Microsoft, Intel tout faster IE9 graphics

Both Microsoft and Intel are talking about accelerated graphics on Internet Explorer 9.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Recent Microsoft and Intel primers on Internet Explorer 9's accelerated graphics point to snappier Web browsing.

Microsoft will launch the beta of the upcoming Internet Explorer browser on Wednesday at an event in San Francisco as competition from Chrome, Firefox, and Safari has spurred Redmond to beef up its graphics acceleration, among other improvements. And Intel is slated to introduce its Sandy Bridge chip architecture, with features enhanced graphics silicon, at the Intel Developer Forum, which begins on Monday.

In a blog posted on Friday, Microsoft spelled out what it says are the merits of "full vs. partial acceleration," while Intel, in a new video, is claiming IE9 acceleration on its Core i series of chips--which will include new Sandy Bridge processors.

Graphics chip-based acceleration (Microsoft calls it "hardware acceleration") shifts some tasks from the main processor (CPU) to the graphics processor (GPU). Mainstream GPUs pack in dozens or even hundreds of processing cores. While each GPU core delivers a tiny fraction of the processing power of a CPU core, combined, they can tackle certain tasks much more quickly and efficiently than a CPU. Intel, for its part, has improved the built-in graphics on its Core i series of processors and will integrate its fastest graphics function yet onto the CPU in its upcoming Sandy Bridge processor.

Microsoft says 'full hardware acceleration' will be implemented in IE 9.
Microsoft says 'full hardware acceleration' will be implemented in IE 9. Microsoft

In the Microsoft blog, Ted Johnson, program manager lead for Web graphics at Microsoft, explained the merits of a "fully-hardware accelerated display pipeline that runs from their markup to the screen."

In March, Johnson explains, Microsoft released the first IE9 Platform Preview with GPU-powered HTML5 turned on by default, enabling hardware acceleration on "everything on every Web page" including text, images, backgrounds, borders, SVG (scalable vector graphics) content, and HTML5 video and audio. And with Platform Preview 3 in July, IE 9 introduced a hardware-accelerated HTML5 canvas.

Johnson claims that full hardware acceleration is achieved in three steps: Content Rendering (common HTML elements), Page Composition (image-intensive scenarios), and Desktop Composition (composition of final screen display). As a result, IE9 doesn't sacrifice performance for cross-platform compatibility. "When there is a desire to run across multiple platforms, developers introduce abstraction layers and inevitably make trade-offs, which ultimately impact performance and reduce the ability of a browser to achieve 'native' performance" (on the GPU) Johnson writes.

He also cites a demo Microsoft did running HTML5 video on a Netbook running IE9: Microsoft played two HD-encoded, 720p videos using "very little of the CPU" while "another browser maxed out the CPU while dropping frames playing only one of the videos," Johnson writes.

But others are quick to point out that it may not be that cut and dried. "Microsoft marketing is making noises about IE9 having a monopoly on 'full hardware acceleration.' They're wrong; Firefox 4 has all the three levels of acceleration they describe," according to a blog posted Sunday at MozillaZine, an independent Mozilla news, community, and advocacy site.

Intel, on the other hand, is addressing acceleration from the hardware side. The chipmaker released a video Friday showing IE9 running on a Core i5 processor, claiming that "Internet Explorer 9 is hardware accelerated on any piece of graphics hardware that supports DirectX 9."

"The Intel Core i5 processor is calculating the movement of these images and then the built-in HD graphics is actually rendering these images on the screen," said Erik Lorhammer, Sandy Bridge graphics marketing manager, in the video.

Updated at 2:10 p.m. PDT: with commentary from MozillaZine.