A New Chip Off The Block

YOU'VE SEEN THE ADS--the ones with people who look like astronauts a rave, discoing to "Play That Funky Music" while they assemble Intel's new MMX chip. Looks cool, but what does it mean?

Only 14 months after Intel rolled out its Pentium Pro processor, the company has done it again: introduced, gads, yet another chip. This new one is a Pentium processor souped up to better run "media-rich" programs, like graphics-intense games and video, up to four times faster. New machines with the MMX logo are already in stores. But MMX isn't just flash: the new chip helps multimedia applications work more smoothly and also boosts overall performance by 10 to 20 percent.

So what is MMX? Technically, it's 57 new "instructions" etched microscopically onto the face of the chip. That means an MMX-enabled Pentium performs multimedia tasks-like receiving an audio snippet from the Internet and playing it in real time-faster. The MMX chip does this by clearing roads for the operations most frequently performed by multimedia applications. So, instead of having to repeatedly ask the chip to do the same thing, the program can now zip through these common operations unimpeded. "The quicker the CPU can process the information, the richer the experience will be for the user," says Intel spokesman Howard High. It's probably no accident, then, that the MMX sounds more like a sports car than a computer chip; the name, which doesn't stand for anything, is meant to simultaneously evoke "multimedia" and the need for speed.

The chips are already blazing out of the Intel plants. The company estimates that "millions" of MMX Pentiums have been shipped to the major PC makers. Those chips are working their way onto desktops as companies including Compaq, Gateway 2000, Dell, Micron and Hewlett-Packard glut the market with new MMX machines. They're a good deal: these new PCs cost only $50 to $100 more than a comparable Pentium box. A super-high-end MMX-enhanced Pentium Pro processor (code-named Klameth) will be out by June.

Intel thinks so highly of its new product that from now on it won't be making any non-MMX chips. "We're trying to bring the baseline for all PCs to a much higher level," says High. In the short term, the introduction of the MMX chip will mean a maddening proliferation of choices at the store. To hear the company tell it, we asked for this grief. The computer-entertainment -boom is what spurred Intel to design a chip that pays special attention to these needs. "It's a Darwinian device," says High, rather ominously. "It continually evolves based on what the consumer wants it to be." And Intel, always looking to expand the market, is giving it to us.

A New Chip Off The Block | News