Vista's promising video upgrades

Vista's graphics will allow all applications to add more animation and visual effects without slowing your PC to a crawl

When it comes to graphics, Microsoft's new operating system may earn its name. Vista promises plenty of great views with upgrades for richly detailed games, as well as better-looking and more-useful desktop apps.

Much of the expected benefit will come from DirectX 10, the first complete rewrite of Microsoft's ubiquitous package of graphics tools, and its move toward what's called a Unified Shader Model. Though games will receive the biggest benefit, Microsoft says that Vista's improved use of graphics resources will allow all applications to add more animation and visual effects without slowing your PC to a crawl. Of course, there's a catch: DX10 must be paired with similarly boosted graphics hardware, meaning you'll have to shell out for a new video card. But you can still benefit from other advances with today's cards.

Pipeline power-ups

The revamped, more powerful DirectX "allows us to do a lot more processing on the GPU [graphics processing unit] and speeds everything up immensely," says Chris Donahue, director of business development for Microsoft Games for Windows.

DirectX 9, used widely for today's games, employs different parts of the video card to determine the visual appearance of pixels and vertices (where lines meet). A set number of "pipelines" handle only pixel shaders, while others are just for vertex shaders. If creating a certain 3D scene hits the pixel shader pipelines hard but uses only a few of the vertex shaders, the extra vertex pipelines lie dormant.

DX10's Shader Model 4, however, uses the same hardware resources for pixel, vertex, and even new geometry shaders. That approach allows GPU vendors to design chips with pipelines that can run any type of shader, and also makes it easier for GPUs to handle things like physics effects that currently must run on the CPU. In general DX10 is more CPU-friendly, with less processing overhead.

The end result? A more flexible graphics system, and one that makes better use of the GPU's processing power.

"It's a step forward," says Mike Goodman, a senior analyst for research firm The Yankee Group. "This is another way to take advantage of the processing power of PCs that Vista will operate on."

That power will cost you, though, as you'll need a next-generation graphics card that can handle DX10's new features. A card from nVidia's GeForce 8800 series will set you back US$400 or more. ATI will offer DX10-ready video cards as well, but as of press time it hadn't released details.

Not just for games

You won't need to be a gamer, or even use DX10, to get some of the new glitter and glitz. For example, Vista's Aero display gets its hardware acceleration from having been built using the new Windows Presentation Foundation. The platform, which is built into Vista and is also included in the new .Net 3.0 framework for XP, opens up DirectX to other programs for acceleration and other processing. Times Reader, a downloadable program that displays an electronic look-alike of The New York Times newspaper, was built with WPF (you can grab the Reader beta ).

Aero -- which requires only a DX9-capable GPU -- also makes use of the Windows Display Driver Model in Vista to improve on the way programs can access graphics resources. Previously, only one program at a time could access graphics resources using DirectX: "An application could monopolize the processing and starve other graphics applications," says Pablo Fernicola, group program manager for Windows Presentation Foundation.

With the new model, multiple applications will be able to access DirectX resources (both 10 and 9, which remains in Vista) simultaneously. So program designers should have more leeway to add visual effects without fear of bogging down users' computers.

As Vista and improved video cards become more prevalent, the new graphics features could give rise to more eye-pleasers in games and productivity apps alike.

"In theory," says Andrew Dodd, software product manager for ATI, "you could have Office or Word documents with 3D acceleration."

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Joel Strauch

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