Transmeta pushes on, plans Astro launch

Transmeta pushes on, plans Astro launch

Manufacturing miscues, management shake-ups, and a flagging technology industry have made for several tough years at Transmeta. Undaunted, the upstart chip maker is set to again challenge giant Intel, boasting a handful of new design wins and a brand new mobile processor.

The company recently demonstrated an early version of its upcoming processor - code-named Astro - at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Transmeta plans to ship its first Astro TM8000 processor in the third quarter of the year. The all-new chip represents the company's future and executives are confident it will bring success.

"This will drive us into mainstream notebook," said Michael DeNeffe, director of marketing. "And it is going to be very competitive with Banias."

Banias is the upcoming mobile-only chip from Intel, which recently officially branded the processor and its surrounding technologies Centrino. Intel plans to ship it in the first half of this year.

De Neffe said that Astro represented a significant leap forward in technology for Transmeta. The current Crusoe 5800 is a four-issue processor; Astro doubles that with eight 32-bit instructions per clock, making it a 256-bit chip. The end result: a processor that completes more work per clock cycle while continuing to run at low power.

"It's a dramatic improvement over the 5800," he said. The chip provides better overall performance and can launch applications up to 40 per cent faster than the 5800.

These traits should appeal to vendors making 12- to 14-inch notebooks, a market in which Transmeta would like to compete with Intel.

The company hasn't announced clock speeds for the Astro chip yet, but its focus on better performance per clock tick suggests that megahertz won't be top priority. In a market bred to love speed, that can be tough, but Intel will likely face the same situation with Centrino.

DeNeffe said Transmeta was counting on Intel's larger marketing budget to lead the way in continuing to educate buyers that GHz isn't everything. The company was confident its new chip would give Intel's a run for its money, and at a significantly lower price.

Transmeta could worry about winning over domestic vendors later; what was important now was finishing Astro and shipping it on time, he said. Manufacturing problems in 2001 had led to long delays on the 5800.

"We had a stutter step in 2001 going to the new process," he said. The company transitioned its chips from .18 micron to the more efficient .13 micron at that time. Simultaneously, it was transferring its manufacturing from IBM to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. The combined problems led to delays of about six months.

In the meantime, management shake-ups saw Chief Executive Officer Mark Allen forced out and eventually replaced by current CEO Matthew Perry. The company was also forced to downsize, cutting its staff from a high of 450 to 290 now.

Now, the once showy company - which made enough noise before its initial launch to get Intel's attention - was ready to move forward, quietly creating new and better processors and delivering them on time, DeNeffe said.

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