Benefiting from a dip in the world economy and rapid advances in the speed of computer communications, users have for over a decade been offered twice the power for the same price approximately every 18 months (a trend that will last at least for the next two or three years). Selling the basic computer has […]
Benefiting from a dip in the world economy and rapid advances in the speed of computer communications, users have for over a decade been offered twice the power for the same price approximately every 18 months (a trend that will last at least for the next two or three years). Selling the basic computer has meant adding new features every year (the latest being Internet connection). Personal computer vendors that once sold a basic machine are now forced to bundle sound and video boards, a modem , a CD-ROM drive and several feet of software. The margin for profit is minimal and any attempt to bring down the cost of the hardware further will always be popular among those who sell them. So Intel Corp is popular, because Native Signal Processing promises to reduce the cost of the whole system. Vendors get to reduce the overheads of bundling additional boards while the central processor – Intel’s, of course – remains fundamental. Developers using Native Signal Processing in their software will need to know the technology and tools.
Rather than write its own real-time operating system kernel from scratch, Intel settled on the SPOX signal processing operating system from Spectron Inc (now the property of computer-integrated telephony experts, Dialogic Corp) and implemented it for its chips. It resides in the inner sanctum of the Windows operating system ensures the synchronization of several digital multimedia streams. However, there have been criticisms that it requires a lot of memory and could affect the performance of the whole system, especially since the whole Native Signal Processing project has since been moved to the memory-hungry Windows95. Hence, Microsoft is also working on its own real-time operating system within Windows95 and sources have suggested tha t Spectron-Intel’s IA-SPOX will soon be out of the window completely. The Native Signal Processing environment does more than simply off-load compression onto the main processor, though, and there are distinct advantages in handing the functions ove r to software. If a single driver manages all the applications that require audio, for example, you eliminate the ‘device busy’ warning should you be playing a game and get an incoming facsimile message or phone call. A Native Signal Processing driver can be told which applications get priority and whether to dedicate the whole audio subsystem to the new application or just turn the volume down while your computer reads your mail to you. And the number of applications is not limited to the number of channels wired into a board – after all, software is just a bunch of numbers so the number of channels is, in theory, limited only by the computer’s ability to count. Intel was lambasted from every corner. To the user, multimedia capabilty on a personal computer ought to be transparent and the assumption from Intel’s ranks was that the Pentium processor would be powerful enough to run its commonplace applications and take on the additional load of tomorrow’s multimedia functions.
By Morgan Holt
With good cause, many critics doubted the ability of any processor (including the later architectures such as PowerPC) to handle sound, video, modems, graphics, networks and perform normal functions satisfyingly before the turn of the century. K S C hay, co-founder, president and chief executive of Creative Technologies Ltd, the Singaporean industry-defining audio technology designer of the SoundBlaster board, goes one further. He doesn’t think the main processor will ever have enough spare roo m to handle the increasing demands of the consumer. He thinks Intel may have got itself into a tricky situation promising a power that will always get used up. The main processor already has to deal with a lot of system software and has its work c ut out just coping with bulky operating systems like Windows95, before even considering the complex load of sound-generating techniques like compression algorithms, wave-table analysis and FM synthesis. Last year Creative released the 3DBlaster, a video board with twice the raw power of a 90MHz Pentium. It is difficult to imagine Native Signal Processing effortlessly bearing that sort of load into the next century. In the mad rush to be the best, it has been said behind the scenes that the Nat ive Signal Processing strategy may be a far more shrewd move by the world’s number one. With Native Signal Processing, Intel promises to absorb all things multimedia into the central processor, thus using up some of the spare power in the company’s under-selling Pentium Pro processors. Sales of dedicated signal processors such as sound boards would suffer in favor of the higher-end Intel processors. This view seems out of line with what was actually announced in March and most probably arose from a few misplaced comments by the company’s senior management and an effervescent enthusiasm from much of the trade press. What this would mean to the heavily vested interests of add-in board manufacturers is what the electric car would mean to the oil industry.
Intel managed to annoy them in particular because, whether Native Signal Processing worked or not, it had, in effect, sounded their death knell to the world. Intel quickly tried to pacify their crowds of development partners saying that Native Signal Processing was not a definitive standard but instead a base-line technology. Hardware would still be needed to accelerate the quality of multimedia beyond basic use, but it is hoped that the Lion King fiasco would not be repeated if software autho rs had a common standard on tap. Partly in response to the growing discomfort among its partners, Intel stopped talking about replacing everything and instead insisted Native Signal Processing was merely a new tool for balancing the load between proprietary hardware and the main processor. Another reason Intel retracted is that its publicity may have been far-fetched and unrealistic. It seems to make sense that the more powerful processors become, the closer we get to fully-functional software . Intel’s literature persists in the belief that The Pentium processor is capable of executing the complex but common-place signal processing functions required by today’s mainstream multimedia applications. It is hoping that Native Signal Process ing will become the VideoPlus of the multimedia home, and by creating tomorrow’s applications today, Intel gets to keep Microsoft on its chips. So if it owns the Native Signal Processing interface, it owns the developers and the software authors, and ultimately, the future.