Chrome jumps into hardware speed-up game

Google will follow the lead of Microsoft and Mozilla by offloading some browser chores to the graphics processor to speed up Chrome, the company said last week.

In an announcement Friday , Google said it has added hardware acceleration to the newest build of Chromium, the open-source project that in turn provides the underlying technology for Chrome.

The feature is included with the latest Chromium 7.x build.

Browser hardware acceleration shifts some tasks from the PC’s main processor to its graphics processor to boost performance, especially of graphics-intensive chores like rendering video or complex three-dimensional objects.

Microsoft has been trumpeting acceleration for months in its Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), which will launch in beta Sept. 15. Mozilla, meanwhile, just added the feature to the newest Windows beta of the upcoming Firefox 4, but left it switched off. Apple debuted hardware acceleration in the Windows version of Safari 5.0 last June, and Opera Software has created a new graphics library that may use the graphics processor in a future version of its flagship browser.

Google plans to join the crowd, but its initial effort will be only partial.

According to Google software engineer Vangelis Kokkevis, the hardware acceleration will speed up some tasks—rendering pixel-intensive video and WebGL, the HTML component that generates 3D graphics—but will still shunt the job of forming text and static two-dimensional images to the central processing unit, or CPU.

Those separate parts, or “layers” as Kokkevis called them, will then be combined by the graphics processor.

Chrome faces a challenge in hardware acceleration that some rivals, notably Firefox, don’t face, since Google’s browser separates browser rendering tasks into separate processes as part of its security model. Since those processes are given access to the operating system only under special circumstances—again, part of its “sandboxing” technologies—it needed to craft another process with permission to access the necessary APIs to tap the hardware.

The hardware acceleration relies on the new “ANGLE” (Almost Native Graphics Layer Engine) graphics driver that Google launched earlier this year. ANGLE lets Chromium run WebGL content on Windows computers, which typically lack non-Microsoft APIs to process the still-under-construction WebGL standard. ANGLE does this by letting Chromium corral Windows Direct3D APIs.

On Linux and Mac, the browser will presumably use OpenGL, a cross-platform API, to accelerate rendering.

Kokkevis didn’t provide a timeline for pushing hardware acceleration from Chromium into Chrome itself, or say when it might land in the “stable” build of the browser. But Kokkevis did promise a more complete feature in the future. “Over time, we’re looking into moving even more of the rendering from the CPU to the GPU to achieve impressive speedups,” he said.

It may take months to add hardware acceleration to the current production version of Chrome, which is at the 5.x mark, now two versions behind Chromium.

The latest Chromium builds can be downloaded from the project’s Web site.

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