MMX technology will hit you right in the eyes, ears But for mundane uses, redesign isn't much help

Your computer

March 30, 1997|By Mike Himowitz

I GOT A CALL this week from an old friend who was puzzled by MMX.

"I'm looking for a new computer, and all the ads are saying I need one with this MMX stuff," he said. "But I found a really good price on a PC that doesn't have MMX. It's a couple of hundred dollars cheaper, and everything else seems to be the same. What's this MMX all about? Is it worth the money?"

The answer is that MMX doesn't matter much now, but down the road it could make your machine more fun to use and possibly add a year or two to its useful life.

MMX once referred to something called "multimedia extensions" but now doesn't refer to anything in particular, if you believe Intel, which is trying to keep rival chip makers from using the MMX label.

While the origins of the term are debatable, MMX in fact refers to a redesign of Intel's flagship Pentium microprocessor, which powers most of today's new desktop computers.

The microprocessor is the heart of your machine, and it works because tiny circuits enable programmers to give it instructions that make it do something useful. The more complex the circuits, the more instructions the processor can carry out.

Modern microprocessors such as the Pentium are far more complex than the chips in early PCs. With its latest Pentium redesign, Intel added 57 new instructions that make it easier to do the calculations required for graphics, video and sound. These MMX instructions make the new chip a better engine for image-editing software, multimedia games and CD-ROM entertainment.

The MMX chips have other features that speed up the repetitive internal processes that multimedia programs require. In addition, the chips double the size of the processor's cache -- a repository of high-speed memory that reduces the time the processor spends fetching information from slower main memory banks.

Intel claims the chip improves performance by 10 percent to 20 percent on all applications and by up to 60 percent on multimedia programs. The catch is that programs have to be written to take advantage of MMX technology. Most programs aren't designed for MMX now, but as time goes by, they will be.

The primary beneficiaries of the new technology will be graphic artists, game players and people who want to try out audio or video conferencing. If you use your computer for more mundane tasks, such word processing, spreadsheets or database management, you may notice some improvement, but nothing earthshaking.

Like my friend, you'll find low prices on computers with earlier Pentium processors because retailers and manufacturers are clearing out their inventories to make way for the MMX machines. If you use your computer for business and don't care much for games or entertainment, they're probably a good buy.

The problem is that few of us know how we'll be using our computers a year or two from now. If you can afford it, spend the money for an MMX machine. It's a better long-term investment.

Meanwhile, Intel is offering MMX Overdrive processors as upgrades for some older Pentium chips. While Overdrive chips will give your old machine a boost, they won't turn it into anything resembling today's top performers. And at $300 to $500, they're expensive. If you're just trying to speed up Windows 95, you may get just as big a bang by adding extra memory -- at a fraction of the cost.

From the e-mail bag: As you recommended, I replaced my old modem with a 33.6 kbps model to make Web browsing faster. It does go faster sometimes, but a lot of the time it seems like nothing is happening at all. Is this a modem problem, too?

The speed at which Web pages download depends on the speed of your modem, the quality of your phone line and conditions on the Web itself. If you have an external modem, you can often tell what's happening by watching the little lights on the front panel. One will be labeled RD or RX, and it flashes when your modem is receiving data.

If you click on a link to a Web page and the light stays dark for a while, it means there's nothing to process -- and it doesn't matter how fast your modem is. The delay could be caused by traffic on the Internet, or the server you're trying to contact could be busy. Your Internet provider's system could be falling behind, too. Unfortunately, until the Internet infrastructure catches up with the onslaught of new users, delays like this are likely to get worse.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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