Wrestling with a black screen drew my attention to the world of video cards and computer graphics.

Vista’s pretty visual effects – translucent borders, 3D flipping through windows, live thumbnail previews of windows from the taskbar and the like – come with a price. Something on the computer has to work hard to deliver all those visual effects to the screen.

Microsoft originally intended the marketing for Vista to be perfectly clear that it would only be satisfying with a video card capable of displaying those effects quickly and clearly. Intel complained that some of its popular motherboards with integrated graphics were not capable of delivering a great Vista experience. Microsoft gave in to Intel, changed its marketing and delivered a hopelessly ambiguous and confusing message about Vista’s hardware requirements, which played a significant role in Vista’s failed marketing and poor consumer perception.

That’s why it’s a bit ironic that Intel is giving interviews claiming that any day now people “probably won’t” need discrete video cards in their computers, because Intel’s motherboards will do such a swell job on graphics. (Gamers will get a kick out of the video demo linked in the article, which is singularly unimpressive to anyone who has played a computer game in the last couple of years.)

I continue to insist that anyone buying a new computer get a 256Mb video card, typically from ATI or Nvidia. There are wide variations in video cards with 256Mb of memory but even the least of them will meet the needs of typical computer users today and for the foreseeable future. Buying anything less means the computer is starting out with a handicap that will slow things down – and these days we need to remove every bottleneck we can find.

vistanvidia ATI and Nvidia have been making video cards for a long time, trading places back and forth for the fastest and biggest and most macho. The latest video cards are frighteningly powerful and new models continue to be introduced at a dizzying pace. There are video cards on the market with a gigabyte of memory and so much hardware that computers need bigger power supplies and special cooling. Systems are being built with two and three and four huge video cards linked together and generating enough heat to warm small buildings.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the hardware outpaces the software drivers, which are updated constantly; each update purports to cure hundreds of bugs but seems to introduce a few more. ATI’s drivers were a constant source of irritation in the early days; I can remember waiting impatiently for long-delayed releases of driver updates that invariably disappointed. Ooh, I hated ATI products!

Microsoft released a startling chart in its Vista-related litigation summarizing the causes of logged Vista crashes, grouped by company. Thirty percent of all Vista crashes were caused by Nvidia driver problems! That’s remarkable, and awful. There’s no additional information to put that in context – the time period, the details of driver and OS versions – so we’re left with that hideous pie chart.

I’m so cynical about this imperfect industry that I don’t see that as a reason not to buy Nvidia video cards. ATI drivers have their own idiosyncrasies and I’d bet things are already better for Nvidia after a few more months spent updating its drivers and working with Vista Service Pack 1. It’s just another reason to sigh and grit our teeth when a system goes down.

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