Graphics performance, which has long been an afterthought for most corporate PCs and many consumers, will move to the forefront with the launch of Windows Vista, Microsofts next Windows operating system.
Vista, due late next year, will offer four different themes, including the well-publicized three-dimensional Aero Glass with transparent windows.
Starting with a Classic theme, which looks like Windows XP, each will offer successively more advanced features, also call for successively more powerful graphics.
Vista is expected to measure the graphics grunt available in a PC and automatically serve up the proper UI.
But whats still unclear is where many of todays PCs will fall on the Vista interface spectrum and thus how consumers and corporate buyers who wish to gain the most advanced features can get prepared.
Indeed, many of todays PCs graphics processors, which are built into their chip sets or groups of enabling chips that help shuttle data inside a PC, are inherently unprepared, analysts say.
Designed more with costs in mind than performance, most are not expected to muster enough performance to make the cut for Aero Glass.
That means, short of a graphics upgrade, only a small number of consumer PCs and even fewer business machines purchased in the last year are likely to leap that hurdle.
That means businesses and consumers who are considering PC purchases, now, must plan accordingly if they wish to run Aero Glass.
“If you want the really sexy effects, thats not going to happen with most of the integrated graphics installed base,” said Dean McCarron, analyst with Mercury Research Inc.
“If you want everything to work, youre always going to be safer buying toward the higher end.”
Microsoft has yet to unveil Vistas official requirements. The company, which has said it would not finalize them until summer, has thus far recommended that customers who wish to upgrade and take full advantage of all Vista UI features purchase a machine with a discrete graphics card that supports its DirectX 9 graphics framework, Windows Display Driver Model, 32 bpp (bits per pixel) color depth, and which contains at least 64MB of graphics RAM.
It has further hinted that Vista technologies, such its Max user interface for Windows XP, should be used on PCs with at least a 2.4GHz processor, 512MB of RAM, and a graphics card capable of handling its Windows Presentation Foundation.
Such a card, the company says in an online FAQ, should be “the fastest PS 2.0 [Pixel Shader 2.0] card with the most memory your bank account can afford,” such as ATI Technologies Inc.s Radeon X800 or Nvidia Corp.s GeForce FX 6800.
Most discrete graphics cards available now meet those Microsoft requirements.
A Microsoft spokesperson said the hardware guidelines for Windows Vista offered by the software are unchanged.
However, analysts say the cutoff point for running Aero Glass is likely to begin with only todays latest and thus highest performance integrated graphics chip sets, including models such as ATI Technologies Inc.s Radeon XPress 200, Nvidia Corp.s nForce4 and Intel Corp.s Intel 945 Express, which arrived in desktop PCs last May and will ship for notebooks in January.
Not every company will choose to step up its hardware just to gain a flashier user interface.
For that matter, Windows Vista may not be adopted en masse until 2007 or 2008, by which time most integrated graphics processors, which are updated about once per year, should be capable of running Aero Glass.
However, given that many companies are now rolling out new PCs that they are likely to upgrade to Vista, analysts and industry executives say planning ahead is important.
Intel Stays Quiet
To date, companies such as Intel have said little about which of their integrated graphics products can support all of Vistas different looks.
Intels 945 chip set will support the three-dimensional aspects of the Aero interface, a source familiar with its hardware confirmed.
The chip sets successor, Broadwater, will also support do the same when it comes out in the middle of 2006, the source added.
An Intel spokesperson said the chip maker has been working closely with Microsoft when it comes to Vistas graphics needs.
However, he declined to elaborate on the way each of Intels integrated graphics chip sets, which are used widely by PC makers, would support the forthcoming OS.
At the moment, ATI Technologies Radeon Xpress X200 chip set with integrated graphics is also capable of running Aero Glass, today, a company executive confirmed.
However, he said that customers will have to determine whether or not it does so with acceptable performance.
“There is a big debate about whether you need discrete graphics or whether or not integrated graphics are good enough. If you have discrete graphics, its going to be more likely that you can run Vista [Aero Glass UI] and run it well,” said Ben Bar Haim, vice president of software for ATI.
“If you move into integrated, there are more question marks. I dont think anybody is going to be able to tell you integrated is not able to do it,” he said.
But, for example, a “discrete [graphics] card may be able to open 10 [Aero Glass] windows and move them around with no problem,” Bar Haim said.
But, “With integrated, you may be able to open four, but see a noticeable performance hit with five. It does come down to personal preference.”
ATI, in what it says is an effort to help educate the market, has sponsored a PC graphics white paper written by International Data Corp.
The paper says that the use of high-performance PC graphics will become more widespread over the next three to five years and those companies must plan ahead for Vista.
“I think there is a lot of confusion in the market and we tried to go out and clarify it” with the paper, Bar Haim said.
Basic graphics have been “good enough” for the vast majority of users, he said.
However, Vistas promised increases in productivity and stability cannot be attained with good enough graphics.
“That, to us, is a huge inflection point in the industry,” he said.
Analysts say that forward-looking buyers should, at a minimum, ensure the desktops they are evaluating have a free AGP or a PCI-Express slot, which can accommodate an add-in graphics card.
Many consumer and corporate desktops that ship with integrated graphics chip sets offer the extra slot, although some less expensive models do not.
Graphics cards for desktops generally retail for between as little as about $50 to about $500.
When offered as factory upgrades, they generally add somewhere between about $50 and $300 to the purchase price of new machine.
Notebook PCs graphics are trickier as the vast majority of new machines graphics are not upgradeable.
Most of the machines use integrated graphics for packaging and battery life considerations and those graphics, as is the case with Intels mobile 945 Express, are typically six months to a year behind their desktop counterparts.
Models that are more focused on performance and less on cost and battery life sometimes offer discrete graphics.
They are likely to have better graphics performance, making them more likely to be able to run Vista Aero Glass, analysts say.
But ATI is also preparing a compromise position, in which it will offer graphics cards no onboard memory in an effort to cut the price to upgrade a desktop to discrete graphics.
Although price will vary by manufacturer, Bar Heim indicated forthcoming ATI Hyper Memory cards, which will have no onboard memory, could significantly reduce cost of a low-price graphics card upgrade, yet run Vistas Aero Glass more effectively than integrated graphics.
He declined to offer more information about the cards, which will use a PCI-Express connection and PCs main memory for frame buffer.
Nvidia is already offering similar cards. Using a feature it calls TurboCache, they employs a small amount of onboard memory and take advantage of a PCs main memory for the rest of their allotment.
Hewlett-Packard Co., for one, offers a GeForce 6200SE as a $60 upgrade on some consumer-oriented HP Pavilion desktops sold via its HPShopping site.
“If [prospective buyers] care about graphics performance, a graphics upgrade, even an inexpensive one, is going to make a significant difference,” McCarron said.
Inexpensive graphics card upgrades may not sway all corporate buyers, however.
It “will result in some incremental sales [for graphics cards],” McCarron predicted. “But, right now, Im not expecting wholesale changes in the mix of discrete versus integrated graphics.”
Ultimately, buyers need to determine if upgrading to Windows Vista is a priority.
“If the answer is yes, then keep in mind youre going to need some more advanced hardware,” he said.
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