Vista computers to have five performance tiers, not two, says ATI executive

Markham (Ontario) - In an interview earlier this week with ATI's director of technical marketing, Alexis Mather, TG Daily learned that manufacturers such as ATI that are engineering their equipment for emerging Windows Vista performance specifications, are anticipating Microsoft to elevate the importance of the new OS' System Performance Rating (WSPR), to a very high level of prominence. Soon after Vista's formal introduction later this year, Mather believes, Microsoft, OEMs, retailers and other dealers, and even professional evaluators including the engineers at Tom's Hardware Guide, will be utilizing Vista's rating scale of 1 through 5, to distinguish the relative performance of all PCs available in the marketplace.

"[WSPR] effectively assigns a numerical rating between 1 and 5 to a PC, based on components such as the CPU, system memory speeds, disk speed, and two measurements in graphics," Mather told TG Daily. He was prevented from going into detail about the formula used to derive the rating, which is apparently still under development.

Back in September, Microsoft's group program manager for the Windows Client Platform, Pablo Fernicola, told Tom's Hardware Guide for the first time that his company would be establishing two tiers of minimum performance requirements, based around whether systems were built to support the DirectX 9 graphics drivers currently available, or the DirectX 10 drivers to be released with Vista. This was the first indication that Microsoft would be distinguishing PC performance specifically by graphics capability. Last month, an Nvidia product manager expanded on this news for TG Daily, saying that Microsoft's two tiers would effectively create two very distinct classes of computers in the marketplace.

But this news from ATI's Mather this week indicates that there may be as many as five performance tiers in the works, and that consumers may at some point be given a fuzzy, but solid, education with regards to which PCs would constitute a "1," and which ones a "5." But Mather believes that the performance requirements he's seen thus far for Microsoft's "Premium" tier are, in fact, quite low - even inexpensive systems, in his opinion, will qualify for the Premium logo. "So while the Premium logo will apply to quite a large number of PCs," said Mather, "this System Performance Rating will actually separate out all the different tiers of PCs, and what they can do.

"You will see not necessarily a huge division between Basic and Premium systems," elaborated Mather, "but you will see a fairly wide spectrum between a PC that's rated a '1' or a '2,' and a PC that's rated a '3,' '4,' or '5.' A PC that might be rated a '4' is actually on the pretty high end - there, you'll be talking about a PC that corresponds to a really excellent experience, in terms of the [embellishments to the] user interface, having multiple windows doing HD playback, doing HD recording, and so on." When discussing a '4,' Mather believes, savvy buyers will automatically understand the formula, especially in determining whether to opt for the '5' or settle for the '4.' That buyer will know how the CPU, memory, storage, and graphics performance will play into the final rating.

The existence of the WSPR rating - or what may inevitably be called the "whisper number" - was publicly revealed by Microsoft in documentation released at about the same time as the December Community Technology Preview for Vista. One of the new features of the DirectX System Developers' Kit is a specification for what's called a "game definition file" (GDF), which is an XML attachment that will be installed into Windows when customers install new game programs. This enables what the company is now calling its "Game Explorer," which will be an elaborate, media-rich menuing system for installed games, featuring preview clips, high scores, and links to online services hosting multi-player matches. Among the parameters comprising the GDF is the WSPR, which the new DirectX SDK documentation describes as, "an integer that specifies a level of performance that a particular computer operates on. The WindowsSystemPerformanceRating element specifies the recommended and minimum WSPR ratings that a computer should have to play a certain game with acceptable performance. This is for display purposes only and does not restrict access to the game."

This code clearly indicates that the WSPR rating will apply to software and hardware as well, in effect associating the two. It will apparently help the consumer in determining that a game that's published with a "3" rating, can run on her computer if it's a "3," "4," or "5."

Mather predicted that software will be marketed and sold in such a way that "instead of having the box end full of gobbledygook about the minimum system can imagine having all of that replaced by a simple SPR rating, which will greatly simplify not only the PC buying experience, but the software buying experience as well."

ATI is excited about the possibilities for the WSPR number, Mather added, for two key reasons: First, he said, it moves graphics performance to front and center in the customer's mind, where megahertz and gigahertz and other purely motherboard-related rankings once predominated. "You're going to start to see people being able to understand very directly, and very concretely, just how important graphics are to them, without having to know that they've got ATI graphics or Nvidia graphics, or discrete or integrated graphics. They'll just have a number which will give them a sense of what they need, and what they're looking for."

Secondly, Mather believes the new system will be more efficient than the current "Premium" logo requirements which, while they'll still be in effect for Vista, are likely to stay fixed and dormant for the life of the operating system, just like "300 MHz Pentium-class" continues to be a minimum performance rating for some Windows XP software, even from Microsoft itself. Perennially low values, which appear even lower over the passage of time, constitute what Mather called "something of a dilution of what actually constitutes 'premium,' particularly if you look at what is available out there in the market." The WSPR scale, by comparison, will be scalable somehow, he implied, although he could not go into specifics regarding how that scalability would work.

There is probably a third reason, though Mather didn't elevate it to such a level during our discussion, perhaps purposefully. "Ultimately, the PCs at the higher end of the scale will end up being somewhat more expensive," he predicted. "The flip side to that is that Vista will be allowing you, the end user who's put down good money for a good PC, to actually leverage that capability, including the graphics.

"I expect that large numbers, if not all reviewers of components in systems," ATI's Mather ultimately predicted, "will end up reporting that information, and that it will become part of the general PC buyers' mindset when they go out and buy a PC." Microsoft expressed its interest in commenting to TG Daily, and may soon have more to add on this subject.

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