The promise of TriMedia: Are we holding our breath for nothing?

Summary:A little over a year ago we heard rumblings from the Apple and Philips Semiconductors camps that the two companies were teaming up to bring the next generation of superfast Macs to our desktops (see 09.23.

A little over a year ago we heard rumblings from the Apple and Philips Semiconductors camps that the two companies were teaming up to bring the next generation of superfast Macs to our desktops (see 09.23.96, Page 1). These Macs, code-named Power Express, would incorporate the TriMedia processor, a new DSP (digital signal processor) chip from Philips based on VLIW (very long instruction word) technology.

The promise of TriMedia

This chip speeds up complex and memory-intensive processes tremendously, including video compression and decompression (including MPEG-1 and MPEG-2), audio decompression, and 2-D and 3-D graphics processing (including 3-D rendering functions and geometric calculations).

Compare this with Intel Corp.'s MMX, which is primarily focused at the consumer and multimedia markets to increase playback and display speeds, not so much for memory-intensive rendering and geometric calculations (see 09.23.96, Page 100).

TriMedia was never meant to be a replacement for current accelerators or hardware. Rather, it was designed to provide a helping hand to memory-intensive tasks that created bottlenecks in the current processor's pipeline. TriMedia technology is cheap, can be upgraded and is backward-compatible. It could substantially speed processing of the aforementioned tasks by up to 20 times, and developers would not need to rewrite software for the chip. Intel's MMX technology cannot say the same (see 10.21.96, Page 43).

So what happened?

With Apple's change in focus over the last several months, the company has concentrated on the G3 product line and said it is committed to bringing high-powered Macs to the current base of education, publishing and design customers. Although there are no products slated for TriMedia chips at Apple right now, a spokesman there said TriMedia development is not on the back burner.

On the other hand, Philips has been working steadily with other developers to bring hardware acceleration cards to market to take advantage of TriMedia, although the company will not disclose the names of those companies at this time. (Because TriMedia technology is cheap, expect to see it arrive in consumer electronics, high-definition television and video-telephony products as well as high-end computer systems.)

Are we really missing much?

One developer recently told me that he was leery of the promise to support TriMedia, citing Apple's promises several years ago to support DSP on the Quadra AV Macs, which fell by the wayside with the introduction of the PowerPC.

In addition, DSP chips such as TriMedia may not be necessary in future Macs, because the processors will be refined to handle a much heavier load. We have already seen the beginnings of this with the new G3 systems. The importance of TriMedia will directly depend on how much of a performance gain the chip can provide. It may be better to let third-party developers handle specialized boards.

Michelle Szabo is partner and vice president at 3Dimentia, a 3-D design, animation and training company. Comments and questions may be sent to michelle@3dimentia.com.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Intel, Operating Systems, Processors

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