Microsoft is trying to improve the visuals in Windows 7 by working with hardware makers on a software interface that maximises the use of graphics cards.
The OS will support a new API (application programming interface) called DirectX 11 that enables better gaming through more realistic graphics and faster playback of multimedia files. The software giant is working with top graphics chip makers nVidia and AMD on those features.
The DirectX 11 graphics drivers are designed to help Windows 7 effectively break up tasks over multiple cores to boost application and graphics performance. For example, Windows 7 will process video faster by unloading the task from the CPU to graphics processor cores.
nVidia has been able to use DirectX compute capabilities in Windows 7 to accelerate tasks such as manipulating images or playing DVDs via its graphics processing unit, said Ned Finkle, vice-president of strategic marketing at nVidia, in a video posted on Microsoft's Windows 7 website.
"Microsoft did a number of things within the operating system that allow us to take the computing horsepower we developed for visual computing and apply it to a range of tasks that have never been seen before," Finkle said.
Beyond simple multimedia tasks, AMD said DirectX 11 harnesses the massive parallel processing capabilities of GPUs to improve gaming on PCs, said Neal Robison, director of independent software vendor relations at AMD.
"We're going to see gaming at a whole new level of realism that you've never been able to experience before because it just hasn't been possible," Robison said.
He also said that Windows 7 could speed up conversion of video for playback on portable devices. Users will be able to drag and drop video from PCs to portable devices, with DirectX 11 enabling video conversion on the fly.
While Microsoft has built native DirectX 11 support in to Windows 7, users will benefit only with capable hardware. In June AMD showed off a prototype DirectX 11 graphics processing unit, but is yet to formally announce a product.
In a blog entry posted on Thursday, AMD's Robin Maffeo, a Microsoft alliance manager, wrote "there are plans to make native DirectX 11 hardware from AMD in its ATI Radeon GPUs available when Windows 7 is released".
Current graphics cards and integrated graphics on chipsets carry support for DirectX 10 or 10.1.
The ability to break up tasks is an evolutionary step for Microsoft in developing operating systems, said Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. As users demand heavier graphics from PCs, it is in Microsoft's best interests to offer an operating system that breaks up tasks across multiple graphics cores and CPUs, he said.
"In order to be able to get performance from succeeding generations, you have to have a multicore-aware operating system," Olds said. Execution of tasks on a single core isn't highly efficient, which was a problem that plagued earlier operating systems, Olds said.
The DirectX 11 enhancements could also encourage more developers to build games for Windows 7 and help the company keep pace with competition.
One company competing with Microsoft is Apple, which has changed the basic architecture of its upcoming Mac OS X 10.6 OS Snow Leopard, to include new features that divvy up graphics and other tasks over multiple CPU and graphics cores. It builds in support for OpenCL, a set of programming tools to develop and manage parallel task execution.
nVidia and AMD have said they would support DirectX 11 and OpenCL. In June Intel, which offers integrated graphics on chipsets, released updated graphics drivers for Windows 7, but it carried support for only DirectX 10.