This year, a new way to handle graphics chips will speed up everything on your computer -- from Photoshop to a first-person shooter.
That's because a more efficient way for software to control chip hardware will lift graphics performance, empower the graphics chip with new abilities and free a computer's main processor up to deal with other tasks. The rebuilt graphics foundation will arrive on Macs and Windows machines later this year, and you can expect games developers and others to seize the advantage as soon as they can.
"The performance opportunities are huge," said Linley Group analyst David Kanter of the acceleration technology.
You might have already heard of Apple's version of the technology, called Metal, which arrived on iPhones and iPads in 2014, and will arrive on Macs later this year with the OS X 10.11 El Capitanoperating system. Apple is not alone. Microsoft's equivalent, DirectX 12, will arrive with Windows 10 on July 29. And an organization called the Khronos Group that creates standards for a broad range of operating systems will release its Vulkan competitor this year.
Performance increases once were taken for granted as Intel and other chipmakers introduced faster products every few months. But about a decade ago, problems with excessive power consumption capped speed improvements on chips. Since then, programmers have had to work harder to deliver new features and abilities. Unlocking new graphics-chip power is the next step that helps gamers, designers, and just about anyone else using a computer.
No wonder companies like Adobe Systems are eager about the new interfaces that let programmers tap into the graphics-chip power.
"We plan to support Metal this year," said Scott Morris, senior marketing director of Creative Cloud for Adobe. And David McGavran, senior engineering manager for Adobe's professional video products, said in a presentation at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference that Adobe will use Metal in the Photoshop image-editing program, the Illustrator program for vector graphics, and the Premiere Pro and After Effects programs for video editing.
Where does the speedup come from?
So how does this speed boost work? Two main chips do the bulk of the work inside a computer: the central processing unit (CPU), which is the brains of the operation, and the graphic processing unit (GPU), which performs an increasingly important supporting role drawing text, shapes and shadows on screen. Modern chip architects often combine these two jobs into a single unified design, but whether separate or unified, the graphics processor understands a different sort of programming instructions than the central processor.
The tricky thing for a programmer is writing those instructions -- especially because they differ according to when a graphics chip was made and which company made it. That's where programming interfaces like Metal, DirectX and Vulkan come into the picture. They offer a stable way to tap into the graphics chip's power for things like a better gaming experience.
"Developers will be able to create bigger maps, improved performance and graphics, and bigger multiplayer environments stretching across devices," Microsoft said, touting DirectX 12's help with gaming on Windows and Xbox.
These sorts of graphics interfaces have been around for decades. But the new ones expose deeper hardware access than earlier versions of Microsoft's DirectX and Khronos Group's competing OpenGL. The new approach gives programmers more direct control over the graphics chip -- and as an added bonus, frees a computer's CPU from a lot of work managing its GPU companion.
It's like the difference between planning an exact route on a map compared to telling Google Maps your starting point and end point. Google Maps is easier to use, but you can get the top speed by hand-crafting an optimum route.
Programmers can use the new horsepower to add more abilities to their code, or to lower the energy consumption of existing code so batteries last longer.