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Faster computers, coming soon, as graphics chip answers the call to action

New tech used by Apple and Microsoft promises to uncork bottlenecks. That's great for computer users who want new features, but brings new complications for those who build our software.

Adobe's David McGavran shows how Apple's Metal technology gives Illustrator a fluid new zoom ability.
Adobe's David McGavran shows how Apple's Metal technology gives Illustrator a fluid new zoom ability. Stephen Shankland/CNET

This year, a new way to handle graphics chips will speed up everything on your computer -- from Photoshop to a first-person shooter.

That's because a more efficient way for software to control chip hardware will lift graphics performance, empower the graphics chip with new abilities and free a computer's main processor up to deal with other tasks. The rebuilt graphics foundation will arrive on Macs and Windows machines later this year, and you can expect games developers and others to seize the advantage as soon as they can.

"The performance opportunities are huge," said Linley Group analyst David Kanter of the acceleration technology.

You might have already heard of Apple's version of the technology, called Metal, which arrived on iPhones and iPads in 2014, and will arrive on Macs later this year with the OS X 10.11 El Capitan operating system. Apple is not alone. Microsoft's equivalent, DirectX 12, will arrive with Windows 10 on July 29. And an organization called the Khronos Group that creates standards for a broad range of operating systems will release its Vulkan competitor this year.

Performance increases once were taken for granted as Intel and other chipmakers introduced faster products every few months. But about a decade ago, problems with excessive power consumption capped speed improvements on chips. Since then, programmers have had to work harder to deliver new features and abilities. Unlocking new graphics-chip power is the next step that helps gamers, designers, and just about anyone else using a computer.

No wonder companies like Adobe Systems are eager about the new interfaces that let programmers tap into the graphics-chip power.

"We plan to support Metal this year," said Scott Morris, senior marketing director of Creative Cloud for Adobe. And David McGavran, senior engineering manager for Adobe's professional video products, said in a presentation at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference that Adobe will use Metal in the Photoshop image-editing program, the Illustrator program for vector graphics, and the Premiere Pro and After Effects programs for video editing.

Where does the speedup come from?

So how does this speed boost work? Two main chips do the bulk of the work inside a computer: the central processing unit (CPU), which is the brains of the operation, and the graphic processing unit (GPU), which performs an increasingly important supporting role drawing text, shapes and shadows on screen. Modern chip architects often combine these two jobs into a single unified design, but whether separate or unified, the graphics processor understands a different sort of programming instructions than the central processor.

The tricky thing for a programmer is writing those instructions -- especially because they differ according to when a graphics chip was made and which company made it. That's where programming interfaces like Metal, DirectX and Vulkan come into the picture. They offer a stable way to tap into the graphics chip's power for things like a better gaming experience.

"Developers will be able to create bigger maps, improved performance and graphics, and bigger multiplayer environments stretching across devices," Microsoft said, touting DirectX 12's help with gaming on Windows and Xbox.

These sorts of graphics interfaces have been around for decades. But the new ones expose deeper hardware access than earlier versions of Microsoft's DirectX and Khronos Group's competing OpenGL. The new approach gives programmers more direct control over the graphics chip -- and as an added bonus, frees a computer's CPU from a lot of work managing its GPU companion.

It's like the difference between planning an exact route on a map compared to telling Google Maps your starting point and end point. Google Maps is easier to use, but you can get the top speed by hand-crafting an optimum route.

Programmers can use the new horsepower to add more abilities to their code, or to lower the energy consumption of existing code so batteries last longer.

But, as we learned from "Spider-Man" in 2002, with great power comes great responsibility. The new version of DirectX, for instance, loses many of the safeguards that eliminated crashes and weird bugs. "Those are all gone now with DirectX 12, so developers must be much more careful about their code," Kanter said.

There are other perks with the new interfaces. One is that the same interface spans mobile devices, unlike earlier-generation designs. Another is that they handle not just graphics work but also computing work that can be done on the graphics chip. That can be anything from recognizing faces in video to simulating the physics of a video game car crash.

New complications

The new graphics chip control technology, called an application programming interface (API), let programmers squeeze as much power as possible from computer hardware, but there are complications.

One problem is that these three interfaces -- Vulkan, DirectX and Metal -- do essentially the same thing. Yet programmers have to pick which ones to use and where. Vulkan might span everything from PCs and smartphones to virtual reality headsets and gaming consoles, but DirectX and might work better on Windows and Metal for OS X, for example.

The more graphics interfaces programmers want to support, the more work they have to do. Programmers already had to deal with two or three in the past, but Metal adds another option to the mix, and Google could add still another for its Android operating system too.

Apple Metal logo
Apple's Metal logo.

Many programmers are shielded from the complexity dealing with multiple graphics interfaces by relying on game engines like Epic Games' Unreal Engine and Unity Technologies' Unity. The companies behind those gaming foundations handle the hard work of plugging into the lower-level foundations, offering a simpler framework for many programmers.

Khronos Group, for its part, says that despite the complications, it has wide support.

"There will be higher-level libraries and engines...that will run across different low-level APIs," said Neil Trevett, president of the Khronos Group and a vice president at graphics chipmaker Nvidia. "Practically every GPU [graphics processing unit] vendor and games engine vendor is participating in the Vulkan working group with wide commitment to support the API."

Adobe is one of the companies that must decide which of the multiple new graphics interfaces to support. It hasn't yet declared how it'll give Windows machines a boost comparable to what Metal offers on Macs. "We're of course looking into DirectX 12 but have not announced any definitive plans," spokeswoman Vanessa Rios said.

Google, too?

It's not yet clear whether Google will add yet another graphics interface of its own. Kanter, of the Linley Group, said the company did plan to.

That possibility didn't sit well with one prominent programmer, John Carmack. He's the creator of seminal and successful games like Doom and Quake and now the chief technology officer of Oculus, Facebook's virtual reality headset project .

"Hey Google, could you pretty please not develop another brand new low-level graphics API?" Carmack requested in a March tweet. "Vulkan should suffice," he added.

More disgruntlement came from hardware companies like chipmakers. They must invest a lot of resources writing the "driver" software that opens the interface to programmers.

Google declined to comment. But Google has rethought its position after industry push back, and it's likely to use Vulkan, according to two people familiar with the company's thinking.

Adobe: sign us up

Adobe is sold. McGavran demonstrated Metal-enhanced Illustrator and After Effects at Apple's WWDC event.

For After Effects, Adobe built Metal-based filters for overlaying text on video, adding a ripple effect and simulating the flares of light that appear when a camera points at the sun. Without Metal, adding these three effects to a video dragged playback down to about 3 frames per second. With Metal, it ran at the full 24 frames per second of video. Not only is there an eightfold performance boost, but CPU usage is lighter, he said.

Illustrator got fast enough with Metal that it no longer pauses to redraw everything on screen when zooming in, McGavran said. The performance was high enough that "we were able to demonstrate a brand-new feature, continuous zoom," he said.

In other words, Metal and its competitors unlock previously inaccessible computer performance. That kind of advantage can mean all the difference when it's time to get customers to open their wallets.

"This drastically changes how artists can work with our products," McGavran said.