Transmeta takes on silicon giant as battery battles hot up

The battle to deliver more battery power to laptops and personal digital assistants has started in earnes

The battle to deliver more battery power to laptops and personal digital assistants has started in earnes

Antony Savvas

Global giant Intel is being challenged by small but well-backed Transmeta. Intel has launched a two-speed chip while Transmeta's Crusoe chip - still a year away - promises a more comprehensive low-power solution.

Both companies, who will undoubtedly be joined by other contenders, are aiming to address the eternal problem of how to give mobile users faster processing speeds while offering an adequate battery supply.

As the number of mobile applications increases, and take-up of entertainment applications such as games and DVD movies increases, battery life is key. After all, what's the point of watching The Matrix on DVD if the laptop conks out just 10 minutes before the end?

Intel has launched SpeedStep, a chip delivering 600-650MHz when plugged into the mains, but which automatically slows to 500MHz when it is run unplugged to save on battery power. Intel says it wants to give laptops desktop power when plugged in, and high-performance when on the move.

The chip giant hopes its laptop partners will start offering SpeedStep from next month. Acer confirmed that its first SpeedStep machines will be available in February. Peter Lunn, Acer product marketing business manager, said SpeedStep will add from about £700 to the price of a top-of-the-range machine. In return, users will get around 20% more battery life with no visible deterioration in viewing performance, said Lunn.

The cost of this battery improvement is clearly not cheap. This is why Intel does not see users upgrading laptops to SpeedStep. Intel points out it wouldn't be easy either, because a machine's Bios would have to be changed completely.

Although it is pricey, Intel's answer to low battery life will soon be available, unlike Transmeta's offering. Transmeta's, however, should be a lot cheaper and use even less juice.

While Transmeta - backed by Linux king Linus Torvalds, financier George Soros and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen - admits you won't be able to enjoy its Crusoe chip for perhaps another year, when it does come to market products based on the technology could cost as little as $65 for a simple 333MHz Internet access Web pad. The price increases to $329 for a 700MHz laptop version.

The Crusoe chip family and SpeedStep both use a "morphing" technology which cuts down on the processing required to run applications.

Transmeta claims its system saves more power, however, because its patented LongRun power management technology fine tunes the power needed for each application much more regularly than Intel's chip.

Crusoe also has a niche in its focus on Linux, which is a much leaner operating system than the Windows-based system that most of Intel's partners will continue to rely on. The battery power when running Crusoe therefore goes much further, says Transmeta.

But users will have to wait for independent tests to see exactly what they will get for their money.

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