New chip begs new questions

Intel introduces the MMX-enabled P55C Pentium processor, but despite industry hype, some Intel watchers are already wondering if the new chip will help consumers, or just confuse them.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
2 min read
SAN JOSE, California?Intel officially introduced the MMX-enabled P55C Pentium processor today at the Microprocessor Forum here, but although the chip industry has been waiting for this introduction for months, some Intel watchers are already wondering if the new chip will help consumers, or just confuse them.

When it ships in the beginning of next year, the P55C Pentium will run at a speed of 200 MHz on the desktop and 166 MHz on notebook computers, according to David Perlmutter, vice president of Intel's Microprocessor Products Group. The MMX technology is designed to take care of most low-end graphics and multimedia processing so that a PC can run multimedia applications without having to install a high-end graphics card. The result, Intel promises, is a more powerful, cheaper PC for the average user.

[Listen to CNET Radio for audio coverage of the Microprocessor Forum, with Intel Cofounder Gordon Moore and others on the future of the microprocessor.]

Intel's list of the reasons why the P55C technology improves multimedia performance on Pentium processors is long and complex. Perlmutter cited today the chip's many advantages, including the following:

--A performance improvement of 10 to 20 percent over traditional Pentiums when running existing applications
--An average of 60 percent better performance when running "MMX-aware" applications now in the works
--An on-chip cache memory of 32K, twice that of existing Pentiums
--The ability to issue two MMX instructions at once
--New superscalar multimedia instructions
--Lower operating voltages that deliver better power saving features for notebook users
--One motherboard that will be able to accommodate both Pentium and P55C Pentium processors

But Michael Slater, publisher of the event's sponsor, the Microprocessor Report, said that the delivery of the P55C next year may upset the market, creating confusion about what this new technology is all about, despite its many technological advantages.

"It's going to be an awkward year because it will be introduced in high-end systems in 1997 but it's most useful in low-end systems," said Slater.

"The P55C," he explained, "is really for low-end systems that don't have a 3D rendering engine. Once you have a 3D engine, MMX does you no good. Are consumers going to be able figure this all out?"

While Slater believes that educating the consumer about the new technology will be a temporary hurdle for systems vendors, he added that the usefulness of MMX technology will become clear over time, especially when it materializes in the more powerful P6 family of processors. The P6 processors will run at 266 MHz. That means that cost-saving PC features like software modems may become feasible because it will only use up about ten percent of the available processor performance, according to Slater.