What makes a fast forward multimedia PC? (Multimedia PC)(Multimedia Personal Computer Level 2 standards) (Column)
by David English
Just when you thought it was safe to buy an MPC (Multimedia PC), they introduce MPC Level 2. What's going on here? What do you really need to put together a decent multimedia PC?
First, a bit of multimedia history. When Microsoft, Tandy, AT & T, NEC, Creative Labs, Media Vision, and a bunch of other companies announced the multimedia PC in November 1990, they set the standard low so that they could sell a lot of MPCs at a reasonable price. The initial MPC standard called for a 10-MHz 286 or faster processor. At the time, there was a lot of talk about a 286 not being up to the task, but Microsoft's official line was that if a 286 could run Windows, it should also be able to run Multimedia Windows. (Microsoft tried to discourage the name Multimedia Windows for the version of Windows that shipped with the new MPCs. Fearing that people would be confused by different versions of Windows--clearly no longer a concern--the company tried to push the more politically correct Microsoft Windows graphical environment 3.0 + Multimedia extensions 1.0.) By September 1991, MPCs and MPC upgrade kits were shipping, and the MPC standard was off to a slow-but-steady start.
The year 1992 brought three important changes. First, the Multimedia PC Marketing Council, the body that was given authority over the MPC standard, quietly increased the minimum required processor to a 16-MHz 386SX. Second, Windows 3.1 brought the multimedia extensions (most importantly, the sound-card and CD-ROM drivers) into mainstream Windows. And finally, we saw a gradual growth in the number of innovative CD-ROM titles, with such standouts as Just Grandma and Me, Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, and Microsoft Cinemania.
In 1993, the titles have expanded to include such luminaries as The 7th Guest, The Animals!, and Microsoft Encarta. The year has also brought us the MPC Level 2 specification, which promises to raise our multimedia applications to a whole new level.
Briefly, the MPC Level 1 standard calls for at least a 16-MHz 386SX with 2MB of RAM, VGA display (640 x 480 with 16 colors), a 30MB hard drive, a sound card capable of 8-bit digital sound, and a CD-ROM drive that can move data at a sustained rate of 150K per second with a maximum average seek time of 1000 milliseconds. The two weakest links of the Level 1 chain are the processor (these days, you need at least a fast 386DX) and VGA display (many MPC titles either don't run in 16 colors or look pretty awful when they do; you really need 640 x 480 with 256 colors).
The new MPC Level 2 specs are designed to better accommodate the MPC titles that include photorealistic graphics and full-motion video clips (usually Video for Windows or QuickTime for Windows). The standard calls for at least a 25-MHz 486SX with 4MB of RAM, a Super VGA display (640 x 480 with 65,536 colors), a 160MB hard drive, a sound card capable of 16-bit digital sound (CD quality), and a CD-ROM drive that can move data at a sustained rate of 300K per second, has a maximum average seek time of 400 milliseconds, and is CD-ROM XA ready and multisession capable (for use with Kodak's Photo CDs).
Level 1 machines will still be available as low-end starter MPCs, but you should consider buying a Level 2 machine if you're looking to buy a multimedia PC. Given today's low prices, you should be able to find Level 2 MPCs for as little as $2,500. Creative Labs (408-428-6600) and Media Vision (800-348-7116) have already announced Level 2 upgrade kits that include a 16-bit sound card and double-speed CD-ROM drive. Creative Labs' Sound Blaster DigitalEdge CD package costs $999, while Media Vision's Fusion Double CD-16 and Pro 16 Multimedia System cost $799 and $1,199, respectively. All three packages include a bundle of CD-ROM-based multimedia applications. Currently, Level 1 upgrade packages are available for as little as $400.
If your multimedia PC meets the Level 2 standard in some respects but falls back to Level 1 in other respects, don't worry that you won't be able to run MPC software. Most titles won't be written exclusively for Level 2, but will simply support the higher-standard components where available.