My workhorse office computer is really fast. With a 200- megahertz Pentium Pro chip, 64 megabytes of memory, and Windows NT, it ought to be. But in some applications, especially those using video clips, the latest home computers leave it in the dust.
The difference, as you doubtless know if you've seen any computer ads in the past few weeks, is something called MMX technology from Intel. Unless you're a fanatical gamer, MMX isn't reason enough to replace an otherwise satisfactory desktop. But if you're in the market for a new system, MMX is definitely the way to go.
The improvement can be dramatic. On my Pentium Pro machine, film clips are flickery when viewed at bigger than postage-stamp size. Two MMX machines I tried, a Compaq Presario 4770 and an IBM Aptiva S90, showed the same clips smoothly even on a full screen.
What does MMX do? Until now, Intel has improved Pentium performance by giving the chip a faster "heartbeat," which governs how fast instructions are processed. MMX's new circuitry provides a shortcut for simple, repetitive arithmetic. Dissolving one video scene into another, for example, takes 1.4 billion mathematical operations per frame without MMX, according to Intel. MMX needs just 525 million operations. In addition, Intel says design changes boost the overall performance of MMX chips by about 10%.
Getting the full benefit of an MMX PC requires specially designed software, which is on the way. For one thing, Intel gave the detailed programming information for the new chip to software developers last March, so they've had lots of time to prepare. Already, most, if not all, MMX computers on sale feature movie players that show videos in a much improved way. Software makers are already shipping about a dozen MMX applications, such as the arcade game POD from Ubi Soft Entertainment, a 3-D design package called Visual Home from Books That Work, and the image manipulation program Adobe PhotoDeluxe from Adobe Systems.
MMX should be a boon for videoconferencing. But other mainstream business applications--word processing, database browsing, number crunching, or E-mail--will benefit only as they use more multimedia features. In addition to games and video, the applications that will gain the most will be image editing, including digital photography, and desktop publishing.
FREE DISH. Nearly every computer maker added MMX models at the beginning of January. For the moment, MMX, which comes in 166-Mhz and 200-Mhz versions, is found mainly on top-of-the-line models. A 166-Mhz MMX family PC from Gateway 2000 costs $2,149 without monitor, only $50 more than the standard Pentium machine. (And the MMX includes a coupon for free satellite dish system hardware.) By yearend, most desktops and laptops will be MMX models. A Pentium Pro version of MMX, code-named Klamath, is due in the second half of the year.
Over time, MMX should help make computers simpler and cheaper. Many functions now done by specialized circuits, such as sound cards, graphics accelerators, and modems, will be taken over by the processor. Yamaha already offers an all-software music synthesizer for MMX, and Motorola will soon have software modems.
Sluggish retail sales of computers in the closing months of last year suggest that many people delayed purchases to wait for MMX. Based on what I've seen, I think most of them will find the wait worthwhile.