With past operating system releases, video performance wasn't an issue because the desktop was always 2D. Although there were attempts to fudge a 3D look, real gains with visuals were impossible without a decent video card and a monitor able to use ClearType fonts.
The Aero interface of Vista is changing that equation. Although it is a few steps below Vista's security improvements on the check list in terms of importance, the 3D experience with Aero means the PC's video horsepower will make a difference.
That's why one analyst sees signs of a brewing battle among integrated graphics makers over the Vista horizon.
A portion of the IT and computing ecosystem that thrives on Microsoft Windows is expected to see growth in higher performance video cards from vendors like nVidia (Quote) and its main rival ATI, now a part of AMD (Quote).
As more Vista-equipped PCs wend their way into the marketplace, how much of a competitive race will that horsepower become between nVidia and AMD as well as the number one vendor in integrated graphics, Intel (Quote)?
Intel can argue that its integrated graphics are more than enough for a satisfying Aero experience. AMD and nVidia can claim discrete graphics, their technology strong card, is a better choice. The companies involved say they don't expect a fight over Aero, but graphics market researcher Jon Peddie expects otherwise.
"This will a brawl that won't go away for a while," he told internetnews.com. "Just watch their ads, watch the way they market this."
Intel spokesman Nick Knupffer said Vista runs very well on its two current generations of integrated graphics. "It runs beautifully and has all the bells and whistles and logo approval from Microsoft," he said. "Integrated graphics [have] been raising the bar of performance with every succeeding generation and I think we will keep raising performance to the point of competing with low-end discrete graphics chips."
Mike Hara, vice president for investor relations at nVidia, agreed that integrated graphics are good now, to a point, but argued that discrete graphics will eventually pull away from the pack. "The beauty of Aero for a company like nVidia is the graphics are scalable. What people will discover is that for a basic desktop, integration will be enough. But in the future, as apps become 3D, it won't be," he said.
Peddie agreed on that point. "3D apps will slow down the system and some things just won't run. But keep in mind you are talking about a cheap solution vs. an expensive solution. You get what you pay for," he said.
Although Hara denied any looming rumble with Intel, he made it clear that nVidia sees 3D as a competitive element. "Intel has always said integrated graphics was good enough. When our desktop was 2D, I would agree. But in 3D, that's more of a moving target. It's not fixed or static. It can get more complex as time goes on. In 3D, your inefficiencies will be exposed over time."
Intel, which has no discrete graphics part, said customers are more than free to get a separate add-in card if they want. "If they go with discrete graphics, there are integrated graphics motherboards with a PCI Express slot, so they can upgrade if they want. We're not hamstringing people," said Intel's Knupffer.
The rumor mill has been churning over whether Intel might go into the discrete graphics business. An advertisement on Intel's Web site originally read, "We are focused on developing discrete graphics products based on a many-core architecture targeting high-end client platforms." However, the "discrete graphics products" wording on the ad has since been changed to read "advanced products." The speculation continues.