2D, Acceleration, And Windows: Aren't All Graphics Cards Equal?

Part 1: Laying A Theoretical Background

Update (1/26/2010): Since the original publication of this story on Tom's Hardware DE, we've shared our findings and benchmark binary with AMD for analysis. The company's commentary is included in our conclusion.

Intro: Aren't All Graphics Cards Equal When It Come To 2D?

Since the launch of Windows 7 a few months ago, graphics card vendors have introduced a handful of new GPUs, working to develop and roll out drivers for their products. Enough time has also passed for them to clean up the teething pains of a fresh operating system (which have been, thankfully, significantly less painful than what we saw during the move to Vista), enabling objective benchmarks on a clean slate of new technology.

We also realized that, while 3D takes center stage nowadays, there might also be some benefits for us to revisit a component of graphics that we take for granted every day without really thinking too much about it—namely, 2D. This wasn't one of those out-of-the-blue "let's add something to the test suite that hasn't been a real issue since the days when RAMDAC performance was a major differentiator" moments. More on this shortly.

Although the primary area of interest for most users is on the display speed of the Windows GUI (where Windows 7 earns lots of praise in comparison to Vista), we determined somewhat reluctantly that the supposed “graphics refresh” in Windows 7 isn’t really too fresh at all. Compared to Windows XP (and even Vista), graphics card vendors don't seem to have fully optimized for 2D graphics in Windows 7 quite yet, at least when it comes to close examination of the brand new implementation of GDI (Graphics Device Interface) API calls. What we know as 2D graphics consist of more than cool colors, object blending effects, and animated menus with drop shadows; they also require developers to get down and dirty with pixels, lines, curves, rectangles, polygons, and all kinds of other “graphics primitives,” as they’re sometimes called.

Important Preliminary Note

We wanted to stay away from emotional overtones in this article, even though devoted occupants of the red or green camps might need to rub their eyes as they read through this material. Because we ourselves didn’t want to believe the results of our own tests, we took extra time and care in this story’s preparation, in the interests of all affected parties, to produce results that are as objective and defensible as possible. We also worked hard to create the most objective possible bases for comparing graphics cards against one another. We will also avoid pointing fingers: rather, it’s important to understand this article as a contribution and an aid to those users who not only use their PCs for gaming, but also for those who use their PCs to get real work done.

In this context, it’s important to observe that, currently, it can be quite vexing to work productively with 2D graphics in Windows 7. For example, using a Radeon HD 5870 and the latest drivers, we found it difficult to produce simple vector-based graphics, to render simple or complex CAD designs, or even to play 2D games in higher graphics quality modes. We mention this not as a criticism, but instead as an approach to a definite problem that we sought to analyze and understand as fully as possible.

Theory and Practice

Because most readers are likely unaware of the built-in functions and behavior of 2D acceleration in Windows XP through Windows 7, we’ve broken this extremely comprehensive article into two parts. In this first part, we will convey the noteworthy background and technical topics relevant to 2D graphics, so that when readers graduate to the second part, they’ll not only be able to understand our tests, but also be better-equipped to interpret our results. To help this process along, we even developed our own small benchmarking program (and will make it available for interested parties to download and use for themselves). Our goal is to make both parts as informative, readable, and noteworthy as possible.

In the next section, we’ll tackle 2D basics. In passing, we’d also like to observe that a little background in this area won’t hurt anybody, and may even come in handy for other things besides understanding our benchmarks.

  • fatkid35
    next, toms finds bigfoot eating a chupicabre! WTF? nice catch guys.
  • pcxt21
    Very nice work! Until that little update I was ready to put my old Matrox Millennium (1996/1997 I think) 2d accelerator back into my gaming rig...
  • For those who still remember Matrox...shouldn't that be included in the test as well? Ancient history shows that it was the best card to be paired with VooDoo when first released...:P
  • one-shot
    LOL. The clip of Steve Ballmer looks like an ad from the late Billy Mays. To think he's the CEO of Microsoft after watching that clip makes me laugh. I'm going to watch it again.
  • chookman
    I actually went to put a Professional Matrox card (G550 PCI-e) in my Windows 7 machinde for a few more displays... alas it seems most of the range doesnt have Windows 7 drivers yet :(
  • killerclick
    Hey, I have GF7050 on my motherboard but I'm not using it!
  • belardo
    The sad thing is, as shown was that Windows 1.0~3.0 were never an operating system, ever. 1.0~2.x we're never really used by anyone, yet Amigas and Macs had full GUI functionality since 85/84... Windows3 was at least usable, but still a single-tasking POS, and yet MS-DOS was able to dominate the computer industry... not because of talent, but because of luck, good moves by Gates & Ballmer and the stupidity of IBM. It kind of worked out anyway thou.

    Think about it, it wasn't until the tail-end of 1995, with the release of Windows95, did MS produce an actual GUI OS for the general public, 10 whole years after Apple's Mac and the Amiga by chicken lips. Atari only copied much of the hardware abilities of Amiga with a variant of a MS-DOS clone.

    Only business bought PC-Clones in the 80s~90s, paying around $1500~4000 per desktop. Since IBM didn't make the OS and the hardware was generic, it was super easy for clones to exists. Home users bought Amigas and Macs and laughed as DOS users... but in the end, they lost to the clones.

    At one time in 1990, the Computer Shopper Mag was about 500 pages (phone book) with at least 500 Clone companies advertising.

    Windows is still the Copy-Cat OS. Its still an ugly beast under the hood. At least Windows7 runs good and looks nice.
  • Raid3r
    Indeed, way to take one for the team..I am one of those 2d workers and greatly appreciate the foot that was used to affirm the position of 2d recognition on these "new" cards. I can't say it enough.
  • micky_lund
    woot for toms...
    catch some more massive companies out, and make them fix up their drivers
  • belardo
    I just finished reading this entire article. A good one too guys.

    While I had my rant about old MS days, I did work in the PC field starting with 3.1. We'd benchmark various video cards with programs that would test lines, boxes, etc. This WAS important for some games like DOOM and Quake which were not "true" 3D cards we have today.

    For every new type of PC build or a clients computer, I would save these generic overall system benchmarks. And I *have* notice different 2D performance abilities of computers and the various cards. All super fast compared to the 90s, but I've seen a GF card perform worse than an older ATI, but also an older ATI work a bit better than a newer one. These are all WinXP and don't have anything to do with the problems of Win7 and/or DX11... Part2 isn't out yet... but I would be curious to see if the problems in Win7 happens in Vista with DX11 installed hmmm.

    ATI has been putting all their work into 3D gaming performance, its good to see that they have put a team to fix their 2D issues. There is a good chance that this is a DX11 issue they were not aware of. Since Nvidia doesn't have any DX11 parts (but a DX10.5) - this "bug" doesn't yet show... but I'm speculating of course. :)

    With the eye-candy of Win7, the 2D performance *IS* important for those doing work, watching videos, etc. No good excuse to miss this, and hopefully ATI will have it resolved in 1-2 months.

    PS: Your memory usage chart of vista vs Win7 shows exactly WHY Vist . That is why Windows7 runs pretty good on a 1GB computer, but Vista still needs at least 3GB for a bottom-end PC. My notebook has Win7rc with 1GB, runs fine.

    Hey, will your results sometime include intel graphics? After this bug-issue is resolves, include overall-2D scores with your graphics Charts. :)