This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 17, 1997
Intel Unveils New MMX Pentium Chip
In the Information Age, people like 33-year-old Mark Rein are on the cutting edge. Rein is vice-president of Epic MegaGames Inc., a computer game company in Rockville, Md., yet his "office" is actually his home in Schomberg, just north of Toronto. As a game developer, Rein talks about computer codes and pixellated colors with the same enthusiasm that other executives talk about balance sheets and mission statements. But when the subject is MMX - the latest enhanced chip from Intel Corp., the world's largest supplier of computer processors - he positively gushes. "MMX is such a big thing because now, like, you can do four register calculations simultaneously," says Rein. "That's what's so great. And future iterations of MMX will be floating point - and then you'll be really laughing."
Make sense? To most computer users, probably not. But in the high-tech industry, the new MMX chip could be the biggest thing since, well, the launch of Intel's groundbreaking Pentium processor three years ago. That is because MMX technology enhances a computer's ability to process graphics, sound, and video, making it a better multimedia machine. Just as significant, however, is what a commitment to MMX by Intel - whose chips power about 80 per cent of the world's personal computers - means to the future of consumer electronics.
In short, MMX is Intel's most aggressive salvo so far in the hotly contested war among cable companies, telecommunications giants and computer-makers for the multibillion-dollar home entertainment market. By promising to make the home computer into that Holy Grail of consumer electronics - a TV, VCR, stereo, game module, word processor, Web surfer and telephone rolled into one - MMX is Intel's not-so-secret weapon in what company president and CEO Andy Grove has called "a battle for eyeballs."
Although the technology is arcane, to say the least, the new MMX Pentium chip features several significant improvements over Intel's previous microprocessors. For one thing, Intel has packed in 4.5 million transistors (up from 3.3 million in a standard Pentium) and lowered the chip's voltage requirements - moves that enhance performance while lowering the risk of overheating. And Intel engineers have encoded into MMX-equipped chips 57 new instruction sets, which programmers use to make software run. The extra instructions allow programmers to reduce formerly complex operations, especially the handling of graphics, audio programs and video playback, into a single step - the simultaneous register calculations that Rein speaks so enthusiastically about. On standard benchmark tests, Intel claims that Pentium chips with MMX technology are 10 to 20 per cent faster than standard processors - and as much as 60 per cent faster when running multimedia applications.
For consumers, the most immediate benefit of an MMX Pentium system - which typically costs about $150 to $200 more than a non-MMX computer - will be in computer games. Rein, whose company is set to release several games that take advantage of MMX - Epic's upcoming title, Unreal, is the buzz of the gaming industry - says that "it means better-quality video sequences, better-quality sounds and better visuals." Beyond games, however, MMX-capable software remains scarce - although Intel says a flood of new titles will soon hit the market.
MMX's other big selling feature - one that gives Intel a serious stake in the consumer electronics market - is that it will play digital versatile discs, or DVDs. Years in development by such electronics giants as Philips and Sony, the discs are super-CDs, capable of storing two full hours of high-resolution digital video. Stand-alone DVD players that hook up to television sets will probably cost between $600 and $1,500 when they hit Canadian stores in the spring. But DVD-ROM drives, which would replace existing CD-ROM players in computers, will likely fall in the $500 to $650 range.
Coupled with an industry trend towards larger computer screens (Gateway 2000 Inc., a U.S. manufacturer, recently launched a PC with a 30-inch screen), DVD could help take the computer out of the office and into the living-room. "We used to use the analogy about the 10-inch versus the 10-foot interaction - what you do on the couch with the remote versus what you do at your desk with a mouse," says Doug Cooper, Intel Canada's architecture manager. "There's no reason that the computer can't occupy both those spaces."
Will MMX live up to its hype? Intel shares at one point last week were down 7.9 per cent - in part due to investor concern that a lack of software titles will slow the new processor's acceptance. Existing computer owners, who have seen each new generation of processor render the previous one virtually obsolete, may also be wary of embracing yet another innovation. But Cooper says the new technology is here to stay - and that MMX computers offer a hedge against future upgrades. Declares Cooper: "MMX is and will be, now and forever, part of the Intel architecture." In the frenetic world of computer technology, that is about as categorical as any statement can get.
Maclean's February 17, 1997