Vista packs the prettiest of punches

The next version of Windows offers some productivity improvements over XP, but its advanced graphics capabilities will trigger a multimedia onslaught

The next version of Windows offers some productivity improvements over XP, but its advanced graphics capabilities will trigger a multimedia onslaught

With rumours going around that two-thirds of current PCs will not be able to run Windows Vista’s Aero Glass windows, the erroneous conclusion has been reached that Vista will be expensive to implement and will give little back in return.

Aero Glass is a new take on the way Windows displays the various screen boxes. It effectively makes windows look like a frosted glass or clear plastic envelope around an application or comment box so that you can see what is underneath.

Let’s get down to the technical requirements. To run Aero, a graphics card must have a Longhorn Display Driver Model (LDDM). ATI and Nvidia, the two biggest manufacturers of graphics cards, already have Vista drivers for their current high-end graphics cards.

To get the full Aero experience, these cards also need a lot of on-board memory, ranging from a minimum 64Mbytes up to the recommended 128Mbytes. From past experience, Microsoft’s recommended specification is worth aiming for because 64Mbytes will not run Aero very efficiently.

The card must also support the complete DirectX 9 application programming interface (API). This API has been around since 2002 and reached its latest version, 9c, at the beginning of 2005, so it will be applicable to most cards in use today.

DirectX was developed to allow Windows applications to access advanced sound and graphics features. In the past, as Windows versions grew older, multimedia technology advanced but Windows applications could not take advantage of these new capabilities. This was resolved by allowing direct access to sound and graphics cards through DirectX.

Since 1995, Microsoft has worked closely with graphics and sound card manufacturers to keep Windows up to date with the latest developments. At the core of DirectX are its APIs, which form a bridge to allow hardware and software to talk directly to each other. That way, they can access the advanced features of high-performance hardware such as 3D graphics acceleration chips and the sound mixing capabilities and output of sound cards. Some APIs control low-level functions, including 2D graphics acceleration and shading as well as offering support for specialist input devices such as joysticks, keyboards and mice.

Although DirectX was introduced to satisfy the needs of games and multimedia applications, it has brought, and still brings, benefits to the business community. Teleconferencing has been democratised and is now available on the desktop rather than being the preserve of specialist hardware in the boardroom. In everyday use are the benefits of instant graphics displays from spreadsheet data and faster navigation of web pages and desktop publishing screens.

Adam Foat, a spokesman for Nvidia Northern Europe, suggests users running Nvidia 6 or 7 series cards will still be able to use them with Vista. “If you want to go back even further, older systems will be restricted to those with the higher-end graphics cards,” he says.

Desktop systems are easily upgraded but there may be more costs involved with non-upgradable laptops. Burton Group analyst Chris Howard says, “This is the big question. In many companies, people are assigned laptops because they travel a lot and need the mobility. Traditionally, they are not power users who require advanced graphics capabilities. They want connectivity and access to resources first, cosmetics second. The exception would be laptops for people who have to give compelling presentations – for example, sales and pre-sales engineers, where advanced graphics play into perceptions of brand and capability.”

Companies like Nvidia and Intel are offering stable-build specifications, ensuring that machines will run Vista reliably.

“This crosses over into our Nvidia business platform programme,” says Foat. “We are helping OEMs by certifying systems based on the AMD 64 processor and Nvidia graphics that is 100% stable. The channel partners can then sell these to corporates and guarantee stability. Once that system is certified it will be available for one year and we will support it for two years after that.”

The fact is that Vista will run in one form or another on almost every PC out there, if only with the same interface that already exists in Windows XP. The graphics are a distraction that can be ignored. Gartner vice-president Brian Gammage says, “Most organisations should regard the visual enhancements of Windows Vista as nice to have but not essential. Only users who need a rich graphics experience for their work – content creators, graphics professionals and engineers – will see a business benefit from the visual aspects of Aero. An enterprise looking to buy new PCs for general business applications will find no business justification in spending extra on Aero-capable video hardware.”

Microsoft said PCs with appropriately configured graphics hardware support for Windows Aero would offer a user experience that would improve the look and feel of the Windows graphical user interface. Among the benefits are glitch-free window redrawing and improved productivity thanks to real-time thumbnail previews, 3-D task switching, and the ability to increase or decrease the Windows screen resolution to take advantage of larger high-definition displays.

Aero relies on a new type of Windows graphics card device driver software called Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM) which Microsoft said improves the stability of graphics and boosts the performance of Windows when more than one application is being run on a Vista PC. It also allows end users to swap monitors by hot-plugging, without requiring the PC to be rebooted.

A lot depends on the software support for Vista. Because the graphics are there, developers will find new uses and these may ulitmately prove advantageous for businesses. These media-rich applications will take time to appear and establish themselves and it is likely that they will be niche products initially and will be able to be catered for in the normal PC refresh cycles.

“User experience studies suggest ways that advanced graphics and adaptive interfaces enhance functionality,” says Howard. “For some users, the ability to create 3D representations of data and view that projection from different perspectives will lead to better analysis of patterns and trends. This is not the occasional user but rather the domain expert charged with data analysis. Another example would be the rejuvenation of teleconferencing technology, based on the extended graphics capability of Vista. These meetings would feature a mix of live interaction and recorded assets, probably with real-time annotation facilitated by the technology.”

If anything can be criticised in Vista’s graphics capabilities it is the flip features of the product. Vista provides flip and 3D flip to allow users to switch between applications running concurrently.

Flip allows you to cycle through open application windows in a similar way to using the current Alt-Tab combination in Windows XP. The difference is that instead of a text title of each window being given, Vista displays a live thumbnail of each window. This, argues Microsoft, makes it easier to identify quickly the window you want, especially when multiple windows of the same application are available.

Flip 3D serves a similar purpose but is more graphical. The screen display shows a 3D stack of open windows and the scroll wheel on a mouse allows you to flip through the windows to locate the application you want.

Even so, 3D flipping comes in the interesting rather than revolutionary category and the productivity benefits are still minimal when compared with Windows XP.

Although Microsoft would like us to believe that Vista will change the way we do business, it will not do so overnight – if ever.

What Vista will change is the future buying process. With this release of Windows, graphics capabilities make an entrance that is more disruptive than the processor and memory capabilities of the past.

Whenever a buying decision is made it will be with an eye to the longevity of the system, especially when Vista’s successor is about to make its entrance. At the moment the media-rich applications do not exist because they are unsupported. But when Vista bites, these products will appear and future operating system releases will be accompanied by upgrades of these new products that will definitely take advantage of higher graphics capabilities from day one.

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