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A MULTIMEDIA POWER SURGE

In '97, brawnier chips will put your PC in the running as an entertainment center

This is the time when we trend-spotters are supposed to peer into our crystal balls and predict the big news of the year to come. Fortunately, the computer industry makes my job easy by announcing products months before they are available for sale. And the hot trend for 1997 will be multimedia performance good enough to turn PCs into serious home-entertainment appliances.

We've been hearing about the wonders of multimedia since computers started coming equipped with CD-ROM drives and sound cards several years ago. But jerky little movies, mediocre animation, and tinny sound kept computers from being a real threat to television, or even game machines. Computers have been getting better, though, and they are about to take a big leap, mostly because of two technologies that will debut early next year: DVD, which, depending on whom you ask, stands for either digital video disk or digital versatile disk, and MMX, which stands for nothing at all.

DVD is a new type of CD-ROM that can hold up to 15 times as much data as current disks. Early attention has focused on DVD's potential as a high-quality medium for movies. In fact, shipment of the devices had been held up for months by a dispute between the movie and computer industries over how to make the disks copy-proof. But DVD offers a lot more. It can display video in multiple formats to work with your computer display, your television, and your wide-screen high-definition TV of the future. It also handles both conventional stereo and theater-style five-channel surround sound. And it could be the key to a world of new products, starting with superrealistic interactive games based on live-action video, not animation.

Quality video at least as good as what you see on today's television screens requires not only a medium such as DVD but also a tremendous amount of computer power. That power should surge in 1997, when Intel Corp. ships MMX versions of its Pentium and Pentium Pro chips. While MMX processors don't have a clock speed, or heartbeat, that is any faster than existing chips, they are optimized to do certain kinds of calculations very, very quickly. What you will see and hear is improved video and sound performance. Rival AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) plans to ship processors early next year that it says will match or beat MMX. Machines using the new chips are worth waiting for, especially for anyone who plays arcade-style games or does a lot of work with photos or other images.

The ease with which today's fast computers can manipulate images already has helped launch a miniboom in digital photography. Next year, this trend should grow--and spread to video. Today, lots of families own camcorders, but editing their tapes has required expensive equipment and a lot of skill.

The process is becoming much easier, and costs are dropping fast. Apple Computer already sells a $2,700 Mac Performa complete with video-editing hardware and software. Low-cost products set for early next year include a $300 hardware-software combo from Pinnacle Systems that lets you take raw video from your camcorder and record an edited and titled tape on a VCR. VideoWave from MGI Software is an easy-to-use editor for preparing short videos for presentations, E-mail, or transmission over the World Wide Web.

One area where video has a long way to go is on the World Wide Web: Even gee-whiz computers can't overcome the Web's slow connections. Next year will bring some modest improvements. Modems that will double the top speed of connections over ordinary phone lines should reach stores in January (BW--Dec. 16). And as the year goes on, cable systems will begin to move beyond pilot testing of multimegabit modems, and telephone companies will start to offer Digital Subscriber Line service at two megabits per second or faster. Neither technology will become widespread before 1998. In the meantime, the folks who produce multimedia content for the Web are getting much cleverer about cutting transmission times. This effort will likely produce the biggest gains in performance.

One thing new multimedia capabilities decidedly will not do is make your computer easier to use. But hardware and software makers are finally learning that if they want to get computers into more homes, the devices will have to get simpler and cheaper. A wide array of machines will feature convenience features, such as phone-answering machines and laptop-style sleep functions, which let machines simply power down when not in use so you don't have to reboot when you go back to them. Watch for PCs that will make it easy to plug in accessories and for name-brand, full-featured systems costing less than $1,000.

As the year comes to an end, I'd like to thank the readers of Technology & You, especially the many of you who have taken the time to write to me. A happy and healthy 1997 to you, and keep the E-mail coming.

By STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM


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Updated June 13, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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