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In With The New, Or In With The Old?
If you haven't been living under a rock for the past few years, you've probably heard people complain about Vista's performance. Microsoft's newest operating system has proven difficult for older machines to run, and even new computers may struggle if they are not outfitted with the correct hardware. Numerous reasons have been given as to why Vista seems to be hard on less powerful PCs, but one of the most popular scapegoats is Vista's new GUI, known as Aero. Using numerous 3D graphical effects to achieve a sleeker, more modern desktop, it certainly looks like something that could cause an older computer to drag, particularly when compared to the older Windows GUI, which consisted mainly of 2D elements. Those 3D and translucent elements which were included in Windows XP were minimal, and unlikely to be a detriment to performance.
Many users assume that resetting to the Windows Classic theme and turning off Aero's features will improve their performance. The truth, however, is a bit more complex. Deciding between Windows Classic and Windows Aero requires a brief look into how Aero is different from previous Windows GUIs.
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More Than Skin Deep
Before Vista brought the new Aero GUI, Windows had been using a 2D interface for years. By 2D, I mean that the desktop consisted of elements rendered only in two dimensions, and that the elements were rendered by the processor, not by the video card. This changed very slightly with the introduction of Windows XP, which did have some visual options which could draw upon the power of your computer's video card. That said, those options weren't enough to make much of an impact on performance in most cases.
Aero is entirely different. Rather than relying on 2D elements rendered by the processor, the new GUI uses multiple 3D graphical effects which are essential to the look and feel of the Aero interface. Take Windows Glass, the new translucence which surrounds all windows in Vista, or the Windows Flip 3D feature, which renders every window you currently have open in a sort of deck, from which you can select the one you want. These elements of the interface are given to the video card to render, and they depend on the specific kind of calculations which make video cards so much better than CPUs at displaying 3D objects.
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Unlike previous windows GUIs, Aero uses 3D elements which require dedicated graphics hardware. These elements are major parts of the Aero interface, so much so that having hardware that does not support certain graphics standards will make your computer unable to use Aero at all. Because of Aero's different requirements, your computer's performance can be hurt if you don't have graphics hardware which exceeds the minimum requirements for using Aero. On the other hand, using Aero on a computer with a good graphics solution can result in outstanding performance. Windows Aero Performance, turn Windows Aero on
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Sharing The Load
As a result of Aero's new reliance on the video card, the burden of rendering your desktop is changed. Previous Windows GUIs did not take advantage of specialized graphics rendering hardware. Aero, on the other hand, not only takes advantage of it, but essentially requires it. Major portions of the Aero GUI used 3D elements, and without a video card or integrated graphics chip capable of handling the new burden of rendering those parts of the interface, your experience can be frustratingly slow.
But there are two sides to this coin. While Aero will drag down a computer that has insufficient hardware for rendering the graphical and 3D effects that Aero makes use of, Aero will also take advantage of computers which have integrated or dedicated graphics solutions above the minimum specifications. Aero, when being rendered by a decent piece of graphics hardware, is an exceptionally fast interface. As you might imagine, a mid-range video card which is made to render millions of polygons every fraction of a second, has no problem dealing with Aero's graphics. As a result, a computer which has a capable graphics solution will likely feel smoother with Aero than without.
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Which Should I Use?
The answer will come down to this: do you have a competent graphics solution?
If you do not have a graphics solution by Nvidia or ATI, and instead are using an Intel chipset with Intel integrated graphics, then you can probably answer "no" to this question. Most of Intel's graphics solutions only barely meet the minimum requirements for using Windows Aero. This does not mean you can't use Aero, but it does mean you could run into some problems with performance. For example, my primary laptop uses an Intel 965 Express Chipset. Attempting to use Aero on this chipset does not result in a satisfactory experience.
However, if you have an Nvidia or ATI graphics solution, and you have the other minimum specifications met, then you will likely be able to run Windows Aero without any problems. Your graphics solution will be doing the heavy lifting, leaving the rest of your computer relatively free of strain.
With this in mind, it should be made clear that Aero's performance, while certainly poor on systems which do not have the hardware to make use of it, may not be the underlying problem if you are having problems with the performance of Vista. Remember; Aero consists of many 3D elements and makes use of many graphical effects. This will effect the performance of PCs that lack sufficient graphics hardware. If you have a decent graphics solution and your computer is still running slowly, then Aero is not your culprit.