Do You Really Need a Pentium MMX-Equipped Computer?

Not all acronyms in the computer world are designed to confuse consumers, but it sure can seem that way.One acronym that has great potential to confuse is MMX, short for multimedia extensions, which denotes anew family of Pentium processors from Intel Corp. Introduced at the beginning of the year, Pentium MMXprocessors are optimized for audio, video and graphics, thanks to 57 new instructions built into them. MMXprocessors also have more cache memory than other Pentium chips, which decreases processing time becausefrequently used operations are kept right in the processor and not elsewhere in the computer. This meansflashy multimedia functions, like video stored on CD-ROM or audio streaming over the Internet, can behandled faster. As the offerings of the computer world and the Internet become more complex, your computercan better handle those offerings.Intel and other computer manufacturers estimate that ordinary computer applications (word-processing,spreadsheets, etc.) will run 10 percent-20 percent faster than a comparable non-MMX Pentium, while software optimizedfor the MMX Pentium processor can run 60 percent faster. There are 166-MHz and 200-MHz Pentium MMX chips fordesktops, and 150-MHz and 160-MHz Pentium MMX chips for laptops. (Because of power and cooling needs,CPUs for desktops and laptops are different.)This doesn't necessarily mean you can skimp on other components of your computer; if you're working withmultimedia, you'll still want a fast CD-ROM drive, a good sound card and a hopped-up video card.However, there's a catch: Pentium MMX computers cost more than PCs built around ordinary Pentiumchips. So, is an MMX processor worth it? Yes, when viewed as an investment.The MMX Pentium has come along at a perfect time for consumers. Historically, the introduction of a newIntel processor meant computers built around the new processor commanded a premium for at least sixmonths; it also meant reduced prices for lesser models. Those who wanted the fastest processor money couldbuy (dubbed "early adopters" in the industry) were expected to pay more, and it was assumed they'd do it nomatter what. This buying model, however, has been crumbling for the last year and now seems dead.Early adopters rightly figured out that the difference between a 90-MHz Pentium and a 120-MHz Pentiumwasn't worth an extra $500, and so they stuck to lower-priced offerings. Corporations decided to be a littlemore selective in their purchases, so they sat out some product introductions. With the defection of earlyadopters and the business market, the computer industry turned to the consumer market to pick up the slack,but the consumer market is a lot more price-sensitive.In addition, prices have slumped for new computers, for a variety of reasons: The big retailers (Circuit City,Best Buy, Computer City) have slashed prices ruthlessly to drive up volume; most high-buck componentshave dropped dramatically in price (RAM has never been cheaper, while hard-drive prices have plummetedthanks to intense competition); laptop components, such as screens, have also dropped in price; and the largercomputer manufacturers are now very efficient at predicting trends and reacting with low prices (witnessDell and Compaq, who run the leanest ships in the computer-manufacturing world and who also offer thelowest prices). The result is prices for MMX-equipped PCs that are the same as or lower than prices for non-MMX PCs a year ago.Today's PCs have more memory (23-32 megabytes of RAM are commonplace today) and larger hard drives(2-gigabyte drives are everywhere now) than those on the market a year ago. In other words, your computinghorsepower has risen dramatically in the last year, but prices have actually declined.A look at MMX PC prices from large retailers shows you can find decked-out (that is, with more than 16megabytes of RAM and 2-plus gigabyte hard drives) 166-MHz MMX systems for under $2,000, usually with amonitor. Similar PCs built around non-MMX Pentiums are usually priced about $300 less. (The same pricedifferences exist for laptops.)So you'll pay about $300 more for the MMX capabilities. Look at it this way: There are very few $300components that will improve system performance by 60 percent. And even if Intel is overestimating performanceincreases, there are very few $300 components that will improve system performance by 30 percent. So on that basis,the MMX technology is attractive.[raisecap]The list of manufacturers offering MMX Pentium-based PCs is impressive: Acer Computer, AST Research,Compaq, Dell, Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), Gateway 2000, Hewlett-Packard, HYMCO Technologies, IBM,Micron, Midwest Micro, Mitsuba, NEC, Packard Bell, Polywell Computers, ProSys-Tec, QuantexMicrosystems, Sony Electronics, Tangent Computer, 3D Microcomputers, Unisys and Vektron International.Laptop manufacturers offering MMX-enhanced laptops and portables include AMS Tech, Compaq, DEC,Fujitsu, Gateway 2000, Hitachi, IBM, Micron, NEC, Texas Instruments and Toshiba.However, be warned that you're investing in an upside if you buy a Pentium MMX today. Fancy hardwaredoesn't do you a lot of good if there's no software to take advantage of it, and your biggest concern should bethat there's precious little software that's written for MMX chips.Don't look for a lot of it in the next six months, either. Change comes slowly in the software field these days,and it seems software manufacturers are all waiting for the next version of Windows, code-named Memphis,which should be released sometime later this year.Trouble is, Microsoft is being rather coy about the next version of Windows (the term "Windows 97" isverboten when dealing with Microsoft and its public relations agency), but there are printed reports that itwill be available in the third quarter of this year. When that happens, look for a flood of new products thattake advantage both of the new Windows and MMX technology.One of the few titles designed for MMX is "Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater," from Omniview(www.omniview.com). This $49.95 CD-ROM contains computer-enhanced images of Fallingwater, called"photobubbles," designed to approximate the feeling of actually walking through what is arguably Wright'sgreatest work.Other notable titles designed to take advantage of MMX technology include "Macromedia Director 5.0," animportant tool for creating multimedia presentations, and five consumer-oriented scanned-photo editors:"Kai's Power Goo," "Adobe PhotoDeluxe," "Picture Man," "Easy Photo" and "Microsoft Picture It."Games optimized for MMX include "Eraser Turnabout," "The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest," "Cover-Upat Roswell," "Logic Quest" and "Rebel Moon Rising." In addition, Intel itself offers MMX-enhanced Internetvideoconferencing software.

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