop up in the coming months.