A release candidate of Firefox 4 has finally been released after a very protracted beta phase (over six months), and the final release should be coming very soon. One of the major new features is hardware acceleration – using your graphics card to help to make the browser faster and more responsive – and it’s available to varying degrees for Windows XP, 7, Vista, Mac OS X and Linux users. XP users get basic DirectX 9 acceleration, Vista and 7 users get DirectX 10, and if you have Mac OS X Snow Leopard 10.6.3 or above you get to use OpenGL.
Hardware acceleration will be enabled automatically if your computer and drivers supports it, so to check whether it’s working, open a new tab and type ‘about:support’ in the address bar. Scroll right down to the bottom, and there’ll be a section called ‘Graphics’. On the very last line, you’re looking for ‘GPU Acclerated Windows’ – if it says 1/1, then you’re all set. 0/1 means that you’re not using the hardware acceleration. Thanks to Joedrew for this information.
If it is disabled, the next thing to do is to try to enable it. On a Mac, you’ll need to be running Snow Leopard and ideally version 10.6.3, so upgrade to that if you can. On Windows, you’ll probably need to update your graphics drivers. Right now, only Intel, AMD (ATI) and nVidia graphics are supported, so if your graphics card is by someone else, you’re out of luck. But for those three, once you know what type of graphics card you have, head to the manufacturer’s web site and download the latest drivers. In most cases, your drivers will need to be quite new – ATI and nVidia issued updates in June 2010 which are required for hardware acceleration to be enabled.
How good is hardware acceleration? On my test machine, which runs Windows XP and has Intel integrated graphics, I tried Microsoft’s flying images demo in Firefox 4 beta 12 and Internet Explorer 8. Firefox managed a steady 60 frames per second with no problems, whilst IE8 struggled to make 6 frames per second. IE8 also needed 50% CPU usage for just 1 tab, whilst Firefox needed 45% with 9 other tabs open.
There’s some more information on the Mozilla Wiki, including the specific driver versions supported. If you haven’t updated your graphics drivers in a while, now may be a good time to do so, so that you can make full use of Firefox 4’s extra oomph when it’s finally released later this year.