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Intel to move fast on fast multimedia

Having debuted its MMX technology this week to great fanfare, Intel is outlining its multimedia plans which will include a chip based on the P6 design that will exceed 200 MHz in processing power.

Having debuted its MMX technology this week to great fanfare, Intel is outlining its multimedia plans which include a chip based on the P6 design that will exceed 200 MHz in processing power.

The processor, which will be part of the "P6 family," will raise the multimedia performance bar significantly above the first implementation of the MMX technology, the P55C, which will ship late this year, Michael Aymar, an Intel vice president and general manager, told CNET.

The MMX technology unveiled this week at Intermedia World in San Francisco combines multimedia functions like graphics acceleration and audio in the main processor so that users who want to run multimedia applications don't need to buy third-party add-in cards. Very high-end graphics and audio processing will still require specialized equipment, but the MMX technology is intended to provide most of what the average home user wants, such as games.

According to a number of games developers who attended Intermedia World, the main difference between the P55C and the new verion of P6 will be how the two chips handle MPEG 2, a widely accepted standard for delivering video and audio on a PC that is used increasingly in games.

The P55C will be quite capable when handling low-end audio, communications, and video tasks, but it chokes on MPEG 2 when running it without add-in cards for video processing, the developers said.

The new P6 processor, on the other hand, should be able to handle MPEG 2 without pricey add-in cards and will pave the way for low-cost systems in 1997 that can handle even high-end multimedia tasks, said Larry Mennemier, a microprocessor architect at Intel.

The P6 processor will also allow for new performance levels in communications. A software modem, for instance, would consume much of the available processing power of a P55C processor but only 10 to 20 percent of the available power of the P6, said Linley Gwennap, editor in chief of the Sebastopol, California-based Microprocessor Report.

The P6 classification means that this processor will have an internal RISC-like design similar to the Pentium Pro but depart from the current Pentium Pro in some significant ways such as a smaller, lower-cost design, said officials.

As for cost, Intel says the price for systems based on the two processors should be something like this: In the fourth quarter, multimedia systems using the P55C will debut in consumer boxes at about $3,000. Intel expects that price to drop to about $2,000 by the second quarter of next year and then to between $1,200 and $1,500 in the second half of 1997.

Intel officials were less specific in the forecasts for P6 system pricing but said the newer PCs will appear by mid-1997 priced above $3,000 and will get less expensive throughout the year.

Intel will have to wait to see which implementation proves more popular, but it is already clear that the MMX technology will send Intel's competitors scrambling.

"Those [processor vendors] who compete with Intel-based systems had best take notice of the enhanced performance wrought by this new technology," said microprocessor analyst Nathan Brookwood in a special report on MMX technology released this week by the Dataquest market research firm. "MMX clearly has the potential to increase system performance at virtually no increase in cost," he said in the report.

Vendors as large as IBM are already taking notice. The MMX technology may persuade IBM to eliminate its renowned Mwave media processor--currently found in its ThinkPad notebooks and Aptiva consumer PCs--in certain configurations, an IBM official said this week. .

"The industry will eventually shift from Mwave to MMX," the IBM official said.

On the software side, Microsoft is already firmly on board the MMX bandwagon. Its DirectX APIs let developers boost software performance by writing directly to the hardware instead of intermediary software layers to improve performance and will work in concert with MMX.

"With Direct 3D, if [add-in cards] aren1t there, MMX will do texture mapping, lighting, scaling, and MPEG [processing]," said Steven Banfield of Microsoft1s Internet and Multimedia developer relations group.