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Cover Story
Multimedia on the Go!
An (Almost) Perfect Fit for Notebooks

-- by Jim Forbes

MMX and notebook computers seem to be a match made in heaven. The MMX chip's doubled internal cache (32KB as opposed to 16KB) offers significant performance gains for portables, where processor speed continually lags behind the desktop. The multimedia enhancements will be particularly valuable, since it's difficult to pack high-end sound and video into the already-cramped notebook space.

Most portable computer makers are using MMX technology to pioneer new configurations. Virtually all of the MMX notebook systems I've examined to date offer high-performance video subsystems with 2MB of memory driving 12.1-inch or 13.3-inch active-matrix color screens. The MMX Pentium-equipped notebooks I've seen are costly, have state-of-the-art video subsystems and are initially positioned for users who either need or want the latest technology and are willing to pay a premium.

So far I've examined six MMX Pentium-equipped notebooks, often very early prototypes that will certainly speed up by the time they get to users' hands. Interestingly enough, all ran hotter than I would have expected, given Intel's promise that the chip would actually run a bit cooler than standard Pentium processors.

They also generally offered a battery life of less than two hours, even though they're equipped with 4-amp lithium ion power cells. Even if MMX doesn't reduce battery life, the fact that an MMX-enabled notebook likely will include larger active-matrix screens and other multimedia components, such as high-speed CD-ROM drives, may have the same effect.

For this review, I examined three systems (the Toshiba Tecra 740CDT, the NEC Versa 6050 and the TI TravelMate 6150) that were far enough along to be benchmarked. All three should be available as you read this article, but understand that the versions I tested were prototypes. (In fact, at press time TI said it may release a 166MHz version instead of-or in addition to-the 150MHz model I tested.) I would expect the performance of shipping versions of these machines to be significantly better than the scores I saw with the preproduction models.

Two of the three systems, the Toshiba Tecra 740CDT and the new NEC Versa 6050, are heavier than most notebooks. The Tecra has a travel weight of 8.5 pounds, while the NEC 6050 tips the scales at 6.9 pounds. The TI TravelMate 6050, at 6.1 pounds (without adapter), weighed the least.

Tecra 740CDT

The Toshiba Tecra 740CDT is the most powerful of the three. Unlike the 150MHz NEC Versa and TI TravelMate, the Tecra's CPU has a 166MHz clock speed. The base configuration included 16MB of EDO DRAM, a 1.3GB hard drive (shipping versions will have a 2GB hard drive), a high-performance PCI-based graphics accelerator with 2MB of video memory, a 10X CD-ROM, 256KB of level 2 cache, 16-bit Sound Blaster Pro audio with integrated stereo speakers and an integrated 28.8Kbps modem (including full-duplex speakerphone capabilities, which allow this machine to be set up as a voice-messaging system)

The Tecra's display measures a whopping 13.3 inches, giving it nearly the same viewing area as a 15-inch desktop monitor. The native resolution for this screen is 1024x768, and I found it to be one of the brightest and crispest I've seen on a notebook.

When the Tecra was tested, Toshiba was still in the process of refining the BIOS and other subsystems. Nonetheless, the early preproduction 740CDT cranked out an average of 324MIPS, 11Mpixel-per-second throughput for video, but only 1.5MBps uncached hard disk throughput. It took an average 18.67 seconds to run our Word macro and only 12 seconds to complete our Excel macro. Toshiba had not yet finished tuning the 10X drive that will come with this unit, so we were unable to test this subsystem's throughput.

In addition to the Tecra 740CDT, Toshiba is marketing a second MMX-equipped notebook, the 150MHz Tecra 730CXDT. This machine is virtually identical to the non-MMX version, the 730CDT.

NEC Versa 6050

NEC is also using Intel's MMX technology to premiere two new machines, the 150MHz Versa 6050 MX and the 166MHz Versa 6200. The early engineering sample I tested was the 6050 MX, which comes standard with 16MB of memory, 256KB of secondary cache, a 2.0GB hard drive, a 10X CD-ROM, a self-contained 33.6Kbps modem, 16-bit stereo sound with two integrated speakers, and a 12.1-inch active-matrix screen with 2MB of on-board video memory and a PCI-based video accelerator. The Versa 6200 has a similar configuration but comes with a 13-inch screen.

The 6050 cranked out a respectable 274MIPs average, while its video and hard drive subsystem turned in scores of 4.2Mpixels and 2MB-per-second throughput, respectively. Average time to execute our applications macros were 19 seconds for Word and 12 seconds for Excel.

The Tecra 740CDT and the Versa 6050 MMX showed overall improvements over non-MMX systems of 20 percent in MMX applications performance and 19 percent in processor performance.

TI TravelMate 6150

THE 150MHz TI TravelMate 6150 will come equipped with a 10X CD-ROM drive, 12.1-inch active-matrix screen, 1.44GB hard drive, modem, integrated 16-bit stereo sound and two speakers. TI supplies the 6150 notebook with a NeoMagic 128-bit graphics controller with 2MB of video memory and 512KB of level 2 cache. Like Toshiba and NEC, TI has incorporated MMX into an existing design. In fact, this computer is physically identical to the TravelMate 6050.

The TravelMate 6150 performance was below par, a trait this machine shares with the TravelMate 6050 (which uses a 150MHz non-MMX processor). Despite its use of the NeoMagic graphics controller and MMX technology the results of our-and Intel's-benchmarks were below average. The BIOS TI uses, which has not been completely tuned for 150MHz processors or the MMX instruction set, inserts a memory wait state. The Wintune benchmark results for the 6150 were 263MIPS, 2.63MBps of uncached disk throughput and 9.3Mpixels of video throughput. The 6150 executed our Word macro in an average of 29 seconds and our Excel macro in 17.

Because this computer is in a much earlier stage of development, it's probably inappropriate to compare it to the NEC or the Toshiba notebooks. The secondary cache and video subsystem are impressive, however, and (assuming TI resolves its BIOS problems) when we re-examine the shipping version, this machine may fare much better.

W Info File

Toshiba Tecra 740CDT
Price: Not determined at press time
Pros: Big 13.3-inch color screen, solid construction
Cons: Poor battery life
Toshiba America Information Systems
800-334-3445, 714-583-3000
Circle #840 or visit Winfo Online
WinMag Box Score: 3.5

W Info File

NEC Versa 6050 MX
Price: $5,199
Pros: Solid performance; bright, active-matrix color screen
Cons: Poor battery life
NEC Computer Systems
800-456-9372, 508-264-8000
Circle #841 or visit Winfo Online
WinMag Box Score: 3.5

W Info File

Texas Instruments TravelMate 6150
Price: Not determined at press time
Pros: Easy access to battery and drive bays
Cons: BIOS inserts a memory wait state
Texas Instruments
800-848-3927, 512-434-1523
Circle #842 or visit Winfo Online
WinMag Box Score: 3.0

Windows Magazine, February 1997, page 120.

[ Go to February 1997 Table of Contents ]