Wolves in CISC Clothing

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Neat Trick but Uncertain Business

The performance achieved by Transmeta processors running x86 applications has been an area of controversy since the very start. The company avoids mainstream and industry standard benchmarks preferring its own convoluted and somewhat contrived comparisons with competing native x86 processors that combine performance and power consumption into arbitrary metrics or only state relative performances scaled with clock frequency in an unclear manner [13]. Transmeta has also reportedly been unusually shy about providing systems to technically sophisticated third parties for evaluation. However, third party product reviews of various mobile and laptop computers suggest that Crusoe family processors provide between 50 and 75% of the performance of a mobile Pentium III clocked at the same frequency.

Transmeta claims its new 130nm Efficeon processor performs up to 50% faster clock for clock than Crusoe on integer x86 programs and up to 80% faster on x86 applications using the SSE or SSE2 instruction set extensions. These improvements, combined with the ability to clock faster, gives the Efficeon a major performance step up on Crusoe. Unfortunately for Transmeta, its main competitor, Intel, has also taken a major step forward with its 130nm Pentium-M (Banias), the first “hard-wired” x86 processor designed from the ground up for high performance hand in hand with low power consumption. A step ironically inspired by the industry attention Transmeta itself brought to mobile x86 applications. The Pentium-M achieves over 50% higher performance per clock than a PIII yet consumes less power. Transmeta likes to claim it shifts complexity from processor to software, but the Efficeon is actually 22% larger than the Pentium-M even excluding die area occupied by chipset functionality not integrated in Pentium-M [14]. With the Efficeon forced into catch-up mode to the highly successful launch of the Pentium-M and its Centrino brand name chipset 9 months ago, and with Intel’s 90nm follow-on processor due early next year, the future of Transmeta and its unique software-based approach to x86 compatible processor design is uncertain to say the least.

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