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MMX takes center stage

Two superfast MMX processors and one with a different twist are being proposed.

SAN FRANCISCO--Multimedia is about to get turbo-charged.

Two new superfast processors that use Intel's (INTC) MMX multimedia processing technology are being proposed today at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference here.

In addition, Digital Equipment (DEC) and Mitsubishi Electric will discuss their own version of MMX, a competing technology that also proposed to speed up multimedia applications.

The conference is where chip engineers meet for an industrywide show-and-tell. They discuss blueprints for new chip designs that aren't ready for an official introduction but are in the purely theoretical stages. This year's conclave presages a new era in multimedia performance as vendors combine MMX technology with faster chips.

MMX improves the performance of multimedia applications such as graphics and communications.

As the inventor of MMX, Intel is, of course, tooting its own horn.

Intel showed attendees a version of the P6 processor running at 400 MHz and higher. The company says the demonstration illustrates the performance potential of the P6 line using existing production methods.

The P6 has an internal design identical to the upcoming Klamath processor, which also supports MMX and is expected to ship in the second quarter. Initial versions of Klamath are expected to run at speeds of 233 and 266 MHz, with speeds eventually reaching 300 MHz in future versions of the processor.

Currently, the fastest processor Intel has on the market today is the 200-MHz Pentium Pro, which is also based on the P6 design. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

But Intel is not alone in promoting high-speed MMX chips. Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) is talking about its K6 processor with MMX, a chip processor that has been demonstrated running at 200 MHz and has a whopping 8.8 million transistors. By comparison, the Pentium Pro has 5.5 million transistors.

The chip also comes with a 64K built-in cache memory. A large cache memory is needed because processors use data much faster than typical memory chips can deliver the data. A cache provides very-high-speed memory that can continue to feed data as fast as the processor needs it, keeping the processor from "starving" for data.

The fastest multimedia chips at the conference will actually be from Digital and Mitsubishi, two companies that are trying to provide an alternative to Intel's MMX. The companies are using what they generally refer to as "Multi-Media Extensions" since it is not based on the same MMX technologies that Intel and AMD are using.

The Digital-Mitsubishi chip will be based on Digital's Alpha architecture and run at 550 MHz. The new built-in multimedia technology speeds up processing of MPEG-2, a standard for running applications such as high-resolution and full-motion video on a computer.

While multimedia is the theme at this year's conference, some vendors are talking about fast chips for plain, old science and engineering applications.

In this vein, Digital will also discuss what might become the fastest processor going: a 600-MHz Alpha RISC processor. This is a full 100-MHz faster than anything Digital has already announced.

The Alpha processor will have estimated performance rating of 60, based on the so-called SPEC floating-point standard, which indicates extremely high performance for scientific and engineering applications. The 200-MHz Intel Pentium Pro, by comparison, has a 6.70 rating.