Intel's latest leap forward is good news - especially for buyers who didn't get the old model for Christmas. Ian Grayson reports
A new microchip that significantly boosts the speed and multimedia capabilities of personal computers was launched last week by Intel Corporation.

The new MMX chip extends the capabilities of Intel's hugely successful Pentium processor and promises television-standard video images, high- quality stereo sound and vastly superior three-dimensional graphics. Initially, the chip is available in either 166MHz or 200MHz versions.

MMX is Intel's most radical change to its microprocessor architecture since the release of the 386 processor in 1985. It adds new instructions to the chip, enabling it to process video and audio data much faster than existing Pentium chips. According to Intel, any software running on an MMX chip will benefit from a 10 to 20 per cent performance boost compared with a conventional Pentium processor. Packages written specifically for the new chip will run up to 60 per cent faster.

Contrary to the tradition that new computer technology is first adopted by corporate customers, MMX chips are aimed squarely at the home market. Improved graphic and video performance make it a natural choice for PC gamers while faster processing makes applications such as video calls over normal telephone lines possible. This is a huge growth area in the US and is expected to become increasingly popular in Europe.

Chris Hogg, Intel market development manager, said business use of the chip was expected to increase towards the end of this year. "We see corporates using MMX technology in the short term in notebooks where its multimedia capabilities can be used for presentations and demonstrations on the road," he said. "It won't be until later that we see it being used in corporate desktop PCs. Initially, the market is very much the consumer."

Intel's MMX announcement coincided with a raft of unveilings of PCs based on the new chip. The company had been working with hardware and software vendors for more than 18 months to ensure products would be available for the launch, and many major vendors are now shipping MMX-enabled PCs.

Michael Christensen, Hewlett Packard's European pre-sales support manager, said his company expected sales of MMX-enabled PCs to rise gradually during the year, eventually replacing traditional Pentium-powered machines. "Corporate sales are not going to take off until they really need the multimedia capability that MMX offers," he said.

Intel has received some criticism from industry watchers over the timing of its MMX launch - just two weeks after Christmas and one of the busiest periods for consumer PC sales. Some feel the tactic has left many people with machines that are out of date just weeks after purchase.

"There will never be a perfect time to buy a PC because technology is developing so quickly," said Mr Hogg. Many elements - such as hardware and software development - had to coincide for the MMX launch and early 1997 was the time that the pieces came together, he said.

Owners of Pentium-based PCs - to be renamed Pentium "Classic" by Intel - can take heart in the news that overdrive processors are scheduled for release later this year. These will provide the advantages of MMX and allow owners to make full use of new software of which more than 100 titles are expected within the next 12 months. Intel's Pentium Pro processor range will also get MMX capability later in the year