Will Vista Drive Video Upgrades?

Windows Vista represents a change in strategy for Microsoft in many ways, especially with video cards. It also means a potential for new growth for the makers of those video cards, eventually.

Microsoft hasn’t altered the overall look of Windows since the release of Windows 95 more than a decade ago. With Vista, Microsoft is updating its entire UI, from text to buttons to dialog boxes to wizards.

As part of this revision, Microsoft has added a 3-D interface called Aero, an acronym that stands for Authentic, Energetic, Reflective and Open. It’s designed to provide a more 3-D look, animations and add to the overall eye candy.

To utilize these features, the computer will require a video processor, called a GPU, or graphics processing unit, to accelerate the graphics. The graphics processor will have to be handle the DirectX 9 graphics library, which has been on the market since 2002. PCs sold now are certified as Vista-ready, and the video processor is definitely a major part of that qualifier.

So it would seem that many, if not most, graphics cards would be able to handle it. But the integrated graphics chips, so often used in business PCs, simply don’t have the horsepower of the hotrod chips from nVidia  and ATI, now a part of AMD .

In his own tests, long-time graphics analyst Jon Peddie found Intel’s newer integrated graphics to be adequate for Aero, but still not as good as discrete graphics cards. Older chips only fared worse.

So with Vista out, will this translate into increased sales for nVidia and AMD? Yes, but it won’t be a huge gain, said Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research. “We don’t think there will be a big groundswell on it,” he said.

“I don’t think consumers are wringing their hands for a new, better OS. We think there will be a little pop of first adopters, the people who always want to have the newest, best, first of everything,” he added.

After that, he predicts there will be slow growth of Vista through 2007 and greater growth in 2008, and the leader of the parade in terms of buyers will be small and medium-sized businesses.

With consumers, Peddie thinks there could also be increased interest, if there is some education of the customers. “If they are educated and get the message, and given the delta dollar difference isn’t that significant, I think they would buy up. But there’s a lot of ifs there,” he said.

The video chip vendors are more optimistic. Ben Bar-Haim, vice president of software engineering for AMD’s ATI graphics unit, definitely thinks there will be a corresponding rise in sales. “I think the bar is going up and will bring to everyone’s attention the importance of graphics,” he said.

In the past, people didn’t really care about video performance, he added. “Now, they need to be aware that some graphics cards will give them a good Vista experience and some will not,” he said. They will find that for a small increase in the cost of graphics, they will get an improved experience,” said Bar-Haim.

nVidia also thinks there will be increased interest in higher power graphics. Jason Paul, GPU product manager at nVidia, predicts there will be three aspects of Vista that drive video card sales: the Aero interface, the potential to make any application run in 3D under Vista, and the new DirectX 10 library in Vista that will allow for a whole new class of 3D applications.

“It really is going to become a core aspect of the computing aspect across a wide variety of applications, not just 3D games,” he said. “In terms of overall processing power, the discrete graphics processor is really capable of delivering higher performance, dedicated memory, API support, and memory bandwidth for all kinds of applications.”

Indeed, graphics processors are starting to get attention for applications other than just 3D games. The Folding@Home protein folding project has switched from running on CPUs to GPUs because the floating point processing of video cards is vastly superior to that of CPUs.

Getting a 3D card capable of running Aero doesn’t necessarily mean buying the latest hotrod cards from ATI and nVidia, which require up to 200 watts of power and are nearly a foot long, making them tough to get into a small PC case.

“You don’t need to go for the high, high end to get the good Vista experience,” said Bar-Haim. “You need that for the best gaming experience. But on the other end, if you go for the low-end you could have problems. I wouldn’t say anyone needs a high-end graphics card. Microsoft would never design to that high a bar because they understand the market.”

Aero, though, is an option. Two versions of Vista, Vista Starter and Vista Home Basic, will not have Aero. “I think it comes down to the experience people want out of it. There will definitely be people who don’t want the user experience, but I think a lot of the productivity gains and experience gains are pretty compelling. Some of the Aero features are definitely going to help productivity,” said Paul.

Peddie thinks customer should engage in what he calls “future proofing,” buying a little better than they may need immediately. “If they can bring themselves to spend a few extra dollars to do that, it will empower them to engage in activities or apps in the future that they may have been thinking about now,” he said.

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