Chip Hall of Fame: Transmeta Corp. Crusoe Processor

Ahead of its time, this chip heralded the mobile era when energy use, not processing power, would become the most important spec

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Transmeta Corp. Crusoe Processor
Photo: Dave Ditzel

Crusoe Processor

Manufacturer: Transmeta Corp.

Category: Processors

Year: 2000

With great power come great heat sinks. And short battery life. And crazy electricity consumption. Hence Transmeta’s goal of designing a low-power processor that’d put those hogs offered by Intel and AMD to shame. The plan: Software would translate x86 instructions on the fly into Crusoe’s own machine code, whose higher level of parallelism would save time and power. It was hyped as the greatest thing since sliced silicon, and for a while, it was. “Engineering wizards conjure up processor gold” was how IEEE Spectrum’s May 2000 cover put it. Crusoe and its successor, Efficeon, “proved that dynamic binary translation was commercially viable,” says David Ditzel, Transmeta’s cofounder, now at Esperanto Technologies. Unfortunately, he adds, the chips arrived several years before the market for low-power computers took off, and appeared in only a few products. In the end, while Transmeta did not deliver on its commercial promise, it did point the way toward a world in which a processor’s power use was as important as its raw power, and some of Transmeta’s technology found its way into Intel, AMD, and Nvidia chips.

Spectrum coverWe here at Spectrum were all aboard the Transmeta bandwagon. The cover photo included one of Transmeta’s most famous hires, Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux (third from right).Photo: IEEE Spectrum

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A sign outside of a building says Palo Alto Research Center Xerox

An undated exterior view of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is shown in Palo Alto, California.

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In late 1969, C. Peter McColough, chairman of Xerox Corp., told the New York Society of Security Analysts that Xerox was determined to develop “the architecture of information” to solve the problems that had been created by the “knowledge explosion.” Legend has it that McColough then turned to Jack E. Goldman, senior vice president of research and development, and said, “All right, go start a lab that will find out what I just meant.”

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