Will Pentium III live up to its hype?

Intel is always on the hunt for applications that will create new uses for more powerful microprocessors. The latest: The Internet.

The chip making giant today gives a sneak preview of features of its Pentium III processor, scheduled to be formally introduced Feb. 26. On hand will be a variety of top Internet content providers, ranging from the Excite navigation hub to its high-bandwidth ally At Home to CBS Sportsline to CNN.

Also present with services and software that take advantage of a processor that purports to be 'optimised' for the Net are e-commerce software supplier CommerceOne, multimedia software developers Macromedia, MetaCreaitons, Real Audio and Kinetix; and immersive entertainment event organiser Quokka.

Pentium III promises to support the holy grail of Internet multimedia: The ability to display on a full computer screen. The "wished for 30 frames a second," as In-Stat analyst Max Baron puts it, that provides the fluidity and crispness of conventional motion pictures.

But that is only if Internet users have high-speed connections that transfer 1.5 million bits of data or more, Intel engineers say. To the average PC user, a high-speed connection to the Web is still 56 thousand bits a second or less. At those rates, Web pages will feature more and better stock tickers, rotating sports score boxes and animated features In simple terms, Pentium III will enhance the liveliness of the Web through:

  • New instruction sets that will extend the usefulness of MMX technology. Particularly, the floating point operations that are key to the delivery of three-dimensional images. Characters, vehicles, and other objects in animated scenes will appear more lifelike and environments more realistic, even when smoke, haze, cloudiness or other relatively subtle conditions are introduced.

  • Video images will stream on screen more smoothly. Decompression and compression of images will happen simultaneously. The processor will manage frame buffers and other memory more effectively. The object: To display streaming audio and video files without interruption. With truly high-speed connections, the PC hard drive will act as a PC VCR, storing frames even when a user has paused the playback.

  • Scripts will save bandwidth. Images can be pulled off CDs or downloaded to hard drives; then an application will just send instructions to the PC on how to draw from the library of components and use them. As popular games such as Quake and Doom have proven, the technique consumes little capacity, even on 28,800 bit connections.

  • Mathematical formulas will replace polygons, as methods of creating realistic images. By describing how lines will be formed and then letting algorithms for such different effects as a race car, the sound of its engine, the sound of a car passing by, and the white noise of wind, realistic and constantly changing imagery will be integrated on the fly. Without any files to download, bandwidth will be conserved.

"With increased computing power can convey information more intelligently, and so provide better communication over the same amount of bandwidth," says Baron.

A key basis for this last characteristic is a form of geometry that in geek-speak is called the creation of Non Uniform Rational B-Splines. How these formulas that describe a curving line or a changing pitch work is not as important as how few bytes they chew up. Where the description of all the pertinent characteristics of a Stradivarius violin might take hundreds of thousands or even millions of bytes of data when stored in a file, the same results can be produced with the transmission of somewhere on the order of 2,000 to 10,000 characters of data in algorithms that can interact with each other, according to R. Victor Varney, Intel's director of developer relations and engineering

"Used to be richer meant fatter. With the technology we have now, richer means less bandwidth, better experience," says Varney. "You're basically trading MIPs for baud," referring to the use of computing power in a machine in place of data being transferred over a communication link.

All told, 70 new instructions have been incorporated into Pentium III to streamline memory usage and improve floating point operations. The results: better accuracy and less training time in speech recognition software, such as IBM's Via Voice means of talking to a computer; improved video telephony over the Net; and more visual excitement on Web pages.

"What you're seeing now is really a platform that is pretty much bottleneck free," argues Varney. Except for the key ingredient of connecting to the Internet: the connection itself. "The fact of the matter is the bottleneck is still the connection," said Michael Feibus, principal semiconductor analyst of Mercury Research. "Until you fix that, no amount of hardware will solve that."

The Pentium III also has come under fire on the Internet for including a 'personal serial number' that would allow an employer to track the software on a user's machine or other parties to identify what Web pages have been visited and services purchased. But Intel marketing director for desktop products, Richard Dracott, said the company used the firestorm as a "wake-up call" to privacy issues. Now, there are two procedures that computer makers can use to keep the personal serial numbers from actually being used.

Computer makers can turn off a switch at the bus level that would preclude the number from being used. A user would actually have to know how to turn on the switch, in order to make the number available.

Also, a software utility will be supplied with the Pentium III that will allow users to turn off and on the use of the number. But it, Dracott said, would be useful only if the user has already elected to turn on the number at the input-output bus that sends and receives data from the chip. In effect, users now must 'opt in' twice, in order to make the number active presuming computer makers send out their machines with the number turned off.