Hardware acceleration slips to Chrome 9

Tapping into graphics chip power can speed up browsers. But it's a deep, complicated change, and it's not imminent for Google's browser.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read

Google is among the browser makers rushing to accelerate their software by tapping into the power of a computer's graphics hardware, but it appears that ability will have to wait for Chrome 9.

Just as Google branched off the code that will become Chrome 8 work early this morning, indicating that it's time to iron out the bugs to release a stable version of Chrome 7, programmers also pushed back a lot of hardware acceleration features until Chrome 9.

Among the items on the hardware acceleration to-do list pushed back from Chrome 8 to 9 yesterday are support for large layers, opacity fixes, a variety of Canvas issues for 2D graphics, and support for CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) abilities to create reflections, drop shadows, and cutouts called masks. Hardware-based video decoding was pushed back to Chrome 9 a few days earlier.

Hardware acceleration, a flagship feature of Microsoft's IE9, is a top item for browser makers eager to stay competitive, speed up their products, enable new features impossible without it, and tackle mobile computing performance challenges. It's not an easy matter, though, with complications from the wide range of graphics hardware computers come with and the inconsistent software support they come with.

Though Microsoft hasn't been alone with hardware acceleration work, and the Internet Explorer 9 approach only will work with Windows 7 and newer versions of Windows Vista, Microsoft deserves credit for pushing the agenda, said Brad Neuberg, a former Google Web programmer who recently struck off on his own.

"They forced the other folks to wake up and realize the importance of hardware acceleration," Neuberg said in a recent interview.

A slip from one version to the next isn't as big a deal as it once was. With Google's faster release cycle, the Chrome version numbers called milestones are passing more often--roughly every six weeks nowadays. And those eager to try it out as it arrives will be able to with an about:labs option to use graphics hardware acceleration.

And for those who want to try experimental features, it looks like hardware acceleration will be an option through Chrome's new about:labs mechanism. Google is trying to make it easier to try new options this way, but it's also going to rename the feature to spook users who might be put off by raw features.

"We are going to rename about:labs to make it sound less friendly," Chrome user interface leader Ben Goodger said on a Chrome mailing list today. The reason for the feature overall is to try to make it easier to test new features, he said.

"The first rule of about:labs is about:labs is a simpler GUI [graphical user interface] for command-line flags. It's necessary because command line flags are such a PITA [pain in the ass] that developers on the team aren't eating important dogfood [trying out their own products] (e.g. Instant). When there's a GUI, it's much easier to get people on the team to change their configuration," Goodger said.