Google released Chrome to reignite competitive development of browsers, and now it is playing catch-up on at least one front: hardware-assisted acceleration.
This week, Microsoft will release the first public beta of the IE9 (Internet Explorer version 9) browser.
Although Microsoft's new browser features a Chrome-like interface, one of the improvements that Microsoft has touted as putting this release beyond Chrome is IE9's vastly improved performance in rendering graphics, thanks to its offloading some of the work from the CPU to the GPU.
"It is something we've been working on for a while too. Our releases show some pretty good progress there," said Google group product manager Brian Rakowski. But he also admits that the current version of Chrome, version 6, "doesn't do very well" when compared against other browsers doing GPU-assisted rendering of Web pages.
"I think we'll be quite competitive with any of the other browsers with our next release, with a month or two," he said. "If you look at Chrome at one of the beta channels, or even the nightly builds, you will see we have made amazing progress in the last couple of weeks," he said.
At the Microsoft TechEd conference last June, Microsoft senior product manager Pete LePage demonstrated how GPU-based assistance could spin a fancy icon on the screen at 60 frames per second (FPS), while the then-current build of Chrome struggled to rotate the icon at 2 FPS. This simple demonstration pointed the way to the richer graphics that will one day be possible through browsers.
In short, the new IE can specifically task a computer's GPU to render images through the Direct2D, Direct3D and DirectWrite Windows APIs, thereby cutting the time it would take to deliver the results to the screen should the CPU itself execute the task. "With IE9, developers have a fully hardware-accelerated display pipeline that runs from their markup to the screen," the Microsoft IE9 developer blog explains.
The new version of Firefox also features GPU offloading as well, though it is turned off by default.
"Browsers do more graphically intensive stuff and so it makes sense to offload the graphics to the GPU," Rakowski said.
For its own acceleration, Google relies on the OpenGL standard for non-Windows platforms as well as Microsoft's Direct3D, by way of its own recently developed ANGLE (Almost Native Graphics Layer Engine).
In addition to matching IE9's performance, this approach should also take advantage of an emerging standard for rendering rapidly changing 3D graphics across different platforms, called WebGL.
"Other browsers haven't gotten as far [on WebGL] yet, but this will be something that could really push the boundaries with what you can do," he said.
Despite falling behind in GPU support, Google Chrome has had its own wins, however. Last month, pop music combo Arcade Fire made a big splash with an HTML5-based interactive video of one of the group's songs. The video was optimized for Chrome.
"That got our team so excited. There's all these things we see from the nuts-and-bolts level, but we don't often see [this work] used in a creative way, so it's really gratifying to see that put together in such a polished and creative way," Rakowski said.
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