Despite the rumours (and the leaked slides), the Internet Explorer team is in no hurry to name a date to expect the beta of IE9 let alone the final IE9 release date, but it's still months away.

If the impressive performance of the IE9 Platform Preview is down to hardware acceleration, how will IE compete with Firefox 4, which is already in beta and has its own GPU acceleration?

Quite happily, thanks, says Rob Mauceri, group program manager for IE, pointing out that the hardware acceleration in IE9 is a lot more comprehensive.

Firefox's hardware acceleration - layers - is, according to Joe Drew of Mozilla, "designed to accelerate only portions of the web; this means that, in the common case, we will render most of the web page using software, then do only the hardest/slowest part using the GPU directly".

IE9 accelerates much more on the page, says Mauceri. "When it comes to HTML5 and the scenarios around graphics and media, what's important in IE is that you have the browser that is fully hardware accelerated and that means across all different types of graphics and text that are put on the screen.

"We're using the GPU as we render all the text and graphics and video and images. To do that, we had to think through re-architecting the browser across multiple subsystems."

IE9 vs Firefox 4

Using the IE9 test suite with Firefox 4 beta (and turning on hardware acceleration), Firefox 4 is almost as fast as IE9 on some tests, like the aquarium full of fish; it runs into problems on the canvas-driven Amazon book application, though. The Canvas tag is hardware accelerated in IE9 says Mauceri: "you really need to do that at an architectural level for it to have the same kind of impact."

Firefox 4 vs ie9

SPEEDY IE: On Microsoft's speed test, the IE9 preview does run a little faster than Firefox 4 beta (with hardware acceleration enabled) but Firefox's results on the Amazon canvas sample app are more disappointing

The Firefox 4 beta doesn't turn on hardware acceleration by default. Drew says: "We have committed to turning on certain parts of hardware acceleration in developer previews, but that's not a guarantee of those bits shipping in Firefox 4. We're going to try hard to ship some form of acceleration, though."

Hardware acceleration is one of the core features of IE9, says Mauceri. "When you look at the total computing power of a modern PC, today's browsers are using 10% of that power. Till you move into using the GPU you're really not taking advantage of most of the hardware."

Hardware acceleration has been in all the IE9 platform previews. "The approach we take is to go really deep on the fundamental parts of rendering text and graphics through the browser. A key part is that we turned it on by default from the beginning so we're getting good feedback across all kinds of hardware configurations and drivers really early on."

IE9 using gpu

GPU ACCELERATION: When IE9 runs an HTML5 web app, the GPU and CPU take turns to update the page; Microsoft says Firefox won't use the GPU as much to take the load off the CPU

That matters because getting GPU acceleration to work isn't always straightforward, points out Lionel Menchaca from Dell (who has been praising IE9's hardware acceleration on the Windows Blog).

"To Dell," he told TechRadar, "it means working with a lot of our GPU manufacturers to make sure their drivers will enable hardware acceleration. You've got to have a certain driver revision to get acceleration of the video card," he cautions, "and not all graphics cards are capable of it, although that's going to improve over time. The next step is factory installing those driver levels."

And Microsoft's experience in working with Direct3D and Direct2D will be an advantage, he predicts. "It's fair to say Microsoft has a heritage in those kinds of things and has an expertise in working with driver revisions."

Firefox 4 will have one big advantage, though. Drew points out, "layers works on video cards and operating systems that don't support D2D, like Windows XP".

Playing catch-up

In some places, other browsers are just catching up to IE, says Mauceri. Firefox's new HTML5 parser uses a separate thread from the one handling Firefox's interface; "moving some processes into separate threads – that's what even IE8 did by running every tab in its own isolated process," claims Mauceri.

And Chrome's first steps into native code (with the Native Client plugin letting you run x86 code inside the browser rather than just JavaScript) are nothing new. "We have had a native code model in IE for many, many years through ActiveX and that's been pretty successful in terms of what people been able to build on it; some plugins on ActiveX are really broadly deployed and widely used all over the world."

With HTML5 promising what you need a plugin for today, native code may not be the best direction for browsers to go, points out Mauceri.

"For developers we've heard again and again how important it is that they can be confident that what they write is going to run across all browsers and that's not something you get out of any specific native code implementation".

Google's native code is less to do with web browsers (or competing with IE) and more a way to turn Chrome into an operating system (and competing with Windows), he believes. "When you look at what they're trying to do with Chrome OS, it makes sense that they would want the ability to run native code; Windows of course runs native code!"

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Liked this? Then check out The lowdown on IE9's Scalable Vector Graphics

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