March 9, 2003 9:00 PM PST

New Transmeta chip shows Athlon64 flair

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Transmeta's TM8000 chip will feature an entirely new architecture, executives say, but it will also share some design ideas with the upcoming Athlon64 from Advanced Micro Devices.

The TM8000, formerly known as the Astro, will feature an integrated Northbridge, a typically separate chip that connects the processor to memory, and it will connect to other components through HyperTransport, a high-speed chip-to-chip link, according to John Heinlein, director of system marketing at Transmeta.

The Athlon64 will similarly come with an integrated memory controller and HyperTransport links.

Additionally, the TM8000 will sport an entirely new processing core, the cerebrum of a computer's processor, Heinlein added.

"The TM8000 is going to deliver very, very competitive performance," Heinlein said.

Integrating the Northbridge and adopting HyperTransport essentially cuts out the bottlenecks inside today's PCs. In current computers, the processor sends signals across a relatively slow bus, or data path, to the Northbridge, which in turn traverses another slow bus to retrieve data from memory before returning again. Integrating the memory controller gets rid of the first buses.

And HyperTransport runs at 400MHz, faster than similar commuter lanes used inside computers today.

How important are these factors? Although AMD's Athlon64 chip primarily gets attention because it can run two different types of software (32-bit and 64-bit code), AMD execs assert that many of the chip's benefits come from integrating the memory controller and HyperTransport.

Along with the new connections, the TM8000 will feature an entirely new architecture that can process a maximum of eight instructions per clock cycle. Current Transmeta chips process a maximum of four instructions per cycle. By doubling the amount of work that can occur simultaneously, performance goes up while power consumption goes down, said Heinlein.

The chip, initially shown off last November at Comdex, will come out in the third quarter. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. will make the chip on its 130-nanometer production lines.

The TM8000 will likely compete against the Pentium-M, a new notebook chip from Intel coming this Wednesday, in what will likely be a strenuous environment for Transmeta.

Although Intel chips historically have taxed notebook batteries, the Pentium-M has throttled many of these problems. Some notebooks coming this week based on Pentium-M and Centrino (a type of Pentium-M notebook chip) will run up to five or more hours on a single battery charge, and eight hours with an auxiliary battery slice, enough for "all-day" computing.

Intel is also promoting its chip with a $300 million marketing plan and testing it extensively for compatibility with wireless hot spots and third-party software, a process that can save PC makers extensive amounts of time and energy.

Transmeta has landed its chip in machines sold by Sony, Sharp and Hewlett-Packard, among other manufacturers.

Despite the competitive challenges, the TM8000 comes at a time when reducing power consumption, Transmeta's strong suit, is becoming more interesting to consumers.

The company began to attract deals with PC manufacturers in 2000 because its Crusoe processor promised to consume less power, and hence let notebook batteries run longer than did chips from Intel or AMD. In response, Intel came out with a line of energy-efficient Pentium III chips.

Customers didn't bite. Energy-efficient chips primarily wound up getting used inside mini-notebooks, a fairly small market. Transmeta also endured customer defections and financial problems in 2001 because of repeated delays in getting its Crusoe 5800 processor to market.

Wi-Fi, though, changes the picture, PC executives and analysts believe. Consumers will start to use notebooks and tablet PCs more often while away from the office, which will put a premium on battery life. Wi-Fi itself also gobbles up a good portion of energy.

 

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