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Pentium III: mostly promise for the future


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 1999

Thirty-four years ago, Intel executive Gordon Moore defined what has become known as Moore's law: Every 18 to 24 months, a computer chip will be released that will be twice as powerful as its predecessor.

The newest chip from Intel, the Pentium III released this month, is the latest to fulfill Moore's prophetic statement. Although not as revolutionary as the Pentium II, the Pentium III does have significant differences from its predecessor.

At the heart of every processor is a fixed set of instructions. The Pentium III has added more than 70 instructions that enable a powerful technology known as streaming SIMD, or single instruction multiple data, extensions.

Think of this as the processor executing one instruction that affects several areas of an image on a computer screen simultaneously. These instructions will help boost the performance of applications involving 3-D graphics and image manipulation, as well as voice input and other audio-video tasks.

The bulk of the Pentium III's improvements comes from the addition of a storage area called a register to specifically handle new multimedia instructions. By adding the extra register, Intel has made multimedia processing smoother and faster.

What does this capability get you? Well, for now, not too much. Until software is developed specifically for the SIMD instructions, the Pentium III's performance advantages will be minimal.

However, it won't be long before these applications start appearing. Games, voice recognition and all kinds of applications that require the heavy use of graphics are being developed for SIMD and the Pentium III. Among the applications in the work: SharperImage.com's online store, the games Descent 3 and Madden NFL 99, and the Intel Video Phone 3.2.

On the Internet, where bandwidth determines how rich and fast an experience you'll get, Web developers will make use of the SIMD instructions to make 3D imaging a part of advanced user interfaces.

One of the chip's features has created controversy: the Intel Processor Serial Number, an electronic identification number in each Pentium III processor.

This feature allows programs to retrieve a unique identification number from the processor. The serial number, along with a password and user ID, was designed to be used by Web sites to provide stronger security when buying things over the Internet.

But some have argued that it is an invasion of privacy, which theoretically could allow the monitoring of a Pentium III user's behavior in cyberspace. In response, Intel released a program called the Processor Serial Number Control utility that can be used to turn the feature on or off.

However, malicious programs still could retrieve this number once they are downloaded and run, so the debate continues.

Can Pentium II PCs be upgraded to the Pentium III? At the very least, this will involve a BIOS update, and likely be available only for Pentium II 350 to 450 MHz systems with a BX chipset.

You might be better off purchasing a Pentium III compatible motherboard as well as the new chip since there is no guarantee the chip will work with a Pentium II motherboard. And if you're buying a new PC, you'll need to decide if the extra cost for the latest technology is worth it when you can't immediately enjoy its benefits.

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