A short while ago I wrote about my work on DirectWrite usage in Firefox. Next to DirectWrite, Microsoft also published another new API with Windows 7 (and the Vista Platform Update), called Direct2D. Direct2D is designed as a replacement for GDI and functions as a vector graphics rendering engine, using GPU acceleration to give large performance boosts to transformations and blending operations.
Why GPU acceleration?
First of all why is GPU acceleration important? Well, in modern day computers, it's pretty common to have a relatively powerful GPU. Since the GPU can specialize in very specific operations (namely vertex transformations and pixel operations), it is much faster than the CPU for those specific operations. Where the fastest desktop CPUs clock in the hundreds of GFLOPS(billion floating point operations per second), the fastest GPUs clock in the TFLOPS(trillion floating point operations per second). Currently the GPU is mainly used in video games, and its usage in desktop rendering is limited. Direct2D signifies an important step towards a future where more and more desktop software will use the GPU where available to provide better quality and better performance rendering.
Direct2D usage in Firefox
A while ago I started my investigation into Direct2D usage in firefox (see bug 527707). Since then we've made significant progress and are now able to present a Firefox browser completely rendered using Direct2D, making intensive usage of the GPU (this includes the UI, menu bars, etc.). I won't be showing any screenshots, since it is not supposed to look much different. But I will be sharing some technical details, first performance indications and a test build for those of you running Windows 7 or an updated version of Vista!
Direct2D has been implemented as a Cairo backend, meaning our work can eventually be used to facilitate Direct2D usage by all Cairo based software. We use Direct3D textures as backing store for all surfaces. This allows us to implement operations not supported by Direct2D using Direct3D, this will prevent software fallbacks being needed, which will require readbacks. Since a readback forces the GPU to transfer memory to the CPU before the CPU can read it, readbacks have significant performance penalties because of GPU-CPU synchronization being required. On Direct3D10+ hardware this should not negatively impact performance, it does mean it is harder to implement effective D2D software fallback. Although in that scenario we could continue using Cairo with GDI as our vector graphics rendering system.
Internally here's a rough mapping of cairo concepts to D2D concepts:
cairo_surface_t - ID2D1RenderTarget
cairo_pattern_t - ID2D1Brush
cairo clip path - ID2D1Layer with GeometryMask
cairo_path_t - ID2D1PathGeometry
cairo_stroke_style_t - ID2D1StrokeStyle
More about the implementation can be learned by looking at the patches included on the bug! Now to look at how well it works.
First of all let's look at the page rendering times. I've graphed the rendering time for several common websites together with the error margin of my measurements. The used testing hardware was a Core i7 920 with a Radeon HD4850 Graphics card:
There's some interesting conclusions to be drawn from this graph. First of all it can be seen that Direct2D, on this hardware, performance significantly better or similarly on all tested website. What can also be seen is that on complexly structured websites the performance advantages are significantly less, and the error margin in the measurements can be seen to be larger (i.e. different rendering runs of the same site deviated more strongly). The exact reasons for this I am still unsure of. One reason could be is that the websites contain significant amounts of text or complex polygons as well, for those scenarios with few transformations and blending operations the GPU will show smaller advantages over the CPU. Additionally the CPU will be spending more time processing the actual items to be displayed, which might decrease the significance of the actual drawing operations somewhat.
Other Performance Considerations
Although the static website rendering is an interesting benchmarks. There are other, atleast as important considerations to the performance. As websites become more graphically intense dynamic graphics will start playing a larger role. Especially in user interfaces. If we look at some interesting sites using fancy opacity and transformation effects(take for example photos.svg), we can see that D2D provides a much better experience on the test system. Where on sizing up photos GDI will quickly drop in framerate to a jittery experience, Direct2D will remain completely smooth.
Another interesting consideration is scrolling. Since on scrolling only small parts of the website need to be re-drawn, it has the potential of creating a much smoother scrolling experience when using Direct2D. This is also the feedback we've received from people utilizing the test builds.
Although the investigation and implementation are still in an early stage, we can conclude that things are looking very promising for Direct2D. Though older PCs with pre-D3D10 graphics cards and WDDM 1.0 drivers will not show significant improvements, going into the future most PCs will support DirectX 10+. PCs in the future could allow providing extremely smooth graphical experiences for web-content like SVG or transformed CSS. Interestingly, Microsoft has also announced IE9 will feature Direct2D support as well only shortly ago. Feel free to download and try a build of Firefox with Direct2D support here. There are several known issues and in some cases some rendering artifacts may appear. In general it should be quite usable on D3D10 graphics cards. It may or may not work on D3D9 graphic cards, depending on exact graphics card specifications.
Well, that's it for now, I hope I've given you an interesting first glance into the future of desktop graphics.
NOTE: If you want to do your own performance analysis, please see my other blogpost about the subject here
NOTE2: For those not used to running experimental builds. If you would just execute this .exe while having normal firefox running. You will get another window of your normal firefox. You need to either close your normal firefox, or run it from the command line on a different profile, using: 'firefox -no-remote -P d2d'.
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