October 6, 2000 2:50 PM PDT

Transmeta debuts in Japan; U.S. release in three weeks

The long wait for notebooks based on Transmeta's Crusoe chip has ended, as Sony has released in Japan its first Vaio laptops containing the chip.

Vaio PictureBook laptops containing Crusoe processors were released in Tokyo on Saturday (Japan time), Sony executives confirmed. For consumers, the most likely place to find the new notebooks will be the Akihabara, Tokyo's sprawling, modern electronics shopping area, said sources in Japan.

Sony will follow up with Crusoe-based Vaios for the U.S. market Oct. 25, according to Mark Hanson, vice president and general manager of Vaio PC for Sony America.

The appearance of the notebooks will mark a watershed moment in Transmeta's history. The company has developed a family of Intel-compatible processors that purportedly consume less power than competing chips from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).

As a result, Transmeta notebooks promise to be thin and light (because they need less insulation and no fans) and capable of running longer than other notebooks on a battery charge.

To get the same performance from a standard processor "I would have to lose some mobility by adding fans" or batteries, Hanson said. Sony's Crusoe notebook, for instance, can run 2.5 hours to 5 hours on a single capacity battery, he said. The same notebooks run on Intel chips would last 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours with the same battery.

What's the catch? Transmeta's claims haven't been tested by third parties. Although the Crusoe family debuted in January, neither the chips nor products containing the chips have been released on the open market. Analysts and independent benchmark testers have also complained about a lack of access to demonstration models.

"I don't know if any third parties have been able to get one. I know I haven't," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64, who added, "The claims that are being made about battery life are a bit hard to swallow. The battery life should only improve by 10 to 20 percent."

Besides power consumption, analysts will be curious to see how well Crusoe notebooks stack up against laptops containing Pentium IIIs or other chips. Crusoe chips perform many functions in software that other chips perform in hardware.

David Ditzel Invariably, this will cause a performance hit, Brookwood and other chip experts have said. The question now is whether the dent in performance is substantial or irrelevant.

Dave Ditzel, Transmeta's CEO, said in September that Crusoe-based notebooks will perform just as well as competing chips in real-world circumstances.

"We designed Crusoe to deliver good performance with maximum battery life," he said.

Hanson also pointed out that the new chips will be going into notebooks that haven't been able to take advantage of the latest technologies from Intel or AMD. The Vaio line the Crusoe chip will be featured in has, to date, depended on Pentium MMX or Pentium II processors, not Pentium IIIs.

"We're getting a performance boost from where we were before," he said.

Recently, Transmeta filed documents to raise $140 million in an initial public offering.

The Vaio PictureBook CIVN to be released in the United States will weigh 2.2 pounds, contain a 600-MHz Crusoe processor, and measure less than an inch thick. It will sell for an estimated retail price of $2,299.99, according to Sony

Both the Japanese and U.S. versions of the notebook will contain a built-in camera that effectively allows consumers "to carry a video camera with them," Hanson said.

 

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