Magazine article Information Today

Intel's MMX-Enhanced Processors: The New Generation of Microprocessors Are Mm-Good for Multimedia

Magazine article Information Today

Intel's MMX-Enhanced Processors: The New Generation of Microprocessors Are Mm-Good for Multimedia

Article excerpt

Last May in my Multimedia Medley column, "Snapshot of the Present and Future of Multimedia," I defended the IntermediaWorld expo in the face of a scathing "eulogy" in the San Francisco Examiner by pointing out that important announcements were made at the show. I was particularly enthusiastic about Intel's demonstration of its new MMX line of processors.

MMX processors started shipping early in January in at least a dozen desktop computers and in a number of laptops as well. The demonstration that I saw almost a year ago was impressive, comparing the original and the MMX-enabled version of Photoshop, but demo software is often like offices, factories, or restaurants during a presidential visit. You may not get the same impression the morning after. However, the first large-scale test results by PC World, which are to be published by the time you read this, are reconfirming impressive improvements in multimedia performance on MMX-enhanced systems.

So, What is MMX?

MMX is an extra chip that comes on the motherboard of Intel's new Pentium computers. As opposed to the Intel processors of yesteryear, which "only" kept improving the clock speed -- from 60 MHz to 200 MHz -- the MMX chip ushers in a new architecture and more than 50 new processor-level instructions. In Intel's lingo, the technology behind MMX is SIMD -- single instruction, multiple data. To (most of) you and to me, it is OSTB -- one stone, two birds. It's easy to envisage what an improvement this parallel processing makes when you realize that the zillions of data-fetching instructions needed in image manipulation, voice recognition, and video playback can be cut by half or even by two thirds in some cases. With the help of MMX, you can transfer a 24-bit graphic as quickly as you can an 8-bit graphic without MMX. Until the advent of MMX, making a change in, say, the background color and the brightness of a true-color image felt like watching paint dry, even on a 166-MHz Pentium machine; it is a snap on the same configuration enhanced with an MMX chip.

MMX-Enabled Software

To make the best use of a new processor, you always need software fine-tuned for it -- if it's a question of more than just faster clock speed. (Similarly, you need a Windows 95 version of a software product to benefit most from the 32-bit architecture.) However, you can run applications that are not MMX-enabled and still reap 10 to 15 percent improvements. Currently, only a handful of applications are already optimized for MMX -- Microsoft's DirectX drivers and ActiveMovie Player among them. Since many applications invoke multimedia functions through standard Windows modules, all such applications will benefit from hardware featuring the MMX chip even if the application itself has not yet been optimized for MMX.

Audio will be crisper, video will be smoother, and graphics will pop on the screen faster for hard drive and CD-ROM applications. Theoretically, you would see the benefits also when displaying imageladen Web pages or streaming audio from a Web site, but the fluctuation in bandwidth may offset the advantages of MMX. It certainly doesn't hurt to surf the Web with an MMX-enhanced PC. Just don't expect the same obvious performance improvements that you get with local applications.

How to Get an MMX Chip

You can't get it at your local dealer -- not even at Fry's superstores -- and plug it in. Even if you could, it could be dangerous. …

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