Christmas computers have had their chips

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The Independent Online
Computers bought for Christmas are already out of date. Although those shopping for computers as presents were unaware, a more powerful processor to improve graphics, sound and video was just waiting to be launched

Yesterday Intel, the world's largest chip manufacturer, unveiled its MMX chip, an add-on for its best-selling Pentium processor. But even computer experts, used to an industry in which things changing fast, expressed surprise.

"I think people will be really annoyed," said Jan Howells, of Computer Life magazine. "Intel plan a massive advertising campaign and Joe Public is going to say: 'Why wasn't I told about this before Christmas'."

Richard Wentk, of the Which? Guide to Computers, said: "That just goes to show that people really need to do their research before they buy a computer." He added that software which could make proper use of MMX's multimedia capabilities would not be available until late spring.

"As far as basic applications are concerned the chip will make no difference whatsoever. It is a solution waiting for some problems to appear. It's a nice development in theory which will do things programmers can get excited about but there are not any 'killer' applications," he said.

With more and more "ordinary" people buying PCs, especially for the home, many self-taught experts will be wondering why technology has to change quite so fast, and particularly why a significant improvement to PC technology is held over until after the main Christmas buying period.

Intel said it could not launch MMX sooner because it lacked sufficient software support, and could not produce enough of the chips to meet expected demand. But with less than 15 MMX titles available at launch there seemed little reason for delaying the announcement.

"I would have liked to give MMX to my customers before Christmas but it was not available," said John Shepheard,general manager of the PC direct sales company Gateway 2000. "We have no problem with inventory, but for others, changing over to a new type of processor is inevitably a problem."

MMX stands for multimedia extensions. "MMX technology allows the Pentium processor to produce much better graphics, video and audio," said Ian Wilson, Intel's European technology manager.

Almost all Windows-type PCs use Pentium processors. These come in various speeds with the slowest being around 66MHz and the fastest now 200MHz. Intel has introduced an improved version of the 166MHZ and the 200MHz. It has no plans to introduce MMX versions of the slower processors which it expects will cease to be mainstream products by the end of the year.

Existing multimedia software should get a 10 to 20 per cent performance boost from MMX but to get the real benefit software applications have to be specially written for MMX. Intel says MMX multimedia titles will operate up to 60 per cent faster on MMX-enhanced PCs compared with ordinary packages on ordinary Pentium machines. In certain special multimedia- intensive tasks, such as fast video sequences or complicated visual tricks, MMX systems could operate two or three times faster.

While Intel charges about pounds 50 extra for an MMX chip, Gateway and many others will not be charging extra for an MMX version of a machine.

MMX will start appearing in the shops over the next few weeks. For some computer games and multimedia titles it might produce a significant benefit but with "ordinary" Pentium PCs so heavily discounted after the Christmas rush, many bargain hunters should be sticking with the machines they know.

Jan Howells said: "For real games people who are into arcade-type 3D games they should perhaps wait for MMX. For other people, the price of inventory held by vendors and manufacturers is bound to drop and there should be some real bargains."