The Moving Picture: The 3 Billion-Cycle March; or, Get on the Bus
Posted Feb 1, 2003

I started my life in video as vice president of marketing for Iterated Systems, which developed still image and video compression products. We competed with Radius (Cinepak), Intel (Indeo), and many other companies, though all of us software playback types banded together against MPEG-1, AKA the Evil Empire. Lord, I hated standards back then.

During the first CD-ROM craze, MPEG-1 required specialized hardware that coexisted with other components like the Hatfields and McCoys. Under perfect laboratory settings, you could make them work, but load the wrong game or sneeze and your system would blow up—metaphorically, of course, but usually with no less negative impact.

As a result, return rates for CD-ROM kits soared and software technologies like Cinepak and Indeo were far more prevalent than MPEG-1. Then one day, everybody had Pentium computers and you didn't need dedicated hardware to play back MPEG-1 files. Hardware playback became software playback.

Fast forward to the present and consider real-time video editing. Today, most people think you need hardware for real-time performance, and if your computer has been around longer than three to four months, you probably do. But if you buy a new computer in the next few months, performance without dedicated hardware will prove a lot more potent than you thought.

Think of a processor as a bus that runs its route about 3 billion times a second. The bus has lots of seats, and when they're all full, operation is most efficient. Assume that Adobe Premiere was the only application running on your computer, and you were encoding files into MPEG-2 format. The processor focuses on this task, the bus is full each cycle, and operation is extraordinarily efficient.

Then you check your email. The processor stops encoding, checks email, and resumes encoding. Though checking email takes only a fraction of the CPU's power, it can't do anything else during this period, which means a near-empty bus and inefficient operation.

Suppose, however, you had two doors to the bus. Both Premiere and Outlook could load passengers simultaneously, so the bus wouldn't have to stop one task to start the other. In addition, suppose that the bus driver could load more passengers for Premiere than Outlook, since the latter computing task simply wasn't that demanding. The bus would carry more passengers overall, which would enable optimum efficiency.

This, in a nutshell, is Intel's new Hyper-Threading Technology (HTT). In techie speak, the chip features two "logical" operations feeding one execution operation. In our example, the logical operations are the doors to the bus, the execution phase the bus itself. Not only is the new bus faster, it operates more efficiently, because the double doors keep more fannies in seats.

Specifically, the 3.06gHz Pentium 4 chip is 27% faster than its 2.4gHz Pentium 4 predecessors without HTT, and they operate up to 25% more efficiently than processors without HTT, according to tests performed by both Intel and other independent testing sources (like Tom's Hardware Guide). So for some applications, you get up to a 50% boost moving from an older 2.4gHz Pentium 4 to a 3.06gHz Pentium 4 with HTT.

So what does all this mean? As you probably recall, the most prominent new features of the latest releases of Adobe Premiere and Avid XpressDV were real-time preview of transitions and other special effects. We also know that MediaStudio developer Ulead is doing their best to provide hardware-like performance without the hardware. For example, they're claiming four simultaneous picture-in-picture streams without hardware. We also know that Pinnacle Express performs a number of tasks in the background, which makes an ideal setup for HTT.

Software developers have a love/hate relationship with board vendors—they love the steady royalties, but hate the low margins typical of bundling arrangements. So if they could run without hardware, they would. For this reason, it wasn't surprising that all the software developers that we asked thought HTT was the second coming of the 286.

That said, our experience with MPEG-1, and later MPEG-2 tells us that someday hardware will become software, and the performance produced today by the combination of dedicated hardware and the host CPU will be performed by the CPU (or CPUs) alone. When will the cross-over occur?

Probably not for several years. If you're a pro seeking to boost production speed and efficiency, you'll find the combination of hardware and software offered by the big three hardware vendors—Canopus, Matrox, and Pinnacle—especially appealing. Sure, you could just load Premiere on a new computer, but you'd be missing a lot of software functionality.

For example, the Pinnacle Pro-ONE's motion and picture-in-picture controls are far superior to Premiere's, as are the Canopus DVStorm2 solution's chroma key controls, and innovative range of real-time filters. The Matrox .X100 is performing real-time 3D effects that Premiere has not even started dreaming about. So if you're a pro, you'll want the real-time hardware and the software that comes with it.

If you're a newbie just moving up into the world of Premiere-level products, you can spend $549 for Premiere or $799 for Premiere with the Pinnacle Pro-ONE. All of a sudden, the incremental cost of hardware doesn't seem that high anymore.

Don't get us wrong, HTT is a rising tide that raises all boats in the harbor, and combining the new Pentium 4 with the open-architected Canopus and Matrox boards would produce an absolute powerhouse. However, though their current hardware will undoubtedly be obsolete someday, Canopus, Pinnacle, and Matrox are bringing a whole lot more to the table than just hardware.