Crusoe a loser in wrong tree bark-a-thon

Opinion Might be OK for DVD, MP3 players, though

Transmeta's code morphing technology may be terribly elegant, and LongRun power management may be more sophisticated than either Intel's SpeedStep or AMD's PowerNow, but the sad fact is that elegance and sophistication do not a world-beating product make.

Elegance, schmelegance

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, this writer had occasion to review a piece of software called BatteryWatch Pro (obviously an upgrade from BatteryWatch Amateur).

BWP aimed to measure laptop battery consumption accurately before anyone had ever heard of ACPI. It performed this task admirably and elegantly. It was hard to fault the design or implementation of the product. But tragically, what was possible to fault was the fact that the package cost about the same as a second battery pack. Why have an elegant piece of software that could warn you that your laptop was about to die, when for the same money you could make the little devil work for twice as long?

Nice product, nice implementation, but barking up entirely the wrong cellulose-based lifeform.

So what's wrong with the tree that Crusoe's woofing at?

While Transmeta's mobile chip is undoubtedly more efficient in terms of conserving battery power than anything on offer from the two market leaders, it does rather ignore two significant facts of mobile life:

1. The processor accounts for much less than 30 per cent of the total power budget of a laptop.

2. Most laptops spend over 75 per cent of their lives plugged into the mains supply.

Let's look at the first point. Hard disks can be made to be extremely energy efficient and can spin down whenever they're not needed. But whilst rotating at 5,400 rpm they use quite a lot of juice. When the heads move, even more amps and volts are sucked out of the battery. In a typical notebook, the hard disk uses just under a Watt - the same as a low voltage mobile PIII. The chipset needs about the same and 64Mb of memory needs a tenth of a Watt. The graphics processor soaks up another half a Watt.

An LCD display can run in dim mode, when it uses just under three Watts but this is typically only readable on an airplane with the lights out or on an English summer's day. At all other times, the bright setting is de rigueur, using over six Watts.

Even the power regulation system uses three quarters of a Watt, the same as a modem, and the CPU fan takes around half a Watt. The processor is a very small part of the overall power budget, a low power one only accounting for a tenth of the total power of a typical 10 Watt notebook.

Intel reckons that if a laptop mobo uses a total of around nine Watts, a mobile PIII accounts for just two of them. Even with low-voltage processors, memory will still need 1.35V, making it difficult to translate the theoretical power saving provided by the CPU into significantly-extended battery life.

So even if the processor is in deep sleep (as in reality it is most of the time), a considerable amount of electricity is still required. Who cares whether the CPU is a Crusoe, K6 or Pentium III?

Well, actually, people do care - what they want is the most powerful processor they (or more likely their company) can afford. At the moment that means an 850MHz Pentium III, not an energy-efficient wotchamacallit. MegaHurtz ™ rules.

They want big, bright screens, they want DVD drives, they want fast, big disks. Who cares about battery life? It'll spend nearly all its life plugged into a wall socket. Even on an airplane it can suck electrical nourishment from a socket on the armrest. Come to think about it, most laptops don't actually need a battery at all...

Let's be honest. What everyone actually needs here is a more efficient mobile power source, whether it be cold fusion, lithium air or a matter/antimatter reactor. To try to maximise effective laptop life by throwing all your resources at improving just one small part of the equation is wasted effort. Time and money would be better spent helping battery makers produce power packs capable of powering a notebook for a week or so on a single charge.

Listen to the music

But it isn't all bad news for Transmeta - Crusoe does show promise for applications such as playing MP3 audio. Transmeta's own figures claim a 500MHz PIII needs around five and a half Watts, while code morphing means Crusoe needs just 1.15W. As the display can be blanked and only minimal use of the hard disk is required, this means it should be possible to play something like 24 hours of music on a single charge.

Intel has reacted to Crusoe by bringing forward the launch of an ultra-low power mobile Pentium III. AMD has mobile Athlons and Durons on the way using the excellent PowerNow technology. It can only a matter of time before Crusoe (and Transmeta) are consigned to the 'Where are they now?' file, along with flared trousers, Microsoft's Bob, ICL's OPD, BT opening up the local loop, the IBM PC Junior, Betamax VCRs and eight track cartridge players? (Note to pedants: only one of these can claim to be an elegant and sophisticated technology - did you spot which one it was?) ®