NEW YORK If the traffic at the Transmeta Corp. booth at PC Expo this past week was any indication, Transmeta's Crusoe microprocessor could give Intel Corp. some competition in the notebook PC market. The company showed four demonstration systems from mainstream notebook makers built around the Crusoe processor.
IBM Corp., NEC Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Fujitsu Ltd. showed ultralight, 3- to 8-pound notebook systems that were based on Transmeta's TM5400 and TM-5600 series of Crusoe processors. A Transmeta spokeswoman said the four systems are expected to hit the market in the September to October time frame. But only Hitachi confirmed that it plans to turn its prototype into a product this year.
Separately, a spokesman in Japan for Sony Corp., which makes the popular Vaio line of notebooks, confirmed that Sony has taken an equity stake in Transmeta (Santa Clara, Calif.). Sony has no plans at this time to incorporate Crusoe into its Vaio notebooks, he said. However, the company is keeping its options open, just as it has in the past. "Sony once used AMD for its Vaio, so its position on CPUs is quite flexible," the spokesman said.
Designers and product managers from Hitachi, NEC and IBM who were asked to comment said they chose the Crusoe processor for its low power consumption, long running time and compatibility with the X86 architecture.
Transmeta claims its Crusoe microprocessors cut power consumption 60 percent to 70 percent compared with X86 devices. The power savings is due to Crusoe's software, according to the company, which decomposes complex instructions into atoms and executes the atoms in parallel, saving millions of logic transistors on the CPU.
The chips are expected to garner considerable attention in the mobile market, where low power and long run times are considered essential.
Masatsugu Shinozaki, general manager of the Hitachi Personal Computer Development Operation's PC Division (Ebina-shi, Japan), said Hitachi chose to use the Crusoe processor last fall because of the processor's very low power consumption and full compatibility with the Intel Pentium. At Transmeta's booth at PC Expo, Hitachi displayed the largest of the four ultralight notebooks. Hitachi's version contains a DVD-ROM drive.
"We wanted to make a full notebook" to demonstrate the concept, Shinozaki said.
Shinozaki said changing the notebook's processor was not difficult for the three-man engineering team that built the prototype: They simply swapped out the Intel Pentium chip for the Crusoe CPU and a north bridge chip set. The team also removed the fan used to cool the Intel-based processors, which dissipate a lot of heat. The Crusoe processor requires no active cooling, because of its lower power consumption.
While the memory architecture of the Crusoe-based notebook differs from that used in Hitachi's current, Intel-based notebooks, the rest of the design is the same.
Hitachi plans to sell the Crusoe-based notebook in Japan beginning in the fourth quarter. There are no firm plans for making it available in the United States, but Shinozaki said Hitachi is discussing possible strategies for sales in the U.S. market via its U.S. subsidiary.
He said the company is also developing a Web pad device based on Transmeta's TM-3200 series, but he declined to detail that effort.
IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) showed a ThinkPad 240 with a TM5600 series Crusoe, which provides twice as much Level 2 cache as the TM5400 series. But a company spokesman at the show stopped short of calling the notebook a product prototype.
David A. Nichols, worldwide segment marketing manager for IBM's Mobil Computing Division (Research Triangle Park, N.C.), said the company has not finalized product plans for the system. He said IBM decided to experiment with the Crusoe chip in response to customer demand for a system that can run all day.
"Transmeta had a compelling story," said Nichols, who added that he understood the move from the Intel Pentium to the Transmeta Crusoe was a very easy transition.
If IBM were to use the Transmeta chip in an actual product, Nichols said, that product would be introduced in late 2000 and would target the business and education markets.
IBM's demonstration of a notebook that uses a Crusoe processor doesn't mean it is abandoning Intel. On the contrary, Nichols said, Intel-based platforms will always be viewed as powerful systems for corporate power users.
Meanwhile, NEC demonstrated a very small, thin Crusoe-based notebook, similar to the NEC Versa FX ultralight notebook, which is based on the Intel Pentium III processor.
John Grodem, NEC's senior product manager for notebooks in North America, said the company is exploring the potential of bringing the Crusoe-based notebook to market in the United States. "We're looking at whether we'll introduce a second ultralight notebook," Grodem said.
NEC wants to see whether its corporate customer base will adopt the Transmeta technology, Grodem said. "We understand the [Crusoe processor] technology, and we like it for its potential battery savings and power use," he said.
Fujitsu, for its part, showed a 5 x 7-inch motherboard based on the Crusoe TM5400, leaving a lot to the imagination. No Fujitsu contacts could be reached by press time to comment on the company's plans for a Crusoe-based system.