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Apple's answer to MMX

Targeting the Intel's throne, the TriMedia chip will be added to some Apple systems to accelerate graphics and video.

Apple Computer (AAPL) is set to accelerate graphics and video on some of its systems this year by incorporating high powered, specialized multimedia processors for consumer and business use.

The cornerstone of Apple's strategy for graphics in the Power Macintosh lineup is the TriMedia chip from Philips Semiconductors. The 32-bit processor has been designed from the ground up to handle much of the data-intensive multimedia processing, relieving the main PowerPC processor of these tasks and thereby speeding up performance.

In late 1997, Apple is planning a high-end graphics accelerator circuit board--commonly referred to as a "card"--for use in media authoring that uses two 100-MHz TriMedia processors. The card will also have a FireWire connection for moving video in and out of the system in real time, for professional-quality video manipulation. Firewire is a high-performance data transfer technology developed by Apple.

Apple is also believed to be developing an add-in card that uses only one processor and will have more limited functionality, but at a lower price point for use in a wider range of systems.

With the new technology, Apple will wind up competing against accelerator cards from companies such as Radius, ATI and Truevision. But unlike specialized accelerator cards, the TriMedia processor will also be able to run software applications such as videoconferencing, AC-3 audio--which creates six independent channels of "surround sound" audio--and advanced sound synthesis.

The relatively inexpensive TriMedia processor may eventually wind up in some of Apple's consumer systems as well.

"TriMedia is very important in the mainstream market. All the other microprocessor architectures are getting enhancements for multimedia," says Geoff Ballew, an analyst who covers graphics and multimedia chips for market research firm Dataquest. "With TriMedia or some other processor, Apple will be able to position its system as having a response to MMX."

With the recent introduction of MMX technology for Pentium chips, Intel has narrowed the performance gap with the PowerPC while gaining a significant marketing tool. MMX technology, combined with other enhancements to the new Pentium processors, is intended to enhance performance of multimedia functions such as graphics and communications compared to previous generations of Pentium processors.

"MMX is much more of marketing event than a technology event. In a lot of ways, MMX is Intel's response to performance problems they have had as a platform for multimedia," says Mike Mace, director of worldwide marketing for the Performa division. The PowerPC processor has traditionally had an advantage over the Pentium in multimedia processing.

Still, the marketing of MMX will require a response from Apple in order to avoid the possibility of leaving an impression that Macintosh graphics and video playback aren't accelerated. In the past, Apple has responded to events such as the introduction of MMX by saying "We've always done that." Indeed, Apple will be promoting that message, but will respond with more improvements in technology as well. Mace notes that upcoming Performa models will address multimedia performance in a number of ways.

"An add-on card is not the optimal way to go. You need a system optimized to do multimedia very well. Systems in future will make performance improvements there. It will be very plug and play and simple to configure," Mace says. "It's not just a playback issue. You have to make it easier for people to access this technology."