Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/06/23/windows_vista_hardware_pt2/

ATI claims World+Dog wants Vista Premium not Basic

Shift spells trouble for Intel's graphics efforts?

By Leo Waldock

Posted in Hardware, 23rd June 2006 16:31 GMT

When we kicked off our investigation into Windows Vista's hardware requirements we glossed over the graphics part of the system requirements and simply said that you need DirectX 9 hardware. It turns out things are rather more complicated than that plain statement suggests, and that may mean trouble ahead for Intel.

A Windows Vista Capable PC does indeed require "a graphics processor that is DirectX 9 capable", while a Windows Vista Premium Ready PC has more stringent specifications. The difference between Vista Basic and Vista Premium is the Aero user interface, which adds glass-like effects to the appearance of the GUI.

A Vista Premium Ready PC requires a DirectX 9 GPU that supports a WDDM Driver, supports Pixel Shader 2.0 in hardware and defines colours using at least 32-bits per pixel. These are the important features and, in addition, the GPU also requires adequate graphics memory which Microsoft defines as:

That looks straightforward enough. After all, DirectX 9 Shader Model 2.0 chips are ten-a-penny and every graphics card on the market has at least 128MB of graphics memory these days

It turns out, however, that the situation isn't quite that simple.

There’s another unstated part to the hardware requirement that is based on WinSAT (Windows System Assessment Tool), which is part of Windows Vista. It’s not a benchmark as such but instead is a tool that assesses how well a PC or notebook supports Windows Vista by running a series of tests. There are five of these checks - Graphics, Direct3D, Storage, Processor and Video Decode - of which we are interested in the first two as they directly relate to GPU requirements.

The Graphics assessment checks the memory bandwidth of the graphics sub-system to determine whether the PC can run Aero, while the Direct3D test checks out the gaming ability of the graphics. You’ll get a test result with any DirectX 9 hardware but integrated graphics currently get a red light from Microsoft as they don’t have the grunt to drive Aero and the same is true of the earliest DirectX 9 graphics cards.

ATI uses the Radeon X300 core in its current crop of integrated chipsets and that falls far short of the mark. Its X1300 is also rather weak when it comes to Vista Premium. The X1600 is fine, but it’s doubtful whether the company can, for now, crowbar an X1600 core into a chipset's North Bridge part.

Nvidia doesn’t quite make the grade with its GeForce 6150 IGP, which has a GeForce 6200 core. However, the company is confident that it has plenty of time to tweak its drivers over the next few months to give it the extra speed it needs to run Vista Premium.

And then we have Intel which is, lest we forget, the world’s largest manufacturer of graphics chips. In the past, its Extreme Graphics cores have been fairly hopeless from the point of view of the gamer and the power user but they have been bloomin’ marvellous for workstations that are used for 2D application such as Office and Internet Explorer. The new i965 chipset introduces the GMA3000 graphics core which is a DirectX 9 part with Shader Model 3 hardware and incredibly it seems that it will be able to run Aero - just. Initial reports suggest that the engine provides the bare minimum that is required to run Aero. In one sense this doesn’t matter on a £350/$600 Dell box so long as it has the ‘Vista Premium Ready’ sticker, but it could mean that ATI and Nvidia have a major opportunity to get their silicon inside workstations by demonstrating that they can do Aero properly, rather than merely giving it lip service.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Windows Vista PCs will require high-end hardware to play Halo 3, but ATI has made a surprising contention based on research that we haven’t yet seen but which it promises to disclose soon. ATI claims to have the results of a survey that was conducted by an independent body in which a number of CTOs were asked about the most interesting features in Windows Vista. The top answer, ahead of new security features such as BitLocker, was Aero.

This seems extraordinary but ATI is adamant that corporates want a swish GUI that looks fabulous, and this rather throws a spanner in the works. Instead of the old divide where businesses stepped though Windows NT4/2000/XP Pro and on to Vista Basic, while home users ran Windows 95/98/Me/XP Home and would go on to Vista Premium, we suddenly have a situation where everyone may well want to run Vista Premium. This means that even the most basic office machine requires decent graphics hardware and as things stand that means either a GeForce 6150-based motherboard or an add-in graphics card.

If Intel can legitimately add its GMA 3000 to that list then normal service will be resumed but if it falls short of the mark then we could be looking at a seismic shift in the world of graphics. ®