What good is a new chip if there are no applications to go with it? Not much, of course. Intel is spending US$300 million to assure potential buyers that apps written to work with its new Pentium III are to die for. But a look at the first batch of PIII-ready apps reveals that most of them are to yawn at.
The Pentium III not only boasts the fastest PC clock speeds yet, but it also supports 70 new instructions (so-called Streaming SIMD Extensions, or SSE) that accelerate image rendering, 3D geometry, and other multimedia tasks. Software written to use these new instructions should show a noticeable performance boost.
Intel says that roughly 200 applications and Web sites will be optimised for the Pentium III by this summer. Of those, 64 were available as we went to press. Most of them fall into one of four categories: Internet plug-ins (and Web sites that use them), voice recognition, image editing, and games. Bread-and-butter applications like word processors, spreadsheets, and e-mail won't get any boost.
The Wild Wild Web
Intel has pegged its hopes for the Pentium III on the Web. In practical terms, that means some new Internet plug-ins have been rewritten to take advantage of SSE instructions. Web sites will then have to enhance their media clips and 3D demos to take advantage of those enhanced plug-ins.
Shells Interactive's Spike plug-in is a case in point. Once you have downloaded and installed it, Spike plays back interactive 3D animations that download quickly because they're highly compressible. The Sharper Image's Web site (www.sharperimage.com) uses Spike to display interactive 3D models of yuppie gewgaws. Autobytel's car-shopping site (www.autobytel.com) uses the Metacreations SSE-enhanced MetaStream plug-in to let you virtually test-drive the car of your dreams.
RealNetworks has jumped on the Pentium III bandwagon, too. A new version of its RealPlayer G2 plug-in uses SSE to smooth jerky video playback. However, according to a RealNetworks source, the Pentium III-enabled player will improve playback efficiency by only 2 to 5 percent compared to a Pentium II. The boost in speed may be more noticeable with content specifically encoded for the new player. We discerned little difference between the Pentium III-enhanced and standard versions of the player when playing clips from CNN.com. In fact, playback on a Pentium III-450 seemed identical to that on a Pentium MMX-166.
Voice of Reason
If 3D web sites don't exactly light your fire, Intel is hoping that better, faster voice recognition will do the job. A half dozen companies, including Dragon, IBM, and Lernout & Hauspie, have announced that forthcoming versions of their voice recognition applications will exploit SSE and another Pentium III innovation, which is called cache prefetch, in order to make voice recognition increasingly attractive to the mass market.
Most of these applications are still in beta versions. The major exception: Dragon is shipping an SSE-enhanced version of Point & Speak. Comparing the new version (on a Pentium III-450) with a non-enhanced version (running on a Pentium II-450), we found training times to be dramatically faster: With the enhanced version, training took us just 3 minutes; with the unenhanced version, that task took up to 25 minutes.
Questions remain, however, about whether those improvements are attributable specifically to use of the SSE instructions. In the process of reprogramming a voice recognition application for the Pentium III, vendors may find that it speeds up on other CPUs as well. For example, IBM, while optimizing its ViaVoice recognition engine for the Pentium III, achieved significant performance increases on non-SSE CPUs as well, according to Eddie Epstein, the company's manager of speech recognition development. Still, Epstein predicts that the next version of ViaVoice will reap "modest" performance gains from the Pentium III.
Digital artists will also benefit right away from the Pentium III. By late March, Adobe planned to post to its Web site a free Photoshop 5.0 update that adds support for SSE. PC World tested a prerelease version and found that when applying complex image filters to very large images, the update accelerated processing by approximately 20 percent. Adobe planned to release SSE-enabled versions of PhotoDeluxe at the same time.
Video-encoding applications will also get a speed boost. Microsoft PowerPoint 2000, for example, will allow you to add video clips to presentations and then encode the whole thing as an MPEG-4 file for streaming playback, tapping the Pentium III for a performance boost in the process. The chip doesn't help during playback, though, according to Microsoft Office product manager John Duncan.
IT managers may also like the Pentium III. A slew of upcoming security and asset-management utilities will use the chip's controversial ID number to keep track of software licenses and hardware. Web sites may use the number to validate user IDs.
It's All a Game
Games are where the Pentium III really gets to strut its stuff, by accelerating the geometry calculations used to build and animate complex characters and objects. Measured in raw frame rates, the performance gains are dramatic, allowing developers to make characters, lighting, and action more realistic. But as IBM discovered with ViaVoice, Activision found that rewriting its Heavy Gear II shooter to take advantage of the new instructions also yielded better performance on Pentium II systems that didn't support SSE, according to Ryan Moos, the game's associate producer.
But based on the currently available software, business buyers will probably want to wait on the the Pentium III. The next version of the chip, due out later this year and code-named Coppermine, will sport higher clock, memory bus, and AGP speeds, as well as a full-speed integrated cache. In the meantime, those SSE instructions, as well as the programs that use them, will not be enough to entice most mainstream users.