Vista graphics drivers to be more stable than XP drivers, ATI says

San Francisco (CA) - Graphics drivers developed for Vista, Microsoft's next generation operating system, will be far more stable than their Windows XP-based counterparts, and not crash the operating system anymore, an executive of graphics chip developer ATI told Tom's Hardware Guide .

Ben Bar-Haim, vice president of ATI's software division, told us consumers will be able to identify graphics cards supporting Vista by way of a "Vista ready" logo, which will likely appear in multiple flavors indicating different feature levels. The release of Microsoft's new operating system may still be at least one year out, but hardware manufacturers, including ATI, are already gearing up for yet another certification and logo round: "Vista ready" will be the catch-phrase promoting hardware products as a safe investment.

ATI's new Xpress 200 integrated graphics processor (IGP) has already claimed dibs on the phrase. Its specifications appear to meet Microsoft's current minimum graphics requirements, which include support for DirectX 9 and at least 64 Mb of graphics memory. "Vista ready", however, does not necessarily mean that users will be able to run all 3D effects. According to Ben Bar-Haim, vice president in ATI's software division, there is a good chance that there will be at two "Vista ready" logos - one covering "basic" requirements and the other one "full" feature capability. Bar-Haim said that "two logos is the concept right now," but the final marketing would still depend on "further OEM input."

This news coincides with revelations made last week at Microsoft's Professional Developers' Conference in Los Angeles. There, Microsoft engineers revealed that a new version of the company's DirectX rendering library, called DirectX 10, will be engineered to support Vista exclusively, and not XP or older Windows editions. Meanwhile, DirectX 9 will continue to be fully supported, as a lower-grade version of the rendering library that will support both XP and Vista. Graphics cards that carry the Windows logo currently have embedded support for the Direct3D library that is a primary component of DirectX.

Microsoft graphics engineer Rudolph Balaz told attendees at PDC that DirectX 10 will include a fundamentally rewritten graphics infrastructure, making it incompatible with previous versions. As a result, it was implied, there will be two levels of Vista-supporting hardware: one for DX9, the other for DX10, the latter of which may require more on-card graphics memory than the 64 Mb currently being discussed as the "minimum." ATI representatives were present for Valaz' session.

The "Vista ready" logo - or logos - are likely to become hurdles many IGPs will not be able to clear. In a best-case scenario, IGPs such as the Xpress 200 will receive the "basic" certification. How much of Vista's "Aero Glass" eye candy the IGP will be able to deliver, will depend on the actions of the user, according to Bar-Haim. "It really depends on what you do," he said. "For example, the more windows you open, the more the performance of animations will decrease. Even with high-end IGPs you will see degradation when you open too many windows and move them around."

While the "Vista ready" logo promises to be the source of much confusion as far as visual performance is concerned, there is plenty of good news as well. Vista graphics drivers are programmed for a new driver model currently named LDDM (Longhorn Display Driver Model), although the "Longhorn" part is subject to change. According to Bar-Haim, the "user mode-based" drivers depart from Windows XP's "kernel mode-based" model, and are thus unable to crash the operating system: "Microsoft had concerns about the stability of drivers in XP when they noticed an unreasonable high amount of XP crashes due to device drivers. With LDDM, we can run the driver engine for months without crashing," he said.

While the software development process for a "Vista ready" graphics chip consists of many stages, the executive described the development of the LDDM-compliant driver as the most challenging and complex task: "About two years ago," Bar-Haim explained, "we started working on Vista. Right now we have between 50 and 100 engineers working on projects related to the operating system. To ensure stability alone, it takes hundreds of man-months to get to optimized drivers." Bahr-Haim added that ATI runs about 2,000 different computer systems testing the stability of its drivers. "I think we had a pretty good driver in the Beta 1 in Windows Vista and you will see an even better one in Beta 2," he added.

Despite higher requirements of processing power, ATI does not expect Vista to cause any performance drawbacks when compared to the current OS generation. Right now, the Beta 1 driver runs at about 80% of Windows XP speed. With Beta 2, the engineers hope to attain 90%, with the final version expected to achieve 100% or higher.

(Scott M. Fulton, III, contributed to this report.)