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DVD to drive Pentium II sales

Intel is developing software that promises to bring down the cost of PCs with DVD-ROM drives, but will require a Pentium II chip to do it.

Intel (INTC) wants users to buy PCs with DVD-ROM drives, but not just any PC: a Pentium II-based system.

The chip giant is now working on software that it says will bring down the cost of systems with built-in DVD-ROM drives. The software is supposed to eliminate the need for an extra chip--a chip that costs about $40--which current systems now use to decode the data from the DVD drive. The software will instead do that work by drawing from the PC's main processor.

The extra capacity of DVD discs lets users play movies with subtitles in different languages, add parental ratings controls, or provide control over frame-viewing angles.

Why does Intel care about this? Because the main processor in question will be a Pentium II and Intel wants to create a demand for its latest chip. The company says the new software will provide the same level of playback quality as the current set-up. But it will take a high-powered PC to be able to do efficient software decoding.

"A 233-MHz Pentium II can just barely do the decoding. You'll need processors faster by 50 to 100 percent when doing content descrambling," according to Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with market research firm Dataquest. This kind of processing power won't be available in a mainstream PC until late 1998.

Brookwood says the extra cost of the Pentium II will most probably offset the savings associated with eliminating the specialty chip, but Intel hopes to use the software to drive demand for Pentium IIs.

"Compared with the cost of a high-end Pentium II late in 1998, the cost of a hardware solution is much cheaper. It's about $40 for the extra dedicated processor," Brookwood says. "We think [that] software MPEG-2 decoding is unlikely to take off until 1999 at best," he adds.

The motion picture industry is also likely to try and limit the acceptance of software-based decoders. Hollywood has so far been reluctant to release video titles onto the DVD format because the studios worry that content can be easily pirated from a software-based system--that's one reason why there is a limited number of titles on the shelves right now.

Intel says that it has worked with key players to ensure that the technologies used to prevent illegal copying work well and are cheap enough to incorporate into the drives.

Intel expects to deliver the DVD playback technology by the end of 1997. The company projects that PCs powerful enough for the technology will be widely available by the second half of 1998.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.