The browser race is hotter than it’s been in years, with all of major vendors ramping up support for HTML5 and its associated technologies. The latest area of focus is hardware acceleration — when the browser hands off processor-intensive tasks to the computer’s graphics processor to make animations and page rendering faster and smoother.
Microsoft created some controversy on its IEBlog this past weekend with a post claiming that the IE9 beta release was “the first and only browser to deliver full hardware acceleration of all HTML5 content.”
However, despite Microsoft’s claims, Firefox 4 also takes advantage of the same Windows 7 APIs that Microsoft uses to accelerate both the compositing and the rendering of webpages, and it has done so for some time. Yes, Mozilla’s hardware acceleration support is still very much limited to beta releases and nightly builds, but so are IE9’s hardware acceleration features.
Mozilla was understandably a bit angry about Microsoft’s misleading claims. But, to be fair, the IEBlog doesn’t actually call out Firefox by name, so it’s possible Microsoft sees Google Chrome as its real competitor. Chrome’s hardware acceleration lags behind Mozilla and Microsoft’s efforts, but even Chrome has included hardware acceleration for compositing in both Chrome 6 and Chrome 7 builds.
Confused yet? To help you keep things straight, here’s a handy chart showing all three layers of hardware acceleration and which browsers support each:
Hardware Accelerated Composition support by Windows browser: Fx 4.0 beta 5 IE9 beta Safari 5 Chrome 6+ Opera 10.5 ✓ ✓ · ✓ ·
Hardware Accelerated Rendering support by Windows browser: Fx 4.0 beta 5 IE9 beta Safari 5 Chrome 6+ Opera 10.5 ✓ ✓ · · ·
Hardware Accelerated Desktop Compositing support by Windows browser: Fx 4.0 beta 5 IE9 beta Safari 5 Chrome 6+ Opera 10.5 ✓ ✓ · · ·
Another strange claim in the post on the IEBlog is that IE9’s hardware acceleration is somehow faster because it doesn’t support other platforms — not even Windows XP. The reasoning is that by targeting on one platform, Microsoft can focus its efforts more clearly, and build tight support for behaviors specific to Windows 7.
In Firefox 4’s case, the hardware acceleration is somewhat abstracted, so it can eventually support Linux and Mac OS X as well as Windows. Even now, Firefox supports partial Windows XP hardware acceleration.
Despite Microsoft’s claim, in our tests (and most others publicly available) IE9 and Firefox are neck and neck. And, as Mozilla’s Robert O’Callahan points out, “an extra abstraction layer need not hurt performance — if you do it right.”
In the end, who came first and how it’s done behind the scenes will be a moot point. Users will win in the end — a few months from now, there will very likely be three hardware accelerated web browsers available for Windows, with more operating systems getting the capabilities through non-IE browsers.