Now that Google Chrome 17 is in the stable channel, Google Chrome 18 has been pushed to the beta channel. The latest chrome to wear the beta label comes with two big new features, both focusing on graphics.
Accelerated 2D HTML5 Canvas
On the one hand, 2D HTML5 Canvas graphics are now hardware accelerated, resulting in a huge increase in speed. This could mean that Canvas games should run significantly smoother and will be able to use much more detailed graphics.
"For most Windows and Mac users, we’ve enabled GPU-accelerated rendering of 2D Canvas content, so that canvas-based games and animations run faster and feel smoother," Google explained.
"This is a tricky area to optimize, due to the wide variety of hardware and operating system configurations found in the wild," it added.
The feature only works for Windows and Mac users, it was deemed too unstable for Linux. What's more, the team is looking to see how stable it proves in the wild with the Chrome 18 beta. If problems are encountered, the feature may be pushed back to Chrome 19.
The second graphics-related update is a software rasterizer for 3D content, basically WebGL, enabling more people to make use of the web 3D graphics technology, even if their GPU or drivers are not up to spec.
"Many people with older GPUs and graphics drivers have not been able to experience the rich content provided by technologies such as WebGL. Chrome is now able to display 3D content via SwiftShader," Google explained.
"Although SwiftShader won’t perform as well as a real GPU, it will be an improvement for many of our users on older operating systems such as Windows XP," it said.
WebGL can greatly enhance the web. Google is already using, albeit in beta form, with MapsGL a WebGL-powered version of Google Maps with vector graphics that is much faster and smoother than the regular version of the popular site.
However, WebGL requires a relatively modern and powerful GPU and, more importantly, stable drivers.
In practice, WebGL is not enabled on most computers due to the issues above. To make sure that as many people can use the technology as possible, Google implemented a software layer which uses the CPU to render 3D graphics.
It's not nearly as fast as even the slowest dedicated GPU, but it may be fast enough for simpler animations and graphics. Anything is better than nothing.
You can check out whether Canvas is being accelerated on your computer or whether hardware acceleration is enabled at all by visiting chrome://gpu in Google Chrome.