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Talisman redoes new media

Microsoft's Talisman board design may herald new computing architectures with powerful media processors handling a host of multimedia-intensive tasks.

When Microsoft formally introduces its new Talisman design for graphics add-in cards on today, it will be proposing to change the face of multimedia computing by using powerful media processors and cutting-edge memory chips that plug into its Direct X technology.

The Microsoft Talisman reference design, to be formally presented today at the Siggraph trade show in New Orleans, goes far beyond better 2D and 3D graphics. The board design also provides Windows acceleration, full-resolution MPEG-2 playback, videoconferencing, sound, and modem capabilities on a single board that will cost manufacturers less than $300, according to a Microsoft white paper about Talisman. "The reference design will be used by vendors to create motherboard implementations and graphics-accelerator cards," the Microsoft paper said.

"I would say the bill of materials is now closer to $200 since the price of memory has come down so dramatically," said Subodh Toprani, vice president of marketing at Rambus, a company supplying high-speed memory chips for the reference design.

Reference-design boards as outlined by Microsoft are targeted at the high end of the consumer PC market and plug into PCs via the PCI expansion bus, which is found on almost all PCs today. The reference design is based on a high-speed Rambus memory architecture, a Samsung media processor, and other chips and components for multimedia processing, according to Microsoft documents.

Media processors such as the one Samsung is providing are much better than general-purpose processors, such as Intel's Pentium processor, at handling multimedia. If they become popular, they may inspire a new style of computing architectures where many of the multimedia-intensive tasks are handed off to specialized processors.

This could challenge Intel initiatives such as its Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP), which attempts to maintain its Pentium and P6 family processors as the main or "host" processing engines doing all of the work, even multimedia processing. "We think the best way [for Talisman] to go is with a host-based implementation combined with AGP," said an Intel spokesperson.

But analysts say that recommendation doesn't jibe with Talisman's potential. In this case, "Microsoft and Intel appear to be going in the opposite direction," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at market research firm Dataquest. "Talisman reduces the need for bandwidth between the memory system and the graphics controller. AGP, in effect, increases this need," he said.

"Talisman captures over 95 percent of the memory bandwidth required by graphics rendering inside the graphics chip. Image compression is broadly exploited to reduce image capacity and bandwidth requirements," the paper said.

Despite the apparent differences, the Microsoft paper says that Talisman will work with Intel's MMX and AGP technologies.

But it is still a big question whether Microsoft's Talisman will be accepted by developers and subsequently the marketplace. To make Talisman as usable and adaptable as possible, the Microsoft paper says it will use the Direct X set of programming interfaces, a set of tools for developers to write multimedia applications.

"Developers should continue to develop products based on Direct X. This will ensure that content is 'Talisman-ready,'" said the paper. The performance target is to provide 2D and 3D graphics at resolutions of 1024 x 768 pixels, Microsoft said.

Analysts, however, are dubious. "If you can simply drop Talisman in and get a free ride on Direct 3D technology from Microsoft, then it has a shot at succeeding," said Brookwood. "But if applications need to be tailored to Talisman, then it could be a uphill battle," he added.

Microsoft is also working with Fujitsu Microelectronics, Cirrus Logic, Samsung, Philips, and Silicon Engineering, according to the paper. "We expect to provide more detail on the progress of Talisman [and these joint] efforts in 1997," Microsoft said.