techTALK

Perhaps I am alone, but around this time of year, I start dreaming of what I would like in a new computer. Tis the season for financial aid forms, and in the flurry, many students may decide to take out a computer loan. Then the question is: what computer do I get? For PC users, Intel hopes you will buy into their latest improvement of the Pentium processor: MMX.

Harvard students who still watch television have no doubt seen the newest commercials from this chip-manufacturing giant. MMX technology is promised to "makes your multimedia dance," by the announcer in Intel's SuperBowl spot, as people in biohazard-looking suits gyrate in what I suppose were the innards of a computer somewhere.

But besides new commercials and a modified "Intel Inside" logo, what does this new technology offer?

MMX originally stood for multimedia extensions because it will improve the performance of a PC's multimedia applications. Intel is releasing MMX-equipped processors at 166Mhz, 200Mhz and 233Mhz for both desktops and notebook computers. Specifically designed for the Pentium, this chip add-on will boost the performance speeds of your computer by up to 60 percent, according to Intel.

The new technology is able to drastically boost performance primarily because MMX has 57 new instruction sets. (CS 50 flashbacks anyone?) This allows the processor to handle more graphic-intensive tasks simultaneaously. In addition, even newer chips have more cache than current Pentiums, enabling the computer to anticipate where programs should be loaded milliseconds in advance.

The effects will be noticed heavily in sound, graphics and video-intensive applications. Because of the chip's increased instruction-set capacity, video and 3D surround sound will be noticeably smoother. This is good news for all you Quake junkies and graphic artists.

But there is a catch--MMX will work best only for software optimized for it. Right now, the pickings are slim.

Intel released MMX with only a about dozen new software titles planning to take advantage of it. These include the popular flight simulator, Falcon 4.0, from Spectrum Holobyte, and Adobe's PhotoDeluxe.

However, the company expects at least 100 new titles to be MMX-enhanced by year's end.

MMX-enhanced Pentiums are just the beginning for Intel this year. In the coming months, users can expect to see a Pentium Pro machine with MMX that will run at a speedy 266Mhz. Dubbed Pentium II, Intel's hopes this will become the new desktop PC standard. By the end of the year, Intel expects to release a 300Mhz MMX processor code-named Deschutes.

But, Intel is not the only micro-processor game in town. Competitors Cyrix and Advacnced Micro Devices (AMD) both have plans to unveil new, more powerful chips that they hope can compete with Intel's MMX.

Cyrix's latest chip release is the M2. It will be MMX-compatible and offers consumers a lower-priced, alternative to Intel. In addition, AMD will be releasing its MMX-compatible K6 chip in the coming months.

The entry-level pricing for most of these multimedia Pentium systems is about $2,000 (and $3,000 for the Pentium II). But that's the stuff of dreams, and even for those of us without two or three grand to spare, there is good news in all this constant upgrading. Because Intel is so eager to have its latest processors take hold in the market, it is cutting prices on its non-MMX Pentiums significantly.

So, while for many of us MMX may only mean Muy Muy Xpensivo, non-MMX PCs will be falling into our budgets shortly.

-Baratunde R. Thurston '99 is the Claverly Hall User Assistant for HASCS, a member of the Harvard Computer Society and a Crimson editor.