Wahoo! Hardware-accelerated Opera 12 alpha arrives

WebGL graphics is a highlight of the new alpha build of Opera, but the browser also can accelerate 2D graphics, text, and CSS effects--often on Windows XP.

Opera 12 "Wahoo" logo

OSLO, Norway--Opera Software took the hardware acceleration plunge today with the release of its first alpha version of Opera 12, code-named Wahoo.

Hardware acceleration offers a range of benefits to Web browsers--faster performance, lower battery consumption, and new features that would be otherwise impractical. So it's no surprise that browser makers--catalyzed in part by Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9--have been rebuilding their engines to support the idea.

But Opera, while not the first with hardware acceleration, thinks it's got a competitive approach. It uses hardware for everything its Vega display engine handles--font display, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) effects, Canvas 2D graphics, and WebGL 3D graphics. (You can download the Opera 12 alpha, also known as Opera Next, for Windows, Mac, and Linux.)

The Norwegian browser maker had two priorities with acceleration, which is named after a fast-swimming fish, said Jan Standal, vice president of desktop products, in an interview at the company's Up North Web event here.

"One, it was more important to get it right than get it fast," Standal said. "Two, we wanted to reach as many users as possible."

Reaching Windows XP
"Reach" means offering the feature to as many people as possible--those using Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, and those using older versions of Windows such as XP that IE9 doesn't support. But reaching XP isn't always possible, so, like other browsers, Opera uses a blacklist to disable hardware acceleration on some machines.

"The issue with XP is that many drivers are not supported anymore, and they will have bugs that will not get fixed," said Karl Anders, who manages the desktop version of Opera (and the company's seventh employee, by the way, starting the day the browser project became independent from Norway's Telenor phone service company).

Opera 12 should ship in final form later this year, said Christen Krogh, chief development officer, in an earlier interview.

Opera hopes Wahoo's alpha release will help the company pin down what hardware and drivers works and what doesn't. "If you see a bug, try to turn off hardware acceleration by setting opera:config#UserPrefs|EnableHardwareAcceleration to 0, restart Opera, and see if the bug is still there," advised Opera's Tommy Olsen in a blog post yesterday. He also requested that people report any problems in the post's comments.

For its "reach" priority, Opera 12 uses a display engine called Vega that tap into the graphics processing unit (GPU) hardware power but that also fall back to the regular central processing unit (CPU) for what the company calls "software acceleration."

"Vega has software back end and hardware back end," Standal said. "You can get decent performance with the CPU back end and even better performance with the GPU back end."

For hardware acceleration, Opera taps into graphics cards' direct interfaces. Initially Opera 12 only uses the OpenGL interface that's standard on Mac OS and Linux but second fiddle to Microsoft's DirectX on Windows.

WebGL for 3D Web games
WebGL, though, won't work unless hardware acceleration is enabled, though Opera is looking at some options to improve its availability, Standal said.

Opera showed this WebGL demonstration of a walking 3D figure at its Up North Web event. Opera 12 will support the WebGL technology for 3D graphics among other hardware-accelerated features
Opera showed this WebGL demonstration of a walking 3D figure at its Up North Web event. Opera 12 will support the WebGL technology for 3D graphics among other hardware-accelerated features Stephen Shankland/CNET

WebGL is essentially a JavaScript-based interface to OpenGL ES, a stripped-down version of full OpenGL that's designed for mobile phones and other devices less powerful than personal computers. Opera and allies including Mozilla and Google hope it will usher in a new era of Web games in particular.

Web developers aren't leading the WebGL charge, though, Standal said. "We see game developers moving into the WebGL world. It's not Web developers taking the lead," he said. "WebGL gives them a fairly familiar environment to operate in."

Anders agreed. "OpenGL is generally quite well understood," he said, and some game developers are eager for a real 3D interface for Web games. "We've seen people implement 3D engines just with [2D] Canvas because WebGL is not out there."

Internet Explorer doesn't support WebGL, though, undermining some advocates hope that WebGL can be considered a standard feature among modern browsers. Opera Chief Technology Officer Haakon Wium Lie believes Microsoft will change its mind, though.

"I don't think they have an interest in not doing WebGL," Lie said. "I think they will come on board."

WebGL also figures into Opera's push to get its browsers on to TVs and TV set-top boxes. At its Up North Web event, the company demonstrated WebGL running on a Broadcom set-top box reference design with dual 1.2GHz processors, a relatively high-end model.

Other changes
Opera 12 also gets some other features. Among them:

• The ability to control a computer's camera. For now, Opera is using the Device API approach, one that not all browser makers favor, but the company didn't want to wait longer to enable the feature so that Web apps could, for example, snap a profile picture.

• The ability to add Web pages to Opera's speed dial page directly from the address bar. Speed dial, which shows when people launch a new tab, lets people click on large icons for often-used pages. (As of Opera 11.50, speed dial also enables use of more active icons called speed dial extensions.

• Themes to let people customize the look of Opera, for example by adding graphics behind the speed dial page icons.

• Full support for EcmaScript 5.1, the standards-group project that underlies JavaScript.

• Support for horizontal and vertical antialiasing when displaying fonts with Microsoft's DirectWrite interface.

Opera first released a pre-alpha build of Wahoo in July.

Updated 4:58 a.m. PTwith further details about the Opera 12 alpha.

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