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MMX software trickles out

Some consumer and business software vendors are now using MMX to improve the performance of their products.

    Intel's (INTC) latest creation is the MMX Pentium, a processor that enhances your multimedia experience--provided you have software that's fine-tuned for it.

    Though much of the high-profile, flashy software written for MMX so far has been game-and entertainment-oriented, some consumer and business software vendors are now using MMX to improve the performance of their software products.

    But don't expect to see dramatic across-the-board performance gains, since the new processor only speeds certain types of operations, and not all kinds of software can take advantage of the gains, according to software developers.

    How much users benefit from MMX will depend on what applications they use, though it still makes sense to buy MMX systems, said Dean McCarron, a principal at Mercury Research, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based marketing research firm.

    While gains of 300-400% are being reported in some operations, it's not the entire application that is running so fast, he said. At the other end of the scale, some operations might only see a 10% speed improvement. McCarron also sees competition ahead for Intel, with competitors such as AMD and Cyrix offering MMX compatible chips as early as the next quarter.

    Nevertheless, the bottom line is that "both the Pentium MMX processor and the [upcoming] MMX P6 [Klamath ] significantly outperform previous versions [of these chips]," said McCarron.

    To take the pulse of how software vendors view the chip's performance and ability, CNET interviewed several major developers. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

  • Adobe has added MMX compatibility to its Photoshop and Photo Deluxe imaging software because it feels one of MMX's strengths is speeding pixel-based operations. The two programs, which are both based on the same software code, include a "fastcore" plug-in, automatically installed on MMX computers, which allows the program to use MMX to speed fundamental imaging tasks such as rotating, blurring, and distorting images.

    Adobe claims a 30 to 500 percent speed increase among operations handled by the new MMX features. "It definitely brings a new generation of performance to the product," said Brian Lamkin, director of graphics products for the company.

    Some operations, however, will not see any improvement, Lamkin said. These include third-party plug-ins popular with many Photoshop users. For those to speed up, the plug-in developers will also need to revise their code to make it MMX-compatible. Also, Adobe has chosen not to utilize MMX technology in its Illustrator drawing software, as it believed that MMX is not really suited to the vector operations Illustrator primarily uses.

  • Microsoft has enabled its consumer-oriented imaging software Picture It for MMX. The software's JPEG compression code is MMX-aware and speeds the loading and saving of images; image manipulation is also sped up 25 to 50 percent, according to the company.

    Overall, Microsoft has seen a performance improvement of about 30 percent using the MMX processor relative to plain vanilla "classic" Pentiums. "Since our goal is to make it as easy as possible for consumers to work with images, we're excited about this technology," said Kirsty Ellison, product manager for Picture It.

  • Macromedia Director users will see a 40 percent increase in animation performance, an important function in that program, according to Leesa Lee, Director product manager. Also, because Macromedia has deployed MMX technology in its Shockwave plug-in for Netscape and Microsoft Web browser, end users will see much better animation on the whole, Lee said.

    But much of the speed improvement in this case comes from the MMX processor's larger on-board cache memory, not the pure MMX technology, according to Lee--the pure MMX technology being the new instructions which Intel has added to the Pentium processor's instruction set.

    Although Macromedia was one of the first to support MMX, like Adobe they will only add it to those products where they feel it will provide significant performance gains. They have no intention of adding it to some software, like their HTML editor BackStage, where there would be little benefit.

  • Netscape has used MMX technology to improve the performance of its Live3D plug-in for Netscape Navigator and Communicator. The plug-in, which allows users to view three-dimensional graphics within Web pages, benefits significantly from MMX. The new processor speeds the plug-in's performance about 25 percent, but more importantly, it brings significant gains in the ability of Pentium PCs to do texture mapping and alpha blending, Netscape officials said. Users with MMX processors will be able to view more complex worlds with features such as transparency and mirrors.

    "MMX enables content creators to produce much richer content with Live3D," said Lea Lucente, Netscape's Live3D evangelist. At this point, the Live3D plug-in is the only component of Netscape's Web browsing software that employs MMX technology.

    MMX technology will also be used by some major computer hardware manufacturers to aid in the introduction of new types of software products. Motorola has made its new software modem products MMX-enabled.

    The Motorola modem is software which runs on the MMX Pentium processor. This contrasts with typical modems which come on a board with special processors and other circuitry. Since the Motorola MMX-aware modem is software-based, easy upgrades are possible from one protocol to another or from one transmission medium to another, according to Motorola.

    "MMX improves our algorithms' performance on the order of up to 30 percent; this will clearly accelerate the adoption of software modems," a Motorola spokesman said. Motorola has also employed MMX technology in its Clamor speech recognition software designed for noise intensive situations.

    Intel, not surprisingly, is also promoting products based on the chip's new features. Intel will be heavily promoting the Intel Video Phone. The product allows users to videoconference over regular phone lines and is sold through PC OEMs package with MMX technology-based PC systems.

    Without MMX, the videophone averages only about 12 to 15 frames per second, but on MMX systems the frame rate runs anywhere from the high teens to over 25 frames per second, according to Michael Glancy, general manager of Intel's OEM communications products group.

    The performance enhancement comes from recoding of the software to use MMX technology and from the basic hardware improvements to the MMX chip itself, such as the larger cache. "MMX allows us to draw even more functionality of what was in external hardware into the MMX-enabled Pentium processor," according to Glancy. In addition to the videophone, which is currently available, Intel is currently developing a software-based modem, much like Motorola's initiative.

    Glancy feels that MMX technology will have major implications for both software and hardware beyond such immediate uses as videoconferencing and software modems. "This is a major turning point in applications for the PC. With a very high rate of MIPS (millions of instructions per second), you're going to be seeing an increasing number of real-time applications."