Archive for May, 1994

I Have a Problem With My TV

Sunday, May 1st, 1994

(This column first appeared in Vol. 6-1 of the Panacea Perspective, circa May, 1994)

On a dreary Thursday night, sometime around 1997:

“Hi, this is Microsony Technical Support, how can I help you?”

“Well, this evening when I turned on my new TV, it looked kinda funny – all sorts of weird color and little square boxes with pictures in them. After a little while, it showed a box that said something about a General Protection Failure? And then, after I whacked it on the side like I used to with my old TV, the screen went black and now I can’t get Seinfeld anymore. Wait… it’s not completely black, there’s some letters in the corner. There’s a “C”, a couple of dots – one above the other, and this arrow head. What’s that all mean?”

“Sir, have you tried rebooting your TV?”

“Eh? Whatcha talking about? I told you I already booted it on the side, and then it went black! You want me to do it again?”

Welcome to the new age of the Intelligent TV (ITV), based on some Intel or PowerPC processor, running some type of GUI operating system (Windows for TVs perhaps)? Currently, the average TV viewer can’t even get rid of the flashing “12:00” on his VCR, so how can companies expect consumers to be able to deal with complex computer technology, such as what one would find in the set-tops and TVs of the late ’90s?

  • Installation – Since ITVs are going to have to be attached to a cable network of some sort, just think of what cable companies are going to have to go through to verify a stable, viable network connection in the home.
  • Network Crashes – If Joe Blow (who also makes a point of informing you how knowledgeable he is about cabling his A/V equipment) next door mucks about with his cable wiring, he could take the whole network down. And, there are a lot of Joe Blow’s out there…
  • TV Use Training Seminars – with some of the remote controls companies are bandying about these days, it’ll take several weeks of night classes for today’s “Flashing 12:00” victim to cope with them. And with the apparent need for differentiation set-top manufacturers seem to have, you’ll need different classes for each brand.
  • Boot times – If it takes my Pentium system 10 seconds to boot into DOS, imagine how much longer it might take to boot with a slower CPU running a GUI OS, just like the TVs of tomorrow are supposed to be using? Might make the warm-up period of vacuum tube TVs look downright speedy.
  • Boot failures – These could be memory related, or time- outs trying to load data off the cable network, or the dog sitting on the remote control issuing conflicting requests. The more complex the ITV device is, the more likely it is that something will go wrong.
  • Data Entry – How’s this even going to get done? With a large percentage of viewers considered functionally illiterate, a keyboard isn’t going to be that reliable, and anything less will frustrate the more literate users.
  • Maze-itis – Navigating will be challenging, and time consuming, without some significant improvements in proposed channel navigation user interfaces. Taking TV Guide, and making it into a paged menu with big text just doesn’t cut it, because NTSC TV quality is so lousy for small print.
  • Technical Support – as gadgets get less intuitive and more complicated, the amount of technical support users will require will increase. Imagine how a user of a new TV would respond to a $60-90/hour support fee (using a common software support model), just for a phone call to find out why his ITV crashed.
  • Viruses – These could be really nasty, such as ones which take stored credit card information (from your ITV’s Home Shopping registration record) and start charging up a storm. Of course, viruses would probably have lots of options, including randomizing your channel selections (you select channel 2, it brings up channel 5), or translating all your on-ITV viewing guides into another language. Such viruses could be easily transmitted, since ITVs will be able to download new software on the fly from the cable system server.
  • Backups – how do you backup your latest TV Software or the archives you’ve made of your latest on-line chats?

I’m sure there are many more pitfalls we haven’t yet even begun to think of. What it all points to is that intelligent, advanced TVs are going to require intelligent, advanced consumers. What percentage of the North American could be even loosely categorized like that? Suddenly the market potential of ITVs looks a lot less attractive.

64 Bits From Hell

Sunday, May 1st, 1994

(This column first appeared in Vol. 6-1 of the Panacea Perspective, circa May, 1994)

The latest request we’ve seen on the electronic airwaves have been from users looking for 64-bit PCs to run those newfangled, fast 64-Bit graphics boards. Why? Because with the waves of “lotsa-bits is faster than not-so-many-bits” mania that periodically sweep across our industry, not many people are well informed enough to be able to distinguish between various bit types, or even understand what they all mean. And all this just when you thought all bits were just 0s and 1s!

By our count, there appear to be four distinct types of bits intermingled in articles and marketing literature:

  • CPU Bits: These bits are used to describe the type of CPU you’re dealing with, generally reflecting its addressing capability, i.e. the 386, and all 486 and Pentium CPUs are 32-bit chips because they can internally address up to 32- bits worth of addresses (2^32 = 4 Gigabytes of addressing).
  • Bus Data Bits: These bits define the amount of data that can be processed by a device at a time across a bus. For example, a 386SX CPU addresses 32 CPU bits internally, but only handles 16 bus bits across the bus. Really old VGA boards are generally 8 bus data bit boards because they could only handle 8 bits of data across the bus at a time, while newer graphics boards can be (all in bus data bits) 16-bit (ISA), 32-bit (EISA, VL-Bus, and PCI), or 64-bit (VL- Bus 2.0 and PCI).
  • Memory Data Bits: Even more confusing, memory data bits refer to the amount of data that can be transferred to/from local memory, relative to a CPU or graphics processor. A Pentium CPU, while being a 32 CPU bit device, supports 64 memory bit cycles to load its on-chip caches. The new breed of “64-bit” graphics chips support 64 memory bit wide cycles to transfer data within their on-board memory, but not necessarily 64 bus bit transfers to or from the board across the system’s bus.
  • Graphic Bits: These cause lots of confusion, because users get them totally mixed up with both types of data bits. Graphic Bits describe the color capability or depth of a graphics board. Ideally, these bits should be differentiated from the other by referring to them as “Bits per pixel”, or “BPP” for short. The BPP of a graphics device in a given graphics mode defines the range of colors that device can support. For example, an 8 BPP graphics mode supports 2^8 (or 256) colors, while the 24-bit (per pixel) and 32 BPP boards both support approximately 16.8 million possible colors (2^24 in both cases – the extra 8 bits for 32 BPP pixels are usually reserved for non-color related uses). With the exception of some really expensive Pixar machines and other similar equipment used to generate film quality images (which may go as high as 48 BPP), today’s graphics hardware peaks at 32 BPP.

Back to the 64-bit trauma, as you can tell, things get kind of muddy. When a graphics hardware company announces a new 64-bit part, it needs to be made clear what type of bits they are referring to. Intelligent observers will realize they aren’t talking about graphics bits or CPU bits, but a distinction still needs to be made between Memory and Bus Bits.

Let’s take a look at the value behind each kind.

64 Memory Bits
As best we can tell, all of today’s “64-bit Graphics” products fall into this category.

Having a 64-bit memory bandwidth (unfortunately this is sometimes also referred to as a “64-bit memory bus”) helps a device improve its memory-to-memory operations. For a Pentium, the on-chip data cache gets loaded twice as quickly than a similar external cache on 486 systems. For graphics devices, it means that memory intensive operations, such as copying or moving large blocks of data (also known as BitBLTs) will occur faster than in more traditional 16 or 32 bit wide memory architectures.

This is great for on-board operations, especially because even ISA (16 bus data bits wide) boards will benefit, but by itself does little to improve operations which require memory to be moved across the system bus to or from the graphics device.

On the down side, the 64-bit support also means that the 64-bit devices will probably need to have at least 2MB of RAM allocated to them, with growth in 2MB chunks, based on prevailing memory chip architectures. This means slightly higher costs for 64-bit graphics boards.

64 Bus Bits
On PCs, 64-bit wide system busses are only available in two flavors: PCI 2.0 and VL-Bus 2.0. If you don’t have one (or both) of these busses in your PC, your chance of having real 64-bit bus support is nil.

However, having one or both of those busses in your system is not a guarantee of immediate performance boosts either. not all 64-bit graphics boards (i.e. with on-board 64-bit wide memory support) are 64-bit bus capable. And, even if the device is 64-bit bus capable, it doesn’t necessarily buy you a lot of extra performance. Since 486 and Pentium CPUs are still basically 32-bit parts, they really have no concept of moving a chunk of 64-bits of data around at a time. The way that the 64-bit wide data bus transfers get used is  ia a mechanism called “burst mode”, which, as the name might imply, requires a burst of data to be sent across the bus. The only time this can happen in a beneficial way is if  your system software is moving large chunks of contiguous data from the PC to the graphics board or back, something that the average PC user’s applications rarely do. If the  data isn’t contiguous, the 64-bit bus doesn’t buy you anything. Additionally, if the system software (usually a display driver or low-level application) doesn’t use certain types of  CPU instructions, burst mode will never even kick in. From what we’ve seen, this lack of burst mode support in system software is quite common.

Whether 64-bit busses will make much of an impact on real users in the next couple of years is definitely debatable. However, 64-bit memory technology shows more promise –  it is certainly inevitable on graphics boards, where it can provide a significant boost in raw pixel pumping power. And 128-bit memory devices are lurking just around the corner!