Embedded graphics = shot in foot?

Posted on May 19, 2008 in Mac, Opinions

OS X has led the way in GPU powered user interfaces on desktops. Over the years Apple has introduced Quartz, Quartz Extreme and the Core Image, Video and Animation frameworks, all of which can take advantage of the video processor. Developers have been putting the new frameworks to good use in Leopard, making applications such as Times, Pixelmator, ScreenFlow, CoverSutra, Stationery Pack & Candybar 3 very visually appealing.

But despite this push to offload work to the video card, since switching to Intel processors, Apple has been shipping its lower end Macs with relatively mediocre Intel integrated video chipsets (first the GMA950 and now the X3100). Whilst these cards are more than capable of running a few simple animations here and there, as the use of Core services becomes increasingly prevalent in Apple and 3rd party apps you can’t help but feel that the graphics card is quickly becoming a bottleneck.

Already today some apps (such as Plasq’s Comic Life Magiq) feel just a bit slow on my Core Duo Macbook and my Core2Duo Macbook at work, despite the CPU not even being maxed out. Whilst I can’t be 100% sure that the GPU is causing the slowdowns (it could just be poor programming), it certainly seems that way.

Direct GPU access has traditionally only utilized by a single application (such as a game or video editing software), or in OS X’s case by the OS itself. But now whilst typing this article, I’m using several apps that at appear to utilize the GPU in their own small ways: iChat, iTunes & CoverSutra (all use Core Animation), PixelMator (using Core Image), as well OS X and its related background services (The Finder and Spaces both use Core Animation).

That’s a lot of apps all demanding the GPU’s attention simultaneously and that number is sure to increase – all encouraged and enabled by Apple’s great frameworks.
Yet Apple still limits the Macbook – its most popular computer – to an integrated graphics chip with shared memory.

It gives the impression that the hardware team is holding back the potential of the great work that Apple’s OS team has made.

Update: Another app that will use hardware acceleration? Adobe Flash 10 – so now expect Safari to start choking your Intel graphics chip as well.

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