The MMX Files
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Computer users can't win. As soon as one processor technology becomes widely adopted, another comes along that makes it seem antiquated--or at least somewhat less than state-of-the-art. And so it is that Intel has recently rolled out its trademarked MMX media enhancement technology for Pentium and Pentium Pro processors. (Pentium Pros with MMX technology are now called Pentium IIs.)
Most major hardware vendors already offer Pentium MMX PCs, and Pentium IIs are expected to be available from some computer manufacturers by the time you read this. Intel is targeting the Pentium MMX at the home user and positioning the higher-performance Pentium II as its business processor. The Pentium II is designed to fully support operating systems such as Windows NT and OS/2 (and to run Windows 95 much faster than the Pentium does).
What Is MMX?
MMX technology is designed to enhance multimedia and communications. The Pentium MMX is available at 166 MHz and 200 MHz for desktop machines, and 150 MHz and 166 MHz for portable machines. The Pentium II is offered at 266 MHz and 233 MHz for desktops.
On the technical side, MMX technology consists of three architectural enhancements:
1. New instructions: MMX contains 57 new instructions designed to manipulate and process video, audio and graphical data more efficiently.
2. Single Instruction Multiple Data (SIMD): Essentially, this technology allows the chip to process the types of instructions commonly found in multimedia and communications programs simultaneously rather than sequentially. Since more gets done at once, jobs can be processed faster.
3. More cache: Intel has doubled the on-chip cache size to 32K for both the Pentium MMX and the Pentium II. Now, more instructions and data can be stored on the chip, reducing the number of times the processor has to search slower, off-chip memory areas for information.
Intel has further enhanced the Pentium II by developing new packaging for the processor. Previously, the processor plugged directly into the motherboard using many small pins. With the new packaging, called the Single Edge Contact cartridge or SEC cartridge, the processor is completely enclosed in a plastic cartridge that plugs into its own specially designed slot. According to Intel, the new packaging will allow the company to continue to deliver higher-performance processors at reasonable prices.
Faster Than Ever
Of all the new features of MMX, the one most likely to benefit the general business user is the larger cache size, which increases overall performance. Intel claims the Pentium MMX is 10 percent to 20 percent faster than a comparable Pentium.
According to Intel, the 266 MHz Pentium II delivers a performance boost of 160 percent to 200 percent over the 200 MHz Pentium processor. The performance boost on the Pentium II is a particular plus for multitasking. For example, while it is possible to print and run two applications at the same time on a 200 MHz Pentium, the performance time on the second application will slow down noticeably. However, the Pentium II can easily handle that task; in fact, Intel claims it can handle up to eight simultaneous applications.
For multimedia and communications applications, the performance boost can be even higher. According to Intel, the Pentium MMX can run these applications as much as 60 percent faster than the Pentium, and the 266 MHz Pentium II runs these applications more than twice as fast.
The catch is that to get the maximum performance boost, an application must be written to support the new technology. Intel is working with a number of independent software vendors to bring MMX technology-enhanced applications to the business world. While more than a dozen software titles supported MMX at the technology's launch in January, there are unlikely to be large numbers of applications supporting MMX for a year or more, as software developers design new versions of their applications.
Today, many of the applications that support MMX technology are games or "edutainment" titles. The only business-related titles available are geared toward multimedia and graphics professionals. These include Microsoft PictureIt and Adobe PhotoDeluxe.
The types of business applications Intel believes are most likely to support MMX technology in the long run are scanning, image manipulation, Internet browsers and plug-ins; video editing and playback, printing, faxing, compression, sales presentations, computer-based training and videoconferencing. For example, Intel's Videophone supports MMX technology.
It's important to keep in mind that, if history is any guide, full support for the MMX chip may never occur--after all, vendors still don't support all the features of the 486 processor.
One interesting application for MMX technology that is just appearing on the horizon: Some semiconductor vendors are starting to use the technology to eliminate add-on boards or chips, allowing hardware vendors to offer less expensive versions of their products.
For example, Motorola's software modem uses a Pentium MMX processor for modem controller and data pump functions. The benefit is that users can upgrade these modems simply by adding new software. And because software modems are much cheaper for manufacturers to produce than standard modems, they can pack additional features onto your machine.
Purchasing a Pentium with MMX technology costs only about $100 more than buying a similarly configured Pentium without the new technology. That's not a bad price for a 20 percent performance boost.
The Pentium II is expected to be available for close to $3,000--a good deal considering that the first Pentiums were originally introduced for about $5,000.
Intel also offers an upgrade to MMX technology for existing Pentium owners, called the Pentium Overdrive processor. Any day now, the Overdrive will be available for processors with current speeds up to 166 MHz and in the second half of the year for machines with speeds up to 200 MHz. The Overdrive's list prices range from $399 to $499. Overall, the upgrade prices are a bit high, considering you could get a whole new computer for less than $2,000.
Because of the new packaging for the processor on the Pentium II, no upgrades will be available for Pentium Pro machines.
What about purchasing a notebook computer with MMX technology? Here the benefits are unclear. According to BODYs performed by PC Week magazine, the mobile 150 MHz Pentium MMX is only slightly faster than the non-MMX 133 MHz. And the 166 MHz mobile Pentium processor for notebooks eats up so much battery life, it may not be worth it, either.
MMX technology from Intel benefits business users by providing a slight performance boost for the Pentium and a larger one for the Pentium II. It also greatly improves performance for multimedia and graphics applications. It's one more way the hardware industry is providing more performance for little additional cost. However, it will be a while before business applications that support this technology become widely available.
Intel Corp., 2200 Mission College Blvd., Santa Clara, CA 95052.
Cheryl J. Goldberg is a former editor of PC Magazine and has reported on the computer industry for more than 14 years. Write to her in care of Entrepreneur, 2445 McCabe Way, Irvine, CA 92614. You can also reach her via CompuServe at firstname.lastname@example.org.