Multimedia and portability advance in '97

Happy computing, '97 style. The year begins with good news for power users.


Intel Corp. last week released its newest Pentiums that include multimedia
instructions-thanks to the much-heralded MMX chip.


There's little software yet that invokes the new instructions, but even existing
applications will run an average of 10 percent faster. Expect to see desktop and portable
systems from all the major vendors.


And while you're away from your powerful desktop, you can use a handy handheld that
weighs less than a pound and runs the newest operating system from Microsoft Corp. If
you've shunned so-called personal digital assistants, some of the new hardware coupled
with Windows CE could change your mind.


Late last year the GCN Lab crew sat down to make its holiday wish list of products to
evaluate.


Soon after, Santa Claus-disguised in a drab brown suit and looking amazingly like a UPS
guy-dropped off the first few goodies. So we got early looks at machines with Pentium MMX
chips and at a new-generation, pocket-sized computer from Compaq Computer Corp. that runs
Microsoft Windows CE.


We already had two PCs from Dell Computer Corp.-OptiPlex Gs+ and OptiPlex Gxi. Both
systems had standard 200-MHz Pentiums installed. Dell sent us two P55c chips, the code
name for what Intel Corp. is calling the "Pentium Processor with MMX
technology."


Thanks to Dell's new case design, it took about 90 seconds each to replace the chips
with MMX Pentiums, also running at 200 MHz (see story, Page 33).


We invited other manufacturers to send MMX systems, but they were unable to provide
them in time for our deadlines.


In raw data from our GCNdex32TM, we saw dramatic speed increases.The GCNdexTM integer
and floating-point math focuses
exclusively within memory and the CPU. Processing speed surged to between 35 and 58
percent. Video scores were also up dramatically-to between 30 and 40 percent.


Why such a jump?


To a regular Pentium set of around 200 instructions, MMX adds 57 instructions that
specifically enhance multimedia-graphics, video, audio, 3-D environments and
communications.


Software authors working with MMX instructions have to write applications that use
those 57 "verbs." Although MMX may be a big boon to games, serious
graphic-intensive applications used in the federal government will also get dramatic
performance gains.


Intel made a few other improvements that contributed to such large gains in raw
benchmark scores on non-MMX applications:
More efficient screen drawing. Before MMX, a single instruction cycle told the video card
about a single pixel. MMX Pentiums tell the card about eight pixels at once. They
basically package the instructions and data more efficiently. Larger on-board cache.
Caches stage your data before it enters the CPU. MMX Pentiums have, at 32K, twice the
cache of plain Pentiums. Better floating point performance. In the GCNdex, floating-point
math saw the greatest improvement. MMX Pentiums have more space to handle floating-point
executions. However, it uses some of that space in executing MMX instructions.


We also noticed an average performance improvement of 10 percent on non-MMX
applications running on the new chips. Databases and spreadsheets had a 13 percent jump,
while heavy word processing or document formatting achieved an 8 percent increase.


We received Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop 4.0 just in time for the MMX review. This
newly released version includes a "fastcore" plug-in that boosts performance
using MMX instructions. We performed some quick tasks and found speed jumps of 20 percent
to 40 percent.


Most of the PC industry is behind the MMX chip. Expect MMX-equipped computers to be
$200 more than those with regular Pentiums. Some vendors are hinting that new non-MMX
Pentiums will disappear by year's end.


Portable versions of MMX Pentiums will appear at 150-MHz and 166-MHz. They'll roll into
production after desktops.


It will take at least a month before any of these products will be available for
government purchase as Dell and others go through the process to get them onto General
Services Administration schedule and other contracts.


Compaq's PDA, the PC Companion, is so far available only on the open market, not on any
of Compaq's federal contracts. But, with a list price of $500 to $700 depending on
configuration, it is available to Impac card users.


Microsoft and others have adopted the term "HPC," for "handheld
PC," rather than PDA.


We found Compaq's PC Companion an apt moniker. You wouldn't want to use an HPC like the
Companion for any extended period of time because the QWERTY keyboard is
so small. But the cigarette case-sized handheld acts like an extension of your desktop.


Companion runs from two AA batteries. Compaq says to expect about 20 hours of run time.
It worked for us about a week of normal use before dying. Compaq offers optional
rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and even a cradle to maintain charges and automatically
sync with the desktop.


The Companion uses a lithium backup battery, like those found in a watch, to maintain
data in its RAM. Here's where we encountered a problem.


At the same time our AA batteries died, we got a warning the backup battery was
"very low." We lost all data.


We initialized the system and it then told us the backup battery was fine. We're
inclined to believe the problem was a fluke since we installed new AAs and continued to
work on the Companion for more than a week.


We did tell Compaq about the battery issue, and technicians there are checking into it
to be certain our experience was the exception.


The Companion accepts a standard Type II PC Card, but if you stick one in, don't expect
more than 30 minutes of life running on fully charged AAs. Compaq and others are
developing low power PC Card modems and other peripherals for longer life.


The monochrome 480- by 240- pixel touchscreen supports four grayscale colors. The
contrast wheel on the left side of the screen was overly responsive, making precise
control difficult. The greenish backlight is slightly weak, but that minimizes the drain
on battery power. Still, adjustable light intensity would be nice.


Windows CE and the applications are stored in 4M of ROM; the Companion I tested had 4M
of RAM to run apps and store information. A minimum of 2M RAM is required. The ROM can be
upgraded. Windows CE actually stays "on" within the handhelds at all times since
everything resides in RAM and ROM.


Windows CE is a kind of Windows 95 junior. Taking a cue from the failures of the Apple
Newton MessagePad, Windows CE avoids handwriting recognition. All CE-enabled handhelds use
a stylus on the touchscreen in place of a mouse. In general, WinCE is enough like Win95
that users should have no problems adapting.


We did miss the minimize window button on the title bar of applications. To minimize
windows, double click on the program's icon in the task bar.


Included with the OS are so-called "pocket" versions of Microsoft Word and
Excel. The personal information manager, Schedule+, is split into three applets-Calendar,
Contacts and Tasks.


Windows CE works very closely with the hardware. For example, the Companion may be
closed and turned off, yet an appointment reminder will make it beep and make small red
light on the cover flash. You can click a button on the side to acknowledge the
appointment and turn the flashing off.


If you're running the Office 95 suite with full versions of Word, Excel and Schedule+,
your PC and Windows CE will synchronize information without a hitch.


But if you've upgraded to Office 97, watch out. Windows CE cannot interface correctly
with the new products, including Outlook 97, the replacement for Schedule+.


In fact, in an attempt to synchronize, Windows CE deleted several entries in Outlook 97
and corrupted the primary database files on our desktop PC.


Ironically, the entries deleted in our contacts database happened to be Microsoft Corp.
people-more than 30 of them disappeared. We were unable to restore the entries from the
original Schedule+ database because Windows CE had corrupted it somehow and Outlook could
not import.


No warning about the incompatibility with Office 97 was issued anywhere we could see.
Microsoft is working on a fix.


Using Office 95's Schedule+, synchronization is flawless. We could change or delete
multiple entries on both desktop and handheld. During the next sync, all the information
updated correctly.


Outlook 97 does come prepared for any Windows CE handheld with an HPC Inbox Transfer,
meaning you can write e-mail on your handheld, and e-mail will be transferred and sent
during synch. With a PC Card modem, you can also connect to the Internet to send mail or
browse the World Wide Web with a Pocket Internet Explorer.


Of course, Microsoft couldn't resist and ported Solitaire over to WinCE. We're looking
forward to Freecell and other games.


Windows CE impressed us, despite requiring re-entry of 30 contacts. Building from Win95
makes the transition simple.


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