PDC: Microsoft to aim for "tiered" hardware requirements for Vista

Los Angeles (CA) - Microsoft unveiled here at PDC 2005 the new 3D hardware acceleration dependencies of Windows Vista that will be realized even for ordinary 2D renderings. Tom's Hardware Guide learned that Microsoft intends to offer a "tiered" experience - the basics will run on an integrated chipset, but all the bells and whistles will call for a capable 256 MByte discrete graphics board.

In a session here Wednesday, one of Windows Presentation Foundation's chief developers, Pablo Fernicola, told a large crowd in one of the convention center's larger halls that developers of graphic tools for the Foundation can expect to write to a basic hardware platform. "One of the things that we've done, Fernicola said, "is set a minimum level of graphics capability that machines must have in order to have a Windows Vista logo. This is so important. You as a developer can count on any and all machines that have a Windows Vista logo to have, as a minimum, DX9 [DirectX 9.0] capability. This is great from a developer point of view. That means that your application, your content, can rely on certain features, can rely on, and just be able to count on providing much better experience to the end user."

We wondered what those "certain features" are. Do they include, for instance, graphics memory requirements? Fernicola referred us to a document released in April 2005, at a Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, recently re-entitled "Windows Vista Logo Program System and Device Requirements, Draft 0.6." But in the latest version of the 215-page document, dated 29 August, almost all the text under the heading "System memory meets minimum requirements" was redacted, and replaced with the following notice: "Due to the fact that objective benchmarks are not available, this requirement will be updated by the .7 release. Until definitive numbers are available a guideline of 512 MByte is recommended." The document did not specify 512 MByte of what, though it's likely the document is referring to system RAM, not graphics RAM.

DirectX is Windows' rendering engine for advanced graphics, and include the Direc3D library. We asked other Microsoft system developers at PDC what "DX9 capability" referred to in terms of hardware requirements. We were told more than once that it referred to whether a graphics card's GPU was DX9-certified. "It means it has a DX9 GPU," said one official, speaking on behalf of a presenter to whom the question was actually posed. When pressed about whether the "certain features" to which Fernicola referred - the platform developers could count on - would include motherboard features rather than just graphics card features, the official merely repeated the sentence.

Complicating matters further is the fact that Microsoft will be releasing a new and updated DirectX 10 rendering system exclusively for Windows Vista. Version 10 will not replace version 9 immediately, Pernicola told his audience, but will coexist for a time while DirectX 9-compliant hardware remains in its active product cycles. The first betas of DirectX 10 will ship with Vista public beta 2, as Rudolph Balaz, a Microsoft developer for Direct3D and OpenGL, told an audience Wednesday. Balaz and colleague Sam Glasenberg confirmed that DirectX 10 will only work with Vista, so there will be no fallback mode for developers to assume Windows XP capability.

So developers are being instructed to write programs that query the system for the version number of customers' installed DirectX libraries, prior to executing higher-order rendering functions. Just exactly what those functions will include was not made clear, and may not yet be known. But there is apparently a higher performance standard for Vista-ready graphics cards than those DX9-compliant cards sold today. Even if that boost in performance ends up being minimal, the fact that there is any distinction between DX9-compliant and DX10-compliant cards at all suggests that manufacturers such as Nvidia and ATI may make those distinctions evident to consumers, in terms of price.

Although further details can probably be obtained from graphics card manufacturers, even the specifications they've been given may not be sufficient - or even consistent enough with one another - to be able to answer this question for the consumer: Will I need to upgrade or replace my PC to run Vista?

With even the smallest icon for buttons demonstrated here this week having been rendered on the fly with 3D meshes generated in a CAD program, developers were obviously astounded and overwhelmed, but consumers receiving glimpses of the demonstrations here may be feeling scared. With disposable income rapidly disappearing as a result of skyrocketing gas prices, along with a possible dent in the US economy as a result of the hurricane tragedy, consumers may need a clear explanation of why icons require meshes before they spend four-digit figures for the latest technology in both hardware and software.

So we posed the question to Greg Sullivan, Windows' group program manager. In an exclusive interview, Sullivan told Tom's Hardware Guide that many consumers will likely face an upgrade choice next year. "For some of them, if they want to have that top-tier, high-end experience," said Sullivan, "with regard to animations, three-dimensionality, translucency, window frames, all the stuff you can get with that high-end experience that requires fairly beefy GPU and VRAM. This was a decision that we made years ago, that there would be basically a tiered experience."

"It was at WinHEC in 2002 that we announced the next version of Windows will not have this lowest-common-denominator approach to the shell," Sullivan added. The current basic rendering model for Windows, which utilizes two major libraries called GDI and USER, even with the XP driver model added, "are largely unchanged since NT 3.51," he noted. "So that's the reason why game developers who can create unimaginably stunning, realistic visual environments, are utilizing DirectX; and on the same exact hardware, when I switch back out to the Windows shell, I get chunk, chunk, chunk...and we're not using the GPU at all."

Are developers being told to count on a certain and certified hardware platform, we asked Sullivan, simply because Microsoft would prefer they not seek out the details for themselves? "When we first looked at this three years ago," Sullivan responded, "we realized at the time this was going to be a bigger challenge because of the relatively low proportion of customers who were going to have the GPU hardware that would be capable of rendering the high-end experience. One of the bright sides of taking as long as it has to ship it as we have is that now - 2005, and certainly by the time we ship it next year - the vast majority of systems shipping, and a very large percentage of the installed base, will have the requisite GPU hardware."

And what, precisely, is the "requisite hardware?" Sullivan told us that Windows Presentation Foundation will be taking advantage of new features in Intel chipsets such as the 945, that will enable graphics memory operations to spill over into main system RAM, and that will include the Longhorn Display Driver Model (LDDM) built-in. He revealed to us that Windows Vista will carry a minimum memory specification of 64 MByte of graphics memory, with a recommended platform of 128 MByte. "If you want to go to the super-high-res," he cautioned, "more pixels, more bits, more memory. So if you want to do 1600 x 1200 resolution, we'll recommend 256 MByte."

Stay in touch with Tom's Hardware Guide for a complete wrap-up of this week's events at PDC 2005.